Monday, May 02, 2016

A Personal Journey in Books

Books have been a true constant in my life, a safe, unfailing refuge from the demands and frustrations of everyday life. I find myself returning to it in times of uncertainty, when life throws me a curveball or does not yield, if life can be said to yield at all, the hoped-for dividends. Literature in particular has been like oxygen for me, and my relationship with it was in my mind this past weekend, prompted, I suspect, by my efforts to dig out one specific book from the 30 crates or so which, having run out of shelve space in my home, occupy one-fourth of my study. As I sought that particular book I felt I was journeying back in time; the idiosyncratic scents, above all, teasing the parts of my brain that are closely associated with memory.

My lifelong encounter with books has its own narrative, a series of impressions anchored in time, like biographical red flags. It goes something like this.

Oddly, I have very few memories of the books that I read in my childhood — not the French-language ones, that is. Sure there was some science fiction (the Anticipation series which a cousin collected) and whatever it is that we were force-fed in primary school, but none of these can be said to have affected me in any meaningful way. I do remember repeatedly flipping through the pages of a French translation of Solzhenitsin’s The Gulag Archipelago in my parents’ collection, but its sheer size was too daunting and I never plunged in.

For reasons that I still cannot fully understand, my emotional connection with books, and with literature in particular, was sparked when I started reading English. I had been reading H. P. Lovecraft in French translation for a while, but only when I acquired the English originals, the Del Rey paperbacks with the macabre covers by Michael Whelan, did I feel like I was plunging into a forbidden universe. It was only then that I got the frisson. I’ve long outgrown Lovecraft, but the smell of the ink is something that I still associate with late evenings in bed, turning the page to “The Horror at Red Hook” or “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.”

From that same period, I associate the Dragonlance series with long summer afternoons, Stephen King’s The Stand with efforts to read in class and not get caught, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings with Christmas, upstairs at my uncle’s house, unwilling to leave behind the hobbits and other creatures which inhabited that expansive universe.

My first contact with “real” literature occurred during college — at St. Lawrence College in Quebec City, to which I had applied, as a francophone, to improve my English. It was tough going at first; not so much the reading but the writing, until one professor warned me that if my writing did not show improvements fast I might have to leave the college. Needless to say, this was a warning that I took seriously, and I did what was necessary to avoid expulsion.

But I digress. College was my first brush with Shakespeare. Richard III, King Lear and Macbeth in particular I found enthralling, but admittedly I felt lost at first, only getting part of what was going on. I did fall in love with iambic pentameter, though, and for years afterwards would try to mimic the metering. What else do I associate with that period? Thoroughly enjoying my first Graham Greene (A Gun for Sale), Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and Steinbeck’s The Pearl, and strangely having to read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in English translation in a class run by a professor I did not particularly like but who, a quarter of a century later, I still associate with leather skirts and high boots. I still fondly remember Lorne Coughlin, who would walk into the classroom with his inevitable “good morning to you too.” It was Coughlin who first introduced me to another C — Joseph Conrad. He’d often mention Conrad even though he wasn’t on the reading list. So I jumped in on my own with Heart of Darkness. Coughlin seemed mightily pleased when he saw me reading it, as if he’d scored some secret victory. We also did Beowulf, which I remember reading from that unwieldy bible-papered Norton anthology, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot, poetry by Wallace Stevens (“The Snow Man”) were also highlights during that period. There were several others, but this is what had the greatest effect on my young mind, at least that can remember. 

There was, at the time, a particular sense of magic associated with books that with age has dissipated somewhat. I still get a thrill when I first open a book (which I find much more enjoyable than finishing one), but it’s not the same. Age, I assume, does that.

My move to Montreal in the summer of 1994 is also a period that I associate with an intense engagement with literature. It brings to mind Steinbeck’s East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath in my bedroom, writing down every word I didn’t understand and memorizing the definitions; Michael Moorcock on the bed in the guest room at my mother’s house when I visited on weekends; long magical summer afternoons in the park near the Olympic Stadium reading Conrad’s Nostromo and Lord Jim, and Conrad again in winter with Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent; winter is also Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment; Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities in my bed, one of the rare books that actually made me cry; Mann’s short stories; Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man with late-night reading disrupted by a phone call from the police informing me that the front window of the store where I worked part time as an undergraduate had been smashed by a brick; Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which we were not required to read in whole but that I did; Nabokov’s Lolita, which totally fascinated me; Joyce’s Ulysses, which I felt once in a lifetime was more than enough; Jane Austen bores me; Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, which I’d reread years later and think of as a completely different novel; Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day moves me, and I skip several classes to read The Unconsoled at the university library; Mann’s The Magic Mountain I associate with several things: an internship at CBC Newsworld in Calgary, breathlessly awaiting 5pm whereupon I’d head for the park and continue reading, ducks in the river, a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the green grass, and several typos in the Modern Library edition. It was on that same trip that I bought my first of many biographies of Conrad. Returning from that trip I stopped by the bookstore where I worked before heading home, as I’d received a large shipment of books from the Everyman’s Library — pretty much the entire collection of Dickens. Mann’s Doctor Faustus brings to mind summer, coffee, sitting by the balcony and Gustav Mahler while my girlfriend was on a trip with a cousin. Oscar Wilde (not Dorian Gray, which I had read years earlier) is lying on the carpeted floor of my second apartment in Montreal, the ceiling fan circling above my head, before the furniture had arrived. Montreal is James JonesThe Thin Red Line and From Here to Eternity, which when I finally saw a copy at the bookstore (reprinted to coincide with the release of Terrence Malick’s film version of Thin Red Lineliterally made me jump in place, to my mother’s (and another customer’s) amusement. Montreal is also Michael Crichton, devouring his thrillers outside the classroom, just before class, while my classmates talked among themselves. For quite a while I wanted to be the next Crichton and began reading every copy of Scientific American and Discover magazine for the next science-based novel plot.

