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Relaxing in Literature

On my desktop (my laptop, not my actual desk) are .jpgs of paintings of women reading books. I dragged them there from the Internet, not quite knowing why I was doing it. But now I realize something in me relaxes when I look at them. The women are all in repose, sitting or lying down. Lost in what they are reading, deep in concentration. They look healthy. When we are that relaxed, we are. In one of my favorites, The Traveling Companions (1862), by Augustus Leopold Egg, two girls who look like sisters and are dressed exactly alike, sit on opposite sides of their train compartment, opposite sides of the composition. There is an almost perfect symmetry between them, their hats resting in their laps in exactly the same manner, their silk dresses which, when they meet in the middle of the compartment, look as if they are different folds of the same piece of cloth. One girl sleeps while the other reads. Each is resting in her own way.

When we read novels or short stories we’re supposed to want tension and conflict, at least that’s what we’re often told, but I don’t care about conflict in fiction any more than the other elements that might appear there. It’s usually narrative voice to which I’m drawn, for the way it sounds, for its particular way of bringing the reader through an experience, for the way it can create atmosphere or feeling. To read relaxation should be boring, for what are we paying attention to when we encounter it? How is it driving the story forward? Something is always supposed to be driving another thing forward in some way. And if we stop for a little while, can that not be interesting too?

I must have first thought consciously about this when I read Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes. There is so much pleasure in that novel, as Laura, finally at age forty-seven, goes towards her true nature for the first time: she becomes a witch, or she becomes herself as a witch. There is something calming about that, to give up a charade of what one is meant to be, to move to the country, in touch with the supernatural. The passage in the book in which this transformation begins is on page seventy-eight. The book has already showed Laura living one kind of life, in which what she wants she gets only in small doses. She wants nature, and in Apsley Terrace, where she lives with her brother and his family, she surrounds herself with flowers, every winter she fills her room with them, but of course that isn’t enough. It’s a shop that’s “half florist and half green grocer” that leads Laura to what will be her new home, her new existence. She’s deeply pleased by everything in the shop: the flowers and the vegetables, the bottled fruit. She begins to feel a longing, which transports her somewhere else:

She forgot the shop, the other customers, her own errand. She forgot the winter air outside, the people going by on the wet pavements. She forgot that she was in London, she forgot the whole of her London life. She seemed to be standing alone in a darkening orchard, her feet in the grass, her arms stretched up to the pattern of leaves and fruit, her fingers seeking the rounded ovals of the fruit among the pointed ovals of the leaves.

To read this scene in its entirety is in itself hypnotically relaxing. Laura buys a huge bunch of chrysanthemums and in return the grocer gives her a spray of beech leaves. She is practically addicted to their scent. “Where do they come from?” she asks, and that is how she finds her future. She knows instinctively she must go there.

And so she does, amidst protestations from her brother and his wife. She rents rooms in a cottage in Great Mop and sets about exploring, almost frantically at first. But soon she slows down and life becomes what it was meant to be. She wants hardly anything she knew before. Even her nephew gets on her nerves when he tries to visit; he interrupts her relaxation. Ah, we have found some conflict after all. To interrupt another’s contentment in this way, it isn’t nice.


Like the women in the paintings I look at, I do most of my reading in bed, taking a break from work in the afternoon, or at night before I fall asleep. In winter, I very occasionally put off work for a couple of hours to read in the morning. Reading, then, is almost always relaxing, even if what I’m reading isn’t.

There’s a chapter in Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond in which the narrator takes a bath and I find myself turning to it often. It’s a book I’ve opened up many times well after my first reading of it. In fact, it’s remained on my desk for months now (my real desk; I also put things there I like). I don’t think it was written to be relaxing, and yet it is. The domestic life described there is so mesmerizing, with its bowls of fruit (pears and red currants) and vegetables (aubergine, squash, asparagus, small vine tomatoes) resting on a cold windowsill, and unfinished tapestries sitting darkly on a mantelpiece. But the bath scene relaxes me most of all:

A leaf came in through the window and dropped directly onto the water between my knees as I sat in the bath looking out. It was a thoroughly square window and I had it open completely, with the pane pushed right back against the wall. It was there, level with the rim of the bath—I didn’t have to stretch or lean… There was a storm, an old storm, going around and around the mountain…

The detail of the window level with the rim of the bathtub is perfect. Perhaps I am neurotic, but is it not relaxing in its own right? And the fact that it is completely open to the storm? To be in a warm bath and exposed to a storm at the same time. After one gets out of the bath the feeling stays around for a while. The same thing can happen with reading. When one closes a book it doesn’t mean the feeling of the book closes too.

Maybe it’s this way our favorite books have of staying with us, but I find myself returning always to Clarice Lispector and Marguerite Duras, in my thinking, but also when I write, and I’ve realized that it might make sense to focus on them through writing for an extended period of time. It’s said that it only takes seconds for the body to tense up, but that to relax completely takes much longer, more like twenty minutes. Maybe spending a long time thinking and writing about a subject allows for a great opportunity of relaxation. Regardless, I like reading The Ravishing of Lol Stein partly because of the state of mind in which it puts me. Again, I don’t think that was the goal, but a novel in which a woman walks again and again through the empty streets, how could it not be relaxing, no matter why she is walking.

Of course none of this means we should relax above all else. Now that I have said so much about it, I’m thinking about who gets to relax, and when, for it is a luxury. If you are someone who relaxes much of the time, maybe you should give some of it away. In Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, there is hardly any rest for Macabéa. If you are as unloved as she is, for instance, and as poor, free time and walking in the city become marked by something else. Still, she is nourished by her daydreams, and by the advertisements she cuts out of newspapers and looks at by candlelight. And she’s given something greater: “Sometimes, grace descended upon her as she sat at her desk in the office. Then she would go to the washroom in order to be alone. Standing and smiling until it passed.”

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