Before I sleep

I’m lying here in bed feeling quite sleepy, but fighting it. It feels too early to switch the light off – it’s not gone 10.30 yet.

For the last half hour I’ve been reading, as is my custom, though usually I read for over an hour before sleeping. I’ve set the book aside because I feel too tired to do the book justice. And so, I write instead. Somehow it’s easier to write than it is to read.

When I think about it, it’s not overly surprising. Often as I read I find words forming in my head and coalescing into the thoughts in the shape of complete and speculative sentences. It happens often through my day, probably because I think so much, and am so used to putting my words onto (virtual) paper.

What I was thinking about tonight was the book I had started reading and the memories it brought back to me. The book is Agathe, by Robert Musil. I was unaware it was actually an excerpt from his great series of novels, The Man Without Qualities but, on reflection, I was fine with it. But that’s when the memories began.

I’ve read The Man Without Qualities and lived it. It feels one of those books that was significant to me when I read it. I connected to it, if you like, but I was then at an age and stage of my life that such writing felt important to me.

This must be 25 years ago. I can picture the books – they’re in my bookcase – thick and with a spine of rich gold. There had been books in the previous ten years that had influenced my being. I went through the whole existentialist stage, reading Sartre and Camus, before moving onto other literature.

TMWQ is set in prewar Vienna – right on the unknowing cusp of it, which is a part of its power – in what is known as the fine De Siecle period. It’s one of my favourite eras and if I had a time machine, I would go back and visit. The old empire was tarnished with age but still held an appeal; life was rich and indulgent, Vienna beautiful, and just out of sight was the war that would destroy it forever. It’s the last moments of glorious, glittering innocence and the last remnants of an age that would never come again.

I read Zweig as well as Musil, and Schnitzler too, my favourite.

As I read, I remembered that, remembered how vital I was – how important it was to me – and wondered if I would feel the same this time around.

Last week I bought a bookcase to house the last boxes of books. There are now four bookcases crammed full of the reading of a lifetime. I look at the books arrayed there and remember the stories – not just within their covers, but where and when I bought the book and what led me to it. And the experience of reading it. I’m so glad that all my books are on display now.

After putting the bookcase together, I spent joyful hours filling the shelves with a logic all my own. This is one of the pleasures of owning the physical book.

I imagine one day someone walking into my study and clapping their hands together at the sight of so much great literature. I’d look on with a paternalistic satisfaction and imagine sitting down to speak of this book or that over a cuppa or a glass of red. Man or woman, it doesn’t matter – though very likely I’d fall in love if it were a woman.

It’s never happened. There’s no one I know I can discuss Musil with, or de Montherlant, or even Camus. I doubt they would even know who Musil is – de Montherlant, no chance. It’s disappointing.

It’s lucky my memories and my mind in general is so rich. There’s pleasure in that, at least.

It’s time to sleep now. Perhaps I’ll let my mind wander, pondering the abundance of all that’s possible in dreams.

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