Reading Round-Up: December 2018

Happy New Year! We celebrated by going to bed at 10 pm as per usual, and changing the calendar in the morning. Whee. Here’s what I read last month:

  1. That Hideous Strength (C. S. Lewis)
  2. A Season of Little Sacraments: Christmas Commotion, Advent Grace (Susan H. Swetnam)
  3. The Figure of Beatrice: A Study in Dante (Charles Williams)
  4. The Man Born to be King (Dorothy L. Sayers)
  5. The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place (Alan Bradley)
  6. Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon (Kelley and Tom French)
  7. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (tr. Simon Armitage)
  8. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (Fannie Flagg)

A few of these I’ve already touched on in prior posts: Season of Little Sacraments and The Man Born to be King here, and The Figure of Beatrice here. I hadn’t finished either of the Sayers or the Williams when I wrote their respective posts — suffice it to say that they each continued excellent to the end, and are well worth your time (particularly the Sayers play cycle).

That Hideous Strength is the final book in C. S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy, the first two installments of which I read in November. It’s funny… the first time I read this trilogy, about 10-15 years ago, I thought that This Hideous Strength was the weakest of the three. I am convinced, now, that it’s the strongest. It’s true that it doesn’t have as many fantastical elements as Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra — taking place, as it does, entirely on earth — but I found on this read-through that the stakes and the drama are much higher than in the first two books, and that Lewis speaks very presciently to many aspects of our life today.

I’ve been reading Alan Bradley’s Flavia De Luce series since it came out — The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place is the ninth of them, and I am sad to say that it will probably be the last… for me. What can I say? Some of Flavia’s charm has worn off. The internal chronology of the series is stretched beyond belief; this book had a subplot about a blackmail situation that was just dropped instead of resolved; the final straw, for me, was when Flavia bent a crochet hook into an L-shape to pick a lock. Dude. Crochet hooks are 1) too big for that, and 2) made of steel. Probably Bradley was thinking of tatting hooks, which are teeny-weeny because they’re used to make lace… but the mistake certainly killed what was left of my suspended disbelief. Sorry, Flavia. Sorry, Alan. It was a good ride while it lasted.

Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon is the story of Juniper French, a micro-preemie born at 23 weeks 6 days gestation. Her parents are both investigative journalists, and they tell the story together, alternating chapters. If you want the Cliffs notes, I linked to the three-part series that was the genesis of the book in my last edition of Weekend Reading. Kelley Benham French won a Pulitzer for that series, so if you enjoyed it, be sure to pick up the book and get the expanded story as well.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a delightful surprise to me this month. It’s a long poem — about 2300 lines and change — and one of the earliest examples of English epic poetry after Beowulf, most likely written sometime around the year 1400. This edition is a new verse translation by Simon Armitage, and it’s fantastic. He sticks to the alliterative scheme of the original, and the whole thing just rollicks along. It’s also an interlinear text, with the Middle English on the left-hand pages and the translation on the right-, so you can go back and forth between them looking at some of his specific translations choices. You know, if you’re into that sort of thing. Which I am.

And my last book of the year: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which I finished last night with a few hours to spare. I’d already seen the movie, but enough years ago that I had only a few particular images/scenes left in my mind. This one was great fun, and surprisingly poignant. There was a lot of time-jumping between chapters; I remember that the movie did a certain amount of that as well; I will have to watch it again to properly compare, though.

And that’s it! Stay tuned for my big post about everything I read this year — I hope to have it up sometime in the next few days. Happy new year and happy new reading!

Charles Williams on poetry

I am currently struggling through Charles William’s text The Figure of Beatrice: a Study in Dante. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a pleasant struggle, but I am feeling my dearth of a classical education here. I have no Latin, I have no Italian, and I’ve only read The Divine Comedy and none of Dante’s other work. But I’ve had this book on my shelf for a few years now and it felt like the right time to pick it up — especially since I have a hankering to re-read the Comedy, perhaps in the new year.

At any rate, I’ve been wading through Williams’s prose, dredging out such insights as I may. I am not getting as much out of this as others might, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean I’m not getting anything out of it — and last night I found a wonderful gem about poetry:

The poems (in both? certainly in both) have two meanings — literal and ‘allegorical’; he will deal with both. It is perhaps worthwhile pointing out that when a poem is said to have two meanings, both are included in the poem; we have only one set of words. The meanings, that is, are united; and the poem is their union. The poem is an image with many relevancies, and not only so, but it is itself the expressions of the relevancy of its own images to each other. The poem, not the literal or allegorical meanings, is the existing thing, the image we have to deal with; the meanings assist and enrich the line; they do not replace it (which is the danger of all — even necessary, even Dante’s — criticism and comment). One goes outside the poem, in following the meanings, but only to return; only to centre again what, for a good purpose, has been de-centred. (Williams, The Figure of Beatrice, 45)

That is a very helpful image for me, especially when we are talking about the “meaning” of a poem: there is a plain or literal meaning, and there is often a secondary allegorical or figurative meaning, and each is equally what is meant and expressed by the same words. Their meanings are in contrast to each other without being in competition with each other, because it’s the unity-in-tension that they form that is the poem.

There is a paradox here — or something that seems paradoxical to us, at any rate. But it made me think of another paradoxical image, one that surely came to mind because of Williams’s subject matter: Dante’s vision of the Trinity at the very end of Paradise, the concluding volume of The Divine Comedy. In this final canto, Dante has been granted (through the intercession of St. Bernard and the Blessed Virgin Mary, a vision of the Godhead at the centre of the created universe. He writes,

Now, even what I recall will be exprest
More feebly than if I could wield no more
Than a babe’s tongue, yet milky from the breast:

Not that the living light I looked on wore
More semblances than one, which cannot be,
For it is always what it was before;

But as my sight by seeing learned to see,
The transformation which in me took place
Transformed the single changeless form for me.

That light supreme, within its fathomless
Clear substance, showed to me three spheres, which bare
Three hues distinct, and occupied one space;

The first mirrored the next, as though it were
Rainbow from rainbow, and the third seemed flame
Breathed equally from each of the first pair.

How weak are words, and how unfit to frame
My concept — which lags after what was shown
So far, ‘twould flatter it to call it lame!

(Dante, tr. Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds, The Divine Comedy III: Paradise, XXXIII.106-123)

The image of three spheres occupying the same space, and yet distinct, is one which our reason has difficulty grasping — so too the doctrine of the Trinity, so too William’s image of two meanings found united in one set of words. Yet we recognize a truth in these images, even as we grapple with them in our reasoned understanding. They are not anti-reason; they are rather beyond it.

I haven’t gotten far enough along in The Image of Beatrice to get to The Divine Comedy — I just finished Williams’s chapter on the death of Beatrice and am about to start reading about the Convivio — but I am looking forward to further insights and connections when I do!