Two things have happened to me in the last six months that have affected my reading: I finished a novel that was acquired by a publisher, and my mother died. I am now working on edits of the novel and so, at the moment, ‘what I’m reading’ seems even more pointedly about my own work than usual. At the same time, and while I come to terms with doing everything for the first time in a world that no longer contains my mother, ‘what I’m reading’ feels even more pointedly about her too.
The first people to read my manuscript in its entirety were the judges of the Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript (UMA). One friend had read an earlier version of it, when it was a novella, as had the judges of a novella prize for which it was not shortlisted. That friend gave me notes that helped me write another 40,000 words and turn it into a novel. By the time it was highly-commended for the UMA, nine months later, two other friends were reading it. I told them to hurry up— publishers wanted to read it now too.
These friends gave me generous, thoughtful notes. In an email one of them wondered what genre I was working in: was it satire? There was definitely a ‘slow irony’ they said, that put them in mind of a few writers, all of them beyond flattering of course. Rachel Cusk we had talked about, and Michelle De Kretser, but had I read Things: A Story of the Sixties by Georges Perec? Had I read Anita Brookner? I hadn’t.
Thus began my reading based on other people’s takes on my work. Before this I was reading work that I thought might be relevant to my own, but only in a vague way. Mostly I was doing what I had always done: seeking out the best fiction I could find, written in a style that for whatever reason appealed to me. This meant reading new novels that were recommended by friends and critics, as well as following lines of influence and affiliation: Yiyun Li to William Trevor and Elizabeth Bowen; Peter Stamm to Thomas Mann; various people back to Lawrence. It also meant becoming a completist of writers I thought I could learn more from, deciding I couldn’t possibly finish the book, or be any good as a writer, until I’d read everything by Salter, or Wolff, or Ferrante. Maybe I had become a little more desperate about all of this, finding the right books, as I struggled with various aspects of my own, and maybe if I heard of great novels about people in long-term relationships, or people in their thirties, I was especially keen.
I had not been doing any proper research. Not in the way I see other writers researching the topics they are writing about. Tom, the protagonist in my novel, suffers from an anxiety disorder, but I’ve not read anything about clinical anxiety, and I’ve not sought out novels that treat the subject. Perhaps I should have, but I feel I know enough about anxiety already, and it turns out I am superstitious about seeking out books that have too much in common with mine. And thankfully, so far, no-one has recommended any.
My friend thought of Perec’s Things: A Story of the Sixties initially for its superficial similarities to my book. They’d thought of it immediately, in fact, when we’d first met up months earlier, and I’d tried to describe my then work-in-progress: a story about a couple of precariously-employed, no-longer-young academics; their long-term relationship; their travels; their unhappiness. When they read the manuscript, they felt the resonance with Things was even stronger than they’d anticipated, and when I read Things I could see what they meant. Or, I could see how my book, with certain edits, could be a book a little like that, where character is elided, subsumed within what my friend had described as an airless relationship, but also overwhelmed by materiality; where everything is surface, and depth is only ever implied, or not even implied, simply not present. And I loved it—it is funny and sad and brutal in its relentless logging of the hypocrisies and decline of these two disappointed, status-obsessed people. For a book published in 1965, indeed subtitled ‘A Story of the Sixties’, it feels incredibly contemporary. But I was glad in the end that it wasn’t the kind of book I was writing, or even trying to write. My interest in the characters in my book was taking me in other directions.
I loved Anita Brookner’s Hotel Du Lac for precisely the reasons my friend had recommend her to me: the sly humour, the patient observation, the controlled tone. The way the satirical edge never undercuts the insight, never travesties the characters. For Edith Hope, there is a slow dawning as she puzzles out the people around her and puzzles out herself—constantly revising her opinions, adjusting her judgements as events unfold—which seems not only exactly what Tom in my book is doing but what we are all doing, all the time, in real life.
Now I have an editor I have a much longer list of books to read. Not in a prescriptive way, but at my own urging. Because I badgered her to give me the names of books she thought of when she read mine. I’m not sure why I’ve been so keen on this list. Maybe I’ve been hoping that reading the one right book will help me see something about my own that I had missed, or will give me an idea, some new way of approaching something important that would make the book. Who knows. Either way, beyond finding the right person to think deeply about your work, surely the book chats are one of the best things about having an editor.
After my friend recommended Anita Brookner to me, I came across several of her books in my mother’s bookshelves, while I was home for the funeral. I have read a lot of books from those shelves; I make unrealistic stacks every time I arrive. The last time I had visited, a few weeks earlier, I’d discovered Colm Toíbín’s The Heather Blazing there, and I read it over the course of my stay, while my mother lay dying in the next room, or next to me on her bed.
