#Fridayflash A life in books

Books I always thought I would read before I died: War and Peace, Rembrance of things Past, Ulysses.

Then they told me I was going to die.

How long does it take to read a book? I wondered.

I tried to read Ulysses once but I found I couldn’t. There had been too much hype and I couldn’t see through it. I wish I had found it years ago when my brain was elastic and plastic. I wish I had found it before I knew, on some train station bench, dog eared and lovingly thumbed. I would have put it in my bag and gone home and laid down on my stomach on my single bed and forgotton to eat. Ate of lexicon’s bread. But as a young man it might have been beyond me, now it’s far behind.

It’s in middle age that death catches up with you, taps you on the shoulder. It’s not that you ignore it before, it just doesn’t occur to you in your twenties, in your thirties you catch it in the periphery but there’s plenty else to distract you, the trajetory of your career, of your clothes in a black bag after the affair has been found out and in your forties it is at your side, after that it stares you in the face from behind the mirror.

Forget Ulysses, life itself is a stream of consciousness if you ever have time to get out of the stream and take a look at it. And there’s nothing that gets you out of the stream like a short sharp shock. They gave me six months, then they said it could be any day from now. There’s nothing like a death sentence to make you want to be a character out of a Marquez novel. Like that dubious protagonist out of Memories of my Melancholy Whores, he wants to ravish a sixteen year old girl and then cannot out of tenderness. Sexual congress with youth as an elixir is a cliche as old as they make them and I cannot sign up to lazy living.

Sitting is as good as doing as long as the sun is out. Watching footsteps of light tap forward and back on the living room floor, watching plant’s chlorophyllic heaving, listening to the wash of traffic on the nearby arterial, turning the pages of a novel that took three years to write and a day, like this, to read, all that time crammed in. So in the sweet acrid pages is the smell of optimism, rage and decline, the hush of crushed leaves, the spill of endeavour. And the man found the spiritual in Steinbeck’s ‘To a God Unknown’ in the cathedral vaults of that ancient, ubiquitous forest, light in beams like a UFO enthusiasts dream. Steinbeck and Spielburg juxtaposed in the elevations of the soul. Or if I could go like Howard’s elderly folk in the movie ‘Cocoon’ to the alien world of the neverending. Or if I could sit by the rockpools of my youth and search for anenomes, prise limpets and cockles off the black rocks, trail seaweed along the long strand, leap along the cliff edges. If I could stay out between breakfast and supper and fold time into those little ridges that you see at the shore where the sand is wet before my mother called me in for tea. If I could shake her out of the blanket she used to tuck me in with, she never seems gone far. If my life was still unknowable like a great ocean like it is when you look forward from the start. If I could set out on Lewis’ Dawn Treader to the world’s end and come to something. I make a quiet ending. I could bungee jump into oblivion. I could visit the remaining wonders of the world before they fade. I could gaze upon Machu Picchu or the Old Mountain and I could gasp, as I will gasp my last. I could shout out loud.

But instead I will make a honeycomb of my humanity. Everything inside, in my head, time, love, memory interlocking. I will not do, I will read. I will read until my eyes fade and through resonance will recollect everything I loved about being alive. I am deciduous. I will tear out the lines that speak to me, sing and scatter them about my failing feet and fade into the whispers of books.

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20 comments

  1. Gorgeous as always Alison. I love that last line (all of them, but especially the last), so much I read it five times.
    Thank you so much for sharing your amazing talent with us.

  2. That life is a stream of consciousness is doubtless one of Joyce’s main reasons for applying it to literature. Literature is usually about life, to at least a half-degree. But if I was dying and picked up Ulysses, I probably wouldn’t finish either – whether I was bleeding out, or simply not in the mood to put up with a guy who’s avoiding his wife.

  3. Gorgeous stuff, Alison. I could die reading. Or writing. Definitely NOT cleaning. Lots of lovely lines, but I am very partial to: But instead I will make a honeycomb of my humanity. Peace…

  4. Wasn’t planning to read any firdayflash this morning, but your first lines peeked out between other items on my Googlereader list, grabbed me and made me click through. A lovely sentiment here and some beautiful phrasing as it builds to the final letting go. Thanks for this, super stuff.

  5. The best compliment I can ever pay a writer is to say that their words spell out my own thoughts and feelings and how I can relate, intimately, to what they write. This one, more than the others, has touched me this way. Perhaps it’s something about being in my 40s now, endings resonate.

    The last paragraph sums us up beautifully.

    “But instead I will make a honeycomb of my humanity. Everything inside, in my head, time, love, memory interlocking. I will not do, I will read. I will read until my eyes fade and through resonance will recollect everything I loved about being alive. I am deciduous. I will tear out the lines that speak to me, sing and scatter them about my failing feet and fade into the whispers of books.”

  6. I received 3 volume Proust for my 21st birthday from my parents (at my suggestion since they didn’t understand me enough to know what to buy me) and it remains unread to this day. I also have Ulysses on my shelf – a work colleague and I resolved this February past to read it simultaneously to support one another through it. Neither of us pushed through on the resolution.

    I think part of my problem is that death tapped me on the shoulder way before middle age. All artists one way and another are dialoguing with death in their art.

    M x

  7. This is just beautiful. I couldn’t imagine being told I had six months… not with the backlist of things I need to read. :)

  8. So many books to read, so little time. Death has been seated comfortably in the forefront of my writing since I was nine, so I’ll have to agree with Marc. This was a particularly heart wrenching portrait of the realization though. Beautifully written.

  9. I’ve read Ulysses and the first volume of Proust but neither would be on my reading list, if I was only given six months left to read. Apart from having more than half a year’s worth of books in my TBR towers, I can hardly bring myself to think about so little reading time and I would, no doubt, waste a fair bit of it trying to decide which books to read!

    Wonderful piece of writing. Your last sentence especially resonated with me.

  10. Quite lovely stream of consciousness. The allusion to being a character in Marquez novel brought to mind the marvelous first line in ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

    As others have pointed out, the last paragraph is just breathlessly gorgeous.

  11. Wow – I haven’t read your #flashfriday before. What have I been missing?

    There were so many points that sparkled. They literally jumped out and hit me: make a honeycomb of my humanity; after that it stares you in the face from behind the mirror; Forget Ulysses, life itself is a stream of consciousness; Sexual congress with youth as an elixir is a cliche as old as they make them and I cannot sign up to lazy living…

    …to name just a few. Stunning.
    Kristi

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