Book I’m reading today: ‘The hidden Europe: what Eastern Europe can teach us today’*
Job I’m working on today: Atomic force microscopy
Today’s events: I went for a walk
*Still. I will finish it though, because it’s interesting, although it could have done with some editing before publication. And also because it sets the stage for my next epic read – rereading Rebecca West’s ‘Black lamb and grey falcon’, something I read in my 20s and have been meaning to go back to ever since the last Balkan conflict.
It’s unusual for me not to finish a book. However, three classics that sit on my shelves with dusty bookmarks part way through include ‘The magic mountain’, ‘Remembrance of things past’ and ‘War and peace’.
The first I started in order to read at the same time that my then partner was reading it. I thought it might give us something to talk about. It didn’t. Apart from my astonishment at how much the characters seemed to eat without needing to buy bigger clothes each week, and the attraction of a fur-lined sleeping bag to snuggle into on the balcony, I didn’t really have very much to say about the book. I plodded on, but in the end gave up and have no intention of ever returning.
‘Remembrance’ is different. I started reading it when I was working in a library and had a 50 minute train commute each way every day. The slow, meandering development of plot (such as there is), full of evocative descriptions, is ideal for a repetitive train journey. I felt that I didn’t have to concentrate too much, that I could just let myself be carried away. And it didn’t really matter if on Monday morning I couldn’t quite remember what had last happened in my Friday evening read – momentous events essential to the plot occurred very rarely. I loved it. I was reading the C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin translation, and I had finished two of the three volumes by the time my year-long contract ended. Sadly, because I was young and starting out in library work, I had scruples about stealing the third volume from the library (which had never been taken out), so that’s as far as I got. I always intended to get my own copy and read it all right through again from the beginning, but for a long time it was out of print. Then, several years ago, I bought a new one-volume paperback edition in French. I dutifully read the first chapter at the start of every summer holiday for years, but never got any further: heat, wine and sun loungers turned out not to be the ideal accompaniments. I recently bought the revised translation (on kindle), ‘In search of lost time’ by D.J. Enright: this is my project for the long winter nights this year.
‘War and peace’ was another let’s-read-this-together project, this time with my brother, when he was in hospital for heart surgery. My brother never reads, period. But when his surgeon gave him a copy of ‘War and peace’ as a present, he understood the sub-text immediately (‘you’re not going anywhere for a long time’) and got on with it. My role was to provide encouragement by listening to his opinions with some idea of what they were about and always being behind him in the reading to give him a sense of achievement, since I’m the literary one/speed reader in our family. Neither of these roles was difficult to comply with. I eventually got bogged down in yet another extremely detailed and descriptive battle scene, and was perhaps more relieved than my brother when he was discharged and I could consign the book to performing its more useful purpose as insulation. Other people have cavity wall insulation. I have groaning bookshelves covering every square metre of wall space.
I haven’t got very far with today’s job. I work best with tight deadlines – give me leeway, and I’ll grab it. After a few hours, I went for a walk instead.
One of my major goals at the moment is to start going out every day for a walk or bike ride. I used to do this before I had a back operation, but somehow I never got back into the habit afterwards, despite getting the lovely whippet to give me motivation. I used to like it, it used to make me feel more alive, and both I and the whippet would benefit if I resumed the custom. I started with my resolution last week. It was discouraging. I saw a roe deer, which was lovely, but the fact that it was immediately followed by three abandoned dogs in hot pursuit was less heartwarming. Later, a car passed on the track, and the driver stopped for a chat. I didn’t know him from Adam, but as usual, he knew all about me. I thought no more about it until he knocked on my door several hours later, presenting me with a gift of three tiny trout and inviting himself in for a coffee. As he started to smoke a cigarette containing additives I don’t use, and asked me if I believed in extraterrestrial life, I realised it had been a mistake to invite him in. I’m not very good at direct action, so I just stared at the floor and mumbled monosyllabic answers. Sadly, he was to present himself at my door for another three consecutive days before he seemed to get the message that we are not bosom buddies. Despite this inauspicious start, atomic force microscopy has forced me outdoors again today. I have no news to report about this walk, which is an improvement on my last one.