Published by Oxygen Books 10 April 2014
150pp, paperback and e-book, £8.99/ $11.05
Faced with several months of cancer treatment, writer and publisher Heather Reyes decides to turn a necessary evil into an opportunity: the luxury of reading whatever takes her fancy...
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
The end of Shakespeare’s (probably most famous) sonnet, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’. An assertion of the ‘immortality’ conferred by writing – both for the subject and the writer. A common enough idea: writing to leave some trace of the self in the world after leaving it. Or some trace of the persons (even an unknown, starving Indian), places, events or ideas written about. Probably not very dignified to admit it, these days, that one writes partly to avoid total ‘disappearance’ from the world after death: a bit ‘naff’, a bit old-fashioned. Living, as we do now, with the constant background knowledge of the vast stretches of time and unimaginable hugeness of the universe, any brief after-life from fame as a writer seems more than laughable.
Then you could say that goes for human life altogether – and yet we cling to it! I’m trying to read some more scientific things to help me keep a purchase on ‘proportion’, trying to calm my panicking body into accepting its minuteness and lack of significance. I pull off the shelf a little book about the stars – amazing pictures and full of overwhelming facts (which I can only assume are correct): for example, if you were able to drive a car through space at 100 km per hour, it would take you 170 years to reach the sun, and 46,000,000 years to reach the nearest star in our galaxy. After a few pages, I can’t take any more and end up just looking at the pictures. Then I turn to something more substantial. In LIFE: an unauthorized biography, Richard Fortey points out that the ‘narrative of life’ has lasted more than 3,000,000,000 (that’s three thousand million) years and that trying to express such ungraspable vastnesses of time in homely metaphors – such as a clock-face, mankind emerging at just one minute to midnight – only serves to trivialise a magnitude which should be held in awe. (Does that mean he would have disapproved of the ‘homely’ car driving through space example? I actually thought it was quite good at conveying ‘awe’. )
The book was fascinating, but it still didn’t stop my bodily panic. I know my brief presence on a rather small planet in a modest-sized galaxy in an ungraspably vast universe is much less than half a twitch of a flea’s little toe, and yet ... And yet we’re desperate to hang on to our flickering little spark of life, even after we’ve done our duty to the species, reproduced to make sure our genes go on.
We have to decide whether we’re going to consider human life as being ‘worth’ nothing … or everything. Or everything within that nothingness. Everything because of that nothingness. Worth more because of the vastness and nothingness that surrounds us. Hanging onto the wonder of it as well as the horror. Considering the harsh conditions in which so many human beings are forced to live, relatively few choose the escape-route of suicide. Not that many people actually want to die. I turn back to ‘literature’ and, as usual, Shakespeare hits the nail on its flat, round, workaday head in Measure for Measure:
The weariest and most loathèd worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.
Though, being Shakespeare, he also expresses the opposite view in the same play.
The best of rest is sleep,
And that thou oft provok’st: yet grossly fear’st
Thy death, which is no more.
I think back to the first night of my first stay in hospital. Some time after the lights had been dimmed for the night (it’s never ever dark in hospital), a wailing voice started up from the adjacent ward. I think it was female.
‘I don’t want to die … Oh, please don’t let me die … Please don’t let me die … I don’t want to die … I don’t want to die.
First reaction: annoyance. Impossible to sleep. The voice was disturbing everyone. Even poor little Elsie was shifting in her bed. And it’s undignified, such yelling. You have to be brave in hospital: it’s what everyone expects. Stiff upper lip and all that …
Then I began to warm to the honesty of it. Wasn’t that what we were all doing, inside, yelling ‘I don’t want to die’? Otherwise, what were we doing in hospital, trying to be cured? Like pop-singers singing our love for us, or footballers playing out our tribal urges, or writers putting down on paper our own observations of life (‘what oft was thought but ne’er so well express’d’, as Alexander Pope neatly put it), this honest voice was yelling into the night for all of us. The voice behind the urge to create something to remain in the world, something more permanent than flesh.
One reason why people write. In Nothing to be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes imagines a psychotherapist telling him that his fear of death is bound up with his literary activities; that he makes up stories so that his name and some part of his unique personhood will remain in the world after his physical disappearance, and that this provides him with some comfort.
