Essay 1: The Antarctic Campaign

by rosalyster

For most of my life, my dad read only non-fiction. I didn’t see him with a novel in his hand until I was 25. Something about fiction didn’t sit right with him. I find this to be true of a lot of men his age. They haven’t read a novel since school, and treat the whole enterprise with a merry scepticism. It is not their thing.[1] I read a lot when I was a kid, terrible books about horses and twins, and the people who gave me the most shit about it were always the dads. Always some variation of “Gee whiz, you certainly read a lot. You must really like reading a lot to be sitting here inside on this beautiful day.”  I interpreted this as an assault upon my integrity, my choices etc. Who is more prickly and defensive than a young nerd? I am not quite as bitter as I was at age ten, but I stand by the generalisation that for a lot of men of my dad’s generation, novels are beside the point.  If they must read a book, they prefer ones that offer high returns on investment. Literary non-fiction is good this way. You sit down with your book, you appear to be chillaxing, when really you are learning a thing or two about herd immunity. You are making great strides toward ruining your next dinner party with a polemic about Nkandla.

It is important to note, also, that my particular dad was raised in a Catholic household. Catholics are bad at visibly relaxing. It’s not that they can’t be at leisure. They just don’t know how to admit it. Observe, for instance, my dad coming home from work. He pulls into the driveway. Without acknowledging it to himself, he is relieved that my mum isn’t home. This makes it easier. He opens the front door. He greets Lucy in the traditional manner: “YES, Lucy. Thank you.” She wags her little tail. He puts his briefcase in the study. He starts up the stairs. The shoes he is wearing make an extraordinarily loud noise. If he was in Tintin, the noise would be written as “PAM! PAM! PAM!” He takes an obscure relish in this. He arrives at the foot of the bed he has shared with his wife for over 30 years, now. He collapses onto it.  Sometimes face first, sometimes on his side. He makes a cursory show of reading a few pages of his book. He has a little snooze. Two hours later, my mum arrives home. She opens the front door in the customary fashion: she swings it wide and shouts her husband’s name in a carrying voice.

So: “Richaaaaaaaaaaaard.” Lucy’s tail goes “PAM! PAM! PAM!” against the floor.  My dad starts awake and bays down the stairs that yes, here he is. My mum asks what he is doing up there. He says that he is changing. Into his house clothes.  She says that she cannot hear him. What did he say?

“I was just CHANGING, I said.”

This happens three or four times a week.[2] A man who cannot admit to an afternoon sleep is a man who might struggle with the concept of reading novels for pleasure. Instead, he preferred biographies, or the new book about Darwin. You would be startled to learn how often a new book about Darwin comes out. He liked accounts of doomed Antarctic expeditions, of Everest seasons during which the social fabric collapses.  There is a bookshelf in my parents’ lounge dedicated to this considerable collection. My mum calls them the Beloveds. It is unclear whether she means the books themselves, or the people they are about. I think the people. My dad has started many conversations with the words, “You know how I feel about Darwin”. Indeed I do know.  His feelings about Shackleton are more ambiguous, less furiously admiring. Scott and Mallory, ditto. Still, he loves them all.

The Beloveds have taken up a lot of space. Ask me the names of the members of Captain Scott’s Terra Nova expedition. That’s the one where they all died. Where Captain Oates, with his frostbitten feet, his recognition that he was a burden, stepped out into the snowstorm and failed to come back. Please ask me about the final words of Lawrence Titus Oates.  My dad sometimes repeats them when he takes Lucy for a walk in Bulwer Park: “I am just going outside. I may be some time.” He raises his eyebrows meaningfully as the two of them set off into the evening gloom.

I chafed under this benign dictatorship. No one made me read a thing, but I resented the Beloveds all the same and objected to their presence on the shelves. I had special problems with the polar explorers. Is it accurate to say that I felt threatened by them? Is that funny or sad? I tried my best to unseat them. I found an article suggesting that Captain Oates was not quite the man we hoped.  A journalist had discovered that before Oates set off to perish on the ice, the hardy captain had fathered a child with a twelve year old girl. There was an interview with his never-acknowledged granddaughter, now in her 70s. She said “It did shock me greatly when I heard that Ettie was only 12 when Oates made love to her. It rather took the gilt off the gingerbread.” The article seemed to me like some kind of a scoop. I printed it and placed it on my dad’s desk with joy. Surely, I thought. Surely this will take the gilt off the gingerbread. My dad read it over once, and put it aside. He waved dismissively. “Everyone knows,” he said, “that Oates was a total arsehole. I never liked him anyway. This changes nothing.” Thus routed, I withdrew.

Their unseating was always going to be difficult. It was only ever going to be achieved by someone formidable. There were a few fictional contenders: the clever doctor in J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, the double agent in The Untouchable by John Banville. Both of these led directly, however, down non-fiction rabbitholes. The Siege of Krishnapur kicked off an Indian Mutiny phase, and The Untouchable just reminded him that the real Cambridge spies were more interesting than the made-up ones. A more powerful antidote was needed.  Imagine the curled lip on Captain Robert Falcon Scott when Humbert Humbert turned out to be the man for the job. That old-style degenerate outsmarted them all.

One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t keep the all text messages my dad sent me when he started reading Lolita. I have the emails still, but the texts were the real high quality material. I only saved one. It says: “Im up to the bit where he is on the sofa in his hideous green silk dressing gown and she has put her legs over his lap. Oh God.” They were all a bit like this in tone. It was hell on his nerves. He tore through Lolita like he was paid to do it. He has never looked back.

I don’t know what made him pick it up. Certainly nothing I did or said. This is probably some kind of lesson. No one likes to have books forced on them. Same, of course, with movies. I find myself unable to watch Boyhood for this reason. I confidently anticipate never watching it ever. I tried for many years to get my dad to read novels that I knew in my heart he would love, and he was not having any of it. And then he up and reads Lolita like it’s nothing. He went straight into the major leagues, beginning with a book that even the most louche and sybaritic among us feel weird about reading.

Here is an extract from an email he wrote me about it:

“Im just taking a well deserved break from Lolita.   Its so intense that its making me agitated.  I feel that I may not be able to carry on, even though I know I will. He expresses exactly what I feel in the foreword where he says:”No doubt he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of jocularity and ferocity that betrays supreme misery ………….. a desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning……..But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book, while abhorring its author”.    I feel that I should do something cleansing now,  like taking the dogs for a walk,  but I cant,  so will have to satisfy Lucy by tossing her slimy tennis ball around the back garden.”

I cannot think of a better ending than that. The Beloveds are still there on the shelves, my dad still loves Darwin, I still know the names of the Terra Nova expedition. But their primacy is no longer assured. I have chosen to view this as a triumph. I take these victories where I can.

[1] In an earlier draft of this essay I speculated with a great deal of intensity and paranoia about why exactly it wasn’t their thing. Possible reasons: they think reading for pleasure is weak and Lotus Eater-ish; “South Africa”; “Protestant Work Ethic”; they are Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. It was one of the most satisfying blocks of text I’ve ever deleted. I sounded mad. I note this here in case I run out of ideas later in the year. A good title for an essay would be “I sounded mad when I did not intend to.” Or: “I can’t take it easy even though I try”.

[2] Please note that I do not pretend to be above such interpersonal dynamics. I am in fact dating someone who cannot admit to an afternoon nap. I say: “Michaela what are you doing in there.” She says, voice all mottled with sleep: “I’m just READING.”