The plan was to have an orderly Year in Reading. To finally fill the gaps, dammit, to scale The Magic Mountain and read Hollinghurst properly instead of flipping around for the filthy bits. To read sitting up for a change — like a human adult — rather than burrowing in bedclothes like a vole.
But it was comfort I craved, reliable pleasures: Anne Carson and Elizabeth Hardwick, Sarah Waters’s novels, Virginia Woolf’s diaries, Zadie Smith’s essays, Martin Amis’s reviews (on Malcolm Lowry: “To make a real success of being an alcoholic, to go all the way with it, you need to be other things too: shifty, unfastidious, solipsistic, insecure and indefatigable. Lowry was additionally equipped with an extra-small penis, which really seemed to help.”). I read so much Larkin I worried I’d start sprouting anti-Indian attitudes myself.
What was it like living in a place and writing about it at the same time?
It was a real conundrum. I’d always imagine that I was running back and forth between two worlds—the library and the street—and I knew I had to bring those two experiences into the same frame. And there was a stage when I just had to shut it all out, and Harlem just had to be where I lived. These are all the questions of the book. How do the stories we’re told in everyday life measure up with the stories that get written into history books? How are these stories transmitted?
You write about Harlem both as a literal and metaphorical place. Why did you choose this approach? Continue reading →