Guest Blog: Charles Finch
Every year at about this time I start to feel vaguely wistful for the months that have just gone by. I go back and listen to the best songs of the summer again (Rehab, Beautiful Girls, and Hey There Delilah, for me), I sit at the movies for a few blissful hours of air conditioning and popcorn (while I’m doing lists, I should just say that I loved Once and Knocked Up), and I definitely keep an eye out for all the pitchers of sangria which before too long will transform into pints of Guinness.
But books, as the more perceptive among you may already have observed from personal experience, are different than songs, movies, or sangria. Books don’t follow any seasonal rules (I’ve never really believed in the idea of the beach book) or else real readers make up their own. And this year I’ve spent most of my summer reading about winter. I read the spare, glorious Snow Country again, raced through The Golden Compass for the first time, and I even started planning the trip I hope to make to Antarctica by riffling obsessively through a guidebook which contains helpful tips like “Don’t approach the Elephant Seals!” A trip which I’ll make, ironically enough, in the dead of winter: January is reckoned to be more or less tropical there.
My own first novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, takes place largely under about twelve feet of snow. Yet I wrote it during one especially hot summer when I was deprived of air conditioning, with both a glass of iced tea and a refrigerator to stick my face into always close at hand. And in fact one of the pleasures of writing it was to visit the wintry places in my mind, to imagine again what a brisk wind felt like, or an upturned collar. Just when I was closest to turning into a puddle myself, I had the vindictive satisfaction of dropping another night’s sleet on my unfortunate characters.
But I think there’s something slightly deeper there, too: If the past is a different country, so are whichever of the three seasons we’re not in. Sitting in Manhattan and praying for rain right now, I can’t quite remember why the early flowers in Paris, where I was living in March, seemed like such a benediction; nor can I remember with as much precision as I’d wish that exact moment of autumn loneliness a few years ago when I watched the last leaves fall from their branches and felt again the bereavement of endings. But writing, of course, is the way we reclaim whatever we’ve lost: be it love, time, people.
Or history. When I chose to write about the winter of 1865 it meant learning about the winter of 1865, that the London grooms had to rub down their carriage-horses a little longer every morning, the exact symbolic language of the flowers that couples exchanged at balls, what a maid would have worn to stay warm. It’s part of what I love about mystery novels. Of the mystery series I read, one takes place in modern Quebec, another in ancient Rome, and still another in Communist Russia. Is there another genre that asks its readers to imagine so many different places and times? That latitude is the great inherent genius of mystery novels – technology aside, murder has been the same since Cain and Abel. It opens up the entire history of the world.
On the other hand the inherent genius of winter is obviously that it has the good grace to make way for spring. We all love spring. To quote P.G. Wodehouse (which veteran bloggers and prize-day speakers will know is always the safest thing to do), “It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.” Well, it is never difficult to distinguish between a dour winter evening when it gets dark at 3:50 and a bright spring day when the sun seems to linger on past twilight. Still, now that we’re in the dog days of August and global warming has made it unlikely that those of us south of the Yukon will ever see snow again, spare a thought for winter. Or if you’d like, take a look at my book. It came out in the height of summer but I promise that it contains plenty of icicles and frost.
There’s good news, too, for those of you who aren’t convinced: my second book, The September Society, takes place entirely in September. (That should fool them.) I think it’s a sign that I’m becoming more temperate. But the book’s not quite ready, and in the meanwhile I’d love to hear about your own summer songs, old and new alike. And I’m always looking for book recommendations: wherever they take place, whatever their season.