New Shoes

It isn’t very often that I put on a new pair of running shoes. I started my last pair of shoes on 30 September 2010. Between then and May 2013 I ran approximately 1075.5 km, or 668.28 miles, or roughly 25.5 marathons. Over 32 months that really isn’t all that much, I suppose. But it felt, at times, like a fair bit to me.

According to a number of sites on the Internet, I should have changed shoes after about 400 miles. I’ll have to keep an eye on that. Perhaps a two-year maximum ought to be my goal.

Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay

Sometimes the characters a writer pursues take on a seeming life of their own, wresting control of a tale from the hand that holds the pen. In Alone in the Classroom, the narrator, Anne, sets out to write about her mother but gets diverted into the lives of her father’s older sister, Connie, an unsettling sexual predator named Parley, a traumatized dyslexic boy named Michael, and the disturbing events that tie them together over the course of more than sixty years. Anne’s mother still appears but she has become a minor character, and ultimately what sets out as biography reveals itself as autobiography. Or maybe that is always the case in some respect. And, if so, does it have its analog in fiction? Has Elizabeth Hay, herself, suffered the same befuddling as her narrator? Certainly the results here appear jumbled, moving forward (or back) in fits and starts. What appears to be the centre of the story collapses or suddenly shifts out of sight. As the details begin to emerge, connections between characters become clearer but their significance is obscured. And what you are left with is the muddled mess of lives lived. Only a writer with the expressive power and observational talent of a fine poet could turn such a muddle into a compelling narrative. A writer like Elizabeth Hay.

The story turns on the relationship between Connie, who is 18 in her first teaching post in a small town in Saskatchewan, her sadistic and frighteningly self-absorbed school principal, Parley, and the severely dyslexic (at the time dyslexia is not a recognized condition) student, Michael, who is, in Connie’s eyes, clearly intelligent and sensitive. Both in this initial encounter and when Connie crosses paths with Parley again eight years later, Connie’s strength and Parley’s weakness are revealed. But the tripartite construction continues to re-emerge again and again, in different forms and often with different participants. What does it all mean? For Anne, the narrator imposing narrative order on disordered lives, its significance is rich. But Anne’s need for order is just a further hue for Hay’s palette, so the meaning for the reader remains open.

Writing that so faithfully brings its characters to life, escaping the simplifying tendency of art will, I think, naturally be at times confusing. At least I was confused at times. Certainly this writing forces the reader to slow down, to work things out, to make connections, even to reread sections. (I wanted to reread the book from the start numerous times as I went along, realizing that I had missed vital aspects on my first pass.) It’s like the difference between reading a longhand letter from a dear friend and a scrabbled email; the former gives you pause, gladly. Elizabeth Hay’s writing gives me pause. Highly recommended.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

A novel that deserves and demands the full attention of the reader, it is hardly surprising that To the Lighthouse might be described as a novel of and about attention. As the narration flits between Mrs Ramsay and her husband, their eight children, and their numerous guests all gathered at the Ramsay summer house on a Hebridean island, one thought leads to another, one observation spills into the next, one emotion peaks and subsides as another peaks and subsides like the waves endlessly rolling in upon the shore. And then there is the question of lighthouse on a crag of rock across the bay, whose light pierces the summer house and its inhabitants, ceaselessly. Will James, the youngest Ramsay, be taken to the lighthouse the following day?

If Mrs Dalloway is the quintessential stream-of-consciousness novel, then Woolf’s next novel, To the Lighthouse, must surely be the start of something new, something even more intense, more challenging. Attention, or perhaps perception would be a better term, or even, as Lily Briscoe terms it “vision”, is the challenge. For it seems clear that it is almost impossible to really see someone, anyone. Even Mrs Ramsay, who is as much the centre of all that is as anyone could be, even for her, Lily thinks, it would take at least fifty pairs of eyes. And yet, the wonder of it is, that for some—the poet Augustus Carmichael, the painter Lily Briscoe, even the still beautiful wife and mother, Mrs Ramsay—the thing itself can be achieved. And it is an achievement when it comes. Even though it may disappear as quickly as it came.

If you are willing to engage with this novel fully, if you can focus your attention sufficiently (don’t be surprised if you find you need to read it in small chunks), if you let the consciousness of the novel guide you as it sparkles across the minds of those characters arrayed before you, then this novel will repay your effort manifold. If not, then set it aside for a few years and try again later. It’s worth it. Highly recommended.

