Around mid-December last year, I finished reading John le Carré’s Silverview. This was le Carré’s final book, published posthumously, so I’d been drawing out the book as long as possible, rationing the number of pages each night. But of course, too soon, the final page had been turned. So I spent a while reading and watching interviews with le Carré and pondered some of the recurring themes in his work — power, loyalty and conviction — as well as the phenomenon of becoming more, not less, radical with age. Afterwards, having reluctantly returned Silverview to the shelf, I thought about that evening’s bedtime reading — for me, not having a book on the go is unimaginable. But what could possibly come next?
With my head still full of spies, corruption and the state of our world today, there didn’t seem to be much space for anything new. So I did something I hadn’t done for the longest time and picked up a book I’d read before. That book was Banana Yoshimoto’s Hardboiled & Hard Luck. I’ve always enjoyed Yoshimoto’s light, gentle style of writing*. Also, ten years or more must have passed since I’d read the book, so it would feel fresh, not too familiar. And, to be honest, I also chose it for its brevity — I wasn’t quite ready to make a serious, long-term reading commitment. What a perfect choice it turned out to be! The book’s two novellas explore loss, grief and, eventually, readiness to face the future. The writing was characteristically simple but warm, sensitive but subtly witty. Reading this touching, charming book felt like the best kind of time out; a few quiet, reflective days to yourself that leave you surprisingly rested and refreshed.
Finally, the time was right to read something new, something ‘bigger’. But — again — what? With just a couple of weeks until the Christmas holiday, no time to browse the bookshops and a strong inkling/hope that books might appear under the tree (a wish list of books had been forwarded), the answer was staring at me from the living room wall. I’d enjoyed rediscovering Hardboiled & Hard Luck, so why not ‘shop my shelves’?
So an evening was passed happily browsing for a good read. Books were pulled off the shelves, their dust jackets and opening pages inspected. Maybe books from student days? Perhaps something in German? Ah yes, here was Milan Kundera’s Der Scherz (The Joke). It ticked both those boxes and the subject matter — revenge, humiliation and the sometimes devastating consequences of an ill-judged, off-the-cuff remark — would be fascinating to revisit, especially from today’s perspective of ‘cancel culture’. Perfect. I decided to give it a second read.
The next day, I was teaching a class based on the theme of storytelling, in which students listened to a conversation about favourite authors and books. One of those books was Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Talk about a lightbulb moment! I’d read the book several years before and loved it, but always suspected I’d only skimmed the surface. Later that evening, The Joke was returned to the shelf. But its day will come.
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is an epic work. The protagonist and some motifs feel reassuringly familiar to Murakami readers: a thirty-ish year-old man somewhat adrift in the world and preoccupied with mundanities of everyday life; plus a cat, cooking, music, mysterious women and a pervading sense of loneliness and alienation. The plot weaves an intricate web of mystery, alternate worlds, prophesies and even WWII history, told chiefly from the protagonist’s point of view but also in vignettes, magazine extracts, letters and computer chats. Reading the book again revealed a richness I’d somehow completely missed before. It’s a journey deep into memory and the unconscious, reality versus imagination, fate versus choice and the extent to which we know and cannot know those closest to us. (And I still love its utter weirdness.) This time I connected to it on a very personal level too: it strikes me that it’s also a story about love, commitment and refusing to give up or let go.
Revisiting these two books has made me think a lot. I’m curious to reread and rediscover other books — including The Joke, of course. And non-fiction too: Slavenka Drakulić’s How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed is a book I read some thirty years ago. It was hugely influential in setting me on the path towards my first degree. What will I make of it today? So this small detour into rereading the books on my shelves is also making me think more generally about the bridge between past and present, about what I’m doing now and why. It’s prompted this post and others, already taking shape, on turning points in the past and their impact on my life today. Now, ready to read something new (the wishes came true), I finally feel excited to write something new too.
* Let’s take a moment to appreciate the work of the translators. Without their skill, talent and dedication, most of the titles mentioned in this post would never have touched so many lives, including mine. Hard Boiled & Hard Luck: Michael Emmerich; The Wind-up Bird Chronicle: Jay Rubin (Japanese-English); Der Scherz: Susanna Roth (Czech-German).
Finding inspiration in the pages of books from the past. Image credit: pexels via pixabay