Tuesday, 30 August 2011

two of four

 Back in April, when I was preparing for and embarking upon my holiday through Europe, I read the first of the four tomes of Le Comte de Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas. Recently, having read 7 very satisfying English-language books in the interim, I returned to the great task I'd set myself, and yesterday I finished the second tome. Having reached this half-way point (give or take), I though I'd reflect a little on the book, since its likely to be a number of months at least until I reach its conclusion.

Its length is significant not only in the period of time it takes me to read it. The length, and episodic form in which I assume the book was originally written, affords Dumas the luxury of going off on tangents at the slightest provocation. This leads to strange chapters for smoking marijuana in a cave, the life and love of a Roman bandit, ways to build resistances to poison, whose relevance to the main storyline range from minor to dubious to none. I have to say that I really like this as a change from my normal reading. Knowing that a book is a certain length gives the experience pretty reliable indications of how the story is progressing along the normal story arc, and that details that are included are likely to be relevant later on. The gun on the wall in the first act will be fired by the end of the third. This isn't true in a book as long as this. The gun on the wall might actually just be a gun on the wall, and there is something liberating as an experienced reader in not always having a clear idea of how things fit together, of just reading and discovering.

In terms of the language, everything is obviously contingent on the fact that I'm reading in French. I like to think I'm a fluent speaker of the language, but I would never claim to be a fluent reader, and the reading I've been doing has been accompanied by frequent consultation of a dictionary, and sometimes, in order to look up specific terminologies for 19th century French or Italian clothing, or nautical terminology, or consultation of Wikipedia for references to ancient Greeks and contemporary European authors, which might have been relevant to readers when Dumas wrote the book, but aren't to me. I probably check more than I should, on both counts - indeed, I still have raft of highlighted phrases where the dictionary proved insufficient, and which I will go back to at some point to work out what the phrases or references mean. The going is very slow, but I really enjoy learning new turns of phrase, or some obscure Greek reference about an obscure God or philosopher, or the leading authority on physiology from 19th century France.

So I guess that's some of the observations that I've had about the story so far, more meta than most of my reading, and perhaps missing reflection on the characters or story, but that can perhaps wait until I finish the book some time later this year or, more likely, next year. For now, I will return to reading English-language books, beginning with Continental Drift by Russell Banks, an author I got into a decade ago and put aside for absolutely no good reason.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

For Whom The Bell Tolls

Following a brief sojourn with David Malouf, I returned to Ernest Hemingway, to read For Whom The Bell Tolls. I bought this book in the airport in Paris, in anticipation of reading it on my Euro-Australian flight, but was, regrettably, seduced by in-flight movies. It was worth the wait.

The Spanish civil war is one of those strange historical events for me that floats indeterminately within my understanding of the 20th century. The Boer war, the two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, are all conflicts with strong dates and context for me. The Spanish war, though, has no date that I could immediately offer, and features in my memory more for impression of the way it attracted people from other parts of the world to fight, on both sides, not at the behest of their governments (with some exceptions - the soviet union, perhaps), but for individual, ideological reasons.

One such person is Robert Jordan, Hemingway's protagonist, an American university teacher who has been in Spain fighting for a year when the book's story takes place. Remarkably for what is a substantial book, the story takes place over the course of perhaps 4 days, with only occasional flashbacks to fighting earlier in the war or to Jordan's time spent in Madrid. Jordan is sent to a small encampment of rebels in the hills to rally them and destroy a bridge in order to support an attack. The action sequences, mostly in the final third of the book, are detailed and compelling, but the reason they work is because Hemingway does such a wonderful job of drawing the characters and their relationships. We get a really strong sense of Jordan, and the small group of rebels with whom he fights - Maria, the damaged girl with whom he falls in love, the worn-out rebel leader and his fiery but protective wife, and the old man who accompanies him the camp. We learn how they each got to where they are in the war, why they are fighting, and when they do what they do in the combat sequences, we know why, and we care what happens.

Like The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway does a remarkable job of conveying a sense of place and the character not just of the individuals, but of the people as a group. He uses simple language, but the reader comes away really sensing the pine forests, the snow as it falls on them, the hills and the bridge. Once again he uses this wonderful device of writing in literal translation from the Spanish. It gives a strange impression at first - the text is littered with thees and thous - but it is distinctive and feels true, and I loved it.

Having read the book, I am no more able than I was before to tell you in what year it was set. I couldn't tell you details about major battles or the significant figures on each side. But I come away with a stronger sense of why some of the "little" people were there, and what the battles, atrocities and losses meant for them.

I'm on a bit of a run of Hemingway at the moment, but I'm trying hard to pace myself. I have A Moveable Feast in my pile, but before getting to it (or the other 5 or 6 books awaiting me), I have returned to Le Comte de Monte Cristo. Because it is such a massive endeavour - because of its length, and because of the extra difficulty of reading it in French - I will probably post some sort of rundown when I finish my current sprint on it. The French version is presented in four tomes, and I will soon come to the end of the second, which hopefully will precipitate a half-time report. It certainly bears discussion.


