I do admire bloggers who read books and review them seriously and publish their reviews regularly. I am too whimsical for this.
But what I admire most, and know that I shall never reach this ability and mastership, is to set oneslf or with others, challenges and to achieve them.
Stacks of books neatly labelled as TBR (To Be Read), One Hundred Books for the Twentieth Century, Classics To be Read This Year (and a number of them allocated per month), the XXX Publishing House Month, the YYY Author week, the Fellow Bloggers Shelves, the Second-Hand Books To Be Read during the Year, all sorts of challenges may be found in the blogging community.
They find me amazed, astonished, abashed, and humbled. At least.
Therefore last week I tried to give myself a small challenge to test my mettle:
- to re-read and review the last of the "Miss Buncle" books, "The Four Graces" that I am reading with an internet reading group;
- or to read and review two books by O. Douglas (John Buchan's sister), The Proper Place" and its sequel, "The Day of Small Things", of which I have already read the first;
- to read seriously Bring Up The Bodies" by Hilary Mantel with another internet reading group, as I have just finished "Wolf Hall", and was delightfully surprised by the style and mastery/proficiency of the author (I had left the book aside after a few pages when it was first published in paperback;
- or to re-read for the umpteenth time "Wild Strawberries" and "Marling Hall" by Angela Thirkell for I should have given months ago a paper about "Angela Thirkell and the French" to the American Society and approached the British Society about it.
All this was easy enough.
I took a new A4 notebook organiser with coloured partitions to insert between the sheets and make proper sections that divide one's work.
I bought myself a wonderful automatic pencil with automatic - or semi-automatic - lead pencil and incorporated rubber. I chose it to match the colours of the notebook. And I made sure I had enough lead refills.
I prepared lovingly the places where I would read and write, the hours where I would never ever be disturbed, and I set the challenge to myself: one week to do one of the four projects upon which I had set my heart, mind and desires.
Still easy enough.
On the first day, I sat in front of the books to choose one and looked at them squarely in the eyes. Cool-headed, unflappable and seemingly unconcerned, they looked at me squarely in the eyes in return. I decided not to be nervous and reached out to take "The Proper Place" but let it hover over "Wolf Hall", while my right hand tried unsuccessfully to grasp the notebook while hesitating over the laptop.
I persuaded myself that discipline overruled and that no distraction or fluttering was admitted. I made my heart, mind and desires as hard as rock and steel.
But I had forgotten that it was a June day and already a summer day.
In front of the window, after the formal garden and trees and shrubberies, I could glimpse the meadow with its buttercups and wild orchids and red clover, dandelions, and wild campion and all sort of different flowers and herbs of which I do not know the name but are nonetheless beautiful. The meadow was going down slowly to the stream that I could hear gurgle gently in my inner ear, seeing its dragonflies, grasshoppers, bees, and minnows and all the dams we had tried to build when we were children, my brothers, my cousins, and I. On the left, I knew there was a wheat field. Poppies mingling with the hard, pointed, blue-green spears of the stems and spiked ears of the still young and tender wheat. But already a fresh scent of straw as yet unripe. And high above this quiet splendour, long lazy white clouds, so soft one would wish to lie in them.
Not a weather to stay inside.
So, I grabbed "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt because it was close and handy (paperback) while heavy and full of promises of a universe of its own between its front and back covers, being so big - a page turner? -, and because I dimly thought it spoke of Flemish painting, and nothing seemed better appropriate in this calm than the calm of Flemish masters.
And so, once again, I have lived my week out of my initial projects, far from my timetable and my laptop, notebook, pencil, and my carefully set for books. I have read a page turner, as a page turner it is, full of more or less veiled allusions to Pip and Estella, David Copperfield, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, to memories of Henry James, to the glare and blare of the USA, to the deserts of Nevada, the wilderness and sophistication of different New-York Cities, to the Russian-Ukrainian mafia, to the traffic of "oeuvres d'art", to the American middle-class whose dreams seem broken, to the lower shallows where drugs and adulterated alcohol are more usual than sleep and food, to the heights to the upper class where money is far from being the only criterion to be a member of the "caste"...
A dancing, stunning, rich, full and replete book where the loose threads of the beginning get woven together little by little to be rounded off at the end. A compelling book that went with me in the early morning, the lazy hours around tea in the afternoon, and at night when I could not sleep. But a book that left me with a hangover and a pasty taste in the mouth: why pseudo-philosophical comments as a final touch? The braid that had been woven seemed to be over-weighty and contrived by a useless load of "morale", as these fables that always carry a "preach" and lesson.
But a "tour de force".
And now, instead of coming back to my discipline and rules, as it is the week-end, I have grabbed ("encore!") another "tour de force", almost as heavy as "The Goldfinch": "The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair" by Joel Dicker. As compelling and page turning. As technically perfect. But technique shows.
I remember when I was dazzled by "The French Lieutenant's Woman" or "Possession" or "Mary Swann" or "Alias Grace" or "Fingersmith": there was a lot of technique in them but one did not see easily the seams of the various means that had been used. These I have read this week, "as my whimsey took me", are different. In a way, they look like those cold, detached, evenly lighted paintings by Edward Hopper or Norman Rockwell with a touch of Andy Warhol. They are self-possessed and this self-confidence is fascinating.
I know I shall come back to my "initial challenges" once I shall not see them as challenges anymore. Meanwhile, these books where in limbo, as my stacks cheerfully juggle with "Read", "TBR", "TBRe-Read", and colonize the house! Thus I feel virtuous in having decluttered some of them and shall perhaps go on with "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" - if I do not think of it as part of a project I have set myself to accomplish.
And the wheat turns slowly yellow, the hay is cut in one meadow, the roses have the red darkness and heady scent of wine. No more lazy clouds in the afternoons but the promise of the harsh white light of July bathe the garden and the landscape around.