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This novel for a warm glow?

This novel for a warm glow?

To be under the doona, to feel the rush, a warm, warm gut, fizzing ribs, tingling fingers – well, it was such a surprise, let me tell you. It wasn’t because I’d over-done the port before going to bed, or had swum a million laps across the afternoon. It was because I had something in my hands. A book. A new book.

It might have been because it was the recent novel by JM Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus. I am a Coetzee fan; his Disgrace knocked my sideways when I first read it, and I dip into it annually. How to write as well as Coetzee? I’d like to know.

The warm, warm rush of a feeling might have been because the book was so beautifully produced, as in manufactured. A hard back. A hard back! How rare in this electronic day and age, in this era when the dollar drives every decision. (But was there ever a time when the dollar didn’t drive every decision? Only a fiction writer would be able to answer that question.)

Perhaps the warm, warm gut-rush of a feeling was because Coetzee, an exile from South Africa now living in South Australia, had decided to explore Australia’s current obsession with turning away those who come to our land of plenty by boat. How to take this on and make sense of it? Only Coetzee would be able to find some kind of adequate response.

Perhaps, though, the gut-rush that other evening was because reading has become so integral to my life. Sleeping, waking, eating, breathing – these are the essentials. Is reading fiction now essential to me? It could be. Is it critical? Can a day go by without being a part of the imagined lives of others, the worlds of others, the problems and dramas, the learning that comes as a result? Perhaps the answer is yes, a day can go by without reading fiction, without being a part of all that make-believe. But there’s that related question: should a day go by without reading fiction? No, I don’t think a day should go by without reading fiction.

The essence – the whole point – of life is experience. Surely that’s the truth. So, then, doesn’t reading fiction amplify and diversify and illuminate experience? That has to be the truth, too.

Perhaps, in the end, I’m just in love.

With the feeling of reading.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 24 May 2014.)

David Malouf's 'Collected Stories': grandly handsome book, in every possible way.

David Malouf’s ‘Complete Stories’: grandly handsome, in every possible way.

Empty days

There are times – like these last two days – when I feel as though I’m the luckiest man alive, because I’ve been starting the mornings reading on the couch in my library room.  For some, luck might be scoring that high-paid job, or travelling overseas, or being able to fill the house with the boundless rush of children, but for me it’s reading, it’s stillness, it’s silence, a book in my lap, a real book, one that needs to be held, one that has pages that have to be turned.

I’m in a writing lull, which sounds bad, as in I’ve lost some kind of fire.  But the fire is there; it’s still burning, raging even, it’s just that a manuscript has been completed and sent to my publisher and I’m not yet ready to start a new project.  So I’m filling these deliciously long, slow empty days with reading.

Where reading happens

Reading happens all over the house: there’s lap-top and iPad reading at the breakfast-/lunch-/dinner-table; there’s living-room couch reading; there’s writing-room reading, the conscientious, studious sort; and there’s bed-time reading.  But the reading I enjoy the most is the sort that happens in the library room, which I also sometimes call ‘the front room’ or ‘the fireplace room’.  When it’s really good, both the reading and the room, it’s cold and wet and windy outside, and I light the fire, pour myself a coffee, and cover my body with my grandmother’s black and red and yellow mohair blanket and get lost in the words.

David Malouf and the smell of smoke

Yesterday and this morning the words have been written by David Malouf: The Complete Stories (Knopf 2007).  It’s a grandly handsome book, in every possible way, and, at over 500 pages, it’s big, it has such weight – you need two hands to read these stories.  Sometimes, when the story is a long one, almost novella length, and I’m far too engrossed to rise for a break, I prop up the top of the book on the repositioned piano stool, which is the perfect height for the task.

Ah, the words on the page, Malouf’s words: searching, circling, yearning, but they’re always so warm; they take you in and have you.  Crafted but not overly crafted; satisfying, so very satisfying – days after living for such a brief period with these stories, the people of the stories stay with the reader, demanding just a little more time, a little more understanding, because they’re complex, and their predicaments are complex too – but they don’t wallop you; they’re intelligent, but never clever; they’re absolutely finished but not always perfect.  All the while there’s the fire crackling and hissing and popping and creaking away, the heat coming before waning, a thin fog in the room, sometimes even a sting in the eyes, but always the smell of smoke on my hands from getting the fire going in the first place.

When it’s as good as this

Perhaps it’s the stillness I love the most, and the silence, the sort of silence that seems to embrace that which is made by the fire, even enhanced by the fire.  And enhanced by the words, David Malouf’s words.  What does it mean to read like this?  Yes, it’s transportation, and communication, entertainment even.  It’s a good, worthy, even noble pursuit.  And, with the fire, there’s a kind of romance to the whole practice.  But there’s much more to it.  There’s depth, great depth, and illumination, everything stripped bare, everything and nothing is sacred, you can’t hide, the words will come for you – yes, you – in the end.  Exposed, that’s it; we’re all made raw.  Despite the fire and the blanket and the coffee and the couch, it’s uncomfortable to read.  When the reading is as good as this.

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