Yes, I did buy a Kindle, and yes, I’ve finally got round to downloading a couple of big books and have started reading the first one. No less than War and Peace, by Tolstoy. One I avoided in my youth. Each night I pick up my Kindle when I’m in bed, and turn it on, and it obligingly opens at the page where I left off last night. But I’m not deeply immersed in it yet. I’ve read several chapters introducing lots of Russian aristocrats who seem to be endlessly holding soirees, quarrelling, entertaining visitors, discussing wills and inheritance and eligible suitors for daughters, with a background conversation about the 1812 invasion of Russia by the French under Napoleon. Each night I turn it off wondering where on earth it’s going, this great rambling microcosm, and feeling little or no empathy with any of the characters. Tolstoy has not worked his magic on me yet in this book. Anna Karenina is one of my favourite ever books; so far I am disappointed with this one. Yet it’s supposed to be his greatest work. Though he himself said it was not a novel. I wonder what it is then? Perhaps it’s not helped by the materiality of the Kindle, which is like a modern metamorphosis of a stone tablet, one that you can transform by touching its side; but I can’t just leaf through it, as I would if it were a book in print, and get some idea of what’s to come, to keep me going through this jungle of names and ego-struggles. Frankly, my dear, so far I don’t give a damn about any of them!
Which is not true of the other big book I am reading, in tandem, and in paper. The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, by Henry Handel Richardson, in a Text Classic edition which cost me all of $12. Once I got through the early pages, which set the scene in the early years of the gold rush at Ballarat, I became engrossed. This book does not come into bed with me. It sits on my dining table, and I read a few pages each time I sit down to eat ( a bit like the hero, Richard, who is far more of a bookworm than me, and sits at meals with a book on his knee, avoiding conversation with his wife’s young brothers, to whom he condescends. And in the early stages of his first medical practice in Ballarat, he forgets about canvassing for patients, and loses himself in studies of the new evolutionary science, and works through his bible, making notes in fine script in the margins—you can’t do this with a KIndle either!—and reinterpreting the Old and New testaments in the light of the most recent theories). Mahony’s inner world of thought, which he does not share with his “little wife”, Polly, and his relations with the world he lives in, are superbly conveyed in a narrative that shifts fluently between indirect discourse (his thoughts and observations), action and dialogue.
Which is a good lesson for me, in my new writing venture, to write my mother’s story. I hope that my reading of The Fortunes will help me to see how to frame the world my mother lived in, that I shared in part, through her vision. I’m finding that some parts flow, and others are bloody hard. And I’ve decided to write the parts I have energy for, rather than trying to write a connected narrative. Because when I try to write connectedly, I often write woodenly (is that a word?) I can put the pieces together later and forge the links … perhaps!
I’d love to know how Richardson wrote. I don’t know if she kept a memoir or a journal of her writing life. Does anyone know?