The family home was to be sold after forty-nine years of Frame residency, but even to allow an estate agent and surveyor inside the house we needed a major pre-declutter. Books everywhere: tottering stacs of them. Some books, not a few, eliminated themselves from the final reckoning simply because the print was too small.
Nineteen-seventies paperbacks had a habit of cracking in my hands as I opened them. I had to ask myself the blunt questions ‘Have I picked up this book in the last ten, twenty years?’ and ‘Am I ever likely to read it again?’ (The answer to either couldn’t be foolproof, but I was getting desperate because of the sheer volume of books to be sorted through, and risks had to be taken.)
My worst mistake was to have any dealings with dealers. I have no sense of the monetary worth of books, and too many bargains flew through the front door and into the backs of cars. Less unsatisfactory was the giving to charity shops, but I could have done without the charmless ‘Leave them at the back door, will you?’ attitude of some. Most rewarding was donating books and CDs to my old school – while the young still read hard-copy and have any inclination (or machinery) to listen to discs. That felt to me like recycling common intellectual property – and sharing with others something of the pleasure which literature and music have brought me over a lifetime.
* * *
Not-so-fast forward to my new home, a top-floor flat (after an earlier interim garden flat which I knew was wrong for me after two days, leading to a another round of phone calls to estate agent/surveyor and the horror of a second upheaval within a year). Spacious as flats go, which is what appealed, but less square footage than a two-floor detached house. There are books all over the flat, but one room – what had been the larger bedroom – is actually solely given over to them now. My ‘book room’, since of course ‘library’ is much too pretentious a term to use.
Perhaps someone who doesn’t know me would look along the shelves and guess that this is the collection of a rabbi with a permissible fondness for film but an unhealthy interest in the doings of Eurotrash-types. The older I get, the more concerned I am about the state of my soul, and so the theological books are understandable. I was born in a Glasgow nursing-home with a high percentage of Jewish through-trade, my class at school was one-quarter Jewish, my closest friend was, but somehow I wasn’t. (The elderly school rabbi presumed that I was one of his flock: ‘Aren’t you coming to shul, young man?’) Someone clued up on such things assured me that I am technically, erm, a soul Jew. I may well do ‘something about that’: we shall see. If so, it’s largely down to my affection for the Hasidic masters, with their philosophy of celebration, who went singing and dancing along the streets of their East European shtetls. They have a new perch now, at easily reachable eye-level, in my ‘book room’.
I’ve always liked small-sized books, so those neatly fill the narrow top-shelves. The bottom shelves are for the tallest and heaviest items, which require two hands to draw out and fit back and so aren’t the idle-whim casual reads that occupy the range of shelves between them and the top.
On the fiction front …There are many more copies of Vladimir Nabokov than of any other novelist. I’m not sure why. I did some light skimming recently, and was puzzled by the clumsiness of some of that prose I used to think matchless and so exhilarating. Everything of Muriel Spark’s is there, from the first stories to a triumphant return to form in her last slim novel, The Finishing School. There’s room for Truman Capote, an author I’ve come to admire more with time. (I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s in my teens, and was unimpressed. A few years ago I tackled it again, and was bowled over.) I had forgotten I used to be such a devotee of Colette; Marcel Pagnol has rather taken over in that department. Hermann Hesse belongs to my early twenties, but Karen Blixen has retained her fascination. My favourite European mavericks (in translation) are to the fore: Nina Berberova (with second copies of all her mini-novels, in just-about-negotiable French), the wistful Antonio Tabucchi, the elusive Anna Maria Ortese, the very economical Adelaida Garcia Morales, the hallucinatory Thomas Bernhard.
I’ve purchased all I could find by American Peter Taylor, a Tennessee version of William Trevor, who is alongside on the next shelf. So many Simenon novels that they’re in their own boxes (plural) in the garage, but the very best of the best (and he failed with none of them) have shelf space. I couldn’t not have a row of (some very dog-eared) Isaac Bashevis Singers, the great chronicler of Old World Jewry adrift in the New, tales filled with spiteful dybbuks and good-hearted holy fools. Why so much of that friend-to-everyone-famous Cocteau? (No idea.) Curious too, how I have never read a Wodehouse book to the end, nor even for more than two consecutive chapters, but have so many. He’s one of those novelists for dipping into, enjoyed best at complete random.
Proust is currently in the garage. I wish I could cope with him – even heeding Francoise Sagan’s advice (quite a few of her books made the cut, she’s much under-rated in the UK), to start about Book 10 of the original dozen before going back to p1 of the first – but I constitutionally lack the patience. My loss, no doubt, and it’s never too late to embark on the journey – I doubt that I shall, however. Does any single author alter one’s mode of perception? – perhaps not – but if anyone could, then it’s the Argentinian fabulist Borges, so he is given privileged space where light falls directly on to him from a lamp. (Once I avidly read Carlos Fuentes and Julio Cortazar and the South American ‘magic realists’, but they seem to me of their period, the 60s to 80s, and they now languish downstairs in their taped boxes, somewhere in the vicinity of my corralled garden pots.)
