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Books on Monday: Zip

Perhaps because I'm convalescing from spring fever, I don't have a new book page at Portico to link to. I'm still in the middle of too many books, and the two books that I did finish last week left me with nothing much to say. Robert Stone's A Hall of Mirrors first appeared forty-three years ago when I was sixteen, and I can only wonder what I would have made of it then. Much of it would have gone right over my head. Set in New Orleans at the beginning of the Civil Rights decade, it It was difficult for me to follow the action. The geography of cheap hotels, a soap factory, a warehouse transformed into a media center, and a "Sports Palace" is rendered with a slightly surreal incompleteness; the narrative is smudged as to time as well. As a result, A Hall of Mirrors very effectively simulates a nightmare, and I had the laborious sense of reading a thriller in a foreign language. Some of it still went right over my head.

I've already re-read the other book, Cees Nooteboom's The Following Story, and I still don't quite get it. The book is billed as an "elegant fable" by the publisher, and it is that. A man who might or might not be dead turns out to be - dead. Having gone to sleep in Amsterdam (and apparently died there), he wakes up in Lisbon, which is, it gradually emerges, the point of departure for the Underworld, which lies up the Amazon. I overstate, perhaps. This is the sort of fiction that makes me feel stupid, because I don't get it, and when someone explains it to me, I can only respond with a thick-witted "And?" There are modes of existence that my mind cannot, or will not, encompass.

Edith Wharton is far more agreeable, but I've only begun it. Herrnione Lee acutely underlines all the points of decorous if provincial punctilio that Edith Jones learned as a girl and never set aside. In her memoir, A Backward Glance, for example, she did not so much as mention two women who were very friendly to her as a girl. Why? Because she respected their privacy. As women of private life, they were entitled to be known only to their acquaintance. This is beyond tact. Wharton developed a robust public persona very quickly as she became a successful writer (and not just a novelist), in her forties; she was not about to demolish it with a tell-all memoir.

As for Robin Lane Fox's The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian, I have reached Part Four at last: "The Roman Republic." This republic is already the principal power in the Mediterranean, having subdued two of the three post-Alexandrian kingdoms, in Macedon and the Levant. as well as Italy and Sicily. Carthage has been thrashed but not destroyed. I have a hard time grasping the distance between the theory and practice of the Roman constitution; an air of polite fiction always seems to hang over pre-imperial arrangements. Then the fiction becomes less polite, but the realities are easier to size up.

What are you reading?


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