Franschhoek 1: Stoner

I’ve been thinking about books. This weekend is the Franschhoek Literary Festival, a splendid, sometimes sunny three days during which many fine people gather to drink wine and enjoy the questionable company of those who write books and the more reliably pleasurable company of those who read them.

I love the physical presence of books, how they make the air more silent, like a fall of snow, and how they preserve the layered traces of the minds and fingers pass over them, like a thin core-sample of a small corner of civilisation. I have a copy of The Jungle Book that I found in a second-hand store in Clarens for R20. On the first page is handwritten in elegant brown ink: “Joan Patricia Harding Barlow, August 25th 1925.” The edition is handsome and illustrated and on the title page, covering the publisher’s imprint, is a small rectangle cut from a sheet of paper and glued in place, with the typewritten words: “With Mr Kipling’s compliments”.  Above the paper rectangle the author’s printed name is crossed out in black ink that has faded to slate grey, and Rudyard Kipling has written out his name.

The book’s in good condition, although the binding is loosening because I drag all my visitors to the shelf to bore them with it, but there are nearly invisible traces on the pages of the fingers that have turned them, the pages read aloud to small children, later rediscovered by those same children now grown.

I have a copy of Conrad’s Youth and The End of the Tether that my mother owned in school. There are paragraphs marked down the side with biro, and notes to herself in the margins. There are sudden underlinings that make me reel: “Captain Whalley seemed to be smiling to himself. ‘The earth is big,’ he said.”

I have a copy of Moby Dick that my brother won for 2nd Prize in Scripture in standard 4 in 1954, marked in soft, blunt grey pencil by his first wife when she read it in 1965, which makes me think that grade six students were tougher in 1954 than they are now. What did they give the kid who came first in Scripture? Finnegan’s Wake? A mouse-trap in the toe of his shoe? But holding the book is like looking through the reverse end of a super-powered telescope down a synapse-line of personal history: a godless book, given for Bible knowledge to a 12-year-old, over-written eleven years later by his future wife who more than a decade later would be photographed, dark-haired and beautiful, holding me at my christening, and now in my godless hands for me to read again.

But that is one kind of book-love; I was reminded this week of a truer version. On Tuesday night I was in a distant city, alone and feeling alone in a hotel room in the mussel-blue dusk without hot water for a bath. Then I received a message from someone heartily commending to me a novel named Stoner by John Williams.

I couldn’t go to a bookshop so I downloaded it and read in my room as the city grew dark outside the windows. It was written in 1965 and was an instant failure. It was out of print within the year and the author, who died twenty years ago, has been forgotten for nearly five decades. It tells of William Stoner, a young man from a farm in the American mid-West who goes to college to study agriculture but discovers literature and that concentrated connection with the past and with other lives and the world that had hitherto escaped him, offering “a vision of denseness into which he was compacted, and from which he had no wish to escape”.

I had work to do, and panels to prepare for Franschhoek, but I sat and read the beautiful, simple, heartbreaking clean words as the night thickened and the world turned outside, and I felt that nameless, familiar expansion inside me, a connection to the fictional William Stoner and to the man who wrote him and everyone who read him and the friend who wrote to me to bring him to my attention. Books aren’t only physical things: they are invisible forces that can be beamed through crowded air and that live in the empty spaces inside us and between us. They can change the world and live after death.

Forty-eight years after the failure of Stoner it was reprinted by Vintage and became a bestseller in France, then Holland and Germany, then Israel. It sold nearly 200 000 copies last year. I read it all night and I will buy it in paper to keep on my shelf. I’m looking forward to Franschhoek. I’m looking forward to being around books, and people who love them.

Times, 18 July 2017