A Catch-Up Post: Mary Gordon, Pamela Hansford Johnson, and Marguerite Duras

Although this is a book blog, I do not write about every book I read.  Why not?  Well, it is my book journal.  Sometimes I transcribe notes from my handwritten diary, other times I prefer to muse on bookish topics like reading habits or unlikable characters.

But what happens when you have skipped critiques of so many books you have no option but to go back and look at your notes?  It is my obligation, isn’t it, to introduce you to the best books I’m reading?

And so this is a hasty catch-up post on three books I’ve meant to review.

1  Mary Gordon’s stunning novel, There Your Heart Lies, published in 2017, is my favorite book by this award-winning Catholic writer.  I was so moved by it that I didn’t want to blog about it. You read it, you love it, you think about it–but it spoils the mood to explain.  I scrawled in my notebook:  A gorgeous novel, really a double narrative, set partly during the Spanish Civil War, partly in Rhode Island in 2009.  After Marian’s gay brother commits suicide in the 1930s, she rejects her wealthy family and marries her brother’s lover to accompany him to Spain. Gordon alternates chapters about Marian’s life in Spain in the ’30s and ’40s with Marian’s retelling of  the story to her granddaughter when she is in her eighties.   Often Marian repeats in conversation the same words Gordon used in the third-person narrative.  It is surprisingly effective.

Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Cork Street, Next to the Hatter’s (1965).  Johnson’s satire of the writing life in the 1960s is hilarious.  The pretentious poet-playwright Dorothy Merlin is writing an “Anti-Verse play”; Pringle Milton has published her first novel but gets sidetracked posing for an artist’s photo for a milk ad;  Tom Hariot is determined to write a play so obscene that it can’t be produced (this proves impossible); and Dorothy’s  husband Cosmo reluctantly hosts a poetry reading at his bookstore.

Cork Street is the third in the Dorothy Merlin trilogy, three books loosely connected by the appearance of Dorothy and her friends. When I say these satires can be read as standalones, I mean it.  The plot elements don’t overlap.  Why didn’t I write about Cork Street before?  It is so witty that I wanted to give the book to everyone for Christmas so I wouldn’t have to write about it–but it’s out of print. And so I have to write about it.

And here is why Cosmo Hines is my favorite bookstore owner in literature:

Though it was commonly believed that Cosmo never opened a book, this was untrue. He was a passionate writer with positive tastes who could easily get through a dozen advance copies in a week; but what he liked best was novels about mad people, and through sheer personal enthusiasm had managed to sell thirty copies of one of these the previous Christmas. He also enjoyed books about drug addiction, but kept this to himself, since he had a clientele wholly uninterested in the subject.

Marguerite Duras’s Wartime Notebooks (1943-1949).  These four small notebooks, written during the war, contain rough drafts of  stories and several alternate versions  of her novel The Lover.   The war stories are brutally effective: a woman tortures a collaborator (all the women leave the room in disgust, as would I have), and there is a powerful autobiographical account of waiting for her husband to be released from a concentration camp, and how she and a friend managed to save his life–he was a living corpse, unable to eat.  Later, when he is healthy at the beach, she laughs over the mriacle of his recovery.  This jumble of material is, I think,  more suited to someone who knows Duras’s work.  It is important work, but shouldn’t one first know the primary literarature?  And that’s why I put off writing about it.  It’s really not for me.