I got on the bus the other day, and there was only one seat left. I sat down beside a young woman. She had a book open on her lap, and she was leaning her head against a rain-teared window. I glanced down to see what she was reading. It was Wuthering Heights, and I knew instantly the state she was in. Her world was exploding, or perhaps imploding. We were travelling along Lambton Quay, and I wondered whether she would, in future, recall that moment when she was vividly living alongside Cathy and the Heath; and whether the Heath would transform into Lambton Quay so that for one – marvellous – moment, she would experience simultaneity, both inside the golden globe of an imaginary world, yet hyper-aware, at the same time, of the real world as a kind of shimmering, almost incandescent, veil.
I say this because when I am asked to track back to books that were seminal to me, I seem to return, first, to a sensation; and this sensation is of a rapturously enlarging consciousness, which, at the same time, and as part of the sensation, imprints where I was then.
Thus I go back to our backyard in Point Chev. There is a corrugated iron fence Dad has painted with aluminium paint to delay inevitable rust. There is the clothesline, a marvellous kind of Quixotic windmill on which my mother would try and pin, in the wind, the white phantoms of her washing. There is a rhubarb patch under which our cat would sit, or rather under which he would place his head, thinking the sparrows would not see him if his own centre of consciousness was obscured. I have just finished, or I am part way through, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I am delirious. I am almost hysterical. I have glimpsed some delineation of a world I recognise. (It is, when I look at it as an older reader, hyper-adjectival, turgid and almost unreadable. What did I recognise then? I think it was its rapturous depiction of passion within a family.)
Another snapshot: I am at Muriwai Beach. We are shifting away from the constrictions of Point Chevalier but our new house (our new life) isn’t ready yet. My parents borrow a bach. It is high up on a hill and it looks out on the vast aeration of ocean. Up the road, McCahon is painting his Necessary Protection series. I am on the last few pages of To the Lighthouse. I am sitting outside, and the manuka and kikuyu are oscillating with a kind of internal pulse. I am within an animate world. I become, briefly, Lily Briscoe: the person who can say – yes, I have had my vision.
It strikes me now as unusual for a gay man in his early 20s to think his being can be expressed by a “maiden lady”, a painter who could almost have been Frances Hodgkins. Did I see myself, at that time, as a person who could find no real actual sexuality? Or was it Lily’s (Virginia’s) adherence to the idea of art being something which can “save” you: a personal kind of religion, a giving of direction, when my life seemed a series of hopeless flounderings?
I have a similar vividly imprinted sense of place from my first reading of Proust. It occurs to me now that these writers all share a fierce inwardness, a kind of insistence on the primacy of consciousness. Perhaps this led to the kind of febrile expansion of consciousness that made reality seem translucent. Perhaps in another sense I was also like our cat, who sat with his head under a rhubarb leaf, believing his body to be invisible. Was I in these moments granting myself some time in which to be “invisible”, to escape my own conundrums, to feel a kind of freedom I could only, at that stage, imagine? In this sense, books saved my sanity, my life.
I have obliterated here the other books that fed my imagination – the muddier sources, yet no less essential: Classic Comics, Jean Plaidy, Georgette Heyer, Thomas Armstrong (The Crowthers of Bankdam, which I saw just the other day in the throw-out bin at the local library …).
In the end, I have to confess to being promiscuous, a literary whore who can, in the end, lay claim to no one great bookish love. Rather, I can only say that as I changed, so my great literary loves changed, and I moved on, tart-like, to new sources of literary inspiration.
Peter Wells’s memoir Long Loop Home won the biography section of the 2002 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.