They both were glad to walk out of the bar. The beer-fueled din, the clangorous eruptions from assorted hubbubs of revelers, the blast of forgettable pop music and the whoops and rumpus of excitable under-forties were all just too inimical to the business of man-to-woman conversation. But where is one to go on a Friday night? Especially as on such nights all the bars on Upper Street spill over, like muffin tops, with punters. She had never liked bars, full of drinking yobbos, preferring instead cosy haunts where girlfriends “catch up” on the latest gossip and news; so the fresh air and relative quiet were rather welcome. He needed a fag. She had started smoking again since they met, feeling rather religiously that couples who smoked together stuck (or more likely, stank) together. They both reached for their packs and matches. He: Marlboro. She: very much Benson and Hedges.
She was the first to speak: “So, come again, why won’t you commit?” The smoke left her mouth as she drew first blood. The ghostly weft of nicotine rose hesitantly above their heads and then upwards to the sky; an imploring sacrificial fragrance to the goddess of love.
He was silent for a moment, pausing deliberately; but not for effect but in deliberation of the best way to proceed. If you were a parent questioning a child you would be convinced that child was about to spin a magnificent and implausible yarn. But he was scheming no lie. Yet for a few moments more his right foot nervously played noughts and crosses with a disinterested pebble. He breathed deeply and began: “Well, I’m worried about the sex,” but then he caught her quizzical eye and the beginning upturn in her lips and quickly added,”But wait, don’t laugh. It is important. I used to be married.”
“Uh-oh”. This was news. They had been seeing each other for about six weeks.
“I was married. Her name’s Phoebe and she was from Durham.” He stopped and then corrected himself: “is from Durham.” After convincing himself that indeed his ex-wife was still alive and he hadn’t murdered her in a haze of amnesia he continued. “We were together for five years and at first we had sex all the time”. He pulled contentedly on his fag, emitting a satisfactory ahh. “All the time we fucked, I mean made love, oh fuck it, we fucked and the sex was exhilarating. Fresh and pickled. All over the place we did it and it didn’t matter what time of day or season. We even did it in church at her sister’s wedding pretending to check on the registry room down in the crypt … and can you believe it (she couldn’t, not really wanting to know why her lover was working to make her mad) – while hymns were being sung upstairs we were doing it down below? Oh boy, that was fun.”
He suddenly stopped, ostensibly to let the deafening police siren go by, but in reality he had started to sense that she didn’t like him telling her that he had liked fucking other women. So he resumed more solemnly.
“Slowly however the fire waned. Imperceptibly at first, you know, like when you’re putting on weight, I don’t mean you I mean like anyone, right, you don’t know it because you have a cake here and a Snickers there and you think it doesn’t matter because you’re playing football on Saturday or going to aerobics class on Tuesday and kaboom you’re thirteen stone and you think how did I get here? Well that’s how it was with our sex. it went from millennium fireworks and podium corkers to heart surgery routine precision. “Nurse, will you pass me the bone cutter?” “Here you are Dr Seuss” “How much time do I have Nurse before I cover him up?” “Exactly ten minutes Doctor”. He laughed showing pretty teeth. ‘You could time our sex: ten minutes and it was all over.”
He stopped to look at her. He couldn’t always tell if she was really listening to him or had drifted off into a far off world of nereids and unicorns.
But she was listening. “And?”
“Then she got pregnant. At first we still did it, you know, we called it “humping the hump” or at least I did ‘cause I thought it might bring back the excitement but then she got bigger and tired out and was definitely not in the mood for humping – either from the front or the back. But I was like cool, OK, you’re carrying our baby.”
A glass collector came round looking for empty bottles and they waited for him to go. As he opened the door Kate Perry was bruiting about kissing a girl. Two big black boys also went in chattering about the football derby the next day. ‘But I gotta get laid tonight” one of them emphatically maintained as they closed the door behind them.
“We had a boy and our time was spent getting used to this stranger and cleaning all his shit. I would, like, masturbate, obviously not with Phoebe or the baby around, but in private I watched porn and jerked off. It was like being fourteen again; furtive actions wondering if you’ll get caught. But then blink! and it was like two months and I had had no sex. Not good. Not good at all”. He’d almost finished his cigarette. She was only halfway through hers. “It became unbearable. I wanted a woman: her scent, her warmth, the softness of her skin; moaning my name and all the blah blah that goes with it and then … then we talked about it and for a few months she’d put out for all of ten minutes but I could tell that she wasn’t really there and that is no fun. I need to know that I’m giving pleasure not just receiving it. You know, I can gush as indiscriminately as the next man but if my woman is not putting in hundred percent then I’m not gushing a hundred percent. I’ve never been the wham bam kind of guy.”
