Friday Feature: On Reading Good Literature

What seems to me the highest achievement of art (and the most difficult) is not to make you laugh, or to make you cry, nor to arouse your lust or excite your anger, but to operate like nature – which is to make you dream. Thus all the most beautiful works present this character; their outlook is serene and incomprehensible; as to their method: they are immobile like cliffs, turbulent like the ocean, full of deep, green, murmuring foliages like a forest, sad as the desert, blue as the sky. Homer, Rabelais, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Goethe all seem ruthless to me. They are unfathomable, infinite, many sided. They afford sudden glimpses into abysses – deep down it is dark and vertiginous, and yet a strange sweetness bathes it all! It has the brilliance of light, the smile of the sun, and it is calm! so calm! and powerful like a huge and majestic ox.


Literature enlarges our being by admitting us to experiences not our own. They may be beautiful, terrible, awe-inspiring, exhilarating, pathetic, comic, or merely piquant. Literature gives the entrée to them all. Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense, but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me … Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee, more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog. In reading good literature, I become a thousand men, and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and I am never more myself than when I do.

C. S. Lewis

Ahh, the beauty of the written word, done well!
There is truly no frigate like a book, as how Emily Dickinson puts it.

So…… read any good literature lately, dear readers? 🙂


What ‘lost in a book’ looks like….

I’ve looked for this scene in Elizabeth Bowen (Book 1,365, The Last September; Book 1,366, The Death of the Heart, Anchor, New York) and in William Trevor (Book 1,976, The Collected Stories, Penguin, London) and Molly Keane (Book 1,876, Good Behaviour, Virago, London) and in Birchwood (Book 1,973, John Banville, W.W. Norton, New York) but I’ve never quite found it, and so have to believe my father didn’t invent it, it must be true; he stands reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, holding the book in his left hand while with his right he pours the tea, his eyes not leaving the page. This act stops the men’s talk. Oddball they expect him to be, he’s a Swain in Ashcroft, but tea-pouring and Hemingway has a certain skill to it they recognise. That’s what Lost-in-a-Book looks like they’re realising, and they have a kind of natural countrymen’s appreciation.

Niall Williams, ‘History of the Rain’.

Yes, I’m still very much savouring my read with this one. Have been taking it out with me for company wherever I go. I have not, however, mastered the art of pouring out tea with one hand while keeping my eyes on the book held in the other, though.

Not yet anyway.


So, what good books have all you dear readers been getting lost in lately, may I ask?

“There are no beautiful women writers… “

There are no beautiful women writers.’

‘Yes there are.’

No there aren’t.

‘Here, look at Emily Dickinson,’ I said, and showed him the passport-sized photo on the back cover of the Collected Poems. ‘Her face, two prunes in porridge.’

‘I don’t know, I think she looks nice,’ he said.


‘She does. She looks interesting.’

Reader, pick any Brontë. Any one, doesn’t matter. What do you see? You see intelligence, you see an observer, you see distance, you don’t see beauty. Look at Maria Edgeworth, Mrs Gaskell. Look at Edith Wharton, she’s Henry James in a dress. Henry called Edith the Angel of Devastation, which is not exactly Top Score in the Feminine Charms department. Agatha Christie is a perfect match for Alastair Sim when he was playing Miss Fritton in the Tesco box-set of the old St Trinian’s. You can’t be beautiful and a writer, because to be a writer you have to be the one doing the looking; if you’re beautiful people will be looking at you.

Niall Williams, ‘History of the Rain’.

Gosh, Emily Dickinson and Edith Wharton must be turning in their graves! 😁

Anyone care to disprove the above with some solid example of beautiful women writers?

