ESCAPE FROM CYBERSPACE

I was born into a print world.

I learned to read at a very young age and I bought my first books while still in primary school. As a university student, in addition to my study books, I read newspapers and periodicals, feminist tracts and political manifestos. I would wander through campus on the way to and from the union gathering flyers as I went. I collected roneoed foolscap sheets advertising rallies in support of the NLF in North Vietnam, demonstrations against apartheid in South Africa, lectures on Existentialism and phenomenology, a Bunuel festival, a sit-in over the slaughter in Uganda, a reclaim-the-night march down St Kilda’s Fitzroy Street. A single trip across campus and I would collect information and activity sufficient to fill a week. I never threw anything out. I worshipped print. Stored in my filing cabinet – yes, I still possess a four-drawer monster – on sheets of fading foolscap I can revisit the left-leaning liberal’s diet of times past.

There has always been too much to read for any voracious reader, but back in the days of print I managed better than most. Through a process of sifting, selecting, and settng aside reading time every day I would read two or three books a week, plus newspapers and periodicals. The situation has now changed. With numerous digital devices and twenty-four hour access to the web, the problem has become one of abundance. There is, simply, too much – and not just to read. There’s too much information, there are too many shops, restaurants, publications to explore, in short, there’s too much of everything all of the time.

I long for an off-switch or a safety overload-switch. But I keep my longings to myself, for to admit to any sort of disenchantment with these information-rich times all too readily casts one as a dinosaur of the pre-virtual world.

Don’t get me wrong, I delight in being able to access a variety of information without moving from my chair. Over coffee with friends, I’m relieved to search out the name of that 1940s Hollywood star that was on the tip of everyone’s tongue. The problem is that it doesn’t stop there. Like the kid in an IRL (in real life) candy shop, it’s so difficult to control yourself when you enter the web. And just like the child keeps piling in the sugar despite feeling sick, the pleasure and delight you initially experience is readily crushed in the frenetic dashing that takes you over. You read an article or a news item, there are two or three links, you follow one, then another, there’s an ad for a miracle face-cream, you peruse the product, don’t buy, search out another product, still don’t buy, check into Facebook, return to original article, follow another link, check your email, investigate another face-cream, back to article, breaking news, return to Facebook, more email. And an hour or a day later little, if any, of the information is remembered because there’s been no time taken to absorb it, and no opportunity to reflect on it.

This is life in cyberspace. And it has consequences.

My favourite Saturday as a child, and well into adulthood too, was one spent with a novel. I would start the book in the morning and have it finished by day’s end. I was so absorbed I had no sense of time or place; indeed, the world about me could pass through all the colours of the rainbow and I would not have noticed. That same deep, focussed attention served me well during my studies, and has continued to serve me well as a novelist. I’ve never experienced any difficulties going to my desk and staying there throughout the many drafts that novels require so they appear as if they fell onto the page fully formed.

Until recently.

My new novel, The Science of Departures (the title is taken from a Mandelstam poem) has a Soviet Russian connection. The idea for this novel emerged about two years ago. Since then I have been reading extensively about Russia through the Soviet years. Most of this reading has occurred via printed books, and includes works by Orlando Figes, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Catriona Kelly, Gary Shteyngart, Masha Gessen, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Nabokov and many others. The books have furnished me with the political and social fabric of Russia during the twentieth century. But when it comes to specifics like the sort of home lighting available in the years just after the revolution, or the location of hospitals and universities in Leningrad during the 1980s, or brands of Russian cigarettes, or daily life in the communal apartments, the Kommunalki, it is the internet with all its arcane and special interests, together with its print and picture archives, that has been astonishingly helpful.

So where is the problem? I have books for depth, I have the web for detail, and I know enough about my characters to bunker down and write the novel. (In that previous sentence I rather fancied the word ‘hunker’ rather than ‘bunker’, but had a suspicion that ‘hunker’ might not be a real word. A few months ago I would have done an on-line search, but today, just moments ago, I took down my tattered OED and looked up ‘hunker’. It is not a word in my 1997 edition. I then flipped the pages back to ‘bunker’ to help me decide whether to use ‘bunker in’ or ‘bunker down’. Consulting my old OED took about one minute. If I had gone on-line, I would still be there, following up interesting titbits offered up by my search engine, but completely irrelevant to the task at hand.)

Yes, I have changed. Rather than mindlessly capitulating to the seductions of the web I am asserting control over my usage.

