Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

Purchased at Chapters.ca

In some ways, the story of how I came to read Nightwood is as interesting as my thoughts on the book itself. One of the bloggers whom I follow regularly, Kerry at Hungry Like the Woolf, ran both a contest and daily posts on this year’s Tournament of Books, an NCAA-style fiction competition run by the online Morning News. The tournament starts with 16 books (ranging from Wolf Hall, the eventual winner, through the bookclub favorite The Help, to the graphic novel, Logicomix). There is a “game” every day as the brackets wind down — and there is a commentary that welcomes responses from those who are following the tournament. It was late in the contest that commentator John Warner (a professor at Clemson University) offered this incentive: list the last five books that you have read and he would provide a recommendation for future reading. (The offer provoked more than 300 comments and some excellent recommendations — you can see the full exchange here. It is worth the visit.) After giving me two books that I had read and liked (John Banville’s The Book of Evidence and Tim Parks’ Europa), John finally came up with Nightwood.

First published in 1937, this novel probably qualifies as a “cult” book. Barnes had kicked around almost all of the between-war literary havens — Greenwich Village; Provincetown, Mass. and Paris (where she hung out with Gertrude Stein and James Joyce). Venice, too — the book is dedicated to Peggy Guggenheim and John Ferrar Holms. Even before publication, Nightwood acquired a powerful advocate in T.S. Eliot who not only lobbied Faber to publish it, but also wrote the introduction to the first and subsequent editions.

I will admit upfront that Nightwood is not my preferred kind of novel. I lean towards reportage, context and characterization, rather than language and style. To illustrate my distance from this book, Eliot concludes his introduction by saying:

What I would leave the reader prepared to find is the great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterisation, and a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizaberhan tragedy.

That is a perceptive summary: language and style do carry the book, but in its own way it does have both characterization and horror/doom. While it was that latter part that kept me involved in the book, I am going to run against form in this review and focus on examples of language and style — for other readers, I am sure that is where the real strength of this novel lies. In the opening of his introduction, Eliot also says “it would appeal primarily to readers of poetry”. I confess to not being a reader of poetry since I left university.

The two characters that we meet in chapter one are appropriate symbols for what the book will become; they are as unreliable as any character could be. Felix calls himself Baron Volkbein; his father had invented the noble title which has no legitimate basis whatsoever and Felix invented inheriting it:

Felix was heavier than his father and taller. His hair began too far back on his forehead. His face was a long, stout oval, suffering a laborious melancholy. One feature alone spoke of Hedvig [his mother], the mouth, which, though sensuous from lack of desire as hers had been from denial, pressed too intimately close to the bone structure of the teeth. The other features were a little heavy, the chin, the nose, and the lids; into one was set his monocle which shone, a round blind eye in the sun.

Felix hooks up with another character who will become even more important to the book: Dr. Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O’Connor. He isn’t really a doctor, although he acts as one. He is a declining never-was (as opposed to has-been) and, if I can be permitted to borrow from North American First Nations spiritualism, he will perform the role of The Trickster throughout the novel. O’Connor’s monologues occupy much of the novel, as all of the characters “bounce” off him (his role is like that of a Father Confessor, shrink, talkative barhound, all rolled into one), so it is worth paying attention to his style. Here’s an example, comparing himself to Felix:

“The Irish may be as common as whale-shit — excuse me — on the bottom of the ocean — forgive me — but they do have imagination and,” he added, “creative misery, which comes from being smacked down by the devil, and lifted up again by the angels. Misericordioso! Save me, Mother Mary, and never mind the other fellow! But the Jew, what is he at his best? Never anything higher than a meddler — pardon my wet glove — a supreme and marvellous meddler often, but a meddler nevertheless.” He bowed slightly from the hips. “All right, Jews meddle and we lie, that’s the difference, the fine difference.”

If you find echoes of Joyce’s prose in that, you will find many more. I am a long way into this review and I am only now getting to the main point of the “story” — it is a study of lesbianism, hermaphrodites and the anxiety and pain that were involved in “deviant” behavior in the 1930s (and decades after). The focal point for this is Robin Vote who, while she almost never speaks in the book (her role is that of being a more or less permanent victim who transfers her woes to even greater effect for others), has a dramatic impact on every other character in the novel. Here is how Barnes introduces her:

On a bed, surrounded by a confusion of potted plants, exotic palms and cut flowers, faintly over-sung by the notes of unseen birds, which seem to have been forgotten — left without the usual silencing cover, which, like cloaks on funeral urns, are cast over their cages at night by good housewives — half flung off the support of the cushions from which, in a moment of threatened consciousness she had turned her head, lay the young woman, heavy and dishevelled. Her legs, in white flannel trousers, were spread as in a dance, the thick-lacquered pumps looking too lively for the arrested step. Her hands, long and beautiful, lay on either side of her face.

