Sunday, August 14, 2011

Growing With Your Favorites

I recently finished "Lying Days" by Nadine Gordimer.  For those just tuning in she is my favorite author.  About a year and half ago I thought I managed to read all her novels and felt pretty accomplished as a fan.  But upon acquiring a critical work of hers that listed all her titles I was delighted and surprised that there was almost more than a handful of her novels I had only not read, but did not even know about.  These turned out to be her earlier works, the titles you won't find in most bookstores and have to search for online.  I asked and got many of these titles for Christmas that year.  "Lying Days," was among my gifts and what thrilled me even more about receiving this title was that it was her first novel.  Having it in my possession felt inspiring and like finding a "golden ticket" in a Wonka bar.

When I sat down to read the book I soon felt deflated.  It usually takes me about five pages to really lock into one of Gordimer's novels.  Her writing has an air of assumption that is not always easy to slide into.  Her first lines typically volt the reader right into the story, a character, or setting.  It takes reading through a few pages to acclimate oneself into that world and learn the subtle cues in her writing that add depth to her story.  I was shocked upon beginning the "Lying Days" to discover how bored I was as a reader.  There was significant time and attention spent on describing an opening scene.  Rather than an insightful description of place the writing came off indulgent and wordy.  It was a sharp contrast to her later novels that tend to be shorter with more concise language.

I tried to begin reading the novel at least four different times, never getting past the first twelve pages.  I had many other distractions at the time, one including my thesis so that may have contributed to my lack of devotion.  About a year or more later I decided to revisit the novel again and felt better about sliding into the story.  Those first twelve pages finally seemed to be filled with some riches upon reading them the fifth time.  I was still bored in some places, but I was letting myself really read the book instead of just trying to absorb the book.  This may only make sense to dedicated readers, but sometimes when one sits down with a book they are just absorbing it or trying to get through it without even knowing it.  This is also another reason many people advocate for re-reading books.  So that one can go back and see the things that they may have missed or overlooked without knowing it. 

I managed to finish the book between reading it to and from work and at night when I allotted the time.  It's not one of my favorites of her, BUT I found it very insightful to her as an author.  Gordimer's novels tend to focus on the lives of people in South Africa living during political turmoil.  Her stories focus entirely on the character and not so much the political atmosphere, yet, it makes the reader feel the important struggles and choices people in that world had to make daily.

"Lying Days" on the other hand was more a coming of age story.  It focused on a girl becoming a woman and facing that pivotal point in her life in South Africa where she had to decide if she was the type of person to join the cause or live outside of it.  I liked the novel and the story as I could relate it to Gordimer herself.  I don't think it was any coincidence it was her first novel.  Everyone's first novel seems to tell something of themselves one way or another.  And reading about her life in an interview online also makes me believe it was an important story for her to write.  What was also different about this story compared to her other works is the uncertainty her lead female protagonist feels about herself.  Most of Gordimer's woman character (that I have read of) come off strong or at least at peace with themselves and who they are and the lives they live.  Helen, in "Lying Days," at first seems she is this way too, but is really fighting herself to be the woman she thinks she should be. 

Gordimer's writing stayed indulgent, wordy, and at time very lofty throughout the novel.  I think she could have cut some of her philosophical tangents and achieved the same affect she wanted in her story.  True, young character coming of age do tend to over analyze, but that's not what readers want to indulge in with them.  Readers rather indulge in the character's choices and consequences of their choices.  That is the juice that helps carry a reader through the story.

I'm glad I finally managed to put "Lying Days" on my read shelf.  It helps me see Gordimer's transformation and growth as a writer more clearly.  It gives me motivation to sludge through my first novel and the ambition to see past that novel and on to the next one.  I have several more of her early works to read still and hope I can break into them faster than I did "Lying Days."

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