Sparrows and Snails, Lumping and Splitting

Since today is Victoria Day and a holiday in Canada, I’ll take this time to write about my past week in books.

There’s going to be a new translation of Madame Bovary out this fall, done by Lydia Davis! (she also did Swann’s Way a few years ago and it really is lovely) Frances at Nonsuch Book is talking about hosting a read-along when it comes out.

While looking for more Lydia Davis stuff, I found this article (about Proust translations but just ignore that part) categorizing writers as sparrows or snails, like so:

Swallows travel and seek out the world; the snail burrows into itself. The swallow acts; the snail retracts, guesses, speculates. A swallow chugs life down the way whales take in water, plankton and all, while the snail ingests choice bits down a multichambered spiral, where its appetite, like its vision, is eternally whorled. Balzac, Dickens, and Fielding are swallows, even Tolstoy.

Not Gogol, not Stendhal, not Meredith, certainly not Proust. The difference between them is neither the speed with which each author turned out works of fiction nor the emphasis some have placed on plot or style. It lies in something else. If to the swallow life is an open book, to the snail it is unfathomable. Everything, from love, friendship, desire, and death to the very art that portrays love, friendship, desire, and death, is essentially twisted and coiled along a narrow passageway where good judgment and clear thinking are less likely to lead to truth than paradox and guesswork.

The article then goes on to categorize Jane Austen as a snail as well and I exclaimed, finally this is the definition of the kind of fiction I like! Throw Elizabeth Bowen and Henry James in the snail camp too and that is the book camp for me. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of emphasis on plot versus character, but I like the snails and swallows metaphor far more.

Today I bought In a German Pension by Katherine Mansfield, yet another early 20th century female author and one I’ve been meaning to read more of for quite some time. I guess I’m enjoying the time period, I have to say it’s a bit more accessible than the Victorians.

I also managed to get Miss Buncle’s Book by D. Stevenson on an inter-library loan (not in a Persephone edition, but it still looks fun and cosy). And finally got the anthology Wayward Girls & Wicked Women (edited by Angela Carter) from the library for a short story by Frances Towers in it (she wrote my most coveted Persephone Book, Tea With Mr. Rochester) only now that I’ve read the story (‘Violet’), I’m….. I’m not sure if it’s worth buying the book anymore. 😦 Anyone who’s read Tea With Mr. Rochester, please advise! Are her other stories better than ‘Violet’ or about the same?

Today I was flipping through my library books, trying to decide what to keep and what to take back (I always take out too many to read) and picked up Pages from the Goncourt Journal (written by two brothers from 1851-1896 and full of juicy Paris literary gossip), which opened to this entry in 1875:

Zola was tucking into the good food, and when I asked him whether by any chance he was a glutton, he replied: ‘Yes, it’s my only vice; and at home, when there isn’t anything good for dinner, I’m miserable, utterly miserable.

This probably explains his endless descriptions of every kind of food in The Belly of Paris! (The entry goes on to tell how Zola endlessly complained about being treated as a ‘pariah’ in French literary circles while Turgenev tried to joke him out of his bad mood. It really is my type of book except I’m trying to find something a bit lighter to read after Virginia Woolf and sort of also want to finish with Trollope too.)

After perusing the new international edition of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die over the weekend, I had the idea to start collecting book lists on my blog and have begun to do so here. So far I’ve got the Nobel Prize winners, the Orange Prize and the start of the Guardian’s 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read. My husband is obsessed with book lists and I must admit that it’s a catching obsession! My favourite book list book is The Rough Guide to Classic Novels, with lists by topic and with a fairly international selection with a good mix of books I’d heard of and those I hadn’t.

And finally, I read the first essay in Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman in the bookstore today, entitled ‘Marrying Libraries’. She writes about the challenge of combining all of her books with her husband’s (only attempted after five years of marriage! My husband and I at two years aren’t quite there yet: our mystery novels are combined, but that’s about it.) She says it’s harder because her husband is a book ‘lumper’ with anything anywhere: vertical, horizontal, and even double shelved while she is a book ‘splitter’ “balkanized by nationality and subject matter.” Since working in a book store and a library, I am definitely in the splitter group! (although she does one better than me and rather than simply organizing her books within various defined categories in alphabetical order, she actually arranges all her British Literature chronologically. This is a new and very enlightening idea…) What about you, lumper or splitter?

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10 thoughts on “Sparrows and Snails, Lumping and Splitting

  1. Amateur Reader says:

    I have all of my books organized chronologically in my head. I don’t care so much where they are in the house, and in fact the books are mostly in some library or another. What does that make me?

    As ridiculous as a list obsession can be – and I at least glance through every list I see – lists are an absolutely necessary part of how we understand books. Lists are a way to play with books.

    • Carolyn says:

      Oh my. That makes you unique! I love lists as a way to quickly learn more about the books that are out there, the more I read them, the more I’m shocked at how little I learned about the depth and breadth of literature in university.

  2. Melissa says:

    I loved Ex Libris. It’s such a fun look at bibliophiles. I read In a German Pension two years ago just before traveling through Germany. It was the perfect time to read it. I split my books into groups. I have travel, classics, biographies, etc.

    • Carolyn says:

      I’m starting to become interested in exploring some German literature, any recommendations? I have sections for poetry, plays, books about books, writing books, history, and then recently started a section for all the books by my favourite authors, plus books for various reading challenges.

  3. fleurfisher says:

    Isn’t Ex Libris wonderful?! I’m a fiction reader engaged to a military historian, so we won’t so much merge as sit side by side!

    As to Mr Rochester – the other stories are maybe a little less strange and Violet was one of my least favourites, but there are still many common features across the volume, so it’s difficult to say yes or no I’m afraid. Maybe you should browse the Persephone catalogue once more and see what calls loudest!

    • Carolyn says:

      I always mean to read more history, even military history, as I studied it in university, but fiction always manages to be more interesting and distracting!

      Thanks for the Tea with Rochester info, I will have to keep thinking about it… The Persephone review did say it was similar to Jane Austen, did you find that? (because that would be a good thing!)

  4. Eva says:

    I love the idea of sparrows v. snails authors. πŸ™‚ I’m a fan of individuals in both camps, but I must admit I think I love snails a touch more. (Although I’m curious about Tolstoy as a sparrow, since he spends so much time on philosophy.)

    • Carolyn says:

      Yes, I also found the Tolstoy choice a bit odd, since he does take his time over his characters. But then his plots are much more well defined than Dostoevsky’s, who’s probably a define snail. πŸ˜‰

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