Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Fear of reading

Eighteen months ago, in the monochrome sunlight of a January afternoon, someone close to me was involved in a road traffic accident. He sustained two obvious injuries: a cracked bone in his wrist - which still aches - and a whack on the back of the head a smile's width from his right ear. He has no memory of the accident, no memory indeed of the next four days in hospital. The cold air of the car park on the final day is all he feels now.

Since then, including another nine days in hospital after the skull fracture was discovered, I have wondered how to slough off this thick critical skin in order to ... in order to ...

And that is the problem, if there is one. There is no clear object of this wondering. In order, perhaps, to write differently. So what would it mean to write as one imagines writing rather than in this hesitant, potholed manner? As I waited in a hospital bed, I imagined this other life of writing in which the word disappears. Little has changed.

I have written before about those nine days, how listening to a documentary on the pharaoh Akhenaten caused an obscure epiphany which later I assumed was due to the morphine. However, recent events have challenged that assumption.

Akhenaten had ordered that the capital city be moved from Thebes into the desert 200 miles away. The documentary featured new archaeological discoveries that revealed the disastrous consequences for his subjects. What stirred me was not these human facts but the glorious and terrifying absurdity of Akhenaten's project. It demonstrates the same impressive or horrendous folly as those in fictional works: William Golding's The Spire for example, and Herzog's Fitzcarraldo and, more familiar to me, those of the many characters created by Bernhard: Roithamer who builds a cone-shaped house in the middle of a forest, Reger who studies every masterpiece in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna until he finds a flaw in each, even Bernhard himself aged eight deciding to cycle to his aunt's house in Salzburg, twenty-two miles away. A creative writer may respond by sketching a novel idea based on the crazy plans of an individual - perhaps Naguib Mahfouz's Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth is it as far as the pharaoh is concerned - but, in my sedated condition, I imagined a writing project that would itself be the absurdity, something itself animated by impossibility.


As I noted in that post, nothing specific came of my epiphany. Since then I have wanted to write about the accident and this strange time in hospital but have also felt uncomfortable about discussing an experience that seems hopelessly subjective. The details of the accident were also sub judice. The police were unable to release the witness statements until the case was resolved. I had to wait an indefinite period before I could find out what a buckled rear wheel couldn't tell me. In June this year, out of the blue, the case was concluded and, soon after, I received the statements in the post. This was a reality I had been unable to anticipate. It was unreal. For over a year I had imagined the permutations of what may have happened, but had failed. I couldn't imagine anything. Perhaps one day, I thought, I will experience a flashback to the shock of the impact. But no, nothing beyond the memory of an uncertain point in the road. (If this is what death is like, I thought, then it's fine; it's nothing.). And then I became uncomfortable about the possibility of the reports triggering such memories or, if they did not, then planting indelible images in my head. This would be experience without experience, I thought; history without event. But really, it already is. All I could do was to submit to more.

As I opened the envelope and flipped A4 sheets over and over to get through the formal police checklists and onto the handwritten and typed statements, I felt a slight derangement, an almost physical vertigo. This is the fear of reading. This is why I cannot read crime or horror novels; books which bring great suffering into being for no other reason than generic necessity. It is a terrible addition to actuality. Actuality occurs once but literature never ends; every moment in a novel is eternal, every character immortal. Fiction makes something happen forever. This is what stirred me when I heard the story of Akhenaten's new city: the real presence of the imagination.

Worse still, the addition to actuality - the repetition of what's not there - is never enough. No matter how resourceful the writer, the writing is never enough. Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, possibly the most remarkable novel published in our belated lifetime, was roundly condemned for its doubling of real massacres yet, in their industrial haste, the staff reviewers mistook the narrator's descriptive restraint, its reserve towards empathy, for the author's callousness toward others' suffering and, much worse, his capitalising on it. Except Aue is clear that his experience of the massacres is itself not enough and that the suffering and death he witnesses, and then inflicts, reveals an unavowable space he cannot traverse. It haunts him and his story. Aue describes a mass killing to his colleague Hohenegg: "the spectator can never fully grasp the experience of the deceased". Hohenegg replies: "But this gap exists only for the person who watches." Aue's narrative is the revelation of that gap; the reader watches. His punishment by those seeking vengeance might be said to be the narrative itself in which his crime and punishment recurs eternally. (Perhaps our punishment is to witness the extent of most professional reviewers' inepititude.)

