not lit crit

I’ve written before about my anxieties around reading. So, this post is just to record some personal responses to two (quite different) books I have actually read. Firstly, I recently finished The House on Paradise Street by Sofka Zinovieff. I was attracted to the book by a short and largely favourable review in the Guardian. So many of the ingredients of Zinovieff’s first novel appealed to me – the family history aspect, the Greek setting, the social context exploring the generational repercussions of the Second World War and the subsequent civil war in Greece. One of the two main narrators, Maud, is an English woman living in Greece, so other layers in the novel include her growing sense of not being wholly at home in either English or Greek culture, and the complexities of language – becoming linguistically fluent in another language is not the same as inhabiting that language as your mother tongue. All of this is right up my street, so why did I find it so hard to feel fully engaged with the novel? Partly, probably, my inability to switch off the writing part of my brain, too conscious of the book being constructed, of cracks and joins. I didn’t feel Maud’s grief at the beginning of the novel when her husband Nikitas dies in a car crash. Other minor quibbles, such as the inconsistency in translating Greek acronyms and phrases, and the sometimes stilted (and, in my view, unnecessary) explanations of Greek customs, kept me at a slight distance. This sounds griping and ungenerous, when the substance of the story is important and powerful, and I was finally drawn more, particularly, into the chapters narrated by Antigone, returning to Athens after 50 years in exile in Russia.

On a completely different tack, I’ve also just finished The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. Seven hundred and thirty-three pages consumed in slithers and chunks over the course of nearly two years. My signed copy with the salmon pink cover now faded to apricot blush on the front. Mostly bedtime reading, two or three of Davis’s quirky, distilled stories at a time, a literary nightcap. I only skipped or abandoned a couple, and in my methodical way read from beginning to end, rather then dipping in randomly. Davis stretches wonderfully the concept of what a story can be. From a single sentence she can wring poignancy or humour or both. Many stories show a mind at work and/or at play, examining a concept such as ‘Affinity’ or a banal situation (‘Passing Wind’ – did the dog fart or was it the visitor?) from every angle. ‘Southward Bound, Reads Worstward Ho’ is a brilliant homage to Beckett. Emotion is buried, on the whole, but I’m left with an underlying sense of curiosity and surprise, despite the absurdity and cruelty of life, which Davis so often reveals in her stories. Aging parents, mildly dysfunctional relationships,  intellectual self-doubt; these are some of the themes that run through the stories and, of course, reveal nothing at all about why I’ve responded so strongly to Lydia Davis’s writing.

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