The walk to the station, the sunlight aslant on the pavement, the thought slides back to the book in the bedroom, pen stuck between the pages as a fat marker. The morning, spent reading in bed. The new book reached for on the bedside cabinet, I’d read maybe half of the first paragraph of the first page, the day before. Now, after working a night shift last night: half an hour reading a new book, alone, in bed. What could be sweeter?
Then, two hours later, on the walk to the station, comes the thought. The book in my hand, and the book in my head. The pleasure of the text…
The pleasure of the text, as opposed to what? The after-effects of reading, its manifold, multi-faceted, confused and conflated gifts-that-keep-giving, to sink into cliche.
More and more I feel like I’m less concerned with whether a particular book is ‘good’, as with the question of what is reading? What is it for? What do we get out of it?
The book in question is All Days Are Night, by Peter Stamm, a new novel I had requested from the publisher (Granta, thank you) in the hope of reviewing it. I have another book by the author on my shelves, bought with my own money, unread. He is someone I’ve been wanting to read for a while (I remember a recommendation from a bookseller at Waterstone’s Piccadilly, his favourite author); the covers themselves recommend the contents, delicate and forceful, oblique, like that sunlight, mildly erotic, like the sunlight; I’m in the mood for some of that clarity I suppose I think I can best get from contemporary European translated fiction – something about being close to, but at a remove, filtered but not diluted.
I’m in bed, I pick up the book, and after two stabs, two starts at the opening paragraph, I am in – like in water. The book starts in water:
Half wake up then drift away, alternately surfacing and lapsing back into weightlessness. Gillian is lying in water with a blue luminescence. Within it her body looks yellowish, but wherever it breaks the surface, it disappears into darkness. The only light comes from the warm water lapping her belly and breasts. It feels oily, beading on her skin.
I’m the water, I don’t know where I am, but I feel comfortable. I feel – this is the most important thing, the thing I try to impress on students in creative writing classes – confidence in the author. It’s that last line – “oily, beading on her skin” – that has me, catches me. The person in charge of word choices is a person of good judgment. The persons… I flick to the title page and see the name of Michael Hofmann, very much one of the most lauded of contemporary translators into English.
From that point on, I give myself over to the reading. The novel reveals itself to be about a woman, Gillian, who is recovering in hospital from an accident. She is necessarily on drugs, for the pain. Her face is badly damaged, she will need reconstructive surgery. There was a car crash. Someone else is dead. But all of this comes in an ebbing, eddying, circling wash of words that don’t move forward, or hardly, but around, to and fro; that make the page a place of mutual play and exploration: Gillian, Stamm, Hofmann, myself. She is coming to a realisation of her situation, as are we, as did Stamm and Hofmann in their turn.
Gillian had always known she was in danger, that she would sometimes have to pay for everything. Now she had paid. When the doctor asked her what she could remember, she had slowly mover her head from side to side. She wasn’t shaking her head, she was looking for her memories on the white walls. But the things she saw there had nothing to do with her. Her job, her parents, Matthias – they were from another life.
Everything is still there, she said. Only I am gone.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that everything I’ve ever wanted from the reading, from the experience of reading is to be found in that passage. The negotiation of a situation, a ‘character’, a ‘future’ that is made between myself and an author (and a translator). Picture us at card table, the author, the translator and myself. The writers play with counters called words, letters, paragraphs. (There they are, stacked up on the baize by their elbows; see the confidence with which they toss them down, count them back.) I play with counters called ‘character’, ‘plot’, ‘images’, ‘themes’, ‘symbolism’. I am able to exchange my counters for theirs, and that way redouble the stakes. (There is no winner in this game, obviously. The analogy doesn’t allow for it.)
The pleasure of the game is intense. I am in the text. Someone else has prepared it for me, yet I am actively exploring it, inhabiting it, swimming in it, making it inhabited, making it bodied.
And yet, walking down the street, two hours later, I know that, however reluctantly I had put down the book to get up and start the day, however much I am holding out the promise of returning to it later in the day (and, let’s be blunt: I could have read another 20 or 30 pages in the time it’s taken to thrash out these confused thoughts), despite all this, the pleasure of the book is already dissipating, dispersing in the air that carries the sunlight, that allows it through. I don’t care about Gillian. There is another man in her life, an artist she maybe had some kind of flirtation with before the car crash, and he may re-emerge, or the book may be about her coming back to her self after the trauma, but the fact is I don’t care. It’s the words I care about, it’s them I want to get back to, not the character, the situation, the plot.
There are other books that act very differently indeed. The moment when the man (can’t remember his name) sees the dog being swept along in the river in Iris Murdoch’s Nuns and Soldiers, and that opening death-bed scene; what’s going to happen to Lena in the next volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels; the dying dog in The Days of Abandonment (though there are other scenes in that book, read twice, that I’d forgotten); the antics of Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth; the scene in the nightclub toilet in Your Face Tomorrow; the snow hut in The Magic Mountain; Yossarian in Catch-22, all of Something Happened – all of these are called forth in a way I don’t think All Days Are Night will be.
These are books, scenes, moments, characters, that have embedded themselves in my long-term consciousness (what people sometimes call ‘memory’) in a way that Gillian, probably, simply won’t. Those books gave pleasure in a way that was either different to, or supplementary to, the pleasure of Stamm’s playful page. It’s possible that the reason they stuck is because of the pleasure of the reading ripened, alchemized, reconfigured itself as something else – metastasised, or whatever the benign or benevolent form of metastasis is.
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever, said Keats, but there is joy in the beauty of the moment, lived, that cannot escape its moment to bring joy to another, future time. Reading does both. Or rather, reading does one, and we make of reading the other. It’s that mutation, that alteration, that movement from the present to the future, from the page to the memory, that is impossible to know. That’s why we read, that what it’s for, and I don’t know what it is!