JR: At this point you’re all hearing about The Imperfectionists, or you should be. You can read my review here. As soon as I heard about Tom Rachman and his brilliant debut I contacted him and he jumped at the chance to contribute to our When We Fell in Love series. I’m thrilled to have Mr. Rachman here on the blog, and hope everyone picks up his novel, it will blow you away.
Tom Rachman – When We Fell In Love
Books were spectators at my house, lining the walls of every room, an audience peering down on my childhood: books as thick as my thigh and books as thin as my finger, books on gardening and books on Hitler, books about the brain and books about pain, books featuring hippos and books without any hippos at all.
But I disliked reading; it bored me.
My parents and my sister, by contrast, were besotted. The rustle of turning pages sounded room to room throughout our home in Vancouver. After nightfall, their routes upstairs could be traced by the discarded reading material, stuffed under sofa cushions, splayed on the carpeted stairs, bookmarked by the beds where they slept, presumably dreaming of capital letters and semicolons.
Unfortunately, I was not one of those effortlessly bookish children I encounter now and then who will burn through Middlemarch in an afternoon. I was a slow reader, an unwilling one; hopeless. Occasionally, I took down a volume, lured by a bright color scheme or a title that hinted at gunfights and bloody noses. Instead, I found dry yellow pages, black letters frowning at me.
My family attempted to induce bibliophilia, presenting me on birthdays with all manner of books, which formed a growing stack of guilt by my bedside. (In my memory,The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry is forever wobbling atop the gift pile.)
Ultimately, my father resorted to bribery. On weekends, he drove me to Granville Island market, primed me with pizza and pastries, poured espresso down me, then led me down the seedy streets of Gastown, where heroin addicts staggered out of alleyways, strip bars advertised noontime pint specials, and Vancouver housed its finest used-book shop.
Once safely inside, my father piled volumes onto my outstretched arms, focusing on writers popular during his own reading prime, London of the 1950s to 1960s:Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler; Inside the Whale and Other Essays by George Orwell; Brighton Rock by Graham Greene.
Despite his efforts, however, I remained a reluctant reader.
Then, at age fifteen, I plucked from our shelves a book that had long gazed down upon me but that – due to my recent growth spurt – I could now gaze down upon myself. It was a novel, The Last of the Just, by the French writer André Schwarz-Bart, in a Secker & Warburg edition whose cover, weight and paper-smell are recorded in me still.
I finished it, an uncommon feat in those days. I remember that moment – closing the cover as I lay on the bed, wishing not to speak or to hear speech for some while, encased in the pages still and unready to be pulled from them.
What strikes me now about The Last of the Just is how little I recall of it. I remember its opening sentence – “Our eyes register the light of dead stars” – and I remember the effect of its ending. But hundreds of pages lay between and they only flutter in memory, impressions with no detail.
I haven’t re-read it and would be afraid to, afraid of revising my affection. Instead, I have pursued other books for that same euphoric effect. Here is a random selection I have loved over the years: Enemies, a Love Story by Isaac Bashevis Singer; Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell; Great Expectations by Charles Dickens; To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf; Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh; On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin.
They, and many others, now line the walls of my home in Italy. My fondness for these books, I realize, is directed toward the objects themselves. Arrayed around me, their spines creased where I handled them, each volume is the physical manifestation of what I felt for its contents. They are books quite like those that observed my childhood, and their patience finally converted me.