For a long time I’d been aware that my ability to concentrate on a single task for hours at a time had been compromised by constant web searches, obsessive checking of email, and an unnatural attachment to my mobile phone. Novels, particularly in the early drafts of their creation, require long and deep immersion: without prolonged concentration they will not be completed. My susceptibility to the vast digital world was putting my new novel at risk.

At the same time, my memory, always so reliable, was letting me down. Or, to be more accurate, I was not taking care of it. On the third occasion I looked up the various names given to the Soviet secret police during the 70 years following the revolution, I realised I needed to change my tactics; specifically, I needed to revert to some pre-digital practices.

I found an empty notebook. This became my ‘things/facts that need to be remembered’ book. It was no longer sufficient to do as I had done in times past, that is, take a moment to stick a fact into memory. My memory had been, for too long, mollycoddled by the ever-available information on the web, and it had grown slack and flabby. By writing the information down I was simultaneously taking the time memory needs to open itself up to a fact, and I was doubly rehearsing that fact by committing it to writing.

There still remained the issue of my jittery attention span. This was dealt with in a most unexpected way. It was a Tuesday in mid-July, I was having dinner with my old friend L. L and her family are, like me, Jewish, although they are a good deal more observant than I am. In particular, they observe the Sabbath – Shabbat: from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday theirs is a time of solitary reflection, of prayer, of time spent with family and close friends. For twenty-four hours they do no work, they do no cooking, they do not handle money, they do not drive or take public transport, they use no electronic devices including sound systems, computers and phones.

It’s a day of replenishment, L said to me, and went on to add that she simply did not understand how people managed to start another busy week without a day in which to stop and take stock. To replenish.

As L talked about her Shabbat, her manner and voice became quieter and more reflective, as if demonstrating what this day meant for her and the effects it produced. It was a state foreign to my current life.

I told her how besieged I felt by email. Each day, I said, brings at least twenty new messages most of which I do not want. I trash emails without reading them; I unsubscribe from commercial communications with fury; I think I’ve finished an email thread only to receive another communication. I can end up having daily emails with someone I’ve never met – and would not want to meet. I feel stalked, hounded, battered. I told her about my susceptibility to the web, that even before a session finishes I feel like a rat in a maze. And I wondered aloud whether I might not benefit from my own day partitioned off from the rest of the week – not a religious observance but a day of solitude and reflection: reading in the morning, followed by an afternoon of music and a leisurely walk. A day with no email, no time spent on the computer, no iPad, no mobile.

L stressed that if I chose this path it must not feel like deprivation. She suggested I might begin with just two hours away from my various devices.

This conversation occurred on a Tuesday. As the week progressed I found myself eager for Saturday to arrive.

I checked my email just before midnight on the Friday night. On the Saturday morning I woke at my usual 6 am, made my breakfast and took it back to bed, along with the latest print issue of the London Review of Books and a book on the publication machinations of Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago (The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée). Every few weeks I have breakfast in bed on a Saturday, so this in itself was not unusual. What marked it as different was that my iPad and my mobile were not on the breakfast tray, they were not even in the room. I read for an hour, I had paper and pen next to me to jot down notes and queries. I made a second cup of coffee and returned to bed. I read some more.

Far from feeling deprived, the hours were infused with familiarity. This was exactly how I used to start the weekend in the ancien régime before the digital age.

At mid-morning on that first Saturday I took my digital temperature. I didn’t feel deprived, I didn’t want to check my email, I wasn’t driven to do web searches on issues that had arisen in the course of my reading. So far so good.

I showered, I dressed, I took my dog for a walk. I was at ease. I felt gentled. And as I walked through the park my mind was in a lovely meandering – just like it used to be – moseying off into surprising and fruitful places. On the way home I bought the Saturday Age, and over lunch I read an IRL newspaper and not the on-line version. I read slowly, I finished articles.

That first Saturday afternoon I listened to a Mahler Symphony. I knitted while the music played and my mind continued its leisurely sauntering. Every now and then I put my knitting down, picked up a pen and made a note. Around four o’clock I checked my email. Only one email was waiting for me – which underscores what we all know: that the more you use email the more emails you receive. I checked my email again before going to bed. My inbox was empty.

The next morning I awoke refreshed and, yes, replenished for the day and week ahead.

 

I now observe digital-free Saturdays, this also includes mobile-free Saturdays. I also try to keep the day clear of arrangements. I look forward to my Saturdays, I actually start thinking about each one, planning for it a couple of days ahead.

