As soon as I began to think of what I might write here, the phrase for a long time came to me. I always have numerous books on the go, ‘open’ all at once and sometimes for a long time. This is, of course, the opening of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.
I imagine a thin, shimmering abstract-expressionist veil of paint between have read or reading or no longer reading or about to read. The first time I read Swann’s Way was in India in 2006, but I’ve been slowly moving through the original translation by Moncrieff and the more recent one by Lydia Davis, both of which contribute to a large pile of books on my bedside table.
I often read a little of the Davis, only to move to the Moncrieff to compare phrasing. Once there is a shift from one book the other, something happens. Things get blurry. I often lose my place and a somnambulism enters the reading or re-reading and sometimes listening on two different audiobooks (one narrated by Simon Vance, another by John Rowe) the same early pages, early hundreds of pages. I write down notes to myself to re-consider certain sections of the book/s, swinging into this long book, again, over years. And it’s generally like this with my reading, moving between books, circling, getting lost, picking things up, being like a dream.
It’s 5:36 pm on a Saturday evening, Melbourne. It’s quiet. The sun is just down. Given you could possibly see into our house from the footpath, if you looked closely, I like to anticipate the darkness and close the blinds a quarter of an hour before dark—at dusk, I guess—and so I’ve been sitting in bed here by the lit lamp for a while, but I’ve only just noticed that its light has come into play. Illuminated, is the pile of books. From the top:
Kazuo Ishiguro, An Artist of the Floating World. I started this again recently, perhaps the third time since I bought it more than a decade ago, but I’ve stalled, again. Not that I don’t usually like Ishiguro; late last year, I read The Unconsoled for the third time. It’s one of my favourite novels.
Dermot Healy, A Goat’s Song. Eventually a book will take hold in me and I’ll finish it swiftly. The book I’m in or with now is the late Irish novelist’s The Goat’s Song. A chapter of it was my favourite of the prescribed parts of a fiction course I tutored in last year. It’s a dreamlike chapter where a playwright’s imagination crosses into reality, around his former lover. But he seems to inhabit her, at times, as if his own character.
Kenneth Koch, Rose, Where Did you Get That Red? (1973) and Wishes Lies and Dreams (1970). I’ve been looking into teaching poetry to children, and Koch is one of the few people who’ve written well about it, as much as I haven’t forgiven him for the role he played in Barbara Guest’s omission from An Anthology of the New York School of Poets (1970) edited by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. Coy confession: I’m only reading this for the first time! The glitzy phrasing doesn’t disappoint!
Murray Bail, The Voyage. I read this when it came out in 2012, but I pulled it off the shelf recently and read a few paragraphs. I considered re-reading it and wanted to get a sense of the almost-Godardian palette and the peculiar austerity in some of the descriptions when the protagonist sails, on a container ship, with his piano, to and from Vienna.
Bonny Cassidy, Chatelaine. This Victorian poet arranges language anew, and I’ve been picking this up and reading poems here and there. Other poetry collections (that happen also to be by local poets) that I’m dipping into and loving are Prithvi Varatharajan’s Entries and Tim Wright’s Suns.
Eyes Wide Open by Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut co-scriptwriter, Frederic Raphael. I don’t know why this is here. I read it more than 15 years ago. It’s ok, a bit light. A few months ago, I re-watched Eyes Wide Shut, which I think is very strange and very brilliant, and I think I wanted to check something in the book. Some books get stuck here by the bedside, hidden, reminding me of some time ago.
William H. Gass, Eyes. I found this recent collection of stories and novellas by the American stylist on the Readings Books sale table. I’ve read a couple of Gass novels. He can write something so hard and elegant, astonishing, twists the language, but the writing is often dark and sometimes smug and occasionally tasteless. Recently I picked Eyes out of the pile and randomly read the first line my eyes rested on. It was an astonishing sentence.
I just spent about twenty minutes trying to find that sentence.
I remember it was on the right-hand side of the spine at about a quarter of the way down the page, but I don’t remember anything else about the sentence. During this search, I did find other sentences on the upper-right side of the page that I’m sure weren’t the one I read but that are also stunning, e.g. here’s a bit of this long one: ‘Surrounded by the sweetest vagueness, the tree rose from the walk on its own wet and wavy shadow as though that dripping shadow were a root, easing toward its dim thin upper limbs, which were dotted with brief new leaves and one perched bird, to faintly foliate away in indistinctness…’
Virginia Woolf, Selected Diaries. I read the diaries, now and then, if I’m feeling a little down—there’s a particular empathy in that.
Virginia Woolf, Selected Short Stories. I love the middle section of this little collection with the micro-fiction ‘Green’ on the left of the spine and ‘Blue’ on the right. These two pieces where hugely influential when I began taking writing seriously more than twenty years ago. I love a narrativeless spill of fast, gorgeous description framed as complete.
