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August 9, 2012
August 9, 2012
summer Reading continues
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George Toles’ Top 10
George Toles’ Top 10 books
Devour now, or dip in through the summer
(with a bonus entry)
In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel 2009, Harper Perennial The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald 1997, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt The Return of the Native, 1878, by Thomas Hardy Skylark by Dezso Kosztolányi 2010 (first published in1924), New York Review of Books (NYRB) Classics
Well, lucky Bulletin readers, as our blockbuster summer books special continues, we hear from the King of Voracious Reading himself, George Toles. I spoke with the long-time collaborator of George Toles. filmmaker Guy Maddin and distinguished professor with the department of English, film and theatre earlier this summer by telephone from Hamburg, New York, where he was working on his latest writing project. He warns in advance that his list doesn’t include anything too “fun.” All right, so fun’s overrated, since as anyone who’s ever taken a course with Toles — or has had the good fortune to sit beside him on the bus to university or anywhere else — knows, his reading tastes run from the eclectic to the raucous and beyond, and he always has a plethora of interesting and amusing insights about whatever he’s reading, or has read. Which seems to be nearly everything — except, as irony would have it, the first book on his list, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which runs a monumental seven volumes, and which, in addition to taking top honours as his favourite novel, is a work that Toles is “obliged to concede that I haven’t read in its entirety.” How did an unfinished book make his top ten list? Here’s George Toles to explain the mystery of the uncompleted favourite, and to take us through the remainder of his scintillating list of Top 10 Books.
An American Tragedy, 1925, by Theodore Dreiser Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth 1995, Houghton Mifflin Lobby Hero by Kenneth Lonergan 2002, Grove Press The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson 2009 (first published in 1982), NYRB Classics Effi Briest, 1894, by Theodor Fontane War and The Iliad by Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff 2005 (first published in 1939), NYRB Classics
Above: A new translation of the firt volume of Proust’s masterpiece by Lydia Davis:. Above right: Marcel Proust. Right: All seven volumes, published in six. George Toles: Early on, the 4,200 pages of the book were just so confounding as a project and I could never feel that I had quite the right translation, and so I would just “dip in,” when I was in a Proustian mood and read many, many pages, but not with any sense of answerability to the whole reading challenge. I don’t know how much of In Search of Lost Time I still haven’t read, and yes, I’m sure I lose the thread of the argument and certain crucial things in the plotting wherever I do start, but there’s something about Proust’s sensibility and style which is so richly satisfying to immerse in. For me there’s just no better novelistic language in existence; all of the things I want novels to do is in Proust’s language, so that in a way, not
being able to remember what I’ve read and what I haven’t is precisely in keeping with Proust’s themes. So there you have it. One day, I guess, I will start over and read through but I do find it interesting that the novel I pronounce my top choice is one I have only read partially and in the worst kind of way, leaping about, hither and yon, without any sense of getting to the end, where everything, and not just time, is regained, a sense of completing.
Above: Number three in Toles’ top 10 list; Right: An illustration from the original publication of Hardy’s Return of the Native.
Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker prize-winning novel Wolf Hall. Above: A portrait (1532) of Thomas Cromwell by painter Hans Holbein.
