Un­for­get­table sum­mers

On leave from the hus­tle of the work­ing week, we read calmly and well, writes Miriam Cosic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

AS the world be­comes busier, nois­ier, more com­pet­i­tive and de­mand­ing on us in ev­ery way, the calm adult sense of our re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in life is giv­ing way to a more pan­icky sense of the sheer ex­haus­tion of get­ting through the day. Read­ing can be­come a bit like mind­lessly play­ing com­puter games late into the night be­fore an im­por­tant meet­ing, a way to pre­tend none of this is hap­pen­ing, rather than a means of en­gag­ing more fully with the world.

Sum­mer hol­i­days, by con­trast, al­low to­tal im­mer­sion in books. Chal­leng­ing ideas, beau­ti­ful words. Po­etry, phi­los­o­phy, pol­i­tics. Nov­els that make the world anew. The lap­ping of wa­ter, the white noise of ci­cadas, the smell of lawns bak­ing in the sun, the en­er­vat­ing heat that de­feats the body but some­how clears the mind: th­ese en­cour­age deep thoughts, or sleep.

I re­mem­ber raid­ing my friend Giles’s en­cy­clo­pe­dic li­brary dur­ing a sum­mer on Malta and reread­ing two books by his pool. The ex­pe­ri­ence of them, barely re­mem­bered from the first time around, is in­deli­ble.

Gior­gio Bas­sani’s ele­giac The Gar­den of the Finzi-Con­ti­nis left me sad­der than any other book has: the glam­our and pi­quancy of the main part of the nar­ra­tive slowly over­taken by the gath­er­ing beat of hor­ror. It had been easy to take for granted the el­e­gant writ­ing and moral in­tegrity when first read­ing it in nightly grabs be­tween work and meals and fam­ily phone calls.

Hav­ing dis­liked The Un­bear­able Light­ness of Be­ing , my view of Mi­lan Kun­dera changed when I read Im­mor­tal­ity, an­other novel of nos­tal­gia, as ab­sorb­ing in its in­tel­lec­tual ar­ti­fice as Bas­sani’s was in the unimag­in­ably real. The place — a house in which I could truly re­lax — and the leisure al­lowed me a fresh ex­pe­ri­ence of Kun­dera.

Why do peo­ple think of light read­ing when they think of sum­mer hol­i­days? The in­sid­i­ous­ness of mass mar­ket­ing, per­haps. Light read­ing is re­ally a week­end ne­ces­sity, an es­capist re­lief from the de­mands of the work­ing week. It can be done in in­ter­rupt­ible bursts to ac­com­mo­date an eroded at­ten­tion span. Fast-paced crime, sex-and­shop­ping ro­mances, quirky satires: they’re men­tal chew­ing gum, cheaper than weekly ther­apy for the over­loaded mind.

David Malouf, who writes of Aus­tralia with great in­sight and ten­der­ness, re­calls the in­ten­sity of read­ing dur­ing the hol­i­days as a child. It was the Christ­mas break be­tween his 12th and 13th years. His fam­ily had taken a house in Southport on the Gold Coast, and he read Wuther­ing Heights , Jane Eyre , The Hunch­back of Notre Dame, William Har­ri­son’s Old Saint Paul’s. He has vis­ual mem­o­ries of read­ing on the beach and while ly­ing in bed.

He had been a reader be­fore, he says, but th­ese books chimed with his loom­ing ado­les­cence, with his dawn­ing re­al­i­sa­tion that a world of pas­sion ex­isted that nei­ther his teach­ers nor his fam­ily had told him about.

‘‘ Peo­ple talk about first ex­pe­ri­ence, the time you did this or that,’’ Malouf says dur­ing a tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion, ‘‘ but you for­get that some of the most in­deli­ble and life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ences can be in a mo­ment of read­ing.’’

When he wrote an in­tro­duc­tion to the Ox­ford World’s Clas­sics edi­tion of Jane Eyre , Malouf men­tioned the ‘‘ strange­ness of read­ing about the gloomy moors on a beach in bright sun­shine with the surf be­hind you’’, as he de­scribes it now.

