Patrick Flanery was born in California, raised in Nebraska, and in recent years has spent significant time in South Africa. His first novel, Absolution, is set there. It focuses on Clare Wald, a reclusive writer, opening up about her past to her biographer, Sam Leroux. So far, so familiar. But Flanery’s trick is to tell his tale from four varying perspectives that ultimately converge and contradict, leading us to question the reliability of the characters and the validity of their confessions. To what extent is a writer engaged in “professional lying?” How are we all complicit in the problems of the countries we live in? Can we ever fully obliterate, or atone for, our past crimes? Flanery’s debut is a fascinatingly multi-faceted novel which impresses the more it perplexes. I wanted to learn more about writer and book and so interviewed him. He was in South Africa, I in Berlin, and so the following was done by email.
The Millions: First of all I have to apologize. Sam Leroux mentions his “carefully formulated questions I’ve spent months preparing.” I have only taken an hour to compile mine. Presumably before Absolution was even conceived you completed a doctorate in English Literature at Oxford University. What area did you specialize in and did it have any bearing on the novel?
Patrick Flanery: I went to Oxford thinking I was going to write a doctoral thesis on male friendships in the works of D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and Evelyn Waugh. When the powers that be decided the topic was not adequately “new” (in other words, they thought the work had already been done), I decided to focus exclusively on Waugh, shifting from a literary critical project to a largely book-historical one, which examined the publishing history and various media adaptations of three of his novels: Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust, and Brideshead Revisited. My work on Waugh unquestionably had an effect on Absolution, although quite a complex one. For one thing, as a relief from my total immersion in Waugh, I began side projects on J.M. Coetzee’s publishing history, which led me to broader investigations of South African literature and culture. In contrast to Waugh, I was craving a more ethically engaged, and more resolutely secular territory to explore, and Coetzee’s work provided just such a space.
Waugh’s own minor experience of censorship also led me to wider theoretical reading about institutions of censorship, and thus to Coetzee’s brilliant and essential collection of essays, Giving Offense. That provided the spur to thinking about the writer-censor relationship in creative terms, and I began, while still finishing my doctorate, writing a series of dialogues between a writer and her biographer that explored this territory. My concentration on Waugh’s fiction, and the letters and diaries of a writer who cultivated a vividly difficult personality — one notoriously resistant to interviewers — helped inform my character Clare Wald.
TM: In an interview with the Independent, it was noted that you talk more about literature than you do yourself. It is a rather facile question but an important one for a debut novelist: who are your literary idols and influences?
PF: It is among the most difficult questions to answer, simply because the influences are legion, whether positive or negative models (I like this, I don’t like this). For a novelist, though, talking about literature is perhaps one of the most revealing ways of talking about oneself. I’ll limit myself here to the influences I was most conscious of tapping while writing Absolution. These I can divide into four territories: South African, North American, Latin American, and broadly European (including British and Irish).
The most obvious South African influence is Coetzee, whose work has always astonished me for the rigor of its control: I never have any doubt that Coetzee knows precisely the kind of work that each word does in the text. Several other South African writers were also important, including Marlene van Niekerk, Zoë Wicomb, Ivan Vladislaviċ (all three are too little known and read outside of South Africa), and the late K. Sello Duiker; Nadine Gordimer I admire greatly, although I suspect her influence functioned at a quite subconscious level. Of North American writers, DeLillo, Roth, and Didion (her essays) were important touchstones, along with Atwood (I taught Surfacing for several years and regard it as an important intertext for Absolution), as well as Mavis Gallant and the poet Anne Carson. From Latin America, Jorge Luis Borges was an early and not necessarily productive influence, but nonetheless a very potent one: an uncle who leads one astray and doesn’t pick up the bill at the end of a surprisingly expensive meal. Roberto Bolaño has been a more recent discovery: complex, complicated, and often, for me, a maddening writer, he is also a model for writing a novel (2666) that manages to be gripping at both intellectual and visceral levels. European influences are predictable: Joyce, Forster, Woolf, Conrad, T.S. Eliot (if one can call him European) and, perhaps inevitably (and as much as I might wish to disavow his influence), Waugh as well. From the continent, Proust, Mann, Kafka, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov formed a rather dour, sometimes wry chorus of support.
