I stood in front of my bookcase last night searching for a book to take to bed with me. I wanted a specific kind of book. It’s mid-summer, the days are sunny and warm, I’m busy at work racing between one thing or another, and once home I had spent another evening watching a BBL match. It’s all fleeting, all of it transient. Summer is like that I think, and that’s half the pleasure of it. It’s a hedonistic, live in the moment time of year, blazing days that rise and set and cool drinks and entertainment on the telly. It’s ironic I think that the summer sun washes things clean while the winter rains lock things in. Summer is extrovert, winter an introvert.
So I stood in front of my bookcase wanting to take me from the extravert summer to something more personal and intimate, something more introvert. I wanted to remember that side of me and feel it. Almost certainly that meant an European author.
At first my fingers lingered on a book of stories by Arthur Schnitzler. Dream Story is one of my very favourite stories, but on reflection I thought it’s a story best read with winter about me. I moved on and eventually plucked a collection of stories by Ivan Bunin from the shelf.
Once in bed I began to read. I discovered Bunin when I was about 22, when I fell in love a book of stories I’d borrowed speculatively from the library. Later, having to own such beautiful stories, I bought a copy of the book myself – The Gentleman From San Francisco and Other Stories.
For years and years I returned to that book until it was worn with use. I imagine I was at such an age when my heart was easily opened, for I found myself profoundly moved many times, over and over again, and otherwise entranced by the combination of beautiful prose and keen human insight. That has never faded, even as I’ve become older.
I began to read a different collection of stories I’d bought in more recent times, and realised that I had never read this particular story ever before. I read the familiar prose and a small part of my mind set off on its own journey. That’s one of the signs of fine writing, that it begins a process of internal refraction. It starts something in you. This is exactly what I wanted. I wanted to take my eyes off the mute sun and to look inward to find what might be there.
I read as one thing after another occurred to me. These thoughts are like Chinese whispers. One thought leads to the next, but within a minute or two there seems no relation to what you first thought.
I can’t remember what my first thought was on this occasion, but minutes later I found myself lingering over an unlikely and long neglected memory. I am a boy and we have been out for the night at family friends. It’s late and dark and I have fallen asleep in the back seat on the drive home. You feel the car park, but don’t stir. In a moment or two the back door creaks open and your father lifts you from the backseat and carries you inside. Eyes closed, mostly asleep, you track your progress through the house, up the stairs and down the hall until finally your father deposits you in bed, and folds the covers over you.
You always loved this. Why? Is it the sense of feeling loved and secure? And as I remember I think how incongruous it seems now. I was just a little boy then, but now I am a grown man, much bigger than my father ever was. How was it possible? And then there’s a small tinge recalling that was then, but today we do not even have a relationship.
It was just a tinge. I am reconciled to what has happened, and I’m aware too of the journey that life takes you on. All throughout I am reading and as I come to the last page of the story there, on the page, is a reference to Arthur Schnitzler. For a moment it seems magical – sufficient that I switch off the lamp by my bed and settle down to sleep with the thought warm still in my mind.