Summer Reading: Goodbye Columbus by Philip Roth

It is 2000, nine months into the new millennium, and he has lived in London for nearly three years. He rents a flat with his girlfriend, on the edge of Brixton, near the back entrance to Brockwell Park. When they first moved here, they would walk across the park some evenings, to a restaurant under the railway arches in Herne Hill. Those days have passed. The combination of night shifts, his need to spend any free time in front of a computer, and their manic and incompatible personalities, has seen them drift apart. All of this has counted against them, stones thrown onto the balance of the scale.

At least he has given up the night shifts. He now works in a library in Tottenham. The journey to and from work, hilariously protracted, at least offers him the opportunity to read. He is currently making his way through Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus, after picking up a tattered second hand copy from the Bookmongers store on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton. He’d avoided reading Philip Roth until picking up Portnoy’s Complaint from a stall on the South Bank during his early months in London. Roth’s voice had entertained him in that novel, the broad, antic intelligence of his style, and the hilariousness of sexual misadventures. In contrast, he finds Goodbye Columbus almost unbearably sad.

One Friday night, his girlfriend doesn’t return home, after going to a party with work colleagues. He lies alone in bed, and after briefly analyzing his feelings about this development, he decides that he is mostly relieved. He spends the morning quietly, feeding the two cats (her cats), cooking a breakfast of fried eggs and tomatoes over the antique stove, listening to the radio. The news offers reports of the success of British rowers success at the Sydney Olympics, and of Reggie Kray, released from prison to die. It is a bright hot day. After breakfast, he sits out in the garden, to enjoy the sun. He sits on the step by the scruffy patio, beside an old, corroded exercise bike, smoking a cigarette and reading Goodbye Columbus. He finds the garden an uncomfortable place. When he moved into the flat, the landlady had made him promise to tend to the garden, but bindweed has grown through the plants, the lawn growing dry and tatty under the summer heat, like the pelt of a dead animal. Later, he will experience a recurring nightmare that he has left evidence of a terrible crime in the shed of that garden, a sense of persecution which will haunt him long after those days.

Eventually, he decides to leave the flat. He walks across Brockwell Park, towards the Herne Hill entrance, and visits the restaurant under the railway arches. He orders a pot of mussels, a meal that will always remind him of late childhood and a family holiday, probably his last, to the west coast of France. It was here he learned to appreciate the delicacy of the quick salty flesh released form the black shells. He drinks two beers will his meal, while making his way to the end of Goodbye Columbus, where Neil Klugman loses Brenda Patimkin and returns to his work in the library. The sadness he experiences during the final paragraphs is rawer than anything he has allowed himself to feel about those last months. After lunch, he wanders back across Brockwell Park, the bright sky opening over him, the hill exposing him to the city. Men play football on the five aside pitch, the raw earth almost orange under the sun. A passenger jet hangs low in the sky. He feels a sense of peace in this moment: that despite the upheaval he faces, the city has accepted him.

A few weeks later, coming back from London after the last Tube has passed, he will catch a train to Herne Hill. To save time, he decides to cut through the park, scaling the gates. The night is clear and bright, and as he climbs the path across the hill, he feels as though he has been accepted into a forbidden, equivocal world. Ahead of him, he spies a man and a woman, waiting on the brow of the hill. As he grows closer, he sees that they are walking two Japanese fighting dogs, the white fur glowing under moonlight. Everyone watches as he walks up the path. Although the couple offer no challenge, they follow him at a distance as he heads out of the park, the dogs panting, straining at the leads. The next morning, he will wake alone, fully dressed, with bruises on both arms and struggle to put together the events of the night.

Summer Reading: Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolano

It is 2009, and the summer is a hot one at its best. Most days, he travels to London for work, heading out from the small town where he lives with his wife and daughter. The journey is long, but he has learned to make use of the time, reading, working on a novel, sedating himself as he watches the landscape reeling past the window. He feels on the edge of things, of family, writing, pushed to the margins of his life.

In an effort to somehow stay current, he picks up a copy of Roberto Bolano’s Last Evenings on Earth from a bookshop on Ludgate Circus. It seems somehow typical when he discovers that Bolano had died six years before. That disappointment aside, he begins to find the stories immersive and compelling. These are fictions more than short stories; Bolano doesn’t seem to care for the moment ‘glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing’, in V.S. Prichett’s definition of the form. These fictions strain at the edges of their own structures, and whole lives will unravel over the course of ten pages, filled with silences or narrated speech, calamities and moments of threatening calm. He reads and re-read the stories, finding echoes of his life and past relationships amongst some of the Bolano’s oddball writers, political agitators, and hapless conspiracy theorists. It seems that he was found an element of himself inside those pages, or at least something he has lost.

