I long to read only one book at a time, but this ambition seems somehow beyond me and rarely do I have fewer than four on the go. I experiment with limitations. For instance, feeling overwhelmed by the endless onslaught of new books and the debates around these, I recently decided I would read only books written by dead people. True academics excel at this, but I’m not one of these, and so the vow didn’t hold. I started off well though, if haphazardly: re-visiting Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and then Proust, when I found a gorgeous old American hardcopy in a second hand bookshop in Oxford. But, ultimately, I’ve been enticed back into the fold. This is partly because I’m on sabbatical and so have more time to read (and snoop around bookshops) than I do when teaching.
Generally, my reading is divided up according to what projects I’m working on, so, first off, there are the books I’m reading for review. At the moment these are Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle and Elena Ferrante’s extraordinary non-fiction collection Frantumaglia. Then there are things I’m reading in preparation for a talk I’m giving at the Life Writing Centre at Oxford University—at the top of this pile sit Virginia Woolf’s late diaries and letters, along with Albert Camus’ Lyrical and Critical Essays. Then there are the things I dip in and out of at the beginning and end of the day: Lauren Elkin’s spirited inquiry into the history of the female flâneur, Flaneuse: Women Walk the City, and Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café. And in the fashion of a good tonic I read Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove. As you might guess, finishing books is not high on my list of priorities. I’m happy, often enough, for them to go on living alongside me: what do I need something to end for? That said, there are three books that I’ve been compelled to finish and neglect all else in order to do so.
I knew I could buy the book in London, but still, much to the horror of my travelling companions, I hauled Some Rain Must Fall, the latest volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, onto the plane in my hand luggage. I didn’t read it then, too befuddled by Singapore Slingers and repeat viewings of The Lobster, but after carrying such a tome so far I felt I had to give it a chance. I’d read the first one, then tossed it aside (a man struggling to write with children—Pah!) only to be convinced by a friend that the fifth book was something different. Yes, I was hooked, or maybe swindled is a better description. Is the sense of self-parody more extreme in this recent one? I’ll have to go back and find out. Perhaps I was taken in by the künstlerroman element, or maybe it was just the companionship of what seems at first like an affable rambling consciousness. Ben Lerner said something in a review of Knuasgaard that his attention isn’t selective, rather, like a child, every small thing can count, discrimination doesn’t occur in the way one might expect. This was perhaps what I loved most, the repeated affirmation of the banal and the overlooked:
Why actually should you write about actions? X loves Y, Z kills W … What was the description of a father compared with that of a tree in the meadow?
But to move in the completely opposite direction: on the day that Rachel Cusk’s new novel, Transit (the second volume in what is set to be a trilogy) was due out I loitered in Blackwell’s until they started phoning the warehouse to give me an ETA.
This is an extraordinary work, composed of what feel like a series of monologues mediated by the consciousness of the book’s narrator, Fay, as she goes about her London life; getting her apartment renovated, having her hair dyed, speaking at a literary festival, going out to dinner. Cusk appears determined, in these books, to discard what the narrator Fay calls the ‘screen of fiction’. How we might interpret this screen is left open, determined perhaps by what is absent from the book: the complex machinations of plot, the forced development of character, the sense of performance. Instead we have a self that feels unveiled without any act of disclosure, pared-back in the most radical fashion. This revised sense of identity (‘we are only the result of how others have treated us’) is supported by the form, in which we interpret Fay through the confessions and monologues of others. It is a book that strips things back, that disarms, shunning any impulse to decorate or charm. It works on the reader by stealth, and leaves you uneasy. I was thrilled to see this one on the shortlist for the Goldsmiths Prize—the most interesting prize around, I think.
The other wondrous thing that I came upon by chance recently was Kirsty Gunn’s My Katherine Mansfield Project. This is an essay, published by the very brilliant Notting Hill Editions, and charts a period when Gunn returns to her native New Zealand after decades in the UK. Gunn explores her own experience of returning, and the discomfort of this, against a deep thinking through of similar preoccupations in Mansfield’s own work, probing Mansfield’s tendency to write about ‘home’ only when she was absent from it:
One has left a version of oneself at the place of departure and it waits for us at the point of return—but she is not me when I get there.
It’s a work of fierce intelligence and an incredible exploration of the essay form, pushing the boundaries of this form as far as they may go.
I went to an event recently where Benjamin Markovits said something to the effect that a novel should feel like the moment a friend tells you a secret at midnight, and all these three books (novels or not) felt this way to me.
Stephanie Bishop is the author, most recently, of The Other Side of the World. She is a lecturer in Creative Writing at UNSW and Visiting Scholar at Oxford University, Centre for Life Writing.