TM: Reviewers have already placed you in illustrious company, comparing you with the likes of Graham Greene and Coetzee. The former, I feel, is always lazy short-hand for any novel with tension and conflict in an exotic locale. The latter was almost inevitable — both you and Coetzee deal with professors and academics, crime and violence, and refuse to offer neat solutions to your complex themes. Summertime even features a biographer trying to unlock a writer’s life. I do see Coetzee having had some impact on you (Dusklands even gets a mention in the novel, secretly stashed away from the authorities among books by Clare Wald) but also see Absolution as a kind of second cousin to a similar-titled novel, Ian McEwan’s Atonement: the fractured narrative, the varying viewpoints, the re-imagined and alternative histories. Am I miles off?
PF: When Summertime appeared I already had the foundations for Absolution; I knew it was going to be about a novelist and her biographer, and I knew it was going to have a fractured, fragmented form. I also knew that if my own novel were ever published, people would inevitably see a line of descent. I won’t deny Coetzee’s influence, but as I suggest above, he is one of a great many writers with whom I like to think my own work might be in conversation. McEwan is an intriguing comparison. I admire Atonement, and perhaps it, like Gordimer, was lurking in my subconscious: in a way, Absolution takes the next logical step in form where Atonement leaves off. I started with large, discrete sections, as in McEwan’s novel, but felt, for my own purposes, that the story I was trying to tell needed a form, a shape, and a rhythm that was more dynamic, shifting, and urgent. Some reviews, I know, have described the novel as a kind of “literary thriller,” and it would not be inaccurate to say that I was conscious of wanting to endow the events of the novel with a certain quality of pace and suspense more usually found in genre fiction.
TM: Early on in your novel, Sam poses a question about fiction being necessary to political opposition. Clare laughs at him and replies with “You have a very strange idea of what fiction is meant to do.” What is fiction meant to do?
PF: The temptation is to answer your question as Clare would, to tell you that fiction, even under conditions of oppression, has a different role to play, that it need not only be social realism reporting on the conditions of the oppressed, involving itself in a struggle for liberation, but that it can perhaps play a part in such battles even while its role, its position, and its effects are not necessarily legible, or may only be legible in retrospect, when the field has cleared and the dead have been buried, the treaties agreed, and history lurched into its next cycle.
But that is what Clare would say.
My own feeling is that fiction in a broadly social realist form has a place in the larger body of any given national — or indeed transnational — literature. Absolution is certainly not social realism, although it does attempt to engage certain aspects of the current and highly varied social realities at play in South Africa. Such moments of social realism are, however, contained in a text that might more accurately be described as subjective or critical realism, with layers of the surreal, the nightmarish, the apocalyptic, the confessional, and the biographical.
Fiction that aspires to be something more than an entertainment commodity must, I think, ultimately be concerned with its own longevity, with the conversation it holds between itself and whatever has preceded it.
TM: As you suggest, the novel began as a series of exchanges between characters on the issue of censorship. Only later did South Africa present itself as a setting. How did this come about?
PF: While writing the initial censorship dialogues between Clare and Sam in 2005, I was also writing the first draft of the narrative of Clare’s “house invasion,” as she insists on calling it, alongside a post-apocalyptic narrative of a woman looking after a young boy. I did not, initially, know how this third narrative related to the other two, but I sensed that they all belonged together. For a time I thought I might set the book in a near-future California, but the more I wrote of the three primary sections, the more I was just conscious of a landscape that recalled what I already knew of South Africa’s Western and Eastern Cape Provinces from visits with my South African partner to family and friends. Unsure what to do with this odd triptych of texts, or how to make them advance, I put the book aside.