Robin Vote is, in fact, the evil centre of the book and I make no apology for leaving an introduction of her until so late in this review — Barnes does the same thing in the novel. She will marry Felix and bear his child, desert him for Nora Flood, desert her for Jenny Petherbridge and move to America. (Nora and Jenny are very important characters in the book, but you will have to read it to discover why). Robin is the vision of the future that keeps elusively moving away; Dr. O’Connor is the voice of the past which is always disturbingly present and more than ready to review and pontificate on your circumstances. That tension between perceptions of the future that are conflicting with memories of the past is a central feature of the book.

I am not even going to attempt to provide a concluding opinion regarding this book. As I hope the review shows, it does have a version of a plot. And it certainly has characterization. More than anything else, it has prose and style — I’ve included more quotes than usual to acknowledge that. If you like the excerpts, I am sure you will like the book. Nightwood is a signicant novel and I am very glad that I read it, even if it did not fit my normal pattern — I will be very interested in what my memories of it are a few months down the road. I suspect that I may be remembering more than I am willing to admit now.

And finally, to get back to the world of fun reading, I would like to offer to repeat John Warner’s “five book” exercise. If you would care to indicate what five books you have most recently read, I’ll do my best to suggest one that you should consider. No promises of success, however.

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82 Responses to “Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes”

  1. Kerry Says:

    Kevin,

    I have been looking forward to this post. (Thanks for the mention, by the way.) I only became of the book by way of the recommendation to you, but then put it on my TBR. I like Jeannette Winterson and this sounds somewhat similar. I think I will like it (though I am not much into poetry). So thanks for reaching outside your comfort zone and writing an excellent review that conveys the book’s strengths even if it will not go down as one of your favorites.

    My last five novels read, most recent first:

    The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov
    A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Laurence Sterne
    The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larrson
    The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
    Legend of a Suicide by David Vann

    Thanks!

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: Ouch — those five cover a very broad range. Let me try Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. It has elements of the Larrson and Vann — a detective, futurist, almost-thriller that won a number of sci-fi awards, although I didn’t really think it was sci-fi (maybe because I am not a fan of the genre and I quite liked the book).

    I’d also say Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain would fit but a) you have probably read it or b) you already have enough “long” books on your TBR. Definitely worth the read, if you haven’t read it yet.

    • Kerry Says:

      Well, good you chose two. I do, of course, have plenty of long books on my TBR, but Thomas Mann is essential. I have not read it. I have “read” The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (quotations because I listened to it, actually), so that one is off the list.

      It may take a bit for me to get to Mann, but I will. Thanks!

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’m glad I recommended two. I will say that The Magic Mountain is one of the most impressive books that I have read, although it did take two readings.

  4. Trevor Says:

    Very fun Kevin. I read this this morning and have been anxious to get my comment to you so you can get me the recommendation:

    1) Dance of the Happy Shades: Alice Munro
    2) Outer Dark: Cormac McCarthy
    3) Augustus: John Williams
    4) Home: Marilynne Robinson
    5) A Splendid Conspiracy: Albert Cossery

    Of course, you’ll perhaps recognize that I read Dance of the Happy Shades, Augustus, and even Home either because you recommended them or because conversations made me remember that it was time for me to read them. Looking forward to my recommendation and hope that several others come and keep this going for a bit!

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: As you note, a recommendation for you is difficult because we already exchange so many thoughts. However, from the first four on your list (I haven’t read any Cossery), I’d offer:
    1. A conventional suggestion — Alistair MacLeod, either Island (which collects his two volumes of short stories) or No Great Mischief (his only novel). Many serious readers of Canadian fiction would argue he is every bit as good as Munro. And he is to Cape Breton (echoes of The Bishop’s Man here) what McCarthy is to the West and Robinson to Iowa. The two volumes are his complete oeuvre, so he is obviously a case of quality over quantity.
    2. Much more off the wall — The Studhorse Man by Robert Kroetsch. It has been about 25 years since I read it, but I am thinking of going back to it. It has Canadian elements of McCarthy, Robinson and Williams (although not Augustus) in a novel of the Canadian west. Hazard Lepage, the studhorse man of the title, is “a trickster, a lusty peddlar and a wayward knight” leading his blue stallion, Poseidon, around Alberta in an attempt to save the breed. Won the 1969 Governor-General’s award, Canada’s premier fiction prize before the Giller came along.

