Through several years of university, I supported myself working in a bookstore. It seemed glamorous. It wasn’t. Mostly schlepping boxes around.
The job’s only consolation was the books. At that point in my life, I approached literature like sport. I’d read somewhere that Sartre read 350 books a year (the vast majority of them, I later learned, pulp mysteries). I wanted to match that rate of consumption.
I read so much, so fast that I’d often forget the books entirely as soon as I’d finished them. I began to carry a small diary – title, author, date started, date finished. The dates mattered.
The classics (or what I thought of as such), I bought and read at home. The store supplied me with roughage. I ploughed through titles on the job, sometimes two a night.
Most I chose randomly. Quality mattered, but it was more important they be short.
This was how I discovered Jorge Luis Borges. Short stories. You can rip through those. I loved Borges. There was a blurb on the back of a copy of Labyrinths that compared him to other South American masters. Which in turn led me to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
If you are lucky, you will be struck by a book – feel a version of Michael Corleone’s lightning bolt – a dozen times in your life. It had never before and has never again happened to me in the first sentence. As I’ve mentioned, my memory isn’t the best.
Immediately upon reading the opening line of One Hundred Years of Solitude, it was graven on my imagination:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
This sentence is perfect. I’ve since written hundreds of thousands of words for publication. Not one of them comes close. You’d think I’d have managed it by accident at this point. Which proves that in literature, as in love, there are no accidents.
It went on like that. No word misplaced. No thought ill-formed. All of them their own worlds. Garcia Marquez was a journalist before he was a novelist. He could produce column inches on demand, but he bled his fiction.
“On a good working day … the most I can write is a short paragraph of four or five sentences,” he once said. Based on the quality of the product, that was outrageously prolific output.
There are storytellers I think of as the Colombian’s equal, but the essence of his greatness is – for me – the sentences. Each one of them is crystalline. And this was a translation. How painfully brilliant must this book be in Spanish?
I read it like I was trying to memorize it. I absorbed it osmotically.
Once I finished it, I started it again. I no longer read it through, but I read it constantly. The last page in particular – the finest passage in literature – still makes me shudder with an almost erotic professional jealousy.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez changed me and I’m still not sure how. But here I am. Reading slowly. Writing. Bringing up his rear. Never hoping to catch him.
But always holding him, and those sentences, somewhere in the sight of my mind’s eye.
Cathal Kelly is a Globe and Mail sports columnist.