Literature as consolation

When I started the last post but one on this blog I’d meant to write about books.

All literature is consolation.

I believed for a moment that was an original thought of mine — after all, it’s about time — but in fact it’s something said by Dakin in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, as he makes the point that history is written after the fact. Even if it’s representative of euphoria, by the time it’s written the euphoria is over. By extension you might say it’s written by losers. If they were winners they’d be out there doing it, but they’re not so they’re in here writing about it.

When a couple of months ago a meme reached me on Facebook asking me to name ten books that had ‘stayed’ with me (retch), I listed ten favourite titles off the top of my head, the predictable Middlemarch, which I had just reread, Bleak House, Pride and Prejudice. If I had disregarded the accompanying instruction not to give the formulation of the list too much thought (thought, of course, being the enemy of the list), I might have ended up with something more interesting. What if I’d made a list of the books that had consoled me over the years?

Treehorn

As a little boy, I didn’t have much need of consolation. Mostly, I was happy. Children find comfort in familiarity, hence the bedtime plea to have Owl Babies for the ten thousandth time. There were fictional worlds I certainly did love and feel at home in: A.A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood; the unobtrusively Jewish milieu of Florence Parry Heide’s three offbeat books about the little boy Treehorn and his friend Moshie, with illustrations by Edward Gorey; the half real, half invented world of The BFG, which mixed places I knew couldn’t exist with places I knew did, though London felt as tantalisingly out of reach as Giant Country.

And yet still I worried about things. I worried about a fire breaking out on the landing in the middle of the night, which would have blocked my path downstairs to safety. I worried too about growing up and having to do National Service. (This was the time of the Gulf War.) If I’d known how to put my fears into words I could have been reassured about the abolition of conscription, but I didn’t, so I suffered in silence. Perhaps this explains my devotion to Peanuts, with its children (and animals) trying to cope with the challenges of a life they aren’t prepared for. I remember particularly Linus having to prepare a Bible reading for the Christmas pageant, something I empathised with. For recitation at school I had to learn

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—

I didn’t understand all the words, and I still can’t parse ‘As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky’.

I think I also had a crush on Woodstock.

Woodstock

When I was a teenager I turned to books for some kind of validation of my sexuality. Not that I ever agonised about being other — I always thought it was perfectly natural to feel as I felt — but I wanted to explore authors who might turn out to be kindred spirits. I read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice when I was fourteen, which I loved. (Had I seen Visconti’s film first? Possibly.) I think Edmund White may have been next, though the chronology is confused in my mind. White bemoans the fact that Death in Venice was the only ‘gay’ book he had access to. He thought it painted a grim picture of homosexuality, whereas I fell in love with the idea of the contemplation of beauty. Meanwhile, White’s writing pointed to a life of empty promiscuity, which didn’t appeal to me then and still doesn’t. (A neat demonstration of the fundamental difference between me and White: when he read Death in Venice at the same age as I did, he imagined himself as Tadzio, a boy with a power over older men; I automatically identified with Aschenbach, a man in the thrall of beauty, the pursuer but not the pursued. White was an instigator, I a mere observer.) James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room was another important book to me at that time, especially the episode early on describing the narrator’s intense affair with another boy. I wish now that my reading had been less earnest. If I’d known about Armistead Maupin or David Sedaris, maybe I’d have had more fun.

Giovanni's Room

When I was fifteen I did a week’s work experience at a local independent bookshop. I suspected my boss of harbouring unpleasant right-wing views — he was a Rotarian and looked like General Pinochet — but at the end of a week of making window displays and drinking repulsive cups of tea made with Coffee-Mate he said I could choose £20 worth of books to take home, a generous gesture. One of the books I chose was Stephen Fry’s memoir Moab is My Washpot, just out in paperback. Ron made some quip about Fry being an ex-offender, but acquiesced to my selection.

