‘You don’t put your life into books. You find it there.’

May 29, 2012 @ 6:04 pm | Filed under:

At a certain stage of writing, I have great difficulty reading other fiction. But this is akin to saying “I have great difficulty breathing oxygen.” And when, as now, the intense writing stage stretches out somewhat longer than expected, I begin to get…squirrely. I’m crafting my own story while holding my breath. I crave a nice deep inhalation of fiction. Ha—I didn’t even realize I was spinning an inspiration metaphor until now. Inspire: “to stimulate to action,” “to fill with enlivening or exalting emotion,” “to breathe life into,” “to draw in air.”

There are a few, a very few, works of fiction that can mist past the boundaries my working mind puts up against other people’s stories when I’m deep inside my own. The Blue Castle. Rilla of Ingleside. Sometimes, but not always, Anne’s House of Dreams or Anne of the Island. (You may detect a pattern.) Betsy’s Wedding and the four high-school Betsy books, but not Betsy and the Great World—all the travel, I suppose, too many absorbing new places to take in. I can’t accommodate so many setting changes when I’m rooted to my own fictional world. Curiously, Middlemarch works, and the first third of Portrait of a Lady (but as soon as Isabel meets that snake Osmond, I must bail). Never Austen. Austen is a reward for finishing a novel. Sometimes L’Engle, but I have to be careful with her: her characters have an archness about them, a precociousness that works beautifully in her prose but I can’t risk it seeping into my own, where it would surely be too much sugar in the peas.

(I think House Like a Lotus was the book that made me realize that L’Engle’s characters, much as I adore them, are not exactly real people. At least—Meg was real, with her prickles and that ribbon of cynicism in her soul. And Vicky Austin, so sensitive you’re almost afraid to look at her askance. (Oh how I love Vicky.) But Polly, oh my. You know that scene at the beginning of the international conference when the well-traveled workers gather and sing, spontaneously going around the circle, each crooning Silent Night in his or her own language? And Polly, not missing a beat, jumps in—in German? Yeah, that’s when I realized that much as I enjoy Polly and am rooting for her, I don’t find her relatable. Which is fine. Isabel Archer isn’t terribly relatable either, but she (like Polly) is interesting, and that’s plenty. But I digress.)

One book that works like a charm for me these days is Alan Bennett’s gem, The Uncommon Reader. In my desperate state of fiction-deprivation, I turned to it again two nights ago, and it was like coming up from underwater and drawing a deep breath of air. This is a book I’ve highlighted practically from cover to cover—so many quotable quotes. (Those are but a few. The title of this post is another.)

As the Queen of England (that most unlikely of relatable characters) finds her way into fiction (well, and nonfiction, too; for her the discovery is the absorbing, altering joy of reading itself—whereas my current troubles are only with fiction; I inhale reams of nonfiction with no difficulty), so, too, am I drawn back into the romance of The Other Person’s Story. And so it was that when I finished Uncommon Reader last night, I was immediately, almost in the next breath, able to fall headlong Elizabeth Goudge’s The Scent of Water—a book I started ages and ages ago, and set aside, always meaning to return. For me, Goudge is as Alice Munro is for the Queen:

‘Can there be any greater pleasure,’ she confided in her neighbor, the Canadian minister for overseas trade, ‘than to come across an author one enjoys and then to find they have written not just one book or two, but at least a dozen.’

Linnets and Valerians is practically woven into my DNA—the song to the bees rings in my ears every time I walk out to my garden—but the only other Goudge I’ve read, despite having collected and hoarded nearly a dozen of her novels over the years, is The Little White Horse. It was Lesley Austin, over at Wisteria and Sunshine, who brought Elizabeth Goudge back into my mind. This afternoon, when the orthodontist’s waiting room faded away and the little English village of Appleshaw formed around me, and the house with the green door, and Queen Mab’s hazelnut-sized coach in the collection of ‘little things,’ I knew I’d remembered how to breathe again.

    Related Posts


12 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. shaun says:

    Oh gosh — Linnets and Valerians. You introduced me to that book, and reading it together was one of our great pleasures a couple o summers ago. I recommend it to everyone — so, thank you.

  2. sarah says:

    So many wonderful books there. I always turn to Anne and Rilla when I’m in need of comfort. And Jane Austen of course when I’m feeling especially alive.

