I remember a stormy night when I was about eleven. We were living in Nice. I don’t remember what prompted me. I stood on a chair to reach the top shelf of my mother’s bookcase where she kept – along with other never-read books – The Complete Works of Shakespeare. I sat at the kitchen table, ploughing my way through Macbeth. I couldn’t understand any of the language, so I looked up almost every other word – without much success – in the Concise Oxford. Electrified by the flashes of lightning and thunderclaps bursting outside, I was mesmerised by this hermetic text I could not fathom, convinced that within its lines were locked up great secrets I yearned to discover.
About a year later, my mother authorised the local library to allow me access to the adult section. After my first visit there, I came back home with a book about Confucianism. Only one sentence remains anchored in my memory: I spent my entire life trying to change myself but have still failed. The only words I remember. The only ones I understood, probably because the paramount importance of self-improvement was much advocated at meal times. Still, when I finally returned the book to the library, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction, as though I’d been given the key to important knowledge. Where this knowledge was stored, or what it concerned, I had no idea, but at least having the key to it was a good start.
That same winter, I got the mumps. I was kept indoors, warm, and waited on for a month. I was allowed more television than usual, and my mother brought me books from the library. Owing to my illness, the self-improvement programme was put on hold, and she did look disapprovingly at my reading for the sheer pleasure of it. I asked her to borrow Joseph Bédier’s rendition of Tristan et Iseut and that was the first book I remember reading which filled me with magic, and infected me with a passion for Mediaeval literature, art and music. And words. Beautiful words.
When I was fifteen, we moved to Rome. One day, I found my mother’s copy of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra lying on the coffee table. She’d enthused about it over dinner, so I picked it up and began to read it. I was bowled over by the histrionic wit of this man. Shaken, turned inside out and zapped with new energy. A God that danced. It was as though my brain had just expanded so violently, it was about to break free from the constrictions of my skull…. even though I had no idea what Nietzsche actually meant. I just felt that he was telling me that there was something out there that was so big and awesome, I wanted to access it too.
The summer after my sixteenth birthday was the summer I was traumatised by Dostoyevsky. For some time now, there had been an awareness on the part of my mother and grandmother that my Russian was embarrassingly bad, given that it had been the first language I had learnt as a toddler. Although my speaking was fluent, my spelling was atrocious and I read one syllable at a time, like a five-year-old. What neither of them chose to be aware of was – for reasons pertaining to a twisted, dissatisfied teenage psyche I eventually grew out of – my deep dislike of the language.
So, that summer, judging the French school three-month holiday period to be “too long for doing nothing”, my grandmother decided to traumatise me with Crime and Punishment. As she was also teaching me to knit, she saw the hot Roman afternoons as the perfect opportunity to combine manual and intellectual education. So, while all sensible Roman residents would sink into a refreshing siesta, she and I would sit in the shady part of our balcony and take it in turns to read aloud and knit. My knitting being as unenthusiastic as my Russian, when it was my turn to read, my grandmother would correct my pronunciation while undoing several rows of uneven loops. Thinking about my schoolmates, who were probably bathing in the Sardinian sea or strolling in the Alto Adige mountains, I resented my lot, hated knitting, hated Dostoyevsky and (almost) hated my grandmother. By the end of the summer, I was less familiar with the crime aspect of the novel than with the punishment.
For many years, I hardly ever read fiction, except when it was prescribed by school or university. I found it hard to shake off the deeply-inculcated notion that you read in order to acquire information or improve yourself, and that novels, precisely because fictional in nature, were somewhat less valid forms of literature. I envied people who said they loved to read, who described the pleasures of immersing themselves in a book. I knew I was missing out on something but didn’t know how to remedy the situation. Once again, I felt there was a whole, wonderful world out there but, this time, it wasn’t my intellectual inadequacy that prevented me from accessing it – it was something deep inside me, so intrinsically part of me that I didn’t know how to root it out.
The novel for me that opened the doors to other novels was Miss Garnet’s Angel, by Salley Vickers. It was the summer of 2000, and I was attracted by the cover design: the reproduction of a Renaissance angel. I picked up the book from the table display at Waterstone’s and read the back cover. I saw that the story took place in Venice. I’d just returned after a few days there, and longed to go back. I bought the book and became totally engrossed in it. I loved the main plot being interwoven with the apocryphal story of Tobias and the Archangel Raphael. I loved Salley Vickers’s acute observation of human behaviour and her deep insight into emotions. I loved her descriptions of Venice.
With Miss Garnet’s Angel, my reading habits changed. Reading suddenly became something I gave myself permission to do simply for the fun of it.
My favourite Saturday morning activity became browsing in charity shops. The advantage of cheap, second-hand books was that it allowed me to take risks on novels and buy them on a whim. As a result, I discovered many wonderful books.
Fifteen years on, I love reading. I feel free to pick up whatever I feel I will enjoy, whether it’s Booker Prize material or a thoroughly enjoyable crime novel. I just swim among its words, let myself be carried away by the story, and form new acquaintances with the characters.