Number two is a book that just about everyone seems to be reading these days, so I’m going to be making a populous choice here: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Like many others, I’m not a regular reader or defender of historical fiction, the reasons being the same: they seem too much a creation of library research and efficient literary invention, often with no style, no sense of dialogue, just vast, undigested quantities of information, some of it interesting but unsorted. I don’t know, the very thought of historical fiction gives me indigestion. So I resisted for a while, but then I read a review by James Wood, which convinced me that at the very least there would be many stunning passages and, without cheating at all, a contemporary way with a world that is nonetheless completely other and remote in all the ways that it should be. The most instructive feature of the book is here is a story that’s been told so many times and in so many ways. The Henry VIII marriages and especially the Anne Boleyn portion of it. You’d think it’s an almost mined-out narrative vein, and yet no one — and this includes historians — has ever grasped what Hilary Mantel grasped with intuitive storyteller brilliance: the perfect, in fact, the inevitable angle, is Thomas Cromwell as central character. There’s a near overwhelming consensus in history and literary tradition prior to the arrival of this book that Cromwell was a cold, Machiavellian figure who was undeniably capable but inwardly, well, insufficiently mysterious or compelling. Having read Wolf Hall, it seems to me like now that Hilary Mantel has solved the puzzle. It’s like people telling the Elsinore tragedy again and again and not realizing that Hamlet should be the main character. Cromwell, without being sentimentalized or exonerated becomes this amazingly spacious character; I never thought I would list a lawyer as one of the great characters of fiction, but here I am. The way in which Cromwell manages challenges as they come, with extraordinary success and controlling one crisis after another and not being upended. It’s not so much about internal conflict early on, it’s about managing, skillfully, a field which no one else could do anything like the same extent get their head around but not only is it plot-driven, in
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the best sense, but you feel as if you are staying near to Cromwell — he is growing both in stature and these growing internal divisions. I worry. There’s something about the word “trilogy” that I loathe even more than the phrase “historical fiction,” but since I’ve allowed Proust’s seven volumes, I think I should allow Hilary Mantel her three to tell the full story of Cromwell’s tragedy. She has AMAZING storytelling acuity and manages to season, so expertly, proceedings with apt sensuously vivid detail without overburdening you with context. It is never arid. I mean the book breathes, and just rushes along, and so it’s one of those things that so many writers dream of — an accessible, a broadly accessible novel that is nonetheless great. By the way, the cover of Wolf Hall is uniformly unsuccessful, from an aesthetic sense. Yuck! But in this case, you truly cannot tell a book by its cover — you must go beyond the cover, and find what awaits you within. I gather, I’ve not read much of Hilary Mantel’s previous fiction, but some who have suggest that it took her leap into this supplemental historical imagination to make her truly extraordinary. Number three, not necessarily in order, is another historical novel by a woman novelist, that is much shorter and seems to me to be a work of genius, is Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower — I think it was the last of her nine novels. She started writing fiction at age 59, and managed to be extraordinarily good at it, and at the very end of her run, to produce The Blue Flower, which is a novel about Novalis and his courtship of Sophia, who was both symbol and person for him. In any event, it seems to be a perfectly wrought work distilled by a woman with a long, late career in fiction and just managing what Mantel does in a different way, to choose precisely the kind of details that can convince you of the art of place that is known from within though at extraordinary temporal remove. The Bulletin: So for someone who doesn’t like historical fiction, that’s two. TOLES: (Laughter.) Yes, but the next one is a chestnut from Victorian reading lists, which is Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, which I encountered this summer on audio book. I hadn’t thought about it for a long, long time, in fact I can hardly remember circumstances in my early reading of it but it’s a novel that seemed worth revisiting, and Alan Rickman was reading it on audio books. So I felt, here’s the perfect combination. Rickman — if you want to cast the ideal voice for the purblind doomster of Hardyan narration, who also has a complicated sense of fun, Rickman is the go-to guy. Listening to him conjure up Egdon Heath in its wild, human-repellant unfriendliness and darkness. The theme reminded me again of why I love Thomas Hardy so much — unlike some of the other writers, certainly unlike Proust, there is an ungainliness in
Hardy’s prose. You often feel the strain and push but there’s something about the way that effort exists with his extraordinarily sharp understanding of place and people — just that unfailingly poetic, in the right way — he talks about, in the beginning of the novel, geological strata, and tracing history, in the layers that go down, down, down. And then when he comes to character, he does the same thing: seven layers of physiognomy, and mining expressions and thoughts and feelings and constant speculation — his speculation reminds me of Herman Melville, but in addition to all that, he’s a great plot constructor, and he has such a wonderful way of outwitting the determinism, moment by moment, incident by incident, though you know most of the characters will be ground down by the end. And Rickman, he can hold you to the edge of your seat, if you’re sitting, and the edge of the air, if you’re standing — a good solution if you don’t want to want to run your eyes over some text’s fatiguingly dense description.
