It was over koeksisters and tea on the balcony of a restaurant in Bo Kaap that I recommended Alain de Botton’s books to my friend Fathima. I’ve always found it difficult to recommend books, acutely aware that whatever I may recommend may contribute to some kind of judgement against my character.
I am though an unrepentant fan of de Botton – I even retweet him on Twitter. Yes, such is my dedication to pop philosophy. And certainly my partiality seems to have been shared by Fathima. She’s read all de Botton’s works since that conversation some two years ago.
Her fondness of de Botton however has come at some great cost – She now credits me with good taste in books.
And much as I recoil from such a recommendation, I have been unable to shake it. So, two weeks ago, while walking down a winding road, Table Mountain in front of us, a nasty wind nipping at our hands, daylight gasping for breath, she asked what I was reading. I fumbled. And then admitted that I’ve been reading some classic fiction.
“But classics are so hard to read!” she protested.
Henry James, I argued, was very readable.
We proceeded to exchange the title of the book I was reading: Washington Square.
“What’s it about?” she asked, obviously not yet convinced.
“Well, it’s about a rich girl who wants to marry a guy her father doesn’t like…” I trailed off.
“The classic love story!” she quipped.
I felt obliged here to defend the book as definitely-not-a-romance-novel.
“I’m not yet done with the book so I don’t know how it turns out,” I said, adding that it’s not the story that makes this book readable, it’s the way it’s told.
Fathima nodded thoughtfully, took note of the title again and showed every inclination of going along to find it.
I’m now done with the book. And there was something extraordinary about it.
It’s not the story. It’s not the characters – It’s like this New Yorker piece says, the protagonists are not even likeable, but it is though the depiction of the development of character through time that I found intriguing.
In his inspiration for Washington Square, James talks about the “retribution of time” and that’s just it, the way we change, the way we stay the same, the people who come and go, it’s time that wins in the end.
What others said about this book:
“We read James not for his stories or for his characters but for the one thing that can’t be adapted: his mind. We know it, in its arguments with itself, its endlessly refining discernment, its flickering shifts and glints of wisdom,” Mona Simpson in The New Yorker.
Dear Readers, yes, all two of you.
I’m hoping this makes for a new series, inspiring life into my blog but also forcing some pressure on me to read -and write about what I’m reading.