31 May 2013

Yet I Shall Kill Thee with Much Cherishing

On this latest trip to Thailand I brought light reading with me—light in content and light in weight. My baggage allowance, the minimum on a budget airline, did not allow for more books. (Or more anything.) So I brought only my Kindle and a friend’s copy of The Boy from Beirut and Other Stories by Robin Maugham. I thought these would do for a couple of weeks, most of which I knew anyway would be spent not reading. 

Anyway, there’s a very interesting interview with Maugham at the end of this book, edited by the late Peter Burton, which my friend recommended I check out. So I did. I have not yet actually read any of the stories—I have been reading at the pace of someone in a deck chair on the shores of west coast Phuket (very lazily and distractedly, that is to say)—but the interview, I found, is worth missing eye candy at the beach for. Maugham talks about his renowned uncle, W. Somerset, whose writerly footsteps he followed, and in whose shadows, whether he liked it or not, the younger Maugham grew up. On when he first became aware that “Willie” was gay, he says, “I went to Vienna to study the piano, in between leaving Eton and going up to Cambridge, and there I suddenly found that Willie was famous. Then of course his secretary and beloved friend Gerald Haxton came out and tried to seduce me. So long before I went to Cambridge I knew all about it. I mean...about them.”

Meanwhile, asked by Burton on whether his own relationships have been easy or difficult, Maugham says, “You see, a writer is in an awfully difficult position, because he’s got to work alone, except in very rare cases of book collaboration, and loneliness is occupational—is the occupational disease—sorry, disadvantage, of a writer. A writer’s...yes, occupational disadvantage is loneliness, and if you take Willie, for instance, he built himself a writing room on the top of the Villa Mauresque, Cap Ferrat—a kind of ivory tower you might say.... You couldn’t get to it except up a small passage and by walking across the roof. He would withdraw there. He’d even blocked out the view across Villefranche Bay, blocked it out so that nothing should disturb his concentration.... He’d come down for a cocktail before lunch. But when he was in the middle of a book he admitted that the characters which he was describing were more real than the characters of real life around him. And this, of course, didn’t make for a happy life with his companion and lover Gerald Haxton, who couldn’t help resenting the fact that he played only a peripheral part in Willie’s life. The essential part was Willie’s writing and although in his way he loved Gerald desperately, he couldn’t give all of himself to Gerald because he had to reserve the most important part for his work.”

I wouldn’t say I believe this to be true—that writers are, or could be, bad lovers—or at least I wouldn’t admit so readily that I believe this to be true. It can’t be! But I know that it could be. My own relationships have so far been difficult. That’s why I remain open that writing may not be for me—that this loneliness, this occupational disadvantage, is not permanent, after all—although I frankly cannot imagine doing anything else but write, if only because I am worse at everything else.

Anyway, the one other thing I just finished reading is a poem: Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol. It is a strange thing to be reading a—well, a “prison poem” on an island with beautiful views of sea and infinite sky. But there you go. Below you’ll find a passage that I have since been trying to memorize. Though the context is different, it’s reminiscent, I think, of the line, “Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing...” See what I mean:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.

Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.

07 May 2013

In a Strange Room

Nothing could have prepared for me for Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. In the end, nothing did. I finished the novel in a day and a half at home. It is astonishing. Its effect on me was physical. It made my palms sweat. I stayed up to read and did not sleep. I moved from the bed to the couch to the kitchen to the swivel chair then back to the bed. I burst into tears. (My dog Budoy came in and extended his leg more than once to console me.) In the middle of the third story—“The Guardian” (the novel is divided into three sections)—I slapped the book shut and decided to go up to the balcony and lift weights. I’m useless at lifting weights. But I felt like I had to: mainly to keep my distance. If this sounds awfully dramatic—I’m only talking about a book, correct?—forgive me. I can’t tell you why, unless you’ve read it yourself, and even then, I can only tell you that Anna, the narrator’s destructive friend, reminds me of someone in my own life, never mind that the story in which she figures—the third, yes, “The Guardian”—seems to be the story with which the critics were not very enchanted. But who cares about the critics anyway.

In a Strange Room (the title should ring a bell to anyone who has read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying) was lent to me by a friend who’d put his copy in a paper bag that he handed to me a couple of weeks ago. Also inside were The Boy from Beirut and Other Stories by Robin Maugham (nephew of the famous W. Somerset) and A Separate Peace by John Knowles. Judging these books by their covers, I think I ought to read the Maugham next. I could use a little cheering up! And from what I heard, Lord Maugham was a bit Wilde, a bit Waugh. 

04 May 2013

A Home at the End of the World

At dinner, we talk about the restaurant and the baby. Lately our lives are devoted to the actual—we worry over Rebecca’s cough and the delivery of our used-but-refurbished walk-in refrigerator. I am beginning to understand the true difference between youth and age. Young people have time to make plans and think of new ideas. Older people need their whole energy to keep up with what’s already been set in motion.

A couple of weeks ago I met up with a friend who was kind enough to lend me his signed copy of A Home at the End of the World, by Michael Cunningham. “You haven’t read this, have you?” W asked. I told him I hadn’t; the only Cunningham I’d ever read was, naturally, The Hours. The next day I Googled the title and realized that, like The Hours, A Home at the End of the World had been made into a movie, too—featuring Colin Farrell, Robin Wright Penn, and Sissy Spacek (who starred in In the Bedroom, one of my favorite films). The screenplay was also written by Cunningham, who, I must say, has such a lovely signature that it should be turned into a font type.

There is so much to read, isn’t there? I find this to be truer every day. And every day there is less time than the previous day to read more, to do more, to catch up, to make the most of what’s left. It was with this feeling of hourglass urgency that I read the Cunningham at a faster pace than usual. A few pages into Part III, from which the above passage is taken, I received, again from W, three more books, each of which I also plan to read as quickly as I can. In exchange I lent him AndrĂ© Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name, in part because he told me he’d been reading Proust, of which Aciman is a sort of scholar. 

Anyway, about A Home at the End of the World: it’s a book, I think, that’s so full of love. I think I like it better than The Hours, and that’s saying a lot. Cunningham’s prose here is pretty, but his story is honest and raw. It made me cry a few times, none more unabashedly than when young Jonathan Glover walked into his parent’s bedroom after a fight between his mother (Alice) and father (Ned). He came upon his father lying across the double bed.

He could have picked me up and taken me onto the bed with him. That gesture might have rescued us both, at least for the time being. I ached for it. I’d have given everything I imagined owning, in my greediest fantasies, to have been pulled into bed with him and held, as he’d held me while the sky exploded over our heads on the Fourth of July.