More than any other book, Moab broadened the scope of my reading. The books Fry read became the books I read. He turned me on to forgotten men like T.C. Worsley and Angus Stewart and Michael Campbell (whose Lord Dismiss Us became a favourite novel of mine). I graduated much later to Henry de Montherlant. But more vital than the bibliography he provided was the story he told of his own adolescence, which mirrored my own in ways that made me feel I’d found not merely a friend but a confidant, odd though that sounds. I didn’t need to talk to him or write to him, as I knew innately that he understood me. I’m not as devout a Fryphile as I once was, but I will be eternally grateful to him for having written that book.

Nowadays when I turn to books for consolation it is invariably because of some emotional turmoil. My friend the Argumentative Old Git occasionally writes of his resistance to the idea of books as escapism, and I feel similarly, that the best literature is not a refuge from life but an exploration of it, that may help us to understand the world and ourselves more deeply. Nonetheless, when I want to escape something that’s plaguing me there are writers I turn to. Increasingly P.G. Wodehouse is the first I think of. I sometimes wish I knew what the alchemy was that makes his books so magical to me, but I imagine that to understand it would be to dissolve it. There’s something very comforting about reading a writer whose very presence is benevolent. That’s the case with Wodehouse and Maupin and Sedaris, and Anthony Trollope and Alexander McCall Smith and Jan Morris. The pianist and music writer Susan Tomes is another. A digression sideways to end with, the opening of an essay from her latest book, Sleeping in Temples:

A few years ago I became intrigued by the number of people coming up to me after concerts and telling me that listening to the music had helped them to feel better. Sometimes they were quite specific. They mentioned having felt unwell at work, feeling unsure if they ought to go to the concert or just go straight home instead and rest. They said that they took their seats in a pessimistic frame of mind, were drawn in by the music, caught up by the interaction between the musicians, somehow soothed by the effect of the music and gradually realised that the horrible headache had gone, the fatigue had lifted, that they were no longer feeling so down about whatever it was that had been on their minds.

Funny thing, art. Certain government ministers may wish to take note.

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3 Responses to “Literature as consolation”

  1. argumentativeoldgit Says:

    Thank you, Somewhere Boy, for those, as ever, delightful reminiscences. Some day, years into the future, someone may well be writing a post on how reading your blog had affected them in their youth!

    You’re right – I do generally resist the idea that books are for “escape”, as to characterise literature in such terms is essentially to characterise it as essentially trivial, and even, perhaps, as reprehensible. Even with the books that present a delightful fictional world that one enjoys visiting, I worry about the term “escapism”: that I may wish to visit the fictional world of Blandings Castle, say, or of 221b Baker street, doesn’t necessarily imply that I wish to escape the real world I inhabit. But perhaps, irked (as I frequently am, being essentially of a grumpy, misanthropic and generally disagreeable nature) by things people say that I disagree with, I have perhaps been too dogmatic about this: when you tell me that you do indeed turn to Wodehouse to escape something that is plaguing you, that is your personal experience, and there can be no gainsaying it.

    When something plagues me badly that I wish to escape from, if only momentarily, I usually turn to whisky. But Blandings Castle is, I concede, as fine a refuge as there is from the whips and scorns of time.

    All the very best,
    Argumentative (and often Grumpy) Old Git

    • Gareth Says:

      One man’s delightful reminscence is another’s self-indulgent twaddle, but thank you for the compliment. My excuse is that I’m writing about what I know; what else can I do?

      Perhaps your resistance to the idea of books as escapism is the implication that if a book’s value to someone is as an escape from the world, it can’t be that good, whereas the fact that Wodehouse or Conan Doyle don’t delve as deeply into the human condition as Tolstoy or George Eliot (though that may be a controversial statement — nothing in fiction has so visceral an effect on the reader as when Madeline Bassett gets her claws into someone) doesn’t mean their work doesn’t stand on its own merits. It’s just that we can’t use the same criteria to judge Blandings as we do War and Peace.

  2. argumentativeoldgit Says:

    Oh, I wouldn’t dream of using the same criteria to judge War and Peace and Blandings Castle, and am not even sure that I’d pick the former over the latter on that mythical desert island.

    Cheers for now, Himadri

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