I thought that I hadn’t read much in March but looking back on the month’s reading I’m quite amazed with how much I did manage to read. I’m pleased that there was quite a bit of variety as well, which is something I always strive for even if I feel that I quite often fail. Now, one of my missions for 2015 is to get the fiction/non-fiction balance back to a level that I feel is right, which is about 60/40 in favour of fiction. I find if I read too much fiction I don’t feel as if I’m reading enough serious stuff, whilst if I read too much non-fiction then I’m not reading enough ‘fun’ stuff.
So, one of the non-fiction books I read recently was Joe Moran’s On Roads: A Hidden History. This was a giveaway from Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings following Karen’s review from the end of last year. It was a book that I wasn’t aware of until I read Karen’s review but it was a thoroughly enjoyable read. I have to say though that both the cover and the title are a bit misleading; the cover shows a quaint country road through a Tellytubby-style land and the title, On Roads suggests quite a broad topic, but the book is mostly concerned with the development and cultural impact of motorways in Britain. A much more suitable cover would have been a jammed-up motorway or an overhead shot of a spaghetti junction. However, Moran covers a lot of ground; I particularly liked the part on the battle over which fonts were to be used on the motorway signs, and the part on the service station food. Other topics include roadkill, the flora and fauna alongside the motorway, road protests, the M1, the M25, Eddie Stobart, road-rage etc. I love these types of books that concentrate on aspects of life that we don’t often consider worthy being the topic of a book; a few years ago I read a brilliant book on the London Underground system by Christian Wolmar called The Subterranean Railway which was a real ‘eye-opener’. One criticism of On Roads was that there seemed to be little overall structure to the book as Moran seems to meander from one topic to another – but maybe that’s a small price to pay for a very enjoyable and readable book.
I’m also hoping to read some books by Stefan Zweig this year and so with that in mind I thought I’d read his book on Casanova called Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture. This wasn’t a totally random decision as I’m now seriously considering reading Casanova’s memoirs – yes, I mean the full twelve volumes (published in six volumes), the full 4,000 or so pages. It’s been at the back of my mind for about twenty years but I’ve never quite got to the position where I’m seriously considering it – until now. I quite like these ‘big reading projects’ and in recent years I’ve read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Joyce’s Ulysses and, of course, Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, whilst in the past I’ve read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as well as the Holy Bible. I think my experience of reading Proust will be particularly useful in tackling Casanova – I have always been a bit cautious about reading Casanova in full because I felt that it must get a bit wearisome reading page after page on the same topic; but, if I can cope with, and enjoy, Proust doing just that, then I see no reason why I shouldn’t enjoy Casanova. Have you read any, or all, of Casanova’s memoirs?
So, the Zweig book is an interesting little book. At first one gets the feeling that Zweig disapproves of Casanova being taken seriously as a literary figure; on the first page Zweig states that Casanova’s ‘rank as imaginative writer is as questionable as his invented title of nobility…’ but by the end of the book Zweig admits that Casanova ‘has proved that one may write the most amusing story in the world without being a novelist, and may give the most admirable picture of the time without being a historian…’ Zweig describes Casanova as a curious human being in that he was an adventurer, a sensualist who did not have the inclination to settle down to work when there was fun to be had, and yet in his old age, when he had little else to keep himself amused, he had the literary power and memory to relive all his past ‘glories’ and set them down for posterity, albeit with no guarantee that they would ever see print.
Zweig describes Casanova as an amoral sensualist, a serial lover with an inability to form a long-term relationship, he’s a cardsharp, a gambler who rarely thinks of the consequences of his actions. But he’s not evil, he’s not a Machiavellian schemer and he doesn’t cynically seduce women for his own ends. He truly loves women, and not just the beautiful. Zweig explains Casanova’s ‘powers’:
The hidden passion in women’s own blood responds to this fierce passion of the male animal, to the tremendous ardour of the opposite sex. They let him take possession of them because he is fully possessed by them; they fall to him because he has fallen to them…Intuitively they feel that here at length they have encountered one to whom nothing is more important than woman.
Zweig points out the difference between Casanova and the Don Juan type. Don Juan is interested in conquering women and sadistically discarding them when they’re no longer of any use to him, he’s manipulative and interested in the ‘hunt’, whereas Casanova is a pleasure-seeker and pleasure for Casanova is a two-way process.
This is one I picked up at my local library. I’ve been meaning to read some of Thomas Ligotti’s work for a little while now, especially one of his short story collections such as Teatro Grottesco or Songs of a Dead Dreamer but this one sounded interesting from the blurb. It consists of three stories but the title story forms the main part of the book. The subtitle, Three Tales of Corporate Horror is a good description of what the stories are about. The story My Work Is Not Yet Done is an extreme tale of revenge; Frank Dominio, a junior manager, feels that he’s being persecuted at work by the other managers. Is he just paranoid? Well, apparently not, as he gets pushed in to a dead-end project and some work goes missing, thereby giving his new boss a reason to sack him. So what’s the obvious course of action now? Yes, that’s right – to buy some guns and knives and to seek revenge. At this point it appears that the narrative will follow a well-worn path and this is why Ligotti decides to deliberately mix things up at this stage of the story; yes, Frank begins a series of gory revenge attacks on his ex work colleagues that he ‘suspects’ were behind the plot against him but he seems to be possessed by some demonic force which allows him to be really cruel and evade capture. But is he powerful enough to tackle his ex-boss, Richard? And what’s really going on? The ending is unexpected but also satisfying in a strange way. I really liked Ligotti’s mix of grim horror and equally grim humour and will certainly read more of his work.
I also read E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr but still hope to write a separate post for that book.