Years passed, I finished my doctorate, I returned for further visits to South Africa, and continued to think of Clare, knowing that I did not want to abandon her. I began thinking again about the setting, dismissing America as the wrong location for the story I was trying to tell, and thinking instead of an unnamed, semi-allegorical African or South American country, before finally concluding that the book needed a highly specific temporal and geographic context to make the story both more resonant, as well as to provide the kind of narrative the characters needed to move forward from their quite static positions. Once I settled on South Africa as the setting, the various problems of character, narrative, and form all began to fall into place. Unraveling the three novellas, I started weaving them together, while adding a fourth strand — those sections which bear dates in the novel — that seemed to bind together the first three.
Journalists have asked me what kind of challenge the decision to set the book in South Africa represented. It was significant, and one I did not take lightly. My experience of South African domestic space (through visits with my extended family and friends in the country), and the reality of living every day of my life over the last decade with a South African partner, meant that I had a certain kind of access to a quite particular strand of South African cultural life — largely white, English-speaking, and middle-class. So the daily details, the language, and the cadences of speech were not the most difficult aspects to negotiate; rather, it was making sure that the complexity of certain relationships and lines of inheritance made sense in a way that was at once possible to fit into a plausible strand of South African history, while also being conscious that history (however one might wish to define it) need not necessarily function as the benchmark against which the events of the book might be measured.
TM: You write about contemporary South Africa and adopt a fairly non-judgmental stance. Only once does Sam lose his cool with a person begging. Clare is traumatized by that break-in but doesn’t call for tougher laws and stricter punishments. Was it a conscious decision to be the aloof outsider looking in? Is it a writer’s ‘duty’ only to reflect and never comment on a country’s social or political situation?
PF: At no point did I think that I was writing a critique of the country, although I would argue that there is a considerable amount of commentary about the unresolved legacies of apartheid. I was always trying to tell a story that, as I suggest above, started from large, perhaps “universal” themes, and worked backwards in its composition, from the broad to the specific, from the universal to the local. Equally, while I was conscious of the particular challenges I set myself in writing about a country not my own — a country whose literature has long been informed by a sense in some quarters that South Africans should tell their own stories — I did not think of myself as an outsider looking in. In his review of the book in the Mail & Guardian, the South African critic Michael Titlestad refers to me as an “insider outsider:” it is an apt and flattering description, I think, and one I am happy to embrace. I tried to write from a place as thoroughly within the country as I could manage.
To “reflect” a country’s social or political situation suggests that there is one coherent narrative of what that situation might be, and also that it is the job of fiction to be “reflective.” Absolution tries to destabilize such ideas, to argue that there are many simultaneous, competing narratives, not only about traumatic events of the past, but also about the way in which the everyday life of a country unfolds. Sam’s account of his encounters with people begging would not, inevitably, match their own versions of the same interactions; had I chosen to give such characters voice beyond the limited dialogue Sam reports, they would have narrated the story in a markedly different way.
Rather than “reflective,” I think of my own fiction as “discursive:” in a dialogue not only with literary tradition, but also with the world it seeks to describe.
TM: You have said that South Africa is “the most and least like America” of any country you have visited. Please explain!
PF: Before I first visited South Africa in 2003, I imagined it in terms of apartheid, its European colonial past, and those circuits of cultural affiliation, and, in a shamefully under-nuanced way, as an “African” country. The first visit immediately complicated all of those assumptions.
Visiting Cape Town and its surrounding communities, one cannot but be aware of Dutch and French (Huguenot) influences, both in terms of architecture and place names, while in a town like Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape (where I sit as I respond to your questions, in the Victorian house of a friend), the influence of 19th-century English settlers is inescapable. Nonetheless, “modern” South Africa — meaning both the modernist buildings and infrastructure built in the second half of the 20th century under apartheid, and the largely post-modern buildings of democratic South Africa — often looks startlingly American. Many buildings and neighborhoods would seem at home in America in a way they would never fit in Britain or the Netherlands. Stylistically, spatially, and in terms of scale, South Africa feels more North American in its register than it feels European, except, perhaps, in places like Stellenbosch or the Karoo town of Graaff-Reinet, where the Cape Dutch architecture predominates; even in those towns, however, it is always possible for me to imagine myself into Southern California (in the case of Stellenbosch; I see similarities with Spanish mission architecture), or parts of the Midwest and Southwest (in the case of Graaff-Reinet). There is an expansive sense of space and possibility in the urban as well as rural landscapes of the country that feels utterly familiar to someone who grew up in Omaha with family ties to Oklahoma and California. So on the level of the built environment, as well as some aspects of the landscape (although not the vegetation), the country feels familiar to me.