    • Trevor Says:

      Looking forward to it, Kevin! You’ve mentioned MacLeod before, but it does feel like he’s perfect for my next read. As for The Studhorse Man, hopefully that will be shortly thereafter!

    • Trevor Says:

      Okay, Kevin, I’ve got both MacLeod books and Sherry got both Waters books. Actually, on just Saturday I was thinking of buying The Little Stranger and ended up walking out of the store empty handed, not sure I could take it on right now. Hopefully both of us will read them soon!

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I do hope you found something for the boys as well :-) as I would hate to shortchange them. When you are looking for a bit of very worthwhile escapism, you will find the Waters work just fine.

        • whisperinggums Says:

          Just found this post KfC – as I was overloaded by deadlines in early June and then headed off for ten blissful days in the warm Top End. Anyhow, I can totally agree with your recommendation of No great mischief. I’d like to read more McLeod but haven’t managed it yet.

  6. Mary Gilbert Says:

    Oh how I love lists! My sister and I write down the books we’ve read in a year and have a swap and catch up around December.
    My last five books ( and the first two I didn’t enjoy as much as the last three) :
    Jetta Carleton – The Moonflower Vine
    Hans Fallada – Alone in Berlin
    Jonathan Raban – Old Glory ( started this before the oil spill and now it seems particularly poignant)
    Damon Galgut – The Imposter
    Iain Sinclair – At the Edge of the Orison

    Reportage , content, characterisation is what I like but this can sound a bit worthy without the skill of language and style. The sort of books I don’t like are plotless and wispy ( Sacrilege I know but I include here Marilynn Robinson and Hilary Mantel…..)

  7. Anna van Gelderen Says:

    What an irresistible offer! Here’s my rather eclectic list:
    Hjalmar Söderberg, Doctor Glas
    John Knowles, A Separate Peace
    Zoe Heller, The Believers
    Junichiro Tanizake, The Makioka Sisters
    David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

  8. marco Says:

    although I didn’t really think it was sci-fi (maybe because I am not a fan of the genre and I quite liked the book)

    That’s definitely common behaviour among those who are not fan of the genre, yes.

    I lean towards reportage, context and characterization, rather than language and style.

    I don’t really care WHAT carries a book, as long as it successfully carries it over to me.
    I loved both Nightwood and Der Zauberberg, which I read more or less at the same time (as a student of English and German language and literature).

    Last five books/most recent first:
    1) Oscar and Lucinda , Peter Carey – Years ago I hadn’t enjoyed Illywhacker and Bliss, which turned me off Carey for a long time, but O & L finally won me over.
    2) L’Errore di Platini, Francesco Recami. It’s the best Italian novel I’ve read in years, but so obscure the chances of it being translated are nihil.
    3) Dead Lagoon , Michael Dibdin
    4) Monsieur Pain, Roberto Bolano
    5) A Jest of God , Margaret Laurence

    Next stop will probably be John Ajvide Lindqvist Il Porto degli Spiriti (Människohamn) and then The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
    Or maybe the Italian edition of M John Harrison’s Nova Swing which I read in English a couple of years ago.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: How about Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood? It is a memoir and my link to your list comes mainly from Old Glory. I’m reminded of it because it opens with the decision of her father to abandon the family business and take the family boat on a voyage from there down to New Orleans. More than anything else, however, it is an excellent writer’s contemplation of how she grew into her trade. My favorite moment is when she gets “promoted” from the children’s to the adult library. As a second thought, if you liked The Imposter, Hubert Aquin’s Prochain Episode might be worth a look. It’s an almost surreal tale of a Quebec separtist/activist/terrorist being chased (he thinks) around Europe and was/is the literary icon of the independence movement in la belle province. There’s a new version of the English translation (Next Episode) coming out in August, but I suspect you would have an easier time finding the original French one than I would (which would be a struggle for me to read anyway).
    Anna: I’ll skew off the Knowles and Heller and suggest A.S. Byatt’s first novel, The Shadow of the Sun. I’m not keen on Byatt’s recent work but remember this one with fondness — shorter, excellent characterization and pungent observation. The central character is a young woman, daughter of a repressive, famous novelist, who is attending Cambridge. That story is fine but Byatt uses it as a staging ground for a critical look at mid-20th century, semi-privileged Britain. She apparently wrote the first draft while she herself was a student at Cambridge. I haven’t read the new Mitchell (not out in North America yet) but it will be cracked open the moment that it arrives.

