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.