Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Reading: The Orange Girl

One of the things I thought I'd do with the blog is use it to keep track of my book reading. Not that I'm getting to read as much as I used to. My main time for reading has been before bed but often the lights are out or the baby's snuggled up with me and so I can't read (which is sad not least because I don't always fall asleep easily).

The book I most recently finished was The Orange Girl by Jostein Gaarder. It's about a boy, Georg, who is given a letter written to him by his father. His father died when Georg was three. In the letter his father tells the story of "the orange girl" and asks his son a question. The novel is framed with Georg's own writing, telling about getting the letter and his reaction to it, then we begin to read the letter which Georg breaks in on every now and again with more commentary.

It's a love story, well more than one love story really I'd say because there's the orange girl but also a father/son love too. But also it tackles confronting death, it asks you to think about mortality (your own, and that of your nearest and dearest). It asks whether life is worthwhile; at one point Georg's father writes:

Would I have elected to live a life on earth in the firm knowledge that I'd suddenly be torn away from it, and perhaps in the middle of intoxicating happiness? Or would I, even at that early stage, graciously have declined this reckless game of 'pass the parcel'? We come to this world only once. We are let into the great fairytale, only for the story to reach its end!

Later Georg writes (contemplating never being born):

The world! I would never have come here. I would never have witnessed the great mystery.

Space! I would never have looked up into a glittering starscape.

The sun! I would never have been able to place my feet on the warm sea rocks at Tonsberg. I would never have experienced a really good belly-flop.

Now I see it. Suddenly I see the full extent of it all. Only now do I understand with my life and soul the meaning of non-existence. I feel the pit of my stomach heave. I feel sick. But I feel anger as well.

I'm infuriated by the thought that one day I will vanish -- and become nothing, not just for a week or two, not just for four or four hundred years, but for all time.

It's really interesting to read, and think. Georg's father is an atheist so his take on death is different to mine but that doesn't mean it isn't good for me to think about the questions he brings up.

Georg is a 15 year old and I think Gaarder does a good job of writing a narrator who a lot younger than he is (I think he's a teacher so that probably helps).

I consistently enjoy Gaarder's books. I don't know whether it's the use of language or tone of the writing, or perhaps the simplicity of the plots which at the same time ask you to consider complex questions, but I find his books very restful to read (thought provoking as they can be).

I'm curious as to whether there's something about Scandinavian languages, or life there because there is something very soothing about the turn of phrase in the writing. I know it's a translation, but I found I felt the same way about a novel I read by a Danish author a while back. And now I'm reading "Boy" by Roald Dahl and there's a little of that in there, and although he was British his parents were Norwegian and he spent summers in Norway so it stands to reason that might have an impact on his turn of phrase.

The first of his books which I read was "Sophie's World" many years ago when it was fairly newly out, I must get back to it one of these days, it's a nice accessible introduction to lots of different philosophical schools of thought.

Here's a final quote from The Orange Girl that particularly resonated with me:

I don't know if you've ever had that intense feeling of having done something completely futile. Maybe you've left home in awful weather and gone into town to buy something you really need, and you get to the shop at last only to find it had closed two minutes ago. Such things are infuriating, and most irritating of all is one's own stupidity. (Orange Girl, p82)

I'm afraid I get that feeling a lot, it's nice to read it articulated by someone else.

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