    • Mary Gilbert Says:

      Many thanks Kevin, the Annie Dillard sounds exactly what I like and I hadn’t heard of it before. Prochain Episode sounds very interesting too and you’ve pricked my conscience because living here in France I should read more novels in French than I do ( my husband makes far more effort and read the whole of Les Bienveillants though he actually didn’t enjoy it!) I suppose it’s because reading in French is more like work and I do love the sheer ease and bliss of reading in English. Also Paris is an absolute Mecca for English language second hand bookshops – better than Hay…

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Marco: Welcome! What an intriguing list — I think it will be the first, last and only time I’ll ever meet (even virtually) someone who read Bolano and Laurence back-to-back. Those two would lead me to suggest Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, but I suspect you will be replying that you have already read it.

    • marco Says:

      Thanks!
      Yep, I have – the required reading list for my English Modernism course was insane. For example, speaking of cult books carried over by language and style , there was also Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Let me try once more and then I’ll concede — Janette Turner Hospital’s The Last Magician. The style and storyline are somewhat like Laurence and Carey (and it is set in Australia) but there is a distinct modernist element in the way she structures the book.

  11. Shawna Says:

    I agree, an irresistible offer, here’s my list:

    What the birds see – Sonya Hartnett
    Alone in the wilderness – Dick Proenneke
    Too much happiness – Alice Munro
    The song of Kahunsha – Anosh Irani
    The last of the Mohicans – J. Fenimore Cooper

  12. Anna van Gelderen Says:

    Thank you, Kevin. I must confess that I have never heard of this Byatt novel. I quite liked The Virgin in the Garden, but was not really convinced by Possession somehow and after that stopped reading Byatt. I did buy The Children’s Book recently, because I thought I should give her another go and there you are with another Byatt. I will definitely check this title out.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Anna: This novel is quite comparable to The Virgin in the Garden, with some critics feeling the central character here is the model for Frederica, who of course is the uniting thread in the four-book project that Garden starts. It is not as ambitious (over-reaching?) as either Possession or The Children’s Book, which is part of why I like it. The father is a particularly well-developed version of a despicable character.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Shawna: Try Wallace Stegner’s Big Rock Candy Mountain. It’s a frontier story (hence Cooper) but set in the U.S. Northwest and Canada (not quite Alaska, but close) and centres on the life story of a young woman (Munro) who marries questionably (her husband becomes a bootlegger during prohibition). Stegner is a personal favorite (see the review of Angle of Repose elsewhere on the site — it would be an equally valid recommendation).

    • Shawna Says:

      Thanks Kevin! I haven’t read anything by Stegner so this is a perfect recommendation. Particularly as I am getting ready to move off to the wilds of Saskatchewan!

  14. Mrs. Berrett Says:

    Okay, can I change things up a tad? I like your rules, but being that I read so much YA I don’t know that my last five will help you. However, I am trying to get some atmospheric/mood help for my current manuscript and would love your assistance. So here are five books that have helped for various reasons.

    1. Gone with the Wind
    2. Madame Bovary
    3. A Northern Light (YA, but absolutely lovely writing)
    4. Wuthering Heights
    5. Rebecca

    Despite what my selections may suggest, I am not writing a romance per se. It’s darker and a little blurred on the lines of reality and fantasy/insanity.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Mrs. Berrett: I was worried I would see a list of five YA titles from you, none of which I’d heard of, so thanks for this list.

      For something recent, I would suggest one of two dark Sarah Waters’ novels, Fingersmith or The Little Stranger. The former has more (twisted) romance and reality; the latter leaves the reader with the challenge of whether it is about fantasy or insanity.

      In your historical vein, I’d suggest Henry James’ The Golden Bowl, although the characters may be a little mature for your project. Definitely dark and one of the best books ever written that explores father/daughter attraction/obsession, although that is only one of the evil story lines in it (there is a fair bit of Madame Bovary as well).