Tuesday Teaser – History of the Rain

Our history, our folklore and culture were being washed into the sea and must be defended. MacGhiolla was too passionate to worry about mixed metaphors. He was too passionate to worry about generalisations or broad strokes or let the rational get in the way of his argument. Neither was he bothered by the fact that his pale complexion was deeply unsuited to passion and blotched in disparate patches as he rose to his theme. He spoke standing, hands clasped when not released to fork his red hair with exasperation, eyes locked on the upper left air when not locked on Virgil and burning his point home. He spoke on rising toes, on rolling ankles, he spoke with forward tilt, with lifted shoulders, with forefinger pointing and fist punching. He did verbal pirouettes, he did elongated sentences, he let clauses gather at the river and foam until they found spittle release. He spoke hushed, he spoke his big points in whispers, then drove them in with urgent balletic waves of arm and extended eyebrow as he said the same thing again only louder. He was not then a guns and bombs nationalist. He was the more dangerous kind. He was a poems and stories one.

Niall Williams, ‘History of the Rain’.

My current read is turning out to be one very delectable literary treat.

Beauty in the Ordinary

But how can all of this be known, when it has not yet come to pass? We all of us look towards a personal future that is imaginary; although the absence of either tragedy or remarkable good luck may indeed deliver up to us, as though we were somewhat inept fortune-tellers, a rough approximation of what we think is going to happen. To engage too much with the future, in all its fragility and uncertainty, can make us feel dizzy with unease. Let us think, then, of the past, so that we may speak of real things that have actually happened; conscious always that the past, like the future, also shimmers behind the veil of imagination.

Deirdre Madden, ‘Time Present and Time Past’.

Just finished this beauty of a book, and I have quite decided that I now want to read everything else that Ms. Madden has ever written.

A rash decision, you might say, considering the fact that it’s just based on the strength of one positive encounter, but I guess that’s how it is when one realizes that one has fallen in love with a new writer. 🙂

It was through a review that I read from Goodreads, describing this book as one that speaks of the ‘beauty in the ordinary’, whereby it is such a rare delight that one gets to meet a happy family, amidst all the dysfunctional ones that we are so used to reading about in fiction, that got my interest to search out Madden’s book. Tolstoy’s observation that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, might be a good indicator as to why most writers would prefer to choose an unhappy family to work on in weaving out tale after woeful tale of family dramas and sagas, as the possibilities offered are seemingly limitless, so to speak. Only a daring novelist would choose to embrace the simplicity of the ordinary, as her subject.

And this, she managed to pull off brilliantly, in the book.

Here are some of my favourite passages:

{ this warmed my heart }

Like her husband, Colette could do with losing a little weight. She is also rather a plain woman, something of which she is acutely aware, but which other people almost never remark upon because she is inordinately kind, and this kindness, suffusing her face, makes her look more attractive than many a cold beauty half her age.


{ this made me ponder…..}

Is it because the images are in black and white that they seem irredeemably distant? But once Beth had shown him a photograph which reconciled the past and the present: an Edwardian miss with a straw hat, some long-forgotten ancestor of theirs, who bore an extraordinary resemblance to Fintan’s sister Martina. And he remembers now also a remark Lucy had made once when they were trawling through a box of old family photographs at home: weddings, rainy picnics, late lamented terriers. ‘When did the world become coloured?’ It had taken him a moment to understand what she meant, and then he thought he had never heard such a delightful notion. He loved the idea of a monochrome world suddenly flooded with colour.


{ this made me smile 🙂 }

Colette can’t sleep. It is four in the morning, a difficult hour for humanity. It is a time when one’s conscious defences are down, when one is psychically most vulnerable, prey to brooding and regrets, to dark thoughts. But Colette has no darkness in her soul, no demons. She is brooding, yes, but about nothing more sinister than the lasagne she left out of the freezer the night before.


{ and this, made me dream….}

Tonight, as so often, all of Ireland lies under a soft thick blanket of cloud. The wind rises, and soon it begins to rain.
But none of them hears it: only the cat, awake and alert, sitting in total darkness at the top of the stairs in Beth and Martina’s house; only the cat lifts its head and listens to the sound of the raindrops. And if either woman, in the drowsiness of sleep, were to suddenly switch on the light and come upon it there on the landing, the cat, with its folded paws and perfect markings, might well appear to them fabulous as a unicorn.

