A Song of Thanksgiving

Yesterday I was reading a novel by the French experimental writer, Claude Simon. Not many people have heard of him and I’m suspecting even fewer have managed to reach the end of one of his books. He was describing a procession of bone-weary soldiers on horseback one day in May, 1940. They were wending their way through the French countryside, filthy, exhausted, bewildered, wondering where the war was and whether it would only ever consist of random attacks for which they could never prepare, carried out by an enemy they rarely saw or understood. And the sentence mimicked their meandering overland progress, heading off repeatedly into a digressive parenthesis that often contained several more parentheses in a way that expressed the soldiers’ disjointed, daydreaming thoughts. And do you know what? That sentence stretched over a monumental eleven pages – yes, eleven, I went back and counted – weaving in and out of sense impressions, sustained metaphors, memories and fantasies and speculation. Once I’d stopped wondering whenever it was going to end, I found myself caught up in its intricate loops, losing the thread sometimes and having to retrace my steps, lulled and becalmed by its syntactical gymnastics into an odd trancelike state in which I followed its capricious lead, and eventually came to the surprising conclusion that I was loving this book and unexpectedly affected by its eccentric style. I thought to myself how much I simply adored literature. How after all these years of intensive reading – how many should that be, 34, 35? – books still have the power to shock and surprise me, to show me new perspectives in original ways and to take me places I never even knew I wanted to go. I was suddenly conscious of my surroundings, lying reading on the bed, the peace of the morning thickly tangible in the tautness of my attention, a pile of other tempting books alongside me, and I was pervaded by a profound, reverential gratitude for all that astounding literature out there, patiently waiting for me, and for all the beautiful insight it had presented me with thus far.

Have you ever had an experience like that? A moment when reading seems to open a door through which the light streams, richly blinding and magisterial? When reading simply makes you very happy to be in another world of imagination and significance? I can remember another time, back when I was living in France. I had taken a stash of my set reading with me, all twentieth century French novels, and it was the first time in a long while that I had had a serious amount of time to myself. Reading could expand into what it is always intended to be – a measured, contemplative indulgence in meaningful distraction, rather than the marathon sprint to the end of a book, grabbing bouquets of words off the pages I raced through, that university study had obliged it to become. We used to go to the nightclub every Friday night back then, the only time in my life I’d adhered to the Friday night rule of pleasure, but nightclubs didn’t open until midnight so there was always an evening to kill. I would lie on my narrow iron bed (reading on beds is something I love, despite the hazard of falling asleep) wearing a man’s silk dressing gown, very Noel Coward, and reading that other master of the lengthy sentence, Marcel Proust. In the novel the young Marcel lay on his stomach in the plump, summer grass of Combray, his boyish soul transported by a book to another realm where time expanded and deepened, even if in the real world it raced by, transforming the boredom of spending time at his grandmother’s house into the sweetest of dreams. You have to have time to read Proust, I think, and that scene with Marcel isn’t just an emblematic moment of reading pleasure, it’s an instruction for how to approach the novel. I was fortunate to read Proust when I had absolutely nothing better to do, and the result was delight. I can imagine having to read it to a deadline and feeling nothing but the fiercest frustration.

And still other memories present themselves. I remember pulling the wrappings off Gabriel Josipovici’s Everything Passes, when it arrived in the post one Saturday morning on my long haul out of chronic fatigue, tired as usual at the end of a week but improving gradually, anticipating stamina even if lacking it still. I had chosen Everything Passes at random, wanting to read something different by this author rather than Goldberg Variations, which had so electrified my blogging friends. The first thing I noticed was that it was a slender volume published by Carcanet and I wondered if I had made a mistake and ordered poetry. When I opened the book and read the first few pages with their sparse and repetitive phrases I was utterly disoriented. I’m not sure what made me keep reading, if not simply strangeness itself. But before long I was deep into the novella and feeling the tingling of goosebumps over my skin in recognition of something so new, so fearless, so disciplined and yet so real. I had the wonderful experience of forgetting everything, no troubles, no constraints, just the magic of words and white spaces, brilliantly interwoven.

I could mention so much more – a line written in a criticism of Kafka about the need to stand in darkness in order to see the stars that brought his warped world into sudden, sharp focus for me, the creamy pearls that Léa drapes around Chéri’s youthful neck in the sumptuous bedroom scene that opens Colette’s novel, the closing paragraph in Richard Russo’s Straight Man where a party-load of academics find themselves incapable of moving a collective step backwards to clear the passage to the door. So many rosary beads to stroke in a glittering necklace of perfect moments. I remember my own life and its scenes more vividly because of them. And so this is nothing more, and nothing less, than a song of thanksgiving to literature, which reminds me so often of how generous it is with its resplendent treasures. In their presence I feel a rich woman indeed.

