“Right or wrong, this is the road and we are on it.”
This is Gertrude Stein speaking to Alice B. Toklas—though I admit I have found it in Jeanette Winterson’s book Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Unlike Winterson, I somehow haven’t yet made it to this particular part of the section of “S” in the modern library, though I own a copy of Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and am once more reminded that I must read it. It moves up the pile. That in turn brings Stein’s Tender Buttons out for a rereading too. She also has me yearning to pull out Virginia Woolf again. So it shall be, once I finish reading Jeanette herself.
I recently realised that I’ve been reading Jeanette Winterson for more than half my life, and when I saw her at the writers’ festival in Sydney recently I told her that she is one of the reasons I am a writer. It is true that I had always written, and had always wanted to write, but I was also raised with true pragmatism, such that whenever I stated that I wanted to be a writer, I would be asked, “What else will you be?” I took it that the “what else” (answers were usually the obvious ones for a child bent on learning: a doctor; a lawyer; a vet) would be the career that took precedence, and that writing would be my hobby. Reading Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as a teenager, and later the essays of Art Objects, I saw that it was possible to live mostly on books and grit.
I often tell people that “I take art daily,” as is proclaimed on a badge I bought in the Guggenheim museum in Berlin in 2003. I have gasped in front of artworks. I have gone to galleries to spend an hour or two with just one painting: sitting in front of it and looking, then turning to a book or letter or piece of homework for a while—then looking back to see what else I notice. Music—which I studied seriously for a long time, and wrote almost as seriously for a number of years at the Conservatorium—has long been a part of my life. Alongside all the wonderful concerts and recordings I have attended and heard there have been, in particular, three truly profound musical experiences in my life. These have made me understand why so many people say that all art “aspires to the condition of music”. Between the supposed celestial “music of the spheres” and the fact that many plants thrive not just when talked to, but when played to, music strikes me as absolute essential. I don’t play often anymore, but there is true joy for me in singing freely.
When I first heard a friend perform the fifth movement (Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus) of Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps from memory—eyes closed, she swayed with her cello, as if the two were a single animal, as the pianist accompanying her gently and insistently provided the constant pulse that tethers the movement to the earth—just—at the pace indicated: infiniment lent.The circumstances in which the quartet was written (composed for the only four instruments available in the Prisoner of War camp in which Messiaen was held during World War II: though sketches of some of the music had existed before Messiaen entered the camp) infuse the eight movements. It is the fifth movement in particular, which the violin and clarinet sit out, that makes me escape my own skin a little.
Nonetheless it is books that I feel have saved my life, their earthliness and earthiness a particularly important part of the way they fill a basic need in me.