After finishing The Sun Also Rises, I read an Australian book which had been recommended to me by a friend. Johnno is a partly autobiographical novella beautifully written by David Malouf. To be honest, I'm not sure I've read anywhere that its autobiographical, but it has a strong feeling of truth, and a description of Brisbane that came across as very personal. Having said that, although the depiction was very personal, I should stress that the view of Brisbane is quite different from mine. Partly this is because the book is set 30 or 40 years ago (Brisbane has changed fairly dramatically in that time), and partly its because I came to Brisbane for university, rather than growing up here. Its perhaps because of this latter distinction that Malouf, or at least his narrator, seems to have a very conflicted view of the city, sometimes, implicitly, seeming very fond of it, but at other times quite explicitly expressing his disdain of the town and his longing to get out to see the real world. I certainly held that view of the town of my adolescence, Mareeba, for a long time, although in recent years I've softened my view.

So I've spent a long time talking about the way that Brisbane is presented in the book. That isn't by accident - its certainly the strongest opinions I have about it - but there is a plot nonetheless. The story is told by a sometimes passive narrator as he reminisces about his relationship with Johnno, an extroverted character from his school days whom he follows through adolescence and youth, including meetings during travels to Europe. Many of the traits of the characters and their friendship are closely tied to the place and time in which they live - particularly their diversions in Brisbane, and some of the revolutionary things in Europe in the 60s. Others remind me of some of my experiences, meeting college friends in Europe and taking in the different perspectives we have on the world, reflecting on the pilgrimage so many Australians make to live in Europe (usually the UK, much to my disdain), and the paths that we take through our teens and twenties.

Monday, 8 August 2011

distance, disappointment, distinction

I ran my first half marathon yesterday.

I started running regularly late last year, and a few months later, I resolved to build up to a half marathon. Specifically, I picked the Brisbane Running Festival, and over the last 3-4 months I have been building up my distance, from 5km to 8, 10, 12, 15, to 20, in order to be confident about being able to do 21.1km for the actual event.

I woke up early, in order to get to the race start at the Riverstage in time to meet my friends Meg and Tom for the start. With 3000 or so people signed up to run, the start was chaotic, although nothing like my bad experience with the Bridge2Brisbane a couple of years ago. Starting with 2 laps of the botanical gardens made things very crowded, particularly once the front-runners started lapping people. I had intended to try and follow the 1:50 pacerunner, but by the time we were over the Goodwill Bridge, I had long lost sight of him. By the time I did catch a glimpse of the bobbing red balloons, I was 4km into the race, and it was 8km until I actually caught him.

When we turned near the West End ferry stop, and I passed Meg and Tom, who were both running nicely behind me, I felt good, and was well ahead of the 1:50 pacerunner (and could even see the 1:45 runner, which should have rung some alarm bells). Over the next few kilometres, though, I flagged badly, and I essentially cracked at about 13km. For the remaining 8km coming back through Southbank and around the base of Kangaroo Point cliffs to the Storey Bridge, I was reduced to a mix of walking and jogging, all the while being very frustrated at myself1, for not having the fitness and/or not having judged my early pace better.

The many supporters along the route, either manning drinks stations or just standing by the course calling out words of encouragement, helped me to run more often and longer than I otherwise might have, and did much to lift my spirits. The occasional photographer also gave me a lift, as I dug deep to avoid being photographed walking, but despite these things, I probably walked a couple of kilometres, on and off. Meg and Tom caught me coming back past Kangaroo Point with a shade over 2km to go, and I got a bit of a lift, running with them for a few hundred metres before I soon flagged and had to walk a little longer.

I eventually crossed the line in a "gun time" of 1:56:20 or so, and a "chip time" of 1:55:13.6 (results are here). Before the race, I had really struggled to set myself an aim, hovering between "just get across the finish line" and the dream of challenging Lee's time of 1:48 when she ran her first half. To be honest, I'm still hovering. I feel like I had a pretty bad run, walking a lot more of the race than I wanted to, and cracking much earlier than I had hoped. I feel like with some better judgement, I could have run somewhere close to 1:52 or even 1:50.

To be honest, one of the things I've learnt while building up my distances is that I probably get more enjoyment out of a 10km run than I do out of a 22.1km run. That might be down to my level of fitness, but I like the idea that I can push myself a little bit. If I was to be asked whether I'd do another half, my reaction before the race would probably have been no, that I'd stick to shorter distances. Having run it, though, and not run it as well as I would have liked, my competitive instincts would probably make me lean towards doing another, just to prove to myself that I can do a better job than I did this time.

As a final word, I should give a huge qualification to what probably comes across as a bit of a whiny post. I am very proud of having done the race. Even if it wasn't my best run on the day, when I started running last year there was no way I could have done a run like this, and I'm really satisfied at the dedication (which has never been my best attribute) I've been able to sustain in running regularly to prepare myself. I didn't break any records, but its not everyone who can run a half marathon in under 2 hours, and I'm proud to be able to count myself in the group that can.

1: As Emily very astutely pointed out earlier this year, getting annoyed at myself is something I do a lot. I very rarely get angry at others, but I quite frequently get angry at myself.