If You Could Save Only Eight Books… Part Three

2 Dec

And so we come to the second guest to take up my challenge of saving just eight books from her collection, Mari Biella. Mari is another of those people who seems always to have been writing. “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing in one way or another,” she tells me, “and my mother still has a number of embarrassing childhood poems and stories to prove it! However, I began writing seriously and consistently in my early twenties.” So what has she produced in this time? Mostly ‘honourable failures’ she says. “Projects that never really worked out, and were eventually abandoned. However, I’ve written one novel, The Quickening, and am putting the finishing touches to a collection consisting of a novella (see interviewer’s comment below) and three short stories.”

One quality that my interviewees have in common when it comes to writing is a generosity of spirit. And so Mari has very kindly read and commented on the manuscripts for my war novel and a novella that I wrote a while back. She has also read the final draft of the sampler of my work, Jamboree Bag (as has Lauren Sapala). And I’ve had the privilege to read the novella to which she is currently putting the finishing touches. I found it  a compulsive read. The idea is haunting, the characters memorable and the writing beautiful. Mari has a pleasing formality of style. It’s definitely a work that deserves to reach a wide audience. You can catch a flavour of her writing over at maribiella.wordpress.com.

Her approach to writing is practical and non-doctrinaire. “I like to experiment with different styles, subjects and genres,” she says. “I don’t have one distinct voice, but many voices. I write in the quietest corner of the house, whenever I can get away from the demands made by the day job and the dog.” As for the future, Mari says that she wants to “keep writing, keep trying, and become the best writer I can possibly be.” You can’t argue with that.

Mari says that she was initially influenced by the great Victorian novelists in her late teens and early twenties, reading them obsessively. And now? “The writers who have influenced me most profoundly include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Graham Greene, Jean Rhys and Joseph Conrad.” What about her choices, then?

My initial premise, based on a passage from my work-in-progress was this – if you had to leave your home in a hurry and could save only eight of those books, which ones would they be? The exercise leaves Mari unnerved. “It’s a question to make a bibliophile quiver. Just eight? How could I possibly choose just eight, and leave all the others behind?” Ah, but that’s the point! “It’s an interesting hypothetical exercise,” she concedes, “forcing you to select the books that have meant most to you: the books that have influenced you, changed your perspective, inspired and perhaps even dismayed you. The books that crept into your mind, took hold of it, and refused to leave. The kind of books, in short, that might help to sustain you in a period of exile.” And as with Lauren’s choice, there are two books on Mari’s list that would have made it onto mine, had I been in a different mood when I compiled it.

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Mari takes us on a magic carpet ride through her choices

One of the books that I’d instinctively grasp would, I think, be Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. This slender volume is more than a prequel to Jane Eyre: it’s a reimagining of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel, focusing on the marginal (and marginalised) character of the ‘madwoman in the attic’, Rochester’s first wife Bertha Mason. Rhys restores Bertha’s humanity and voice, retelling the story of her catastrophic trajectory from the bright but ill-starred Antoinette Cosway to the deranged Mrs Rochester.

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, for all its efforts to represent outsiders – orphans, women, the dispossessed – also echoes the voice of the dominant Victorian ethos. In Wide Sargasso Sea, however, the moral earnestness and clear Victorian story arc of Brontë’s novel are traded for a shifting version of reality, recounted in lush patois. European narrative and rationalism are replaced by Voodoo. This is more than just a tragic love story: it’s also a meditation on the disastrous possibilities latent in personal relationships, on belonging and alienation, and on Europe’s disastrous relations with its colonies.

Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair is another story of ill-fated love. A heady brew of passion, loss, jealousy and Catholicism, it is set against the backdrop of war-torn London, and concerns the adulterous love affair between writer Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles, who is married to a dull but dependable Civil Servant. God has no business being involved in this seething love triangle, but one night – following an air raid, and Sarah’s desperate prayer that Bendrix’s life be spared – He is suddenly, unshakably there. And He won’t shift, with the result that much of the story is acted out in the queasy borderlands between sexual and religious passion. Arguably the novel is less about love than Bendrix’s search for his soul, and his journey from denying God to acknowledging Him, albeit grudgingly: ‘I hate you, God. I hate you as though you actually exist.’ And yet it really is about love, too: love in all its splendour and squalor. Love that doesn’t shy away from its flipside, hate.