  3. Sarah says:

    It was your blog that introduced me to The Uncommon Reader last year. I loved it, and in turn have introduced others to the book, and had many happy conversations about it with friends who loved it too. Lovely how books work that way :).

  4. Penny says:

    My mil gave my eldest I Saw Three Ships by Elizabeth Goudge a few years ago – it didn’t catch with her… but it sure did with me.

    A lovely post, and a lovely tribute to the written word. Thank you

  5. Jane W. says:

    Oh! Elizabeth Goudge! Oh! Yes, Linnets and Valerians and The Little White Horse are wonderful, but so are her others, many set in pre- and post-WWII England. They have been some of my go-to re-reads for many, many years. Comfort books. Her characters are so real, and human, and even if you are angry with them for being idiots, you want to root for them. I’ve read several copies of her books to bits. Fortunately, my local library still has them on the shelves, since most of them are out of print. Find them, read them – you will love them!

  6. Ellie says:

    Oh yes, Goudge is amazing and perfect on so many levels — both subtle a deep. (I read the Scent of the Water last month, mentioning in my BookLog). Here is an odd conundrum I have had since the brain tumor: I cannot read L’Engle or Montgomery! Isn’t that tragic? Of course, I couldn’t read at all really, or hardly, for such a long while after the surgery, but I now can … Perhaps one day I’ll be able to let Anne, Rilla, and Emily; Vicky, Meg, and Polly back in. *sigh*

  7. Melissa Wiley says:

    Ellie, I wonder if your mention is what put that particular book in my head…Leslie wrote a beautiful post about Goudge, focusing on the Damerosehay trilogy in particular. I have Bird in the Tree on my shelf, but haven’t opened it yet. I remembered reading the opening of Scent of Water a few years ago and being so intrigued by the ‘little things’ and (if I’m recalling correctly; I haven’t reached this point yet, this time around) the suspicious children watching from their tree on the other side of the garden fence…

    I’m sorry you can’t revisit Anne et al yet! Someday, I do hope!

  8. Ellie says:

    Oh yes! The suspicious children šŸ™‚ As i say, i quite liked it, but it does get under your nails rather (if you see what i mean) if you let it: deep emotions.

  9. Jessica Snell says:

    “At a certain stage of writing, I have great difficulty reading other fiction.” <–Oh my goodness! You're the first person I've heard say this, and it's something that bothered me so much a few months ago, as I was finishing my last novel!

    So, um, thank you for saying it. šŸ™‚ Sometimes it's good not to feel like a weirdo all by myself. It's almost like when you're recuperating from an illness, and you know you're hungry, but you're just too busy getting better to really be able to eat yet. You need the nourishment, but it's going to take something *just right* if you're going to keep it down.

    Okay, that was a kind of gross metaphor. Sorry!

    I think the book that helped me out last time was Georgette Heyer's "Sylvester". It was familiar, and by the end of the first page I was completely relaxed because it was clear by the end of the first two paragraphs that I was in the hands of a master, and I didn't need to analyze the prose, or correct anything, or wonder how I would have done it differently, I could just sink into the story and enjoy the ride.

  10. Lesley Austin says:

    Lissa…this is such an interesting post. I will be most impressed if you can stick with The Scent of Water while you are writing, because E.G.’s books are so deep I would think it would be too challenging?

    I just finished the Eliot trilogy a few days ago, and as much as I love E.G.’s books…by the end of the third I was sometimes thinking “Can’t these people just go a few minutes without having such deep, complex, spiritual thoughts about everything?”. At the same time, I was mourning that I was almost finished. E.G. is complicated, I think.

    Some L.M.M. may be just the thing for me, too.

    Wishing you well with the writing!

  11. Kathryn says:

    You must visit Damerosehay! And I recommend A City of Bells. I think you would love Henrietta.

  12. mamacrow says:

    Oh I MUST read Bird in the Tree etc again! Read them only once and it was so long ago, I was still a teenager I think.

    I’m fond of L’Engle & Montgomery but it’s Susan Coolidge for me – I’ve just been reading the Katy books all over again on my kindle. What Katy Did Next is my favourite, but I’m very fond of Clover & also In the High Valley too.