Between Albert Camus’ The Outsider and Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love, my 2014 reading has gotten off to a solid, if unspectacular start, both these books seeming to occupy opposite extremes of the emotional engagement continuum.
In The Outsider, two excellent summaries of which can be found here and here, Albert Camus’ protagonist, Meursault, is defined by his (lack of) emotional reaction to the death of his mother; My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know – he says, and the subsequent problems that causes for him when he ends up getting sucked into a conflict that was never his to begin with, but which ends in murder.
Post conviction, as he awaits execution, the themes of detachment and a refusal to show emotion – refusing to plead self defence, or to pretend to feel more pain at the death of his mother continue, factors which the prosecution uses to portray him as a callous, deadened, premeditated murderer. After an intense confrontation with the prison chaplain, his final thoughts with respect to his impending death are to hope that there will be many spectators on the day of his execution and that they would greet him with cries of hatred.
In contrast, Soueif‘s book- which she started out writing as a ‘tawdry romance’- is a maelstrom of emotion – two love stories, three women and two cross cultural liaisons separated by a hundred years of Egyptian nation building.
Anna, the English widow, goes to Egypt in an attempt to rebuild her life after losing her husband to the ravages of a mind destroyed by the excesses of the British Empire in Sudan. There, having being kidnapped, she ends up becoming friends with Layla, whose brother a leading nationalist, Sharif al-Baroudi, she eventually marries leading to repercussions and distrust from both sides of the Empire-Nationalist divide in the Egypt of the day.
The catalyst for discovering the story is a trunk Isabel, a divorced American journalist, is left by her mother, and a burgeoning love affair with an Egyptian conductor – Omar in New York. His suggestion that she take the trunk to Egypt to get help translating some of the papers written in Arabic brings woman #3 into the equation, Omar’s sister Amal.
The contrast with The Outsider is stark. I had loads of favourite, intimate tender moments, my favourite passage being the one in which having sent his first bride back to her parents, ostensibly to remove the weight of his family name being associated with them, his mother genuinely worried stops by to have a chat around helping him meet the need ‘which God has lawfully ordained for men’. He bows his head and delivers a response I would do well to share with my own mother when she gets antsy with me for not too dissimilar a reason:
We are living in difficult times and it is not enough for a person to be interested in his home and his job – in his personal life. I need my partner to be someone to whom I can turn, confident of her sympathy, believing her when she tells me I’m in the wrong, strengthened when she tells me I’m in the right. I want to love, and be loved back.
Two other books round up my January reading – Warsanshire’s (who needs no introduction really) Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth and James Patterson’s Merry Christmas, Alex Cross, an airport impulse buy at Waterstones on my last jaunt to London. All told, one month in, four books are done and dusted. Good progress given how 2013 went in books.