Life is pretty short on miracles. I know this because I have made that shift, as pretty much everyone has, from my childhood state of believing pretty much ANYTHING, to the slightly flattening realisation that unexpectedly wonderful things are few and far between. Which is fair enough, because life is unmiraculous, and I’d be hell of a disappointed with daily life if I was expecting dinosaurs and bonfires and roller-skating parties every day. (I don’t expect those things anymore).
Which makes it all the more joyful when you happen to stumble across something and thing ‘wait a second… this is AWESOME’. I’m obviously talking about books, because books are my thing, but for other people I’m sure they get this hit from music, art, a fine looking human being, a lovely bit of cake. Or just whatever is your thing.
To try and explain the true levels of geeky enjoyment that I get from books, I’d put it a little something like what Vladimir Nabokov (yeah him) says about his novel Lolita in the afterward: “Every writer […] is aware of this or that published book of his as a constant comforting presence. This presence, this glow of the book in an ever accessible remoteness is a most companionable feeling”. This is how I feel when I finally find a book that I love: here is some radiant, complex, companionable piece of life created out of nothing, out of a writer’s head, and I was lucky enough to find it. It hardly ever happens, but when it does, the sweetest feeling is knowing that I now have this little miracle tucked away, and it will always be there, to return to and take heart in (and it’ll say different things to me every time I read it, because I’ll be different too). So it’s a pretty big deal, really. Nabokov goes on to describe Lolita and his view of his completed work: “There are certain point, by roads, favourite hollows that one evokes more eagerly and enjoys more tenderly that the rest of one’s books […] Charlotte saying ‘waterproof’, or Lolita in slow motion advancing toward Humbert’s gifts […] Lolita playing tennis, or the hospital in Elphinstone, or pale, pregnant, beloved, irretrievable Dolly Schiller dying in Gray Star’. He calls them ‘the secret points, the subliminal co-ordinates’.
I was thinking about this, and miraculous fiction, because, although I could never put it into words as well as Nabokov does, I’ve collected bits of books like these ‘co-ordinates’, so that really, although I could list books I treasure, actually what I really have tucked away in my mind are little bits of books – the very rare moments that strike you as you read them. The serene, resilient, ‘ever accessible remoteness’, as Nabokov puts it. Here are some of mine. They are not many, but I’m (kinda) young, so I’m confident there will be more treasure out there in the libraries and bookshelves of the world, still to discover.
Giacomo Joyce by James Joyce
Something that was possibly intended to be kept a secret, as it details the author’s unfaithfully roaming eye while he was tutoring an adolescent girl in Trieste. He named it ‘Giacomo Joyce’, an Italian version of himself. It’s stunningly beautiful, as well as leery and mad. I think Joyce was pretty leery and mad on the whole anyway.
‘A rice field near Vercilli under creamy summer haze. The wings of her drooping hat shadow a false smile. Shadows streak her falsely smiling face, smitten by the hot creamy light, grey wheyhued shadows under the jawbone’.
‘Pure air on the upland road. Trieste is waking rawly: raw sunlight over its huddled browntiled roofs. […] The sellers offer on their alters the first fruits: green-flecked lemons, jewelled cherries, shameful peaches with torn leaves’.
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Here’s awkward young Edward falling in love with the middle-class Oxford lifestyle of his fiancee’s family, in (my most recent find) On Chesil Beach. He is amazed that they drink gin and tonic ‘in equal measure, and many ice cubes’, that the walls of the house are painted ‘exotically white’, and it is possible ‘to have calm, uncluttered thoughts’ in their house. ‘In fact, he was entranced, he lived in a dream. During that warm summer, his desire for Florence was inseparable from the setting – the huge white rooms and their dustless wooden floors warmed by sunlight, the cool green air of the tangled garden breathed into the house through open windows, the scented blossoms of North Oxford, the fresh hardback books piled on tables in the library’.
Ada or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov
If you thought Lolita featured a controversial narrator, meet Van, hero of Ada or Ardor, a sexual deviant who torments his half-sister to her death and blinds a potential love-rival in a fight. Like Humbert, though, he tries to seduce us with his fancy prose style, and it almost works. In this moment, his (true love) Ada, at the age of fourteen, sits on a terrace eating her breakfast. Van sees it all:
‘The classical beauty of clover honey, smooth, pale, translucent, freely flowing from the spoon and soaking my love’s bread and butter in liquid brass. The crumb steeped in nectar […] Her hair was well-brushed that day and sheened darkly in contrast with the lacklustre pallor of her neck and arms […] She considered him. A fiery droplet in the wick of her mouth considered him. A three-coloured violet considered him from its fluted crystal. She said nothing. She licked her spread fingers, looking at him’.
Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes
I haven’t yet finished these and agree with my friend who recommended them to me, that you start reading them, get about three poems in and then kind of feel like crying, and don’t really know why. These are poems that sneak up on you and punch you. Here is one tiny bit, from ‘St Boltoph’s’. Hughes first meets Plath.
‘A silent film, with that blare over it. Suddenly –
Lucas engineered it – suddenly you.
First sight. First snap-shot isolated
Unalterable, stilled in the camera’s glare
Then ever you were again’.
There’s a few more that I can’t really fit in here without becoming incredibly annoying and rambly, but one more moment is one of Doris Lessing’s earliest memories, from Under My Skin, of a cat friend she had when she was a small child growing up in Persia, who would lie with her during nap time and curl its claws around the tip of her finger, clawing and unclawing, careful not to hurt her, as they lay together dozing in the sun.
Honey and toast on a terrace, exotic Oxford libraries, cats curling their claws, a young face ‘smitten’ with sunlight and those eery torn leaves on the ‘shameful’ fruit of Joyce’s errant love affair. A recurring theme here, I realize, is hot weather and writers falling in love, but really, these are the kind of co-ordinates worth keeping.