Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Tired Tuesday (Of Challenges and Memes)

The World That Was Ours
Hilda Bernstein
Persephone Books, London

My copy of The World That Was Ours is getting pretty marked up. There are just so many passages that are revelatory or stunning or stylistically brilliant. This memoir is set in apartheid South Africa, and it is compelling.

I'm a little more than halfway through the book, so I suppose my first challenge (Persephone Week, May 3-9) is not a complete success. And I've been so busy-tired (to the point of enervation) that I haven't posted in several days. Then I noticed that many bloggers participate in Teaser Tuesday (sponsored by MizB at Should Be Reading), so for this post I'll blend a challenge with a Meme, following the rules of neither. I can't write a complete post on The World That Was Ours, but I'll give potential readers some examples of why I'm so engrossed in this splendid memoir.

One of Berntein's stylistic techniques is to use simple descriptive language, then follow the description with a single striking metaphor. For instance, she describes the "curiously quiet Sundays" of summer, the perfectly ordinary days when her husband is under house arrest, but hasn't yet been jailed. Then she ends a the passage with a single sentence that conveys the oppressive fear that governs her "ordinary"days:

But at the same time, a drying up of noise and life, as though under a great iron hand.

In another passage, Bernstein describes the consequences of "a season of drought, crop failure and hunger", despite a country full of surplus food being left to rot in order to keep up prices:

Food that rots and children that die, all through this beautiful, bountiful summer.

Bernstein describes in detail the methods the totalitarian government in South Africa used to oppress the black majority and terrify anyone who might feel called to work toward the cause of liberation. Bernstein's husband Rusty is first placed under house arrest, then captured in a raid and jailed. Here Bernstein describes her only physical contact with her husband after months of imprisonment:

I held on to Rusty, touched him, kissed him. We sat clasping each other, alone together. There was nothing in the cell except the narrow bench against the wall. At first we could barely talk, then we began to talk softly, intimately. It was a sheer, unbelievable happiness. I thought if I could sit for an hour a day close to you like this, Rusty, just holding on to your hands and talking, life would be completely bearable. That's all I want--just an hour a day in close, quiet contact, alone. At that moment it seemed like the fulfillment of all ambition.

As I read this book I am astounded at the moral courage of those who, like Nelson Mandela and many others, willingly walked straight into terrifying situations, defying an evil and powerful government with righteous conviction.

I'm only halfway through it, but I highly recommend this book to any reader. And if my posts seem few and far between, its because I'm reading.

Or grading papers.


Jessica said...

That last paragraph is beautiful, I'll look forward to the review!

Hannah Stoneham said...

This sounds like a fascinating book - a real contrast to my choice of Mariana where the central narrative has little or no political comment... I hope that you continue to enjoy this book.


Grad said...

The passages you quoted sound so beautiful. I guess I can only get this book at the Persephone website? By the way, I signed up for their Biannual. Can't wait til it comes. Hang in there - the year is almost over.

bibliophiliac said...

Thanks Jessica. Hannah, I hope I'll get the time to finish this book by the weekend at least.
Grad, I ordered this book from Amazon. It seems than only paperback Persephones are available on this side of the ocean; I'm thinking that has to do with the cost of shipping the heavier hardbacks? I did find a selection of Persephone titles on line.

Anonymous said...

this sounds lovely and i am adding it to my wishlist, though my book buying ban may mean i won't get around to it for a while!