To anyone who wants to reclaim an interior life, who wants quiet and extended periods of creative reflection, I would recommend you take a digital-free day each week. For those born into the digital age you won’t know yourself, for older people you will recognise a self from long ago, one you’ll welcome back – with relief – as a familiar.

 

I MAY BE GONE FOR SOME TIME….

I have disappeared inside my new novel. Into the scrawl and crossings-out of The Science of Departures (the title comes from a poem by the great Russian Osip Mandelstam). Into the umpteen promising beginnings that within weeks, sometimes only days, have shed their gloss. Into the relief of the occasional scene that has traction. Into the delight and the tease of new ideas. Into the temptation and frustration of a thousand possible narratives.
The word count waxes and wanes. Twenty thousand words one day becomes thirteen thousand the next. My folder of cut pieces is the only aspect of the new novel that reliably increases in size.
The surface of my desk has disappeared under research notes, reminder jottings, hand-written notebooks, annotated typescripts. And a few unpaid bills.
I have disappeared into other people’s books, books that provide fuel for my imagination. I am reading fat volumes of Soviet history and biographies of Soviet Tyrants. I am reading slender biographies of lovers. I am reading essays written by great thinkers (Russian and others), and Russian poetry, mostly Akhmatova and Mandelstam. I am reading fiction by Nabokov (for the ideas and the rich language), Virginia Woolf (for pace and for the essentials of prose), H.G. Wells (popular in Russia/Soviet Union during the twentieth century), David Lodge’s fictionalised account of Wells, A Man of Parts. I have started and discarded several volumes of contemporary fiction, including Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, the self-conscious cleverness of which actually destroys the fiction.
And I walk the streets. So much walking, and invariably I find myself riffing on a new narrative strand and dashing home to try it out. This new novel that does not exist is occupying my life. It’s a feeling that’s lovely, terrifying and magical.
I’ll not be back here for some time.

VOLUPTUOUS LANGUAGE

In 1998, the National Gallery of Victoria mounted an exhibition titled, Beyond Belief – Modern Art and the Religious Imagination. The exhibition appealed to me not because of any strong religious beliefs of my own, but I was drawn (and continue to be so) by the pairing of different types of imagination, in this instance, the spiritual and the visual. I did not know which artists were to be included, but I understood from the advance publicity that many were well-known.

The day I visited the exhibition there was quite a crowd. I was alone and in no hurry, so loitered beyond the outer edge of onlookers, waiting for the crowd to thin. And so it was that I walked around a screen and there, several metres away, I saw a small Rothko (it was Black, brown on maroon, 1957). My first response was delight at the unexpected meeting with one of my favourite artists, my second response even while the delight continued, was tears. I stood there in an open space beyond the crowd gazing at this Rothko with tears rolling down my face.

Rothko. Black, Brown on Maroon

Rothko. Black, Brown on Maroon

The painting affected me in a way I did not understand. But something profound HAD happened. If I say about the experience that I was moved (and I clearly was moved) it does not do justice to what was an intense and complex reaction. If I say that I was overwhelmed by intense emotion, it still gives little indication of what I was feeling at the time.

There are certain experiences, intense and significant, for which common language usage all too often fails. The appreciation of music, for example, or the expression of pain, or a description of wonder, or my unexpected reaction to Rothko’s painting. More often than not the attempt to explicate, actually leeches the experience of its essence.

So what happened when I caught sight of that Rothko hanging on the gallery wall?

I was waterlogged with wonder

I stumbled into paradise

I gazed into the face of God

I fell into a Mahler symphony

 

As to which metaphor I might use, that would depend both on my experience and the person to whom I was attempting to share it with. Gazing into the face of God might hit the spot with someone of a religious disposition, the Mahler metaphor with someone musical, natural world metaphors with those connected with the natural world.

Too often we treat language as if it were arithmetic, wherein an equivalence is assumed/sought between symbol and referent. But as Magritte so aptly demonstrated in his Ceci n’est pas une pipe, language is not the thing. We might speak of the infinite nature of language, can actually show how it works in theory, but in practice, language usage is all too finite. We have nailed language to the mast of unambiguity. We have stripped it of its music. We have smoothed out its paint strokes. We have made words into Lego blocks.

