I wrote this post nearly three weeks ago and I can’t remember why I held it back, so I’m setting it free. (Nights in white satin, never reaching the end / Letters I’ve written, never meaning to send.)

British author Geoff Dyer writes, “I find it increasingly difficult to read. This year I read fewer books than last year; last year I read fewer than the year before …” (Reader’s Block).  This follows on from yesterday’s post (May 19) wherein author Gary Shteyngart says, “How is literature supposed to survive when our brains are just pummelled with information all day long at work — for white collar workers, we go home, we’re really going to open up a thick text with 350 pages and try to waddle through it? Or are we just going to turn on Mad Men?”

(Note: You, of course, may well prefer to read less; and just about Edmund de Waal’s marvelous book, The Hare with Amber Eyes — scroll on down.)

The Chinese banquet of book fatigue

Reader’s block: if that’s alarming for a writer, it’s crippling for a reader. (A confession of book fatigue from someone in the industry amounts to apostasy: here’s my cover design for Dyer’s last [dazzling/funny] novel). Book fatigue does not mean I’ve stopped reading — I read all the time: articles and reviews (some on actual paper); blogs and forwarded trifles; song lyrics and shoe-lining instructions. But I’m surveying unread bookstacks with the same set of feelings that arises unbidden midway into a long dark night’s Chinese banquet: bilious and bloated, guilty and put-upon.

Dyer’s take is that as a book-mad young man he ascended inky alps with a conquering desire: “A life devoted entirely to the study of literature seemed the highest possible destiny.” But now: “No longer. Reading, which gave me a life, is now just part of that life, at the moment rather a small part.”

Never had that ambition, or gorged on a classic library, but I can say that books read long ago have colonised considerable swathes of the original terra nullius of my imagination — and they were often not colonisers from a refined civilisation. As first-comers, they wrote my book — latecoming actual Works of Art only pushed them deeper into their crevices. I can’t even recall the colonial details; just their blurry, light-pocked narrative shapes, like nuclear shadows — here a murder; here a love unrequited.

For instance, having just snuck into teenage, the first novel I read with Adult themes (a culpable lack of PG; the moral here may be all about PG) was the once-blockbusting Harold Robbins’ A Stone for Danny Fisher, followed promptly by The Carpetbaggers. Thus were the categories of Adult and Pulp satisfactorily fused forever — epitomised for me by Jacqueline Susann’s trash epic Valley of the Dolls. One critic said Susann “typed on a cash register,” she was that readable. (And how did I forget? — someone help me: which of those two Robbins’ novels features the scene that so vividly eroticised “urolagnia” into “golden showers”?)

Sliced and diced: Of garbage are dreams made

Not just books, though. Or, to the point, mostly not books. My book fatigue is second cousin to Dyer’s reader’s block. Dyer has an elevated perspective:

After a certain point subjective inwardness becomes self- rather than textually generated. Of course there is more to learn, more to read, but whereas, when I was a teenager, each new book represented an almost overwhelming addition to what I knew and felt, each new book now adds a smaller increment to the sum of knowledge.

Less  exaltedly, Shteyngart says, “my mind has been sliced and diced in so many ways — so many packets of information coming at me.” Which is reassuring for someone rather further down the rungs of literary pursuit, that I’m not alone in feeling like my head is aglut with trivia, unending additions to my information store of which only minute portions might pass as knowledge.

This guff and stuff converts into … what? — one night a dream of New York was backed by a tune, tantalisingly elusive, with the lyrics: “Who loves you pretty baby, who’s gonna help you through the night?” Who does? Until I youtubed the clip I don’t recall ever having seen the song performed: it was Frankie Valli’s Who Loves You — I haven’t seen Jersey Boys but … currently we’re watching The Sopranos in which Valli plays a short, silverfox mobster.

People say they wish they could remember; I wish I could forget. It is this — this random (but surely not random, Doctor) collection over a lifetime, this monumental midden of unforgotten junk — which causes me to avert from the overwhelming towers of Literature that teeter and tremble around me. Turning away from books may well allow in more infodetritus, but on this there might be cautious rationale for optimism. Book fatigue may be like some kind of involuntary Literary Lent. The cleansing before entering the Temple. The purge before the page…

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Nights with the Hare with Amber Eyes

The last time down the chasm of book ennui I reached for the rope of poetry. Short lines strung like a net for a weary mind. A pool of light in a dark room; my choice reading support is bed. If I’m reading the book on the bus or in a cafe, it’s a sure sign of absorption; if there’s a pencil in hand, it’s wavelength, man.