One Sunday, he takes the book with him as he cycles out to the coast. He has taken to cycling by himself at the weekend, partly to compensate for his weekly journeys, to escape into space. The sun is bright and high. He cycles along the edge of a faded resort town, to a beach beside a nature preserve, where white egrets gather on the marshes. The beach is surprisingly busy, although the tide is out across the dull sands, reflecting shallow water in long bars, like glimmering knives. He finds a private place to get changed, sliding out of his jeans under a towel and into a pair of swimming shorts. It strikes him that nothing is more sinister than a man alone, getting changed on a beach.

It is low tide, with the sea on its way back. He gathers up his bag and walks to the edge of the water. He likes to swim, that is, he likes to immerse himself in water; he’s no swimmer, really. Before he reaches the tide, he dumps his bag on a stretch of dry sand and throws himself into the sea. The water is warm, although it is so shallow as to make his attempts at swimming ridiculous. He feels frantic, like a sparrow bathing itself in a puddle, and this idea makes him laugh out loud. The sun has clouded over in a metallic blur. Further along the coast, he can see the towers of a refinery.

When he returns to his bag, he finds a man and a woman standing nearby. They smile when they see him coming, but say nothing. The water has crawled over the sand, and soaked through the bag. The couple stare at him, smiling in unison, as though the idea that they might have moved the bag from the water is inconceivable. He says nothing. The couple stare at him blankly as he goes through the contents. His phone has moisture under the screen and fizzes once as he goes to turn it on and after that does not work again. The Bolano book has bloated with soaked water. He walks back towards his bike.

On the ride home, he leaves the cycle path and rides down to a roundabout along the road, through early evening traffic. Two boys on a motorbike overtake him, flashing obscene gestures at him as they pass. Something grips him- a burst of anger, frustration, injustice- and he speeds to catch up with the motorbike, weaving through traffic to reach them. For a second, he feels the power in his legs and lungs, the blood surging from his heart. It is the most intense sensation he can remember feeling in a long time. He cycles quickly, weaving his way through traffic and catches up to the motorbike at lights. The boy on the pillion laughs when he sees him, and waves, in a gesture he interprets as submission. At the roundabout, he peels away, still waving towards the motorbike as he finds the turning to his street.

The house is quiet when he reaches home. He return his bike to the shed and sits out in the garden with a bottle of wine, the wet book spread on the garden table in front of him. He spends the evening drinking wine and watching the vista from the garden: the frosted back windows of the houses in front of him, the street lights, the zinc coloured sky with a moon as skinny as a blade. He thinks that the book is ruined, but when he wakes the next morning, he will find that the paper has dried out overnight. From that moment on, whenever he sees the book on his shelf, he will remove it and strum his finger against the pages, thinking of how it warped but resettled itself into the binding, and he will remember the journey of that day.

Lost Books

It starts in childhood, with the books read to you at night. The words are still fluid, and the dramas become quickly diluted into dreams. I remember: a rabbit running wild along a country path, a ginger cat curling up in a nest of flowers. It continues with the books loaned to you from libraries, or read while waiting in a waiting room for the dentist or the doctor, or while visiting relatives on the other side of the country. Some detail snags at your memory, all the more persistent because it’s so impossible to trace. A comic book panel with a finger pressing a button, the line ‘Jettison cargo!’ written above it jagged script. A sentient silver ball, a visitor from another planet. A friendship between two boys, one English, the other Egyptian, and their discussions of their shared Christian faith. The strong plastic smell of book wrappings, in a library with my mother, one summer afternoon.

