A Life In Books

It's said that memory works best by association and when I look back over my life I notice that I cannot dissociate the events of my personal history from the books I was reading when they took place. The memory of one enriches the remembrance of the other, and if I can picture myself reading, then I have the impression of almost total sensory recall.

For instance, the year I spent living in France is embodied in the memory of reading Proust. To begin with I lodged in the lycee where I taught and I can remember so clearly lying on my narrow metal-framed bed (the decor was strongly reminiscent of a prison) in my dressing gown before preparing to go out to the nightclub. In France they don't open much before midnight so there is plenty of evening to be spent initially. Proust's luscious, sinuous, long-winded sentences slow down the experience of reading, and the sensation I had was one of great spaciousness. It was the first time in my life I had been free of work, free of expectation, free of obligation and it felt wonderful. In similar fashion holidays are easily recalled through the novels I was reading: Barbara Trapido's wonderful The Travelling Hornpipe Player getting a little gritty and oily on the beautiful horseshoe beach in Corsica, the mountains rising in their grandeur on one side, the citadel of the old town providing a impressive, rocky full stop to the other; Elizabeth Taylor's Angel in a bitterly cold Norfolk spring, the small town eccentricity of her characters reproduced it seemed, all around me. Then there's the multiple memory of university vacations where I would drag the ancient sun lounger on to my parent's patio and settle myself with great caution in it (it lost nearly all its springs in the end, and I hardly dared to breathe as my bottom hung a few precarious inches above the ground), a pile of books by side as if I were hunkering down for the duration (and I was).

Unfortunately it's not just the good times I remember. Illness is also linked closely to reading matter. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night will forever be bound to the memory of a particularly bad attack of cystitis just before I sat my A levels. The self-destructive, hysterical behaviour of the protagonists was perhaps not entirely conducive to restful convalescence. After I had been very ill for several weeks with viral pneumonia (it turned out to be the beginning of the ME), I remember very clearly the first book I was able to read. It was Jeanette Winterson's Gut Symmetries, and I read her clever, allusive prose very very slowly indeed, as if I were learning my own language again. When I was heavily pregnant I recall reading Colette's Sido, and her gently evocative descriptions of a Burgandy childhood regularly sent me to sleep after no more than a couple of paragraphs. It took me ages to read that book, too. And a period of hopeless insomnia was epitomized by Elizabeth Jane Howard's autobiography, Slipstream. Her tortuously complicated love life mirrored uncomfortably my own miserable restlessness. Her frustrated longing for love was my frustrated longing for sleep, and we were companionable in a sisterly kind of way together.

The strangest experience I ever had involved Adalbert Stifter's immense novel Der Nachtsommer (which translates as Indian Summer). It is an obscure book that for some reason I was determined to conquer in my final university year, and it was worth every minute I spent decoding those laden. complex German sentences. It's a coming of age novel in which very little happens, but its emotional climate is one of achingly suppressed passion. It's extraordinary. I began that book in the chilly January of 1991 just as the first Gulf War broke out, and I finished it, all 600-pages of dense, heart-breaking prose, squeezed around reading for other papers and woven into the usual mad rush of student life, a couple of months later in the early hours of a March morning. At dawn the ceasefire was called. It felt uncanny. When I saw my supervisor to discuss my essay on the book I told him what had happened. He looked at me a little strangely and said 'How can you live with yourself?' and then he grinned to show me he was joking. But you know, I can't help but feel a little bit responsible.

10 thoughts on “A Life In Books

  1. It strikes me, reading this, that the blog format really, really suits the way you think and write. More than fiction. Fiction has different rules; it does sharp colour better than blended shades. Your writing about yourself and reading is beautiful and insightful and is clearly your voice.

    Oh, and books and memory are interwoven for me too. A few examples… Hallucinating Foucault (Patricia Dunckner) sitting at the edge of the sea on a beach in Mexico, the water stroking my ankles. I finished the whole book, sitting there. Wuthering Heights, on a scorching day in France. Books make me dizzy sometimes in the same way that intense sunshine does – I stand up after finishing an amazing book and wobble and stammer.

    I don’t associate books with sadness. That is because inevitably when I am bordering unhappy, I reread the old comforting books. Brideshead Revisited, Cat’s Eye, The Robber Bride, Jane Eyre. They’ve seen me through years and years of exam nerves, breakups and general malaise. And they are so familiar to me now that they don’t evoke sadness.

    Kathryn x

  2. what a beautifully and elegant reading post. congratulations.

    i thought i come by and thank you for your comment. however i was shocked to read the words, i only have ‘chronic fatigue’…i know much too well how disruptive, painful and varied the severe symptons it brings…honey we all have a cross to bear. mine is not lighter or heavier than yours. yours is heavy enough … and how often do i/have i wallow in self-pity? too many to count and ever so often…and how can you and i not…we can’t always be strong and brave. we can’t always be cheerful. we can’t always take on pain and face it and embrace it…tears of pity have kept me plenty company. tears of pain and of soreness and of struggle and restrictions as yours have kept us and that is okay too, we are but human…so cry, pout, yell, question, smile, take your meds, try to rest, wallow in sorrow of what could have been and then we the tears are less look at your accomplishments and your beautiful self and give in to another day. and the cycle continues admiring how much you have done, how strong you must be to endure what you endure, appreciating yourself for all it’s worth, being your best friend…(i have known about you for only a couple of mins and already know all this about you)..
    So please know that i have looked over at your brillian post and your thoughtful, kind and witty comments to me and to Napfisk and seen how again you beat the pain/fatigue one more time to shine…hugs…

  3. What fantastic comments I’m getting this morning. Dear Kathryn, thank you so much for your kind words, you know I have money on you getting a novel out there when you’re bored of academics… And Chana, I think that must be the most compassionate message I have ever received about my illness. Bless you for that.

  4. I have been thinking about this post and have concluded that I don’t associate my reading with anything going on in my life. When I read, I am completely absorbed by the world of the book–disassociated. Is that escape or what?

  5. Pingback: Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant » Roundup

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