Dipping into Nick Hornby’s MORE BATHS LESS TALKING
I have a book I want to recommend to you, dear readers, not that I read it myself. I SKIMMED it. Looking for the good parts. And there were so many good parts I might as well have read it. I didn’t have the time or patience (or concentration) to sit down and actually read it. I’m reading other stuff, plus I’m constantly “marketing” The Answer to Your Question, which mainly consists of filling out forms with the same information over and over on online sites that announce free eBook giveaway days. I have another one coming up, so if for some unimaginable reason you haven’t downloaded the $2.99 Answer eBook on Amazon, you can download it free on March 24. Just think of all you’ll save!
Anyway—the book I so enjoyed skimming is More Baths Less Talking, by the British writer Nick Hornby. I had loved Hornby’s novel Juliet, Naked, plus I have this THING for certain English guys who can talk–or I should say write–as if they’re conversing with you. They’re the most lively, quirky, funny, bright conversationalists you’ve ever heard; you feel funnier, smarter, and more entertaining yourself just from holding their books in your hand. I have a huge crush on another British writer of the same ilk as Hornby, Geoff Dyer, based on his novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (I’m such a lightweight I never seem to read more than one book by anyone).
I actually got to meet Dyer (or Geoff, as I like to think of him) at the Key West Literary Seminar this year. He stole the show every time he opened his mouth on stage, especially when he read a passage from Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence, his intended biography of Lawrence in which Geoff never actually gets around to writing about him. He was self-deprecatingly hilarious, which to me is always sexy, and I actually got to speak to him. When I told him how I had listened to Jeff in Venice on tape while I was driving, a look passed over his (long) face and he said, “That must have kept you awake . . .” Meaning the “good parts,” no doubt. That was our moment. He’s funny looking, tall and thin, Ichabod Crane-ish, and made me think of the taffy we used to pull as girls into long strands. Everything about him (well, I can’t say for sure . . .) was long.
Anyway, I’m trying to write about More Baths Less Talking here, not taffy or Geoff Dyer.
Baths is a collection of Hornby’s monthly book columns for the Believer magazine, which I had never heard of. Which just goes to show how out of it I am. It’s Dave Eggers magazine, published 9 times a year in SF and sold in independent bookstores! Why didn’t I know this? Because I live in the Midwest? Because I’m old?
I quote from Wikipedia:
The Believer is a magazine, as its editor Heidi Julavits writes, that urges readers and writers to “reach beyond their usual notions of what is accessible or possible.” The magazine publishes essays that the critic Peter Carlson describes as “highbrow but delightfully bizarre,” book reviews that may assess writers of other eras, and interviews with writers, artists, musicians and directors, often conducted by colleagues in their fields. The critic A.O. Scott described the magazine as part of “a generational struggle against laziness and cynicism, to raise once again the banners of creative enthusiasm and intellectual engagement.” It has a “cosmopolitan frame of reference and an eclectic internationalism, mixing pop genres with literary theory.”
Anyway, less talking, more Baths . . . If you want to dip in, the first thing you have to deal with is how widely Hornby reads, or in some cases, intends to read. That I can relate to. Each month’s column is prefaced by his “Books Bought” and “Books Read,” lists and the two don’t always match, which I found reassuring. It’s invigorating just to see where his curiosity leads. I’ll pick a month at random: (June, 2010)
Let the Great World Spin– Colum McCann (I had actually read this and it’s one of my favorite novels)
The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them—Elif Batuman
Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness—Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
Lonelyhearts: the Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenny—Marion Meade
The rest of Austerity Britain: 1945-51—David Kynaston
Just Kids—Patti Smith (I read too)
The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read them—Elif Batuman
Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared —Andrew Brown
Some of Puzzled People: A Study in Popular Attutides to Religion, Ethics, Progress and Politics in a London Bourough, prepared for the Ethical Union – Mass Observation
I was fascinated by his eclectic reading tastes, and his comments on books are invariably entertaining, accessible, informative, wide ranging, generous, and darn interesting, whether you’ve already read the book or never will.
I was happy to find Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín, on his “Read” list. Tóibín is a literary idol of mine (again, based on the reading of that one novel), though I don’t have a crush on him. He was also at the Key West Literary Seminar this year. He gave the most marvelous (mah-va-lous) talk on The Master, his novel about Henry James (in which he actually managed to write about James, and which is on my own “Books Bought” but not yet “Read” list). Tóibín told a story (as only an Irishman can) about how when he was short-listed for the Booker Prize, he fantasized about winning, anticipating Ireland’s great day of celebration. He related attending a dinner at which the finalists were feted, with the winner being announced right after the dinner. At which point Tóibín was told: “I wonder if you could go . . .” He wandered out onto the streets of London, berating himself for ever being such a fool as to think the prize would come his way. A painful experience now turned into an entertaining, self-deprecating tale (what better to do with pain? Make others laugh).
He recounted how Henry James also had a painful failure, which Tóibín wrote about in The Master. James had a play staged in London which he expected to be well received. But when he came out on stage after the curtain to accept the accolades, some of the audience jeered him, shocking him and sending him into brief seclusion.
Tóibín made the point that he was writing autobiography by handing his truth to James. He talked about how when one is writing a novel, it “begins to read you—you write a secret autobiography.” He went on to describe how everything in you moves into the rhythm of the novel and the rhythm begins to work for you—“when one paragraph moves into the next paragraph easily, something in you has matched the material.” If you took the novel to a psychiatrist, he’d say “this is you,” when you might not even know it was you. I found that profoundly interesting!
