Early Astonishment

Vogue 1988.
Reading: John Bryson


Now here’s a story.

My son was in a school play; he’s an angular fifteen-year-old, playing an Edwardian business man in Hobson’s Choice, and when the time came for him to deliver the line which would tell us who he was, de declared himself to be Mr Prosser, which was stunning news to the rest of the cast right then, because he had been rehearsing as Mr Cornbean. He recovered himself well, and was altogether wonderful thereafter, but is still stiff and sore about it, wondering how he could have been so confused, after weeks of rehearsal, about who he was. I wondered a little myself, although human adolescence is a time renowned for crises of identity, until I recalled quite another incident. I had taken him, three weeks before, into the city, shopping. On the busy pavement we happened on a guy I knew, and I did the introductions. My son I introduced as Michael, which was stunning news to him right then, since his name is Matthew.

The timing of the thing has to be fully reckoned with. During the season of Hobson’s Choice my son had played every performance true, until the last night. Whatever we call the miraculous and unsung part of the human spirit which controls these things, he had waited to ring the flagrant changes until the night there sat, in the close front row, his comfortable father.

With family like that to keep me up to some sort of inventive standard. I’m not much in need of literary influences, but of course there are lots, and I should give some of those writers the right of brief appearance. I’m leaving out writers who already have a following in this country, and people such as Joan Didion and Lillian Ross, in favour of folk we wouldn’t so easily happen upon.

We wouldn’t easily happen on Lewis Thomas, unless we’re readers, of the New England Journal of Medicine. Thomas is a pathologist. He links, with wonderful engagement, the mechanisms of mind and body with things like pond life, with animals he sees in the Tucson Zoo, with what goes on in an anthill. Penguin and Bantam bring Thomas in, but not in big numbers.
The documentaries of Ryszard Kapuscinski came out first in Warsaw, where he lives, but Quartet and Picador are interested in him now. He likes the structure of social eruption, such as the revolutions against Haile Selassie and the Shah of Iran, particularly when he can deliver, in intriguing person, the witnesses, so they seem to be whispering either in the royal corridors, or shouting to us over the gunfire.

Primo Levi, a Jewish chemist who grew up in Mussolini’s Italy, can distil a rare liquid in his laboratory, in such a way that the ethers he takes off might just as easily be the human spirit.

Tracey Kidder watches the building of a house, and builds a book with an architecture not too different, and when it’s all completed, we understand that this house has been fully occupied since the pegs were first driven into the ground, peopled by carpenters, cabinet-makers, by fears and dreams of the same universal order as those now entering with the owners, who think they are the very first tenants.

That’s enough of examples, but they’re on my shelves because they are all astonished at the way the physical world works, and how we fit in.

To find my earliest appetite for astonishment such as that I should go to early childhood, and what I keep coming up with from there is a small album of relatives, all of the aunts.

I spent years – from the age of seven, I guess, to ten – being passed from the house of one aunt to another. The first was shared by two aunts who lived together in a world of hothouses and ferneries. They wore straw hats and face-scarves, and followed the grocer’s carthorse for steamy fertilizer. Spring after spring, they were astonished by the jostling going on in the germination tray and, inside the grafting shed, by the love of a brutally orphaned branch for its calm host. I was astonished myself, although this didn’t matter, since astonishment was compulsory.

Their place was in the garden, for up at the house they bickered and sulked, sly hatreds I couldn’t figure out, and it wasn’t unknown for one, at stealthy night, to slit the throat of a beautiful but rival orchid. But when one fell ill and died, the inconsolable other withered back, and was senile within a month, by what seemed like an act of will.There were others, but of more use for what I’m trying to do here was the last aunt, a Christian Scientist with the whitest hair, whose sea-captain husband she had lost, not to the ocean but to a cancer in the bowel, which she put down to his excessive use of a motor car. She set great store by the Lord, and by the miracles of the body, and I read aloud the Scriptures at night, and she read me anatomy texts which she had annotated where the authors had gone wrong. We lived in Sydney’s Bondi, and mornings we roamed the beaches because she didn’t much trust schools. She preferred the Lord, and her own firm grasp of the natural world.

Whatever God was good at, this aunt was terrific with minnows, particularly the glaxias variety, and could spot a gregarious imposter right off. She had the food chain, anyway so far as the shallows went, in neat order. But her specialty was crabs. She described the useful arcs of limbs; she knew how well the swimming-plates worked, and how the armour over the abdomen protected dozens of the crawling young. It took me a long time to set this fascination with crabs next to the cancer from which her husband had died. Meantime, she ate green vegetables and molasses, walked everywhere, and grew lighter and lighter. Everyone was worried about her. But whatever dark forces hover around emblems and associations like that, she toughed it right out and, I’m pleased to say, and this is a happy event to end with, she lived a very long time.