Alberto Maguel’s A Reader on Reading (2010): I have been reading this volume (it is a kindle book), essay by essay for months after I bought this for my mother for Mothers’Day. This man is erudite and well-travelled (and old) so he actually knew writers like Jorges Luis Borges and can write about their lives and work from a personal perspective. He has fascinating things to say about the role of writers and their literature in society. After feeling quite stifled and nihilistic about literary study sometimes, this writing renews my vigour and belief in the power, importance and ineffable pleasures of sustained engagement with literary texts.
Jonathan Franzen’s novel, The Corrections (2001) manages to convey some of that literary studies claustrophobia by beginning the novel from the perspective of Chip, a disgraced literary studies lecturer. Before my non-literary readers run away screaming, let me assure you that the perspective continually shifts between Chip, his brother Gary, his mother Enid, his sister Denise and his father Alfred, who is suffering from Parkinson’s. Alfred’s passages are perhaps the most difficult to read but also the most surreal; so much so that I had a nightmare last night stemming from one of his hallucinations. Other parts of this novel are bitterly funny, sad or bitingly satirical. This is definitely worth a read.
And (to quote Monty Python) Now For Something Completely Different, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Dickens is a tricky author. He is anti-Semitic, drippingly sentimental and his characters are all clearly polarised: his good characters are angelic and his villains are very very bad. Yet his descriptions are sheer comic genius, his characterisation unforgettable and his plots twist and turn and keep you quite enthralled. Dickens, for me, is a good example of why you shouldn’t censor writers because they had prejudices nor canonise their every word and opinion.
For my final magic trick, (or final thesis chapter, which sometimes feels as if it requires similar levels of dexterity) I have been re-reading Ivan Vladislavić’s Portrait with Keys (2006). I am writing my thesis on three of his texts: The Restless Supermarket, The Exploded View and Portrait with Keys. As I write on each one, I tell myself this must be my favourite. Portrait with Keys is not a novel, but is rather a semi-autobiographical love letter to Johannesburg. It is told unflinchingly in small and not-so-small incidences of kindness and violence, revealing forgotten corners and revelling in everyday detail. I love this book because it seeps into your subconscious so that the next time you are walking or driving around what he has said will come back to you and you will have fresh realisations about ordinary things or ways of thinking you never really noticed before.
I recently watched Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris which is, among other things, about engaging with a city. I loved a line by Owen Wilson’s character,
“You know, I sometimes think, how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city. You can't. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form”.
Of course, Allen is writing about Paris or New York, and part of the beauty of those cities is that when we look at them, we are seeing them through the eyes of artists. How then should we see a city that not even many tourist brochures immortalise? I leave you with some words of Vladislavić’s to ponder. Appropriately, he is comparing his own process of writing about cities to that of Dickens, one of the authors who immortalised London:
“Dickens was blessed to live in a city that offered the walker ‘miles upon miles of streets’ in which to be lonely and ‘warm company’ at every turn once his loneliness had been satisfied. Moreover, to live in a city that collaborated enthusiastically in its own invention. I live in a city that resists imagination. Or have I misunderstood it? Is the problem that I live in a fiction that unravels even as I grasp it?”*
*Vladislavić, Ivan. Portrait with Keys: Joburg&what-what. Cape Town: Umuzi, 2006 (54)