I remember as a youth carrying my books under my arm, or in a plastic bag, to read on buses and trains. In time, covers would become creased or imprinted by greasy fingertips. Of course, those days haven’t quite gone. The buses have been replaced by cars but I still like the feel of a real book in my hands if I train or plane.My cycle trip, however, did not afford the luxury of carrying a few extra pounds of books so I embraced technology and loaded my iPad with what I hoped would be gems for the road.
I may have said before that if I am travelling I like to read books that are relevant in some way to the destination or journey and so for Spain I sought out Spanish writers or writers in the Spanish language.
Some years ago I read a collection of short stories entitled “Vermeer’s Milkmaid” by Manuel Rivas and loved it. Manuel Rivas is well-known in Spain, (apparently, I can’t vouch for that) as a novelist, poet, essayist and journalist who hails from Galicia in Northern Spain.
I read the excellent “All is Silence” earlier this year and so decided to take along with me two more Rivas books, “The Carpenter’s Pencil” and “Books Burn Badly”. I didn’t get to “Books Burn..” but thoroughly enjoyed “Carpenter’s Pencil” . I have read somewhere that when it comes down to the theory of fiction writing there are only 7 basic plots. After that, it’s how you tell’em and the art is in the telling.
Set during the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in the summer of 1936 “Carpenter’s Pencil” tells the tale of two men, in love with the same woman, one an educated Revolutionary, the other a Francoist guard, both separated from the woman of their dreams by the unfolding ravages around them. The story is narrated by the Guard who has killed a painter and who keeps one of the painter’s pencils as a trophy. As the story unfolds, the ghost of the painter chooses his moments to whisper irritations into the Guards ear.
Rivas possesses a sense of the poetic which gives his writing an elegance and lightness of beauty. It is a style that few have, in my opinion, but you know it when you see it. It is a style that enriches your experience of reading. A style that encourages you to savour like a smooth, rich dark chocolate.
Which leads me to one of the most beautiful books I think I have ever read in the English language. A book written in the ’60s but new to me until recently (can you believe it?) since a new print appeared on the shelves a couple of years ago.
My second book on the trip was “Stoner” by John Williams. “Stoner” did okay when it was published but didn’t pull up any trees and eventually disappeared from view. It tells the story of a farm boy, born at the end of the 19th century, who discovers a love for English Literature and becomes an academic thereby forsaking one field for another. His story is much the same as anyone’s. He lives, works, marries, family, works some more, dies. It is the universal trajectory. But, as with Manuel Rivas, so with Williams – the language is just an absolute joy to read, and as you read it you begin to feel those flirtations of recognition that pull us all in.
“In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.”
The above passage begins Chapter 13. It held me as one of the most exquisite descriptions of love anyone could imagine. Thoughts into words, perfectly. On searching the web it seems that I am not the only one struck by the above quote. It appears all over the place. “Stoner” is a simple life told beautifully and will leave a fingerprint on your soul.
My last book was “Quesadillas” by Juan Pablo Villalobos, a Mexican writer writing in Spanish and now we have the English translation. Orestes, known as Oreo, like the biscuit, is 16, and narrates the story with an ocean of anger and bitterness upon which floats his craft of wit and humour. He is growing up and rejecting everything, particularly his poverty. The state of the nation’s economy and that of the family is measured by the quality of the quesadillas (a corn or wheat tortilla filled with savoury stuffing) served up to the family table and the ensuing battle to make sure he gets his share. When the “Pretend twins” disappear, Oreo, goes off to find them, and everything gets “Mexican” and somewhat surreal.
Books which are described as “laugh out loud funny” generally aren’t. This one isn’t described thus but has some of the best gags in it I’ve read in a long time. Shoulder shaking stuff. I found it very funny.