“Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are,” said Mason Cooley. The analogy between reading and traveling and reading has been made many times before, so I’ll just say I agree with it 100%, which is why I’ll be posting book reviews/recommendations here once in a while when I’m not recounting travel woes.
Setting: A boarding school in a English small town in the 1920s
“Would it not be wonderful to be so much more like Mr. Joyful? I must admit that every time I see him I am filled with admiration at the manner in which he conducts himself.”
“I have not felt it to be so, Archibald,” said Hazel. “If I were to be such a person as Mr Joyful, which I hope and wish might be my destiny, then I would most certainly do for his family as for my own. But I fear I would not understand how I could be like him, being so much my own self, which is a very terrible thing to be, I dare say.”
“Ah! But there you do Mr Joyful a very great disservice, Miss Hazel. And it is not his character you are doubting then, but your own judgment, which I dare say, you have proved on every occasion to be of the highest standard.”
“Were it to be so, dear Archibald, I would indeed be grateful. But is it fitting that gratitude should mark one when one is indeed so much indebted to one’s own actions for what they call character? I have always thought, wrong as I might be, that I should be grateful, but the indebtedness results from my own character flaw, and what then would I be without character?”
“Dearest Hazel, nobody could ever reproach you for lack of character, or lack of gratitude. Gratitude is never a natural state of the human mind.”
“But how natural would it be were it not inborn?”
“Then we must assume that it is not inborn.”
“Being born grateful would not be of such importance if we had not been in need of it. When one speaks of it, one must not ignore its very existence.”
“But existence is something I could never not pay attention to. Indeed, it would seem to be impossible not to do so, even if I was not as conscious of it as I am, and being a sensitive being, I profess to believe myself to be excessively so.”
“Ah but being excessively conscious and excessively sensitive is such a beautiful thing to be! I would like to be that, if it were not contrary to the essence of my being, and were it not to bring me to be more like Mr Joyful.”
“Can essence be contrary to one’s being? Being and essence are two such different qualities to be considered. I would rather like Mr Joyful’s being to be more contrary to his essence than it is, or could ever be, or should ever be found to be should he show either one or the other.”
Miss Button and Mr Gravely adjourned to the dining room.
I went through about 70 pages of this kind of dialogue over the course of days in my attempt to read Ivy Compton-Burnett’s “Pastors and Masters.” Hailed as one of the most original English authors, master (mistress?) of witty dialogue, one of Virginia Woolf’s main competitors, and the ‘only true postmodern English writer’ (post-modern being literary critics’ word to describe “books so boring and pointless I would rather read the The Truck Book 100 times over but I can’t admit that in public”), she seemed to be an interesting read, at least from the book cover. I made it all the way to page 3 of the book and realized I was already tearing my hair out.
This novel was composed almost entirely of dialogue, and dialogue that makes as little sense as the above (which is my invention, by the way, and not in any way a quote from the book). The 10 or so characters (I could not, over the course of the book, figure out which last name matched which surname, as there are very few physical descriptions, and nobody seemed really characteristic) talk for hours about abstract concepts, using plenty of pronouns. By about the third line of each dialogue, it is impossible to figure out which line is uttered by which character, what abstract concept which pronoun is supposed to replace, or finally, who really cares. There is little to no plot, and the characters are so impersonal and ultimately unappealing, that you never really get involved enough to wish to find out anything about them.
From the 70 or so pages, I gleaned the following ‘facts’:
1) The head schoolmaster had no formal education, and he spends his life making up for it with his gift of gab.
2) Three pseudo-intellectuals claim to have written a book, and it turns out it is one book (each one found a copy and usurped it for his own).
3) One of the pseudo-intellectuals is hated by his sister, who pretends to dote on him, but each compliment she says is actually an ironic attack on him.
There you go, I just saved you trouble of reading anything ever by this author. Not that you could do it easily – most of her books are in the ‘closed stacks’ section – of our library, at least. Not that I am saying, by my very essence or my character or my lack of gratitude, why I would understand this to be the case, it being so very much contrary to nature.
(Apologies to readers of my previous blog – I’ll post new reviews soon!)