Of a netsuke, Edmund de Waal writes: “I slip it into my pocket, put the dog on the lead and leave for work.” Thus did the Hare with Amber Eyes travel in my bag for a week, resting by night on the bedside table. It unfatigued me, and I wonder why — a bland description of the story is eye-glazing: “A professor of ceramics inherits from his great uncle 264 netsuke — miniature Japanese carvings — and tracing the origins of the collection, discovers his roots.”

What the Hare with the Amber Eyes is about:

— A family history going back to Odessa, via the Paris of the Impressionists, the Vienna of Freud and the Nazis, the Tokyo of the American Occupation.

— A story of intoxication by art. This story strand, perhaps the most exciting for me, takes place in Paris — we watch as de Waal’s great grand uncle Charles Ephrussi develops from a dandy into a shining light over the Parisian art scene. We watch as Manet and Degas and Pissaro and Gustave Moreau saunter by. Manet writes to Charles: ‘It is now Thursday and I still haven’t heard from you.” Bonjour M. Renoir, M. Monet.

And there is Charles himself — in Renoir’s greatest painting, the ineffable, effulgent Luncheon of the Boating Party we see Charles at the back, top-hatted and discretely turned away, next to his secretary, the poet Jules Laforgue. (Laforgue was a poet whom Eliot greatly admired and was much influenced by — because of which I once read his work, in translation, to find it unEliotly jaunty.) Charles was a friend to artists, and a patron. He loved art. He loved opera; his dog was named Carmen. And in the 1870s with the avant garde and a step ahead of tout le monde, Charles discovers the art of Japan … and netsuke. De Waal quotes the young Guy de Maupassant: “Of all the passions, of all without exception, the passion for the bibelot is the most terrible and invicible.”

— Writers. This family trails writers; many of whom trail Charles. The Ephrussi and Charles are noted and written about, and sometimes fictionalised, by: Proust, Edmond de Goncourt (“Charles’ scourge”), Huysman (Charles was one model for Des Esseintes in A rebours), Oscar, Rilke, de Montesqieu, Laforgue, Freud, Isaac Babel, Sholem Aleichem … And in an original, startling, stunning even, contribution to Proust scholarship, de Waal shows persuasively that his Charles is the doppelganger of the Charles, Swann himself.

— A family story of assimilated Jewish diaspora who made it right to the top through banking — there were the Rothschilds, and there were the Ephrussis — only to discover that money is sometimes, crucially, not nearly enough.

— Another devastating story of the anti-semitism, by way of one extended family, that Europeans are so familar with, and which most Australians, luckily, don’t really understand. Many of the Parisian artists were anti-Jewish: Renoir, Degas, Cezanne … (A Jewish friend of mine once joked, You know why Australians aren’t realy anti-semitic? … They’re too ignorant. Part of the reflexive humour was the arrogant tone, but it’s true, Australians are too ignorant, in the best possible way, to be deeply anti-semitic, or even deeply racist, on most terms. We have long enjoyed the innocence of distance, and mostly, our racial friction is frisson rather than fracture — but certainly not the continental, middle-eastern, tribal-deep hatreds.)

— A story of decades’ long fusion … of Russian Jews steeping in Paris. And a gay Russian Jew, the grand uncle, steeping in Japan, via a Viennese childhood and a fashion career in Hollywood.

— Loyalty, courage and resistance — I mean the extraordinary passage about Anna, the Gentile maid who saved the netsuke from the Nazis piece by piece, and hid them for years.

— The recovery and discovery of writing. De Waal tells an academic “I’m writing a book about — I stumble to a halt. I no longer know if this book is about my family, or memory, or myself, or is still a book about small Japanese things.

But there it is, and why the hare with amber eyes has led me up and away from the dark crevasse of post-literacy. Like the author, the reader is enfolded by a story whose layers each come as a surprise, then no longer as surprises but as examples of living itself. The joy of reading the Hare is to be reminded how cultural interests implicate all of life — the artist de Kooning said, No fear, but much trembling — to read this book is one trembling way to be alive.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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