Earlier this year James at New Edition Bookshop suggested William Maxwell to me. So I read The Folded Leaf, a college novel set in 1920s Chicago. I now love it as much as Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. After The Folded Leaf I needed more Maxwell so I went back to the bookshop and bought Time Will Darken It and The Chateau. In The Chateau, a young American couple, Harold and Barbara, are holidaying in post war France:
Thursday was a nice day. The sun shone, it was warm, and Harold and Barbara spent the entire afternoon on the bank of the river, in their bathing suits. When they got home they found a scene out ofAnna Karenina. Mme Bonenfant, Mme Viénot, Mme Cestre, and Thérèse were sitting under the Lebanon cedar, to the right of the terrace, with their chairs facing an enormous burlap bag, which they kept reaching into. They were shelling peas for canning.
On the same buying trip I picked up The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata. The main character, Ogato Shingo, is growing old, his wife is growing old, his children are failing him:
There was a vast depth to the moonlight night, stretching far on either side. Though August had only begun, autumn insects were already singing. He thought he could detect a dripping of dew from leaf to leaf. Then he heard the sound of the mountain.
Halfway through my reading of these novels I fell ill. I went to hospital in the morning. I had surgery in the afternoon. Two days later I was allowed to go home. Ten days later I was back in hospital. And I had stopped reading. I have never stopped reading. I began reading when I was four (perhaps, or five) and every day in every year since I have reached for a book. And I had stopped reading. It was weird. I felt slightly ashamed, as other writers had dedicated whole books to the consolations of literature during illness and crisis.
It’s not as if I didn’t try. I packed Travels with Turgenev. A battered copy of Howard’s End. I downloaded an audio version of Persuasion read by Geraldine McEwan. A dear friend offered Round Ireland with a Fridge for something light and breezy and I took it, fully intending to have a go at it, but no. I read nothing. I practiced single pointed mediation. I thought about death. Old, bad pop songs filtered through my consciousness. I counted the hours until the next time my wife would visit me. My mind was held down by three pegs: blood pressure, heart rate and temperature. I eavesdropped on the nurses, the patients, the doctors because without a book I needed a story, any story, but I had to stop after a few days, it was an overwhelming experience—there were too many stories, I couldn’t take them all in. I think that’s when I realised I was probably quite ill and I was in hospital to get better, not to observe and absorb other people’s stories. Not to be a writer. So I fell down into my bones. I curled up under the ledge of my flesh and there was nothing I could do but lay there. No sentences came. No words. Only a single, drug induced hallucination in which a speedy youth ran through a maze of underground tunnels made of books, clutching a copy of my novel in his hand. When he found a book-sized gap in a wall within a book cave he slotted my novel into it. Orpheus’ underworld, or Plato’s cave, or a literary version of Mario Bros.—I blame the morphine.
When I came home from the hospital, I still couldn’t read, but I did reorganise my books. I sorted. I re-shelved. I carried books from room to room. I boxed up books to take to the op shop. I gave others away. In my bedroom I collected together all the books I have bought these past couple of years but have not read yet: Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories, Adam Thirlwell’s Miss Herbert, andThe Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg (to name a few). I also put together the books I have read this year by those writers I have met since I became (I apologise, but there’s no other way to describe it) a published author. Books such as Inga Simpson’s Mr. Wigg, Krissy Kneen’s Steeplechase, Jesse Cole’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, Amanda Curtin’s Elemental. All of this, for some future time, when I would sit and read.
04 Nov 13 at 23:48
Thank you for sharing your list, Yvette. There are a few books I’d like to pick up sometime.
I fully identify with the not reading! It’s the same for me; once I recently realised I was without a book, I knew something wasn’t right.
06 Nov 13 at 12:16
I’m pleased you enjoyed the list of books Stefani – now I need to get on with the business of reading them !