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Sunday, 5 February 2006

Richard Cooper 2006


For SA4QE 2006 a particular quote didn’t spring to mind, at least not one I hadn’t already used on any of my previous 4qations. In fact in some ways I regret 4qating so promiscuously in 2003 because I dropped enough quotes in one day then to last a lifetime, and although it was great fun at the time it satisfied my hunger to 4qate and I’ve rarely felt quite as hungry since.

To complicate matters, SA4QE day this year fell on a Saturday. In years past this would have given me more time to find a quote and go out and drop it, but, with the birth of my little boy last March, 2006 is, to say the least, not like other years. Both my wife Koy and I work full time, so we take turns in looking after Joe, and not only is Saturday one of my days, but tonight Koy and I are going out for dinner for the first time in ages and Joe is staying at his grandparents'. So in addition to the usual routine of changing, feeding, playing and (most sappingly) frustrating his quest to bring down the contents of the flat on top of himself, there's the added task of getting all his bottles, pyjamas, nappies, wipes, creams, spoons, jars of food, extra clothes and the kitchen sink together into one bag that I can actually lift, and getting it and Joe to my mum and dad's... as fantastic as it is, having a baby has turned "not enough hours in the day" from a casual expression into a way of life.

However, as the ancient Chinese proverb has it, "Not being hungry is no excuse not to eat when someone offers you a fortune cookie", so as I rush out the door with baby under one arm and holdall under the other (and the moment under the other), with my spare tentacles I pick up my copy of Linger Awhile and a sheet of yellow paper (from a ream of gold or “apricot” A4 I bought from Ryman’s for the Some-Poasyum last year) and head for the street.

I thoroughly enjoyed Linger Awhile and felt it was Russ’s best book for several years, and as I only finished reading it a few weeks ago much of it is still (in principle at least) fresh in my mind. Under the circumstances, this is important: in years past as SA4QE day has approached I’ve spent several hours looking slowly through my Hoban collection for something to 4qate, but this year this obviously hasn't been possible. I also think it would be appropriate to use the opportunity of SA4QE day to promote Russ’s latest book (if, that is, leaving a quote from a book on a sheet of yellow A4 in a random public place doesn’t somewhat stretch the definition of “promote”).

We arrive at my mum and dad's and to my great relief they fuss over Joe immediately, giving me the chance to survey Linger Awhile from the comfort of my dad's armchair. My memory of the novel is that there are many great quotes and passages in it, but now that I skim through as attentively as possible in the little time I have before meeting my wife, they prove surprisingly slippery. I think it was Graham Greene who said he had a habit of marking the books he read to indicate passages that particularly struck him for future reference; I have a habit of not doing this, as much as I’d often like to, mainly because my instinct is not to risk spoiling the enjoyment of any future reading by distracting yourself with something that caught your eye on a previous reading, especially if it means you only ever re-read the bits you've marked rather than the book as a whole. Then again, this instinct is not unconnected to my inner Felix who likes to keep books (and everything else) pristine, and the suspicion that this has triumphed over the writer in me who wants to scribble all over them gives me a momentary identity crisis. Whatever's the case, not for the first time it becomes clear to me that the interest factor of many (if not all) passages one reads comes in context, in the act of reading the text, not just from the text itself; reading is not a passive occupation, it's creative and interactive, and the DNA of a book gets mixed up with the DNA of your own self and personality and situation and experience until it's a whole other unique thing altogether - and not just once, but each time you re-read it.

After about 45 minutes of speed-reading the book up to page 78 I have three or four passages that I would be more than happy to be seen out 4qating with. Curiously, all are from chapters narrated by Irving Goodman – perhaps, as his name suggests, because he’s a good man (the only truly good character in the book, perhaps, apart from Grace Kowalski), the one with all the self-knowledge and memories and poetry and melancholy in him. While Istvan Fallok is guilty of greed, and Chauncey Lim of opportunism, Irving is only really guilty of falling in love. Even though Irving ends up the same way as the other two, at least he does so having realised the depth of his mistake, and that the woman he loves is a real one and not the Frankenstein’s monster he has helped to create. Although Irving is a melancholy character, it’s maybe the melancholy that saves him; it is that capacity for reflection – as rotten as he feels – that leads him to understand what he’s done wrong. The other two, while not exactly carrying on regardless, don’t have enough melancholy in them to realise the consequences of what they’re doing and stop it before it runs out of control. Irving indicates several times through his memories of his childhood that he’s never been a confident person, but if anything it’s Istvan’s and Chauncey’s confidence that causes their undoing.

