" I was still living with my parents then, which, besides threatening my rightful privacy and personal sovereignty, made reading with sustained attention pretty hard—my parents were prone to designing elaborate chores for others to accomplish. But in our cabin I could read for eight to ten hours a day, fully in charge of my own time, which I regimented like a monk. I interrupted my monastic mission only to attend to the needs of my foolish body, which, in addition to food and coffee, demanded some occasional exertion. Hence, I went for long hikes up the mountain, to the harsh, barren landscape above the tree line. I avoided other people and delayed for as long as possible my trips on foot to the supermarket, a couple of miles away.
For weeks before leaving for the mountain, I would be assembling my reading list. There were all kinds of books on it: from John le Carré’s Smiley novels to scholarly works on the origins of the Old Testament myths; from anthologies of contemporary American short stories to the Prince Valiant comic books. At the top of the list were the thick classic novels that I couldn’t focus on in the city, what with my parents’ choral nagging and the daily temptations of urban life.
In the cabin, I would enter a kind of hypersensitive trance that allowed me to average four hundred pages a day. The book would become a vast, intricate space in my head where I stayed even when eating, hiking, or sleeping. It took me less than a week to read “War and Peace,” for example, and Bolkonsky and Natasha showed up regularly in my dreams. And while I was reading “The Magic Mountain,” on my hikes I conducted conversations with imaginary partners, not unlike the ones between Castorp and Settembrini in Thomas Mann’s novel.
In my twenties, I was prone to anxiety and depression, which I experienced as a depletion of my interiority, a vacuum of thought and language. I went to the mountain to replenish my mind, to reboot its language apparatus. My reclusion worried my parents, and my friends thought I was crazy. But I loved the silence cushioning me while I read. At night, the only sounds came from the bells of roaming cattle and the branches scratching the roof. Excited birds would bid me a good early morning, and I would start reading as soon as I opened my eyes. The controllable austerity healed whatever hurt I had carried up the mountain."
It’s clear that there is passion here. We talked about this in our conversation last fall at the IFOA in Toronto. Please listen here:
What are the greatest "I" works in our literature? My list would include: Robinson Crusoe, Tristram Shandy, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, Midnight’s Children, Remains of the Day and – putting my own money where John Self’s mouth is – Money…
"It was, he believed, too primitive: like the immature child’s "me, me, me".
Amis’s fiction suggests the opposite. In the right hands me-ism can be very subtle, and no hands are more right than Amis’s. No one, as far as I know, has ever satisfactorily explained the magic by which small black marks on a white surface become a "world". Does one "see" a novel? Some (Henry James’s for example) one certainly does. But Amis’s novels one hears. Take the opening sentence of his first published work, The Rachel Papers:
My name is Charles Highway, though you wouldn’t think it to look at me.
One can’t but hear that cocky-rueful adolescent voice. More importantly, the reader’s ears prick up. One is not just hearing, but listening. You could do a little anthology of Amis’s hook-in-jaw opening lines. My personal favourite is that from his least admired novel, The Information:
Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing.
It’s Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks in 16 words. It looks easy, until you try it yourself."
"I wanted to thank you for your many generous and intelligent words about my new book How Fiction Works (and other stuff)... I get great pleasure from reading your blog."
Critic, James Wood, The New Yorker.
"You can find very bad writing and sloppy impressionism in literary blogs, but also incisive, fresh, thoughtful criticism from voices unencumbered by the politics of Grub St". I would put your blog in the latter category, which is why I’m responding here… Congratulations on a very fine blog."
Scholar, Dr. Ronan McDonald.
"You ask the most brilliant, thoughtful questions, it's really a pleasure to do an interview where someone actually wants to talk about writing and literature in general."
Novelist Margot Livesey.
"The happy result of all this (the Salon des Refuses experience) from my own perspective was my discovery of the wonderful "Note Bene," which I added to my "favourites" early in the summer and which I have read - and listened to - with great pleasure ever since."
Novelist Jane Urquhart.
"I spent a bit of time last night perusing, as I often do, Nigel Beale's Nota Bene. My suggestion is that you do the same. It is truly a remarkable site."
Litblogger Frank Wilson