  15. Maylin Says:

    I saw John’s Tournament challenge, but only after he’d closed the comments and so I can’t resist taking you up on this. Most of my recent reading has been upcoming manuscripts, so I’ll spare you those and keep to books that have already been published. So my last 5 reads would be:

    1. Memoirs of an Anti-Semite by Gregor von Rezzori
    2. Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
    3. Your Face Tomorrow trilogy by Javier Marias
    4. The Clockmaker by Stephen Massicote (play)
    5. Coriolanus by Shakespeare

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I’m in deep, deep trouble here. For those who don’t know, Maylin is a publishers’ rep based in Toronto (click her name for her blog, Dewey Divas) which means a) she knows Canadian books better than I do, b) she gets access to advance copies and c) I know she is on an NYRB reading project. Which leaves me little room to recommend, particularly given the range of this list of five. However, I’ll try:

      1. For more published Canadian drama, find Two Plays by Eugene Stickland (the Toronto drama bookshop should have it).
      2. I haven’t read the new Mitchell, but reviews of it have caused me to think of Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (sorry to raise his name again). I suspect there are some comparisons with von Rezzori as well.
      3. Andre Malraux’s Man’s Fate (which I suspect would be a re-read for you) would be an interesting update on the Mitchell, set a couple of centuries later and also has some of the conspiracy aspect of the Marias trilogy (which I like very much, incidentally).

  16. Maylin Says:

    Hee hee – great choices Kevin and I haven’t read any of them although Malraux has been on my to-be-read list for some time now. And given what you write about relevance to both Mitchell and Marias, it sounds like just my cup of tea. Thanks for the recommendations!

  17. leroyhunter Says:

    I saw the very interesting original of this game Kevin, after it had closed alas. Thanks for re-running!
    I’ll be interested to see what you suggest:

    Confessions of an English Opium Eater – De Quincy
    Invisible Cities – Calvino
    Towards the End of the Morning – Frayn
    A Hero of Our Time – Lermontov
    Sabbath’s Theatre – Roth

    PS I’ve been trying to decide whether or not to read Barnes for a good while, so you can take that I have one ‘recommend’ from this blog already.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: Not a lot of common themes from that list, which is a tribute to a wide range of interests. Perhaps To The Wedding by John Berger which has some echoes of both Lermontov and Barnes, with a notion of “travel” in it. And maybe the next time you are looking for an “easy” read, John Lanchester’s A Debt to Pleasure, which has travel, food and sinister motives all wrapped up in a fast-read.

    • leroyhunter Says:

      Thanks Kevin, I’ve never really warmed to Berger enough to try him but will take a look at To The Wedding.

      The Lanchester is on the pile – I missed it first time round but picked it up after enjoying Whoops! so much.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I think Berger (whom a publishing industry friend describes as “living in a cave in Switzerland, I think”) sees himself as the English language heir to the short European novel. I blow hot and cold on his work — To The Wedding would be my favorite. The Lanchester is a diversion, but a very worthwhile one.

  19. Tom C Says:

    A fascinating story – and good book review too, of a writer I have never heard of, and who seems to write some fairly complex material.

    Re the idea of recommdnations based on your last five books, have you seen the website The Bookseer http://bookseer.com/ – you can have some fun with it I find

  20. William Rycroft Says:

    I can’t resist Kevin, so here’s my last five:

    1) The Devil In The Flesh – Raymond Radiguet
    2) Stoner by John Williams
    3) A Kestrel For A Knave by Barry Hines
    4) Staring At The Sun – Julian Barnes
    5) Alone In Berlin – Hans Fallada

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Will: I’ll suggest The Stone Carvers, by Jane Urquhart — and not just because of the echo from Williams’ title. The carvers of the title in the first generation are wood, not stone, German immigrants in Canada. Generation two involves World War I and Vimy Ridge (where the Canadian troops were fodder). Generation three is the stone carver, who works on the Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge. I’ll admit your current role in War Horse probably plays a big part in my recommendation, but I do think the Urquhart has elements of a number of these five books.

  21. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Hm, possibly too poetic even for me, and my tolerance for poetic prose is much higher than yours as a rule Kevin.

    Still, clearly it’s very good.

    My last five, not counting my present read (unless you want to, in which case it’s The Drowning Pool by Ross MacDonald), they are from most recent to least:

    1. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, third canto, by Lord Byron;
    2. Madamoiselle de Scuderi, by ETA Hoffmann;
    3. A Way of Life, Like Any Other, by Darcy O’Brien;
    4. The Pendragon Legend, by Antal Szerb; and
    5. Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust

    Lucky there wasn’t any science fiction really…

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Max: I’m ignoring the crime ones, since you know that field far better than me. And Lord Byron is a distant memory. So perhaps something to complement your reading of Proust. Take a look at Pig Earth, the first book (novella) really in John Berger’s Into Their Labours trilogy. It is a combination of folk tales and fiction, meant to portray the people and the village in the French Alps where Berger now lives (if Combray is an aristocracy, this is the peasant class). As someone said above, Berger is not to everyone’s taste and it has been some years since I read this book — maybe spending a few minutes scanning it in a bookshop would be a good idea. It’s only 200 pages, so a quick read.

