I have a pile of books from Christmas that I somehow can’t quite start to read. Instead of reading them, I’ve moved them from room to room – bench to stool, book case to chair – and then set about acquiring more things to read each day, before reproaching myself for hopeless inaction.
At the weekend – slightly bruised from three rounds with Nabokov’s story ‘Spring in Fialta’ – I started to read ‘What to Look for in Winter’ by Candia McWilliam. Subtitled a memoir of blindness it seems, actually, to be an adventure in non-linear narrative, about a woman accustomed to reading hundreds of words every day who finds that she can suddenly no longer open her eyes and is, consequently, unable to read a thing.
Transcribed by an amaneunsis (named, allegedly – brilliantly – Liv Stones), it’s a beautiful tumble of words and phrases that fall in almost the wrong order, leaving a smudge of disorientation in their wake. Each page is full of words that have sat too long in dictionaries, lined up with cats called Nancy Mitford and people whose names sound like pagan burial grounds, mapping the order of recollection rather than the agony of constant correction. McWilliam is famous for being a rather unprolific novelist, but the cascades of words in What to Look for in Winter seem to form a genuine stream of consciousness – things and connections weaving together to recreate a life as it has been lived, untroubled by chronological or any other external idea of order. She puts it rather well herself:
“I’m scared I’ve become like an inventory for the sale of an old dead person’s house, what Scots call a displenishing; here I am, picking up lost bits and pieces of my scattered life to try to make something whole by putting it all together, my own flotsam and jetsam.”