Women with Men by Richard Ford

The three lengthy short stories in this collection have all the hallmarks of Ford’s early brilliance as well as his middle period introspective anxiety. His writing is never less than compelling, at times thought provoking, and at others unsettling. He has a remarkable ability to turn a story on a dime, either through external events or through misplaced introspection. Yet these shifts never seem extraordinary once they have occurred. The reader just accepts them, possibly even saying to themselves, “that’s what I was expecting all along.” And then another shift takes you off in a different direction.

“Jealous” is set in Montana and feels like an extension of the stories in Ford’s first collection, Rock Springs. The bleak landscape, lives lived on the edge—the edge of despair, alcoholism, and violence—family disruption, and the transition to manhood. It’s all there. Here the narrator, a boy of 17, is a touchstone for the other characters—his father, his aunt, his absent mother. Both a means to highlight their stories and their sadness, and to reflect that back onto the vast emptiness of the prairie.

Depending on the Ford you prefer, “The Womanizer” may appeal more. Here is the Ford of the Frank Bascombe trilogy. In this case, the protagonist is a man in Paris for a few days. He is intelligent, in his way. He is worldly, unafraid to partake of opportunities that arise before him. And he is introspective. Incessantly. Argumentatively. And without any clear grip on reality. It is an enthralling effect. A bit like watching a train wreck in slow motion. And unsettling as well, since introspection is more typically associated (from Socrates to Descartes) with rational thought and behaviour. Here, not so much.

The final story in the collection, “Occidentals”, feels transitional. Again we are in Paris. Again we have the hyper-introspective male protagonist. Again we are on the cusp of something, some kind of transition perhaps heralded by the couple’s hotel being located on the border of a cemetery. And Paris, or at least Ford’s imagined American Paris fully mediated by his character’s encounters with it through literature (the protagonist is a novelist who recently had been a literature professor), is significant. Perhaps Paris plays the role that Canada played in Ford’s Montana stories—a far-off imaginary space (even if you are a tourist in it) where much is possible.

These stories will, I think, captivate any reader interested in how Richard Ford handles the longer short story form. Recommended.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Elena and Lila have been friends since they were children together in the slums of Naples. The novel opens with a framing prologue with the two women in their sixties, but the focus here is on their lives from the ages of six to seventeen. They are bound to each other, at times inseparable, at times at the furthest remove. Each takes the other as a kind of superego, a spur to acts and endeavours that will take them out of their families, their claustrophobic neighbourhood, their lives, in fact, and onward to something they know not what. Their horizons are stultifyingly limited initially, but together, at least, they are able to lift themselves up in order to see beyond. However, this is post-war Italy, and what is beyond the horizon is not always so attractive.

The relationship between Elena and Lila is the brilliant centre of this story, but swirling around that intimate friendship—one in which both girls at different points refer to the other pointedly and justifiably as “my brilliant friend”—are a huge cast of characters, economic and political tensions, passion and consequence. Initially that host is limited to immediate family or the families of others who live in the same building. Only gradually does that circle expand. Elena is a diligent student, but Lila is, without seeming to even try, utterly brilliant. Unlike her friend, Lila can already read and write before she gets to school. She taught herself. Lila’s autodidacticism becomes a recurring motif. We see Lila read through the circulating library, and teach herself Latin and Greek. There seems no limit to what Lila might be capable of. No limit other than the imaginative capacity to think herself outside of her own situation. Perhaps. Fortunately Lila’s development spurs Elena on to renewed efforts of her own, though within the school environment. And so each enables the other to flourish.

Elena’s development, thanks to the encouragement of teachers, takes her, in school, beyond anything her parents might have hoped for her. Her friend, however, needs to be more inventive. And she is. Lila is an alchemist of old, transmuting base metals into gold. Or in this case, working within the elements and forces of her local environment to create dramatic new possibilities. Seeing her way through. By the end, however, it is unclear which girl has succeeded.

You will find yourself rooting for both Lila and Elena even as you fear for them. And the dramatic conclusion to My Brilliant Friend will have you waiting impatiently, as I now am, to get your hands on the second volume of this trilogy. Highly recommended.