Books, again

The reading goes on. Always.

Diana Athill’s Life Class is four of her memoirs in one book. The last one, Somewhere Towards the End, written when she was 89, is a riff on aging. How about this for a sentence: “What dies is not a life’s value, but the worn-out (or damaged) container of the self, together with the self’s awareness of the itself: away that goes into nothing, with everyone else’s.” (page 667)

She makes many references to her “secret sin,” which she calls laziness and which I thought more of a disinclination to do things she didn’t like doing. Is that laziness? I suppose, as so often, it depends.

How about this —

“…when men form ideas about God, creation, eternity, they are making no more sense in relation to what lies beyond the range of their comprehension than the cheeping of sparrows. And given that the universe continues to be what it is, reagardless of what we believe, and what it is will always continue to be the condition of our existence, why should the thought of our smallness in it be boring … or, for that matter, frightening?” (page 579)

She manages to be very self-revealing without telling anything much about anyone else—not her tales to tell, she says somewhere—except the subjects of some chapters about her life in publishing as an editor. The Jean Rhys chapter made put Smile Please in my pile of books to take away with me.

Along with nearly everyone else, I think Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad is fabulous. (Steve Braunias, on a television book show thought it a failure of a book.)

After the Wall by Jana Hensel is a book I read only because a friend from our school days here in New Zealand in the 1950s, who has lived in Berlin for many years, sent it to me. It’s a story – a memoir, I guess, by a woman who was 13 in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. She spent her childhood in the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) of East Germany, in a Young Pioneer group, among what she calls, “cheerful propaganda.” Then her generation was expected to forget all that and be assimilated into the western world of Germany at large. Her and her friends’ parents stay put and become unemployed and disappointed. “They hadn’t marched through the streets [in 1989] for the way things were now.” And Jana Hensel’s generation have lost a sense of their origins because, “we soon forgot what everyday life in the GDR was like with all its unheroic moments and ordinary days.” It’s a poignant and moving story.

I chose Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness for our book group. After reading the first story, “Dimensions” I was again in awe of her writing. Yet the story was so bleak I could barely bring myself to read on. Others in the book group found the view of humanity too bleak for their taste, and one loved the writing and the insights into people who live through what life throws at them as best they can.

Munro can pack a lot into a sentence. Here’s just one example: “The two women were not particular friends, but they were cordial about clothesline arrangements.”

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