Love, hate and betrayal also figure prominently in my next choice, John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which is an antidote to every absurd Bond film ever made. George Smiley, le Carré’s fictional spymaster, doesn’t engage in high-speed powerboat chases or similarly unfeasible stunts; instead, he locks himself away in grimy London hotels and thinks. Far from being a Casanova, he’s a cuckold, and a notorious one at that; everyone seems to know about his wife’s infidelities. Instead of having a Bond girl, he has the sharp, brilliant, pitiful Connie Sachs. His nemesis is not a cackling, deranged Bond villain, but the enigmatic, unknowable Karla. And instead of the simplistic, black-and-white moral universe of Bond, there is a treacherous world of shifting loyalties, shaky principles and moral variables.

Another treacherous world is evoked in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. On the surface, the novella resembles a classic haunted house tale: there is a lonely mansion, and a secret from the past that refuses to die. What makes The Turn of the Screw different is that the mystery here exists on two distinct levels. There is the question of what is happening in the house, primarily as it relates to the governess-narrator’s two young charges; there is also the no less urgent question of what is happening in the governess’s own mind. Is she a heroine, fighting to protect her pupils from an evil presence? Or is she an unbalanced, troubled woman, projecting her internal psychosexual drama onto the blank screen of her surroundings? Is it the house that is haunted, or her mind, or both?

Riddles also abound in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. A brief summary of the plot (if a plot so dense and multi-layered can be summarised) might provoke some rolling eyes and weary sighs. Ancient conspiracies involving the occult, secret societies, and the ubiquitous Knights Templar? How very Dan Brown! However, in Foucault’s Pendulum, the conspiracy exists as a plot device rather than a serious proposition; in fact, the novel may be viewed as a satire of outlandish conspiracy theories. Every last scintilla of Eco’s considerable erudition is employed here, making for a plot so tangled that Anthony Burgess famously remarked that it needed an index. It’s not for everyone; indeed, I’ve known a few people who’ve thrown it across the room, figuratively speaking (probably).

From the fantastic to the all-too-ordinary … Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road is a tale of a suburban marriage, squandered dreams, and disappointment. Frank and April Wheeler, once bright young things, are trapped in a bland, boring existence in a Connecticut suburb. This is especially painful for a couple who want to believe that they are true revolutionaries, forever questioning the assumptions and attitudes of their more conservative neighbours, but who ultimately have to face the possibility that they’re really just like everyone else. Their bid to escape, based on the common (and commonly mistaken) belief that redemption, greatness and happiness are just around the corner, leads to their ultimate, terrible tragedy.

Several shared themes link Revolutionary Road with another candidate for the title of ‘the Great American Novel’, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s tale is another unnerving exploration of the American Dream, as well as a parable about the capitalist dream-nightmare and the excesses of the Jazz Age. In Jay Gatsby’s glittering world, God and Mammon have become inextricably entwined; his romantic and spiritual yearnings are played out on a starkly materialistic level. The dream is unworthy of the dreamer – a common predicament, and one that makes The Great Gatsby, though set in a certain time and milieu, universal in its relevance and power. The novella is also about the contrast between America’s pioneering past and mercenary present, and an ode to its undying optimism.

With my eighth choice, I feel like I’ve come full circle. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is, like Wide Sargasso Sea, a meditation on colonialism. Yet Marlow’s journey into the ‘dark heart’ of Africa is also something far more frightening: an exploration of the dark heart of humanity. Barbarism and civilisation, racism and Imperialism, all come in for scrutiny in the novella’s pages. The mysterious Kurtz, whose ostensible purpose was to bring civilisation to Africans, turns out to be not just a madman, but a cruel one: ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’ The common notion of the time – of Europeans bringing light into Africa’s dark heart – is turned on its head: the Europeans have brought the darkness (‘The horror! The horror!’) into Africa with them.

So there you have it, another fascinating set of choices and yet more titles to add to those Christmas lists. I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to Mari for taking the time and trouble to participate in my exercise and for submitting herself to my questioning. Happy reading!

Photo © Mari Biella 2013

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4 Responses to “If You Could Save Only Eight Books… Part Three”

  1. Mari Biella December 7, 2013 at 6:00 am #

    Thanks for this, Paul – I really enjoyed participating. And thanks for your kind comments, too!

  2. Mari Biella December 7, 2013 at 6:03 am #

    Reblogged this on maribiella and commented:
    From my friend Paul Sutton Reeves’s blog: the eight books I’d save if I had to leave home in a hurry.

  3. Paul Sutton Reeves December 7, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

    It was my pleasure, Mari. Thanks very much for taking the time to choose your books and share them with me.

  4. imageoftheheart December 10, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

    I will have to check out the book about the the madwomen in the attic from Jane Eyre. That sounds intriguing!

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