Wednesday, February 16, 2011
I read relatively quickly, and I read every day. I can't get to sleep unless I spend some time in bed, reading. So, I often run out of things to read. Even with the temptations of the Bookshop of Doom, and the pleasure of regular book-swapping with friends, from time to time I find myself re-reading books I've enjoyed. Perhaps fortunately, I have quite a bad memory for the detail of books I've read. I'm much more likely to remember the emotional tone of the book than I am to remember the details of the plot. Maybe this is the downside of reading in bed late at night? Anyway, I'm one of those readers who often reads the end of a book when I'm only half-way through, so clearly I'm not deterred from reading by knowing how things end.
And because I only re-read books I've enjoyed, I can take delight from re-reading. Just now, I'm feeling comforted by re-reading (for the third time? the fourth time?) The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning. And when I've raced through the three volumes of this trilogy I have 'The Levant Trilogy' to look forward to. These six novels, that were written between 1960 and 1980, follow the lives of a young English couple, Harriet and Guy Pringle, who become trapped in Romania by the German eastward advance at the outbreak of the second world war. Under increasingly harsh conditions they are evacuated to Greece and then to Egypt. There's much to be critical about with these novels. They have a very uneven attitude to racism and colonialism - though there is always the concern about importing one's own 21st century attitudes to a different time and place - and the writing is often cliched. But I'm captivated by the two central characters and by the depiction of the change in their relationship over time, and I find the investigation of how people adapt when they are strangers in other lands totally engrossing.
In 1987 the BBC made a wonderful television series of the two trilogies under the title Fortunes of War. It starred two young and at that time relatively unknown actors, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, and has remained in my memory as one of the high spots of television viewing, ever. I have such good recollections that I've ordered the DVD of the series. I'm hoping my re-viewing is just as pleasurable as my re-reading.
The other book I've recently re-read is Christina Stead's 1940s novel, 'The Man Who Loved Children'. A few months ago my book group read Jonathan Franzen's recent novel, 'Freedom' - about which we were all a bit ho-hum, but that's another story. In reading some on-line reviews of the Franzen book, I discovered his praise for 'The Man Who Loved Children'. I think all my book group had read the Stead novel at some time in their lives - usually the very distant past - but we decided to read it again. I have great fondness for my book group, but I must admit that we are a bit lazy. We're all avid readers but feel we've got to a stage of our lives when reading should simply be pleasurable. We don't often challenge ourselves with our book choices. But after reading and discussing 'The Man Who Loved Children' we all agreed that in this case we were delighted that the book group had pushed us to such a dense and rewarding read.
Tolstoy's well-known dictum that 'All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way' is given a thorough workout in Stead's novel. It's well-known that 'The Man Who Loved Children' is a reworking of aspects of Stead's own childhood - particularly through the central character of the father, Sam Pollitt. Sam is charismatic, energetic, idealistic and ultimately narcissistic, controlling and selfish. He enthralls his children, but forces them to comply with his image of them. Henny, the mother within the family, is discontented, unhappy and sharply bitter. They struggle with poverty, but are improvident with the money they do have. There's a bleakly hopeful ending for Louie, the oldest daughter of the family (the Christina Stead character?), but the reader despairs for the fate of some of the other children.
'The Man Who Loved Children' is not an altogether easy read. I'd forgotten how florid and elaborate the style of writing is - even though it's also often beautiful and moving. And the novel is long and repetitive, though you can argue that the repetitiveness is exactly what reveals the full horror of Sam's interactions with his children. But the need to know what happens and what new awfulness will be revealed carries you along. I agree with Jonathan Franzen that it is a mystery why the novel is not better known and more highly regarded. I think it's a wonderful read (and re-read).