When I broke up with my first boyfriend I soon realised I had made a terrible mistake. This didn’t constitute the breakup itself, but rather the fact that I’d forgotten that I had leant him my copies of In Cold Blood and The Road, and that they were still on his bedside table (unread, obviously he wasn’t the guy for me) and were quite likely to be burned as soon as he realised he had something valuable of mine.
I didn’t cry over my breakup, but I cried over those books. My father found this very amusing. He was in a generally good mood, which was probably attributable to the fact that his daughter was now single. He told me to forget about the books, and gave me money to buy another copy of each.
To me, books don’t work like that. I can’t just go and buy another one. Each book I read alters me, either educationally or creatively. And in the physical act of reading the book I change it as well. There’s folds on the pages where I had to force myself to stop reading and go to sleep, and there’s likely smudges of chocolate on other pages. My name is written inside the front cover and I’ve since started writing the date on which I read the book as well, so that one day when I’ve died they can be given to a secondhand bookstore and whoever buys them might have a very small insight into a snippet of my life. So as thoughtful as it was of my father to offer to buy more (and, I’ll admit, I accepted his money just in case) my books are just not replaceable. They’re a little part of me and I’d made the mistake of lending them out to someone who may not return them.
I ended up asking my ex if I could have them back and for whatever reason he returned them. Unharmed. They now sit contentedly on my shelf where they belong.
Today’s inspiration brought to you by Shakespeare and Cat Coquillette (artwork available from Society6).
The most spiritual experience I have ever had occurred in Varanasi, India, when my parents took my sister and myself there in January of last year. Having been raised as a Catholic, this probably shouldn’t be my go-to image when I think of spirituality- but it is.
We boarded a flimsy wooden boat that was rowed by a teenage boy and travelled down the Ganges river through the hazy smog. We reached the cremation site as dusk was setting in. A very gentle rain started to fall (this probably sounds like I’m trying to dramatise things, but it actually did start raining).
I don’t want to go into great detail about Hindu tradition surrounding cremation, for fear of getting a fact wrong and causing offence. My simple understanding is that Hindu people are cremated when they die, and the ashes are then dispersed into a river- the Ganges in particular bears deep religious significance.
I was scared- in our society we are so comfortably shielded from death. I hadn’t seen a dead body until I was forced to out of necessity in our anatomy classes at university. The vast majority of my colleagues were able to switch into scientific-mode, but in my eyes the body is a vessel for everything that we are, and when the soul (or spirit, or whatever) has left it, suddenly the beauty of the body is lost in my eyes, and for whatever reason it’s replaced with fear. This is in great contrast to my classmates who would probably say that the beauty comes from the anatomy.
With this fear lurking in the back of my mind, I was overcome with the sense of reverence that seemed to override everything else as we were floating on the water there. The fog was just heavy enough to obscure our sight of the opposite bank, and the intensity of the noise of the streets of India was suddenly lost and replaced by silence and grey water. The pyres themselves emanated a warm light, and the tone was more of respect than sadness. It was deeply moving.
The Indian culture has gained a greater maturity than ours in that death and life have learned to co-exist. A few metres from the cremation ground you would find people washing clothes in the river and bathing themselves, and as soon as you stepped onto the wet ghats (the big steps leading down to the river) the intensity of the noise and colour and sheer number of people would return, and you’d get swept away once again in the vibrance of it all.
Translators are the true under-rated heroes of literature; the often unnamed masters who take a work of art and make it available to people such as my uni-lingual Australian self. The written word is possibly the only art form that isn’t immediately universal, and only because it is limited by the barrier of language.
I’ve been reading Madame Bovary and the only reference to the translator (in my edition) is nestled neatly between the disclaimer that $1 from my purchase will go towards the McGrath Foundation and the often overlooked address of the publisher. This tiny reference reads:
The translator would like to record his gratitude to his wife, Teresa Russell, who read the translation in manuscript and made many valuable suggestions.
That’s it. I can’t even find a record of his name in the book- only his wife’s (those who also own a pink Penguin Classic of the novel may be able to prove me wrong). I’m left with a very small image in my mind’s eye of the elusive Mr. Russell, as this humble genius of a man who has been able to take the sexyness and innuendoes of the French language as portrayed by Gustave Flaubert and deliver a snippet of it to me in all my linguistic naivety. And when they asked him what he would like recorded in the book as tribute to his efforts his response was “thank my wife”. Like I said, a humble, often unthought-of, genius.
