I approached having a baby by planning for the worst but hoping for the best. At 39 weeks, I heaved myself to an internet cafe; I printed off the scant and tentative beginnings of my work in progress and filed it away. As a feminist, I knew the score. Having a baby meant writing was out of the question, for months if not years. But what effect would the pram in the hall have on reading?
Then when my daughter was born, I didn’t feel like reading and I didn’t even miss it. Infatuated people don’t read! They don’t want to think about anything but their love.
A few months in, I was lured back to books by an unlikely siren: a bespectacled, cuckolded, heavily overcoated master spy. The 2011 film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was shot in part at a creepy building near Regent’s Canal. I walked past it every day, pushing my new companion in her pram. As she drifted easily into newborn sleep, I’d think each time of Gary Oldman as George Smiley, snuffling in the dark, waiting for his mole. I plunged into Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold on audiobook. The cold, abstract, intellectual world was so opposite to mine: maternal, warm and cuddly.
Unable to leave the ‘Circus,’ I moved straight on to The Constant Gardener and A Perfect Spy. John leCarré’s language is so forceful and so pristine. ‘[F]or Pym loved luxury as only those can who have had love taken from them…’ Some of his moments of insight took my breath away. Each, in its complex plot, is a perfect mystery. They are perfect novels. I followed them with a 007 dessert: Moonraker, read by Bill Nighy.
Next I listened to Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a book about September 11, love, cricket, immigration, marriage, and murder. The structure intrigued me: a man, unaccustomed to analysing his feelings, looks back at a momentous or formative period of his life and tries to solve its mysteries. Reminded of Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending, I listened to that too (it was at this point that I went ahead and increased my Audible membership, yet another unanticipated cost of having children). This in turn reminded me of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair so, wrapping up the baby in her first snow suit, I walked through modern day London but was transported back to World War Two. Greene’s Maurice Bendrix might be a writer, but he was as dense as Hans van den Broek and Tony Webster at deciphering the clues in his past.
Sticking with the first person, I delighted in A Farewell to Arms read by John Slattery: Roger Stirling of Stirling Cooper! I stuck with The Goldfinch, 32 hours of it, and cried at the end. But that might have been from relief?
Snatching time to walk in the UK’s wettest winter for decades, I revisited The Corrections and Freedom. It is unfashionable to like Franzen now; in interviews, he can come across curmudgeonly and out of touch. But I wanted to look at how he’d constructed his huge and fascinating books. The Corrections is quite simple: interlocking novellas exploring the lives and back story of each member of the Lambert family as they come home for a last Christmas. Freedom is more complex: more wily snaking through the past. The narrators of these two audiobooks are different but equally horrible. No one talks like that in real life, even Americans.
Then I went on a PD James binge. Original Sin, A Certain Justice, Death in Holy Orders, The Murder Room, The Lighthouse, The Private Patient. In her Paris Review interview, PD James talks about the importance of plot and ‘strong narrative thrust.’ London’s spring came early this year and it was fortunate it did. Listening to her books I found myself walking from one nap time to the next just to keep listening, feeding the baby under a tree and changing her on a towel. Since I’d read them all before I never worried if I missed anything. I’d lean down so my face was close to hers and discuss them with her, hoping to make her smile.
Aside from Dame Phyllis and Donna Tartt, it does not escape me that I’ve only featured male authors on my list. All the books except Netherland and The Goldfinch I’d read before, some many times. Most are genre: spy or mystery. Well, the staid old masters have done their job. In a time of my life that could have felt chaotic, scary, or out of control, revisiting their perfectly structured, utterly authoritative books has buttressed and comforted me.
My daughter is six months old now. My love affair with the pram and with audiobooks is ending: she prefers to survey the world from her sling, and pulls my headphones out of my ears. But it doesn’t matter. My Kindle and my book piles are full of new women writers: I’m ready for their innovation, empathy, bravery and intensity. My notes are out of their file and some new work is being done. It’s good to be back on firm ground.
Jessica Stanley is a Melbourne writer living in London.
24 Mar 14 at 15:04
I can’t believe The Goldfinch takes 32 hours on audiobook!
Also struck by the comment about Franzen being out of fashion. I don’t quite know how he became the writer people love to hate. I actually think he seems to have a great sense of humour. I think it’s just his distaste for social media that gets people all worked up.
24 Mar 14 at 21:10
@Annabel Smith I think Twitter loves to hate people that hate it. Which is understandable! But I love him too. I love books that give you access to the whole of a character’s past and thoughts.
24 Mar 14 at 22:22
When I finished my thesis last year I went on an unashamed male author mystery binge. Some good – I re-read The Constant Gardener and the Third Man and all my Bond faithfuls (there was an exhibition on at the Melbourne Museum!) – but I also read a whole lot of John Grisham which is my default when I need to read something silly but also compelling.. (?? maybe??). (Oh and I read the goldfinch too.) I knew what I didn’t want to read: about cricket and rugby in Hong Kong in 1992-2002. So I sort of went in the complete opposite direction, but the more I read the more I saw I was still drawn to the same topics: end of empire, changing leisure patterns, boys clubs… Too tired to analyse that state of mind, but I seem to have gotten over it and am reading lots of little village dramas at the moment!
27 Mar 14 at 20:58
I hope you’re going to read Gaskell’s ‘Cranford’ Hannah-Rose, the best little village drama of them all! I got homesick for London thinking of ‘The End of The Affair’ in this post Jessica, jealous you got to read it walking those gloriously grey and cold streets. So fitting. And I’m just about to embark on The Goldfinch. I have a chest-infection and Sydney is heavy with rain, so I don’t think I’ll mind the time it takes me. Wish me luck, friends!
28 Mar 14 at 12:30
I’m interested in how the experience of listening to a book compares with reading it. When I listened to “Women in Love” I became aware of many stylistic tics of DHL that had passed me by in previous readings of it.It’s as if the visual imagination is more stimulated by reading print so that you glide over these things, while the auditory brings them to the fore.
10 Apr 14 at 11:44
What a lovely visual piece of writing.