The holy trinity of contemporary novels, as I saw it, circa 1998. I was eighteen then and embarking upon the greatest reading era of my life (so far). I was starting college and had a whole university’s library at my fingertips. I had a lot of free time. I was young and romantic and oh so very patient. I had the patience for Marquez, for Ondaatje, for Carey and Roy, and also the patience for Bronte and Dickens and Hardy. All of that patience is gone, now. I’m glad I read all of that wholesome stuff while I could still do it.
Anyway: my holy trinity of contemporary novels, circa 1998.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. This book was made into the major motion picture in 1996. I bought this film on VHS. There were two tapes. I bought a hardcover first edition of this book from the campus used bookstore. I read it through twice in two consecutive days. I haven’t read it again since. I haven’t seen the movie since I was eighteen. Until tonight.
I am so surprised by how much of it has stayed with me. It really did set the tone of my literary-emotional landscape, and while I’d forgotten about it for, oh, a couple of decades, it was still very much there. I’d like to share my favorite passage from the book, which was slaughtered for the movie. My copy, which I’ve just taken off the shelf for the first time since I put it there when we moved to this house, still has the page dog-eared.
We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography–to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map […] We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience.
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey. Also made into a movie starring Ralph Fiennes. Also Cate Blanchette, about ten years before anyone knew who she was. More exotic, unlikely scenarios and beautiful writing. Another anti-hero. The final sentence of the book is, as all final sentences should be, the best:
And when the long-awaited white fingers of water tapped and lapped on Oscar’s lips, he welcomed them in as he always had, with a scream, like a small boy caught in the sheet-folds of a nightmare.
The God of Small Things: A Novel by Arundhati Roy. Whatever mega-bookstore had just landed in town in 1998 served this up to me. I took it off the shelf because I liked the cover, and became totally obsessed. I think I read it three times.
The beginning paragraphs of this book are the ones that have stuck with me. They’re dense with ideas and images, sticky and sexy and oozing with them.
May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.
Those wonderful paragraphs at the beginning go on and on–I can’t copy them all here for you. But they’re wonderful. Even now, re-reading them for the first time since 1998, they’re wonderful. I want to stop writing this blog entry and read them.
Not long after I’d read them, it was summertime in the Midwest and the verges of the roads were covered in wildflowers. I sat down and I wrote a couple of paragraphs describing them. I sent them to a new acquaintance who knew a thing or two about literature, and who was eager to flatter me. The acquaintance said they were Proustian in their complexity.
I lost those paragraphs, but remembered the compliment. I wanted to write something else dense and bursting with imagery and sensation. And so, on February second of this year, I sat down and wrote the following:
First we opened our eyes to the light, and were dazzled. We closed them and instead breathed the air, fragrant and alive with mystery. It was green and damp, warm, sweet, heavy with leaf-mould and tinged with musk. We were so overcome by the smells that we forgot our eyes, forgot our ears, and did not hear the swishing of wind in the trees and the far-away roar of waterfalls. We did not hear the squirrels run from us or the chickadees cease to sing. We did not hear each other breathe.
One by one we cracked our eyelids open again, and the initial golden throb settled into a dancing fantasy of white, brown, and the thousand colors of green: the sycamore green and oak-leaf green, the dogwood green, the crabapple green, the top-leaf green and bottom-leaf green, the green of lichens clinging inside wrinkled tree-bark and the lush, sweet green of moss at our feet. When we had done seeing green we began to see movement. Dogwood cotton filtered down from the trees. Dutchman’s Breeches rattled in the breeze. A black squirrel scolded us from his branch.
And I went on from there. It turned into Dark and Deep.