The differences, however, are as numerous as the similarities, and not just because of the obvious reason that this is an African country. It is culturally, linguistically, and socially complex in ways that America is not. However unfinished the process of reconciliation and truth telling may be, South Africa has engaged in a dialogue about the past that America has failed to do in the same way. Imagining an American Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate racial atrocities, the legacies of slavery, and the much longer and profoundly unexamined treatment of American Indians, is all but impossible because those invested in maintaining the status quo, in not unearthing the truth of America’s past, are, I fear, far too powerful.
TM: At one point Clare announces to Sam in a letter: “You see how unreliable I am.” Sam is also an unreliable narrator — in one scene he realizes the life-story he is presenting to his wife, Sarah, is based on events and experiences from Clare’s books. Even maps are described as “a tracery of lies.” Was it your intention to disorient your readers and have us constantly uncertain of which characters to trust?
PF: The point was not to disorient readers, although I acknowledge that the initial reading experience may sometimes be one of disorientation, at least in part. Rather, the characters’ so-called unreliability (perhaps it would be better to speak of the mutability of truth in the novel), functions as a formal manifestation of the ways in which trauma produces multiple narratives, or multiple truths. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission sought to provide a forum for different forms of truth (“factual or forensic truth; personal or narrative truth; social or ‘dialogue’ truth…and healing and restorative truth”), acknowledging the ways in which such ostensibly competing truths may coexist. I hope that, to some extent, Absolution suggests the ways in which there can be, particularly in the case of a traumatic event, a multiplicity of possible truths.
One of the signal traumatic events from Sam’s past is the death of his uncle, and Sam’s negotiation of that memory produces more than one version: the memory is fractured, fragmented, shifting, entirely unstable, as if viewed through a prism. In the case of Clare, her manipulation of the narrative of her own life, and those she loved, serves a different purpose: it represents a struggle to negotiate the boundary between her public and private selves, to protect and defend those territories she regards as beyond the reach of public interest. Her intention, certainly, is to disorient Sam, the man she has, ironically, appointed to write her life, to keep him on shifting ground, as much as his mode of questioning her has a similar intent.
TM: Absolution is immensely intricate and must have required the tightest plotting — so much so that you can’t possibly be a spontaneous make-it-up-as-you-go-along writer. How much of it all did you plan in advance?
PF: I planned almost nothing at first, and that is, perhaps, why it took me six years to finish. As I approached the final drafts of the book, I did begin to have a clearer sense of where it was going, but I did not know how it would end until I wrote the final sentence.
For my second novel, however, I have worked from an outline. While it provided a loose structure that I ultimately revised, reworked, and then abandoned, having that map helped to focus the work, allowing me to write a complete draft in 10 months. It was certainly a much more efficient and less frustrating way to work.
TM: How and when do you write? Do you set yourself a daily word-count target? And how difficult is the creative process?
PF: After years believing that writing was about waiting for inspiration to strike, I realized I would never finish a book on such terms. Now I try to be at work by nine each weekday morning, work until noon, take an hour’s walk, eat lunch, return to work for the afternoon. It is, in this sense, a 9-5 job that sometimes intrudes into the evening and weekends. I try to write a minimum of 1,500 words each day, although with the second novel that rose to 2,500. The initial writing is rarely difficult: the tap flows freely. The challenge is regulating the temperature, the force, and finding ways of containing and shaping what emerges.
TM: Clare states that biography is “cannibalism and vampirism.” Many a debut novel draws heavily on the author’s life to date. How much of yourself did you cannibalize for the novel?
PF: Everything and nothing.
TM: You have one great novel under your belt. What are you working on now?
