The narrator of The Lacuna (Barbara Kingsolver) sheepishly admits to the character of Leo Tolstoy that he is writing a novel. “It’s nothing that will liberate the people,” he says.
Tolstoy replies: “A novel! Why do you say this won’t liberate anyone? Where does a man go to be free, whether he is poor or rich or even in prison? To Dostoyevsky! To Gogol!”
It’s an imagined conversation, but Tolstoy’s exclamation rings true to the character Kingsolver has created.
The novel, that oft-denigrated – but tenacious – genre; when will people stop looking down their noses at it? When will they acknowledge that it creates a safe space for slipping sideways from our own confining lives and that that is a good thing?
Whenever someone tells me in sniffy tones that they can’t be bothered with fiction, I have to bite my tongue just a little, as I often must when I encounter other examples of dense arrogance.
There’s no doubt that personal reading history, psychic developmental leaps, personal taste, age and perhaps even (I say this gingerly) gender, all colour people’s reading preferences. I am more partial to fiction than to non-fiction in general, but at times I tire of what fiction offers and find my reading needs more adequately met by non-fiction.
Usually my needs are met by variety. So, while I’ve been reading The Lacuna, I’ve also been consulting a very old book of mine on Frida Kahlo (Kingsolver’s novel is about Kahlo and her communist artist husband Diego Riviera), called Kahlo (by Andrea Kettenmann and published by Taschen), as well as the thorough Reader’s Digest Facts at your Fingertips (because I needed to remind myself of Russia’s leaders in the twentieth century). This last is faster and more reliable than Google.
Before The Lacuna I was swept like so many millions around the world into Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning The Tiger’s Wife, where the shards of magic dazzle in the blanket weave of a rich and eloquent modern fable.
My books seem to have a travelling pattern: the novel is intrepid, travelling everywhere with me in my handbag or the crook of my arm – a charm against wasted reading time and boredom (all that waiting around in cars and queues when I could be reading). There’s only ever one novel on the go.
Non-fiction is more domesticated, but more restless, staying home but shifting between the rooms of the house and places I sit (or stand – I sometimes read while stirring pots). Currently there are two of them open and face-down in various convenient places, the most compelling being All About Love, by Lisa Appignanesi (Virago), a magisterial, humane and astoundingly researched work, girded and bolstered by Appigananesi’s intelligent, brawny prose.
The other one arrived in the post one day in December: a gift from a male friend of mine who has a son the same – rather spiky – age as my own pre-pubescent son. We’d been talking about their odd mood swings, intermittent testosteronal surges that flop into poignant moments of hold-me-I’m-just-a-little-boy.
My son was next to me when I opened the unexpected package: Raising Boys by Australian psychologist Steve Biddulph. He raised a sceptical eyebrow and said: “Not every answer can be found in books, you know.”
He’s right of course. Neither fiction nor non-fiction have The Answer to everything, maybe even to anything. They just offer varieties of options, little soupçons of possibilities, and – if we’re lucky – clumps of truths that will never be ours, but settle, as only truth can, in the corners of the heart. If you have a mind at all you will absorb, digest and reject everything you’ve ever read in the lifetime’s span of reading. And found your own answers.
Speaking of my son: he is the fussiest of readers. When he can’t find anything by one of his favourite authors he mopes around complaining about the dearth of reading material and refusing to be to be drawn down unexplored reading avenues. He has his own mysterious reading road map.
For months, while waiting for the next Rick Riordan novel to come out and make him happy for the two days in which he disappears from this world into Percy Jackson’s, I have been trying to get him to read Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There.
He refused on the grounds that it’s not fiction and (this one unspoken) it is recommended by his mother – whose general intelligence he is currently regularly questioning.
Yesterday he flumped into my office, barely able to speak from laughing. “Mom! Mom! Listen to this…” and he read me a paragraph from Neither Here Nor There.
Either his desperation for something to read, or a moment of weakness in his will to resist me and non-fiction, had brought him around finally.
And so begins, I hope, a new relationship with a new genre for one ardent reader
This appeared in the Cape Times and can also be read here: Books SA