Literary Yearnings

On shelves in various rooms of my home are over a thousand books I’ve yet to read. I want to read them all of course. I want also to read the catalogues from the art exhibitions I visit, and the programmes from my regular opera attendances. Then there’s the journals I can’t do without: The White Review, PN Review and The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and my weekly TLS, which these days invariably comes late, three or four at the time. I skim the FT daily on my iPad, and the headlines from the Guardian, Daily Mail, New York Times and Washington Post.

In an average year I read around sixty-five books, so in the event of house arrest for unforgivable literary consumerism, I have sufficient reading material for at least fifteen years, slightly less perhaps if I can resist the allure of social media. On the other hand, I’ve decided to spend more time on developing my inept film literacy, so I could possibly stretch existing supplies out for up to twenty years, especially if I make time for those art catalogues and opera programmes.

Surrounded by unread books, unwatched films, with the treasures of London’s galleries within fifteen minutes of my office, why is it that the writers I most want to read are not those on my shelves, but those effectively unattainable because they are not translated into a language I can read?

One of this year’s most thrilling moments was the delivery of Roberto Bazlen’s Notes Without a Text. I’ve been translating fragments for at least a decade from the Biblioteca Adelphi edition. More recently I’ve been possessed by Maria Gabriela Llansol’s work since reading and rereading the Geography of Rebels trilogy. Translating from Portuguese is enjoyably difficult but glacially slow work.

This week I’ve been reading Alejandro Zambra’s Not to Read. I am drawn to Zambra’s voice, particularly his essays, translated by Megan McDowell; he writes with precision and extreme generosity. This book gathers essays written for the culture section of a Chilean newspaper. He writes about writing, books he has read, and has fuelled a few more literary yearnings for the difficult to obtain novels of Josefina Vicens and the journals of Paul Léautaud and Raúl Ruiz.