Five Dials asked writer Michael Magee to send us a list of everything, or almost everything, he’d consumed in the previous month.
Tár was good. We found a stream one night and watched it on the projector. I thought it was a biopic. Like a proper biopic about a real person. That’s good marketing for you, Ellen said, a bit too smugly. She markets films for an independent cinema. It’s literally her job.
All right, Don Draper, I said.
I know it doesn’t make sense, marketing isn’t advertising, but in my defence I was high. I had called into Fresh Garbage that afternoon and bought myself a new glass pipe. By the time the credits had finished rolling at the start of the film I was in full floaty mode. Didn’t matter what happened from there on in; I was onboard and loving every minute. That’s the beauty of smoking weed and watching films: even the bad ones are good, and the good ones are class. The problem is that you don’t remember much. Whole films can disappear out of your memory within an hour of watching them, if you smoke enough. During lockdown, Ellen and I watched most of Pedro Almodóvar’s back catalogue within the space of a week. As anyone who has watched more than one Almodóvar film will tell you, he’s partial to a convoluted plot, the more dramatic the better, and he uses the same actors over and over again. Two years later, I can’t tell you which Almodóvar film is which. The characters and the plot points have melded into one big film in my head.
“That’s the beauty of smoking weed and watching films: even the bad ones are good, and the good ones are class.”
There’s a series of books I like that does something similar, except there isn’t much in the way of plot and, rather than recurring actors playing different roles, there are various doppelgängers who exist within different temporalities across seven books: Jon Fosse’s Septology. It’s split into three volumes or compiled in one big omnibus, depending on which Fitzcarraldo edition you choose. I went for the seven split across three. I wanted to see what the first one was like before I committed myself. Turns out I needn’t have worried – I read it in two days and went straight to No Alibis to order the second one. While I was waiting for it to arrive, I read a different novel by a writer whose work I admire. To my surprise I couldn’t get into it, and not because it wasn’t a good novel. I had simply read it at the wrong time. It happens sometimes when you have an almost transcendent reading experience, that everything else just sort of pales for a while afterwards. The last time this happened was when I read Anna Karenina. It took me about a year to get over that book, but I couldn’t put a finger on what made me feel so strongly about it. Then I read what Nabokov had to say about how Tolstoy had discovered a method of picturing life which ‘most pleasingly and exactly corresponds to our idea of time,’ and immediately understood what he meant: it was the passage of time, and how Tolstoy’s prose is so perfectly attuned to our sense of life passing by – from youth to adulthood, from adulthood to old age – that made me feel the things I did. I’ll never have a reading experience like it again, I thought.
I took longer over the second volume of Septology. Four days, and after I finished it, I waited a week before ordering the third, which would arrive at the bookshop in a few days. There was nothing unique or distinctive about those days. I didn’t have some great epiphany. But I did feel like I was coming to the end of something. What was strange was that I didn’t dread it. Nor was I filled with expectation. I simply went about my days as normal, and that became part of the ritual of waiting. At ten o’clock on Monday morning I got a text: my book was ready to collect. I put my coat on and walked down to Botanic Avenue. There was no rush. I sauntered across the bridge over the Lagan at a leisurely pace. I even took a detour through the park and up around the Lanyon Building where groups of students walked back and forth across the quad. I was holding off, embracing that period between the end of one book and the beginning of the other, which brings you back to the same place each time, that opening sentence: ‘And I see myself standing and looking at the picture with the two lines, a purple line and a brown line, that cross in the middle . . .’
I can’t read when I’m high. Too many thoughts. But if I was to compare the experience of reading Septology, I would compare it to smoking weed. Your mind is never more expansive and uninhibited than when you’re high. Often, the present falls away completely. You become much more susceptible to the past and its intrusions. Even more so than usual, at least for me, and I live in the past most of the time. I suspect we all do. That’s one of Septology’s many great achievements: the weaving of the past and present, the cyclical nature of memory and how it permeates everyday life. Sartre hit the nail on the head when he said, ‘We shouldn’t believe that the present, as it passes, becomes our closest memory. Its metamorphosis may sink it to the bottom of our memories, just as it may also leave it on the surface: only in its own density and the overall dramatic meaning of our lives determine its level.’
I finished the last book on a Sunday afternoon. I was sitting on the pello chair we got from IKEA, it was raining outside and I found myself staring out the window, watching the spider at the top left-hand corner of the windowpane brace itself against the downpour. My cat was sleeping on my lap, and on the table next to me there was an empty cup and a bottle of water. For a while I just sat there, like Asle at his dining table, and tried to feel that closeness he experiences with God. It wasn’t there. It hasn’t been since I was a kid and my ma sat on the edge of my bed at night and prayed with me. Sometimes when I’m out for a walk I’ll go into a chapel and sit on a pew at the back of the nave and wait to see if anything happens. It never does, but there’s something about being in that space, the quiet and the stillness, the high ceilings and the stained-glass windows, the light coming through green and blue and white, catching the corners of the mahogany pews, that makes me feel dead calm. It’s like a semi-meditative state, that’s the only way I can describe it. Everything outside me is shut out, I’m brought back into the centre of myself, and I give myself over to it.
This is what I’m looking for when I read a book or watch a film. At its most basic, I want the world around me to melt away. Recently, I read an interview Toni Morrison did with the Paris Review. She speaks about how there are some writers without whom certain stories would never have been written. She lists Hemingway in this category, and Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. Writers who occupy a certain vantage point, who articulate an experience of the world through a particular lens. In that way, the writer becomes inseparable from the work they create. Not in an autobiographical sense, but in terms of how they go about the business of creating. Asle would describe this as ‘the spirit of the picture,’ which for him is what separates good art from bad art. The difference is that for Asle the spirit of the pictures he paints is channelled through him from God, whereas I don’t believe in God. I believe in Toni Morrison and Jon Fosse, Leo Tolstoy and Pedro Almodóvar. Their spirit is in their work, and for me that’s enough.