Unless you devote your life to holding onto the past, you’re doomed to keep the memories but lose the source. Mostly, I remember an old burgundy hardback, the torn pages already smelling ancient when it came to me. It described the adventures of a group of animals living in a small cottage in the forest. It was a dense book, I think, with a peculiar kind of sadness. (When I read the stories of Bruno Schultz, I felt echoes of it). A bear made to wear a jumper of black and orange stripes, which he feels makes him look like a bumble bee. A ruined cottage at the centre of a clearing. Expeditions into the woods, to search for treasure and perform a play. One animal is embarrassed about a hole in his right ear; in a moment of unreality, it becomes clear that all the animals are toys waiting for their owner to return. I may have invented some of these details, but that’s the compelling thing about these lingering impressions: they lie directly between memory and imagination. That I associate the book with my aunt and uncle’s house outside Machynlleth only adds to the sense of evocation. The smell of wet dog and split bracken. The walls of blue slate. Piles of envelopes and rolls of spare change, from the post office counter my aunt ran from a back room.

In theory, the internet should help trace these lost stories, but some experiences remain stubbornly beyond even the most complex search strings. Sometimes, anyway, the internet is the cause of the sense of loss. Around 2002, I read a description of a novel on a message board. It followed the story of a struggling painter who begins teaching art classes in a community college in the Bowery. One of his students is a quadriplegic man, who overcomes his disability to paint with a brush in his mouth. The painter’s sense of satisfaction at guiding his student through his talent, soon turns to jealousy and bitterness when the student becomes famous, his paintings sought after, celebrated. The novelist in question had a twin brother, I remember, who may have been a writer too. I remember a black and white photo on a website: two earnest and awkward men in dark suits with shirt collars buttoned up, staring blankly out of shot in opposite directions.

For some reason, I didn’t make a note of the title of this book, or try to find a copy. I’ve tried to track it down, occasionally plugging everything I could remember into Google and coming up with… nothing. Blanks. Dead ends. Mis-directions. I wonder if I happened on some early internet hoax, a sort of a John Titor of outsider fiction. Or else, all of that was imagination, and I invented the book as a kind of ideal for the fiction I was writing at the time. When I returned to the forum, the archives had been lost, and my plea to anyone who might remember it became that most forlorn of things, an unanswered discussion thread.

After time, all that remains of any book is a set of blurred impressions: a snatch of dialogue, the colour of a description, the path of a character towards their satisfying end. Fiction fills your mind with persuasive details of things which were never meant to exist. That’s the point of it. Probably our lost books are best left where they are: timeless, curious and unreachable, forever lingering in their power.

William Blake – Part One

Songs_of_Innocence_and_of_Experience,_copy_Y,_1825_(Metropolitan_Museum_of_Art)_object_6If you asked me to pinpoint the anatomy of fiction, I’d say that what we call imagination and what we call memory both belong to the same flickering of synapses. But there are people out there more interested in definite distinctions, so while telling this story, I’ve tried to be as careful as possible. If you can read between the lines, then what follows is quite unsettling, and I might as well tell you straight away that one the characters involved died young. I didn’t find out about some of what was actually happening until later, much later, and while I guess it’s this knowledge that prompted me to get all of this down, it would be wrong to present it with any kind of certainty. Still, I’d like to be as sincere as possible; it’s my childhood we’re dealing with here, after all.

The story takes place when I was fourteen years old, during the summer before my parents moved the family to Cyprus. The village I grew up in stands close to the Welsh border. Not even a village actually, if you’re strict about the classes of habitation, as there was no church. A row of houses, all on one side of the road, ended in a pub on the approach to a railway bridge, which curved around a corner. My grandfather had a picture of the last train to stop at the station. I travelled on the bus every day to a school about five miles away, a long winding journey through some of the smaller hamlets which, if I close my eyes, I can still retrace in my mind.

William Blake isn’t the hero of what follows by any means (for better, or worse, I guess that’s me) although I’d argue that he’s the main character. He was a tall boy, pale and freckled, with startlingly sad hazel eyes. His parents were respected: his father a town councillor, his mother active in village life. His sister won some kind of musical prize. And William Blake really was his name, although it didn’t mean much to me at the time. I knew ‘Tiger, Tiger’ the way most children do, but to my shame I was no more able to name its author than I could that of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.’ For a few years, simply put, William Blake really was William Blake for me, until I learned otherwise. In fact, I guess that’s what this story is really about: an early example of the way I’ve always moved through events, noticing nothing until all of it has passed me by.

