Walking in Oxford

Last week I flew to the UK to visit an old friend who is now living in Oxford. He spent the past year travelling in Asia but got sick and had to fly home. He just made it too, as he suffered kidney failure. Although we had been in touch, I hadn’t seen him in three years, so I decided to visit. Fortunately, he’s a serious walker, an activity that is helping him regain his strength and facilitating his recovery. We spent most of our time visiting the well-tended grounds of the more famous colleges. Undoubtedly, Magdalen College, where Oscar Wilde studied, is the most beautiful.

Once inside, you can visit the stunningly beautiful deer park.

or soak up the exquisite setting.

While not quite as beautiful, Christ Church College is the most popular of the colleges because Harry Potter was filmed there.

They also have a lovely meadow that is surprisingly quiet, making it a great place to walk and reflect on one’s life. Frankly, I preferred the park.

There’s also a large park at University College that is worth visiting. I’ve been to Oxford several times, so I didn’t mind spending my time walking about with my friend and chatting. We also had a few delicious meals at the Quod Brasserie on High Street.

We actually sat at that table directly in the middle. Despite all that, my favorite place to visit is Blackwell.

A web friend who is another bibliophile had a wonderful suggestion: she proposed that Blackwell open a B&B so that guests could spend their evenings browsing the shelves at their leisure, or simply reading from the incredible selection of the world’s best books in English. Believe me, I spent quite a bit of time in that bookstore. One great find was The Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros.

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I especially like the following blurb from Verso’s website:

By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history … The freedom in walking lies in not being anyone; for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life.

Walking does provide a sense of freedom, a sense of living, or being in time. It’s not that one is trying to reach a destination; rather one can simply enjoy the feeling of the body in motion, making one’s way through life, with the mind free to go where it will. One can mull over various tidbits of life, but at the same time, perhaps because one is in motion, one can more easily let go of unwanted baggage. It’s as if the thoughts fall away into the atmosphere. There’s also real pleasure in walking in a beautiful, natural setting. At times I’m almost overwhelmed by the miracle of it all. Evidently, many of the colleges of Oxford University understands how  a green space for quiet contemplation enhances one’s education. Just think of all those famous writers like Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, W.H. Auden, Dorothy Sayers, Iris Murdoch, and Hermione Lee, who all probably rambled through these parks and across the meadows.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Leaf Storm

Leaf Storm and Other Stories is a collection composed of a novella and five short stories: The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World; A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings; Blacaman the Good, Vendor of Miracles; The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship; The Monologue of Isabel Watching It Rain in Macondo; and Nabo.

 

Leaf Storm is Marquez’s first novel, which he finished in 1955. It introduces us to the small fictional town of Macondo, located on the Caribbean coast of Columbia, and the site of other writings, most notably One Hundred Years of Solitude, for which Marquez won the Nobel Prize in 1982.

Arriving there, mingled with the human leaf storm, dragged along by its impetuous force, came the dregs of warehouses, hospitals, amusement parlors, electric plants; the dregs made up of single women and men who tied their mules to hitching posts by the hotel, carrying their single piece of baggage, a wooden trunk or a bundle of clothing, and in a few months, each had his own house, two mistresses, and the military title that was due him for having arrived late for the war. – Narrator

Marquez was heavily influenced by William Faulkner, so he uses multiple points-of-view, shifting from the child to his mother Isabel and to her father, the aging colonel. There is some overlap in the recounting of events and time also shifts, suggesting that the past is very much alive in the present, just as Faulkner demonstrates in his fiction. The title Leaf Storm refers to an economic storm, in this case it serves as a metaphor for the arrival of a banana plantation that soon dominates the town’s economy, which then collapses when the plantation moves out. While the storm is an external malevolent force that wrecks havoc on the town, the townspeople are also an extremely negative force, gossiping, judgmental and self-righteous — generally destructive — just like the folks in Faulkner’s Jefferson. This is a serious novel and, for me, lacks the notable humour of Marquez’s later work.

The conflict centers on the burial of the French doctor who has hanged himself. The theme draws on Sophocles’ Antigone as the townspeople do not want to bury him, but the colonel, who is a man of conviction and compassion, decides to do what he considers right and bury the doctor. The narrative hinges on this conflict, shifting to the various points-of-view and moving back and forth in time. The situation is implicitly compared to the leaf storm, a natural force incapable of human feeling or morality.

Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter

Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter was first published in Italian in 2006 and appeared in the English translation in 2008. It follows after Days of Abandonment and Troubling Love. The Lost Daughter opens at night on the highway with the protagonist driving alone when she feels ill and has an accident. She regains consciousness in a hospital where her friends from Florence have come to rally round her, but she can’t really say what happened. “The hardest things to talk about are the ones we ourselves can’t understand” (10). So begins this intriguing and troubling tale. Using the intimacy of the first person point-of-view, Ferrante has a way of drawing her readers in that few writers can rival. She writes of things we dare not say, some we dare not even allow ourselves to think. Evidently, I am not the only reader to feel this way. According to Booklist,

Ferrante can do a woman’s interior dialogue like no one else, with a ferocity that is shockingly honest, unnervingly blunt.

The Lost Daughter is about a divorced woman in her late forties who takes a summer vacation on the Ionian coast by herself. We soon learn that she has two daughters in their early twenties, but they now live with their father in Toronto, Canada. Once installed on the beach, she can’t help but notice a large and loud family that she identifies as Neapolitan. The beach attendant warns her that these are “bad people.” The protagonist also grew up in Naples, but now lives in Florence, where she teaches English literature at the university. She is fascinated by the beautiful young mother whose small daughter clings to her, as if for dear life. The daughter has a doll that she treats just as dearly.

Having read the first three novels in Ferrante’s tetralogy, I was struck by the family’s resemblance to Lenu and her husband and his family, only Lenu has a son, not a daughter. We also learn that the protagonist of The Lost Daughter was able to escape her early environment when, at eighteen, she left to study in Florence and readily embraced a new, middle-class identity, just as the fictional Elena does.

After a few days on the beach, the child, whom the mother calls Elena but the relatives Lenu, suddenly goes missing, so the protagonist immediately sets out to help find her. The protagonist, who remains nameless for over half of the book, recalls when she herself lost her daughter years ago. As she searches the beach, she soon finds the child who is sitting in the sand further along, crying for her mother. Elena is promptly returned to her mother, but the doll is now missing. Back in her rented apartment, we soon learn that the protagonist has inexplicably taken it. As she unwinds, she reflects on her life, on her children whom she abandoned when they were toddlers. Later, we find out that she ran off with an English professor whom she loved passionately because he valued her work, but after three years the passion subsided, so she felt the need to return to her children. This is when her husband took them and left for Canada.

Aside from the plot, much of the novella focuses on the protagonist’s ambivalence towards motherhood. Perhaps it is for this reason that many readers dislike the main character. We learn that her early marriage to a successful academic and the reality of motherhood left her feeling deprived of her own life. In addition, due to cuts at the university, her less important position was eliminated. She reflects on her mother’s traditional attitude toward the demands of child rearing, but as a modern woman cannot identify with her. It is here, when considering her own mother, that we learn her name, which is Leda. But the names of the characters frequently change due to the diminutives and the many variations that are given affectionately. However, that Leda is only named when she thinks of her maternal heritage suggests that this name is associated with her identity as a mother. As an individual, she remains nameless, not fully formed. Thus it seems that Leda is the lost daughter.

There is also a doll that is stolen early in My Brilliant Friend, and its role is significant as the person whom the children believe stole it is soon arrested for murder. However, by the end of the The Lost Daughter, Leda returns the doll and admits that she doesn’t know why she took it.

I was left wondering what the doll signifies, or rather what dolls in women’s fiction signify. They are certainly uncanny. One can think back to Ibsen’s A Doll House and more recently, Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend. Evidently, more needs to be written about the role of dolls in literature.

 

Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World

The Blazing World is the first novel I’ve read by the American writer Siri Hustvedt.

Siri Hustvedt was born February 19, 1955 in Northfield, a small town in southern Minnesota, to a Norwegian mother, Ester Vegan Hustvedt, and an American father, Lloyd  Hustvedt.

She married Paul Auster on Bloom’s Day, June 16, 1982.