PF: I’m in the midst of revisions on the second novel, which will be finished in the next few months. Although set in contemporary suburban America, it shares some preoccupations with Absolution. Themes of dispossession, of inheritance, and of the vulnerability of domestic space are again present, although explored in quite different terms. It is very much a novel of and about the uncanny, the unhomely home, surveillance, and the complications, costs, and elusiveness of the American dream.
Behind my desk, in my bedroom, there is a large bookcase divided into 25 cubes. On the wall facing my desk there are three bookshelves. Instead of a table, there is also a shelf at my bedside. Beside my desk is an additional bookcase, the Billy model from Ikea, with six shelves. All this shelf space amounts to about 56 feet.
I have turned my attention to my bookshelves and not what stand on them because I am reorganizing my personal library. I need to know how much space I have for my books, in order to accommodate the existing space for a logical, efficacious, and personalized classification system for the books I own, which currently amount to just short of 500 volumes. My endeavor, of course, is not a very great one. I do have a considerable number of books, but by no means is my collection large or unwieldy. I’m only 20, and as such my library is not a lifetime’s library — it is only the nucleus of a true library, with burgeoning interests, mistakes, discoveries, a few treasures, and several shortcomings.
As for the organization of the books, well, I must say that in its current state the classification is far from optimal. Most of last semester’s books are still on the shelf above my desk and deserve integration with the rest of my collection, instead of groupings by course reading material. My French books are all together in the Billy bookcase, which results in separating the Penguin edition of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, 1892-1895 from the French translation of Chekhov’s (or, as it were, Tchekhov’s) plays, published by Folio in two paperback volumes.
Similarly, the current state of my books creates rifts between ideas and eras, or tensions where there shouldn’t be any. For instance my enormous paperback of Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems lies on a shelf above my desk because I was too lazy to make room for it in the cubes. Thus Ginsberg is a room apart from his friend Kerouac (if their belonging to the Beats shouldn’t be enough to bring them together, Ginsberg even took the pictures on the cover of On the Road, which I think calls for neighboring spots on my shelves). In the cubes there are other inconsistencies: Junot Díaz is between the single volume Chronicles of Narnia and Anne Michaels; Hemingway shares his shelf with Amitav Ghosh, Toni Morrison, and Nabokov — I can’t think of any reason why those authors should rub covers.
Likewise, when I see Eco’s The Name of the Rose on one shelf and his collection of essays On Literature on the opposite wall, I know it is time to take all the books out, dust off the shelves, and start again from scratch.
The first step in reorganizing my personal library is finding a system. Of this, there are many, some more improvised than others. In his bible of bibliomania, The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel explores the different facets of the library, and also the different ways to organize books. For his own collection of 30,000 books, which he keeps in his château in France, Manguel has chosen to divide his books by language, and then place them alphabetically. Rather drab for me, I think, considering the small size of my own book collection.
Some book collectors have been more original. Take Samuel Pepys for instance, the great 17th century diarist, who maintained a personal library (which still exists) of 3,000 books exactly, not a volume more. What is, perhaps, the most astounding feature of Pepys’ library is the way in which the books were organized: by size. All his volumes were numbered from 1 to 3,000, from smallest to biggest, and placed in that order in his bookcases, each volume bound in matching leather, and each book resting on a little wooden stilt matching the cover, to create unity in height — gentlemanly elegance.
What may be acknowledged about any organizational system is that they all have certain limitations. Even the Dewey Decimal System, used by the majority of public libraries in the world — which divides human knowledge into ten decimals, in turn subdivided into ten categories, and so on — is limited when it comes to books with split subjects (take the excellent Time Among the Maya, by Ronald Wright, which is part travel journal in Mesoamerica, part history book on the Mayas).
But I am looking for a more intuitive organizational system, something flexible and creative. An article in The Guardian’s online book section discussed “bookshelf etiquette,” organizational systems like grouping books by theme or color. One of the propositions was to place books together by potential for their authors to be friends. I choose a different path: all of an author’s books are together (no matter the language), authors that go well together go together, other books are placed by association of genre or style. I will start with that in mind, and see where it brings me.