5 Number five is Skylark, by Dezso Kosztolányi, about an unhappy trio in a place that’s devoid of interest, a couple and their extremely plain, unmarriageable daughter. To keep her from losing faith in life, they send her away to visit relatives and while she is gone, the parents come out of the tomb of domestic life to which they’ve given themselves, feeling only the smallest amount of guilt. Number six is Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy from the mid-1920s. a book that at one time, everyone had a go at, and it’s another fat one, but boy, it’s tremendous. The use of a real trial, and murder, with Dreiser managing to create as full a sense of how class definition and circumstance build and destroy hope in America — well, I’m not doing an adequate job of this, but Dreiser is, I think, another extraordinary brick-by-brick storyteller. The action of the story itself is so colourful and varied and yet you feel like you’re not ever confined to the particulars of the story, that somehow it’s this magic lens to see more clearly than you could imagine a novel showing you the whole set-up — economically, socially — all the ways the various institutions impinge on people in a manner that they’re not conscious of. The novel
is just alert to all of that. Drieser is always brought up as a great writer who survives in spite of the fact that he doesn’t have terrific language resources, and I think that this does him a vast disservice. There are faltering passages, there’s unevenness, in particular sentences or places in Drieser, as there is, say, everywhere in Balzac, but at his frequent best, his writing is just formidably expressive, clear, absolutely up to the task of rendering the vast social scene. You just feel that he has a heavy gaze, but very little escapes it. And this book shouldn’t be forgotten — one reason, of course, it’s never taught in American lit. courses, or seldom is, is because it comes close to 1,000 pages, but it’s worth every hour that one needs to devote to it. Now, to get to a place which is more … The Bulletin: Not ... fun! TOLES: Well, perhaps. But perhaps the most immoderate book in every sense, published by an American writer, which takes the phrase too far which ordinarily doesn’t mean too far at all — a book which goes too far, by any standards, and somehow gets away with it, is Philip Roth’s 1995 National Book Award winner Sabbath’s Theatre, which I think is the best book he ever wrote. Magnificently obscene, troubling, hilarious, in a cringe-inducing way, it’s a book that isn’t just in the business of flaunting, say, uptight bourgeois readers’ sensibilities — it seems to get almost anyone’s sense of decency; it is uncomfortable and it’s merciless but everything that’s in Philip Roth, as this angry, funny, disenfranchised, melancholy, suspicious figure — it’s all here, in one teeming, spectacular mess. The Bulletin: Do you have a favourite scene? toles: There’s one episode, the ghost of the main character’s mother telling him in his sixties, that it really is time for him to commit suicide … for his unworthy life. (Laughter.) I mean, that’s her primary goading function. (More laughter.) In any event, there’s one play on the list, Kenneth Lonergan’s shamefully neglected — maybe it’s good for me, because people haven’t staged it yet so I can — is Lobby Hero, from 2002, that rarest of birds, a genuinely great contemporary play. Lonergan wrote This Is Our Youth, the screenplay You Can Count On Me, which he also directed, and he worked with Scorsese on Gangs of New York. There’s a recent New York Magazine article about how his second film, You Can Count On Me was in the editing suite for five agonizing years and never received a general release, although Lonergan put everything he had into it. It was one of those horrible producer-versus-director showdowns. I saw the film in New York, and while it was far from perfect, it was, in so many ways, extraordinary. It just seems to me that he is one of the playwrights who is really moving the art form forward, who has a way of getting at the core questions in a manner which genuinely doesn’t simply tell the audience what it already believes or thinks it should. And he’s great at investigating how unconscious impulses are always interfering with good intentions and making us strangers to ourselves. As good as any play I’ve read, of those certainly released in the last 15 years. And, to put my money where my mouth is, I’m going to do this play in the next year — to a bracingly empty house, no doubt. The Bulletin: (Laughter) I’m reading a play as well right now, which is very good, by American playwright Tracy Letts, called August: Osage County. A dark family drama that takes place at the height of summer. Violet Weston, the bitter matriarch whose distracted family returns home for the father’s funeral, is a prescription drugs addict who’s dying, and is one of the sharpest, most wincingly funny characters I’ve read in a while. toles: That’s fantastic. Talk about a genre that has room for talent. Contemporary drama is the best
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August 9, 2012
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Far left: Finnish novelist, children’s book author, painter and illustrator Tove Jansson in 1956, with her Moomin dolls. Jansson died in 2001. Near left: An illustration from one of Jansson’s “Moomin” books.
