What I’m Reading: The Little Stranger

Judging by my posts, it might appear that for the last month or so I’ve read nothing but poetry, and there is a certain amount of truth to this. I certainly spent National Poetry Month reading far more poetry than usual, and, in the middle of April, I did try to go for a while without reading any fiction, in the hopes that I’d finish a few non-fiction books I was in the middle of, and that I’d avoid purchasing more books to pack or ship home to the US. My “no-fiction” kick was an absolute disaster: within days I felt remarkably and undeniably close to misery, a douleur which only abated once I’d headed to the English-language section of the nearest FNAC and purchased several books, including King Lear. When reading King Lear cheers you up, you know something was really, really wrong. So no more breaks from fiction for me: I’m addicted, and I accept it (in fact, I embrace it, after the fashion of this “Bookaholic” post from one of my favorite literary blogs, Tales from the Reading Room).

Last week I read The Little Stranger by British author Sarah Waters. The novel was short-listed for last year’s Man Booker Prize* (it lost to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall) and Waters wrote The Night Watch, a book I read last summer which absolutely floored me with the beauty of its prose and the truth of its characters. The Night Watch is set in London, during the Blitz, while The Little Stranger is set in rural post-WWII England. The book is narrated by a doctor from Warwickshire, who reveals, in his ponderously rational, and helplessly self-conscious way, his relationship with a once grand, but now deteriorating neighborhood estate called Hundreds Hall and its inhabitants, the Ayres family.

Waters choice to narrate the novel through the voice of Doctor Farraday places, at the center of this book about deterioration and decay, a man who has effaced himself. Farraday comes from a lower class family—his mother worked as a nursery made at Hundreds Hall—and his parents sacrificed everything to put him through medical school. But success for him required that he erase his accent, his manners, and in large part his memories, or at least his attachments to them. He lives a lonely life—an aging bachelor whose hard-won status within his profession, like everything else following the war, is changing.

To me, this novel is in part about being cheated. Doctor Farraday has given up his inherited identity and worked so hard all for some dream of social ascension which is, unfortunately, inextricably linked to the crumbling manner house, and the people within it. Hundreds Hall is a remnant of an England that no longer exists, and the house itself appears as destined for complete ruin as Roderick, its young squire, who returned from the war scarred and crippled to an estate the demands the last of his youth and energy. Through Roderick and through the medical discourse Waters is able to introduce into the narrative quite naturally through Doctor Farraday and his colleagues, The Little Stranger seems to play a bit upon the accepted narrative of shell shock and PTSD, suggesting that the horrors of war may not be just “of war,” but rather horrors, more generally. Horrors of humanity. The divide between rationality and irrationality and between sanity and insanity is  maintained—defensively and at great cost—by Farraday, even as the world around him becomes murkier and murkier and he himself becomes more and more entrenched in the spooky and unnatural happenings at Hundreds Hall.

Sarah Waters is a really gifted writer, and she brings alive historical settings in a way that I imagine is both indicative of her talent and of an immense amount of research. This book is long, and though some sections seemed to drag on a little slowly, I read the novel quickly and easily. Some of Waters’ descriptions are stunning and unsettling in their precision, and I think in its best moments this book manages to be both forceful and subtle at the same time, which is not an easy feat.

I recently saw a production of Macbeth at the Globe, and being a huge geek I attended an introductory lecture by a Cambridge professor beforehand. She quoted several people (including I think Charles Lamb and Oscar Wilde) who have said that it is nearly impossible to stage Macbeth in a way that does the suspenseful intensity of the text justice, because people no longer believe in witches. In the age of Hollywood mega-thrillers, with loads of violence and the inevitable (and therefore often predictable) “final twist,” something similar, I suppose, could be said of ghosts and ghost stories. But Waters’ haunting of Hundreds Hall in The Little Stranger becomes all the more sinister in that it isn’t overdone. The suggestions of something malevolent and supernatural are clear, but they are only suggestions—dark possibilities so hauntingly human as to out—terrifying even the most vindictive of phantom forces. As Water’s subtly underscores with The Little Stranger‘s final image, our ghosts are all the more haunting in their ambiguity, especially when we recognize in them ghastly but genuine reflections of ourselves.

*The Man Booker Prize is awarded each year to the best novel–as voted upon by a panel of judges–written by a writer who is a citizen of the British Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.