I remove books from my shelves. I grab multiple spines between my thumb and fingers, slide out the volumes and pile them on my desk, on the floor — soon my room is like a messy cave of paper and multicolored covers and spines. The wall behind my desk is bland, covered in empty cubes, spacious and clean. I am reminded of a time, not so long ago, when my entire book collection did not even fit on the six shelves of a Billy bookcase.
As I take the books out of their bookcases, crack open a few to see if the words inside still have the same ring, and admire the beauty of some covers, I start to understand that there are some books I do no want anymore. There is a vital difference between books you do not need and books you no longer want to have. I would willingly keep a book I hated if it had a nice cover (and I do, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, a silly collection of short stories with a stunning, elegant cover). The books I am ready to give away are books I don’t care about: they are ugly, I have had them for too long, I have never read them and never will — they simply become a waste of space.
Take How to Read Novels Like a Professor, a paperback I bought a couple of years ago, in an attempt to uncover some of literature’s secrets before entering University. I drop the book with the other giveaways. A few days later I pick it up again and this passage catches my attention: “Books lead to books, ideas to ideas. You can wear out a hundred hammocks and never reach the end. And that’s the good news.” I certainly agree with that. No English major would be supposed to be caught dead with such a preposterously titled book in their library, and maybe that’s the reason why I wanted to give it away in the first place. I decide to keep it in my collection after all — for now.
In the end I’ve put aside two dozen books in the giveaway pile. By no means am I kidding myself that I’m actually getting rid of a large chunk of my library. I admire people who are able to rid themselves of books they love, give books away selflessly so that others can enjoy them. I know I could never do such a thing.
I admit, with a hint of guilt, that I have not read all the books I own. Not even close. The majority of them, yes (I hope), but far from all of them. Despite the incredible amount of reading left for me to do before I really know my library, almost every week I buy more books.
Part of the problem lies in my appreciation for books as objects, as elegant collectibles. I like not only to read them, but to look at them, touch them. Larry McMurtry has phrased it rather elegantly in his memoir, titled simply, Books:
But there can be secondary and tertiary reasons for wanting a particular book. One is the pleasure of holding the physical book itself: savoring the type, the binding, the book’s feel and heft. All these things can be enjoyed apart from literature, which some, but not all, books contain.
While I have shelves full of books I have not read at home, I keep on thinking about which books I’m going to buy next. Although minor, this problem does create a fair amount of anxiety, essentially caused by the fact that I simply don’t read enough. Furthermore, as I reorganize my books I realize there are many I would like to reread soon. (At the top of my list: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows…) Sometimes I wish I were that man in the Twilight Zone episode who finds himself in the ruins of a public library, with lots of food and all the time in the world to read all the books he wants.
My library is also the most personal of filing systems, with countless mementos flattened between the covers of the books. There is a card from a blood-drive marking a page in Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, reminding me of when I can give blood again. I slam away the congratulations card from the English department of my college which awarded me a prize in Shakespeare studies (oddly, the quote on the card is by Anaïs Nin) in the bard’s complete works (leatherbound, gold page edges). A business card from the Winding Staircase, a charming Dublin bookstore, falls out of De Niro’s Game, which I read in Ireland. Between my Oscar Wildes I find a touching card from my parents, given to me when I turned 18. I choose a better place for it: between the pages of a book on self-fashioning in the Renaissance they bought for me at Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, a place I have only been to in my dreams.
I have finally emptied all my shelves. It was long — and tedious. Not in the physical sense, but in one that is, of sorts, moral. Removing all those books was the undoing of something that was set, a collection which, it seems, had built itself up, slowly, purposefully, into a cohesive whole. The work of an oyster.
After the toil of the unmaking, now I have to rebuild my library up — restock the shelves that now stand cleared, poised, filled only with light and shadows. After some consideration, the first book I place back on the top left cube, is Beowulf, masterfully translated by Seamus Heaney, the beginning of literature in English. I have to rifle down the spines of a few piles before I finally locate it.
