Monday, October 8, 2012

The Perfect Storm: Books to Read in the Rain

There may be no more subtle pleasure than reading to the sound of a thunderstorm. Some books, however, seem particularly well suited to rainy days. I think it is a question of pacing and style - books to read in the rain ought to unfold carefully, quietly, precisely. Books for the fog and mist ought to slow you down and allow you to appreciate the unexpected capacities of language.

1. The End of the Affair, Graham Greene
The End of the Affair is a first-person account of the warped liaison between a youngish English novelist (Maurice Bendrix) and the wife of an up-and-coming civil servant (Sarah Miles). Bendrix, wracked with jealousy after the end of his own relationship with Sarah, hires a private detective to discover her new partner.

Greene's style refuses to allow language to become a character in its own right. His sentences are clean and lucid, but his intense focus on his character's psyches means that the reader is not left with Hemingway-esque sparsity. Greene's books are places whose moral temperature would wring sweat out of a polar bear. There is an air of menace in Greene's work which intensifies his windowpane prose.

2. Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
Two young girls, Ruth and Lucille, are orphaned after their mother's suicide. They are then raised by their competent grandmother, well-meaning but ineffective great aunts and, finally, by Sylvie, their physically transient and emotionally distant aunt. Ruth and Lucille respond very differently to their ephemeral caregivers, and their lives begin to diverge when Sylvie arrives. Lucille is distressed by Sylvie's room which "was just as my grandmother had left it, but the closet and the drawers were mostly empty, since Sylvie kept her clothes and even her hairbrush and toothpowder in a cardboard box under the bed. ... Such habits (she always slept clothed, at first with her shoes on, and then, after a month or two, with her shoes under her pillow) were clearly the habits of a transient.'' But the very habits that unnerve Lucille give comfort to Ruth. ''It seemed to me that if she could remain transient here, she would not have to leave.''

 Robinson is easily one of the most talented writers I have ever come across. You start off by reading slowly, and then slow down because her sentences are so beautiful, so distilled. I'll let her demonstrate:

"I hated waiting. If I had one particular complaint, it was that my life seemed composed entirely of expectation. I expected — an arrival, an explanation, an apology. There had never been one, a fact I could have accepted, were it not true that, just when I had got used to the limits and dimensions of one moment, I was expelled into the next and made to wonder again if any shapes hid in its shadows."

"Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world's true workings. The nerves and the brain are tricked, and one is left with dreams that these specters loose their hands from ours and walk away, the curve of the back and the swing of the coat so familiar as to imply that they should be permanent fixtures of the world, when in fact nothing is more perishable."

3. Waterland, Graham Swift
Tom Crick is a high school history teacher in Greenwich when the novel begins, but the narrative quickly returns us to his family's home, "a lock-keeper's cottage, by a river, in the middle of the Fens." Waterland then covers about two and a half centuries in the lives of its narrator and his ancestors. The central plot concerns Tom, his brother, a local girl named Mary, jealousy and murder. A secondary plot revolves around Tom's mother's family, the Atkinsons. Interwoven into both stories is the history of the Fens. 

Swift has described putting ink cartridges in his pen as being like loading ammunition, and this may go someway to explaining the violence that seems to define his writing. Waterland seems to teeter on the edge of fury and madness despite, or perhaps because of, Tom Crick's professorial, lecturing tone.

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