Stabilising the pile is The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan (ed. Kevin Dettmar), a collection of light-weight-ish but fun academic papers) and That Thin Wild Mercury Sound (a whole book on Blonde on Blonde that I gave up on pretty quickly).
On the floor in front of my bedside table is Anita Brookner’s Falling Slowly (halfway through); The Years by Annie Ernaux translated by Alison L. Strayer (abandoned); and The Weekend by Charlotte Wood (yet to get to this but looking forward!).
I’ve read about six Anita Brookners over the last couple of years since the Backlisted Podcast featured Look at Me. I was devastated by that book’s exact depiction of social cruelty and loneliness, and I love Brookner’s lean, austere, gorgeously punctuated sentences. The books are also pure melancholy. With Falling Slowly, about sisters who can’t quite connect, I haven’t yet been hooked, but I think it’s because of lockdown and the dust on everything.
I’ve just come out of what seems to be a once-every-five-years-or-so Dylan phase. It went for about two months this time. Going deeper with every album and opening up to more recent albums (the best discovery of this phase was the incessant, irresistible song ‘Changing of the Guards’ from Street-Legal which I played over and over). Second confession: I only just read his Chronicles. I tend to avoid musicians’ memoirs, but I didn’t know he could pull off prose like this. Some passages are better than most of his lyrics.
There are books that I’m reading but that are not necessarily on my bedside table, such as the earlier mentioned poetry books. I also just finished reviewing (which requires an acute, often arduous, type of reading) three poetry collections for ABR: MTC Cronin’s God is Waiting in the World’s Yard; Jordie Albiston’s Element; and Michael Farrell’s Family Trees. They’re still sitting on my desk. I even made a drawing while I was reading Family Trees.
Just now, in my backpack—which, given lockdown, I’ve hardly used for months—I found Cesar Aira’s novella The Conversations (trans. Katherine Silver). I’m a third of the way through. As with Aira, the narrative is improvised, and, from memory, is about a conversation around an actor’s intentions when an expensive contemporary watch is found on the wrist of the shepherd he is playing in a period film.
Melbourne lockdown has also meant that my endless wait (library hold) for the recent English translation of French writer Annie Ernaux’s much-touted The Years (2008) was going to go on for too long, so I decided to just buy it. It’s a beautiful cream-coloured object from Fitzcarraldo Editions. I’m used to their sea-blue covers: the blue ones are fiction—I’m also reading, here and there, Agustin Fernandez Mallo’s fragmented patchwork of a novel, Nocilla Dream—and the white ones, non-fiction. The cover of The Years should be something in between, sky-blue, given its experimental as an autobiography. It’s a ‘memoir’ spanning the years 1941 to 2006. I trust the publisher immensely and trusted the pages of praise on the inside cover. The conceit is that it’s written without the first person singular, which at first sounds bold and nifty, and my expectation was that it would make for some unusual sentences, but I found it a little off-time—it doesn’t work, for me. We felt this, and we felt that. I just don’t think the reality of class or culture allows for such generalisation. I allows the reader space to sway, was what I was thinking.
I’m about three-quarters of the way through the 900-page Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel which is an excellent document of the lives of these brilliant, hugely influential, often-overshadowed painters: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler. The book’s weighted more towards narrative and anecdote rather than chunky theory, but it does move swiftly.
Speaking of abstract painting, I’m reading and looking at three big art books which sit in the lounge room. Lately, I look at these in the evening if I have any energy left after reading/performing books to my son (at the moment we’re re-reading our favourite picture books. There are so many, but This Moose Belongs to Me by Oliver Jeffers, Herman and Rosie by Gus Gordon and the Berenstains’ B Book are right up there!).
I open Tuckson (ed. Denise Mimmocchi) based on the Tony Tuckson exhibition at AGNSW last year; I Carry My Landscapes Around With Me based on the Joan Mitchell exhibition at David Zwirner New York from last year; and Women of Abstract Expressionism (ed. Joan Marter). The latter is one of the books I’ve been able to keep for a long time given I borrowed it before lockdown. Other books I still have out are the non-fiction Dylans and the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Aboriginal Literature edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter. Here’s Sam Wagan Watson being his usual brilliant: ‘the dreamtime Dostoyevskys feel the early winter/chilled footsteps walk across their backs in the dark hours’.
What will I read in the future? Charlotte Wood, as mentioned. And American poet and central figure of the New York School of Poets, Barbara Guest, who I wrote my thesis on, wrote a painterly experimental underappreciated novel, Seeking Air. I was thinking about writing an article about it, so I’ve pulled it off the bookshelf. Where does reading begin? It feels obvious that it has, already. Images from the book have come to me in the last few days, dissolved with the pale-blue texture of its cover.
Luke Beesley’s fifth poetry collection, Aqua Spinach (Giramondo), was shortlisted for the 2019 ALS Gold Medal. His poetry has been published widely in Australia and internationally and has been translated into several languages. He lives in Melbourne.