books, Donna Tartt, Infra, John Green, literature, Max Richter, modernism, Night Film, Parisha pessl, poetry, Portrait of a Lady, Prufrock, reading, T S Eliot, The Fault in Our Stars, The Hollow Men, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, The Secret History, The Waste Land
I’m generally opposed to people limiting their reading in any way and the idea of reading only one book ever is just downright dangerous. But lately, just for funsies, I’ve been playing hypotheticals: if you could only read one book for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
I’m really curious to know how people would answer this. Because it’s not quite the same as asking: ‘What’s your favourite book?’ or even ‘What’s the best book you’ve ever read?’ Rather it asks: ‘What is the book you would choose to read and read again—to carry with you through your life?’
I’ll kick things off, but let’s not make this a monologue. Quid pro quo. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, etc. Because those books that tap us on the shoulder and change our lives forever deserve to be spoken about, and, more importantly, read.
Continue at your own peril, I’m about to wax lyrical. And it will be very bit as messy as that sounds.
The one book I would read and read again for the rest of my life is T. S. Eliot’s Collected Poems 1909-1962 (Faber and Faber, 1974).
I first stumbled across T. S. Eliot’s poetry quite by accident in the middle of an extremely dull year eleven English lesson. I didn’t get on with the teacher and to make clear just how little I thought of her, I took to engaging in nerdy acts of mild rebellion. That particular day she was giving the class a lecture on Wilfred Owen (whose poetry I was completely disinterested in), so I was flicking through our poetry anthology in search of something more to my taste. I was deep in my musical theatre phase at the time and had watched Cats on DVD just the day before, and thought about as much of it as I did Wilfred Owen’s poetry. But as it turns out, I owe both quite a lot, because if I’d liked Wilfred Owen and been paying attention, I never would have been reading other poems, and if I hadn’t seen Cats, I may have flipped past Eliot without noticing. As it was, the song ‘Memory’ was stuck in my head and I thought I was going crazy when the lyrics, or something very similar, caught my eye. What I was actually reading was Eliot’s ‘Rhapsody On a Windy Night’ (What I didn’t then know was that Cats is based on Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Fortunately for Eliot, he died without knowing it either). I spent the rest of term reading Eliot in every English lesson, and almost failed my exam for writing about his poems rather than Owen’s, but I didn’t care; I was in love.
I didn’t then know that Eliot was one of the twentieth century’s most famous poets. I felt he belonged to me alone and carried his poems around in my head like a secret. I couldn’t have told you, except in the vaguest of terms, what any of his poems meant. But I loved their rhythm and repetition and his dramatic monologue style. I admired his imagery, which is evocative but never overly fanciful or romantic, and became a little addicted to the seeping melancholy of his verse. He shared with me a vision of a broken world and I lost hours picking my way among the ruins. I dreamt of wandering through a city late at night, beneath street lamps that muttered and sputtered in the dark, where ‘yellow fog rub[ed] its back upon the window panes’ and ‘a gusty shower wrap[ed] the grimy scraps of withered leaves about [my] feet.’ And I danced and sang ‘Here we go round the prickly pear’ in a ‘valley of dying stars’.
Back then, I didn’t have a firm grasp on modernism, but in Eliot’s poems I saw a world in decline—a world in which prefect ideals: truth, love, God, existed but had been placed forever out of reach. He introduced me to new kind of despair that was not acute and piercing, but rather creeped and seeped. I saw Eliot himself as rigid and formal, very particular and correct, but also like one who had stumbled into an alien landscape where he could no longer be certain that all he had been taught continued to apply—that maybe it didn’t matter how hard he tried because there was something rotten at his core that marked him as impure and unworthy of the ideals he aspired to. In fact, his career really began toward the end of World War One, and as such he was writing out of world transformed.
After a decade studying literary Isms at university, it is still this modernist disillusionment I find myself returning to again and again. And the pull has only become stronger as I’ve got older. I haven’t lived through a world war, but I have seen the world transformed. Mine is a generation that grew up with books, films, teachers, parents and role models urging us to follow our dreams. We were told that we could do anything if we just worked hard enough. The world was ours for the conquering. But then it wasn’t. Instead, our world is one in which people with masters degrees and PhDs work in coffee shops. We ride bikes and skateboards and scavenge in op shops to dress in the fashions of our childhood, seeking an impossible return to that lost, golden era. Meanwhile, icecaps melt and oceans rise. The earth cracks, sinks and releases its noxious fumes. Our landscape is ruled by heat and storms—a slow burning apocalypse. I read Eliot and feel somewhat comforted that my disillusionment is not specific to me or my generation. And I find it hopeful that he could take his bleak visions and transform them into something beautiful.