Did I mention that I love the book?

Tuesday Teaser: “…. faithful as Lassie”

Where does it all begin? Perhaps here, in Baggot Street, on the first floor of one of Dublin’s best restaurants, on a day in spring. It seems as good a place to start as any. Fintan is sitting at table before the ruins of a good lunch, with crumbs on the tablecloth and empty wine glasses, together with half-empty bottles of mineral water, both still and sparkling. There are two tiny coffee cups on the table, and a crumpled white linen napkin discarded on the place opposite. One might imagine that a disgruntled lover has just flounced off, but Fintan, faithful as Lassie, is not that kind of man.

Deidre Madden, ‘Time Present and Time Past’.

I think the opening lines to this book are definitely getting a place on my list of personal favourites. Just gotta love that ‘faithful as Lassie’ bit, don’t you? :p

And the title is actually taken from T.S. Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’, in case you were interested :

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

This will be my first encounter with Madden’s work, and going by the strength of that opening alone, I think I’m gonna be in pleasant company with this particular Irish maiden.

Any Madden fans here?


“…. what rotten fruit falls down.”

Stumbled upon this magnificent specimen of a tree in the picturesque village of Castle Combe during my trip to the UK, back in the summer of 2010. One of my all time favourite photo shots.

George came to the Grand Hotel anticipating a concentrated examination of the evidence in his case. The conversation has taken several unexpected turns. Now he is feeling somewhat lost. Arthur senses a certain dismay in his new young friend. He feels responsible; he has meant to be encouraging. Enough reflection, then; it is time for action. Also, for anger.

“George, those who have supported you so far—Mr. Yelverton and all the rest—have done sterling work. They have been utterly diligent and correct. If the British state were a rational institution, you would even now be back at your desk in Newhall Street. But it is not. So my plan is not to repeat the work of Mr. Yelverton, to express the same reasonable doubts and make the same reasonable requests. I am going to do something different. I am going to make a great deal of noise. The English—the official English—do not like noise. They think it vulgar; it embarrasses them. But if calm reason has not worked, I shall give them noisy reason. I shall not use the back stairs but the front steps. I shall bang a big drum. I intend to shake more than a few trees, George, and we shall see what rotten fruit falls down.

Julian Barnes, ‘Arthur & George’.


A Tale of Two

Here’s Arthur.

Life. How easily everyone, including himself, said the word. Life must go on, everyone routinely agreed. And yet how few asked what it was, and why it was, and if it was the only life or the mere amphitheatre to something quite different. Arthur was frequently baffled by the complacency with which people went on with . . . with what they insouciantly called their lives, as if both the word and the thing made perfect sense. [….] The demolition of antique faiths had been fundamental to human advancement; but now that those old buildings had been levelled, where was man to find shelter in this blasted landscape?


He has never been a lothario or seducer, and never known how to say those things which are necessary to arrive at the stage beyond the one where he currently stands – not knowing either what the further stage might be, since where he is at the moment appears, in its own way, to be final.


This damn temper of his is not getting any better. He puts it down to being half Irish. The Scottish half of him has the devil of a job keeping the upper hand.

There’s George.

Despite being a child of the Vicarage, despite a lifetime of filial attention to the pulpit of St. Mark’s, George has often felt that he does not understand the Bible. Not all of it, all of the time; indeed, not enough of it, enough of the time. There has always been some leap to be made, from fact to faith, from knowledge to understanding, of which he has proved incapable. This makes him feel a sham. The tenets of the Church of England have increasingly become a distant given. He does not sense them as close truths, or see them working from day to day, from moment to moment. Naturally, he does not tell his parents this.