Of course, not all translators go completely unnamed. My readings of the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez come to mind, or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In both of these I remember briefly noting the fact that there was a translator and this person was recognised. Still, how easy it is to think “Bloody brilliant book Marquez!” and not “Thank God I didn’t have to learn Spanish to read it”.
Though this is unlikely to reach their eyes, I owe so much thanks to these people- they have unlocked some of the beauties of the world for me.
I’ve started drinking lavender tea and it’s fast becoming a favourite. It’s bright and perfumey and has a pretty colour that’s not exactly what you’d call “lavender” but rather an autumney sort of green.
If it hadn’t previously been obvious I’m a little bit of a tea-nerd/addict. Sometimes you just need to assign something the job of comforting you and, for me, tea fills that position. My glass pot is currently my favourite – I love to watch the colour of the tea mingle with the water.
Uni has been pretty unpleasant and with exams starting to loom reading for pleasure probably isn’t going to happen. I don’t really want this blog to fall stagnant over that time so I’m going to try branch out a little from just books and focus on some of the other little things that make the days seem brighter.
I’ve spent the past two days studying in the local public library and I’ve come to realise that I really have mixed emotions about these places. I feel like this would be entirely different if I had had the opportunity to spend time in some of the more beautiful libraries of the world- the types that house books which need to be handled with gloves and which have high ceilings, ladders, amazing architecture and , I like to think, some overriding magical sense that other great people, through time, have needed this space as much as you have . Alas, my local library was built in the 1980s and is lacking somewhat in its charms.
What I don’t like:
1. The creepy and sometimes opaque aged plastic covering they put around the books that makes them stick together and produces a tearing noise when you try to separate them.
2. When I was there someone had a really unfortunate cough that sounded like they were going to bring up the contents of their stomach. I instantly picture flu/poo/ebola particles everywhere.
3. The organisation of the shelves really messes with my undiagnosed book OCD. I realise alphabetical ordering is highly practical but it’s SO unattractive. If given the opportunity, my brain would be much more settled if they could be arranged by colour or by book height. Nobody would ever be able to find what they’re looking for but I’m sure we’d all feel much more content just sitting and staring at the shelves.
What I do like:
1. The books. Duh. Once you get past the hostility of the clingy plastic and apricot coloured shelves (that definitely haven’t been changed since the creation of the building), the books individually all have their own quirks which can only come from being cherished by so many different people. I remember as a young teenager going through a big Stephen King phase – teenage fiction didn’t greatly interest me – and each of the books of his which I borrowed from the library had a distinctive odour of cigarettes and woody-mustiness which I’m sure must have come from another individual making their way through the collection as I was doing. I viewed it as our two person reading club.
2. I love the diversity of people that present themselves to this place. I probably spend as much time watching the people in the library as I do studying. From babies and their mummas to the little old ladies that use the trolleys provided by the library as they peruse the shelves (I will one day be one of these ladies) to people that sit and quietly talk because there’s heating in the library and not in their homes – this obscure and often overlooked space unites us.
I’m presently stuck in the dizzying limbo of being back in the house in which I grew up. With my parents. It is both a comfort and a step backward for me. I forget the things I do in my independence, like going to the gym and doing yoga and (apparently) blogging.
I’m just about to start the second of my two week break from university. My lecturers have deprived me of all hope of enjoyment by scheduling an exam for the first day back. My holiday so far has therefore consisted of a confused frenzy of somehow trying to enjoy myself yet feeling guilty for every moment in which I’m not studying. The completion of my degree at the end of next year couldn’t come fast enough.
I haven’t quite got the capacity at the moment to produce any sort of book musings. I do like to put a decent amount of thought into my posts but at the moment my creativity is feeling somewhat suppressed.
In the meantime, here’s the conservative pile of books I brought home with me in vain hope that I might have time to read. So far I’m about halfway through Madame Bovary, which my boyfriend keeps misreading as Madame Ovary (obviously about a French lady and her uterus and their hysterical adventures together).