The oxidation of circumstance: how books gets their hooks into you

When I heard that the admirable Hesperus Press were holding a competition inviting people to write introductions to out-of-print classics, one book popped immediately into my mind: Hackenfeller’s Ape by Brigid Brophy. I didn’t end up writing it on that; I wrote it on another of her novels, Flesh, but we’ll come to that in another post. The reasons why Hackenfeller’s Ape suggested itself are twofold.

Firstly, and most properly, because it’s a book not many people have read, in my experience. She’s one of those writers I don’t expect to find when casing someone else’s bookshelves, no matter how well stocked, and would instinctively offer as a suggestion to someone who knows and likes, for instance, the somewhat similarly poised prose style of Muriel Spark.

The second reason is harder to couch in the objective critical terms you might – might – think people expect in an introduction to an out-of-print classic, and it’s to do with the manner of the book’s coming into my life. I first picked it up in the Parisian apartment of my uncle and aunt, in the Rue de Verneuil, just along from the famously graffitied house of the still-late-then (and now still-later) Serge Gainsbourg. I had the loan of the apartment for the weekend, and was there with that pedantically monikered creature, my then-girlfriend-now-wife, on what might even have been her first trip to Paris (which meant I was able to pass it off, more or less, as my own invention). The stars, in short, were favourable. I could have picked up almost any book, you might think, and it would have shone with at least some inner light.

It was the Virago Modern Classics edition, and although I probably had no right picking up books with my girlfriend there in the room with me, in a beautiful apartment, in Paris, then in my defence I’d say that Brophy’s brisk, airy prose, in her short, sidelong books (most of the fiction, at any rate) is the sort of thing you can give half an eye to, and take something from, quickly and uncomplicatedly, without the risk of being dragged down into the cauldron of plot or character. She’s not a writer that insists you read on and finish her right now. She’s more confident, and more clever than that: she knows you’ll come back when you’re ready. She’s arch, ironic, self-deprecating; observational, rather than descriptive; very modern.

I don’t suppose I read more than a few pages of the book that weekend (I hope I didn’t. Or, if I did, then I was at least giving my unwitting wife-to-be a fair glimpse of what her future held) but I carried it around in my head, and bought it as soon as I saw it, in a charity shop or wherever. Or maybe I did read all of it, because the copy of it I have in front of me, another charity shop purchase, is more recent. I think I bought it at the same time that I bought my latest copy of Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature, which I gave to my brother-in-law on becoming a father, but I can’t be sure.

Which leads me to the important question of the contingent circumstances whereby books come into our life. Where and who we were, and who with, when we found them, or, more fancifully, where they found us. Here’s a few that spring to mind:

  • Catch 22: picked for me by my father from a book sale at a primary school fête (I must have been at secondary school, mustn’t I?)
  • A Bout de Souffle (the French novelisation): bought in Montreal, in a basement second hand bookshop on holiday with a different girlfriend.
  • Infinite Jest (US hardback edition): given to me, by that same, now ex-girlfriend, somewhere on The Strand, when she was working at Abacus. (She spent ages trying to get me to read Geoff Dyer. I’ve got no idea now what my first Geoff Dyer was. I kept seeing Paris, Trance in remaindered bookshops and thinking it wasn’t for me.)
  • Steppenwolf: a 21st birthday present from my sister, read and re-read in the little room I rented while studying in Leipzig, in East Germany, when I should have been reading it in German. The landlady had kindly furnished the room with a selection pornographic magazines. They, at least, were in German.
  • Which reminds me. The English Patient: bought from the English language bookstore in Clermont-Ferrand, France. I allowed myself one English book a month. (I can’t remember the others.) There, at least, I was reading in French. This I read, sitting on the high-up window sill of my chambre de bonne, stuffing myself with sweets. Dolly mixtures, from memory, but do they even have them in France?
  • Deborah Levy’s Beautiful Mutants: bought at a remaindered bookshop inTenterden, Kent, when my gran lived. Also bought a book about the graphic designer Neville Brody, which was important enough to me that I spent a couple of years listening rather obsessively to Cabaret Voltaire. Could have been worse. Could have been 23 Skidoo. Remaindered bookshops still exist, but in my experience are full of tat, whereas in the 80s they always had a few gems.
  • Philip Roth’s Deception and Tibor Fischer’s Under The Frog, bought (I think) with book tokens I’d won for something I’d written, in a bookshop on Piccadilly, on a trip into London with my family. I think I bought it on the day the Fischer was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I spent a while trying to get myself to like his books, to no avail. Deception I bought largely because of its sexy cover, in the original Vintage paperback edition, with the woman with a cigarette dangling from her mouth. I did try to read more of him (I read Portnoy’s Complaint, in Leipzig, I remember, in the strange metal-floored university library, when I should have been reading German) but it was years until he hit home, as described here, with Exit Ghost.
  • Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing. The first free review copy I ever received, when working at my student newspaper. Someone was giving me, not just a book, but a hardbacked book? For free? Oh, not for free. As payment, I had to read it. Christ, who were these people?
  • The Chase, by Alejo Carpentier. Another lovely slim novella, another cheap purchase, from the bookshop at Leeds University, before taking a train journey south.

