Friday, October 21, 2011

Voracious reading

If you had come looking for me lately, chances are you would have found me curled up in bed, pouring over a book. Actually the location doesn't matter- I would make a nest anywhere comfortable where I could easily hold the story open and forget myself amongst the printed words.

First, I read 'The Tiger's Wife' for the Irregular Bookclub I'm in, the club that meets whenever we've all read the book (or, at least enough of it to have something to say about it between mouthfuls of cheese, pastries and red wine) and that was a savage, swift experience. I ripped through it, made impatient by the glimpses of answers the narrator would tease us with before whisking us back into her labyrinthine world where folktales had legs and lungs, doctors followed ghosts uphill and gypsies hunted for ancestral bones in the orchard. For the most part, I enjoyed it very much- I relish stories that relish stories, if you know what I mean. The ending was frustratingly obtuse, but that's a quibble over a book that kept me flicking back pages to see how she had turned me upside down without me noticing her sleight of hand.

But then I saw the film 'Jane Eyre', which finally achieved limited release in Australia, and it filled me with a furious need to snatch my copy to me and drink it in again. Mine was originally my mum's, awarded to her when she was at school, and it boasts a green cardboard cover, stiff but soft to the touch, painted with miniatures of Miss Ingram (front cover) and Rochester (back cover.) It originally came in a box with a big portrait of Jane on the front but that got dog eared, careworn and eventually crumbled, whereupon I rescued the novel and now lament that awful Blanche Ingram's is the face I have to see every time I pull it towards me.

'Jane Eyre' is the kind of paradoxical book that whisks you up immediately but also demands to be savoured. So restrained, so passionate this heroine, that sucking it down in one draught would be to miss her shadow and light. So I buckled up under covers and slowly revisited Lowood School, Morton, the vast Thornfield Hall and most of all, the wild moors of Jane's own life, and reader! (Disclaimer: whenever I read a book written by a Bronte or an Austen, my language and even my sentence structure gently shifts to assume the cadence of the characters. I notice it in how I have been composing emails and I have to rewrite them before I send lest I say to a good friend, 'it has warmed my heart to see you so frequently of late, dearest L----') So many things struck me about this book, but I think the most interesting thing for me this time around was the prevalent Christianity at work in the story.

Charlotte Bronte's faith is writ large throughout the novel ('writ large'- I told you my language changes!) It makes me wonder what modern, Bronte-loving atheists do with the beliefs she accords her characters. Would a non-believing reader be sympathetic to Jane's motives for leaving Rochester? She is convicted that it would be wrong in God's eyes to stay with him after finding out about his wife, lest she be overcome by her love for him and agree to be his mistress. By leaving, she walks into destitution and poverty, must start again from scratch and deny her heart- her solace being that she has chosen the 'right' path, and she thanks God for the strength and blessing she enjoys as a result of being obedient to his will (her ascription.) The faith that permeates the novel- that God has mercy as equally given as his judgement, that to follow him is of paramount importance, that strength of character, honesty, charity, mercy (in the novel, flowing from faith) are infinitely more valuable than beauty, wealth, social prestige- or even, unforgiveness- and even the theological debate implicit in it (Bronte takes on Calvinism, and challenges what it truly is to be Christian in the St. John vs. Jane chapters) is quite extraordinary, and it's a rare modern novel that could so faithfully depict such complex themes. 

Interestingly, Jane doesn't unjustly judge people who wrong her but has compassion on their iniquities. You could argue that all of the characters are Christian by default, living in the England that they do, where going to church was as much a social as a spiritual obligation. But the novel is full of characters who might claim that title for themselves but act in a decidedly unloving way- her aunt Mead and cousins, her benefactor uncle who would not forgive his brother, even on his deathbed, and even St. John, who wants to be a missionary, but is so furiously fixed in his belief that he alone can decipher the will of God that he has more in common with a Pharisee than someone reoriented to the loving heart of God. (Am I making you uncomfortable? Soz.) Arguably, Jane is the model of Christianity we warm to- forgiving those who have harmed and abused her, compassionate in love but clinging to her faith, even though doing so will cause her to sacrifice everything she holds dear.

I guess what I could draw from this is that books speak to people differently, and different messages sing out alongside the stories themselves every time they're read. What struck me so strongly this time has never struck me like that before- other readings have left me gasping at the tenacity of Jane's character or the perplexity that is Rochester's. It's a magnificent book, though- I kind of wish I hadn't finished it, so I could keep walking through it.

And now for something completely different: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I am late to the party, it having been awarded the Pulitzer in 2002 which was light years ago in fancy literary circles. We are not in a fancy literary circle, however, so I am luxuriating in it without compunction. A woman who sat down next to me on the bus on Monday leaned over and said, 'I loved that book.' I grinned at her, 'it's good, isn't it?' to which she fervently replied, 'it's great.' I love a book that compels strangers to chat. And I love a book that draws you in so rapidly that all of a sudden you're elbowing Lefty over to his side of the bed and helping Desdemona pin up the blanket that hangs between Theodora and Milton, reminding her of her own blanket and how well that worked and shouldn't we maybe try something else to keep them apart?

I'm swilling bootleg hooch in the Zebra Room, painfully conscious of Desdemona sitting upstairs at the kitchen table, my fingernails are gouging into the edges of my car seat as Zizmo manaically veers the car across the frozen lake, screaming, and I'm anxious for these characters. I'm careful for them. I love how Eugenides doesn't judge them, how he is tender and fair and sly. It might be a good one for the Irregular Bookclub, in fact, but before we get there I must finish this stunner and then inhale 'The Line of Beauty' (talking of being behind the 8-ball.) Are you reading anything gripping at the moment? Do tell.


  1. I've been re-reading a few books lately (that way I don't lose out, or feel deprived, if I have to put them down to do work): The Surgeon of Crowthorne, The War of the Worlds, and The Big Sleep. Nothing earth-shattering (although I do recommend the first, if you haven't already read it).

    Of language-changes: That's why I don't watch too much Deadwood before I go anywhere; my entire sentence structure changes, and the swear count goes waaaaay up.

  2. I loved The Big Sleep! Will defs check out the first too, though. 'The swear count', love it- not a problem with Jane Eyre but a hazard of 'The Big Sleep' might be talking about cats with gats and dames with a sleepy look in their eye...