Sickbed Reading

In the middle of the night, head stuffed and aching, I wandered down to the kitchen and there was the latest Brick magazine on the counter, containing at least two major thrills.

First, the news that David Milne’s archive in the Art Gallery of Ontario will soon be online, with samples of what that means: This Sunday morning I picked two honey pails of blueberries and killed a rattlesnake and had a swim. It means access to pages of autobiography, illustrated letters, diary entries, pencil drawings, cancelled watercolours. How can I say this any other way? My heart leapt with joy. Milne’s paintings have been a part of my life forever, even longer than my intention, never acted upon, to ferret out his unpublished writings. Now here they are, or will be, suddenly available to everyone.

Then an exceptional essay by Colum Toíbín about Mary Lavin, an Irish writer whose stories about “solitude and widowhood” brought back to mind my fairly recent discoveries of two other incredible Irish writers, Molly Keane and John McGahern. Reading the novel Good Behaviour by the one, and the memoir All Will Be Well by the other, made life worth living last winter and spring. The Irish. How can anyone who writes not wish to be Irish?

My broken-up, wakeful night followed a similarly rewarding, semi-stupefied day in bed reading Artemis Cooper’s wonderful biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Perhaps people did sometimes wonder when he was going to leave. Yet whatever his faults, he had one gift so enchanting that it made up for all his shortcomings. He was genuinely fascinated by his hosts, and wanted to hear everything they could tell him about their families, their history and their way of life. Called simply Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, the book immerses you in the life of this astonishing writer-traveler, whose mother informed him when he was a boy that Mary Queen of Scots had such white skin and such a slender neck that you could see the red wine slide her throat.

I am going backwards in the chronology of my sickbed reading, arriving now at James Wood writing in The New Yorker about Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time. The book itself was within reach, on the shelf next to my head, a gift from my daughter last Christmas or the Christmas before, and unread, despite my love of Out Stealing Horses. Liking one book by an author is no guarantee I’ll like any of the others, so I tend to proceed with a certain resistance, voracious yet reluctant. I dislike this about myself, this hanging back.

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