If you liked The Little Stranger: I really enjoyed Waters’ novel The Night Watch, which is set in the wartime London of the 1940s. For something more in the “ghostly” vein, try Shirley Jackson or Edgar Allen Poe, or of course Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

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National Poetry Month!

It’s terrifying, but true: tomorrow is the first day of the fourth month of 2010. But even though it’s shocking and a little bit horrible to think how much of the year has already passed us by, there is plenty to be happy about in April, because even if it is the cruellest month, it is also National Poetry Month! And poetry is definitely something worthy of  a month-long, full-throated and vigorous celebration.

If you’re lacking festive thoughts about how to make poetry a joyous part of the next thirty days, don’t worry! I’ve got a few ideas for you.

First, you can subscribe to the  Poem-A-Day email list offered by poets. org, by clicking here and entering your email address. Then you will magically become, at some point tomorrow morning (or at whatever point in the month you manage to sign up) the proud recipient of many poems, delivered swiftly and silently to your inbox, every single day.

I know a poem a day might sound like a lot…it might sound like a daunting task, a wretched bother, or an awfully grand responsibility, but I urge you to sign up anyways, and try it! You might be surprised how much you enjoy having poetry flooding into your inbox. And even if only one poem out of the thirty really impresses you and takes up permanent residence in your brain, I’m willing to bet you that one will be worth the time you spent skimming the other 29.

Another method of enjoying National Poetry Month would be to actually buy a book of poetry–any book of poetry. A classic, an anthology, some children’s poetry or the one which the snazzy red-and-orange-glossy-spatter-painted cover that you catch out of the corner of your eye while standing in your usual spot in front of the fiction shelves.

Buying the book is a great start, but actually reading it is even better. And when you read, try as best you can to take your time, whatever kind of time that may be. Read as quickly or as slowly as you like, pause, reverse, skip ahead. If you don’t have any time that can be “taken,” try fitting poetry into some already-designated period of your day. Read on the metro, or while you eat lunch. Read out loud to a friend,  to your dog, or to your ceiling.

If you buy a book, open it, and suddenly feel overwhelmed, remember that you have a the whole month (and then, of course, the rest of your life) to read it, so there’s no pressure. (It’s not like the Poetry seminar I took my sophomore year which left me bleeding from the eyes after hundreds–literally hundreds–of pages of confessional poetry in a single evening)

If you happen to have some poetry lying around the house, hidden on a bookshelf behind the His Dark Materials trilogy or nearly forgotten in the basement beside a dead potted plant you couldn’t bring yourself to throw away, dig the book(s) out, dust it off, take into a sunny room (if you get some sun in April, which I hope you do) and read it.

If it’s the reading part that gives you trouble, and not the poetry part, there are lots of other ways to experience poetry. The internet is replete with audio and video versions of famous (and not-so-famous) poems, like this  YouTube adaption of Catullus’ “Poem 5,” Tim Burton’s “Vincent” featuring a version of Poe’s “The Raven,” presentations of poetry readings like this one, with Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, and free audio downloads of Billy Collins reading his own poetry, available from his website, here.

If you try this and want more, try looking up “Poetry Aloud” on Itunes or at your local bookstore, or better yet, check out bookshop and library bulletin boards or your local paper to see if there are any poetry readings coming to your area. I’ve heard tell that at poetry readings, one gets to see real live poets, a species not often spotted (or at least not often cornered)  in the wild.

Another option for celebrating National Poetry Month is to write some of your own poetry. If you’re feeling classically ambitious, start a sonnet; feeling gloomy? perhaps an elegy; feeling concisely profound, then opt for the haiku. Or just try jotting down a few lines on a napkin, scribbling on the back of a recently returned exam, or painting some thoughts onto the walls of your room. I’d urge you, however, to wait at least until next year before getting any tattoos.

Whatever you do in April, I hope you read a bit more poetry than usual, and that you really enjoy reading it, too. You can be sure that I’m going to be celebrating a great deal on my own, and thus you can expect an outpouring of (i.e. several) lovely poetry-oriented posts in the coming weeks.

I leave you with this poem, called “Sound and Structure,” by Barbara Guest. I’ve been mulling over for a few days now and I’m not sure I really understand it yet. But that’s okay, because I’ve got the whole month of April to figure it out.

“Sound leads to structure.” Schöberg.

On this dry prepared path walk heavy feet.
This is not “dinner music.” This is a power structure.
heavy as eyelids.
Beams are laid. The master cuts music for the future.

Sound lays the structure. Sound leaks into the future.

~ Barbara Guest