Time Travelling

Well, it all began because I was having trouble finding a book to read. I seem to be stuck in a pattern where I read a couple of blinding novels then stagger through a few that never quite click and then I don’t know what to read next. So I had begun Laurie Moore’s A Gate At The Stairs and, twenty pages in, it was feeling a little overwritten. I don’t know what’s going on with contemporary American fiction lately – Tinkers was dripping with unnecessary prose and Freedom was verbose (even if brilliantly so in places) and now Laurie Moore has given in to convoluted subclauses. And this in the land of Strunk and White? How is it possible? All I wanted was a story, a good, strong story, one that would hold me. I returned to the shelves and picked out two more novels, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood and Devices and Desires by P. D. James.

The P. D. James I had borrowed off my dad, a hardback first edition that brought back a surge of clustered memories. When we got it, in 1989, I was twenty and at the height of my desire to write fiction. I had scribbled several novels by then, none of them any good, unsurprisingly. Looking back I can see the problem; I had nothing to say, no experience to put to the service of fleshing out a narrative. I adored reading and because I loved it so I felt I ought to be able to write. Wrong! And at that age I rarely lived inside myself, or perhaps more accurately I should say I lived so close to my feelings that they were practically invisible, just brute motivators hustling me this way and that, whilst my sense of self was a two-dimensional image plastered over the billboard of my imagination. I dressed this image up in the ways that pleased me best and then set myself the task of striving to emulate it. I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to produce a book, like this chunky, brooding-jacketed, imposing P. D. James novel. I wanted to have a reputation and to have nice things said about me in quotation marks on the inside cover. I had no idea how to get there, other than by flinging myself in the general direction of the goal, writing in a way that parroted the sorts of things I read, quite unable to drill down into my soul and siphon off the real emotions that collected there. I was simply a little tinderbox of fresh, potent ambition without many useful skills.

Emily has been running a time travellers’ meme in which she invites bloggers to go back in time, ten or fifteen or twenty years to see what they would say to their younger selves. I enjoyed reading others responses but didn’t think I could do it myself, had no intention, in fact, until this book, the materiality of it, reminded me so forcibly of a certain stage in my life. The important parts of life are so rarely the things we hold in obsessive captivity in the forefront of our minds. Instead, what turns out to matter is usually what is happening quietly in the background. Whilst I was all focused on writing fiction, I was gently falling into a much longer-lasting, much more serious love with writing about literature. In 1989 I was living in France for my year abroad, reading Proust and the Existentialists, attending French philosophie classes with the extraordinary Madame Pascaux, who had been through a strange and debilitating breakdown that caused her to go quite blind in the afternoons for no medical reason. She told us all about it in lessons, in the down-to-earth French way that sees no shame in the curious convolutions of the mind and the bizarre effects they wreak on the body. I didn’t realize it but she would stand as a model teacher for me, in her honesty, her ability to tell stories that fascinated her class, in the way she wove philosophy and lived experience together. I had no idea that one day I would have my own disturbing mind-body tales to tell.

And of course there was another love affair that mattered to me, too. I wouldn’t have been surprised if my older self had paid me a visit from the future and told me that Mister Litlove and I would still be married, twenty years later. I had a sneaking suspicion from the start that we would end up together. Not long after we had begun dating, we went to a New Year’s Eve party, and in the usual sort of crush we ended up talking to a much older woman. ‘So you’re nineteen, you’re in love and you think it’ll last forever,’ she said to us. ‘Ha! I thought that once, too.’ Her face softened, remembering. ‘I don’t even know where he is, now.’ But we didn’t say anything, immured as we were in our youthful and determined optimism, and the stolid resistance that comes from being with someone you feel utterly at home with, who you cannot imagine being without. I didn’t realize how important that quiet, persistent quality of comfortableness would be.

Holding the P. D. James volume in my hands brought back these things to me, and the surprising recognition that already, at just twenty, the important cornerstones of my life were in place – in writing, in teaching French literature, in love. Naturally I had no inkling of what a rocky road lay ahead in these areas, and I wouldn’t breathe a word to my twenty-year-old self. It’s best not to know. But if I had to counsel her at all, I would point to the image in lights on the billboard of her imagination and suggest she take it down and throw it away. That she learns to be in touch, instead, with what she wants and likes, and that it isn’t a crime to put herself first sometimes, and not always feel compelled to please others or to conform to the pressures of external validation. But then, I could have said those things and would I have understood them? Probably not at all. Some lessons can only be learned the hard way.

As for the P.D. James, it’s very good indeed and I’m enjoying it. A serial killer is stalking young women in the wilds of Norfolk, and whilst I’ve read about a lot of serial killers in my time, P.D. James’s is by far the scariest of these narratives. I think it is because her voice is so cool and controlled and precise. It’s such a capable adult’s voice, and so when it descends into terror there’s a real force to it. When capable adults say it’s time to panic, it’s really time to panic. Of course the proper moral of this story is that it is worth every book lover’s while to stockpile novels – twenty years after acquiring this book I finally get around to reading it, and it turns out to be the perfect moment for it. That’s very satisfying.


14 thoughts on “Time Travelling

  1. I feel very much the same way. I’m 24, love literature, and feel like I should be a successful writer, but I’ve been considering going for my M.A. in literature. Not sure what I’m going to do yet, but this post has given me some serious insight. Thanks.

