#64 In love with books – Gérard Rudolf

April 21, 2011 in Sonder kategorie

Where fish are blind – or: Why I like books

I was blessed to have been born into a household where there were books on shelves but, like most people, I suppose, I can’t quite recall how I developed my deep love for books. Let’s face it, just the mere fact that some of us grew up in houses with books on shelves is not a sure-fire guarantee that a love affair will blossom. For me it happened too long ago to recall clearly, but it feels to me as if I have never been without a book somewhere near me.

You see, I am a dreamer and I have never fully woken up. Although I live firmly in The World as all of us are forced to I have always, like so many others, searched for the escape hatch. Books (like my other passion, films) are time machines that have the capacity to transport us anywhere we wish to travel and I guess it is this aspect of books and of reading I instinctively understood the moment I received the gift of literacy.

In my boyhood books took me off to once-upon-a-time places where beautiful princesses fell into mysterious comas and were saved decades later by beefy princes … and they always lived happily ever after, lucky bastards. There were the nightmarish tales of talking serpents, mad plagues, burning bushes and magic tricks that turned water into wine, parted oceans and fed thousands with little more than a couple of fishes and a few loaves of bread and cured wretched individuals called “lepers” of a dreaded disease that made their extremities drop off. And there were giants too, epic floods and dead men walking again! Fire, blood, brimstone and God’s wrath kept me awake at night. Later I could smell the stink of pirate ships, feel the thrilling weight of stolen gold in the palms of my hands. I could sit and get drunk and smoke pipes in dingy harbour taverns long before I was allowed anywhere near booze or tobacco. I was even marooned on an island with a guy called Friday.

Later, as a pimply, shy and rather horny teenager, I could casually gamble away fortunes in Mediterranean casinos, eat fine food, pull pussy galore and imagine racing armed and dangerous through the bright capitals and dark backwaters of the planet in shiny sports cars, licensed to kill anybody who pissed me off – while looking pretty damned sharp in a Saville Row suit, naturally.

Sadly, though, I never had a Dead Poets Society moment. I have no tales to tell of a dedicated and passionate high school literature teacher who declaimed passages from classic works from desktops. I just had run-of-the-mill individuals who nearly killed my fledgling passion for words by making Shakespeare sound like a slow cement mixer and who read poetry and prose as if they were clubbing baby seals to death.

Luckily I had friends who read and passed on books that would never have made it on to our school reading lists during the eighties in Jo’burg. Books like Heller’s hilarious and sad Catch-22, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Asimov’s I, Robot, Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, Brink’s A Dry White Season, Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (still one of my favourite books of all time), the poems of Wally Serote, Breyten Breytenbach and Pessoa, plays such as Zakes Mda’s We Shall Sing for the Fatherland and Fugard’s People are Living There … The list is long and varied and I did not quite “get” everything I read, but it was here, during my teens, when the reading bug really sank its teeth in.

During my twenties my addiction got more serious and fearless. I grew my hair pretentiously long and laboured through volumes by the usual suspects: Nietzsche, Engels, Camus, Handke, “The Russians”, Germaine Greer, Bukowski, Conrad, The Beat Poets, Voltaire, Baudelaire, Italo Calvino, the essays of Steve Biko, Umberto Eco, Milan Kundera, my beloved Sam Shepard, the young British upstarts like Hanif Kureishi (who could forget The Buddha of Suburbia?) and Will Self. I still didn’t “get” half of what I was reading, but I didn’t care. The fire inside me was well and truly out of control.

And this is the magic of some books: they wait patiently, sometimes for decades, on shelves, in libraries, in bookshops, in a friend’s shoulder bag or on a lover’s bedside table for us to mature, for us to bring our lives and experiences to them before they give up their timely lessons. It still floors me every time how the same book read years or decades apart can speak to us in such diverse ways.

But all of this is neither here nor there. What we choose to read or not read during our lives, like everything else in life, is entirely down to personal choice. What fires me up is not necessarily going to fire up the next person, and vice versa. I’ve tried reading fantasy novels and sci-fi epics but they never really lured me in. I’ve even tried to get through a Mills & Boon or two in my time, a few Jeffrey Archers, etc, but I never really liked their words. Some people do not want or need to be “confronted” by or reminded of the darkness in the world when they choose a book to read. They simply want to go on a holiday when they open a book, solve a murder or be entertained. Fair enough.

As for my confused middle-aged self, well, I need books that can illuminate life for me on some level. Whether it is in the form of a novel, a collection of essays or poetry or a biography is immaterial. It is hard to explain, but I simply want the words I read to come directly out of a writer’s life experience. I want to be able to feel the words blow through me like bullets and somehow to feel changed or altered by the experience – and perhaps not so alone. This is probably why I have developed an obsession with contemporary writers such as James Salter, Jeanette Winterson, Roberto Bolaño, Kazuo Ishiguru, Don DeLillo, Damon Galgut, Michael Ondaatje, Antjie Krog, James Baldwin, Updike, Philip Roth, Rodney Hall and my numero uno literary hero, Cormac McCarthy. They, among countless other contemporary writers, have a talent for diving deep below the surface of life to places where fish are blind. This is where I personally need to swim.

What’s your favourite line from a book, play or poem?

So then, what is my favourite line or passage from a book? If pressed I’ll have to go for the poignant final paragraphs of A Month in the Country by JL Carr:

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours forever – the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass. […] So, in memory, it stays as I left it, a sealed room furnished by the past, airless, still, ink long dry on a put-down pen.

But this is something I knew nothing of as I closed the gate and set off across the meadow.

I realise many of the books and writers I mentioned are not everybody’s cup of tea. Indeed, I would argue they are cups of strong coffee. And “strong coffee” is exactly what I need from a book because I am a dreamer – and although the chances are pretty slim I hope to wake up before I close the gate and set off across the meadow.

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