I feel as if my mind has been scattered all over the place these past few weeks, and that if I don’t pause for a moment to take stock and regain focus, the summer will slip past me in that agreeably unproductive way that is so frustrating in hindsight. It’s all this doing – how does anyone ever keep a clear mind in the midst of running hither and thither among jobs and chores and seeing people? I gain some satisfaction from being able to do more these days, but in another way, I much prefer life when it’s neater and quieter. Part of the problem, I think, is that I have no set routine. Each week is different, and so I never settle down into a pattern that I can tweak until I get the right balance.
But I do have reading and writing plans for summer, and I should get a grip on them. I agreed a couple of weeks ago to write an essay on Gabriel Josipovici, and the editor needs it quite swiftly. I feel a bit uneasy about it, as I have the opportunity here to write a more academic piece than I’ve done in quite a while. Since I’ve been struggling for the past three years to remove the more pedantic academic elements from my writing, you’d think this would represent a chance to relax, or at least to tighten up again, into a more familiar style. But I’m worried that I’ve forgotten how it’s done.
There is such a huge chasm between academic and popular writing. In academic work, you begin with all the information you are obliged to get out of the way –contextualisation, for instance, justification for choosing a particular topic or perspective, historical or biographical information, and from that you gradually tease out your themes and your argument, and you build it up brick by brick, checking regularly that there are no gaps or inconsistencies. In popular work it’s all the other way round – you begin with your choicest, sweetest point, tell intriguing stories and bury the argument in a swarm of jolly or curious anecdotes, ever fearful that the reader’s attention will stray unless repeatedly persuaded to remain. In academic work you imagine the reader as fully engaged but hostile and nit-picking, in popular work you imagine the reader as feckless and easily bored but willing to laugh and be entertained. It just makes for very different sorts of writing experiences.
It’s also meant that I’ve been plundering my carefully hoarded store of work by Josipovici. I’ve got two books left unread: Moo Pak and Goldberg: Variations, two of his most highly acclaimed novels. Do I have enough material without them, thus saving them up for the future, or should I read them in case one or other turns out to be really important to what I want to write about? Or do I start rereading (as I must) the books I know I want to discuss? The uncertainty is paralysing me at the moment.
Beyond this essay there are two others I want to write this summer – one on Kafka and one on Colette, so there’s plenty of reading to be done in preparation for those. And then I’ve got some wonderful books from the library that I really must read before they have to be returned – a biography of Rilke, one of Willa Cather, and Al Alvarez’s book on suicidal poets, A Savage God. I’ve also got two books of psychoanalytic essays that I really want to spend some time with.
And then the fun reading! I’m so glad that this year I have readalongs organised with blogging friends, because it can be very quiet online in the summer, and I’m really looking forward to sharing some reading experiences with virtual friends. I’m currently rereading Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale for the Slaves – a very different experience for me than when I read it in my early twenties.
Then there’s Capote’s In Cold Blood – shall we say we can post on this book at any time during or after the last weekend in July?
Angela Carter’s Wise Children – posting during the week 8th-15th August?
Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge – posting the last week in August? (From Sunday 28th August onwards)
I’ve got two review copies I really wanted and am looking forward to immensely – Helen Humpreys’ The Reinvention of Love, about Victor Hugo and Charles Saint-Beuve and the woman they both loved, and Deborah Lawrenson’s The Lantern, a gothic thriller set in the South of France with shades of Rebecca. I wish I were better at getting pictures placed in a post – both have gorgeous covers.
Finally there are a large number (as ever!) of books that are insistently calling my name from my stacks. Including Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men, Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Sarah Winman’s When God Was A Rabbit, Mist Over Pendle by Robert Neill (a 17th century tale of witch hunts), Darcy O’Brian’s A Way of Life, Like Any Other (forgotten NYRB modern classic about lives of Hollywood families), Anjali Joseph’s Saraswati Park (family story of a Bombay letter-writer) and Deborah Davis’ Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X (about the society girl Virginie Gautreau who suffered a dreadful fall from grace when Sargent painted her portrait with one strap hanging, shockingly, off her shoulder).
Okay, good! It’s helpful to write it all out and get it clearer in my mind. Although looking over that list, I think perhaps I should simply cancel all my engagements from now until the autumn and get reading! I don’t know, summer’s lovely for its gentle indolence, but on the other hand, I know I’ll kick myself if I haven’t got the most from the light and the time and the sense of spaciousness.