But first, a little discussion
As it is still winter, and the upcoming trip to sunny Cape Town is two weeks away, all I have is listening and looking for hints of spring. Signs are here, in the garden, and in the birds, but with endless rain and clouds I am still inside with fiction.
When I’m not binging on streamed serials, I am reading several books. The two that have captured me lately have similarities you wouldn’t expect, because they were written approximately 100 years apart.
Up till now, the only novel, or rather novella, by Henry James that I had read is The Turn of the Screw; I was brought around to it through film, of course: The Innocents starring a wonderfully neurotic Deborah Kerr, and a remake some years later with the equally nervous Jodhi May. There have been others, that I’m certain are equally polished and starring a number of accomplished British actors.
I got to The Portrait of a Lady by way of an NPR interview of John Banville, an Irish writer of both mysteries and literature, whom I had never heard of before.
“”It was years ago my wife said to me, ‘Look why don’t you write the second half of The Portrait Of A Lady?’ At the time I thought, ‘No, it would be like feeding on the carcass of a lion,'” Banville says. “But then, I guess, last year I needed a change of direction.””.
There’s much to be learned in the conversation and style of 19th century writers. Isabel Archer Osmond is a young American girl sent to England to live with wealthy American relatives. The story of how society and expectation lead her to a soft unhappiness, is long and elaborately written, following Isabel from England to Italy. I’ve stayed with the dense prose because Isabel has grabbed me, and I am ever hopeful, as are all modern day readers of fiction focusing on the challenges of being female, that she will triumph in the end. But I haven’t finished the book yet.
The other book I’m into now is also dense, and elaborate, and complex, but the subject matter is entirely different. This one is about spies, always a tasty read. The Soul of Viktor Tronko by David Quammen is a book that’s been lying around our house for years. My husband read it with pleasure. Looking at my pile of what-is-to-be-read-next, nothing would suit except for a good, juicy mystery or spy novel. Written in 1987, by another author I had never heard of and certainly wouldn’t have heard of in 1987 with any interest, this book follows the incidents of several days in 1987, tied to machinations of the CIA and the KGB long after World War II. The central character is a reporter who suffers through and records long, and occasionally perilous interviews with ex-CIA spooks and researchers. Like James, Quammen’s characters are peeled back like onions in long unbroken paragraphs. Both books are rampant with themes of lies and misdirection. For James, it’s the lies characters tell themselves and for Quammen it’s the lies they tell others.