Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.
As a red-blooded Greek man, the poet Hesiod was wary of summer. ‘Exhausting summertime has come,’ he wrote in Works and Days. ‘The goats are very fat, and wine is good. Women are full of lust, but men are weak.’ This wasn’t just an eccentric fantasy of Hesiod’s. It was part of the Greek world view. Summer was considered to be manhunting season.
More than two millennia later, Friedrich Nietzsche identified the Greek summer with clarity and honesty. It wasn’t about arousal and erotic parasitism but, rather, the finest kind of philosophy: bold, unflinching and single-minded. Before the ‘blue voluptuous sea and luminous sky’ of Greece, Italy and southern France, German arts and letters were pale and sickly: ‘all in all’, he wrote in Beyond Good and Evil, there was ‘no beauty, nothing of the south or of subtle southerly brightness of sky’. Whereas his countrymen’s fog and grey gloom led to the mist of Kantian metaphysics and dismal Romanticism, the sun of the Mediterranean gave rise to cheery pagan philosophy.
Nowadays, medical science thumbs its nose at ancient Greek physiology, just as geography and the social sciences shy away from what’s called ‘geographic reductionism’: the idea that landscape or weather makes us what we are. While Hesiod’s biological ideas are seen as muddle-headed poppycock, Nietzsche’s speculations have disturbing associations with dangerous racial and ethnic myths. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, but nor does one summer make a man. In the twenty-first century, the seasons obey the laws of physics and biology, and anything else is wild speculation.
And yet summer continues to have an appeal that goes beyond science, beyond melanin and the ultraviolet spectrum. From the primordial terror of bushfires to the primal appeal of the beach and bikinis, the season occasions its own iconography of horror and allure. Robert Musil’s great modernist novel The Man Without Qualities begins with a meteorological description. ‘The isotherms and isotheres’, he writes dryly, ‘were fulfilling their functions.’ But for all his talk of pressure, temperature and humidity, Musil’s portrait of ‘a fine August day’ in Vienna was evoking an urban summer’s mood rather than assaying any scientific study of the climate. Despite exponential progress in science and technology, the vicissitudes of the atmosphere and seasons still have imaginative cachet.
Nothing demonstrates this more than ‘summer reading’. No Australian Christmas is complete without a pile of catalogues lauding authors and their wares. From bookshops to newspapers and magazines to publishers, everyone with a financial stake in the printed word invests their time and money in the idea of books and summer. In a season of cricket, swimming and barbecues, it might seem strange to laud paper and ink. It’s also weird that the climate has any bearing on reading, as if the great outdoors has anything to do with our literary interiority. But somehow this has become de rigueur. And it isn’t simply because the holidays afford more time for reading. As puzzling as it might seem, there’s something about summer that invites the silent cognition and reverie of the book.
Perhaps the most obvious reason for this is the adherence of memory to paper and ink. And nowhere is this more charmingly revealed than in Proust’s essay On Reading. He writes with his usual effervescence about the summers he spent with books, ‘in those hours of the day that were peaceful enough and inviolable enough to give them refuge’. Proust’s point is that all the things that obscure our precious pages—the heat, the flies, the sand of the beach—eventually become part and parcel of the experience. What seem like distractions to be waived aside are eventually recalled through our memories of the book’s narrative or argument. I remember a summer spent reading the works of the great Greek tragedians. Despite all the minutiae and trivia of those months, what remains in my mind is the tangled vision of Oedipus and hot balcony concrete, Orestes and the smell of barbecues and eucalyptus. Though it’s been almost a decade since I’ve lived in that house, it returns with vividness every time I pick up the frayed black-spined Penguin editions of Oedipus Rex and the Oresteia.
And in this is a simple reason why the Christmas season in the Southern Hemisphere attracts books: we read in summer because that’s what we’ve always done. The memory of sunny days and holidays is now inextricably entangled with books, and this association tends to reinforce itself with every passing year. We read books in the present, partly to remind ourselves of our past. As Proust put it, ‘they are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished’.
Yet this is not enough. Proustian nostalgia reveals the ties between today’s pages and summers long gone. But such arbitrary and subjective associations don’t shed light on summer itself; on its unique character, and what this offers the literary mind. What needs further examination is the experience of summer—its singular contribution to reading. This can’t simply be attributed by history or memory, but must stem from its distinctive aesthetic: the sensory treasury proffered by the season, when combined with the act of reading.
The most obvious character of summer is light, particularly in Australia: unyielding luminescence. This is what D.H. Lawrence described in Kangaroo: ‘such a big, untamed, proud sun, rising into a sky of such tender delicacy, so blue … more virgin than humanity can conceive’. Under this sun, there’s no ambiguity in people and things—everything is illuminated, tangible, palpable. ‘The sun beguiles our attention,’ wrote Thomas Mann in Death in Venice. A perfect example of this is the book itself—an object that we must attend to, but which is suddenly (and sometimes painfully) incandescent. We confront, more than ever, the concrete whiteness of the page, glowing around the edges of the black type. But at the same time the text offers an imaginary world beyond surfaces, an interior life of nuance and ambiguous insight. Fantasies and abstractions are lent bright distinctiveness, and there’s something very rewarding in this: the arresting experience of reality as a whole, appearance and fact undivided.