George Toles’ Top 10 11 books, continued ... place of doing something which really stands out. The Bulletin: So we’re at number nine. TOLES: Okay. So Tove Jansson is a writer from Helsinki who writes in Swedish primarily, who did the “Moomin” books, and got defined as a children’s writer but she’s also a painter and illustrator, and late in life, again, she began writing adult novels, and this one is a strange novel a bit reminiscent of Marilynn Robinson’s Housekeeping, about an artist and an extremely eccentric woman — not that the artist isn’t equally e c c e n t r i c — a f t e r, say, the maybe-more eccentric other woman has faked a robbery of her house in order to make her feel that she needs someone else to live with her and she shouldn’t be alone. She’s also attempting to make a kind of life for her son, but the novel is a one-of-a-kind thing — written with a spare language that seems, again, never poetic in the bad sense. Poetic in that hard-to-specify true sense, where every detail tells. It seems to me that nothing that these women get
But the great thing in the plot is the fact that what happens when a, say, a wife has had an affair, and it’s ended and then, years later, the husband discovers it. The difference that time does or doesn’t make, and how the discovery is handled when the couple are, in many, many ways, well-suited and loving partners. Fontaine is not stereotypically German, even within the tragic framework, he’s mischievous and funny, deeply wise, and just has such a variety of tones which he can draw upon in this relatively brief but completely haunting narrative. Is that 10? The Bulletin: It might be, yes, but I’ll take more if you have some. TOLES: I wanted to mention another NYRB book, a short book of essays, by Simone Weil and Rachel Bespoloff. It’s called War and The Iliad, and both of these essays were written in the ’40s, and Simone Weil is dealing with the idea of force in The Iliad. I read a lot of critical essays, and I don’t think I’ve ever read two essays more beautifully composed, deeply thought out, and on urgent matters. The Bespoloff essay, I think, was written partly in response to this Simone Weil essay. When you finish the Simone Weil essay, you think, well, why is another essay necessary? But they complement each other beautifully and it seems to me that even though they were written more than 60 years ago, to be a reminder of what criticism, at its very best, can accomplish. Both women died not long after they wrote these essays, so beware of writing about The Iliad, I guess. The only cautionary word in the list.
Toles: ‘The way they put life questions and questions about individual nature and what we are to each other, made me feel that I’d never thought about human beings at all’ into, though living in an isolated place — that you recognize as rural and limited, or you’d think is rural and limited — but it seems to me the way in which they put life questions and questions about individual nature and what we are to each other, made me feel that I’d never thought about human beings at all. Oh yeah, I’m starting over, and saying, the possibilities are so much vaster than what I permitted myself to realize. Okay. Theodor Fontane’s great novel Effi Briest from 1894, another writer who got started quite late. Thomas Mann said that if his library had to be reduced to six books, Effi Briest would be one of them. It’s a novel about adultery but maybe what’s unusual about it, aside from the fact that the book resolutely refuses to take sides — well, if it’s against something, it’s against a social mechanism which is no friend to anyone.
Left: Theodor Fontaine’s classic Effi Briest, first published in 1894. Above: A film still from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s eponymous film, based on the book.
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