… More than year in fact since the last post. What’s happened since then?
Well, first, I finished David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which I mentioned I was reading back in May 2012 – I finished it in a cafe somewhere in Delhi in September 2012, while warm summer rain fell steadily outside, adding to the sweaty humidity of the city. I remember sitting at a window, watching people dash about trying to avoid the puddles of mud and slosh that had suddenly appeared, the dull sound of rain fading out the normal buzz of suburban afternoon life. Inside, the air-conditioning was at the usual Delhi setting of ‘bone-chilling’.
I’m not going to attempt to recap or review IJ, and will only say that I’m glad I read it, but it also made me profoundly sad. My entire knowledge and relationship to the idea of DFW is marked by sadness since the first I ever heard of him was when I read his obituary in The Independent. Coincidentally, my partner had read the same obituary on the same day, and we were both utterly seduced by the idea of this writer who sounded very much like he might have been one of the most distinct literary voices of our age. I remember in particular an excerpt alongside the obituary, from an essay – actually it was from his commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005, later published as ‘This is Water’ – in which he quietly, and without a hint of moralising, extolled the need for forbearance and patience in our increasingly hurried lives. In any case, reading IJ, knowing DFW could not write anything as significant again, was terribly moving; I can only describe it as realising you miss someone you’d never met only after they’re gone. Perhaps that sounds saccharine, and certainly I’m a bit wary of the cultish following that DFW has, but when you read anything by him, it’s hard not to see why that following exists.
My father passed away some 4 years ago now, and the thing I miss the most is hearing him speak, hearing him tell stories, hearing his particular way of reminiscing, sometimes in the most banal of situations. He’d be driving me to school/college/university – he was always driving me places it feels like – and all his stories from childhood would come out in random fashion, and he’d skip from one to another so easily. He had a habit of digression like no one else I know. I’m a huge digress-er too (to the disadvantage of my academic writing I fear) and I certainly know where I got it from. Can you inherit such a thing? In any case, the possession of a distinctive voice – in speech, or writing, or art – is truly something of a rarity and I’m always so moved when I come across one. Sometimes I think I could fall in love with some simply for a turn of phrase.
I’m struggling to remember what I’ve read by way of fiction in the year since IJ. It’s sadly not a very long list in any case. I can see Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room on the shelf, Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (with DFW’s typically rambling-yet-sincere compliments about the author’s ‘merciless’ prose on the dust jacket), Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood (which celebrates its sixtieth anniversary this year – listen to Thomas read the utterly musical text here), and Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Junky, by William S. Burroughs was leant to me after that, beautifully (if incongruously) wrapped in brown paper and ribbon – I’m not sure if I was entirely convinced by it, though I’m always glad to have read something different (and begin a friendship through books). It was the first thing I’d read by one of the Beats and it kind of confirmed my preconceptions that these were largely ego-driven male authors consciously writing themselves as glamorous anti-heroes of their age (though reading Will Self’s reflections afterwards provided an interesting insight into the text and helped me appreciate its context much more (and the comparison with French existentialism is certainly one I hadn’t thought of, but really it does possess something of an echo of Camus’ The Plague and so forth). Self also helps flesh out the character of Bill’s wife in place of the frustrating hole in the text Burroughs creates on the subject, which was important to me.
After that, I hurried back to Sebald for another encounter with sickness of a very different kind; I’m reading The Emigrants at the moment. I’ll finish that and then have my sights set on Vertigo, and then maybe I’ll write something about them all together. I’m finding Sebald another extraordinary and moving voice. I intend on having him for company on my first-time trip to Berlin in early November… I’m travelling there by train (Cambridge – London – Brussels – Cologne – Berlin), so I might even gather a Sebaldian assortment of photos of the journey in the next post.
2012 was a busy one in terms of travel – following that May Day post I went back to India a further two times – once to Delhi in September as mentioned, and then to Calcutta again in December for a conference. A conference (notionally) was what also took me to Lisbon for a glorious week in July; before that I spent a few days in a somewhat rainy Paris in June; finally, I saw in Autumn (or rather Fall) in New York/Boston in October. I calculated at the end of the year that I’d spend over half of it abroad, and truly I was sick of planes and airports by then.
This year, by stark contrast, has been entirely travel free (aside from frequent train journey’s to London, a conference in Oxford, and a jaunt to the Norfolk coast, which, in retrospect, feels like it was the final chapter in a rather sad saga. (They say it’s darkest before dawn, but I think it can also be brightest before sunset. There were some rather extraordinary real sunsets during our trip too).) Taking the train to Berlin will gently usher me back to the continent for one trip at least before the cold really sets in and the year is out once again.