I could go on. Perhaps I’ll stop there. The Carpentier, the Levy and the Brophy kind of sit together. Three novellas (the Carpentier and the Brophy both 121 pages, the Levy just 95), three writers completely unknown to me before I picked them up, three writers generally underknown by others.

Deborah Levy digression:

(Deborah Levy is a strange case. Beautiful Mutants was more or less at the border of my surreal/magic realism comfort zone; she struck me as a more involved, fingers-in-the-fleshier, less performative Jeanette Winterson. I pick it up, now, and the sentences jump up off the page: “My mother was the ice-skating champion ofMoscow.” “The poet smells of cashew nuts and cologne.” “Lapinskie is a shameless cunt.” That’s how the first three sections open. Who would not be seduced? (At 18, at any rate) She eventually out-weirded me (Diary of a Steak, anyone?), but then when she reappeared, this year, with Swimming Home, I was underwhelmed. It was as if she’d nipped behind my back and taken up position in the middle ground. Not that I’m against the middle ground, but I didn’t expect to see her there. Why, Deborah?)

Very brief Winterson digression:

(My first Winterson was Sexing the Cherry, in paperback, bought from The Softback Preview (or was it Quality Paperbacks Direct?), a mail order book catalogue that lured you in with cheap offers and then made you buy a book every couple of months – but this was no hardship as the selection was fantastic (though some of them were those horrible paperback editions of new hardbacks, with sort of waffley seersucker covers). Other books that I associate with that include Alexander Stuart’s The War Zone, Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (my first of his) – but that’s it. Oh, I did get AS Byatt’s Possession from it. Clearly, though, not all books retain the association of their provenance.)

Back to my three novellas:

Something about those three books epitomise the way the contingent facts of a book’s coming into your life somehow combine, or amalgamate, with the pure fact of the text of it so that you don’t just get the book, and like, but love it. Hold it close to you. You fuse it, or allow it to fuse, to your sense of self-identity. It’s the objective, external, contingent elements (place, person, cover design) that allow this to happen, as they are the bits that have hooks, like a climbing plant has tendrils, that grapple and adhere and get into your soul.

These three books, I guess, were all the more precious because they were rare, unknown. And here’s the point (and it’s the same point about going off your favourite band when they become popular): it’s not the fact that they’re rare that makes them precious, it’s that in becoming part of your self-identity, they make you seem that much more individual to yourself. It becomes easier to see yourself as a genuine, ‘unique’, differentiated individual. (And to portray yourself as such, too, obviously, but that to my mind is less important.) (One of the nostalgic jolts of re-entering academia over the last few years was seeing and remembering the critical rite-of-passage that is the Student Poster Sale, with its huge range of film, music and narcotic-themed wall decorations laid out on the floor of some hall or other, like rugs in a Turkish souk, offering you a wide – but not infinite – selection of selves to present to the world.) In those seminal years of becoming an adult, this  task is a genuinely crucial part of life.

How old was I when I picked up these books? 18 or 19 for the Levy. A year or so older for the Carpentier. Another ten years for the Brophy – but just entering into what I perhaps was beginning to feel was not just a life-changing but a life-defining, life-clarifying relationship. The book becomes a thing to point to, and say: that is part of what I am.

There is one more thing to say about these books, and that links into the familiar topic of books that you’re supposed to read at a certain age (Catcher in the Rye, On The Road, The Waves, The Wasp Factory, perhaps). The problem with these books is that they are somehow caught up in the age band to which they are supposed to appeal, or are limited to it, whereas my three books move beyond that. Catcher in the Rye, if it catches you at that precocious age, becomes trapped in that moment, and refers only to it. My three books threw me forward to life beyond the moment at which I read them: the sense of self-identity that they flattered me with included a sense not just of who I was then, but of who I might become.

Which is why, when I read, and devoured, the 1993 Granta Best of Young British Novelists 2, at the age of 21, when I was trying in part to feel my way into what it might take to become one of those people, I surprised myself by being most affected by the Helen Simpson story, Heavy Weather. A story about the drabness of parenthood, that showed me, as if reflected in the surface of a magical pool in a fairy story, what my life might turn out like. Among the Will Selfs and Lawrence Norfolks and Jeanette Wintersons, it seduced me into a vision of myself, not as a writer, but as a person. Which is what all great writing does. Which is what I want to do.

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