Bath books


I love a hot bath. It’s indulgent and sensual and there’s something awfully cosy about it, like a return to amniotic fluid. Yes, baths are a lot of fun in my household.

I don’t every time, but very often I’ll lean back with the hot water up to my throat and read a book. The books I read in the bath are different from the books I read elsewhere. There’s a whole separate category: bath books. They’re books you can dabble in piecemeal, books that stay in the bathroom and close to hand once you settle into the bath. I read a book by Osho in the bath once. I read Jung’s autobiography, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Right now I’m reading what amounts to journals by Georges Simenon, the author of the famous Maigret books.

This is the perfect book for the bathtub as you can read a few entries and then set it aside for next time. It’s a good read, too. It’s always interesting to get insights from writers, and in this case, being a journal, very candid and personal insights.

He writes well, in a discursive manner, curious about the world about him and about his work, posing questions of it and raising conjectures. He is a man who can’t stop wondering, can’t stop seeking sense or pattern, searching backwards and forwards through time and memory. It feels very familiar to me as my mind seems to run on similar tracks. Delving into a mind like his is a reminder of how fascinating individuality is.

I pity people who don’t read. For many I know it’s a habit they were never properly introduced to, or it became a chore because it was something they must do for school. Others, I guess, never experienced the magic of these alternate realities. I always feel that imagination is lost to them, where in fact a rich imagination is one of the greatest gifts that can be bestowed on someone.

It’s an elementary statement for me when I say I would be a very different person if I didn’t read. In fact, the me that writes this today would not be possible without reading. I am a man that reads, and how lucky is that?

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Towards a perspective


Randomly flicking between stations last night I came across Annie Hall, just started. I’ve seen it a zillion times before and thought I’ll just watch for a little before switching to something else. Of course I didn’t. I got hooked early, seduced by the easy familiarity of a movie I know so well, and which I grew up with.

I reckon I know half the lines in Annie Hall. There’re some crackers. I’ve used a lot of the lines myself on a regular basis, though the time has come when most people now don’t recognise the source.

As I was watching I realised that it had to be one of my favourite films. It’s so bloody clever, not just the dialogue, but the way it was made too. And it’s familiar too, a familiarity that comes from having watched it so often, but capped off by the familiarity of having lived a life in which similar episodes were not only possible, but almost common. It’s a shared experience of living, which is probably another reason I love it so much – it feels in some convoluted way as if half of it could be my life, albeit I’m not a pasty Jewish New Yorker.

It’s one of those shows that become important in your life, and when I think about it there are a dozen other programs that hold a similar place in my life.

When I think of movies I’d add in Dangerous Liaisons and Age of Innocence (and likewise the books those movies are based on). Dream Story (Schnitzler), A Hero of Our Times (Lermontov), A Balcony In The Forest (Gracq) had a similar impact. Then there are TV shows like Seinfeld, which I still reference with like-minded friends (I’m actually giving Donna a t-shirt for her birthday tonight with the legend ‘Spongeworthy’ printed across the front of it). Then there are other shows like Mad Men and Californication which had a connection to me unlike other favourite shows, because I could share something with them.

I called up my mate from Sydney afterwards last night. Growing up we would go and watch Woody Allen movies together, Love and Death at North Sydney, Manhattan at Double Bay (I think), and for years after his movies would crop up in our conversation. It was another reason we were friends, a shared appreciation.

Last night we riffed on it for ten minutes or so, in the same groove. He made a random reference to the second lobster scene in the movie and the leggy woman non compos at Woody’s cracks, and both of us knew exactly what that was like.

These are some of the many things that knit together a life story, and I reckon you can get a pretty good idea of a person by the books, the music, the movies and TV they like. I don’t know why we don’t do more of that because it goes beyond taste, and towards a perspective.

Mini life experiences


If you’re someone like me, someone with an insatiable curiosity on top of being an avid reader, then you’ll know the feeling of discovery when you pick up a new book. It’s something you feel in perpetuity, but I think at a certain of life it’s much stronger.

That stage of life is approximately between 18 and 25, I reckon. The binding confines of routine and discipline that are a part of school life are behind you. Most, if not all, of the things previously barred to you are now legal. You can drive a car, have a drink, have sex with almost anyone you want. There’s a mad rush of possibility when you look forward at the long road and many years ahead of you. Fuck it feels good, like anything is possible, like everything is new, like nothing can be kept from a clever and resourceful character you figure yourself to be. You just know it’s going to be wonderful and adventurous and memorable as all fuck. Man, you just soak up the possibility like a sponge, and off you go.

