Angie and I have been in our reading friendship for nearly twenty-five years now, so when she says to me, ‘This is good,’ my heart lifts up. Angie knows me, and forgives – or rather, pretty much shares – my judgement of the contemporary literary writing scene: there’s not much out there for me, it’s all too fancy and unreal. She handed me Georgina Harding’s novel, with apologies for having spilled soup on page 131, saying ‘Read it, it’s good.’
My prejudices being strong, I was a little resistant. I had a look at it, saw it was set in 1616 and decided it could wait.
Then Brian Nellist told me he’d read a wonderful novel he’d found in The Works. ‘The Solitude of Thomas Cave,’ he said, and I said, ‘Oh, Angie’s already lent me that…’ and he said, ‘It is so moving, it’s a wonderful novel…’
Now the Nellibobs and I go back even further than the Angie and Jane Show. Brian taught me in my third year at university and supervised my subsequent Ph.D. He is the Grandfather of The Reader Organisation, the parent of my life as a reader.
Why was I still resistant?
Over Christmas I started the book but something in me was stubbornly against the fact that the novel was historical. I thought it would be too writerly. I don’t usually enjoy modern novels that are ‘bewitching’, ‘graceful’. I didn’t want to go to pretend 1616. And I had got into the George Saunders groove of Pastoralia and everything else ever written by George Saunders, and that’s a bit like getting into a very deep Patti Smith groove. It’s hard to get back to other modes and tempos once you are immersed, everything non-George seems a bit flat and quiet.
Angie asked me how I was doing and I prevaricated. ‘Oh I’ve started it… but now – you know – Christmas….’
Come New Year, Phil had picked it up and I noticed one night, when Saunderless I was searching for something to read, that he’d started reading it. Kind Phil: he started reading it to me. A night or two later and I had got past my fear 1616 was beginning to be deeply in the book. It is only in most superficial sense an ‘historical’ novel. This is no Wolf Hall. This book is in another dimension, not another time. I started reading on by myself after Phil had fallen asleep. Now I was seeing what Angie and Brian had both seen – this is a very unusual book and well worth reading. It is about a part of human reality most modern novels cannot go to.
As I read I thought of David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide (and indeed I passed that one over to Angie to see if she would also make the connection – no word back – she probably hasn’t liked it). Also Richard Byrd’s amazing account of his Antarctic solitude in Alone. It’s not just about cold. it’s about what happens to you when you face your solitude.
In that sense I felt the novel was also a little bit connected to some of Doris Lessing’s breakdown fiction, perhaps The Four Gated City. The Solitude of Thomas Cave is, with really no religion to speak of, a spiritual journey novel, an inner voyage. To say much more will spoil the story. But let me give a quotation. Thomas, left by his whaling ship on the northern ice for a winter, lives like a hermit in his cabin and is graced and tormented by visions so powerful as to seem more real than the reality of his cold existence.
Again she is there about him. During this spell of hard days he has relaxed his vigilance and let himself think about her, and his thoughts have brought her back. Even if he does not see her he knows her presence, the slow rustle of her movement about him, her soft breath. ‘Oh Johanne, who could have thought it could be like this? The cold is not at all as I could have imagined. The sensation of it when I step outside, how it strikes deep in the stomach, how my muscles seem sore from the effect of it as from a beating, the way it burns as if God made my nerves and sinews to react to fire but never to know this degree of cold. Even here inside the cabin I have touched a piece of metal so cold that it burns and clings to the fingers like birdlime and I must warm it or tear my skin before it can be released. Once too hastily I put a stoneware mug to my lips to drink and it stuck to my beard and lips. It is more intense than anything I could have anticipated but at the same time more bearable. It astonished me how the time passes and the fire burns down and is built up again and I shape my day between sleep and work and meals and prayer and continue to endure. I eat little, sleep much. I become like an animal that hides itself through the winter and sleeps until spring.
Beneath the weight of his rugs, he knows her. He knows the hardness of her pregnant belly. That had surprised him at first, its hardness. Her belly is taut like clenched muscle; it has not the softness of woman to it. And because of it he must take her differently and she must come on him. Slow she comes on him, taut, hard, strong, like a ship climbing a wave. Her face is strange and her eyes are closed and her breasts are full as sails, the veins showing in them, the nipples dark and roughened and distended, and he closes his eyes also and has no thoughts in the surf.
This is a book about suffering and the tempering that suffering may bring. In that sense it is a book out of time, for here in the easy world suffering isn’t one of our gifts. And yet – isn’t it true? – we all do suffer, as the sparks fly upwards. Our centrally heated world is bent on denying the cold, and the cost of that is the loss of certain kinds of knowledge. Read this book to remind yourself what it is to be human.
(See Nellibobs read from The Solitude of Thomas Cave on YouTube http://tinyurl.com/74fzd7k)
And a poem to go with this novel…
A cold wind stirs the blackthorn
To burgeon and to blow,
Besprinkling half-green hedges
With flakes and sprays of snow.
Through coldness and through keenness,
Dear hearts, take comfort so:
Somewhere or other doubtless
These make the blackthorn blow.