More from the pre-blog archives…

Republished into its original place in my blog’s timeline from my lost posts archive

Challenging books

For a wet bank holiday Monday, I’m revisiting my archives of the capsule book reviews I wrote for myself pre-blog. (For more of these see here.)

Having concentrated on 10/10 books in previous posts, I chose some books that I found more challenging this time. I picked the first because I spotted it reviewed on someone’s blog recently – but I can’t remember whose – sorry, I’d link if I could…

From A to X by John Berger

I loved this book, the writing was exquisite, but I needed so much more from it that ultimately it disappointed a little.

A’ida and Xavier are lovers, but X is imprisoned on terrorist charges. Their story is teased out through some of A’s letters to X in jail which were found in his cell when the new prison was built. He never replies, but sometimes writes on the back of the letters.

They live in an unnamed country where A’ida is a pharmacist. She writes about everyday life, her friends, neighbours and customers, and there are always hints of troubles and oppression in the background and it is implied that she is also an activist. She is desperate to be married to X, but the authorities won’t allow it so visiting X in prison is an unattainable goal for her – she eventually has to be content with fantasising about him. Xavier’s writing is not about A, but is often thoughts about the authorities in the outside world that he is prisoner in.

The reader is left to fill in the gaps which gives great poignancy to the texts, but I was left hungry to find out what happened to them, what X was imprisoned for, what A’s role was in their struggle and other questions. Just a few answers would have satisfied, but with the exception of a brief scene-setting introduction, the author is deliberate in his intention of letting these letters speak for themselves. (August 2008, 7/10)

NOW: I’ve not read any more of Berger’s work since, but am open to suggestion…

Beowulf trans Seamus Heaney

This was my first encounter with Beowulf – I haven’t seen the film either. I chose the bilingual edition to see what the Old English looked like and although I could barely recognise a word, it did help to see the shape, metre and style of the original. Heaney’s translation is easy to read, very straight-forward in language, and the accompanying essay helps you see how much work goes into preserving some of the form of the original in the modern translation.

With the original and Heaney’s version printed side by side, it affected the way I read it. I tended to read it aloud to myself (but in my head), trying to see the translation’s cadence resonating with the original’s two parts to each line. This was novel for me and enjoyable for one who doesn’t normally do poetry!

As a story, you can see why it survives, but there is too much pontificating on the glories of war, fighting and serving the king and not enough action; Beowulf’s dispatching of Grendel seemed to be little more than arm-wrestling and was over in a couple of pages.

I’m glad I read it and am sure I will refer to it again, but now I’m waiting for the DVD of the film. (Jan 2008, 7/10)

NOW: I’d probably score this differently now – with ratings for the story and a higher one for Heaney separately perhaps.  Still not seen the film in full. Instead, see below…

Grendel by John Gardner

Having recently read Beowulf for the first time, I was looking forward to this slim novel, told from Grendel’s point of view.

Poor Grendel, although we never find out exactly how he was created, he does realise that he has a bit of man in him somewhere, and he agonises over this as he lurks around watching men and occasionally getting the urge to kill one – always to eat at this stage. It is his encounter with the arrogant Unferth, that starts to really turn him and this is sped on by the dragon’s wisdom until he becomes the killing machine we know from the original text.

The very dense and literary style with much philosophising will not suit all, but it has great insight and goes very well with Beowulf indeed. A difficult but rewarding read. (Feb 2008, 8/10)

NOW: I’d love to re-read this book.

Sources: All own copies.

To buy from Amazon UK, click on the title below:

From A to X   Beowulf   Grendel

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