Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy: The last time I read it I was in high school. What I now appreciate in Tolstoy is his ability to describe the layers of conflicting feelings people experience. Characters are never flat. In a matter of moments they can run through a complex series of emotions. Karenin can wish his estranged wife dead, then be overwhelmed with joy that she is alive, then want to punish her, then want to forgive her, all in the course of a few minutes. Anna can be the most generous and giving of people, but also jealous and petty at the same time. Vronsky can both love Anna and yet be restless for a fuller life. People's privates selves are also impacted over and over again by the larger community in which they live. Tolstoy, too, is unafraid to describe a milieu in all the detail it requires: his description of a Moscow club was extraordinary and evoked for me how that world felt.
Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson: I read it for the first time last year and reread it this year. This time I understood more fully that it is a novel about how the past--the dead--haunt us, and the different ways, none entirely satisfying, that we cope with their invisible presence.
This year's Jane Austen reread: While Persuasion and Emma are still much on my mind, my pick for 2017is Mansfield Park. I delved deeply into it as a result of writing a paper for the journal Rhizomes on the many islands that, surprisingly enough, appear in this novel set in Northamptonshire, a landlocked county in the Midlands east of Birmingham and west of Cambridge. Beyond writing the paper, however, I was able to delve into what Katie Halsey speaks of as
‘spectral texts’ — literary works that hover in the margins of the novel, not always directly acknowledged, but always reflecting or refracting some of Mansfield Park’s central concerns about ethics and morality
For example, Crabbe's Tales, a book mentioned in the novel, in part XIV, "The Confidant," could describe Fanny:
Now Anna’s station frequent terrors wrought,
In one whose looks were with such meaning fraught,
For on a Lady, as an humble friend,
It was her painful office to attend ...
She veil’d her troubles in a mask of ease,
And show’d her pleasure was a power to please.
Such were the damsel’s duties: she was poor -
Above a servant, but with service more:
Past time she view’d, the passing time to cheat,
But nothing found to make the present sweet:
With pensive soul she read life’s future page,
And saw dependent, poor, repining age.
Then, in the same part of Cowper's The Task where Fanny quotes "ye fallen avenues! Once more I mourn/Your fate unmerited ..." we find, also appropriate to Sotherton or, for that matter, Mansfield Park:
We tread the wilderness, whose well-roll’d walks,
With curvature of slow and easy sweep—
Deception innocent—give ample space
To narrow bounds.But this is all the subject for a future blog.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie: While the writing is not exquisite (it does, however, reflect the mind of a less-than-exemplary narrator), Christie's skill at eliding a crucial detail is unsurpassed. Christie as student of Jane Austen hovers all over this mystery. See http://janeaustenandotherwriters.blogspot.com/2017/05/the-murder-of-roger-ackroyd-and-jane.html
Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy: It's not a perfect book. It was a chapter of my master's thesis, about which I remember just about nothing except that I was very interested in Hardy's references to Poussin. The novel has an odd, but powerful quality, at once realistic in its rendering of detail and fanciful in its concept. It is perhaps more indebted to narrative painting than the novel genre.
My next post will cover my top choices for newly read fiction and biography in 2017.