It’s one of Irving’s memories of his childhood that I finally choose:

When I was a child we had a large mirror that took up most of the width of the rear wall in the front room. It had no frame and was fastened flush against the wall. It showed what was in front of it but I used to put my face against the very edge and try to see around it to what it wasn’t showing. I never could but I knew that the mirror wasn’t giving me the whole picture. I’m still trying to see around the edge.

from Linger Awhile

When I first read this passage I felt sad because Irving is 83 and he’s still looking round the edge of the mirror, as if he never learnt the lesson that he can’t see what’s there. When I thought about it some more though the fact that he's 83 and still looking struck me as profoundly uplifting.

It’s ironic then that it’s this admirable need to see around the edge that gets him and a number of other people into deep trouble. But it’s in keeping with the best of Russ’s characters, the ones who take the risks and go on quests and have dangerous adventures, that he follows his feelings and keeps trying to find his way around the edge. Without characters who do that, there are no stories, there is no drama, there is no heroism in life. And at least Irving does it for love, or what he believes is love anyway.

My mum and dad have a full-length mirror in their hallway, this one tall and narrow and with a wooden frame, so not quite the same as the one described by Irving Goodman, but still whenever we visit, Joe always crawls over to the mirror, stands right up against it, looks at it for a bit and then tries to see what’s behind and around the edge of it. So, Joe, a word of advice – try and stay out of trouble if you can, but don’t ever stop looking.

Anyway, 4qationwise, as luck would have it I end up falling asleep in dad's armchair (a reflection on my lifestyle rather than Russ's book) and the next thing I know Joe is attempting to 4qate me with my own yellow paper. Then my wife rings from the station and, as we've booked a table for 7pm on the basis that we have to make room for another booking by 9, I rush out and the quote gets left behind... oh well. In an attempt to repent I order for my starter goat's cheese salad a la russe and toast Russ's 81st with a nice glass of house red.

In the end, the quote doesn't get 4qated on SA4QE day itself but the following Monday I nip out in my lunch hour and head for a very Hobanesque spot not far from my office in Waterloo, where I sellotape the quote around the pole of a lion-tastic traffic sign in Stamford Street, with King's College (helpfully yellow), the IMAX cinema and London Eye bringing up the rear:

Further reflections...

My dad said once that his earliest memory is of looking at his mother’s dressing table, which was one of those old-fashioned ones like a desk with three large hinged mirrors around it, triptych-like; my dad says he must have been about two at the time and remembers going round behind the mirrors to see what was there. So with this and the other two examples above maybe children and mirrors simply have a thing going on. If so, I wouldn’t know as I can’t remember having a mirror memory myself. That said, a couple of the (many) comic strips I read as a kid spring to mind. In one, a single-frame cartoon, a man stands in front of a mirror about to have a shave, his reflection upside-down. He looks angry and early-morning irritable. “Okay,” he barks, “who turned the mirror upside-down again?”

The second cartoon is from Garfield. In the first frame, the eponymous cat walks towards a mirror. In the second frame he stands in front of it, but where his reflection should be is Snoopy instead. In the third frame he looks towards the reader and says, “I can see it’s going to be one of those Mondays.”

All of these mirror stories converge again towards Hoban as I now remember at least three great mirror quotes from his other books:

Sometimes I think that this whole thing, this whole business of a world that keeps waking itself up and bothering to go on every day, is necessary only as a manifestation of the intolerable. The intolerable is like H.G. Wells's invisible man, it has to put on clothes in order to be seen. So it dresses itself up in a world. Possibly it looks in a mirror but my imagination doesn't go that far. (Turtle Diary)

I exist, said the mirror.

What about me? said Kleinzeit.

Not my problem, said the mirror. (Kleinzeit)

An ordinary mirror is silvered at the back but the window of a night train has darkness behind the glass. My face and the faces of other travellers were now mirrored on this darkness in a succession of stillnesses. Consider this, said the darkness: any motion at any speed is a succession of stillnesses; any section through an action will show just such a plane of stillness as this dark window in which your seeking face is mirrored. And in each plane of stillness is the moment of clarity that makes you responsible for what you do. (The Medusa Frequency)

Something that Irving Goodman would concur with, I’m sure.

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