Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Oxford and Books

I finished my Oxford Canal Walk a few weeks back. I did Banbury to Tackley in the summer (in fact on one of the warmest days in the year) and thought at the time that it was amongst the prettiest places I'd ever seen, all pink and yellow hollyhocks and warm coloured stone and the river cool and fringed with willows.

It was a little more bleak in October when I finally got back to do Tackley to Oxford. Ploughed fields and drizzle and that smell of smoke you get around canal boats. I didn't get to see much of Oxford itself either unfortunately - just enough to buy a few postcards and decide it would be very much nicer in the summer.

That's a view I still hold to after going back this last weekend, but we did find some interesting stuff all the same. The covered market, the exhibition at the town hall, a sale of old records (which I mostly went through going 'I used to have this one') and the bookshop that sold books at £3 each:

I stopped at five, mostly because of my one in one out policy, and so far I have read just one - and of course it's the one not pictured here because it's still in my locker at work.

It was The Jinx by Theophile Gautier.

A short book of less than 100 pages, with an introduction by Gilbert Adair and a lovely scary folded over cover that seemed so promising but sadly.. well, it was worth £3 to me, and it was worth reading, but I can completely see why Gautier has fallen out of fashion. His supernatural story failed to chill or move me in any way.

In fact it had me dropping into A level English lit mode. I could write an essay more easily than a review. Something in answer to a question like: ‘Explore the use of metaphor and simile in Gautier’s descriptions of the central characters. Why do you think the author chose to describe them using that method?’

I think the problem is that there’s too much beautiful detail. Uncle is a painting by Hogarth, niece has teeth like pearls and hair falling over her shoulders like black ribbons.  Every major landmark and passing character gets a namecheck and a few lavish lines on their appearance. The story is smothered to death by it. 

Unlike Dorian Gray (and I mostly mention Dorian Gray because the intro does) which has a tension between the beautiful and the real (Dorian chooses to be superficial, Harry soothes his upset over his lover's suicide by making him think of it as a fairytale tragedy and so on), this was all too beautiful and simply not real at all.

I might have cared more about the illness of the heroine for example if she hadn't slowly and beautifully faded away, her soul shining through her skin and making her look ever more angelic while petals from the orange tree that grew through her bedroom window dropped romantically around her couch.  

It's a frippery, a piece of fine lace, an essentially pointless book. 

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