When language in this unambiguous and hobbled form is used to describe an experience like my Rothko experience, of course it fails, of course it falls short. So much of my Rothko experience was non-verbal, or extra-verbal, and only language that spills its usual boundaries will do the experience justice. We humans live in a language dictatorship. Like the Russian poets during the years of Stalin, we need to go underground.

It’s not vocabulary we are wanting (although the impoverished vocabularies of most of us could do with considerable expansion), rather we need to bring imagination to language usage, we need to impregnate our language with tone and texture and sensation and atmosphere.

Of all the tools of language and communication it is metaphor that subverts the whole notion of sign-symbol equivalence, that smashes the ties of immutability between language and its referents. Metaphor is the wild child of language, the recalcitrant offspring which can turn around and teach its elders what they did not realise they did not know. Metaphor makes the familiar strange and different. Metaphor brings music to language, it brings sensation and emotion. Metaphor subverts routine ways of seeing and thinking and communicating, and thereby it illuminates the shadows of meaning.

The right metaphor can portray complex emotional and intellectual responses with great power and economy – which is why poetry, good poetry, can have such a profound effect, and bad poetry, of which there is an inordinate amount, feels like such a betrayal. But in fact prosaic and routine language usage is no less a betrayal. If an artist were to restrict his palate to green, if a composer were to confine herself to a single octave, we would feel betrayed. So, too with banal and hackneyed language usage. It’s treating the great gift of language in cavalier fashion, it is also denying what marks we humans off from other animals: language and the imagination.

And why be concerned about this now? Public language as seen in the two second rehearsed grabs of our politicians, as seen in the mindless talking in exclamation marks of comperes of reality TV shows, has never been so impoverished. If we don’t act soon we will lack the language to describe what has gone wrong, much less fix the situation.

 

 

PORTABLE PLEASURES

 

Recently, while sitting in a café I found myself eavesdropping on the conversation at the next table. It was a group of five, all of them bright and twentyish, all dressed in skimpy fashionable clothes, all with well-mussed, multi-coloured hair, each sporting one or more tattoos on otherwise smooth and unmarked skin. They were playing a game of ‘My favourite Things’. Their voices were resonant, they laughed a lot. First there were favourite films, followed by favourite pieces of music. Then in quick succession came favourite shop, favourite brand, favourite device, favourite sexiest person, and lastly favourite colour.

Decades ago when Malcolm Fraser was prime minister, Tammy Fraser was asked in a radio interview her favourite colour – as if there were nothing more important to ask this particular first lady. To my horror she did not sound insulted nor did she hesitate.

Yellow, she replied, my favourite colour is yellow.

At the time Fraser, and all associated with him, were not favoured by the left. Even forgetting the limited merits of yellow, the fact that Tammy took colours so seriously – and favourites always help to define oneself – condemned her to remain where we on the left had unquestioningly put her.

Life was a much more simple affair back then.

And yet I have always had favourites.

In Bunuel’s Tristana, one of the characters looks for and finds the best green pea on the plate. I watched that scene and I recognised myself. I make a point, a private point of finding my favourite pea, my favourite potato chip, my favourite cherry. I have favourite flowers and trees, not botanical favourites, but a particular flower on a particular plant. My favourite elm stands near the Yarra River where Alexander Parade turns into Punt Road. My favourite oak, planted in the 1880s and recently cut down due to age and disease, was an Algerian Oak on the edge of the oak garden in Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens. I have an ever-expanding list of favourite books, I have favourite passages and verses from books (copied into the latest of several quote notebooks). I have favourite buildings and streets, favourite towns and cities, favourite paintings and sculptures, favourite musicians and musical compositions.

 

Quote book

Quote book

And I have a favourite letter.

A few years before Tammy’s interview I began keeping a personal dictionary. Frustrated at having to consult my Oxford dictionary for the same words over and over again – the meaning of certain words simply would not stick – I purchased a sturdy notebook, cut an index along the right-hand side for the letters of the alphabet and every time I looked up a word in Oxford’s dictionary I copied it into my own. I also decided to include in my dictionary interesting words whose meaning I knew, but in the haste and habits of everyday life I would forget I knew, words like ‘canker’ and ‘conceit’ and ‘clotted’ which when put with other words – clotted memories, family conceits, cankerous yearnings – spiced up this whole lovely business of words.

Years passed before I realised that the words of one letter ran to several more pages than any other in my personal dictionary. That letter was ‘p’. And now, along with parrots, the music of J.S. Bach and Bleu de Basque cheese, I rank ‘p’ words high on the scale of my favourite things.