Like I said, if you’re curious and a decent reader you’ll do your share of driving and drinking and fucking, and maybe a little more too, but in between there are a mountain of books to get through, and ideas, and experiences, whole fucking vistas to absorb and swallow up. That’s when every book you pick up feels like a whole new world waiting for you to discover. That’s a precious feeling.

I remember it so well. I was curious about other people’s ideas. I had a lot of questions. I was filled with wonder. I wanted to know why and how. I wanted to feel some of the things I read others felt; wanted to explore as they did, wanted, very often, to set aside the book for a moment and imagine that life as if it was mine – or else my life as it could be. There was a lot of learning in this. It was a steep curve but I was hungry for it. I read all sorts, but I remember poetry, and Hemingway, remembering reading Camus and then Sartre and pondering what it all meant. I remember reading Hesse and Manne, before getting onto Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Lermontov and Pushkin. There was another too who had a great impact on me, Antoine de Saint Exupery.

He was the dashing philosopher, the man who flew mail planes before the war and wrote about the experience. He was deep thinker, sensitive to the swirling currents about him. His books read as grand adventure stories, but there is a profound element that I swallowed whole at the time.

I was impressionable then. If I read him again now (which I will at some point), then the experience will be different to what it was then. That’s true of most books, I think, the experience soaks up not just the words of the text but also the events of your life. There’s a cross-pollination when the book is a good one. In the case of these books I was also young and aggressively seeking experience. The notion of flying mail planes through wind and storm, across the Andes and over the Sahara, was incredibly romantic to the man I was. This I could do. There was a wistful element to it: if only I was there to see it for myself, to feel it. It was a form of elevated fantasy, but at least I had the genius of St Ex to guide me. In any case, while the romance deepened with the fact that he disappeared during the war while flying, the reality of it was probably a little too real.

I make reference to him now because I’ve been getting into the habit of posting my thoughts on the books I’m reading and the shows I’m watching. I’ve started to delve into the past to give recommendations based on my experience, and for whatever random reason St Exupery was one of the first authors I wrote of (along with Paula Fox). I could write about books all day.

That’s the thing about a good book – it becomes a life experience. I often remember things by the books I was reading at the time, or I pluck a book from the shelf and a flood of memories surrounding it return to me. There’s a little bit of Proust’s madeleine in every good book you experience.

An act of magical grace


I was too hungover to do any serious writing over the weekend. Most of Saturday I was in a thick, mental fog. My mind was ponderous, and I had to think hard to tell me left foot apart from my right. I managed to go to the local farmers market, had dinner out, and in between managed to invest in some crypto currencies (a story for another time).

Yesterday I was a bit better, but lazy and tired nonetheless. I futzed around most of the day, disinclined to put my brain to any practical use, switching between the tennis and the cricket. Neither gave much joy.

The thing is that late in the day a story blossomed in me. It’s how it works sometimes. The land seems barren and infertile. Bushfires have ravaged the terrain. Everything is blackened. And yet a bud appears amid the devastation. It’s a wasteland, but here is life. As you watch it blossoms. It inspires fascination, and here I will shift the metaphor into reality. Here is something growing inside of you. How does that happen? Where do these stories come from? And yet even as you wonder more of the story comes together. If it’s right – and it isn’t always – there’s a kind of truth to the process. The story coheres bit by bit, and at the same time you know how it should be written.

This is a magical, wonderful thing. I feel so thankful, and when it happens I know this is what I’m meant to be, this is my time for that.

And maybe when it is done people will acclaim it and even then it seems a strange thing, something you have created that yet you are not possessive of – because the process by which it came into being feels outside of you, an act of magical grace. It is not something to be explained, just accepted.

I am so lucky – I think this is a good one.

What I’m reading now


It’s not often I get to say this, but I’ve read some pretty decent books in recent times. These days I read as much non-fiction as fiction, but with Christmas holidays and the beach fiction became the more natural option.

I’ve just finished John Le Carre’s latest, A Legacy of Spies. It’s another excellent book, and it’s my personal opinion he’s one of the best novelists writing in the English language, regardless of genre. Once more this is a vivid, expertly crafted piece of prose, featuring characters we’ve become familiar with over many years now. My only reservation is that it had a relatively lame ending – rather than reaching a pitch it petered out a little too simply.

Before that I read a book called The Force, by Don Winslow. This is a very gritty, seemingly authentic crime novel set in NYC. It’s told in the first person by a corrupt cop forced into betraying his colleagues. He’s a strong character with a distinctive voice, and this another expertly written novel. Of its type it’s one of the best.