      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        Interesting Kevin, I’ll take a look. John Berger, I’ve not read him at all.

        I read your comments on him upthread, the short European novel is an interest in mine, so I’ll take a risk on him (I’m not going to get a chance to scan a bookshop for a bit). The worst is I don’t like it, but looking at reviews it does sound my sort of thing.

        • KevinfromCanada Says:

          I would be interested in what you think of him. I do think he fits the idea of “short European novel” in a way that few English language writers do — even if he sometimes falls wide of the mark of success. And I do know your extensive interest in the field.

          I was also going to remind you that The Custom of the Country (Edith Wharton) also needs to be read as a Proust complement.

          • Max Cairnduff Says:

            Does it? I didn’t know that about the Wharton.

            Well, the Berger’s ordered, along with a Catalonian novel I saw recommended at Tom’s and a short book about the Pre-Raphaelites. My first purchases in a few weeks actually.

            Not sure I have a copy of Custom, but I may save it for later in the Proust.

  22. Shaun Hunter Says:

    Kevin, I’d love to take you up on your offer.

    1. A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry
    2. Solar, by Ian McEwan
    3. The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy
    4. The Mourner’s Dance, by Katherine Ashenburg
    5. Losing Mum and Pup, by Christopher Buckley

  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Shaun: The In-Between Life of Vikram Lall, by M.G. Vassanji. Like A Fine Balance, it is a Giller Prize winner so you may have read it. The reason I suggest it is that it does have fictional elements related to the theme of Buckley and Ashenburg’s books in the sense that Lall is both trying to escape from and organize his grief.

    • Shaun Hunter Says:

      Thanks, Kevin. I have not read Vassanji, but have been meaning to. Thanks for the suggestion!

  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Both Swann’s Way and The Custom of the Country were published in 1913. As you already know, Proust contemplates an almost static semi-aristocratic society in great (sometimes almost agonizing) detail and it is no spoiler to say that will continue in the five volumes of Temps Perdu that you have to go. Wharton’s heroine, Undine Spragg, is the antithesis of Proust and his society — an upwardly mobile, crass, exploitative American. And while much of the novel is set in America, the two cross over (clash is perhaps a better verb) when she marries an aristocratic Frenchman — I forget whether he was husband number three or four for her. Wharton knew both American and French “aristocracies” and, for me, that was the best part of the book. Sadly hilarious, if that makes any sense. And a very nice counterpoint, given that both creatures were part of “society” at the same time.

  25. Grace Says:

    I’d love a recommendation. My last five books read, most recent first:

    Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis
    Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
    The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson
    More Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
    Even the Dogs by Jon McGregor

    I haven’t finished a book in a while because I’m simultaneously reading Your Face Tomorrow: Poison, Shadow and Farewell by Javier Marias, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust. I’m quite keen to start something new!

  26. Isabella Says:

    Here goes, most recent first:

    The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Jan Potocki
    Sunflower, Gyula Krudy
    Clandestine in Chile, Gabriel garcia Marquez
    Life a User’s Manual, Georges Perec
    Fear of Flying, Erica Jong

    This could be a very interesting result, because it’s the same 5 books I fed the Biblioracle the other week. My current read is Peter Carey’s Parrot & Olivier, which is not what John suggested, but I had it on hand. (The first time I tried the Biblioracle he name a book I’d read, like, 7 books ago.)

    Note: I’ve been steadily making my way through Mann’s Magic Mountain since last November, so while it’d be an excellent recommendation, I think something different is in order.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Isabella: Since I know you live in Montreal, I’ll let that effect my recommendations. How about:
      1. In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje. You have probably read it, but I’ve been wanting to recommend it to some one. Toronto’s coming of age story, and a Canadian version of some of the thoughts on your list.
      2. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani, which I also suspect you will have read but others should pay attention to it. In some ways, an Italian version of the Perec and a magnificent novel.
      3. Finally also consider Hospital’s The Last Magician recommended earlier — for me, a better book than Carey.

      • marco Says:

        In the Skin of a Lion is one of my favourite novels. Sadly, while I also enjoyed his earlier works, the ones he wrote after ItSoL failed to grab me.
        In fact I came to John Berger because M.O. put a line from G as epigraph to In the Skin of a Lion.

