When I was a kid, maybe around three to four, I spent a lot of time hanging around my parent's bookshelves. I guess this is kind of par for the course for young kids growing up with academics for parents. None of the books were in any way accessible (I was pretty late to reading anyway) to a young boy, being mostly a collection, at least in the case of the bookshelves outside my parents respective studies, of classic fiction, autobiography and letters/diaries. I remember running my finger along the spine of my mum's battered copy of Lord Of The Rings (a book she claims she never liked), attracted to the picture of what I now realise must have been Gollum. I would take this book out of the shelf, leaf through the pages, examine closely the nine figures walking toward a mountain in the distance. None of it made any sense to me of course at the time. But I was already turning into a bit of a fan of the magical and fantastical, and I was pretty sure I wanted in on the book. This led me to dragging the volume out from those it sat next to, quite regularly I seem to remember, and demanding to know from my Mum, when exactly I would be able to read this damn novel. I can't remember what she said, but I am fairly certain the answer was not exactly pacifying to a small boy who can barely imagine the next week, let alone himself in, say, eight years time.
In light of the need to finish this sub-story, I did indeed read LOTR when I was eleven, and loved it so much, that I read it once a year, every year, for four years straight. It was a good time.
I spent some time at mum's today, some of it helping her re-arrange some of dad's stuff. Mum needed some correspondence of dad's, for some other academic person somewhere in the world, a general task she understandably finds depressing and boring, an unfortunate combination. Here we were, sorting through these boxes and boxes of things, that used to be dad's. Years of correspondence, all pre-dating email of course, often written under Monash, or Harvard, or Oxford letterhead. All written to people I'd sometimes met, others I might have heard of, others I never knew existed. It was strange, seeing my dad's scrawled notes to friends, and formal letters to colleagues, often written ten or more years before I was born. There's this kind of universal style to academic's personal notes, often warm and inviting, yet stuffily choreographed, betraying the obvious popularity of writers like George Orwell (his letters, not just his novels) to the left wing scholars of the latter part of the twentieth century in the English speaking world.
It was as I thought about this that I came across the three volumes of Proust's In Search Of Lost Time. I have this sick obsession with long, difficult books. Their length impresses me, intimidates me and their difficulty makes me want to conquer them. With this in mind, I had had vague plans to tackle Proust at some unspecified time in the future, probably after War and Peace, and perhaps before Ulysses. I picked up the battered copy, noticing the cover had come away entirely from the spine. That distinctive name in the front, Carolyn James, written seemingly identically every time, told me they had been mum's copies. Looking at the spine, each book with a little picture at the top, perhaps depicting a different character, I had a flash of recognition. Just like an aroma you remember from when you were a kid, or a song you haven't heard for years, the spine's of these three volumes of Proust, had me instantly back in front of the bookshelf, lying on my belly, slightly dusty carpet tickling my nose, running my finger along the spines of these books, containing words I couldn't read, about people I didn't know existed. I remember thinking that one average household bookshelf probably contains hundreds of different stories, the subjects of which might be so magnificently varied so as to make one really quite overwhelmed by the world. I didn't know who Proust was then, obviously, and I don't really know who he is now.
As I sit here, looking at these three volumes though, just as clueless as to what this book is about as I was twenty years ago, I have this rush of memory and nostalgia. I feel like, in starting to read this book, I would be continuing a story, rather than beginning one. I spent ages wondering what all these mysterious tomes on all the bookshelves at home were about back when I was a kid.
The first book from the adult shelves I tackled was when I was ten. It was called 'Out of the Shelter' by David Lodge. From what I understand, David Lodge was a very popular writer in the sixties/seventies/eighties amongst left wingish leaning academic types. He tended to write a lot about left wingish academic types so I suppose I can see the appeal. Dad used to always explain his enjoyment of Lodge due to their same age, and his writing about places he had studied at (London, etc.). Mum used to scoff, call Lodge a filthy sexist, and claim that all his stories were about old white academics wanting to get laid. The point is, from a ten year olds perspective, 'Out Of the Shelter' was really fun. It was about a young kid, growing up in post war Britain, going on holiday to West Germany. It also had the most (for my age) vivid sex scene I could possibly imagine. When I read it, Dad bought me 'Tomorrow When the War Began', and wrote in the front cover
"To James, for reading his first 'real' book. Love, Bill"
I was pretty proud of myself for taking the step into 'real' literature, sure, but most of all I was excited that I had, finally, begun to unlock the secrets to the thousands of stories I had grown up with for the past ten years, surrounded by, but inaccessible. Over the next few years I made my way through some more titles. I read some Turgenev, some Orwell, bits and pieces of other writers. I found I had a strong attraction to the now dead genre of what I like to call 'A British man wanders through Europe'. These books basically entail lavish descriptions of rich British gentleman walking through Italy with a cane, talking about Tuscan spring, churches and (occasionally) what a good job the fascists had done to clean up the country. It was all pretty pleasant.
It all stalled a bit when I got into metal, and I was too busy scouring the internet for information on obscure British death metal bands, trying to understand the real tangible differences between Florida and California proto-death metal, or grappling with the world black metal was opening up to me. So the reading didn't stop, by any means, but it definitely slowed.
Now, fired with this urgent desire to do something, I'm suddenly turning to these books again. To the same bookshelves, some books now read and remembered, others as mysterious as ever. I think back to that sweaty excitement I felt when I finished that David Lodge book, knowing I had entered a world that had not been made for me, but that I had stolen in anyway, taken a peek at what was inside, and snuck out just as quietly, wanting more. Now I pick up 'In Search of Lost Time'. That same feeling of childish eagerness to know more about the picture on the front, like that I felt when looking at Gollum, stirs in me.
Maybe, when I read Proust, I'll inscribe a little note in the front.
James, for finishing your first 'real' book.
I hope mum doesn't mind.