Rebecca Stott, author of the national bestseller Ghostwalk, writes about what she's been reading between semestersNovember 1, 2007
This summer I have been re-reading books I first read in my twenties. As I get older I re-read books more often because there is a mysterious way that you get to meet up with younger versions of yourself in books you’ve read several times before, like bumping into yourself in a dark corridor.
My copy of this book is full of little dog-eared coloured pieces of card, faded by the sun at the top, where they have stuck out of the book, and each of them covered in the tiny, rather intense, handwriting I had in my twenties. Just looking at the front cover takes me straight back to the first excitement of reading it – a sense of breathlessness and wonder. The scores of little coloured cards show just how breathless I was, how much that first encounter with magical realism made me want to write. It’s quite difficult to re-read it now as the little cards flutter out, like leaves.
One Hundred Years of Solitude is a family saga, an epic. A band of adventurers establish a town in the heart of the South American jungle and Márquez tells us what happens to them over a century or more. It’s written in opulent prose that reads like poetry. It’s like a dream. The strangest things happen – Spanish galleons are found marooned in the middle of the jungle, a woman ascends to heaven wrapped in a still-wet white sheet which she had been hanging out on her washing line. In one part of the story a boy and a girl from feuding families fall in love with each other and while they keep their love secret, they are described as being accompanied by a cloud of yellow butterflies wherever they go. When I read the book for the first time I was newly in love and the yellow butterflies were mine. The air was thick with them. One of the cards I wrote on (not a yellow card but blue) says: “Love isn’t LIKE being surrounded by yellow butterflies, it IS being surrounded by yellow butterflies.” That’s me bumping into myself in that corridor again.
I read this novel for the first time a year ago and re-read it a few weeks ago after seeing the film which has just come out in cinemas here. What baffled me was that in a year I had forgotten the terrible twist at the end of the novel. I had forgotten it because, I realise now, I badly needed to remember the relief and peace of the atonement that the book gives and then so cruelly takes back (I won’t say more in case you haven’t read it).
McEwan asks questions in this novel not just about redemption but also about the ethics of writing. Writing fiction is a kind of power he seems to say. The protagonist in Atonement tries to atone for her mistake, her crime, by self-sacrificing actions, but when she fails to do that she writes an atonement story for herself, to give herself a fictional sense of redemption. I have drawn on my own life in my writing and that means using experience that also belongs to lovers, friends, and family. I could see for the first time in reading Atonement that I too have used my writing as a way not of atoning for actions I have regretted, but instead perhaps of giving myself endings or outcomes that I wanted. You don’t always see that at the time. Later sometimes, though, you look back on a book you have written and realise that in it you have given yourself something you really wanted. I’m still not sure I know what I think about the ethics of that.
Hermann Melville, Moby Dick
This is another book of mine that has little scribblings in it – this time not coloured pieces of card, but post-it notes. It’s one of the strangest books I have ever read, a tale of the voyage of the Pequod and the obsessive, vengeful quest of its captain, Ahab, to kill the white whale Moby-Dick. It’s also full of all sorts of “stuff”: lists, musings, natural history, anything and everything connected with whales.
I notice that one of my first post-it notes reads with exasperation: “what is this book?” reflecting the bafflement of my first reading. Then later, possibly three or four years later, on my second reading I answered that question on the same post-it note with the rather pompous words: “It’s a library contained within the belly of a whale, a key to all mythologies, a joke, a quest, a parable, a water eclogue.”
This summer, some ten years later, I added another line to the post-it note question: “it’s a warning against the dangers of fundamentalism,” I wrote. I’d been reading a Salman Rushdie essay about the novel and about American Puritanism and so it was Rushdie who made me see fundamentalism in Ahab’s quest. But the revelation was an important personal one too because I was raised in an extreme Protestant sect that taught that Satan was working his way out there in the world and had to be constantly ‘smoked out’ (my memories of that upbringing were revived recently by watching a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible). In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is a zealous fundamentalist, blinkered and obsessive. He sees only the dark of the world and he very nearly sacrifices his whole crew in his quest for vengeance. It seemed to me this summer, strangely, as I read about the continuing fallout from 9-11, that Melville was writing not just about whales and sea adventures but that he also had something to say to world leaders driven by zeal and the desire for revenge.
Elizabeth Bishop, Collected Poems
I love this volume. It has been like a family friend for as long as I remember. Particular favourites are “The Moose” and “The Man-Moth” but I like other poems too with titles that don’t begin with the letter M. Bishop has the most seductive voice, drawing you in to her intimate observations and thoughts without giving anything away about her life. Exquisite. My father, who died this year, gave me my passion for poetry. He had a particular love for collections of poetry, like his own battered copy of Yeats’s Collected Poems. He used to talk about refraction – the way that when you get to know a collection of poetry really well you get to see new lights in it because the poems refract light off and from each other. That’s certainly true of the Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems – you come to certain poems through the light of others and everything is constantly shifting and drifting. Nothing stays the same.
Misha Glenny, The Fall of Yugoslavia
I have often wondered what happened to the two beautiful boys during the violence of the 90s when Yugoslavia erupted into civil war. Did they survive? What wounds did their families suffer or inflict on each other? When I spent this summer travelling down the coast of Croatia with a friend and our teenage daughters, the two boys seemed to be everywhere in my imagination. So when I came back to England I was determined that I was now going to try to understand what the boys had tried to explain to us about their country on the end of the pier that day. The Fall of Yugoslavia is written by a wonderful journalist with great political acumen and compassion. Glenny explains why this country has been so fought over for so long. What he can’t tell me, sadly, is what happened to the beautiful Brenco and his friend.