At the age of fifty, I am rereading books I first read when I was in my mid-to-late teens. These are the books I was reading when I wrote my novel Morpheus which, after thirty years and various acts of reconstruction to cover the lacunae of lost chunks of manuscript, is about to be published.
Reading was the most essential referent in the creation of this 400-page ‘text’, and, in going through copy-edits and then proofs, I thought it would be a self-enlightening process to revisit the works that ‘informed’ my late-teenage writing process. Of course, there were many books, and I certainly don’t have time to revisit them all, but a handful of salient works have been with me over recent weeks.
First, I went back to Beckett and Joyce, but they’ve never been far away anyway. Then I went to Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. Strangely, and quite tangentially, I’ve also gone to Anthony Burgess’s ‘sweeping’ and ‘parodic’ novel (problematical in so many ways) of the twentieth century, Earthly Powers.
Earthly Powers has particularly surprised me with both its desire to mock-shock (there’s a coinage!) and the deep conservatism that lurks at its essence. I am fascinated by ‘lurking’ in texts, and this book lurks in ways it doesn’t seem to know it’s lurking, while making much mileage out of a lurking in the ‘seamy side’. Which ‘side’ is Burgess on?… Are we supposed to ask this? Well, it’s not hard to work out (then as a eighteen-year-old and now as a fifty-year-old!). Though his protagonist in this fictional memoir is homosexual, and the bigotries of the literary and religious world are tracked through him, one can’t help but feel the protagonist-narrator is made use of for a lurking moral superiority (actually, it’s homophobic and racist) — I get the same feeling from Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, which I also read in my late teens.
Reading books thirty years later is likely to bring a change in attitude. But surely the same philosophy and process should apply to reading one’s own writings thirty years later? Surely this is the point where better judgement should come into play and the work be left to its time, as manuscript? Well, I’ve never thought that way. When I read Morpheus, I feel as if I am reading a past self, someone vaguely connected with myself, but connected nonetheless. I am the sum of my past, but I am also separate. I can read the work as by someone else, almost, but here I have been reconstructing lost bits from memory.
I did these reconstructions between 2007 and 2010, at the behest of the original publisher and editor who retrieved the manuscripts from the National Library in Canberra. In the process, the self of that era meets a self with much wider life experience and reading experience, fixing the missing bits to the best of a memory growing ever more distant. Does this make it a newer, fresher work (for me)? Whatever the case, I find the work interesting enough to want others to read it. That’s the bottom line. And its intertexts and homages to Joyce and Beckett, the influence of Flann O’Brien, have an urgency and enthusiasm that a later, jaded self would never tackle. Not that it isn’t a ‘jaded’ novel… it is, but really (also) an unrestrained hallucinatory explosion of words and experience. The smallest experience becomes a growth of words, and recalling that it was a time when I was just coming into contact with the nouveau roman, I see how a dust mote can grow and become a subject in itself.
I have long been interested in the interstices between short fiction and poetry, where they do and don’t touch, and have never been one for genre barriers. Morpheus was my declaration of this, seventeen years before I wrote the novel Genre, or numerous essays on the hierarchies and negatives of genre (border) control. It’s a 100,000-word ars poetica, where plot is secondary (though it does exist), and the main character, Thomas, is struggling to write a new kind of poetry (without really declaring it as such). He hangs around with a bunch of friends (Old Henry, Therese – his ‘sort-of’ girlfriend, his grandma, Mr and Mrs Hubbel – middle-class debauchees – a unicorn, a chimney sweep, and the odd lascivious mentoring male)… At the bottom of all his interactions is a desire to make literature. To read and write. As I’ve said, this is a novel of reading, a novel in which a late teenager is attempting to digest experience through the lens of reading.
I’ve always felt text is political, and at the bottom of this novel dwell Kropotkin, Bakunin, and Marx. But there’s also John Locke and others who (we might say) come from the other side of the political fence. And there are conversations in ways of seeing that I would never envisage now. I find this liberating in so many ways.
As part of my rereading ‘adventure’, I have also engaged with political texts I have spent decades using but not reread from cover to cover since I was in my teens. Das Kapital would be the ur-example. I read it (yes, the first volume and Engels’s edited second and third volumes) when I was fifteen. I have sampled, used, written essays and quoted from chunks for thirty-five years, but not reread from beginning to end (and of the latter two volumes, I bear in mind how many manuscripts Engels had to work with!). I have just started reading it again. Every word will be part of what I write in the future, as it was part of writing Morpheus, no matter how tangential.
As an anarchist (vegan pacifist), I often profoundly disagree with Marx (and Hegel), but there’s so much to admire (I feel the same way when I read Freud – I bought the complete new Penguin translation a few years ago and read my way through, and no matter how ridiculous I felt they got at times, I always admired the writing as writing – and that matters too).
What am I tackling next? Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, Irving’s The World According to Garp, and Dostoevsky (though I have reread all works many times over the years). Morpheus was not made out of literary classics, but all kinds of readings (as was my Genre later: from Descartes to porn magazines in European-language captions). All kinds of reading, good or bad, high or low, or whatever categories one might wish to impose (I don’t) constitute the dramatic curve of novel-length fiction to me. I am not interested in (much) plot – but am interested in crisis points, epiphanies, and prompts toward change, as a character (or characters or just a weird abstracted narratorial voice) confronts ‘ideas’ and issues in the world around him/her. Reading does this: a diegesis of textuality is desirable and frightening; it’s a smokescreen and an addiction. Once again, good or bad, it’s the writing and reading of texts as indissoluble parts of each other (we write to writing), that fascinate me.