Naturally there’s John Betjeman – whose Cornish house we rented for a succession of summer holidays. Elizabeth David, who never provided conventional how-to recipes but inspired one by her enthusiasm and gusto for describing the textures and flavours of food and her own process of discovery. (MFK Fisher directly faces her, from Provence on the other side of the room.) Poets Cavafy, Joseph Brodsky (an essayist too), Anthony Hecht, Louis Simpson. The crushed-short-story verse of Thomas Hardy. The French illustrator Sempé, who is simultaneously comic and touching. Books about living with books – Alberto Manguel, Italo Calvino, Harold Bloom, and Susan Hill. (She was the one writer I saved up hard to buy in hardback in my teens: The Bird of Night with its Britten-esque mood was her tops.)
All too earnest for you? What about David Ogilvy’s wry thoughts on the advertising business, my father’s trade? Or RAFA My Story? (Nadal can do no wrong in my eyes.) There’s Katharine Hepburn (Me catches the rhythm of her speaking voice brilliantly), some Audrey, and Dirk. Wallis Simpson, Jackie O, Romy Schneider, Cary Grant Style. Nightclub queen Regine’s memoirs, Amanda Lear’s My Life with Dali, anything at all about disco, Studio 54 et al.
A Scottish section. You know you’re getting on a bit if you have books on (a) steam trains or (b) tram cars or (c) paddle-steamers. I’ve accommodated all three methods of retro-transportation. Plus The Scottish Farmer anthology, architecture from castellated towers to city streets and bothy, gardens and fauna, early munroists, Edinburgh Festival (history of), and photo books (eg Edwin Smith) and road directories of the country in the 1950s, when I was alive but too young to remember much, and when Scotland to my way of thinking was more uniquely Scottish than it is today.
* * *
My childhood Puffins are still in the garage, but will probably be reinstated and granted shelf-space. (I could never replace those. Every one has to be that edition, and that battered copy. How defensive one gets, if anybody dares criticise a past favourite – it’s felt, oh how it stings, like a personal insult.) We’re all products of our time. If I were more than a decade younger, I wouldn’t have accumulated so many books. If I were three or four decades younger, I might have very few of them to bother about. As a boy I read the Children’s Newspaper and, for years, Look and Learn, then a treasury of facts – An Authoritative Survey of Universal Knowledge – which Newnes brought out in thirty-eight weekly parts and which could be bound into red leather-look volumes I-VIII. It took twelve Oxford Junior Encyclopedias to bring an even weightier order to bear on this planet of ours. I grew up in a phase of history when reasonably cheap-to-purchase books were the repositories of knowledge: when that information, unlike the internet sort, was obliged to be static.
I’ve always preferred Ancient Greece to Rome, which may have had something to do with a young charismatic enthusiast in blazer and flannels and black beard who taught the subject at my Glasgow school. There are several shelves dealing with the culture, from Mycenae to Athens, from funeral bronzes to Venus de Milo – plus the very fine novels of Mary Renault which, like Simenon’s in another genre, have me literally shaking my head with awe at their skill.
Zen and Tao, and – from India – a lot of RK Narayan and Satyajit Ray.
The world in a room, within the confines of one third-floor flat. Inside my head. I also know that it’s necessary to have books which – forgive the Oprahism – allow you to dream. Photographic books mostly. (At one time I wouldn’t have confessed to taking as much from the pictorial image as the printed word, to finding films as inspirational as novels, if not more so.) High-minded or low, from the Magnum co-operative to ‘La Dolce Vita’ paparazzi. Interior design, human beauty, oriental rugs, (more) gardens, courtesans, fashion. And – Jean Renoir, Visconti, Lean and Losey, American noir, Ozu – film, film, film, books about cinema in the days when it mattered, before it grew tired and jaded and before digitalization robbed it of its remaining life.
* * *
I look around me.
The problem is that it takes not months but years to know where books are kept, on which part of which shelf in which bookcase, in the middle of which pile (the book-skyscrapers have returned – the overspill). It helps to have some kind of intimate contact with the books themselves, which involves – I would suggest – getting down on a low stool (even with a bad back) and slowly, exactingly, attempting to map the geography in your mind. If nothing else, it helps to exercise those grey cells. The books take me back, on the trail of someone who had an urgent need to find a voice. The voice would come through the digestion of others’ work. It was a time of infinite possibilities – delusional, of course – but unsullied by the comments and ‘advice’ of so-called wiser parties.
In the early 1980s I was lucky to catch the tail-ends of publishing as it used to be practised, in a ‘gentlemanly’ way, when authors’ careers were seen as taking time to develop and the editor’s eye wasn’t trained on the bottom line but, instead, on the written material. (Copy-editors – such mythical beings really did exist then – were likely to be retired school-teachers, who took their responsibilities very seriously indeed. Those times won’t return, but the books I wrote are their legacy. Publishing wasn’t as cynical as it is today, not as brazenly opportunistic and market-driven (usually in hot pursuit of the last big thing), and there was plenty of leeway for individuality.
The book room has become, not quite intentionally, my refuge, a suburban shangri-la (yes, there’s even a copy somewhere of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon), and also my bulwark against – well, against so much, especially the modern inability to remember, which technology has only aided. My memory is clearer for having the bookcases, about who I was and the flesh-and-blood people who made me and what I felt I wanted to say, and the beautiful importance – to me if to no one else – of making up the stories with which it would be done.