What’s whispering fiercely in your ear? After a dry old time, a reading famine of sorts, I’ve been luxuriating in literature, rolling in good words like a farm dog in cow shit. (A sentence that, admittedly, started well but went decidedly rural in tone.)
And yet, have you ever seen a farm dog roll in warm manure or, for that matter, an urban dog roll in long-dead possum? They are ecstatic, pleased with themselves in every way imaginable. This scent rolling, scientists say, is learnt from ancient wolves bringing new information back to the pack to investigate. It’s a civic duty. After several weeks of unsatisfactory reading, of abandoning books through boredom, I hit a princely purple patch to roll in.
In March, Dan, a geologist who loves The Cure, sends a fat parcel, A Little Life (Pan Macmillan Australia), an 800-page thing, Hanya Yanagihara’s quite extraordinary novel.
Everyone has an opinion – too sad, too bleak, too much, a book without children and too few women. Don’t listen. It is heartbreaking in parts, yes. Dark and challenging at times. But there are illuminating truths about ambition, love, fame and belonging. Some advice on friendship that’s worth bottling: “The only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are – not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous and more forgiving – and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad – or good – it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.”
See how this fierce whispering works? Good reading can enrich an inner dialogue for us, provides nuggets for later, strange details lodge in the brain like shrapnel to provide gritty insights for another day. Weeks, months later, they explode with sudden meaning – Ah!
Recent releases have no monopoly on wisdom. After Yanagihara’s fizzing modern-day New York, the purple patch continues with Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham’s 100-year-old classic, with young Phillip Carey, doomed with poverty, club foot, no parents, and his longing for connection and freedom. The wolf is never far from the flimsy door.
“You will hear people say that poverty is the best spur to the artist. They have never felt the iron of it in their flesh. They do not know how mean it makes you. It exposes you to endless humiliation, it cuts your wings, it eats into your soul like a cancer. It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank, and independent.’’
Maugham is often bang on the money. When I catch myself being ridiculously pig-headed, a warning tolls: “Like all weak men, he laid an exaggerated stress on not changing one’s mind.’’ For a strange slug of yin and yang, I alternate the taut-as-wire The Whites crime thriller from Richard Price (writing as Harry Brandt) – full of haunted cops, lipsmacking dialogue and goodish people racing rotten pasts – with a poetry collection, Poems That Make Grown Women Cry (Simon and Schuster), edited by Anthony and Ben Holden.
I’ll admit to much scepticism. Who the hell are two men to tell us what makes us cry? But it is the “female’’ sequel to Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, a surprise bestselling anthology Holden put together with his son. Hmm. Then, sitting in the car, it opens at a random page and there’s Helena Kennedy, author, broadcaster, who has chosen Mary Oliver’s When Death Comes:
“When’s it’s over, I don’t want to wonder/ If I have made of my life something particular, and real./ I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,/ Or full of argument./ I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.’’
Good reading can enrich an inner dialogue for us, provides nuggets for later, strange details lodge in the brain like shrapnel to provide gritty insights for another day
Human rights campaigner Sunny Jacobs selects the stunning Home by Warsan Shire – “No one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark’’.
And later … “You have to understand,/ that no one puts their children in a boat/ unless the water is safer than the land.’’
These direct taproots into the artesian hearts of the women include Joan Baez, Erica Jong, Yoko Ono, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Waters and Annie Lennox. It now sits by the bed because some days before sleep, a few lines of the bare-bones intensity of poetry give the thought-foxes in the head something juicy to slow them down. Chuck ’em a bone.
Tonight, a nibbled moon stalks me on the walk to the car after a literary event,
with a bagful of new books, including The High Places by Fiona McFarlane (Hamish/ Hamilton) and Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life ( Corsair) by William Finnegan. Luke, a man of 30 with the toothbrush hair of a boy of seven, recommended the later with a taut email: “You. Must. Read.’’
OK, OK. I stop at the car, breathe deep, happy with anticipation of what’s in the brown paper bag. Is this how an addict feels having scored, itching to pause real life, to climb onto the magic carpet? We all have our crutches.
A Little Life again: “They all – Malcolm with his houses, Willem with his girlfriends, JB with his paints, he with his razors – sought comfort, something that was theirs alone, something to hold off the terrifying largeness, the impossibility, of the world, of the relentlessness of its minutes, its hours, its days.”
Reading is no different for many of us – “something that was theirs alone, something to hold off … the impossibility of the world’’.
Right now, late at night, as Vulture St quietens and even the curlews are hushed, I read on and on. It feels like no one in the world is awake, yet this reading time feels never lonely, but deliciously alone, with fierce whispers for company.