        You make interesting connections – wouldn’t have thought of Bassani’s novel as a counterpart of the Perec in a million years.
        Have you read The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles also?

        • KevinfromCanada Says:

          Marked down for the future, but thanks for the reminder. And the Perec/Bassani connection is probably based more on their personal histories than the specific books — sorry about that.

      • Isabella Says:

        Thanks, Kevin. I’ve read a bunch of Ondaatje, but remarkably, not this one. And the Finzi-Continis is on my list of books to look out for (tho I can’t remember why!). Both these books are going in the pile of get-to-them-sooner-rather-than-later, along with Biblioracle’s suggestion of The Bell Jar.

  27. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Grace: With the three you have on the go, you have months of reading ahead of you — well, weeks at least. I’d point you back at my recommendation to Max for Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country — it fits the Proust, has a strong female character facing off against men (Wolf Hall) and devious types on the fringes of power, albeit four centuries later (Marias). I respect all three of those books as major works, incidentally, even if Wof Hall was not entirely to my taste.

    With such an impressive list, you certainly deserve a recommendation of your own however and I’ll tilt towards the “entertaining, with maybe an occasional laugh, but challenging” mode. Consider:
    1. Stone Virgin by Barry Unsworth. A very funny account, with Amis-like satire, of restoring a Madonna statue in Venice that includes a valet keeping his master alive with a most innovative scheme.
    2. The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon. Volume one of a trilogy, all reviewed elsewhere on this site. The underclass (McGregor) from fifty years ago; immigrant displacement (O’Neill) and all told in a Caribbean dialect that Amis would love.

    • overanalyse Says:

      Thanks so much! I haven’t read any of those, although any Edith Wharton has been high on my to-read list for…far too long. I need to remedy that. The other two are totally new names to me, and sound great, so I will start looking around for them.

      • overanalyse Says:

        …and just to clarify, this is Grace as above, only I’ve created my own account, so my name doesn’t show up as it did before.

      • whisperinggums Says:

        Oh, you should read Wharton … Custom of the country is a great one, with one of the best named heroines I’ve seen – Undine Spragg! You get the picture as soon as you discover that!

  28. Frances Says:

    This is just too cool! Although tempted to make something up here just for laughs, here is the real deal:

    1 – Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
    2 – Legend of a Suicide by David Vann
    3 – Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
    4 – Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
    5 – My Cousin Rachel by Daphne Du Maurier

    Off to tweet about this fun.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Frances: This is going to look like self-promotion, but I’ll point to two reviews that will be coming here in the next couple of weeks:
      1. The Ask by Sam Lipsyte. For me, an updated look at New York from McCann.
      2. Going to See the Elephant by Rodes Fishburne. Not science-fiction, but has an element of absurd science, cum Snow Crash. Laugh-out-loud funny in parts.

      • Frances Says:

        Will go for The Ask but pass on the other as I just read Snow Crash at the request of my husband. Will look out for those reviews! Thanks Kevin!

    • marco Says:

      Tender Morsels calls forth Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners .

  29. Iris Says:

    This is too cool an offer to pass up. The last 5 books I’ve read (minus the non-fiction/required reading):

    1. Stone in a Landslide – Maria Barbal
    2. The Laws of Evening – Mary Yukari Waters
    3. Candide – Voltaire
    4. Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfoez
    5. Witness the Night – Kishwar Desai

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Iris: Off the multi-cultural aspects of Waters, Mahfoez and Desai, I’d suggest The Book of Secrets by M.G. Vassani — an anti-imperial story written by a South Asian whose family was expelled from East Africa after emigrating from India. I’ve already referenced Vassanji’s The In-Between Life of Vikram Lall which is every bit as good (perhaps better) and also explores that complicated contradiction.

      If you are interested in non-fiction, A Place Within: Rediscovering India is highly recommended (but not read by me yet). It is the story of his personal journey back to the country that his ancestors left some generations before.

  30. winstonsdad Says:

    go on kevin heres my five ,
    1.inheirtance by Peter Stefan Jungk
    2.broken glass by Alain Mabanckou
    3.Dark knights of the soul by Jermey simpson
    4.tropical night falling by Manuel Puig
    5.Blaugast by Paul Leppin
    be interset to see what you suggest ,all the best stu

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Stu: Uncle. This is the first list of five where I have not read one, although I have heard of a couple. Still, in the spirit of the challenge:
      1. The Ministry of Special Cases, Nathan Englander. A very readable novel about the Argentinian atrocities, with special focus on the Jewish community and its cemetery there.
      2. Or something by Dany Laferriere, a Montrealer from Haiti, whom I admit I haven’t tried but have a couple on the TBR. How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired and Dining with the Dictator both come highly recommended.