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11 thoughts on “A Song of Thanksgiving

  1. Ah, Litlove, what a beautiful song! Thank you for singing it. I love that scene in Proust of Marcel reading in the garden. It’s what reading is meant to be and should always be. I find myself guilty quite often of rushing through a book, not because I have to finish it, though sometimes if it is due back at the library and I can’t renew it I do have to finish it. But I rush for silly reasons–to reach the end of a chapter during my lunch break or because I think the book I want to read next will be better and I just want the current one to be done, and so many more. Your eleven page sentence and mention of Proust and your song of thanksgiving remind me I should never feel rushed in my reading. All my most treasured reading moments have been drawn out as if time had stopped. I suspect the best writers know that and and make readers slow down. Perhaps that should be a new mark of a good book, not how fast it is read, but how slowly.

  2. Marvellous. Reading is one of the best things in the world, to be sure. Murakami takes me to that out-of-the-world place, and he’s a steadying hand as you travel too. Bliss. My favourite part is the section in “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” where the hero spends several pages simply down a well doing nothing. It’s a passage of genius and makes you understand what being alive is about.

    Axxx

  3. Stefanie – oh thank you – I had a lot of fun writing it. I hadn’t really put two and two together though, and realised that the slowness of reading is really where the intense pleasure is, until I read your comment. Now I understand why some people love Ulysses, and why some people think that buying a book is actually about buying the time to read it. But sometimes it’s impossible not to rush, isn’t it? I so often do! Bluestocking – I could barely believe it myself! It’s very nice of you to ask, but university doesn’t start here until 1st October. That week will be a bit manic, I fear. I’m sure I will feel compelled to moan about it here!! Charlotte – thank you so much. If you feel like writing about it, I’d love to read your own thoughts on the subject. Anne – I have never read Murakami and now I see that I must. Anyone who can place his character down a well and make a resounding success of it is someone I have to read. I would also very much like to read one of your novels – where should I start, do you think? In the meantime I will make do with your very entertaining blog.

  4. Ooh, you must read Murakami – do let me know what you think! He lives in a universe of his own, imo – surreal but gripping. I’d probably start with the well one, or maybe “South of the Border, West of the Sun” which is his most normal. Possibly – though who can tell?? And, as for my own stuff, I prefer A Dangerous Man or Maloney’s Law myself, though I know some don’t! At least, both were voices which took a good long while to fade away, though I’m not entirely sure what that might mean of course …

    ==:O

    Axxx

  5. This beautiful post is a long drink at the end of a drought. I had to take it slowly, much as I wanted to gulp. Finally, after weeks of feeling I’d never catch up with the new classes, let alone get a step ahead, I begin to find minutes when I can visit my blogging friends and here I find you in top form, Litlove, like stars on a very dark night. Beautiful, beautiful.

  6. Wonderful post! There are times when reading can make you happy in a way that nothing else can, and it’s a marvelous thing. I like Stefanie’s point about slowness in reading — sometimes I think about it the wrong way around, but I think she’s right that reading slowly is the way to go.

  7. So often we rush through reading as we do everything else in life. Thank you for the lovely reminder that it’s far better to savor the words on the page and the time we’re spending with them.

    There are books I love so much that I feel almost breathless while reading, and have to set the book aside for a moment, honoring my reluctance to gulp it too quickly. Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs was such a one most recently, Julia Glass’ The Whole World Over was another.

  8. Anne – Murakami it is – and I will most certainly post the results here. Thank you for the guidance on your novels! I haven’t quite decided which one to read, but I will certainly get hold of one or the other. A Dangerous Man seems to have particularly good reviews…. David! How very nice to see you. I know just what you mean about this teaching business. Term hasn’t quite started yet over here but already there are a thousand and one things to do and nowhere near enough time. So glad you liked the post – thank you so much for such lovely words. Dorothy – yes, I hadn’t thought about slowness that way until Stefanie’s comment. And that’s exactly how I feel – that there’s a very particular pleasure in reading that you can’t get anywhere else. Which is why we love it so! Becca – I often think your site is all about loving reading and finding new ways to say it. I must get hold of the new Richard Russo and will definitely try the Julia Glass novel I possess thanks to your recommendation!

  9. You describe what I think about books so beautifully. If I didn’t have books–stories I’m not sure what I would do quite honestly. I love those moments when I lose myself so completely in a story, or the words that make up the story that the rest of the world fades (or maybe it becomes even brighter depending on what I’m reading). And I think slowing down is a good idea, but it’s so hard. But those are the best moments…and in between I’ll take what I can get!:)

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