A few brief reviews to help work through some of my backlog before the end of the year!
Sunflower by Gyula Krúdy is a strange, strange novel and not in a particularly endearing way. If I hadn’t been reading it for the Eastern European Reading Challenge, I’m not sure I would have stuck with it until the end. It confirmed all of my family’s most dearly held prejudices against Hungarians. Here, they are the dramatic, suicidal, alcoholic, crazy, passionate and rather obsessive eccentrics I have been forever warned about and yet are sadly uninteresting. There are ghosts, an apparently endless supply of adulterous women, plenty of amorous men, a noble, upright country gentleman whose male ancestors going back one century have all committed suicide for love of a woman…all very peculiar. And the book is mostly concerned with character portraits of these odd people (which turn into multipage monologues, frequently describing past conquests or erotic fantasies) rather than structuring any kind of solid plot around them. Usually, that wouldn’t be a problem but here it just didn’t work for me. There were numerous passages where I loved the writing but just as many where I found it frustrating.
On the other hand, I really enjoyed Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr, which I first heard about from Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust to Go. Doerr was the recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Rome prize, which awards the winner a stipend of $1,300 US a month, an apartment, and a studio in Rome for a year. With six-month old twins and an exhausted wife in tow, Doerr moves from Boise, Idaho to Rome.
The wonder of this book is Doerr’s beautiful way of describing the details of his deeply domestic Roman life:
Every time I turn around here, I witness a miracle: wisteria pours up walls; slices of sky show through the high arches of a bell tower; water leaks nonstop from the spouts of a half-sunken marble boat in the Piazza di Spagna. A church floor looks soft as flesh; the skin from a ball of mozzarella cheese tastes rich enough to change my life.
Work on the novel Doerr had planned does not go well and though I usually love reading about an author’s writing process, I found these passages tedious. They seemed such a waste of space when Doerr excels at writing about the amazing city he finds himself in and the adventure of raising twins. I particularly loved his comments on how Romans adored and fussed over his babies:
Try this sometime: Park a stroller in the shade in Rome in the winter. Within a minute an Italian mother will stop. ‘They must be put in the sun,’ she’ll say. Once a pair of ladies took the stroller out of my hands and wheeled it thirty feet across a piazza and positioned it themselves.
I finished it desperate to run away to Rome.
In a similar vein, I also enjoyed I’ll Never Be French (no matter what I do) by Mark Greenside. In his late forties, Greenside, an American writer, went on holiday with a girlfriend to Brittany. The relationship didn’t last even the length of the trip but Greenside fell in love with the tiny village where they had been staying. Despite speaking no French and having no money, he soon finds himself, with his mother’s help, the owner of small house in the village, which he lives in when not working in America and rents out the rest of the time. The memoir touches on some of his experiences in Brittany over the years, mostly focusing on the kindness of those who Greenside interacts with and how he is humbled by his new circumstances, as an Anglophone in France, an American in Europe, and a clueless first-time homeowner.
And when it comes to reading about far away places, though Italy and France may be deemed more romantic, there is something just as alluring about Oxford, which is why I picked up Oxford Revisited by Justin Cartwright, a slim volume which mixes Cartwright’s personal memories with a very interesting history of the university. He touches on delightfully random topics, from the tutorial system to bee-keeping, and is full of quotes from and reminders of Oxford’s more famous graduates. And I love how affectionately Cartwright views the university:
From the moment I arrived at Trinity College in the mid-sixties, I was in love with Oxford. It plumped up my dry colonial heart; I loved the first autumn term, the darkness, gowned figures on bicycles, crumpets after rugby, the pale – although not very numerous – girls, the extraordinary buildings and the water running through and around the town. I felt as though I had always known the place, or some simulacrum of it, in another or parallel life.