I was reading Elizabeth Bowen’s essay Out of a Book, and wondering (as I often do … sometimes I wish so badly for the spontaneity of my seven-year-old self and for what he’d be doing, having read that essay, right now. Up a tree maybe? Making something out of sticks in a wood, with bits of string and wire. Drawing … which became the eventual move to writing … as a last resort … enough …) why I had decided to find that essay this morning, quite out of the blue (looking back over this sentence I think I need a typographical convention for over-long parenthetical wondering). I finished reading it, which is the trick, not to let the wondering disconnect me from the reading, just to stay in it, and of course it came to me, written as it was:
The apparent choices of art are nothing but addictions
Out of a Book, 1946
I was going back to the same old thing.
Addiction isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Usually it is. Most usually it comes about as a way of coping when someone starts to feel overwhelmed and hasn’t really had the best advice. Falstaff, rather than Shakespeare, for example; a good reason not to get lost in a character, but to read really closely.
So what do I learn from this, speaking as someone who likes to learn as much as possible about life? Perhaps Bowen gives me a very good idea of where my life has come from. As a child I read so much: some things, even, that I have no idea what I took from them. I read Kafka at a really weirdly young age because my mother, who’d started an OU course in literature, left a copy of his short stories lying around with what looked like a picture of a beetle on the front. As it happened my primary school playground seemed to attract a lot of stag beetles, so I was drawn to that book as much as I was to the other one that always seemed to be lying around, a compendium of photos of the dark side of the moon. But that’s for another time.
This week I have a story, Heidi’s Advertisements (or the return of the Mouse Folk) published in Minor Literatures, a piece of writing that cleaves from Josephine the Singer, or The Mouse Folk, Kafka’s last story. So I imagine reading Bowen’s essay again has much to do with that.
And it could also be connected to the fact I woke up wondering how much, in my imagination, I still identify with Spock, the Nimoy version, from Star Trek. He was half human, and I’ve been thinking about my humanity … and in many ways, growing up with a father as intensely foreign as mine, that was how I started to feel. Not entirely human; and that’s never entirely left me. More than that though, which is after all a little psychological, I look around me, especially at work, and I think Im wise not to forget about how utterly obsessed I was with Start Trek. It isn’t just books that shape our lives in the ways Bowen suggests (and she doesn’t limit life to books, either, she just loves them).
I may see, for instance, a road running uphill, a skyline, a figure coming slowly over the hill – the approach of the figure is momentous, accompanied by fear or rapture or fear of rapture or a rapture of fear. But who and how is this? Am I sure this is not a figure out of a book?
Out of a Book, 1946