Let me open with some rather alarming news: I have bought forty-three books, so far, this year—and April’s just begun; I am, however, quick to defend myself by saying most of them were unearthed from secondhand bookstores and sale bins. I don’t know how this compares to my buying of the previous years—I don’t like to face the music, you see—but I am panicking about it more this time around. Why do I keep buying books at a time when I am least predisposed to actually reading them? How awkwardly—how unnaturally—I seem to be reading lately!
My brain has atrophied, I self-diagnose. And I am quick to heap the blame, if prodded; after all, surely I can’t be accountable for my own inability to respond to the provocations of literature? The heights of marrow-sucking the past couple of months of weekdays have reached are close to convincing my poor brain [my even more wretched soul!] that it’s best for everyone involved if whatever intelligent faculties I pride myself on having simply find a shadowy corner to mewl in. The weekends are too delicious a respite—naps must be made, people must be loved, secondhand bookstores to trawl, inihaw to fill my belleh. And naps must be made. What books I crawl toward are designed to send me into a purely visceral paradise—or, you know, books that are, simply home: Romance novels by old standbys like Mary Balogh.
The inevitable victims of this restlessness, of my reading malaise: Sontag and Irving. I haven’t opened Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover for about a week now, despite my initial excitement. It’s been too exhausting, too rich for what my heavily damaged faculties (hah!) can accommodate. Its history-and-romance was a lure, as was its brand of story-telling. Set mostly in Naples, right beneath the shadow of Vesuvius, the novel (so far) tracks the life—but mostly the sentiments—of The Cavaliere, or the Sir John William Hamilton who authored the treatise mentioned above. I was drawn to the science-of-its-time, I was convinced I could love a book about a man who loved a volcano and all its volatilities above all else. I wanted it lush, and I wanted it sprawling—but only if that expansiveness concerned the inner life, as this novel has been (despite The Cavaliere’s gaze repeatedly wandering to Vesuvius, yearning for plumes of smoke). And I wanted prose that consumed.
This is The Volcano Lover on the Cavaliere: “His is the hyperactivity of the heroic depressive. He ferried himself past one vortex of melancholy after another by means of an astonishing spread of enthusiasms.” On acute sadness: “He was waiting for catastrophe. This is the corruption of deep melancholy, that its sense of helplessness reaches out to include others, that it so easily imagines (and therefore wills) a more general calamity.” On a happiness that must eventually come: “Nothing can match the elation of the chronically melancholy, when joy arrives. But before being allowed to arrive, it must lay siege to the weary heart. Let me in, it mews, it bellows. The heart must be forced.” And, of course, on reading: “If he doesn’t know what to do with his hungry eyes, he has that other, always adjacent interior: a book.”
My abandonment of John Irving’s In One Person is more disappointing. (In many ways, I am not at all surprised that the Sontag got the better of me.) John Irving has always been an old friend—I will always love The World According to Garp, and I say that having read it three times. I grew up with Irving, him being one of my mother’s old standbys. And it’s a little hurtful that trying out Irving on my own this time around, we just couldn’t hit it off. In One Person is Irving’s take on male bisexuality. Sexuality inherently intrigues me (this is not odd, no?)—and the promise of the Irving treatment (madcap yet heartfelt) guaranteed success.
But I’ve been finding In One Person tedious. There’s no remarkable strangeness to the characters, the situations they find themselves in aren’t so out-of-this-world (that is, there are no bears in their houses, for one). The generosity I’ve come to expect from Irving has been checked in this novel. I do like it, I do; but it’s not an Irving I am loving. It’s rather normal—and it’s not normalcy that I run to Irving for.
Irving and Sontag join the growing list of books that I have set aside due to myriad reasons and excuses: I cannot wait for “the flat affect” to turn (as with Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?); I grow weary of reading a book for someone else (as with Philip Hoare’s The Whale and Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way); I am not at all compelled, mostly because it seems too easy to fall into (as with Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood); I am too aware that I cannot give this book the attention and the heart it deserves (as with Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage); I figured a friend could read it better than I could in my state (as with Lars Iyer’s Exodus). There’s definitely more, if I care to rouse myself from my bed and look about me for the books strewn everywhere—left, most probably, at the place where I decided, “No more, not now.” [I see you, Richard Yates’ A Good School, there on your perch on the coffee table, right beneath the bucket of wilted flowers.]
But I soldier on. I pick up one book, I pick up another.