Last week I read JM Coetzee, Youth, the second of his three fictionalized memoirs. Boyhood tracks him before and Summertime tracks him after but Youth is his escape to London from South Africa in the early 1960s.
There is the general coming-of-age narrative but more specifically there is the journey-to-London-with-ambitions-in-art narrative and I could not help but pose Youth against Joe Jackson, A Cure For Gravity. Delusions of grandeur and alienation and anxiety. Of course, Joe Jackson comes to London from Portsmouth, England in 1975 or so and JM Coetzee or his fictionalized self comes to London from South Africa in 1962 or so. These are violently different things. But the story is the same. And VS Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival – another colonial, come to England to be a writer. Indian, to England via Trinidad vs. Dutch, to England via South Africa. But while The Enigma of Arrival is long and sad, Youth is short and horrible.
In the end, all I know about London is everything I know about my favourite band, Saint Etienne. The security of a favourite band, a favourite author. In Youth, JM Coetzee or his fictionalized self lives on Archway road, goes to Maida Vale; these places and names have meaning because my favourite band is from London. And I couldn’t help but read Youth next to Saint Etienne. London, real vs. imagined. I’ve never been to England and all I can do is wrap these fictional Londons around each other and themselves, a great big incredible imaginary city. Apparently London actually exists but the thought that I could go to the airport, buy a ticket, and be there tomorrow? It won’t sound like Saint Etienne and it won’t look like Saint Etienne. It might feel a lot like Youth and I’d rather not know, either way.
I sat inside The Enigma of Arrival for three weeks and in the middle I didn’t really read it at all but the spectre of it all managed to block any other book from view. What a small, sad book – how gorgeous and wonderful, over years and an ocean and mostly set in a small cottage in his mind.
And I know, had I been through it all in a weekend the impact would have been less, if anything at all; hardly a mark left. Three weeks inside with VS Naipaul. And I went to the bookstore two weeks ago, just before I became sick, and all I could buy was VS Naipaul, two more books: In A Free State and The Writer and The World, which is 500+ pages of collected essays. On the back of The Enigma Of Arrival, from the St Petersburg Times: “..maybe the most hypnotic book I’ve ever read.” And that’s true, I am glad it is through and I look at it now as a state of disbelief I went through. How many more pages and I might have thrown it all aside but as it is, a sad and wonderful book.
I looked at novels, a whole stack of them next to my bed, on the floor, but I went on into A Peace To End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East by David Fromkin, a history prof in Boston. Written in 1989. I forget that this is where I come from. For four years I was excited about Canadian history but in Summer 2005 I took my first history course after declaring my major: HIST 225, Europe from French Revolution to WWI I think. I looked at one of the texts, I remember, The Decline and Fall of the Habsburg Empire and just dreaded it, what a horrible dull thing but when I read it I couldn’t stop. And I went through the little text on the Balkans in a day. I bought A Peace To End All Peace at PulpFiction expecting to let it sit around until maybe, one day, someday I might read it. But here, three months later, it’s all I want to read. From The Great Game to The Hidden War to the Habsburgs all over again.