August 22, 2013 | by Diane Mehta
For a year and a half I read Helen Lowe-Porter’s sauntering, elegant translation of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain at the rate of about one paragraph a day. For months I envisioned Hans Castorp lighting up his Maria Mancinis or gazing at Frau Chauchat’s creamy white arm curving along the back of a dinner chair. The sentences were amplified with a key transitive verb or with a subtle detail of winter in Davos and then slowly unfurled. Inevitably, several sentences in, I would put the book down and polish some sentences of my own. This happened nightly. I made it through three-quarters of the book, to the point just after (spoiler alert) Joachim dies, and I cried again, just as I had a decade earlier when I first read the entire novel.
During the day, I’d go to the writers’ space I belonged to in Brooklyn, a gloomy place filled with dark cubicles, and write all day. Never once did I flip open a book. That was for nighttime reading and always Thomas Mann. He, or rather Lowe-Porter, had the right tone for the book I was writing.
Nearly two years later, dozens of books lie scattered on the floor beneath my bookshelves. Some are piled on top. These are the books I mean to read. Many I ordered in one fell swoop from Open Letter Books. Others are offbeat wonders from the NYRB Classics. A handful are poetry books that I’ve read and re-read for decades. But you don’t read poems as much as you hear them in your head. They go on and on, with no end and no beginning, as T. S. Eliot might have said. But you can, of course, read fiction. My neglected authors are an eclectic mix: César Aira, Willa Cather, Roberto Bolaño, Tanizaki, Sholem Aleichem, Thirty Umrigar, Mercè Rodoreda, Jean Genet, Natalie Sarraute, Jennifer Egan, Tessa Hadley, Christina Stead, Don DeLillo, and a dozen or so books by friends, which I promised I’d get to “immediately.” I envy my multi-tasking friends who read voraciously while they write.
It started to worry me a little. I picked up books I knew I loved—like The Magic Mountain or The Master and Margarita—and put them down again after lingering over select pages. I made it part of the way through infuriatingly opaque books, including Gombrowicz’s Cosmos and emotionally compelling ones, such as Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture, a beautifully composed and moving book told in the alternating voices of a 100-year-old woman and her therapist in the asylum where she lived out most of her adult life. It takes place in Sligo, a word that makes me swoon. Sligo County in Ireland is the setting for W. B. Yeats’ famous poem, “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” where he hoped to put his clay- and wattles-made cabin “and live alone in the bee loud glade.” Still, I put the book down.
I tried nonfiction, starting with Rachel Cusk’s beautiful writing and keenly observed truths. Well, no thanks. I too was going through a divorce. Too painful. I got all the way through Vladimov’s Faithful Ruslan, a gulag parable and guilty pleasure because it was a fast and easy read, its main character was a dog, and despair coursed through it not from what you’d expect but because the dog “suffered” emancipation. It was a terrifying reminder of what my life might be like once I finished writing my book: lost, empty.
I began to think of myself as a book collector. I collected names of books other writers recommended. “Oh, you’ll be able to read this for sure,” they’d say. Skeptically I’d oblige, make it halfway through Renata Adler’s Speedboat or thumb through R.K. Narayan’s sweet parables, which I’ve read obsessively for years, on my iPhone, and then lose interest. Nothing held my attention for long.
So I joined a book club. It was run by a D. J. and consisted, based on the one meeting I attended, of academics, musicians, and earnest readers. We read a literary-mythological sci-fi crossover novel about a half-Indian half-Arab hacker who gets in trouble with an oppressive Middle Eastern government. There were djinns, secret books, secret worlds, and revelatory computer code. I suspended my disbelief because it was fun to read and because it was the kind of literature that I was unaccustomed to appreciating. Everyone in the club loved the book. I forced my way to the end, irritably skimming the last one hundred pages. The book’s increasingly nonsensical events made me feel like I was reading a YA fantasy novel that my nine-year-old would better appreciate. I was embarrassed at my ability to make it through this book but not others.
Then I asked a number of writers to start another book group with me, but alas, they were all writing books and had no time to read. Motivating myself to stick with a book proved impossible. Poetry I could manage. Sometimes, for comfort, I’d bring Seamus Heaney’s Seeing Things and Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems into my bedroom at night and flip through handfuls of sentences, as you’re meant to do with poems, before stacking them on my nightstand. It was sort of like reading in that their phrases hung in my mind from the past. Perhaps more accurately it was a kind of remembering. I counted on that nostalgia and promptly put those emotions right in my book. And I kept writing.
I admitted my problem to a woman at the writers’ space who shook her head up and down in consternation and flung her hands about: “I haven’t read a thing in six months. I just put everything down.” This was the lightbulb moment. It’s difficult to read while immersed in writing a novel. If you’re stuck to your book as purposefully as you’re supposed to be stuck to it, it makes no sense to commit yourself to someone else’s book. It’s distracting. You have your own characters to consider. (At least, that’s what we tell ourselves, glumly.) I became sure of this when I tried Philip Roth and found he just turned my writing into bitterness and dense frenzy, which I liked, but which I quickly realized would harm my sentences. His, so calculated, would strong-arm mine and I would be the loser, with flaccid sentences that tried to be hard. Roth stayed on the shelf.
My thoughts swirled around my favorite of my characters: Rurik, an older Russian horse trainer who sold endangered animals on the black market in 1946 Bombay. I lived the rest of my hours through the thoughts of my fictional mother, a Jewish Brooklynite who married a Jain physician and moved to India to raise their daughters. Everything I thought about was filtered through her lens.
I remembered the wise but surprising words of a friend, nearly a year ago, when I complained that everyone was constantly asking me if I was dating. “How could you possibly be in a relationship when you’re writing your book!” she exclaimed. A professional book critic, she understood that one devotion was enough. I took it crudely to mean I shouldn’t feel like a failure for not reading the books I might have read in other years. So I skimmed, I half-read, I skipped, and I tried not to worry about it. I admired many, many paragraphs but shunned the books in which they existed. Reading became an exercise in abbreviation: short passages, stellar sentences.
Then I discovered the radio artist Joe Frank. Listening to Frank’s grizzly voice in my dark living room late at night was a mesmerizing pleasure. His shows, with their percussive backbeat—a kind of syntax—became a kind of alternate book list I thumbed through, taking notes on the stories he wildly blended together to create mysterious new dimensions. It was an entirely new head space. The first radio show I listened to, which exhilarated me no less than Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov did when I was seventeen, was “Silent Sea.” The show counterpoints two sexually provocative tales with T. S. Eliot reciting “Ash Wednesday” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
One story involved a woman wearing a collar, leash, and vampire teeth who hisses naughtily at men at parties. The second was about a man who wished he had seen the events that shaped the woman he obsessed over so he could one day understand this woman he would never have. The show, with its brilliantly balanced shift between sexual obsession and religion, was about epiphanies. And I found I was hooked on listening. Joe Frank was nothing less than the act of reading out loud, the way stories were originally carried down through the generations. And the world was once again full of stories.
Diane Mehta is a writer living in Brooklyn. @DianeMehta