Personal Dictionary

Personal Dictionary

Take ‘patina’ and ‘palimpsest’ and ‘pentimento’. For a person such as myself burdened with secrets these words supplied some gorgeous and relief-giving metaphors. And as an eighteen-year-old desperate to get away, peripatetic peregrinations encapsulated the freedom I longed for wrapped in the lyricism of travel. My sins became the far more acceptable peccadilloes, my pessimism was readily placated by propitious signs, my lack of perspicacity was less of a failure than purblindness. My sense of being at odds with the world, the perfidious world, run by pettifoggers who lacked prescience, found an effective panacea in ‘p’ words.

The appeal of ‘p’ certainly does not reside in its sound. That voiceless puff could never, for example, compete with the sonorous ‘m’ or the tricky ‘r’. The attraction is in the phantasmagoria of ‘p’ words. ‘P’ is the verbal imagination’s favourite child. Once I wrote a letter almost entirely with ‘p’ words – it was a perfect letter.

And if not for ‘p’ I would never have produced my one and only public work of art.

To describe my artistic ability as parsimonious would be to give it airs, so when I agreed to decorate a platter for a fund-raising auction conducted by the Jewish Museum I was understandably challenged. The platter arrived; it was 43 centimetres in diameter and very blank. I was rightly perturbed. I considered a pastiche of portraits cut from various papers but that would have publicised my lack of talent. I considered a range of lies to get me out of the whole thing, but pride stopped me. As the deadline approached and I was still procrastinating, my fears were palpable and my pride was heading for a fall.

And then it occurred to me: I would make a P-Plate.

In different sized fonts I typed out ‘p’ words. Perplexed, pungent, promise, painting, propinquity, piano, politics, people, philology, pertinacious, prose, poetry, 232 words in all. I cut out the words and glued them to my platter. And then I varnished the whole thing. I produced a high-gloss p-plate. And a person purchased it, a person of impeccable taste, and for quite a pretty price too.

Many things are not portable, but all favourite things are. It is the imagination which confers their status and bestows on them their delights. And it is in the imagination they remain special. The material world is so cluttered and cumbersome, but this world of favourite things is a paradise.

 

RAW DEAL FOR EMMA BOVARY

Ever since Eve was banished from paradise for demonstrating a curiosity sorely lacking in the insipid Adam, women have suffered for harbouring desires that do not fit within the narrow confines of their lives. The list of fictional women who have been punished for wanting more than their designated lot includes Anna Karenina, Wharton’s Lily Bart, Thackeray’s Becky Sharp and, more recently, Thelma and Louise. The list is long, and to my eyes delightfully illustrious, yet of all these women who defied the conventions of their time, it is Emma Bovary who has received the worse press.

I’ve been reminded of this during a recent rereading of Flaubert’s famous novel. Books and Arts Daily (ABC RN, weekdays at 10) is delving into a selection of European classics on the last Friday of the month throughout 2014. They are commencing the series with Madame Bovary – an excellent beginning to what promises to be a great series. (The series includes Crime and Punishment and All Quiet on the Western Front, both of which make my best novels of all time list.)

While I’m rereading Madame Bovary in Alan Russell’s wonderfully rhythmic and lucid translation, I receive a copy of Rebecca Mead’s irresistible and idiosyncratic The Road to Middlemarch (Text, 2014). I find myself comparing Dorothea Brooke with Emma Bovary. Both women reveal yearnings and desires far too abundant for the limited boundaries that corseted the lives of nineteenth century ladies. But Dorothea wins a happy ending while Emma, like so many tragic thwarted heroines of literature, kills herself.*

There are many reasons, above and beyond authorial whims, that accord Dorothea her happiness while Emma’s only option is death. Dorothea’s author, George Eliot, was a woman who had felt the constraints of the society in which she lived and had bucked against them. She lived with a man who was married to someone else, and after he died she married a man twenty years her junior. In contrast, Emma’s creator was a man who took lovers but never married, whose most committed connection with a woman was with his mother. George Eliot would have wanted more for her heroine than a tragic end – as indeed she wanted more for herself. But author biography aside, the desires and yearnings expressed by Dorothea and Emma are different. Yes, there is some overlap when it comes to romantic love – both women want that sort of passion, but Dorothea has intellectual and social justice passions as well. Dorothea reads beyond the fictional romances that fill the young Emma’s leisure hours, she reads about social conditions and she observes them as well, and she yearns to improve the lot of tenant farmers. So while both women revel in active imaginations, the life of Dorothea’s mind is far broader and better nourished than that of Emma’s.