Next up goes Tolkien. I cannot resist — without him I’m not sure Beowulf would even be taught in schools at all. His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, first, to soften the transition, and then The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Tree and Leaf, and The Children of Hurin. Then I place Herodotus, whom my girlfriend assures me thinks exactly like Tolkien. I am startled by my audacity. There is a jump from 10th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript to 20th Century fantasy writer to the father of history, a fifth-century Greek — my system is either creative or blasphemous.
My girlfriend came to help me. Her presence was motivating — I have done more work in half an hour than in the last week. The Canterbury Tales are inserted between Beowulf and Tolkien by her recommendation, I add Peter Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales beside it. A cube inspired by military history starts with Thucydides and ends with a biography on George Washington — yet George Orwell, Alan Moore, and Annie Proulx all end up on it by association. From the look in my girlfriend’s eyes I know she thinks this is starting to look like a madman’s library. Nothing new there, bibliomania is a psychological disorder, I am told.
Putting Sylvia Plath with her husband Ted Hughes feels wrong, so we try to find a new lover for her. I think of Byron as a joke, my girlfriend proposes Mary Shelley as a fellow tortured female writer. The offer is accepted and Plath serves as transition into gothic fiction. Ironically, Byron ends up just after Shelley anyway (they shared more than shelf-space in their lives, after all), and before Polidori and Stoker. Books start to place themselves on their own.
There is a cube for my books about books: Anne Fadiman and Manguel, Borges (which I can no longer dissociate from the latter), 501 Must-Read Books, A Gentle Madness, The Companionship of Books, and others go here. There is a cube, or half of it, at least, for Faber friends: Eliot, Hughes, Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro. Edgy writers (Bukowski, Tony O’Neill, Mark SaFranco, Writing at the Edge) share their cube with erotic fiction (The Gates of Paradise, Delta of Venus, the Marquis de Sade, Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, La vie sexuelle de Catherine M.) — Neil Strauss buffers between them.
I go on like this, a few minutes every day. Slowly, surely, books leave my floor, my desk, my bed, my bathroom, and regain their place on the shelves in some kind of order. Some associations are obvious — others, not so much.
Finally the cubes are filled again. I can breathe a bit more in my bedroom. I enjoy looking at the neat rows of spines, follow the literary path of my own twisted organization system. Still, there are many flaws on my shelves, mainly caused by lack of room (or perhaps because the number of books is too great). Some books just don’t “fit” anywhere, others would go well in too many places. Ian McEwan, for instance, ends up sharing his shelf with female writers like Doris Lessing, Emily Brontë, and Virginia Woolf. I have to think of the shelves as a work in progress in order to live with their limitations.
Then, of course, there are also some things I love about the new shelf-arrangement: the various degrees of moral and social incorrectness in the cube that starts with Oscar Wilde, then moves to Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence; how A Moveable Feast rubs covers with John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse; and that His Dark Materials finally stands beside my three editions of Paradise Lost.
Over my desk I place essays on philosophy and literature. My heavy anthologies — costly books with a fair amount of repetition (parts of The Canterbury Tales appear in at least three of them) and some textbooks I keep as reference — go in the sturdy Billy. I also shelve my art books there, like my Janson’s History of Art, as well as some exhibition catalogues, which map out my travels: the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, the Ivan Mestrovic Gallery in Split.
Lastly, I put back my books in French. I keep them together, two compact shelves of ivory spines. I have always wondered at the uniformity of French covers, often white, usually bland. I start with Don Quixote, move down to Alexandre Dumas, the Arsène Lupins which belonged to my father, then Québecois literature. The next shelf is mostly from France: Sartre, Camus, Flaubert, and Littell (which I put beside the latter because of the masterful description in Les Bienveillantes of the narrator reading L’Éducation sentimentale as he walks through fields devastated by war), and contemporary authors like Makine, Folco, and Pennac.
Now my shelves are full again, or almost. I have given away enough books to leave two empty shelves — one in the Billy and the topmost shelf above my desk — waiting to be filled by new acquisitions (which certainly won’t be long in coming).
