A dear friend from India phoned me last Wednesday evening.
“Hey Big Mac!” (He calls me “Big Mac”.) Where are you?”
“I’m in the Orewa Surf Club.”
“Surf Club? Are you surrounded by babes?”
“Babes to the left of me, babes to the right of me.”
One of them, particularly charming and vivacious, told me that she had never read a book. I was incredulous. “You mean you’ve never opened that entity between covers, with words in chapters?”
“Oh, I’ve opened one, but I’ve never actually read one.”
In Rotorua, before I embarked on my sojourn to the Deep North, I wrote down on a piece of paper, for the benefit of my traveling companion, the details of our upcoming trip back across to the other side of the world. “In the event of my being kidnapped by gypsies, all you need is your passport, and this information.” She photographed it with her phone. Personally, I’m going the other way, like John Milton, in his blindness, inspired to write Paradise Lost. “Pen and ink, Mary!”
Some people take a Kindle on holiday and I can understand the utility of that, but I prefer to pop into second-hand bookshops, buy a tome, read it, and pass it on. On my last visit to BookMark, 15 Victoria Rd, Devonport, Auckland, I took A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin (Viking, 2017), a Hatchards signed copy in excellent condition. There was a tenuous NZ connection here because I already have Claire Tomalin’s Katherine Mansfield, A Secret Life (Viking, 1987). I crossed the road to Devonport Public Library to sit down and finish Robert Harris’ first fictionalised account of the life of Cicero, Imperium, and, in keeping with my resolve to pass a book on each time I buy one, I took the Harris to the hospice shop further up Victoria Road.
I quite enjoyed the Harris although I’m not sure I would call it, as he does, a novel. It is more a fictionalised biography. It is clearly exhaustively researched, and purports to be by Cicero’s slave secretary Tiro, who devised his own shorthand (he invented the ampersand) and was therefore a prototype parliamentary reporter, and who apparently did write a life of Cicero, which has been lost. If I hesitate to call Imperium a novel, it must be because I have a preconceived notion of what a novel should be, rather after the fashion of F. R. Leavis, who said Hard Times was the only true novel Dickens ever wrote. (Leavis thought the great English novelists – I should say novelists writing in English – were Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad.) When she was an undergraduate at Cambridge, Claire Tomalin took exception to Leavis’ hostility to Dickens and wrote an essay as to why Dickens is a great novelist. Who knows, maybe Leavis read it because he and Queenie changed their minds and started to extol the works of the great man.
I still have a sense of achievement when I finish reading a book. After all, it does involve commitment and concentration. When I read Moby Dick last year I treated the task as if I were undertaking an austere weight-loss or get-fit programme. It is a long novel, but it has 135 chapters, some of them shorter than a single page, so I resolved to read a chapter a day over four and a half months. I stuck to the regime religiously. It was an effective way to read, because Moby Dick is highly compressed, a prose poem, all about an obsession. It is operatic. It occurred to me that Benjamin Britten could have set Moby Dick. In fact he chose a much shorter piece by Herman Melville, Billy Budd, which has something of the same quality of extreme experience, book-ended by an old man’s bleak attempt to apprehend a terrible event. When I read Claire Tomalin’s autobiography I noticed that somebody as steeped in Letters as she, also only read Moby Dick in later life.
I read Claire Tomalin’s Life on the plane on the way home, pausing at page 300 when we changed at Dubai, and finishing it somewhere over Iraq. It is a vivid mix of family and professional life in literary London. She found her own true literary genre, and métier, as literary biographer, late in life. She has experienced more than her fair share of both professional success and personal disaster. Her account of the loss of her young daughter, who committed suicide during a depressive illness, is devastating. She has been able to convey a sense of the unbearable bleakness and blackness of that vile and incomprehensible condition.
Claire Tomalin had to come to terms with the digital age. With the move to Wapping in the mid-eighties, she resigned as literary editor of The Sunday Times. Her letter of resignation to Andrew Neil is pretty damning. Yet she does concede in a footnote that Neil later found his true métier in television. And indeed, she always conveys a generosity of spirit towards those who caused her hurt.
Andrew Neil told Claire Tomalin that books were a sunset industry. When she resigned from The Sunday Times she was chastised by others for leaving, because she owed it to Eng. Lit. to stay on. But, as she says herself, English Literature kept going pretty well.