Still, these reasons alone fail to explain why Emma Bovary has received such a consistently raw deal. A consideration of sex and motherhood fills out the picture. Emma is not a Madonna type. The passion Emma wants is sexual passion, that explosive, fall-in-love-at-first-sight, take-me-I’m-yours emotion that exists primarily in romantic novels and Hollywood films. And when she does fall in love the sparks don’t last. She discovers that love, like marriage, like town life, is prey to habit. Emma is imaginative but her imagination is mostly in service to her own well-being. Dorothea’s imagination, in contrast, takes in the intellectual as well, and is thus seen as a more admirable character.

Then there’s the matter of children. Emma has often been criticised for being a bad mother to young Berthe. This judgement lacks evidence. There is a single instance in which Emma lashes out at Berthe; she is immediately appalled at her behaviour and deeply remorseful. She’s been accused of being neglectful, but the fact is that women of her class and time had nursemaids and wet nurses. Often parents saw their children only briefly in the mornings and evenings. Berthe and her mother most certainly have a relationship on which the young girl doted. This is demonstrated on a day when Emma fails to return to Yonville after a rendezvous with Léon, and Berthe is distraught because her mother is not around to kiss her good night. With this instance, many readers have simply focussed on Emma’s absence, rather than the child’s response which suggests that mother and daughter were accustomed to regular and close connection.

Emma has been excoriated through the years, but what about the men in the novel? All of them are either weak or cads – or in the case of Léon, both. But somehow a weak and rather stupid man like Charles Bovary is less deserving of our condemnation than his passionate adulterator of a wife. I can understand this response in 1856 when the book was first published, I can understand it through much of the twentieth century (although I would have thought plenty of 1950s housewives would have understood Emma’s plight). From the viewpoint of the twenty-first century though, Emma Bovary is a quintessentially modern woman. And while I wish she had more of Dorothea Brooke’s intellectual muscle, Emma Bovary nonetheless pushes at the boundaries of her life with courage and imagination.

*The comparison runs deep. Madame Bovary (1856) is subtitled ‘A story of provincial life’, while Middlemarch (1871-2) carries the subtitle ‘A study of provincial life’.

6/3/14

READING DANTE

It is 1960, Melbourne. There’s a shed down the end of the garden. It is empty save for a bench on which sits a child with a book. There’s a musty smell overlaid with the tang of pine. The door to the shed doesn’t close and the soughing of the wind in the huge pine tree cushions the silence that surrounds the reading child.

Another scene. The same child reading a different book is sitting on the floor in a corner of a large attic room. The attic smells of dust, old smoke and neglect. There are battered suitcases and boxes, there are rickety chairs and fold-up tables, and a chest filled with ancient photos and theatre programmes. Down one end of the attic there’s a small door that opens into the roof. The child sits as far from this door as possible, yet must keep it in view, must keep a watchful eye on the demons and spirits that lurk in the roof’s blackness. And watch she does, periodically looking up from her book. But after a while it seems she has forgotten about the demons because her gaze no longer lifts from the page. She’s given herself over to fiction.

A third image. The same little girl as before is stretched out on her bed in the room she shares with her sister, an open book propped against her pillow. Beyond the bedroom family life whirls about. There are voices calling, a radio blaring, a barking dog. The child is immune to it all; she’s lost in her book.

******

Reading for me has always been a private affair. As a child growing up in the crowded world of the family, reading was my sanctuary and a time of necessary solitude. My mother valued reading so, if I had a book in my hands, I was left alone. With the book of the moment I would be whisked away to other times and places and into the lives of people very different from those who filled my ordinary days. It was the making of me as a writer. Those hours spent reading, those hours spent in a deep and prolonged immersion in the imagination is what gives rise to creative work. Reading took me into a world of make-believe. Here life was real, it was authentic, but it was made up. And even if it were not real – as a very young child I loved Enid Blyton’s fantasies and the tales of King Arthur and his knights – it seemed as if it could be.

In fact, I learned very early that fiction could convince me of just about anything.

As a very young child, I enjoyed being read to. But as soon as I learned to read independently I wanted to keep the pleasure all to myself. It was not only the stories that held me in thrall, there was the utterly seductive effect of reading itself. A unique intimacy was created between me and the characters, and through them with the imagination of the author. There is no intimacy to compare to this sort of imaginative coupling.