Summer is also a time of comfort: heat, outdoor repose, laziness. There’s a certain slow-moving sluggishness that affords opportunities for lounging and the open book. Whether it’s on the beach, in a back-yard hammock or in a breezy café, it’s a time for sprawling literary consumption—what Kenneth Grahame in The Wind in the Willows called ‘the languorous siesta of hot mid-day’. Yet in Australia, for all this comfort, there’s also danger: fire, sunburn, march flies, snakes and the sting of wayward cricket balls. Summer offers relaxation, but with the unsettling possibility of risk. And this, of course, adds to the literary enterprise. Along with the sensory cachet of summer—heat, wind, insects, sportive goings-on—these threats provide fodder for the imagination. Instead of the sterile predictability of the cooled lounge room, the outdoors experience of summer combines ease with the heightened stimuli of spontaneity and danger.
Lastly, summer offers an intriguing combination of public presence and private reverie. At the beach hut with kids playing frisbee or huddled around a barbecue, the season of Christmas parties and New Year drink-a-thons throws us among others. It brings us together (if not closer). We encounter the range of familiar arid unexpected characters—the diversity of the human condition (or a sample of it). Summer allows us to be public—homo civicus. But at the same time, these conditions of interaction and relaxation encourage our private world to flourish. We tend to forget how singular this is, but might recall Augustine’s bafflement before his teacher’s silent reading: ‘his eye glided over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his mouth and tongue were at rest’. There is something truly astonishing about the inward turn of literature, particularly in others (‘Who durst intrude on one so intent?’ asked Augustine). It’s a personal kingdom, secured against civic intrusion. But in summer we often rest in a kind of dappled shade: half in the sunlight, half in the dark of daydream. We intersperse our conversation, meals and games with the interior reverie of text. And each feeds into the other: our literary insights are given flesh by our companions, who are in turn illuminated and clarified by the ideas, emotions and perceptions or our book. We inhabit two worlds, and both are enhanced in the process—this is the dual-occupancy of summer dwelling.
In this sense, summer is neither a blank slate for imagination to inscribe, nor a simple cause of our psychological affects. Instead, it’s an occasion for the intermingling of imagination and physicality, and all the complementarities this offers: surface and depth, opacity and transparency, order and spontaneity, public sociability and private reverie.
Perhaps Nietzsche wouldn’t have approved this enjoyment of books in a clement climate. After all, he saw something polluting in books—a stale, stuffy atmosphere that reminded him of mummified Egyptians. He thought that pedantic reading diminished the reader. ‘Every specialist’, he wrote in The Gay Science, ‘has his hunched back. Every scholarly book also mirrors a soul that has become crooked.’ In simple terms, reading is the preserve of hermits and backwoodsmen unable to confront the blinding intensity of life—‘book worms’, as we might have it. And certainly, it’s important to be wary of the lure of reading. We might resent finding ourselves, like the Queen in Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, dragging our feet at parties, or ignoring decorum (‘she wished she had never opened a book and entered into other lives. It had spoiled her’). Or worse still, degenerating into fleshless fantasy like Kazantzakis’s narrator in Zorba the Greek: ‘I had fallen so low that, if I had had to choose between falling in love with a woman and reading a book about love, I should have chosen the book.’ The world of the text can numb us to the world of sensation, and the same anaesthesia can be suffered among seasons and landscape. It would be a sad irony for the books of summer to erase the backdrop of summer itself, to distract us from the very luminescence and heat that afford our repose.
But this has more to do with our existential shortcomings than with summer itself. What Bennett’s Queen and Kazantzakis’s narrator have in common is flight: from responsibility, boredom, sexuality and disappointment. Reading is an asylum—and like so many asylums, it imprisons as it protects. And this was precisely Nietzsche’s point. Intellectuals were seeking refuge in scholarly tomes and derivative ideas instead of confronting the world and themselves. And because of this, they were anaesthetised. But at its finest, summer is the very opposite of this. It provides an aesthetic encounter with intense, varied, nuanced sensations that can excite and inspire the bookish mind. Of course these can’t cure the Queen’s lethargy any more than they can rid Kazantzakis’s writer of his fear of the flesh (if Hesiod’s right, it would be worse in the hot Cretan summer). As readers, this is our responsibility—if writing is a craft of balance, so too is reading. We have to negotiate between our longings for tangibility and ethereality, interiority and exteriority, exercise and relaxation, conviviality and private communion with the author. Summer can’t accomplish this interweaving on our behalf. It only offers an invitation: to combine its warm incandescence with the inner light of literature. Just beware of cricket balls.