Summer reading: challenging or light?

I’ve never fully understood the concept of summer reading being something different from what you read year-round. I think I read the same books in summer that I would read at other times of year.

But there seem to be two kinds of popularly understood summer reading: (1) lengthy tomes that you can only get through on holiday, or (2) trashy paperbacks that get tossed in the beach bag along with the sunscreen; War and Peace or a clone of the Bridget Jones genre.

Since you can always make something fit a definition if you want to, here are my two summer reading nominations:

Challenging

austerlitzTwo weeks after reading Austerlitz for one of my book clubs, I still find it hard to describe. It is a dense read and hard to dissect. It has the murky quality of a part-remembered dream. You finish it feeling that you have spent a long time searching through layers of archived papers and objects in a dusty room.

I haven’t read anything else by W.G. Sebald, but I learn that he wrote in German (he died in 2001), although he had lived in England since the mid-sixties. Highest praise: I did not realize it was a translation. The translator, who rose to the challenge (there’s that word again) magnificently, is Anthea Bell.

Sebald first found out about the reality of the Holocaust as a boy of 17. It created a shadow over his life, which he addressed by writing about it — not directly, but rather by showing how the memories of the past interweave with and affect our lives today.

The structure of the novel has Jacques Austerlitz, the main character, telling the story of his life to the narrator. The story is told in fragments, as they meet in various places in Europe, at first by accident and later by design. Later, one can piece together Austerlitz’s early life. As a boy of seven, he was sent as a Kindertransport refugee from Prague to Wales, where he was assigned to live with a depressive couple,  the minister  Elias and his wife Gwendolyn, in a chilly manse in Bala. Elias is from the village of Llanwyddyn, which was flooded when a dam was built in 1888. The story of the drowned village fascinates the young boy. This part of his life has his identity also being submerged, as he receives a new name and is told nothing about where he came from until he is 15.

The two halves of his life are illustrated by an architectural oddity of his room:

Only recently have I recalled how oppressed I felt, in all the time I spent with the Eliases, by the fact that they never opened a window, and perhaps that is why when I was out and about somewhere on a summer’s day years later, and passed a house with all its windows thrown open, I felt an extraordinary sense of being carried away and out of myself. It was only a few days ago that, thinking over that experience of liberation, I remembered how one of the two windows of my bedroom was walled up on the inside while it remained unchanged on the outside, a circumstance which, as one is never both inside and outside a house at the same time, I did not register until I was thirteen or fourteen, although it must have troubled me throughout my childhood in Bala.

Later in his life, Austerlitz travels back to Prague and meets an old friend of his mother and father. He researches what he can about the fate of his parents. In the course of these researches and his travel to the concentration camp where his mother was sent, the full horror of the events of the war are illuminated, again indirectly.

The reader gets glimpses of the life of Austerlitz, filtered through a great deal of sideline information. Every page is filled with long, multi-claused sentences, explicating, detailing, and listing. Austerlitz has a fascination with architecture, particularly monumental architecture, such as that used for fortifications and (oddly) for railway stations, and a fascination for archives of paper records.

Two of the most striking aspects of the novel are lists and photographs. Sebald fills page after page with lists. Here is part of a sentence containing such lists, from the section where Austerlitz visits the Theresienstadt concentration camp:

It seems unpardonable to me today that I had blocked off the investigation of my most distant past for so many years, not on principle, to be sure, but still of my own accord, and that now it is too late for me to seek out Adler, who had lived in London until his death in the summer of 1988, and talk to him about that extra-territorial place where at the time, as I have mentioned before, said Austerlitz, some sixty thousand people were crammed together in an area little more than a square kilometer in size — industrialists and manufacturers, lawyers and doctors, rabbis and university professors, singers and composers, bank managers, businessmen, shorthand typists, housewives, farmers, labourers and millionaires, people from Prague and the rest of the Protectorate, from Slovakia, from Denmark and Holland, from Vienna and Munich, Cologne and Berlin, from the Palatinate, from Lower Franconia and Westphalia — each of whom had to make do with about two square meters of space in which to exist and all of them, in so far as they were in any condition to do so or until they were loaded into trucks and sent on east, obliged to work entirely without remuneration in one of the primitive factories set up, with a view to generating actual profit, by the External Trade Section, assigned to the bandage-weaving workshop, to the handbag and satchel assembly line, the production of horn buttons and other haberdashery items, the manufacturing of wooden soles for footwear and of cowhide galoshes; to the charcoal yard, the making of such board games as Nine Men’s Morris and Catch the Hat, the splitting of mica, the shearing of rabbit fur, the bottling of ink dust, or the silkworm-breeding station run under the aegis of the SS; or, alternatively, employed in one of the operations serving the ghetto’s internal economy, in the clothing store, for instance, in one of the precinct mending and darning rooms, the shredding section, the rag depot, the book reception and sorting unit, the kitchen brigade, the potato-peeling platoon, the bone-crushing mill, the glue-boiling plant, or the mattress department, as medical or nursing auxiliaries, in the disinfestation and rodent control service, the floor space allocation office, the central registration bureau, the self-administration housed in barrack block BV, known as “The Castle,”or in the transport of goods maintained within the walls of the fortress by means of a medley of carts of every conceivable kind and four dozen ancient hearses brought from the now defunct Jewish communities in the Bohemian countryside to Terezin, where they moved between the crowded streets with two men harnessed between the shafts and four to eight pushing or putting their weight against the spokes of the wheels of these oddly swaying conveyances, which were covered by ulcerations of peeling black varnish …

