Neck-deep in life in all its dubious glory, surrounded by love and death, as a teenager I somehow had the notion that real life was elsewhere or at another time. For me, real life was in the hereafter – not the afterlife of religion, just somewhere in the future. This debilitating belief stayed with me for many years, perhaps still clings to my consciousness like a limpet long after the tide had gone out.
Life in the sleepy suburbs of Bellville seemed lifeless compared to what I was encountering in books. Characters in fiction seemed more real and pressing to me than the weak, pimply dreamer I saw in the mirror. Reading was my oxygen pipe, and I a deep-sea diver stumbling about in a blue-painted swimming pool, it seemed.
At first, I got my books from the library – two-weekly visits that allowed you two books of fiction and two of non-fiction. I seldom bothered with the non-fiction initially, later read everything about World War Two I could lay my hands on. At high school, I discovered The Book Exchange, a second-hand bookstore in Barnard Street, across Voortrekker Road from the school. More than the selected and sanitised library books, these paperbacks with their lurid covers spoke to me. I discovered lifelong favourites such as Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick. There was the sci-fi of E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith. War stories by H.H. Kirst. Joe Millard’s retellings of the Sergio Leone westerns. There was a book about a country run by the nihilist President Nil, with some unforgettable details. Oh, and Leon Uris! I read hundreds of books by authors I can’t recall now.
What stays with me, though, is the feeling that those books and that bookshop gave me. A certain muted excitement, a fluttering in my chest and slimy stirrings in the imagination. This feeling, I realised recently, is the reason I write: I want to recapture it, I want to feel like that again. It is a drug I need.
To this day, few things give me as much pleasure as browsing in a second-hand bookstore, picking up a book by someone I had never heard of, and discovering something in it I like. The latest is a book called The Hunters, the first novel by James Salter. Apparently, he was well-known once; I had never noticed. It’s not one of the greatest novels I’d read, but there were sentences I wish I had written. And it’s about Sabre pilots in the Korean War, told with the insight and detail of one who had been there himself, entertaining the boy in me. Like all good books, it reminds me of who I had been and who I am.