I’m currently reading Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee. I’m only halfway through but it’s an interesting read, and very different from the preceding reads. I also read a book by Stanislaw Lem, and another, Wolf Winter, by Cecilia Ekback that was very good.

In terms of non-fiction I’ve got a bunch of books stacked up to read – The Elegant Universe, by Brian Green, and Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark – a highly rated book about the origins of WW1. I feel like I’ve read a lot about that lately, which is why I’ve hesitated to read it yet.

One of the very good books I’ve read in the last eighteen months is Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer (I’ve also read the sequel, which is eerie, but not as good). The reason I bring this up is that it’s been made into a film starring Natalie Portman, coming out in a month or so. If it’s as good as the book it will be well worth watching.

Waking


I think one of the things I crave most is having someone close to me I can talk with about my writing – and not just talk in a general sense. I want to speak about what I’m writing and what I’m trying to write; about what’s in my mind, what my goal is. I want to investigate it with them, to get another perspective and to hear the questions that otherwise I wouldn’t think of. I want to share, but I also want the insight that comes from another set of eyes, a different set of experiences and, ideally, another gender.

I feel this most keenly right now as I wrestle with chapter one. The conversations I might have with another are instead entirely internal, and less satisfactory for being so. It’s a closed circuit. I expect I’ll get there in the end, but it’s harder work than it need be.

I would love to share it too. You feel as if you are embarking on a great journey, and how nice is it to have someone wave you bon voyage, and to whom you can exchange missives and postcards along the way.

I know all this now because I am much more sensitive to my needs. It’s like I’ve cracked open a door that has been welded shut: through it come walking the most unexpected revelations. It feels uncomfortable. I am vulnerable like I can’t remember when. There’s the illusion of fragility too, but it is but an illusion. Discomfitting as it is I welcome it. I will adjust and acclimatise and by the end of it – I hope – I will be the enlightened, open soul I hope to be, and at peace with it. I am, I wonder, woke – or at least, waking.

The next book


I’m not far off beginning my next book. The plot has been in the back of my mind for the last six months. It was lightly sketched, with just the major plotlines and protagonists in the frame. I had no notion of how the narrative would actually proceed, and no interest in that point in figuring it out.

In the 6-7 weeks since I sent off the manuscript for my first book I’ve made a conscious effort to pull back from my writing. I needed a rest from it, and a few fallow weeks might do me good. It didn’t stop me from completing a short story, but for the most part I attended to other things.

It didn’t stop me from thinking though. The exercise of writing solidly and working on the single piece of work for 18 months or more has had the effect of activating a part of my mind previously neglected. My skills as a fiction writer are greatly enhanced. I can see more clearly, plot more directly, can – as required – be more ruthless. The process seems to have its own momentum. Though my writing has trailed off, I feel as if there is a part of my mind always at it, always adapting and ever improving. I suppose this is what happens when you shift from idle dabbler to committed enthusiast. I expect there will be further improvement, and I’m curious to know where it leads. I’m pretty sure it will be to something decent.

Almost without conscious thought I have found my mind shifting to the new book. It is there lurking always, somewhere close to the forefront of my mind. I’m happy not to poke at it too much. It evolves of its own accord without me doing much, and occasionally something of it will enter my conscious mind. It will sit there, a curiosity. If I have a moment I’ll turn it over in the hands of my mind. I’ll check to see what reflects off it. As if in unfamiliar streets I’ll poke my head around a corner wondering if this is the best way forward; then I’ll move on. I’ll close my eyes and back to sleep, and the internal navigation system will take over.

The result is that what was sketched out before is becoming filled in. Tricky plot points have been resolved. The road ahead extends further every day. The voice becomes more compelling.

I’m itching now to be at it, but have decided to hold off still longer. I’m curious to see how far this can go. There’s a part of me that hopes when I go at it that it will flow from me complete and composed. There are words in me now, phrases, tones of voice, moments. I jot some of them down, and am tempted to do the rest for fear of losing them – but the picture is not yet fully developed. Let it be. Let it happen, let it present itself to me. There will be a power of wrangling when finally I set about writing it proper, I know that well enough, but it will – I hope – come with the force of an established truth that needs only to be interpreted.

I don’t know. This is what I hope. For now it’s an experiment – I’m still a novice at this. One way or another I will begin soon enough. Regardless of everything else in my life, the knowledge of it is both exciting and satisfying.