I’m normally reading two books at any one time. Sometimes three, and occasionally four if I have a collection of poetry on the go or a new issue of a journal I intend to read cover to cover. But right now, for a variety of reasons, I seem to be mid-way through more than a dozen. How did this happen?
Some of them go back to last year. Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery and the Philosophy of History (2007) was a recreational read – recreational in the sense that it was not directly related to anything I was currently writing. And I’m not sure what prompted me to buy it (although I’m glad I did). Possibly I thought it might help me think through some of the issues to do with representations of time in an essay on Moby-Dick I had set aside since giving a talk about it in 2004. The bookmark – a folded sheet of A4 scribbled with pencilled notes (such as ‘IB’s own reconstruc of the Zong case & its participants is an actuarial one – Qbp46’) lies between pages 54 and 55, as it has done since December when I needed to begin work in earnest on several projects with looming deadlines.
First I had to make some final revisions to an article on a vodouchant in response to comments by the editors and the publisher’s anonymous readers. One suggested I refer to Madison Smartt Bell’s All Saints Rising (1995), the first volume of his trilogy on the Haitian revolution, because it quoted the chant in question. I knew of the book, and had been meaning to read it for years, so I now had the excuse I’d been waiting for. The chant did indeed appear on page 118, although I’m not sure there was anything unusual about it that would merit more than a passing mention in a footnote. I ploughed on for another twenty pages, according to the slip of paper, hardly scribbled on at all, for I don’t take easily to historical novels. And this one seemed to take just a little too much pleasure in the depiction of violence and suffering, and robbed the story of the narrative impetus I was expecting. I found the non-fictional accounts of historians more gripping, even if C L R James’ The Black Jacobinsor Aimé Césaire’s Toussaint Louverture only hint at the nitty-gritty detail of the day-to-day struggle.
Other things I wanted to revise in the paper included my translation of a passage from Frédéric Marcelin’s Thémistocle Epaminondas Labasterre (1901). The scene, featuring the adolescent protagonist’s encounter with young women washing clothes in a river, appears quite early on and I’d sped past, firmly intending to finish the novel at the time – two summers ago now – but, well I must have been sidetracked by something or other. It’s a fascinating read, reminding me a little of Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale, and while I did tinker with my English version, I didn’t have time to resume the narrative, and this will have to wait until later this summer.
With the vodou chant out of the way, two other obligations took their place. One was a paper on the ‘Liberty or Death’ motif in the Age of Revolution for the Caribbean Enlightenment conference at Glasgow University in April. I never got to deliver it in the end, as I was taken ill two days before and spent a week in hospital. I’d completed the reading I had set myself for this, except for Laurent Dubois’ A Colony of Citizens (2004). I notice I was still several chapters short of the one entitled ‘Vivre libre ou mourir!’ when Haemophilus influenzae type b breached my defences. I’ll return to this when I return to the draft in October and begin to work it into a more substantial piece, if I can.
Alongside my wanderings in the world of political slogans and the Hegelian dialectic, I had been converting a conference paper into a more substantial essay on the literary geography of a tropical hotel. For months I’d been pursuing various themes (the hotel in fiction, travel writing and cultural theory; the philosophies of space; acoustic geographies; heterotopia) like a pup licking bone. Now the full-length text has been emailed to the editors (to be returned for revisions in due course, no doubt), a few half-chewed morsels remain on the bedside table.
One is Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1958), a classic that has some intriguing remarks on sounds that I never used: ‘It is a salutary thing to naturalize the sound in order to make it less hostile,’ he writes, thinking of the way the noises of Paris that keep him awake at night can be transformed into an ‘ocean roar.’ It is waiting to be resumed at page 38 at some point later this year.
Another is Paule Marshall’s The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (1969): an enormously rich narrative that takes off from the arrival of a US-funded research team hoping to make a difference to an impoverished community on an island in the Caribbean. Project leader Saul, his wife Harriet, and assistant Allen take up residence in a guest-house run by the loquacious Merle, who straddles the racial divisions of the newly-independent country and serves as the ideal ‘cultural broker’ for the visitors.
I had read Marshall’s first novel before, but the friend who recommended this was so on target. I’m only a third of the way through, but it is clear why the guest house should be such an appropriate setting for this Proustian anatomy of the postcolonial condition, this dissection of the souls of white folk. Each time I pick it up, I read less pages, not wanting it to end.
An ongoing project to outline an imaginary anthology of Haitian travel writing – travel writing by Haitian authors, that is, rather than writings about Haiti – has required me to read or re-read a number of fictional works in which the theme of exile and homecoming loom large. But I have also been trying to track down the motif of the everyday in Haitian literature, going back to the oral tradition of the lodyans, recently revived in Georges Anglade’s Rire haïtien / Haitian Laughter (2006), a bilingual edition that combines several smaller collections of these mini stories in one volume.
It’s a book that is best suited to dipping into now and again, which means it will be beside my bed for some time. With Dany Laferrière’s Vers le sud (2006), my task is to compare it with his earlier work, La chair du maître (1997) of which this is a revised version, named after the film that was based on some of the stories in the first. At first glance Laferriere has removed ten chapters and added five, not to make it more like the movie, but rather to respond to it, in turn. A sequel, even.
I have read the first novel in Marie Chauvet’s Love, Anger, Madness (1968) trilogy, now appearing in English translation for the first time, and now anxious to read the rest of it. But I’m not sure if I should really finish Rene Depestre’s Hadriana dans tous mes rêves (1988) first. I’ll decide once I reach the end of Marshall’s masterpiece.
Joe Moran’s On Roads (2009) I’ve nearly finished: a brilliant cultural history of the road in 20th-century Britain, especially the impact of the motorway in the 1960s. And quirky too, from its attention to things normally taken-for-granted, such as signage and road-numbering, to the discreet count-down symbols (used on motorways to mark the approach of junctions) that appear in the page-headers towards the end of chapters.
The poetry volume I have on the go – Sean Borodale’s Notes for an Atlas (2003)– is prose rather than verse, but demanding enough that it can only be read slowly in short bursts. Described as a ‘370-page poem written whilst walking through London’, it is divided into twenty-five sections, capturing the experience in a series of highly fragmentary impressions of things seen, read and overheard that could almost be absorbed in any order, for the pleasure of the text is in the changing rhythms and startling similes and metaphors that endow each moment with a fragile beauty.
Oh, and there are the latest issues of Studies in Travel Writingand Small Axe that I’ve only had time to flick through so far. I am particularly looking forward to the interview with Merle Collins.