Nick Hornby was reading Brooklyn because he’s been hired to adapt the novel “for the cinema.” For you fellow Brooklyn fans, here’s Hornby musing on writing the screenplay:
One thing that particularly struck me this time around (re-reading Brooklyn) is that though Toibin’s prose is precise and calm and controlled, Brooklyn is not an internal book. This is good news for a screenwriter, in most ways, but it did occur to me that if you strip away, as I have to do, all the control, then the story becomes alarmingly visceral. When Eilis travels third class on a ship to New York and ends up getting violently seasick and expelling her dinner through every available orifice . . .Well, if we show that on-screen, it will lose Toibin’s Jamesian poise. What you’ll see, in fact, is a poor girl shitting copiously into a bucket. And Colm’s devoted fans, aesthetes all, will say, Jesus, what has this hooligan done to our beautiful literary novel? There might be art riots, in fact, similar to those that greeted The Rite of Spring when it was first performed in 1913. People will throw stuff at me, and I’ll be running out of the premier shouting, “There was diarrhea in the book!” but nobody will believe me. I’m going to blame the director. Who made the Porky’s movies. We should hire him.
As an aside, Hornby has also been hired to write the screen play of Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s phenomenally successful memoir.
I keep wanting to quote Hornby, to give you a sense of him and his reading lists, and to share the pleasures of his personality and writing. Here’s how the column for July/August 2011 opens:
No time spent with a book is ever entirely wasted, even if the experience is not a happy one: there’s always something to be learned. It’s just that, every now and again, you can hit a patch of reading that makes you feel as if you’re pootling about. There’s nothing like a couple of sleepy novels, followed by a moderately engaging biography of a minor cultural figure, to make you aware of your own mortality. But what can you do about it? We don’t choose to waste our reading time; it just happens. The books let us down.
It wasn’t just that I enjoyed all the books I read this month; they felt vital, too. If you must read a biography of a sitcom star, then make sure the sitcom is the most successful and influential in TV history [Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball—Stefan Kanfer]. You have a yen to read about a grotesquely dysfunctional communist society? Well, don’t mess about with Cuba—go straight for North Korea [Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea—Barbara Demick]. John Lanchester’s Whoops! Is a relatively simple explanation of the biggest financial crisis in history [Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay]; Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is, according to Hemingway, the book from which all American literature derives. A month of superlatives, in other words—the best, the worst, the biggest, and the most important.
In September, 2011, he read a book about monogamous sex, Mating in Captivity: Sex, Lies, and Domestic Bliss, by Esther Perel (which I don’t expect ever to read). It propelled him to clarify a few points on the subject for his readers, whom he assumes are younger than him, “because more or less everyone is, nowadays.” He deduces that the audience for Believer, because they’re interested in books and possibly other forms of art, “have sexual relationship that are complicated, morally dubious, and almost certainly unsavory . . .” so he needs to explain a few things to them:
Firstly: monogamy is this thing where you sleep with only one person. And I’m not talking about only one person during the whole length of Bonnaroo, or an art-film screening, or a poetry “happening,” or whatever. Sometimes the commitment might last weeks, months even. (Married readers: in next month’s column, I may introduce some more information, although I suspect they’re [Believer’s readers] some years away from being able to handle the dismal truth.) Esther Perel has cleverly recognized that a tiny minority of monogamists can occasionally feel a twinge of inexplicable and indefinable dissatisfaction with their chosen path—nothing significant, and certainly nothing that leads them to rethink their decision (monogamous relationships almost never fail, unless either partner is still sexually active)—and she has written a book that might help them through this tricky time. It’s a niche market, obviously, the sexual equivalent of a guide for people whose pets have an alcohol-abuse problem. It’s great that someone has done it, but it’s not for everyone.
I should probably mention where the rather odd title of the collection comes from. Perel makes the point in her book about the contemporary insistence that all intimacy is verbal intimacy. She tells of a couple, Eddie and Noriko, who didn’t speak the same language, so they literally couldn’t communicate. Eddie had run into trouble time and again with women who wanted him to talk, to “bare his soul,” but no such pressure with Noriko. They had to show how much they liked each other in other ways—such as giving each other baths. More baths, less talking . . .
Given my penchant for talky Brits, I don’t think Eddie would have been my cuppa. My own husband, Jeff (not Geoff), though not British, is good at talk. In fact, he has told me (many times . . .) that girls liked him in high school because he could “make conversation.”
There are a lot of enjoyable bits to skim in More Baths, Less Talking, and a lot of books you never heard of to be introduced to. Once you test the water, you might want to take the whole plunge.
As for my current bought and read lists, I just bought The Book of Killowen, another in a series of Irish bog body mysteries by my friend Erin Hart, which I’m enjoying it a lot; The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg, a novel I had great hopes for, but stopped when I felt bored by it; the recently published Dreaming in German, a memoir by my friend Claudia Poser which I read in draft many years ago, about Claudia’s immigration to South Carolina when she was 13, after spending her childhood shuttling back and forth between West and Easy Germany; Judy Liautaud’s memoir, Sunlight on My Shadow, about being sent away in secret and shame at sixteen to a home for unwed mothers, giving the baby up, and as an adult searching for her birth daughter and taking charge of her own story by publishing her memoir; Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, which I want to read but which is languishing on my Kindle; and the memoir by my former student at St. Olaf, Emily Rapp, lyrically titled The Still Point of the Turning World, about her son who died in February of just shy of three years old of Tay-Sachs disease.
What’s on your current “Books Bought” and “Books Read” list?