• April 6, 2012

An astonishing debut novel and a biography of an eminent figure, the former filled with life and the later filled with facts — these are today’s Snapshots.

Girl Reading: A Novel and Ben Jonson: A Life are books that demand a panoramic view rather than a brief glimpse. An astonishing debut novel and a biography of an eminent figure, the former filled with life and the later filled with facts — these are today’s Snapshots. Ben Jonson firmly places the reader into the life and times of Shakespeare’s best known contemporary, while Girl Reading spans the ages and into the future, examining not the question of what women want but, What can women have? And while the author Katie Ward is at it, she considers what is involved in the art of creation, exploring: How do society and culture shape art?

Girl Reading
by Katie Ward
352 pp.

One of the many astonishing things about this astonishing and novel first novel is that the author makes the reader an implicit character in the act of creation. The seven chapters range across time, opening in 1333 and extending 48 years into the future, to 2060. The book also encompasses the present, my very present, as I sit, a “girl” reading the novel Girl Reading. The words require the collaboration of the reader because “each person experiences something specific and unique to them” and “how much is revealed alters from user to user … .” The novel’s structure is one of synchronicity, a Jungian term referring to the “acausal connecting principle.” That is, events (for this novel, substitute chapters) are not necessarily linked by cause and effect. Rather, there are deep and meaningful social, emotional, psychological and spiritual relationships among the seven sections of this mature debut.

Each chapter of Girl Reading has a girl reading a book (or, as in the case of the illiterate Laura Agnelli, in 1333, holding one), or a mechanical representation of a woman holding a book (Sibil, in 2060). In each chapter there is a painting or a photograph or, as with Sibil, a creation that intuits the stories in pictures that is, works of art — chosen by the viewer. Sibil gives “the history of the picture … as if it had always been there, waiting to be discovered … . Sibil makes you experience … what is already embedded within a real-world object. The art work is the starting point; from that it weaves an extended portrait of sorts, showing us the art piece in a new way.” Which is what Katie Ward does to such brilliant effect, exposing a world within the world of the visual art in each chapter, which is a way of exploring the sounds, smells, textures and culture of country and era while making each and every character, from the most important to the most minor, vividly, achingly alive without an anachronism in sight. What choices do women have, politically, socially, sexually? And how are we affected at the different stages of our development: in childhood, adolescence and adulthood? How are we constrained by our culture, our class, our sex? All this plus many insights into what it is to create. Let me echo the book’s last word: Engrossing!
~Linda Morefield


Ben Jonson: A Life
by Ian Donaldson
Oxford University Press
512 pp.

In Ben Jonson, A Life, Ian Donaldson, eminent professor of literature and humanities and one of three general editors of the recent Cambridge edition of Jonson’s works, has written a biography of the great Renaissance playwright and poet, Shakespeare’s most eminent friend and competitor, in which everything is present but the life. The book is an instructive documentary history of Jonson in his social, political, religious and cultural context. In it we learn about his background, the luminaries who were his friends and colleagues, his inconstant royal patronage, his two religious conversions, his scholarly and intellectual accomplishments, his literary career. Beginning with his bizarre burial in a vertical position and ending with his posthumous reputation, the book mines Jonson’s works and nearly 400 years of scholarship for the relevant facts.

Jonson’s character and poetic gifts, however, the book leaves unilluminated. Donaldson’s overriding theme is conflict and ambivalence, as if there were ever a human being worth writing about who exhibited neither. But the essential realities of Jonson’s inner conflicts are not revealed. In their place, Donaldson presents as personal conflicts what are in fact the standard concerns of any writer of Jonson’s (or indeed any) time — money problems, religious strife, variable patronage, political shifts, age, disease. About Jonson’s unique relation to these complexities of life Donaldson, lacking vision, is reduced to flat-footed conjecture. Quoting the preacher Thomas Wright as arguing that the passions must “be controlled, or they would trouble the soul as political agitators trouble the state,” Donaldson observes absurdly that “Jonson was evidently impressed by this line of thinking.” For evidence he cites passages in Jonson’s poems and plays in which “our passions rebel” and reason is called “our affections’ king” — as if such ideas weren’t clichés of Western thought since Plato. In a valuable passage in which Jonson, who kept up with the intellectual currents of his time, is rightly seen as prophetic about “the syndication of news, the fighting of wars, the conquest of space, the organization of finance,” Donaldson concludes with the ponderous banality that Jonson “was part of that new world that he also intermittently satirized.” About the historical relevance of a comical character Donaldson offers the insight that, “however ‘feigned’ or exaggerated,” a dramatic character “may often be inspired by everyday experience.” Nearly everywhere that Donaldson reaches for insight, our response is “Well, duh.” In this literary shrine, which contributes much to our understanding of the context of Ben Jonson’s life, the man himself will not appear.
~Gideon Rappaport

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