“But even that stopped. She was too tired; you know there’s a a young baby and she had a full time job and house chores and it was just too much and she had no energy or inclination for sex.”
Silence; puff; silence; the dull glow of a cigarette being sucked of its last goodness was one of the lesser lights on Upper Street that night. Around the silent two, the young razzle-dazzlers of Islington were just getting started. Her upright silhouette against the brick wall showed off smooth round curves of a woman in her prime. And she was smart too. He’d better not fuck this up.
“I can tell you this one thing, though, a man is not a stone. If he isn’t getting it from you he’s getting it elsewhere. There’s no point saying “but if he loves me” blah blah. I don’t understand women who think if they don’t give sex for like, forever, the man is supposed to do nothing and remain faithful. That’s like ridiculous you know. A man is not a stone. He’s gotta cum or else he goes crazy. C-r-a-z-y. It’s the way we’re made. If a woman wants to keep her man she’s going to have to put out.” He tossed the stub on the pavement.
She put hers in the stub receptacle. “So does that mean we’re doing ok, at least for now?”
He smiled and then laughed. She loved it when he laughed and showed even teeth, stained brown by coffee but still very pretty. “Yeah, we’re doing very ok. And I’m hoping we stay that way.” He took her hand and they walked back into the bar, to the howls of Miley Cyrus and loud forgettable pop music. She couldn’t figure out whether he was telling her not to have a baby. How’s that going to work?
Reading for many appears to be a pass-the-time on “my new Kindle!” while waiting for the next real activity. For some it’s about getting through titles on a bestseller list. That’s a shame because reading is nothing about ticking off bestseller lists. That is goal setting and true readers are adventurers. You cannot set milestones in an adventure because you have no idea where it will take you! So what is reading: it’s about ideas; it’s about people; it can be about plot but better it’s about human nature; it’s about language and its power, beauty, subtlety and nuance. It can also be about style (Proust) or social commentary and essays (lost art!). Reading is pleasure and more for even more than travel it expands (not just broadens) the mind.
I must confess I haven’t read a lot of popular new fiction but there is so much juice in the old ones e.g. from Lucretius (where he broaches evolution) to Thucydides to Caesar or Cicero; (Aristotle is hard) but Homer with the right translation is stunning and so is Virgil. I just finished Jared Diamond’s book Collapse and I would never have imagined anthropology as thriller: my world view switched. One reads a book like Hemingway’s The Old Man & The Sea and he wields a power that holds one spell-bound; the man was a wizard. And what of Gogol or Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. I’m just skimming here for there are hundreds and quite possibly thousands of great books and poetry though I find the latter hard.
Personally, I find reading superior to masturbation (I do that too so I know!) and what it does to my brain is what I imagine LSD does for some people; it’s the difference between taking the blue pill and the red pill. I’m like a cosmologist granted space-time travel into another universe or I’m like the curious little bugger who walks through the looking glass. You read a book like Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red – about artists (and murder) – and your heart pounds while your subconsciously taking in some history. What a beautifully written book!
Man as protagonist: the ability to look into the human soul and capture its essence is part of the genius of Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare. These guys were deep and sometimes long but books don’t have to be be 500 pages to be stunning. The Old Man & The Sea was like 100 pages and Solzhenitsyn’s A Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich was like 100 pages too if I remember correctly and they are both far superior to the mass of books stored on most people’s Kindles. (Nesbo? Pah! Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow – superb).
I first read The Iliad almost twenty years ago and what a turgid hard read that was. I couldn’t wait to put it down. It was my first contact with Greek literature and everything about it was unfamiliar and frustrating: the style, the characters, the length. Fast forward to today during which time I have spent a considerable time reading Greek literature and history and I thought, “Hmm let’s tackle The Iliad again but let’s get a new translation.” So I got this one by Robert Fagles. The Introduction is massively important and I’m glad I read it first. Then I jumped right in and the story hits you right out the gate: the power, the electricity, the passion. It felt like I had turned the corner from a street enveloped by darkness into one illuminated by the blinding razzle-dazzle lights of an amusement park.