This adventure in bookshelf etiquette helped me take control of my library, rediscover what I have, solidify my appreciation for my books — the majority of which are probably going to follow me for the rest of my life. I have realized how many books I own but have not read (The Portrait of a Lady, Nicholas Nickleby, War and Peace, Beyond Black…), but I know that I am not quite ready for some of them, and they can wait a while longer. I dream of owning and reading all of Atwood, Munro, Updike. There are many books I should own but do not: I have nothing by J.M. Coetzee, or Ovid, or Paul Auster. I have Bolaño’s 2666, but not the Savage Detectives; Waugh’s Vile Bodies but not Brideshead Revisited; Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but not Love in the Time of Cholera. My book collection is full of hopes and holes.
Thus I have a second library, in my mind, of which my real, physical book collection is only the tip (to use that famous iceberg metaphor). Underneath my shelves lie all the books I want, all the books I should have (dictated by the canon, or recommendations from friends and famous people), all the books I need, like Borges’ fabulous Library of Babel, extending out into book-lined room after book-lined room, infinitely.
Now, you will have to excuse me, but I have to stop this business — I have some reading to do.
[Image source: Stewart Butterfield]
On the last Sunday in November, book critic Adam Begley scooped Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd for the top spot in the New York Times most emailed list. Not with a review though. Instead, he wrote an excellent piece about Florence for the travel section, in which he recommended E.M. Forster’s Room with a View as a kind of literary guidebook to the city. The Florence piece came several months after Begley employed the same tactic to tour Sicily, that time with Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard in his pocket.Those two pieces inspired me to think about other novel-city pairings. Last June, The Millions ran a guest post from novelist Joan Silber, in which she detailed some of her favorite books for enriching a trip abroad. Here I have something slightly different in mind: novels that allow you to follow Forster’s advice to leave the guidebook at home (and instead replace it with a great work of fiction). So, without further ado:The American southwest: Try Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House for its stark descriptions of a New Mexico mesa.If you don’t know Boston already, let Henry James introduce you with The Bostonians, his story of love and politics in the 19th-century city.It feels cheap, I know, to make John Grisham your tour guide, but I devoured The Client on a boat trip up the Amazon and don’t regret it a bit. If, for some reason you’re looking to weigh down your trip to Brazil, go with Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes and TropiquesSee the Windy City through the eyes of Dreiser’s classic Sister Carrie, which renders a teeming, if not always hospitable portrait of Chicago.I like Graham Greene for Cuba, with Our Man in Havana. Greene recurs a lot in this list, so in order to get it out of the way all at once: London (The End of the Affair); Mexico (The Lawless Roads or The Power and the Glory); Switzerland (Doctor Fischer of Geneva); Vienna (The Third Man); Vietnam (The Quiet American)There’s still no better guide to Dublin than James Joyce (The Dubliners).Greece: Bring along The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller.E.M. Forster’s good for Florence. He’s also good for intrigue in colonial India: A Passage to India.It’s always a decision, do you want to see a place through the eyes of a perceptive foreigner or a local? In Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and The City you get both.Jerusalem: Mark Twain voyages to the ancient capital in The Innocents Abroad. How can you resist?London: OMG. Ready to party? Try and keep up with Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. A jaded post-colonial? Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Prefer to delve into immigrant life? Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Or, if you take your London straight up, there’s no better pour than Bleak House by Dickens.Try Joan Didion’s Miami if you have half a mind not to come back.I can think of nothing finer than New York in the hands of E.B. White: Here is New York.Paris: Again, are you going for the expat experience or the genuine article? If the former, go with James’ Portrait of a Lady or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But for my money, see the city like a native. Stendahl’s The Red and the Black.The great Russian novels are like a trip abroad no matter where you read them. Try Crime and Punishment or Gogol’s “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” for St. Petersburg.Switzerland has inspired some great books in addition to the aforementioned Greene. There is Twain again with A Tramp Abroad and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.I conclude the list with wanderlust. Books and foreign places are a fitting pair. There will always be more of both than there is time. This is of course anything but an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear what books you recommend in lieu of a tour guide.