I never felt the need to discuss the books I read. They were part of my private world, a world that shaped my understanding and my desires. I harboured the sense that to reveal how important these books were, would both taint their effect as well as betray the life I secretly longed for, which was, in fact, the secret life I was actually living.

I grew up. Books still filled my days and still I guarded them closely. I found in them security, I found excitement, I found curiosity, I found endless stimulation, I found illumination. I did not want my reading to be public. I did not want my reading to be touched.

Then several years ago I changed the pattern of a lifetime. I asked a small group of people to join me in reading Plato’s Dialogues. Over the years I had dipped into several of the dialogues, but I had arrived at a point where I found this unsatisfactory, and all my attempts at private study had petered out long before the task was finished. The group provided the necessary structure I seemed to require.

At first I found it difficult to discuss what I had read. Being public, being in a group, felt like working against the current, trying to run with stiffened limbs. And it was difficult to listen to others with my own reading reverberating in my mind. And the pace of discussion could be irritating. You set your own pace when reading, but a discussion will sometimes pull you back or push you forward faster or slower than you would choose for yourself. But in time I adapted and came to enjoy our meetings. After a while we moved from Plato’s dialogues to Montaigne’s essays. And then, after a year or two, life with its demands and its deaths intervened, and the group stopped meeting.

Next week will see the first meeting of another group: three of us have decided to read Dante’s Divine Comedy, three cantos for each monthly meeting. Years ago I read Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation of The Inferno, and I always planned to read Purgatorio and Paradiso but never got round to it. As with Plato, a group seemed the way to proceed.

I’ve been preparing for our first meeting by a full reading of The Inferno. I have several translations at hand but have focussed particularly on those by Robert Pinsky (for the poetry), Mark Musa (for the lucidity and the detailed notes) and John Ciardi (a looser translation but very lyrical). I also have a quarto-sized book containing the hauntingly beautiful plates of Gustave Doré’s illustrations for The Divine Comedy. I love the focus of this reading, the detail, I love the study. And yet I know that if not for the group I would not be reading Dante in this way or at this time.

Antaeus - Descent to the last circle. Inf XXXI

What is happening here? Why a sharing of what has always been a private activity?

It seems to me that some books are so layered and so complex that to be fulfilled by them – and to find them fulfilling – requires study and discussion and the richness that comes from other minds, other thoughts, other understandings. But there’s something else as well, and it concerns the type of reading involved. When I open a novel, a novel that is the right book for the time, I find myself drawn inside the fictional world. I experience understanding from the inside; I become one of the initiated. This does not stop me from reflecting as I read, making connections between this novel and other books (novels, poetry, history, philosophy) but as soon as I start reading again I am pulled back into that imagined world.

This is not how I read Plato’s Dialogues, nor is it the way I read Dante. Here the reading is infused with study. I am grappling to understand from the outside. I am grappling rather than being immersed. Even with Dante, who has told a gripper of a story, I am not pulled inside the narrative in the way I am with, say, Jane Austen or Elizabeth Strout or Justin Cartwright.

It is reading for study rather than reading for creative life. It’s reading to know, rather than reading to be. That is not to say I won’t glean fundamental understandings from Plato or Dante, of course I will, but it is the act of reading of these books that is so different from my fiction reading.

I expect many others would want to disagree.

READING THE CLASSICS – OR NOT

READING THE CLASSICS – OR NOT.

A couple of months ago I discovered a Henry James novel I’d not read. Titled The American, it is his third novel, first published in 1876-7 in The Atlantic Monthly. Later in life James acknowledged fundamental flaws in this novel, and most James’ readers would agree. And yet the novel gripped me from the start with its universal themes of love and honour and clash of cultures. It was only at the send-the-beloved-to-a-convent ending that I felt let down.

The American is not a literary classic in the sense that The Portrait of a Lady is a classic – although both are classic Henry James. Love, deception, misplaced trust, ravenous curiosity, the pitfalls of innocence, and the immorality that can be at the back door of worldliness are all to be found in The Portrait of a Lady, while its leading lady, Isabel Archer, is one of the enduring characters in literature.

I often find myself musing about what makes a classic. In my recent revisiting of Patrick White’s classic Riders in The Chariot (see posting – November, 2013) I quoted James Stern’s definition of a classic (from NYT Book Review in August 1955).