  2. I think you’ve chosen an unfortunate combination of books to read in a row. I haven’t read Freedom, but found Gate at the Stairs to be more like several short stories than a satisfying novel and Tinkers was laiden with over description. I’m not surprised you were craving a good story after reading those books in quick succession! I haven’t read any PD James, but can see why her crime novels would be the perfect read for you now. Enjoy 🙂

  3. Litlove, I so enjoyed this and am glad that, after all, P.D. James and the meme fell into place. I think it’s wonderful that you had the sense to find Mister Litlove at that age and that, even though your eyes were set on something else, the foundation of your future as an adult was being laid.

  4. Oh, thank you for saying it’s worthwhile to stockpile books, because that’s what I’ve spent my weekend doing! (And many weekends over the last few years.) And advice to the young — usually wasted. I wouldn’t have listened to myself if I met an older version of me with wisdom to share. At 20 it’s impossible to imagine a time when we will feel very differently than than we did then. And I’m particularly stubborn about advice, I’m afraid. Interesting that the elements of your life were there at 20, but that they would take shapes you wouldn’t have expected.

  5. Yay for stockpiling books! I enjoyed your time traveling. I think you are right about younger you not being likely to take your advice. I don’t think I’d listen to myself either. At that age didn’t we know it all?

  6. I do love P.D. James and have one of hers waiting in the wings. I, too, have been having a hard time getting into another book. I really worry when Jasper Fforde isn’t working for me – and I gulp heavily when I say this – I’m not in the mood to read First Among Sequels which is what I picked up recently. Maybe I’ll put it down and pick up my P.D. James. As for time travel, I doubt I would recognize myself if I went back to my twenties. I’d probably be talking to the wrong 20 year old and not even realize it until I got back from my travels.

  7. This post is so lovely and thought provoking for me. I can’t imagine what I would say to my twenty year old self but I think I would probably not want her to know everything that was going to happen and let her be surprised instead.

  8. Gender distinctions between readers — I love it. The writing instructors I’ve had always said that, if you’re going to write fiction, you’re going to write for college-educated women. The fiction market for blue-collar male high school drop-outs is, apparently, very small. *chuckle*

  9. I have a sneaky suspicion you’re too hard on your youthful self. You plumb your emotions too thoroughly now to have been so bad at it while young. Perhaps you needed practice, perhaps it takes a few efforts, but a voice as capable as yours doesn’t spring into existence this late in life, presto! unless Zeus has a headache and Athena is born. *smile*

  10. Abby – the very best of luck to you, whatever you decide. I found it perfectly possible to continue with fiction writing while doing my M.Phil and only gave it up once I had a child and a job. So you can keep everything going for a while in tandem if that appeals. Whatever you do, I am sure it will provide you with the useful experience you need to have something to write about.

    Jackie – Thank you! P. D. James was just right and really enjoyable. It’s funny how you can have a little run of books that just don’t hit the right note (for whatever reason). And it’s always such a nice feeling to then find one that does exactly what you want it to do!

    Lilian – Mister Litlove was a good find! 🙂 And it just struck me as funny how much of my life was already in place all those years ago. Or perhaps I am just someone who doesn’t change very easily! 🙂

    Dorothy – with the approach of the ebook, I have given up all stealth and am just trying to stockpile now whenever I feel I can! And I did laugh at what you said about the young and advice. I think most people resent being told what to do, even nicely, when their best interests are in the other person’s heart! Somehow it never falls well.

    Stefanie – absolutely! My son at 15 definitely knows it all and his parents are woefully misinformed. 🙂 But they need that sort of strength or they’d never strike out the way they must into the world. So it all works out okay really.

    Grad – lol! I’ll bet you’d recognise more about yourself than you think (I’ve seen that photo of you – you are a mere spring chicken). And I often find it’s me rather than the books, so that even reliable favourites don’t quite hit the spot. I don’t often watch tv, but it’s a good call under such circumstances – the books will wait patiently for us. 🙂

    Kathleen – definitely best to opt for surprise. And thank you for such a lovely comment!

    Rebecca – that is so true. I find my reading is really influenced by how I’m feeling in the moment, and usually spend ages trying to find exactly the right book. It’s like I owe it to the author only to start their work when I’m in the best mood for it! 🙂

    Ben – aww thank you for two such lovely comments – the first as you pointed out in your email to me, belonging to the previous post but perfectly welcome here. I read something very similar about gender recently – can’t quite think where but the journalist was saying that books are the province of the self-improving middle classes. It sounds like it’s an insult, but in a different light, I expect it’s true. And you’re quite right that I have practiced delving into my emotions a great deal over the past twenty years – PhDs, motherhood and chronic illness all make it an imperative so I HAVE ended up with a lot of experience! And oh boy I would love to be Athena, you know, if I could choose, so thank you for that very happy analogy! 🙂

  11. I started reading this days ago and was called away for something far less worthy, but I’m so glad it’s here for me to return to – such a cool post, LL. I love that this book was such a forceful trigger for you, and I adored the (very familiar!) trip down memory lane. The second paragraph in particular had my head bobbing in recognition – I was just so. The P.D. James sounds gripping… and permission to stockpile sounds even better!

  12. I love the way you combined my meme with books! It seems to me that your younger self knew a little more about what she was doing than none did. Mine was always just falling into things with no real plans at all (or so it seems, although, since I’ve always been somewhat argumentative, I’m sure she’d have argued that she knew exactly what she was doing).

  13. This is why I hate weeding out my book collection. I think the moment might have passed for an interest in a book and then a year later it is the one and only thing I want to read and isn’t it a pity I got rid of it?! I’m all for stockpiling as you never know when the moment will hit. And I love PD James–I think it’s about time I picked up another of her books. Devices and Desires was the first book by her I read and it made me want to go back and start from the beginning.

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