In her new memoir, Rebecca Solnit compares books to stars, owing to the time-lag between the original idea in the author’s head, and the moment, many years later, when the reader gets hold of it. She explains how readers engage with what the author was passionately immersed in long before, sometimes only because of the time it takes a book to be written, edited, printed, and distributed. When you think about it, the time-lag between writing and distribution, makes the possibility of a reader finding a book relevant, or interesting, a chancy business. Perhaps this is why some people give up on books; they want to consume content with a smaller space-time lag, stories that are more directly relevant to today’s world.
As for me, reading continues to be the ultimate form of relaxation, a break from the news cycle and worry. I don’t mind the time-lag between the authors’ pre-quarantine freedom and my confinement; if anything, I marvel at how scripts from a star-like distance can illuminate present conditions. Since entering quarantine, on March 16th, I’ve read the following:
A Line Made By Walking, Sara Baume (fiction 2016, ordered pre-quarantine)
Actress, Anne Enright (fiction 2020, ordered pre-quarantine)
Recollections of my Non-existence, Rebecca Solnit (memoir 2020, ordered pre-quarantine)
Untamed, Glennon Doyle (memoir/ self-help 2020, ordered in quarantine)
Handiwork, Sara Baume (artistic memoir 2020 preordered pre-quarantine/ published during quarantine)
The Seas, Samantha Hunt (fiction 2004, ordered pre- quarantine)
The Professor and the Siren, Giuseppe di Lampedusa (fiction 1957, ordered in quarantine)
Watching: My Brilliant Friend; The Story of a New Name, Directed by Saverio Costanzo. Based on the books by Elena Ferrante
Certainly, nothing on the list was intended for a quarantined readership; even if four of the books have 2020 publication dates, with Handiwork by Sara Baume coming out as late as March 26th. There’s no denying that words land differently when you’re self-isolated, and only allowed out to buy groceries. For example, the recurring metaphor of the unlocked door, in Glennon Doyle’s self-help memoir about reclaiming female wilderness, was intended as an inspirational call to witness the option of leaving unsatisfactory situations and roaming free; these doors, they’re not even locked, she promises. However, from the position of confinement, when governments and our own consciences are forcing us to lockdown, the unlocked door trope feels nonsensical. I can’t help but think that if Doyle were writing her guide for a quarantined world, her metaphors, and even her thoughts would have been different.
But, on the other hand, reading Untamed, and my other feminist memoir – Solnit’s – during this time of pause, presents a kind of chrysalis for new ideas to take hold and develop. Interestingly, both books provide a physical example of these chrysalises: it’s young Solnit’s writing annex in an African-American neighbourhood in San Franscisco; it’s the room/womb at the bottom of Doyle’s house, where her sister hid and regrouped after the explosion of her first marriage, and emerged as a woman with a vision. Such places cut off from the ordinary flow of space-time, enable reflection, planning, and practice on a small scale, as far as the limits of the confined world permit, before our horizons expand again, and life with all its distractions rushes in. Solnit and Doyle have inspired me to be moved and act on behalf of causes I care about, something I wasn’t doing enough of before quarantine. Both women write persuasively about how my good, and that of humanity, are at the deepest level, inextricable; and this has never been more apparent than in quarantine, where it’s an almost symmetrical effort to look after my well-being and that of others.
Small, interesting worlds. All the books I’ve loved during quarantine have them. I don’t want the sweeping narrative that boomerangs me from one side of the planet to the other; I want writing that makes me excited about what I can experience now, from my little studio space and sea-view balcony. Sara Baume writes how the birds I want to see, the birds I want to recognise, are the ones that live – or visit, or get lost – in the places where I live. These words are a comforting companion to the obligatory constrained perspective, the forced slowing-down of confinement; they’re an invitation to look again, to begin a breathless search, for what’s near and elusive. There’s so much I’ve missed, by not paying attention; so much to catch up on, if I start.
Baume’s Handiwork, is also pattern for life and objects in a microcosm. She assigns different stations to the house where she and her partner live and make things; where distinct tasks such as gluing, cutting and painting, have their proper place. Though I have a tendency to work in all parts of my studio, I made a quick doodle of the space, and the types of making that could be specific to different areas. Even as a fantasy, it gives me the reassurance of a real plan.
While Baume’s book reads as a map for life in quarantine, others on my pile bring me what I’ve most missed – my beloved sea. These past few weeks of intermittent sun, the sea has been my forbidden fruit – even Zurriola, the wavy, made-for-surfers beach, which is the only one I’m able to see these days, has lately resembled a turquoise lake. The sea is a break from the small places, the sense of making do with restricted possibilities. It’s turned up in Solnit’s memoir, in the second chapter that takes a break from her life and catches a bus all the way to Ocean Beach, where she can see the Pacific and eternity. It’s tempted me in di Lampedusa’s peacock-coloured Sicilian waters, in the Ferrante screen adaptations, where the island of Ischia with its pornographically blue waters is a break from the square confines of the dusty neighbourhood. The signorina must go and rest on Ischia, the signorina is too exhausted, the heroine’s mother mocks. Italy, only the width of France away, and suddenly inaccessible, is another forbidden fruit. I think enviously how that sea, that sand, those swimsuit frolics are real; that they’ve been captured on film, and that beautiful place goes on without me, without any other human visitor.
Closer to my current experience of the water, is Samantha Hunt’s novel, The Seas, where the inhabitants of a Northern American seaside town, have been turned odd by looking out to the ocean. Passages like this – the street was dreaming it was the silver asphalt of fish scales – draw the tide up to my stone balcony, and make me see everything as sea-matter; for example, an escaped cellophane glove dragging across the concrete, becomes a dozy jellyfish. On a metafictional note, I even had a drip from my bathroom ceiling, to match the mermaid heroine’s predisposition to leaks, and only now, has the balance of wet to dry been restored.