The story is set in the final year of the great Trojan War between the Greeks and the rich, proud city of Troy. The war was started when Paris, the handsome godlike prince of Troy stole or eloped with Helen, wife of Menelaus, King of Lacedaemon. She refused to go back to her wedded husband who, as far as he was concerned, believed she had been kidnapped. So ensued ten years of bitter bloody war that involved some of the greatest and most illustrious names in pre-writing Grecian history (or myth): Odysseus, Agamemnon, Ajax and the two central heroes, Achilles (on the Greek side) and Hector (on the Trojan side).
This book is, if anything, an incredible rush. Homer will make your hair stand on its roots and his pace and rhythm (as translated by Fagles) will make your heart race. Also captivating are the sideline schemes of the Gods – Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Poseidon etc – all supporting different sides and torn with grief when a favourite is doomed to hit the dust. The air is filled with a palpable sense of tragedy especially for the soldiers; their hopes and fears and fathers and mothers and wives and children to whom they will never return. Homer spares you none of the gory details of death and that darkness that claims the eyes when a spear runs one through and comes out the back or when an axe spills open the contents of the brain. Fagles is quite adept at ensuring your stomach turns.
It is easy to see how generations of Greek recruits could be energised by these stories and today’s flying of the Stars & Stripes gives an idea but doesn’t come close. But after six hundred pages one also starts to feel sick of the earth running black with blood. In that respect the greatest war book also becomes a potent anti-war polemic. When the book draws to a close with its climactic finish you feel subdued awe at what just happened. Homer does not end with the sacking of Troy (via the Trojan Horse) but you know it’s coming and your mind creates the carnage that must have ensued. [Homer’s “The Odyssey” and Vergil’s “The Aeneid” carry on from the end of the Trojan War if you want to read more].
PS. I thought that since I loved this translation I should go compare with the one from twenty years ago to appreciate the difference a translation makes. Oops, turned out the old was the new; it was the same translation! Goes to show how we often get rubbed the wrong way by the new and unfamiliar like I was twenty years ago; and how a little education, like I’ve done in the meanwhile, can make us less intimidated by worlds (and people) unlike what we were used to and to open us to discovery and a wider circumference of enjoyments.
I had sat down in the restaurant to wait for my food and my book lay on the table. As she walked past, the waitress said That is a good book, I cried at the end. At that point I had only read about 10% and was still sniggering at the short and unsophisticated sentence structure. I can’t remember exactly when I had my first sniffle but I probably stopped counting at around four. I worried while reading at cafes that other customers would see tears in my eyes and wonder what the hell I was reading, so at times I’d just stop reading until the emotions calmed down. And what was I reading? Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.
Corneille. Who is he? Sartre, in his auto-bio Words, mentions Corneille a few times too many. Today, a sunny spring Sunday afternoon, while bookshop browsing I came across the French Lit section. This is new, I thought. Or had I been blind to this section since I couldn’t and still can’t speak or read French? I mean, I know my Oui and Non, Merci, Monsieur, Ah, Bonjour Madame and Comme ci, comme ça, Oui Oui c’est la vie! But that’s about it. My eyes are scanning the books I’m never going to read. Then I spot him. Corneille. There on the top shelf, his book covers fronting insolent poses, “Haven’t you read us?” Tut tut. No, because you see, I read no French.
It’s at times like those I become envious of people, like my Spanish friend Javier, who can speak and read in four languages. I grew up in Lagos, the tempestuous onetime capital of Nigeria, a country bordered on all four sides by French speaking countries and where French is as foreign a tongue as an extinct local dialect. When I was eleven, I picked up two years of French studies that were as useless today as learning how to use log tables and as painful as a fumbled injection. So when I see names like Corneille on bookshelves I wave them away wistfully and console myself that they probably aren’t worth reading anyway and that my bedroom floor is already covered with unread English translations.
“That’s a really interesting author, can I get it for you, Sir?” To which I reply: “Non, Mademoiselle, je vous remercie, mais je ne peux pas lire le français” and hope my googled translation is correct. The thought has since occurred to me, what if an e-book reader could translate? Fuck, I might have to get one. But would the translation be any good?