The Laughing Man by Victor Hugo
Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Bloomsbury Lions by Leon Edel
Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
Ruth: When we first knew each other, one of the things I liked about you was seeing the books on your literature shelf. Seeing we'd read some of the same things, or you had books I wanted to read. It gave me a sense of your inner life - what I couldn't see but knew would have to be there for you to have read such things. We could converse about characters, motivations, in a way we don't share with most other people. And that's just deepened the more books we've shared.The Blood of Others comes from this early time. It's interwoven with making choices about who I would be, and coming up against someone who already was who they were.
Damon: Yes, that's right. There was often a double discovery. I'd be entering into Beauvoir's world of wartime Paris, and the existential drama of commitment and sacrifice. But I'd also be encountering your psyche; ideas and emotions that were invisible in the office. At that time, you seemed a little paralysed, to be honest. The Blood of Others was freeing somehow. (So liberating, it's now lost.)
Ruth: Yes, it was The Blood of Others that made the biggest impact on me. I was befuddled by my PhD at the time, scared and wary of committing to anything significant. I have to admit I'm hazy on the story details now, but I remember the female protagonist's shift in character. She becomes a character: less self-absorbed, more courageous with convictions. A literary parallel, perhaps?
Damon: Yes, as in The Golden Bowl: it's quite overwhelming, actually. Seeing an 'I' become.
Ruth: Speaking of which, The Laughing Man comes from that intense time just before we became parents, some seven years later. The tragic story seemed to help me come to terms with the enormity of what we were doing. The leap into the unknown. I finished it in a flood of tears the day before Nikos was born.
Damon: I also cried. Bloody Victor Hugo. I remember the final scene: the wolf, Homo, howling with grief into the black Thames. It's a manipulative book, but I didn't feel coerced. It got to me because it portrayed my ambivalence: full of love, but vulnerable. Pregnancy and parenthood made everything more raw.
Ruth: Report to Greco was not long after. It's the first book that had me writing down passages for their beauty. His London park bench descriptions of German bombers so far from the kindly birds Leonardo imagined.
Damon: He is so over-the-top, Kazantzakis -- but somehow he is sincere and not hokey. But there must be more to this than style?
Ruth: For me it is the permission to be sincere, and the sense of life as something great and wonderful to be experienced without trepidation.
Damon: Yes, that's it: there's a kind of nihilism (from Buddhism), but no cynicism. It's enlivening.
Ruth: Hemingway's A Moveable Feast wasn't so moving, but it made a literary impact. He's an economical yarn-spinner. I can't help liking him. This is one of the books I read during a month-long illness. I don't quite believe him but I loved his account of travelling through France with F Scott Fitzgerald. And I learnt a lot from his observations and his cool, restrained style. I wanted to read this again but you urged me not to. Why?
Damon: Good question. I can't remember, but it might've been the danger of his style. Hemingway can be a fantastic remedy for purple prose -- I used him to undo the damage done to my writing by Henry James' Victorian meanderings. But he can also suck you into a pretentious terseness, which hides literary cowardice behind false simplicity. Instead of daring to be 'literary', you play it safe. But I suspect I'm more vulnerable to this than you. Perhaps I just thought you needed to read something new, rather than turning back to something familiar? This was years ago, I'm afraid...
Ruth: The Bloomsbury group have often been helpful for us. I read Edel's Bloomsbury Lions after you, when Sophia (our second child) was around 10 months. I'd just finished up the final hectic year of a Research Fellowship, with a toddler and new baby, and was wondering what to do next. This is when I started reading biographies, partly out of curiosity, partly because I wanted to see a whole narrative. I was so much in the chaotic midst of my own! Reading Edel reminded me that no one really knows how it will all play out, but that keeping on working, making, doing - in various forms - is crucial, rather than drifting.
Damon: That book was impressive: great storytelling about the Bloomsbury mob. It took me out of the suburbs, out of kindergarten pickup and chit-chat, and kept up a connection with literary and intellectual ambition. It was also a testament to their devotion to work. This is something I've discovered in so many biographies: Henry James, Friedrich Nietzsche, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Voltaire, Colette. They just bloody laboured, day after day. After all the anguish and grief and illness and hunger, the work remains.Having said this, so many had no children (or were very distant parents): their days and psyches were freer. You and I have few well-known precedents!
Ruth: I'm always surprised at the absence of children. But it's hard not to envy the amount of undivided work time that Virginia and Leonard had at their disposal. And servants to clean and bring meals too. This surely justifies having a dishwasher.
Damon: Mrs. Dalloway said she would wash the dishes herself...
Ruth: There are also reassuring surprises for anyone trying to make ends meet while working creatively. For instance, it was years before Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell made any decent money from writing or art!
Damon: I agree, but I'm also wary of this. It can be consoling to believe that, some day, real money will arrive. But these writers are remembered partly for their unusual success. Even Henry James, who was always worried about money, drove his pen to a handsome bourgeois lifestyle. We, on the other hand, might publish many good books and essays, and be living like students forever.
Ruth: I think I'm resigned to that. Mostly...On a lighter note, Ex Libris, is a good illustration of the writing craft. The essay on combining libraries was something we'd navigated too.
Damon: We're still doing it, in this conversation! What I enjoy about Fadiman is how she takes notice: the impression of patience she gives, even when writing about caffeinated jitters. She's not just rushing by, oblivious. This is something that drew me to you: your interest in small details, particularly things. You notice colours, textures, shapes. (But not humans. Funny sociologist.) And, yes, as an essayist she's very fine. I use her to teach economy to writing students: just how much of a world can be suggested in a few lines.
Ruth: It's also the honest, small details about her own relationships and fairly trivial worries of daily life: her daughter hanging out at the mall, her son chewing gum, frozen sushi in the suburbs.
Damon: Yes, it brings us into a recognisable world of intimacy, but with some freshness -- familiar but not hackneyed.
Ruth: Swimming Home is the most recent book we've both read. It's like nothing else. I can't imagine finding another book like it. Hard, crisp, human. I wasn't quite strong enough for it, but it's one I'm relieved and glad to have shared.
Damon: I was relieved, knowing you 'got' it. I had recommended it to others, and they weren't moved. So seeing you gutted by Levy's prose and psychological analyses was like a quiet renewal of the marriage vows. As if you were saying: 'We're in this together.'
PS: from Kate
I so want to have you both over for dinner so I can join the conversation! I'm ashamed to say that I've only read one of these books (Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast) but I've just bought Report to Greco and I'm thinking about Bloomsbury Lions and Ex Libris too.
Thanks so much for letting us eavesdrop on you!