Monday 14 January 2013

‘Busy Timmy puts on his outdoor shoes’ is the first sentence I ever read. Aged three or four, I absorbed the picture of Timmy in his blue trousers, his lace-up shoes half on, his eyes already distracted by the sandpit in which he would play. Over and over again I read the sentence next to the picture and felt the new reader’s awe and pleasure: these letters, that boy, his outdoor shoes, the sandpit and all that led to.

In the second reading age, which lasts twenty or thirty years, books are limitless, you don’t reread unless you have to, for study, or, later, for teaching; there are even several writers you’re saving for later.

‘People say life is the thing, but I prefer reading,’ said Logan Pearsall Smith. Age thirteen or fourteen, engaged in books at a rate of one a day from the local library, I would have agreed. As I worked my way through fiction A to Z, I could sense the day I’d need a bigger library, or the desire to reread.

The third reading age is Mallarmé’s: la chair est triste, hélas, et j’ai lu tous les livres. ‘The flesh is sad, alas, and you’ve read everything’. The writers you were saving for later still do not draw you. Faulkner, for example. Book choice is more freighted, more difficult. The third reading age is the age of rereading.

When I first read Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges in my early twenties, synapses were popping by the end of the first page. I had no idea where these stories took me but I didn’t want to leave. I read them slowly, with a long pause between each, like a child with a favourite dessert, delaying the last mouthful. When I got to the end of the last story, I started reading it again. I didn’t understand it any better, but we were on a different footing now: Borges had taken up residence in my head, I didn’t need to understand it any more than I needed to understand a walk through the woods.

After that, every year or two I reread Borges, and The Waves and The Shrimp and the Anemone, William books when I was ill, or PG Wodehouse.  A hundred years of solitude had me for at least a decade. I read it twice in succession while staying in an architect’s house in the Berkshires which offered no other reading books. Every ten years I read Proust again. Moby Dick now and then. Robinson Crusoe (most memorably, on holiday, lying on my bed, I read only the righthand pages). More recently I’ve reread Sándor Márai, Roberto Bolaño, James Salter, Grace Paley, WG Sebald, some of them many times. It’s good to know what it’s time for, in the mental landscape. Most writers say they avoid reading books that might influence them. I seek them out. 

I read Roger Deakin’s Wildwood for the first time before Christmas. Although it looked like the kind of book I would ideally like to read outdoors, in summer, I began, and almost immediately it felt like a book by someone I knew, or could have known, wished I had known (he died a few years ago). In a practical, democratic, reassuring sweep, he moves through land, trees and the people whose lives are engaged with them. The chapters about apple and walnut trees in central Asia were the best: Central Asia is my idea of the middle of the world. The capital of Khazakhstan, Almaty, means, Where the apples are. In my mental topography, the centre of the world should be an orchard, a hill, and hives of bees, a river running through it, meadows. And it is.

When I was seven I was given Fairy Tales from the Balkans. My favourite story was The Tzarevna Loveliness Inexhaustible, in which a sleeping princess/warrior/recluse guards the flask of living water. One sip, and you’d live for ever. My favourite part was where the Tsarevna, weary of war, weary of the highway, disports herself with her maidens in sunlit meadows, eating fruit, nuts and honey before going home for a very long sleep. All this took place beyond the lands of thrice nine, in the empire of thrice ten, far away to the north-east, across the Great Marsh, over the mountains and through the forest untouched by human hand since the beginning. Khazakhstan, Uzbekhistan and Kyrghyzstan, as I now understand. Roger Deakin witnessed what I imagined from the age of seven, what I’ve attempted to create where I live. My garden is the fruitful meadow in which the Tzarevna and her maidens played. Believe that. On a good day. The apples I grow came first from there. No, second. First from further east. And then it travelled in the digestive system of the horse, westward.

How many times did I read the story of the Tzarevna Loveliness Inexhaustible? Perhaps hundreds, certainly dozens.

Roger Deakin is a rereader. One book, A Million Wild Acres, he says he has never really stopped reading. As in a way I have never stopped reading Proust. Even if I never read it again.

I read Wildwood for the second time two weeks later, in January, making my way towards the good bits, as I would with a Schubert quartet: the shape of the walnut (if it looks like a brain it must be good for the brain), the country girl in Uzbekhistan in her sloppy joe jumper, how the apple travelled west, the smell of apples in Michael Hamburger’s library. 

Let’s rewrite Mallarmé: the flesh is happy, and all the books I’ve liked best are still there to be read again.