So I submitted and looked at the witness statements. One saw the cyclist fly into the air still holding the handlebars, then land to lie stock-still across the tarmac. The other witness got out of his car and ran over. After a minute or so the cyclist opened his eyes, sat up straight but did not respond to questions. Blood ran out of his right ear. Then he insisted on moving to the side of the road.

That was it really. I read the words with a forensic attention, as if each was an unrequited love letter, yet what I really wanted wasn't there. I wanted to see what was not seen. Why was the fracture below the overhang of the skull? If my head struck the tarmac (there is no curb), how was this part damaged rather than the crown? Perhaps it hit the frame of the car, but wouldn't that have been more damaging at such speed? Reading the statements has not been enough; answers have become questions.

What remains? The legacy of traumatic brain injury for one. My inner ear was damaged so I have had to retrain my sense of balance (this also has a weird side effect that mimics chronic fatigue syndrome). I may be able to cycle again as a result and so regain the freedom I lost. My sense of smell has gone and may never return - this also diminishes the sense of taste - while concentration and short-term memory levels are lower. On the plus side, I think my writing has improved; that is, has become more closely attuned to what concerns me and renews the fascination with books with which I began twenty-four years ago. This beginning and the time in hospital tell me that, while reading and writing are not enough, life isn't, either.

8 comments:

  1. Fear of reading, indeed. So sorry to hear there are still no conclusive answers as to what happened, Stephen. Thanks for this terrific post.

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  2. That's a great piece, Steve. Thanks.

    I wonder if a true fear of reading or of any work of art (as opposed to a titillation or mild anticipation) predates an epiphany, or at least is a glimpse of a moment of unveiling, an intuition of something important about to happen? As if the fear is an essential part of revelation.

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  3. Thanks Genevieve.

    And Matt, I wonder too. Maybe more or other than fear.

    The picture, I want to say, looks toward the hill which I climbed moments before the accident.

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  4. For reasons unknown, this post has left me a little speechless. I got goosebumps reading it. Perhaps it is my deep fear of experiencing an accident on my bike, or some kind of trauma that leaves me unable to read, that hit home for me? Whatever the case, thanks for writing this...

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  5. Startling piece of writing.

    Stark & graphic, yet distant: that must have been the way those witness statements appeared to you.

    Your frame—the futile quest to somehow recapture the accident—is echoed in Tom McCarthy's remarkable novel Remainder, a theme I'm sure you recognize.

    Idea: what about a brain-injured man who believes his thoughts (his self? his life?) are somehow leaking out the remaining crack in his skull, infecting the world around him? Trying to recapture lost moments, ideas, life, etc.

    Best,
    Jim H.

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  6. Kimbofo - more thanks. It's odd how accepting one becomes in these circumstances.

    Jim - I like that; distance is my Beatrice. And I read and admired Remainder of course but made the connection only this Monday gone. And now I slap my forehead recognising something else in the novel I had not done before.

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  7. That is a powerful piece of writing, genuinely moving. Thank you. I shall make catching up on some of your older posts a theme for the week.

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  8. Jim ! (wow), I read this blog on my iphone while away from my computer a few days ago and the exact same thought occurred to me. I thought the incident was almost like a "restaging" description. Thanks for commenting because I thought I was mad. Steve, I lurk, I read, I follow. I even buy some of the books (Next Up, The Kindly Ones). So keep up the good work. Also, did you know that Michael Hutchence lost his sense of smell and it sent him into a depression, so watch out for that. :)

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