In 1986, Hustvedt received her PhD from Columbia University. She wrote her dissertation on Dickens: “Figures of Dust: Language and Identity in Charles Dickens.” After finishing her doctorate, she turned to fiction and began work on her first novel, The Blindfold, two sections of which were published in literary magazines as stories and later reprinted in Best American ShortStories 1991 and 1992. The novel was published in the United States by the now defunct Poseidon Press in 1992 and was translated into seventeen languages.

 

Hustvedt has also authored a book of poetry, five other novels, two books of essays, and several works of non-fiction. Her novels include The Enchantment of Lily Dahl (1996), What I Loved (2003), for which she is best known, A Plea for Eros (2006), The Sorrows of an American (2008), The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves (2010), The Summer Without Men (2011), Living, Thinking, Looking (2012), and The Blazing World (2014). What I Loved and The Summer Without Men were international bestsellers. Her work has been translated into over thirty languages.

She has also written extensively on art.

In 1995 Karen Wright, then the publisher of Modern Painters, asked her to choose a single painting in the exhibition Johannes Vermeer at the National Gallery in Washington and to write on it. That essay “Vermeer’s Annunciation” argued for a reading of Woman with a Pearl Necklace as an Annunciation rather than a Eucharistic image and permanently altered scholarly perceptions of the image. She has continued to write about art and, in 2006, published a collection of her writing on art with Princeton Architectural Press, Mysteries of the Rectangle.

Besides the pieces in that volume, she has written catalogue essays for Richard Allen Morris, Kiki Smith, and Gerhard Richter, published essays on Louise Bourgeois and Annette Messager for The Guardian newspaper in London, and lectured at the Prado and Metropolitan Museums.

The Blazing World is about a woman artist by the name of Harriet Burden whose burden is being a woman. As a young woman she lives in New York City and manages to have a showing that is mildly successful, but she is soon forgotten and sinks firmly into the background when she marries Felix Lord, a prominent art dealer. Harriet, or Harry as she prefers to call herself, is perceived as his wife and a more or less failed artist, but really this side of her is not taken seriously. The couple have three children and when Felix dies, dear Harry is left with quite a bit of money. Still aspiring to become a recognized artist, she decides to initiate an experiment in which she gives three consecutive shows with a different male posing as the artist for each. These shows creates more of a buzz in the art world than Harry was able to achieve. Of course, this is what she expected and why she decided on the experiment in the first place. However, the third show is a huge success, so big that her proxy refuses to expose the truth, which is what Harriet had wanted from the start — to expose just how gender biased the art world is.

The novel is written from multiple points-of-view, including Harry’s.

Presented as a collection of texts compiled by a scholar years after Burden’s death, the story unfolds through extracts from her notebooks, reviews and articles, as well as testimonies from her children, her lover, a dear friend, and others more distantly connected to her. Each account is different, however, and the mysteries multiply.

For me, Harry’s comments on perception and gender were the most interesting; I just wish she had said more although her art work draws on this reality. Harry creates dolls of various sizes that are usually positioned in rooms with a variety of interiors and windows. Harry also writes about her rage and by the end of the novel, dies of cancer, surrounded by those she loves. A new age healer is also present to clean Harry’s chakras, something else that interests me. Unfortunately, the sections on the healer seem to be written with tongue in cheek. While the novel is a very smart and witty read, readers — including myself — complain about the novel lacking heart. Because of the shifting perspectives, one is not not really able to get into Harry’s skin in a way that is allows a real connection.

The title of the novel is taken from a work entitled The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World [1666] by the gifted Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, an English 17th century woman of letters and a scientist.

As described on wikipedia,

Cavendish was a poet, philosopher, writer of prose romances, essayist, and playwright who published under her own name at a time when most women writers published anonymously. Her writing addressed a number of topics, including gender, power, manners, scientific method, and philosophy. Her utopian romance, The Blazing World, is one of the earliest examples of science fiction. She is singular in having published extensively in natural philosophy and early modern science. She published over a dozen original works; inclusion of her revised works brings her total number of publications to twenty one. Cavendish has been championed and criticised as a unique and groundbreaking woman writer.

Cavendish also wrote her own memoir and expected to be criticised for doing so. She wanted later generations to have a true account of her life and hoped to achieve everlasting fame.

Whatever else one may say, Hurvedt’s The Blazing World is worth reading. I will be reading more of her.