In Fe­bru­ary, a hot and de­bil­i­tat­ingly hu­mid month in north­ern Aus­tralia, I had a sim­i­lar dis­junc­tion of real and imag­i­nary place. I read Robert Pogue Har­ri­son’s Gar­dens: An Es­say on the Hu­man Con­di­tion . His cool prose and even cooler thought pro­cesses, his ex­plo­ration of philo­soph­i­cal and artis­tic in­quiries into the deep sym­bol­ism of gar­dens in the hu­man psy­che, ex­tin­guished the heat more ef­fec­tively than the jug of chilled wa­ter at my side.

Poet and na­ture writer Mark Tredin­nick’s mem­ory of sum­mer read­ing is a cool one too. He re­calls read­ing Robert Gray’s po­etry, on hol­i­day in Scot­land dur­ing the young Aus­tralians’ tra­di­tional rite of pas­sage trip to Europe. It was sum­mer on Skye and the weather was sim­i­lar to the Syd­ney win­ter he’d just left. He was camp­ing and read the book un­til the day­light faded about 11pm. Some­thing about Gray’s evo­ca­tion of Aus­tralian na­ture echoed that land­scape on the other side of the world.

Gray’s writ­ing, Tredin­nick says, taught him about the im­por­tance of ‘‘ at­tend­ing to land­scape, to its light and colour’’. As he speaks he spies the book, the very book he car­ried with him then, on a shelf and opens it. June 1986, he has writ­ten in it. The price was $ 7.95.

Ge­ordie Wil­liamson, who writes so el­e­gantly for th­ese pages, had an epiphany when he was just a lit­tle younger. It was 1990 and he was liv­ing in a tin-roofed boat­shed on Syd­ney har­bour. It had wooden floor­boards and a win­dow from which he could jump straight into the wa­ter at high tide.

‘‘ I had just failed my first year of uni­ver­sity and was ut­terly rud­der­less, pen­ni­less,’’ he re­calls. ‘‘ Rich friends lent me the space and I dwelt there, like Nick Car­raway at West Egg in The Great Gatsby.

‘‘ Some­one gave me a copy of Martin Amis’s Lon­don Fields . I sup­pose I would be dis­ap­pointed if I read it again, but at the time it was a rev­e­la­tion: po­tent prose, apoc­a­lyp­tic imag­in­ings, all the stuff an 18-year-old could ask for. I read it on a lawn with grow­ing fas­ci­na­tion and fin­ished it with my heart in my mouth. It spoiled trash lit­er­a­ture for me; from then on I only read the good stuff.’’

Michelle de Kretser, whose novel The Lost Dog cre­ated a stir this year, re­mem­bers clearly a novel, pre­scribed for her HSC in Mel­bourne, which she read in the hol­i­days be­fore the year started. She still as­so­ci­ates sum­mer with L. P. Hart­ley’s The Go-Be­tween .

‘‘ The Ed­war­dian sum­mer de­scribed in the novel is in­te­gral to its in­trigue,’’ she writes in an email. ‘‘ The un­com­monly hot weather draws the child nar­ra­tor, Leo, into an adult drama, and ten­sion be­tween the char­ac­ters rises as un­mer­ci­fully as the mer­cury.’’ Mel­bourne sum­mers are like that: low in hu­mid­ity but tremen­dously, nervily, al­most nov­el­is­ti­cally hot.

Those lan­guid times are when we can read or reread the canon: Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad , Thucy­dides’ The His­tory of the Pelo­ponne- sian War, Shake­speare’s plays and son­nets, all of Jane Austen in one glo­ri­ous run, Tol­stoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karen­ina , the po­etry of Hafiz, Anna Akhma­tova and Paul Ce­lan. Can you imag­ine read­ing Han­nah Arendt’s The Ori­gins of To­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism in 20-minute grabs on the bus, with work, the chil­dren’s ex­cur­sion and loom­ing bills in the back of your mind?

Last year, I read two books I wished I’d read more calmly: Mark Lilla’s The Still­born God and Amos Elon’s The Pity of It All . The first had my mind fizzing un­stop­pably with ideas. The sec­ond was so heart­break­ing, and so out­raged my sense of jus­tice, that I found­ing my­self stop­ping reg­u­larly to wres­tle with the de­sire not to know and the im­per­a­tive of bear­ing wit­ness. I re-read them both while on hol­i­day re­cently, sit­ting on

Pic­ture: Photolibrary

Im­mer­sion ther­apy: The plea­sure of hol­i­day read­ing

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