      Sorry.

      • winstonsdad Says:

        thats ok ,i ll look them up kevin ,i read jean milche ,alphabet of the night ,another haitian writer and enjoyed it ,stu

  31. Shelley Says:

    Creative misery! Well, that’s certainly better than the other kind. The 30’s are the era of my work, and I’ve always meant to read this book.

  32. Shannon Says:

    This is a great idea! Thanks!

    Consider the Lobster – David Foster Wallace
    My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead – Jeffrey Eugenides (ed.)
    Summer Crossing – Truman Capote
    The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
    Paradise Lost – John Milton

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Shannon: This is a challenge for me, since three of your last five are non-fiction and my reading is mainly novels. However, I’ll do my best. Off the Eugenides collection and Capote’s first book, I’ll suggest The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart, although I suspect it might be a bit “light” for you. I certainly found it very entertaining — you can find a review by clicking on Lockhart’s name in the sidebar on my home page and it will probably let you decide if it would be of interest.

      • Shannon Says:

        Thanks for the recommendation. =) I read the E. Lockhart book sometime last year, and even though I don’t usually read YA, I was charmed. Good job!

        • KevinfromCanada Says:

          Shannon: Sorry about that. Check out Annabel by Kathleen Winter, a first novel published by House of Anansi here in Canada. I’ll have a review up in two weeks, followed by a guest post from the author. I think it might suite your tastes.

  33. My Favorite Lit-Blog Things: June 11, 2010 « Hungry Like the Woolf Says:

    […] you have not done so yet, click over to Kevin from Canada’s offer to recommend a book (scroll to the last paragraph of the review and the comments). You supply your last five reads, he […]

  34. Lisa Hill Says:

    Hello there Kevin, it’s not like I need a recommendation because Mt TBR is quite high enough already LOL but I’ll play anyway because it looks like fun:)
    The problem with my last five is that I only liked two of them and you can probably guess which ones they were. As luck would have it none of them are new release OzLit which might have flummoxed you a bit *chuckle* Anyway, here they are (exluding NF, audio books and Ulysses because I’ve read it before) are
    The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman
    The Second Last Woman in England by Maggie Joel
    The Red and the Black by Stendhal
    The House of the Mosque by Kader Abdolah
    Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
    Over to you!
    Lisa

  35. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: I don’t think I could come up with any choice for a person who has such wide-ranging tastes as you, but I will try — and I’ll admit to introducing a Canadian bias. Consider Carol Shields The Stone Diaries or Richard Wright’s Clara Callan, both excellent books that I think would fit your tastes, although neither are much related to your last five. You are one of my main sources for leads on Australian fiction, so I’m trying to return the favour. :-)

  36. Lisa Hill Says:

    Oh well done, Kevin, excellent choices, but no you’re not off the hook yet – because I’ve read both of those and thought they were terrific!
    Now, how about a Canadian classic, something from the 19th century or early C20th perhaps? Or maybe a tricksy modernist? The earliest Canadian author I’ve read is Robertson Davies, (The Cornish Trilogy) and I don’t think I’ve ever read a modernist author from Canada…
    Lisa

  37. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Hi Lisa: Not surprised that you know both of those. So, since I assume you also know The Double Hook, I’ll try:
    1. Anything by Guy Vanderhaegge.
    2. As For Me And My House, Sinclair Ross — you really have to like Canadian literature to read this. And if you know it, check out Frederick Phillip Grove.
    3. The Underpainter, by Jane Urquhart — one of my favorite authors and this is my favorite book of hers.

    And if none of those work — or you have read them all — I am willing to admit defeat.

  38. Lisa Hill Says:

    Hey, now I’ve done really well – because I have Isabella’s intriguing suggestion, and five more from Kevin. I haven’t read any of your recommendations and shall begin hunting them out pronto!
    Thanks, Kevin and Isabella!

  39. Peasant life is a life committed completely to survival « Pechorin’s Journal Says:

    […] blog, but recently Kevin (the blogger in question) did me a real favour. He started a comments thread in which you listed the last five books you’d read and he recommended a book to you that you […]

  40. carlos Says:

    good book. if you like it, youll find you will read it again in some time.

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