He rarely feels the lack of what he does not have. The family takes no part in local society, but George cannot imagine what this might involve, let alone what the reason for their unwillingness, or failure, might be. He himself never goes to other boys’ houses, so cannot judge how things are conducted elsewhere. His life is sufficient unto itself. He has no money, but also no need of it, and even less when he learns that its love is the root of all evil. He has no toys, but does not miss them. He lacks the skill and eyesight for games; he has never even jumped a hopscotch grid, while a thrown ball makes him flinch. He is happy to play fraternally with Horace, more gently with Maud, and more gently still with the hens.

Arthur & George.
A book that has been sitting patiently on my TBR shelves for the last decade. I recall how much this Man Booker shortlisted nominee had appealed to me back then in 2005, and how I had really looked forward to reading this tale of how two very different lives that were worlds apart, being brought together by circumstances set off from a gross miscarriage of justice right at the start of the twentieth century. It is described as “a novel about low crime and high spirituality, guilt and innocence, identity, nationality and race; about what we think, what we believe, and what we can prove.”
Also, the Arthur in this story happens to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I am only midway through this 450 pages of sheer literary brilliance. But it is enough to have me already quite decided that it’s a five star read.
And personally, I think it might be a case of a ‘gross miscarriage of justice’ too, that it had not been the Man Booker Prize winner for that year.

Just saying.

Will vs Nature

Evelyn did not know any longer who she was. Perhaps she had never known. Perhaps her identity had always been made up of bits and pieces of other people, her thumbs, her collarbone, her ears, her left-handedness, even the tones of her voice dictated by the random and absolute coupling of genes. Her tastes and her moods had been handed down to her from a great uncle, a second cousin, a father. Not exactly handed down. Everyone was the common property of inheritance. The self was, surely, the will that shaped the arbitrary and meaningless fragments into identity. The will chose. Or was it, too, dictated to by an inherited morality?
“But my particular bones refuse my will.”
Mistaken then. Badly mistaken. The will? Or the nature?
“I don’t know.”
The will bakes bread the nature chokes on. The nature turns the wheel the will breaks on.

Jane Rule, ‘Desert of the Heart’.

Tuesday Teaser: Of conventions & clichés

CONVENTIONS, LIKE CLICHÉS, HAVE a way of surviving their own usefulness. They are then excused or defended as the idioms of living. For everyone, foreign by birth or by nature, convention is a mark of fluency. That is why, for any woman, marriage is the idiom of life. And she does not give it up out of scorn or indifference but only when she is forced to admit that she has never been able to pronounce it properly and has committed continually its grossest grammatical errors. For such a woman marriage remains a foreign tongue, an alien landscape, and, since she cannot become naturalized, she finally chooses voluntary exile.
Evelyn Hall had been married for sixteen years before she admitted to herself that she was such a woman.

[….] It was true that the Mrs., which had been an epithet, would soon be no more than a courtesy; and the ring she had never taken for granted would not, of course, be granted anymore. It was odd that she could not take it off. She had tried before she left the house, first casually at the kitchen sink, then frankly in the bathroom, but soap and water would not ease the ring over a joint thickened those sixteen years into obstacle. It would, she supposed, have to be cut off. It was possible to have the Mrs. cut off, too, but, just as she was not to be married, she was not to be single ever again either. She was to be divorced, a convention that might be as strange to her as the convention of marriage had been.

Jane Rule, ‘Desert of the Heart’ (1964).

Have only just started reading this piece of classic now, although having already watched the film adaptation of it some years ago. It was only after I had come across a blogger’s review (and high praises) for the book much later, that made me want to read the book for myself as well.

And now, even right from the opening pages itself, one can already tell that this is a worthy piece of literary work, regardless of its subject matter.

“I told Mother that she should call you Dr. Hall, Isn’t that your proper title?”
“It doesn’t really matter at all,” Evelyn replied. She was one of the few women she knew who preferred Mrs. to Dr., perhaps because her marriage had been more difficult than her Ph.D. to achieve and maintain.

A writer who can encapsulate an insight like that in such a delightfully succinct manner,  has definitely got my attention.