And people aren’t content to just ‘write’; they want to be published, want to be read. The god-like power of the reader: to deliver that longed-for immortality to the writer. By being influenced by what we read, by having our minds and actions in some way modified by the writer’s vision allows the writer to go on acting in the world – acting on the world – though dead. Harold Bloom puts it rather nicely in The Western Canon: a poem, novel, or play, he says, takes on all the disorders of humanity, including our fear of our own mortality, ‘which in the art of literature is transmuted into the quest to be canonical, to join communal or societal memory.’
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this …
I need a bit of light relief. Stalin’s Russia is still hanging over me, and thinking so much about my lost father and the vastness of the universe ... none of it is helping the depressive effects of some of the chemo. Time to reach for that Christmas present: Jeremy Mercer’s Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs: The Left Bank World of Shakespeare and Co.
Mercer, a Canadian journalist, escapes to Paris to avoid a possible revenge attack threatened by a criminal. Penniless, he ends up staying (like so many other penniless writers through the decades) at the famous left-bank bookshop run by the eccentric and humane George Whitman, called ‘Shakespeare and Co.’, after Sylvia Beach’s original establishment that played host to (and sometimes published) such writers as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway.
‘George’s’ shop is extraordinary, terrifying (how it’s only caught fire once, I’ll never know), magical, inspiring, irritating, smelly, and utterly irresistible. Malcolm and I have often visited the shop – more as a ritual homage to a phenomenon we approve of than to actually buy books there. We love the idea of the absolute, almost crazy commitment of George Whitman to his vision, his ideals. A breath from another world, one in the eye for the increasingly corporate rat-race that characterizes the modern book ‘industry’. And there’s something about the crooked floors, over-loaded labyrinth of bookshelves, creaky, narrow stairs and the idealism that reminds us of being young, being students, being full of literary hope and political ardour, of having a life-time of reading and writing ahead.
Mercer gives an insider’s account of the life of ‘Shakespeare and Co’, most of it not usually seen by the casual visitor or customer. The people who live there, free, in various little fetid beds in odd corners of the establishment. The wonderfully humane and generous spirit of its owner – even if his culinary skills include sweeping the husks of kitchen cockroaches into the dish ‘for extra protein’. The condition of the one shared loo sends some inmates to the nearest café. But above all one loves George’s unshakeable belief in the humanizing power of books: he presses the best of them upon his guests, who are supposed to commit to reading one book a day in return for free board and lodging. A pleasant romp of a book blending familiarity with some new, behind-the-scenes insights.
(Like all ‘living legends’, the amazing George Whitman finally had to become just a legend: he died in 2011, aged ninety-eight. But his daughter, Sylvia Whitman, has taken over the shop – which is still thriving.)
I want to stay light and I want to be intelligently charmed, so next I plump for a Daniel Pennac, in translation this time: The Dictator and the Hammock – translated by Patricia Clancy. Even if I hadn’t already known his work, the review extract on the back cover would have sold it to me at once: ‘His masters are Denis Diderot and Laurence Sterne’. (Diderot alone would have done it.)
How to sum up this playful, quirky, entertaining, and ultimately moving book? – a book about dictators and doubles and look-alikes, about peasant suffering in South America (with a glance at ‘magic realism’), about cinema, about Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin and Hitler, about human hopes and dreams and America as the land of dreams but also of greed, destructiveness, inhumanity. About the writing of stories and how authors create characters and situations out of the stuff of their own life: ‘From the unpredictable and essential combination of thematic demands, narrative requirements, deposits left by life experiences, the vagaries of daydreams, the arcane mysteries of fickle memory, events, books, images, people …’
And you’re never sure what’s ‘real’ and what’s ‘unreal’: a character we’re convinced is a real acquaintance of the writer is suddenly revealed to be yet another fictional construct as the story moves between high fantasy to the viscerally real description of a sleeping tramp in a Paris Métro station. Everyone is avoiding him, looking away, not because of the smell but because his flies are open and his penis hanging out. The female friend with the author at the time, we’re told, ‘stops when she reaches him, leans over, puts his penis back into his trousers, also tucks in the ends of his shirt, zips up his fly and buckles his belt …’ A gesture of moving humanity that inspires the creation of a character in the story who performs a comparable (though different) act of deep kindness and delicacy.
The book also made me want to watch the whole of Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator: I’ve only ever seen brief clips. It’s good when a book leads us to something else.
Heather Reyes’ novel Miranda Road is published in May 2014.