This sentence goes on for another five pages, but the above is perhaps more than enough to convey the flavour and density of the text. The monstrousness of the Nazi regime is illustrated for me by the existence of the External Trade Section: the mundane bureaucracy of administration that comprises records and processes dealing with the elimination of a people. Here, as in many other parts of the book, the images Sebald creates are Kafkaesque.

The other kind of images, the black and white photographs sprinkled throughout, are apparently a signature Sebald touch. A keen photographer himself, he sought out additional images that have a blurred or unreal or ambiguous quality. The photographs and line drawings that appear in Austerlitz are not captioned and their relationship to the text is indirect, but they all add to the sense of the weight of history and the multiple layers of memory, and perhaps the unreliability of individual perception.

Although it is hard to  sum up what I feel about Austerlitz (“Well, is it good?” someone asked me, and the word seemed irrelevant), I think it is one of those books which makes a profound impact on one’s understanding of history and human behaviour and the world we have created, and whose significance deepens over time.

Light

uncommonAlan Bennett is a prolific British author and playwright. This is a small, funny book about how the Queen becomes a reader after discovering a travelling library.  The lovely title, The Uncommon Reader, gives you the idea.

The Queen starts with Ivy Compton-Burnett and never looks back. From Genet to Alice Munro, Thomas Hardy to the memoirs of Lauren Bacall, she is hooked. There is a plot, of course, whereby Sir Kevin, her private secretary, gets rid of Norman, whom the Queen styles her amanuensis after he begins recommending books to her. But the plot is secondary to the idea of the Queen reading widely and how it affects her life and her interactions with her subjects:

It transpired that with no prior notification to her attendants the Queen had abandoned her long-standing lines of inquiry — length of service, distance travelled, place of origin — and had embarked on a new conversational gambit, namely, “What are you reading?” To this very few of Her Majesty’s loyal subjects had a ready answer (though one did try: “The Bible?”). Hence the awkward pauses which the Queen tended to fill by saying “I’m reading …”, sometimes even fishing in her handbag and giving them a glimpse of the lucky volume. Unsurprisingly the audiences got longer and more ragged, with a growing number of her loving subjects going away regretting that they had not performed well and feeling, too, that the monarch had somehow bowled them a googly.

Understanding terms like “bowled them a googly” is useful but not essential to enjoyment of the book. And even the hardcover edition is small: it could fit in your beach bag along with the sunscreen!

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3 thoughts on “Summer reading: challenging or light?

  1. Great reviews, Anmaru.
    I’ve become leery about recommending any books for summer reading, light or heavy. Last year I gathered together a bunch of avid Y/A readers to form a book group. I suggested we start with A Book Thief as our first discussion book. One member claimed the book “ruined her whole summer” as it was so long and dark. Fortunately, others in the group loved it, but I’m still feeling bad about ruining one person’s summer.

  2. Shelley, you’re absolutely right to be leery about recommending books to others. Books are powerful and who knows what effect they will have on others?

    In one of my book clubs (not the one that read Austerlitz), one member keeps complaining that the books we read are “too dark.” However, I feel that by joining a book club you implicitly accept that you will be reading books chosen by the group.

    Personally, I take a caveat emptor approach. Probably I should add something specific to any book review, written or verbal. “Warning: May ruin your life. May make your life. There are no guarantees.”

  3. I have never understood the media stories that are written every year about summer reading. The Globe and Mail just ran an article in last Saturday book pages on that theme. Why would anyone read fluff in the summer if they normally choose to read more challenging books the rest of the year when they are presumably more caught up with work and community commitments? Before I retired I chose each summer to read a book from the literary canon that I had not read before. Over the past years I have read Middlemarch, Vanity Fair, The Golden Bowl, and Bleak House in this way. They have been amongst my most enjoyable reading experiences. Although now the summer should not necessarily offer me more leisure reading time, I find that I want to continue the pattern. This summer of 2009 I have joined the Mount Ulysses Team formed by the Dove Grey Reader and am happy to say that I have made it to second base camp.

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