The Shape of A City by Julien Gracq

‘There is always that element of surprise when, while walking down streets one expects to be ugly, marred and disfigured by the most degrading forms of manual labour, we suddenly see them transfigured by a ray of sunshine- like a moment of fleeting happiness.’

gracq-shape-of-a-city

I’ll probably never get over the relationship between writing and setting. The poised atmosphere of the buildings in The Magic Mountain, Hotel Savoy, and Life: A User’s Manual, all inspired my first novel. And I’ve always had a deep regard for writers who remain loyal to a town or city or area, the kind who render their setting with such imagination that you find that you can never really encounter it except through their eyes. Iain Sinclair has Hackney, Niall Griffiths has Aberystwyth. James Sallis and James Lee Burke carve up New Orleans over beignettes in Café Du Monde.

Sometimes, I wonder if exploration of setting is the fundamental point of all writing, the thing that everyone is trying to get at with all that scribbling. ‘Man,’ as Wallace Stevens once said, ‘Is the intelligence of his soil.’ Or to quote Flannery O’Connor, herself a wonderful writer of place, ‘When we talk of a writer’s country we are liable to forget that no matter what particular country it is, it is inside as well as outside him… To know oneself is to know one’s region. It is also to know the world…’ All places are simultaneously other places, and by claiming a territory, a writer seeks to offer universality through the substance of a particular clay. A place is a knot, through which the world passes.

The Shape of a City, a later work by the French writer Julien Gracq is a prolonged meditation on such ideas of place. A poet, novelist, and playwright, Gracq refused the Prize Goncourt for his novel The Opposing Shore, and lived defiantly outside the literary culture of France by working for much of his life as a teacher of history and geography.

Gracq1The book follows Gracq’s digressions on the city of Nantes: his return to streets not visited for a number of years, and the inevitable reflections on adulthood and childhood these visits provoke. Features of the city become tropes in recalled memory. A transporter bridge invokes ‘The Jumping of the Pole” when ‘an immigrant worker… climbed up the steel framework… in what I believe was a fireproof jumpsuit… before dousing himself with gasoline and plunging down in a burst of flames… He did not reappear.’

For Gracq, ‘place’ is conceptual as much as concrete, a philosophical ideal. By turns querulous, ecstatic, mournful, the narration leads you to imagine him as the kind of teacher who talks, staring out of the window across an empty sports field ‘(because of an old grudge held for a long time, I never returned to the museum…’) while the class remains either rapt or day-dreaming. Other literary figures are invoked: Poe, Verne, Fournier, Rimbaud, Proust, Balzac, Stendhal. Nantes becomes a gateway through which all of them pass; a place zoned onto other places: London, Paris, La Rochelle, Venice, Carthage, Rome. It reaches a moment of incredible, Sebald-esque vertigo, which remains one of my favourite sentences about place:

NantesPostcard‘It was on that plain, the prairie des mauves, one afternoon while I had stretched out on the tall grass and was looking at the Loire flowing by flush with the meadows, that I suddenly had an odd quietist illumination: a vague feeling that location was irrelevant, that it was perfectly enjoyable and satisfactory to be here or elsewhere, that there was an immediate connection between all possible sites and all moments and that space and time were only universal modes of confluence.’

When I first moved to London, I worked for a chain of wine merchants, in Camden. One of my co-workers was a young Frenchman called Marcel. An innocent abroad, Marcel spoke halting English (he began each sentence with a deliberate ‘In fact…’) and held a special knowledge of the wines from the Loire, gleaned, he said, from his childhood in Amboise.

Part of that job included doing overtime at other branches around the city. Temple Fortune, Camden, Maida Vale, London Bridge… little pockets of the city were created indelibly for me from my time in those stores. Places were defined. In one of them, I met a French girl who coincidentally knew Marcel from the old country. As we stacked up the bins of wine, I mentioned his origins in Amboise. She huffed at me.

‘Pah! Marcel isn’t from Amboise.’ Impossible to describe the look of disgust which played swiftly through her face. ‘He is from Nantes.’

amboiseA few years later, I found myself walking through Amboise. The pale worn-bone brick of the curved towers of the chateau. The low lying land, given to flooding. The river ran swiftly, sparkling and silver and clear, and as I sat down beside it, I thought of Marcel and his longing to associate himself with a place which had become an ideal for him, and the wines we would pull from the crates on a winter’s morning, chilled in the store room to be cold enough to drink, the appley green of the glass hinting at their liquid sharpness and delight.

‘I have always paid very close attention to the progressive changes in the landscape which announce the approach of a city… if it happens to be a city where I like to live, I look upon them as a hand raised in welcome, waving from afar on friendly soil.’

Text © Daniel Bennett