Brookner is not a writer I remember discussing with her at any length. But in the last weeks of her life she had another of her books on the bed with her, Lewis Percy, one of the many books she tried and failed to read in those last months. She ended up just playing with it, stroking the cover with her swollen, arthritic fingers. But she needed books nearby long after she was able to concentrate on them. It was a comfort, something that helped her stay in touch with who she had been, but maybe also a symbol of hope, the hope she clung to that she might at any moment start to recover and be able to resume her life.
Because she could no longer concentrate on books, no longer keep her eyes open most of the time, I tried reading to her. Because she never read short stories, claimed not to like them, I made one last tilt at that, and read her Helen Garner’s ‘Postcards from Surfers’. She chuckled along for a few pages with her eyes closed until she fell asleep. Soon after that the periods of wakefulness became rare and we tried to spend those talking with her or just being physically close with her on the bed, while daytime news and Doc Martin re-runs played in the background.
My mother’s copy of Hotel Du Lac is a paperback edition from 1985, the year after it was first published. Her name is written on the flyleaf, in a cursive that was not yet shaky. The pages have yellowed, and the cover is scuffed, and it smells nice in the way all old paperbacks that haven’t been opened for a while smell nice. It is so redolent of my mother somehow, beyond the inscribed name, that when I opened it for the first time and saw her handwriting I had an uncanny feeling, fleeting but for that moment overwhelming, that I was very close to her all of a sudden. Perhaps the era of its publication and the cover image contributed to that—a watercolour of red flowers on long stalks against the pale blue of distant water, it is Lake Geneva but could easily be the inlet beyond her garden. Perhaps all the old photographs of her we were poring over did too. It felt clear to me that I was opening something that she was the last person to open, and maybe not for a long time, not since she’d first read it, whenever that was. And not just open, but spend private time with, a certain intimacy. For a few seconds, it felt like I’d found her there. While I read it, over the next few days, I found myself lingering on the flyleaf, trying to recapture that feeling, a sense of her, what it felt like when she was alive, or else carefully avoiding it, depending on how I was feeling. It is a strange time, the first weeks of mourning.
Another book I’ve read recently is Edward St Aubyn’s Never Mind, the first of the Patrick Melrose novels. Actually, I watched the mini-series first and remembered guiltily how my mother had told me only last year how good the TV adaptation was. ‘No one listens to me in this family’ she had a habit of saying, and we would mock her, laugh it off, but it was true that our tastes diverged and clashed enough that I rarely responded to her recommendations wholeheartedly, or acted upon them immediately, not unless I’d heard good things about them elsewhere. I always had other books to read. Then I would ring her up, shamefacedly, after finally reading something she had recommended months ago that of course turned out to be great. This guilt is now accentuated every time I discover she was right about something I had not read while she was alive. Something I should have read immediately when she’d recommended it to me but was too caught up in some discovery of my own to pay proper attention. But it was such a constant between us. Whatever else was happening in our lives, it felt like a good third our phone conversations were the ‘what are you reading’ part; at least until my daughter was born. And so many times, over the last six months, I have caught myself looking up from books and making it some way along the formulation ‘I should tell mum about this’ before remembering. I wonder now, if I were able to talk to her about Brookner, what she might say. I imagine her becoming exasperated: ‘But I told you about her!’
I try to imagine it from her side too, all those years of hits and misses, trying out writers and books on me, some of them sitting unread in my shelves for years, some there even now. Coming across these books is yet another opportunity to feel guilt. But I try to stop myself doing that, looking for opportunities. It is only misdirected grief. Besides, I wasn’t such a hopeless case. She was responsible for so many revelations, and we shared many favourite books. She also got me out of ruts. I remember her reading something I wrote once, when I was maybe sixteen or seventeen. Possibly I was only reading Camus and Kafka and Dostoyevsky at the time, or if slightly earlier, only reading the Beats. She was uncharacteristically tactful. She put it down and said quietly, ‘I think it’s time you started reading modern things.’
Coincidentally, I still have on my bedside table the third instalment of a Kafka biography that she gave to me two Christmases ago, and which I still fully intend to read. It is more painful now, but the ‘what I’m reading’ conversation continues between us. Hopefully, it always will.
Luke Horton is a writer and editor from Melbourne. He edits The Lifted Brow Review of Books, and his debut novel, The Fogging, will be published by Scribe in 2020.