Thursday, September 23, 2010

a few encounters with the irrecuperable

ZMKC remembers reading when she was small. One teacher gave her books she liked; another didn't. Now I jump from that story into this one. When I was a child, of preschool age I think, my father used to read a few pages from a book to me every night before I went to sleep. The book was Peter and Wendy, which I remember being titled Peter Pan and Wendy, but my memory must be wrong. The book is called Peter and Wendy, by J.M. Barrie, published in 1911 by Hodder & Stoughten, and it's the same book that most people know as plain Peter Pan.* Our copy was an old one.

One day I am in my room, where Peter and Wendy has been left face-down on my dressing table (which seems high to me). I am so impatient for the rest of the story that I take the book down and read to the end. This is wrong, I know, because I am not supposed to be reading Peter -- in fact I am not supposed to be able to read at all, but that distinction is too fine-grained for my mind to handle, and I only recognise that the book has been left within reach because there is an expectation on the part of the adults that it will be left unread, and that when my father comes in that evening the book will be as he left it, as far as my awareness of its contents is concerned. I will know nothing beyond the place where he chose to stop. I will be ignorant, from that point forwards, of the story. It is as if we have pitched camp in a fixed place, and tomorrow we will hike over the hill together. But I have walked off on my own.

That might have been my first thick book. How bright everything seems when you're being lured like this, when you've got a solitary objective, which is being withheld, and towards which you move. How good a serial story is. When Garth Ennis' Preacher was still coming out in monthly installments I used knew which comic book shop unpacked their boxes first, and that was the one I visited, on the afternoon of the day it was released, which was a date I knew, every month. That date stood out in my mind. And I can remember times when I didn't have a serial but I tried to create one. After I'd read all three of Mervyn Peake's Titus books (a teenager then) I went on to read the other books he'd written, and then biographies of him, and, searching libraries for books of literary essays, I looked for his name in the indexes, and I checked the internet for websites. Like this I extended him into a serial event. I never want to be reminded that the book I love is mortal after all, and ends. (The agony of the people on the New York pier, shouting like spectres on the far side of the river of the damned, Is Little Nell Alive? Borges, in his essay Beatrice's Last Smile, proposes that Dante wrote his Divine Comedy (and the writing of a long poem is a serial event for the poet) with the purpose of meeting Beatrice again on the page when he couldn't meet her again in the living world. "I suspect that Dante constructed the best book literature has achieved in order to interpolate into it a few encounters with the irrecuperable Beatrice." Dante forces himself to wait through the Inferno and most of Purgatory before he gives himself the satisfaction of seeing her fully and allegorically attended with chariot, gryphon, dancing women, and so on. "At the beginning of the Vita nuova we read that once, in a letter, he listed sixty women's names in order to slip among them, in secret, the name of Beatrice.")

"So from the moment I first encountered The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to when I was eleven or twelve, the seven Chronicles of Narnia represented essence-of-book to me," writes Francis Stufford in his 2002 memoir, The Child That Books Built. "They were the Platonic Book of which other books were more or less imperfect shadows. For four or five years, I essentially read other books because I could not always be re-reading the Narnia books ... But in other books I was always searching for partial or diluted remains of Narnia." I have noticed that journalists who advise parents to keep books in their houses so that their children will grow up to be readers prefer to use the word encourage to describe the duty of the parents -- this is how you can encourage your child to read -- or else sometimes they will use help. But the word that is, I believe, the true word, is a word with more sinister connotations, those of wickedness, sin, and furtive, engulfing desire. The word is tempt.

"There is nothing unusual about a wretch who imagines joy," writes Borges, "all of us, every day, do the same."

* Is this true, I wonder.

Beatrice's Last Smile is one of the essays in the Borges collection, The Total Library: Non-Fiction 1922 - 1986, translated by Eliot Weinberger.


  1. Wonderful - temptation should be at the heart of all education; we would all be scholars then.

  2. S'true. If they had managed to tie every branch of education into dinosaurs when I was six, and continued that way until I left school, I would be the most fervently educated person on the planet.

  3. Dinosaurs, I'd forgotten how much they occupied my thoughts - when I was six the class copy of the Golden Book of Dinosaurs had a waiting list 25 children, which meant, given there were only 15 of us, that quite a few people were already putting in for a repeat read

  4. '25 children long', that should say

  5. We had a brilliant primary school librarian who catered for her dinosaur-lovers with displays of complete generosity; and I wish I'd been able to keep her all the way through school. She really was good. Mrs Jones. I thought of her a few days ago when the newspapers were announcing the discovery of two new triceratops-derivatives in Utah (which is what prompted me to mention dinosaurs in the first place).