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.