But while Eliot’s poems navigate the kingdoms of death, show us fear in a handful of dust and predict the world will end in a whimper, they also feel incredibly personal. In ‘Portrait of a Lady’ he conjures private, fragile moments that reveal his lady’s vulnerability and his narrator’s arrogant disregard for her feelings:
Now that lilacs are in bloom
She has a bowl of lilacs in her room
And twists one in her fingers while she talks.
“Ah, my friend, you do not know, you do not know
What life is, you who hold it in your hands”;
(Slowly twisting the lilac stalks)
“You let it flow from you, you let it flow,
And youth is cruel, and has no remorse
And smiles at situations which it cannot see.”
I smile, of course,
And go on drinking tea.
For me, Eliot is at his strongest when he draws parallels between the intimate and the epic. My favourite example is in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. Prufrock struggles to find his courage among the ‘tea and cakes and ices’ and ‘force the moment to its crisis’—to admit his love for his lady friend. He asks himself: ‘Do I dare disturb the universe?’ but his phrasing that there is something much greater at stake than unrequited love. Indeed, he is posing that ‘overwhelming question’: when the stakes are high do we—like Prince Hamlet setting out for revenge, or Odysseus lashing himself to the mast of his ship to hear the sirens sing—take the risk? ‘Would it be worth it, after all’ when both the chance and price of failure are so high? Or do we, like Prufrock, measure out our lives with coffee spoons in a torment of not knowing? I love that he buries so much in these simple domestic scenes, and that in doing so, he draws so heavily on his own reading, filling his work with an eclectic and complex intertextuality.
Some might see Eliot’s excessive borrowing as a tad elitist—making his work fully accessible only to a select few. But I respect a writer that’s not afraid to demand something of his reader. And while I cannot claim to be one of those few, I’m enjoying watching his poems come ever more sharply into focus.
However, while Eliot is a great borrower, he has also been widely referenced, and when I read his poems I’m reminded of other favourite texts that have paid homage to him. When I read The Waste Land, I hear Max Richter’s haunting album Infra. When I read ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ I recall certain unsettling scenes in Marisha Pessl’s novel Night Film and Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters on the plane to Amsterdam in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. But most of all, I can no longer think of Eliot or his work without thinking of my favourite novel, The Secret History by Donna Tartt. My image of Eliot himself is forever blurred with Henry Winter. When I read the opening lines of ‘The Burial of the Dead’ I recall Bunny’s murder, and in ‘The Hollow Men’ I see the classics students dancing in the forrest, their togas stained with blood, and Henry appearing to Richard in a dream as ‘light shining form a dead star’. Tartt pays her respects to Eliot in a hundred little ways: from adopting his intertextual style to naming minor characters after those that influenced him, to citing him directly. In fact, it was in reading The Secret History for the first time that I found a kindred spirit in Tartt, whose admiration for Eliot far outstrips my own.
But it’s not just Eliot’s verse that has gathered meaning for me over the years. My copy of his collected poems has memories pressed between the pages. It was given to me as a Christmas present by my parents the year I graduated high school. It meant a lot to me that they’d noticed my little obsession and that they supported my growing love of literature. At the time I was also struggling to choose between studying law or creative writing, and ‘Prufrock,’ with it’s endless questioning, ‘”Do I dare?” and “Do I dare?”‘ became my mantra of the summer.
For courage (and because I was a pretentious little git) I carried the book around in my backpack through my first year of university. For the remainder of my studies it sat with my dictionary on my desk as a reference point and source of inspiration. Even now, years later, it rarely lives in its rightful place on my bookshelf, but rather moves between my favourite reading spots around the house, especially when I’m working on an idea for a new book. And while I’ll often revisit the poems, the book itself has also become something of a security blanket, one of the few possessions I’ve carried with me my whole adult life.
So while I’m no Eliot scholar, (or perhaps because I cannot yet call myself one), if I could choose just one book to keep with me for the rest of my life, it would be his Collected Poems. I find his work both comforting and unsettling; familiar and yet still so full of uncharted depths.