It is, in a way, an act of withdrawal, and I worry about it sometimes. I am spending more and more time reading and alone. How healthy can that be? But let us be honest: for a natural hermit, it is very healthy, especially when I am fortunate to have a room dedicated to books—a private library.
Eight years ago, partly due to good luck and partly due to a desire to put literature at the centre of my being, I left Canberra for a town an hour away, in regional New South Wales. Although I would need to continue earning an income, I could, if luck kept smiling on me, live on the smell of an oily rag. My plan was to spend the majority of each week writing, but I have found, thankfully, that I am spending as much time reading—day after day of it, all in the smallest room in my crumbling old cottage.
In the library is a pair of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that were there when I moved in, as well as an old green Hordern & Sons wood-heater (it is rarely used, because it tends to smoke out the house) and a tartan couch that I bought for $30 from the local Vinnies but is a bit too short for my body. In winter, when the mornings sometimes start with a horrifying minus 10 degrees, I read under two blankets: one, a mix of oranges and reds, was my grandmother’s; the other, which is as green as the wood-heater and the couch, was my mother’s and given to her by a school friend—my mother is now in a nursing home and battling dementia, so the gift came to me earlier this year. In summer I am sprawled only in black T-shirt and grey shorts, the soles of my feet gritty with dirt because I like to get up every hour or so and hand-water the garden.
But, it is true, I do worry about these long days of reading; there are days when even the sound of the postie’s motorbike zipping down the footpath irritates.
Although I like to keep my library organised in broad categories—books (mostly novels) I could not live without; books that did not entirely connect with me (wrong time? wrong mood? maybe I will give them another go down the track?), books yet to be opened—it has become my habit to put recently read books on their backs in piles on the shelves. I have discovered that I like to regularly review my year of reading: which books continue to resonate? It is always fascinating to realise that some books, though frustrating to read, have actually burrowed beneath my skin: they have become important to me despite myself. I have also realised that we keep reading the best books even after the last page is turned—there is an ongoing, unconscious, bodily process of understanding.
While writing these words, I have glanced at the books I have read so far this year. The canonical novels: Doctor Zhivago (‘I have the impression that if he didn’t complicate his life so needlessly, he would die of boredom’), Crime and Punishment (‘Only to live, to live and live! Life, whatever it may be!’), Tess of the D’Urbervilles (‘Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid’)—those somewhat baggy stories that feel as big and important as the sun. Then there are the contemporary novels that knocked my socks off: Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius, The Lebs by Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Prize Fighter by Fortune D. Fidel, Michelle de Kretser’s luminous The Life to Come as well as Robyn Cadwallader’s Book of Colours, which is so wondrously intricate. There is poetry: Kayo Chingonyi’s Kumukanda (a good friend’s gift, about music and masculinity, which are obsessions of mine) and Melinda Smith’s gut-wrenchingly playful Goodbye, Cruel.
I am reminded now that I read about Alexandria, Egypt’s city of ambitions: Mountolive by Lawrence Durrell, E.M. Forster’s Alexandria—a history and guide, and Out of Egypt by André Aciman. I came to the latter via Call Me By Your Name, the novel, not the film, which I am yet to see, and perhaps never will, for the screen (big and small) rarely enthrals these days.
And then, well, I went on quite an adventure—into the wild world of gay literature.
I turn 50 next month, and have spent 35 years living same-sex attraction and intimacy. Yet gay literature has not been as significant to me as one might imagine. Perhaps I have been too busy working out the gay life? Perhaps I wanted the experience of being gay, my experience, before I read about how others found it? But some gay fictions did find their way into my blood and bones. Years ago, two stories tore me apart: Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx (I own the pocket-sized edition and have read it many times; if I am ever asked to give a writing workshop, I like to quote from it: ‘The mountain boiled with demonic energy’) and Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave. When I finished the latter, I had to go for an hours-long walk so I could think of a way to re-enter the everyday world—it was not because Conigrave’s story perfectly mirrored mine, but because it felt like a warning: this could have been you.
Late this winter, however, and then during the first days of spring, I put myself on a reading program that purposely included a wide range of gay novels.
I started in a familiar place: Forster’s Maurice. Why had this book not been required reading at the Anglican private school I attended? Oh yes, I see now. From Forster I crossed the Atlantic to spend a couple of days in Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar; two athletic young men are torn apart by the Second World War: ‘Their affair looked to be most promising, with endless possibilities of disaster’. Bitter Eden by Tatamkhulu Afrika kept me in that war, albeit from a South African perspective. Cory Taylor’s The Beautiful Enemy also held me in wartime but back in Australia, where same-sex desire came to life (as much as it could) in a Victorian camp for those categorised as ‘aliens’. With Funny Boy, Shyam Selvadurai had me journeying again overseas, to Sri Lanka in the 1990s and into a world of effeminacy and civil unrest.
Peter Polites brought me home again, all the way to Sydney, the city of my birth and youth. In Down the Hume, Polites reveals what it is like right now to be gay and Greek in Western Sydney, a place where a simple embrace between friends becomes the most powerful act imaginable. From Peter Polites I went to Christos Tsiolkas, who shares his admiration of Patrick White in his essay on the self-described monster for a new ‘writers on writers’ series. White, so Tsiolkas argues, became a great writer because his Greek-born partner Manoly Lascaris broadened his understanding of the world. (I wonder if that is a point Scott Morrison would ever like to make?)
It did not seem too much of a leap from White to reading The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse, which was published in 1983, the year I fell in love for the first time—with a friend who swam at the state level but also liked to play the piano in the school music room before classes started. I have only recently discovered this collection; how would I have felt if it had found its way into my naïve young hands? I would have been shocked, for it contains poetry that can only be called pornographic. Perhaps I would have settled for the relative safety of Whitman: ‘I see a beautiful gigantic swimmer swimming naked through the/eddies of the sea’. However, it would have also been a road map of sorts: this is your community; this is where we have been; these are our indiscretions and missteps (and worse) as well as our fantasies; this is where we—and you—are going. I hope I would have underlined the following words by editor Stephen Coote: ‘True liberation, the breakdown of models of sickness and the celebration of the health and diversity of the whole body of love, is the work of this century. It must be our work’. Or maybe, incredulous, I would have asked myself, I have to work for this? Yes, nervous, introverted, temperamental Nigel, you would have to work for this.
It feels right to admit now that last week I re-read the first book I ever adored: Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal; the edition I have was published in 1967, the year before I was born. It came to light a few months ago when my brother and I were cleaning our mother’s house. A picture book, it is about a little girl who goes picking blueberries with her mother but ends up getting lost, only to be rescued by a bear. My mother used to read the story to me before I slept. I can hear her voice now: it is soothing, articulate; she was an early-childhood teacher before becoming a bookseller. I have never been rescued by a bear, but I have—time and time again—been rescued by reading, and writing.
If this gives the impression of being ‘well read’, I am afraid I have done a disservice. I am a slow reader, and I do not have an education in the classics, nor one in literature. I am always feeling as though I am catching up, and the years are piling on top of themselves. When I close my eyes for the final time, will I have read enough? The answer will be no; but I will have read what I have read and that will have made many worlds of difference.
Still, I have my beginning, and I have my conclusion, which has become better: yes, reading is an act of withdrawal, from the banal, from the vacuous, from the easily understood, but on the page, with nothing more than sentences, with story, in these directed dreams I have been given and have experienced, I have found sustenance.
Nigel Featherstone’s new novel, Bodies of Men, is forthcoming from Hachette Australia in 2019. http://www.opentopublic.com.au/