My Signet Classics paperback copy of Hamlet gets devoured, literally, by a friend’s dog. Golding’s The Lord of the Flies is an Irish pub and a dark-haired man, much better looking than me and slightly older, competing for my girlfriend’s attention late one evening, when he asked me why I would ever bother reading such a book. How could I not, was my indignant response. Eco’s The Name of the Rose in paperback, Foucault’s Pendulum, which I enjoyed even more, in hardback. Naipaul at a coffee shop near McGill University, long afternoons and evenings; Nabokov again late at night at a different coffee shop, literally stunned by the brilliance of his prose; Thomas Harris with summertime (Red Dragon with a splitting headache). I read almost everything by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski during that period; Imperium and Shah of Shahs are standouts; HessSteppenwolf Gunter GrassThe Tin Drum, accompanied by Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3.

Edward Said comes in at this point; so does Carl Sagan, whose ability to articulate science for a general audience had, I believe, a strong impact on my own writing; his novel Contact makes me think of the Montreal subway and wormholes. Oliver Sacks also makes his appearance; Awakenings moves me deeply.

Graham Greene and John Le Carré came later, after I had moved to Ottawa in 2003. Greene I associate with heartbreak after a failed attempt to convince a Japanese woman to come live with me in Canada; on the way back from Tokyo I decided to spend a week in Vancouver, where I devoured many of Green’s novels; Our Man in Havana stands out from that period and is, in my opinion, one of the funniest novels ever written. More Greene (Comedians, Honorary Consul, Quiet American) after I return to Ottawa, sitting outside at a coffee shop near the Byward Market. Mishima, Murakami and Tanizaki also enter into my life during that period as I tried to make sense of the Japanese mind and perhaps discover the key to A—’s heart (no success there; she was already married); Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun on the plane back from Tokyo; Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat with too much Cuban rum and Elliot Goldenthal’s Frida soundtrack; several failed attempts to read the Peruvian author’s The War of the End of the World, which I’d only complete years later in Taipei during a cold January spell and boy was that a great novel; Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate is sitting on the floor of my first apartment in Ottawa before my furniture came in; the other novels come later, with A Flag for Sunrise and Dog Soldiers coming much later; I meet Stephanie due to Nabokov’s Pale Fire; Yu Hua’s To Live is in a car between Ottawa and Toronto. Robert Littell’s The Company and William Shawcross’ The Shah’s Last Ride are intimately associated with the thirteen-month recruiting with CSIS. As my brief career in the intelligence world was coming to a painful close it’s Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Huxley’s Brave New World, and a lot of Le Carré (the Karla trilogy, The Night Manager, and The Little Drummer Girl, which I finished on the beach in Cuba, along with Greene’s The Power and the Glory). Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation, about the war in Lebanon, has a marked impact on me; I give a copy as a present to the intelligence officer who accompanied me during my field training in Toronto; I also give a copy of Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, which I associate with heartbreak in New York City, to another friend at the intelligence agency; New York also brings back memories of Ivan Klima (Love and Garbage). 

My work in intelligence makes it nearly impossible for me to take spy novels seriously; only Greene, Len Deighton, Eric Ambler, Furst (on his best days) and Le Carré succeed in making me suspend disbelief; the others I give up after a few chapters.

Taiwan is Mishima, more Le Carré (earlier works during my first months on the island; A Most Wanted Man I associate with our decision not to attend the Dec. 31 fireworks at Taipei 101 and instead a very cold night at home under the blankets), some Greene, Waugh (Black Mischief and Scoop had me laughing to tears), Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown (second attempt after a first one, back in Ottawa, had brought back painful memories due to its associations with terrorism) and Shame, Camus, J. G. Ballard, Anthony Burgess (at long last!), DeLillo (slightly overrated in my opinion), Victor Serge, Ismail Kadaré (in French), Akutagawa during a particularly violent afternoon thunderstorm, Paul Bowles; finally a successful attempt to finish Vasily Grossman’s monumental Life and Fate, also finally reading Naipaul’s excellent A House for Mr. Biswas; Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The General and His Labyrinth is, to my memory, sitting on a bench in Daan Park.

There’s a lot more, for sure, and I have barely mentioned all the non-fiction that I read. But this gives an idea of the invisible thread that runs through those years joining books with places, people, coffee, and life experiences. I often imagine myself being asked the typical question, If you were sent to a deserted island and were only allowed five books, which ones would you bring along? My initial response would be, Only five? Ok, if I must…

1. Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
2. Joseph Conrad, Nostromo
3. Mario Vargas Llosa, The War of the End of the World
4. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
5. Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate

I “pray” that I will never be asked to make such a choice and that my collection of 3,000 books or so will always follow me, wherever I end up.

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