‘Almost all novels are transients, very few remain on, permanent residents of the mind. Of those that do, some cease to be books and become part of the reader’s past, of an experience felt so deeply it is sometimes difficult to believe that the illusion has not been lived. From these rare works of literature characters emerge better known than our most intimate friends, for every human being has a secret life… To reveal in a novel this life (which is that of the soul) in such a way that by the time the last page is reached all questions have been answered, while all the glory and mystery of the world remains, is not only the prime function of the novelist but the artist’s greatest ambition – and surely his rarest achievement.’

In his definition, Stern is particularly concerned with the powerful effect of a classic on a reader. There are a number of characteristics of the work itself that promote such an effect. Most importantly, classics canvas fundamental human qualities: jealousy and revenge (Medea), power (Macbeth), fraught love (Anna Karenina), the human struggle (David Copperfield), the complexities of family (Pride and Prejudice), brutality, idealised love, (Wuthering Heights), remorse and redemption (Crime and Punishment), obsession (Of Human Bondage), and thereby reveal what it is to be human. As well, classics provide entry into times and places not your own. So, for example: Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby and much of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.

Books that can reveal ourselves to our self? That can take us to places and times not our own? That can inform us of the complexities that make us human? This is powerful stuff. It’s no wonder we want to read classics. Indeed it would be foolish to ignore such rich resources.

I finished The American and placed it with all my other James volumes. Then I reached for Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.

For the third time.

I first tried this book years ago on the recommendation of my Russian friend Constantine. The novel was written in the late 1930’s during the worst of Stalin’s terrors but not published until a quarter of a century later (and, extraordinarily, published in the Soviet Union in an inexplicable lapse of diligence by the censorship authorities). In this fantasy tale the devil arrives in Moscow. He wreaks havoc: lives are ruined, some are ended, people are swindled. Given the novel’s coruscating view of the Soviet system the fantasy form is not surprising; indeed there’s a long tradition of literature using fantasy, allegory and fairytales to reveal dangerous truths.

But barely fifty pages in I gave up. The characters did not hold me. There were too many of them and too thinly drawn, and the society in which they lived too strange. As for the Jesus in Jerusalem sections, I simply could not see their relevance.

A few years later I tried the book again with the same failure. Yes, failure. For when it comes to a classic that you truly want to read, that you want to take it into your life as you’ve taken in other classics, when you are unable to do so you experience it as failure. Here is a book that is recognised as great, what’s wrong with you that you fail to respond to its greatness?

On my third attempt I thought it would be different. In recent months I’ve been reading about the Soviet years and I am much better informed. I understand the workings of this society into which the devil comes. The allegorical nuances that escaped me on my previous attempts would now be comprehensible. And it was true, my reading was easier: I understood the deaths, the removals to psychiatric institutions, the loss of rooms in apartment blocks that occur in the early part of this novel; I understood the devil  with his guilt-free, unapologetic brutality. But nonetheless, by page 150 I was lagging; 30 pages later I gave up.

There are so many books I want to read. If a book fails to satisfy I do not persist. Although when it comes to a classic, because I doubt myself more than I doubt the book’s renown I will persist a little longer. I do believe that if the Bulgakov had a lesser reputation I would have jettisoned it much earlier. For that matter, if it had had a lesser reputation I would not have given it three attempts.

I know about the lovely quirk of books that make then uninteresting at one point in your life and absolutely essential reading at another. I had truly hoped that given my current interest in the Soviet years this would be the right time for Bulgakov’s classic. But it seems there are some classics that, desire notwithstanding, will always elude me.

Like Joyce’s Ulysses.

One Bloomsday I attended a twenty-four hour reading of Ulysses in New York. I was in my twenties and absolutely capitvated by the idea of a 24-hour reading of a classic novel. I can still see the darkened room, the scattered tables, the raised platform, the shadows of people, the heavy clothes, the smoke, but for the life of me I can’t remember the words and voices, I can’t see the readers themselves. I was given a copy of Ulysses for my 21st birthday, I tried to read it but failed. I thought the 24-hour reading would help. And it did. For 100 pages. No more.

I have failed with The Master and Margarita as I failed with Ulysses.

And yet I still want these books, and other classics as well. I want to know their power, their originality, their wisdom. I want the pleasure that so many readers before me have known. I don’t mind failing at sport, at baking, at sewing, at bike-riding, at map-reading, at maths (well – I mind a little with maths) but I do mind failing at books. I want to know that any book I desire I can make my own. It’s a terrible disappointment when I can’t.