“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.
On a trip into town with my mother as a child we visited the ABC Shop and discovered a copy of Alice In Wonderland—unabridged—on cassette. Heavily reduced in price, it was a bargain we couldn’t pass up. This was during a heatwave, and the rumpus room downstairs in our house was naturally cool. That afternoon we pulled out an ancient tape player, lay on couch and bean bag, and listened to Alice. I often listened to these tapes while going to sleep—could also recite large portions of the book at one time—and somehow have always associated this old favourite with escape stifling heat.
This was not the only book on tape that meant a great deal to me. When I was very young I inherited a tape my mother had made for my eldest brother of herself reading three children’s books. I particularly remember the intonation of her voice as she read the words “Bread and Jam for Francis,” and the way “Fran-cis” was turned into a lilting spondee, equal emphasis on both syllables. Later, for Christmas, I was given a cassette of Anne of Green Gables. I particularly loved to listen to the second side of the first cassette and the first side of the second: Anne settling into her life, and then striving academically; Anne taking her place at Queens and winning the Avery scholarship. We also found copies of several of the Chronicles of Narnia, and these were among the only tapes we could agree on listening to on our long car trips from Melbourne to Cowra: it was Narnia and Biggles. My vote was always for Narnia. Though there was plenty of reading aloud of all sorts of books, my memory of these tapes is more vivid, perhaps simply for the repetition of listening to them so often, for the regularity with which they gently pushed me into dreams.
But I was speaking of earthliness, not dreams. In the music library at Melbourne University’s Ballieau library I spent many hours with headphones on, score in hand, listening to recordings. All the Ligeti I could get my hands on. The string quartets of Shostakovich, then Bartok—and then stepping back to the string quartets of Haydn. Monteverdi’s operas, the madrigals of Guilliame de Machaut, the strange, alien sound of George Crumb’s electrified viols. These were all wondrous moments of discovery, and truly changed the way I thought of music, but none of them prompted the pure mirth or despair I twice experienced reading Dickens in the Lauinger Library of Georgetown University. The laughter was prompted by some episode or other in Bleak House—something absurd in Chancery most likely: I don’t remember the details, simply the way my (very loud) laugh disrupted the studious atmosphere of the second floor. The second time was reading Great Expectations. Pip was embarrassed by Joe Gargery, and showed it. Joe, ever simple and true to himself, not unsettled by his appearance or how he was treated, but only by recognising he had strayed out of his element and needed to get back to it, said simply, “Pip, there has been larks.” Suddenly I was sobbing uncontrollably.
Not that sobbing in a public place over the book in my hands was new territory: I was once sent home from school for crying inconsolably. In grade 6 I was finally finishing the last of the novels that follow Anne of Green Gables into adulthood. Here was Rilla of Ingleside—a book that I also credit with making me a writer in its way—and here was the death of a character I loved as a real friend. I had been reading hungrily as we lined up waiting for the school day to begin, and then realised what was happening in the story. My tears fell silently at first, but they wouldn’t stop the entire morning. When recess came my teacher asked me to stay and talk. “What’s wrong?” I somehow got out the words that “Walter died!” At first my teacher thought I was talking about a pet, or perhaps an uncle or a cousin. I suppose she wondered why, if I was this upset, I had been sent to school at all. At last the words tumbled out, “He’s in the book.” She didn’t know what to say in the face of my grief. I have always wanted to visit the Courcelette Memorial in the small town of Courcelette (population 141 in 2006), in Picardy, France, to pay my respects. Though his name won’t be marked on the memorial, of course, I nonetheless want to see the place.
When I need to wallow, or even have a good cry, or just to relax mindlessly, I watch television: and the truth is I love television. I think I alarm friends with the seriousness I adopt when discussing, for instance, the finer points of certain teen television shows I have watched and loved. I don’t think these shows are Shakespeare, but I do think they reflect our world in interesting, and at times frightening, ways. But even though I can’t turn off my analysis, they are, comparatively, popcorn. When despair goes deeper, I do not turn on the television. Nor do not put on Messiaen—or P J Harvey. Instead I turn to books. To poetry, to essays, to novels. Sometimes I stray into new words, but when I really need a blanket, when I am at the end of my tether, I reread: after all, rereading a book is, for me, both a way of going to another world, and a way of going home.