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Monday, June 5, 2017

The Interweaving of Books and Life

I have just finished reading the advance reading copy of a transporting book, found it deeply meaningful, and am now flailing around, mentally and emotionally, trying to find a way to write about it here. Every book is more than a description of it can ever be, but that truth seems particularly striking and poignant to me in this case.

She Read To Us In the Late Afternoons: A Life in Novels, by Kathleen Hill, takes its title from the author’s memory of her mother’s reading to her and her brother, one winter, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Years later, she recalls her mother’s inflections and tone when she herself is reading Proust one afternoon a week to an aging friend and realizing the importance of a reader’s voice and the intimate space created by sharing what is more often experienced in solitary fashion.

Although she has surely read thousands of books, only six are featured in this beautiful literary memoir. (I first wrote that sentence to say she had “chosen” only six, but does one choose the pieces of one’s life that make the deepest memories?) I have read all but the first mentioned, Lucy Gayheart; however, readers who have read fewer or even none of those that resonate so strongly in the author’s life – readers, that is: those who sometimes wonder if they are perhaps too involved in books, reading instead of living – should still find this book resonating in their own.

One of the reasons I am having such a difficult time finding a way to write about this book is that it did for me what I know it will do for others whose lives sometimes focus on books to the near-exclusion of world events or even family and friends. In each essay (they are chronologically arranged), Kathleen Hill writes not only of the novel important to her in that period of her life but also gives biographical details – where she was living, how she came to be there, what else was happening in her life and how she felt and responded. And so, while I was very much engrossed in her stories, I also found myself drifting off into my own memories and books I read in circumstances forever associated, for me, with the book then read – all of which has nothing to do with this particular book, only with my experience of it. But then, what Hill writes of is exactly that -- the experience of her readings of the six novels.

And so reading this book brings back to me some of my own reading memories....

*  *  *

One summer in Barry County, Michigan, I read Moscow Farewell, by George Feifer, and the closer I got to the end of the book, the more carefully I rationed the remaining pages, so I recognized from my own life Hill’s report of doing the same with her listening friend, Diana Trilling, when they were reading Proust -- not wanting a book to end, not wanting to close the cover on the last page, because to do so is the closest experience a modern reader has to being ejected from the Garden of Eden. I can explain it no other way, though surely Proust’s vision of his friends growing old and unrecognizable, like the desperate, dysfunctional Moscow of the Soviet era, can hardly be called an Eden. It isn’t that the world of the book is idyllic but that we are living so fully in its world that leaving it is a little death, a bereavement in the midst of our own life.

I had a vegetable garden behind our old farmhouse that summer, and after reading a page or two, trying to read slowly, savoring every word, I would close the book, take a deep breath, and plunge outdoors to weed for a while. And as Kathleen did when reading aloud to Diana, I rationed myself to shorter and shorter bits as the remaining pages grew fewer. Outdoors there was a song sparrow that sang on the fencepost behind my garden, and I remember also a beautiful spotted salamander we found in the well pit, the breeze through sweet-smelling hay stacked in the barn, butterflies my little son and I lured to the driveway by filling holes with water from the hose, spittlebugs we discovered on weeds in the unmowed “side yard” (a.k.a. meadow on the other side of the drive), and the discouraging state of our kitchen floor, with its old linoleum torn up to reveal the hardwood boards underneath almost irremediably (though I’m sure they have been remediated by now) gunked up with old black tar – all are connected to my reading of Moscow Farewell. I could have spent every waking minute that summer scraping away at the tar on the kitchen floor, but instead I fled to Moscow and to my garden and to the fields. My son and I climbed a small rise we called “Mulberry Hill,” accompanied by our large dog and our feisty little tiger cat. The cat led the little parade, her waving tail in tall grasses showing us the way. Years later I would sometimes call another dog, Nikki, by love names inspired by Feifer’s book: Nikita, Nikitushka.

Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being I read in Paris, taking the Metro almost every day from the bustling 9th arrondissement to the serene 8th, trading commercial traffic and narrow pavement for the cool, verdant, peaceful atmosphere of the Parc Monceau. I would change my seat several times during each day’s reading, moving now into, now out of the sun, and taking the occasional turn around waters and “ruins” when tired of sitting. I lived inside that first Kundera novel (later I read several more, loving some and absolutely hating others, something that has never happened to me with any other author), though not always in the way the author could have foreseen. Reading it in French (L’insoutenable légerté de l’être – magic name!), I sometimes mistook the meaning of a word, and so for quite a while I envisioned the chapeau melon not as black but the color of a cantaloupe. I know, I know! But that’s how I saw it, day after day, for many chapters. Living those hours in Prague, however, barely conscious for long stretches of time of the city around me, when I looked up and rose from my seat and walked to a new one, somehow I felt I belonged in Paris and in the Parc Monceau more securely for having entered Kundera’s world in translation, through my own second language. Kundera gave me Prague, and Prague gave me entry to Paris.

As readers, we can be stubborn and prejudiced, and for years I took perverse pride in saying that life was too short to read Proust. It seemed such a clever thing to say, proving my independence from the canon. Then one summer, somehow, I fell into Combray.

Of everything described in this beginning of Remembrance of Things Past, it was the hawthornes that became my obsession. David and I would go for a drive in the summer evening, and my eyes searched roadsides and fields for hawthornes, wanting that tangible connection to my reading and nearly blind to everything else. But no, not blind. I did see what was there, but it was what I did not see that filled my mind, and this recalls Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and a section of a paper I wrote on that work, in which “Pierre’s dog” can see nothing in the cafe but the absence of Pierre. How much do we miss in each present moment because our minds are filled with what is not there? Well, I read the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past again and again, became bored with and laid aside the second, but at last, a few years back, leaped ahead to read The Past Recaptured. Wonderful, wonderful!

And now, searching Books in Northport for “hawthornes” (I know I did a post of them once), I find instead a post on books I lived, and there is one left out of this current post, One Hundred Years of SolitudeYes, I remember, that summer I was reading Marquez I wanted nothing more than escape from what my own life had then become: hours in a windowless office, surrounded by tall file cabinets holding “history” I felt had no place in a university and yet for which I was responsible. How I mourned the erasure of the old Department of Agriculture, in one of the original ivy-covered buildings on the hill, and how I missed the green, humid world of its greenhouse!

*  *  *

If I seem to have digressed egregiously from the task at hand, it is my way of telling you that you will do the same in the intervals when you put Kathleen Hill’s book aside. You will enter her reading worlds eagerly and be enchanted by their variety and depth, and you will follow the threads weaving together the books she was reading to the life she was living at the same time and her later reflections on those connections. You will be at times astonished at her candor, for she does not spare herself or hide her shortcomings or failures, whether telling of a schoolmate abandoned to his lonely fate, acceptance of social hierarchy in Nigeria, or loneliness in a French village, where for week after week she and her husband somehow could not connect with the world around them. And then when you put the book down to change your seat or return to the demands of your own life, you will recall, because you are a reader, too, those books in whose worlds you lived and also the world that surrounded you at the time of those readings, and so your experience of this book will add to all those other weavings and layers of memory that are your life.

Does a reader, “nose buried in a book,” miss life while turning pages, eyes following lines of print? If it is life, is it a bizarre way to live?

Hill’s answer to the question comes at last in her final essay. Between Hill and her friend Diana Trilling, there is a 20-year age difference, and when Diana speaks of her failing eyesight and her regret that she will not, because of it, be able to re-read Proust, Hill quickly offers to come one afternoon a week to read aloud from Remembrance of Things Past, a project that takes the two women six years to complete. Naturally, there is conversation as well as reading during those afternoons, but that is all I am going to say. No description, no preview. You must read that essay for yourself, and you must read the preceding essays first, in order. I am sorry to tell you that She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons will not be released until mid-autumn, but I will tell you that it deserves your anticipation. As a reader, you will not want to miss this experience.

She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons: A Life in Novels
by Kathleen Hill
Encino, CA: Delphinium Books, October 24, 2017

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