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Reading Aloud

from At The End Of The Day

By Carolyn Smart

At The End Of The Day

WHEN MY MOTHER WAS PREGNANT WITH ME, my father read Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is The Night aloud to her. I read to myself again this year on my birthday, for probably the third time. It is a book I've always loved; I come back to the last paragraph again and again, just as I do the opening paragraphs of Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms.

This time when I read Tender Is The Night not only do I bring my forty-odd years of reading and history to the book and see it anew (it's been twenty years since I read it last), but I see the relationships in it completely differently now. Why was my father reading this particular book to my mother at that time, a book concerning the incestuous relationship between a father and his daughter, her eventual doomed marriage, her children who are treated like playthings, here brilliant husband who sinks into despair and obscurity?

I have consciously tried to read what my father loved to read. I have read some Trollope and all of Proust. I have looked again at Robert Frost and Pound and Eliot. I listen to Conrad Aiken's recording of "Tetelestai." My father often read his favourites but also managed to read contemporary fiction. As Bill Harris said when I interviewed him, the two of them would probably be discussing Jeanette Winterson. Bill said he missed my father for that reason. In banking he had found few people with whom he could discuss modern literature.

On occasion my father would read aloud to us from the newspaper: the accounts of Mira Hindley's unrestricted walks in Hyde Park, the outrage of the British public at the knowledge that the most notorious British female criminal had likely seduced her warden and then walked openly with her in the public parks. He then would tell us in graphic detail how the judge had described Mira as an "evil woman" and sent her to jail for life. He described how she and her male partner would lead a normal existence during the day, and then return home at night to listen to the tape recordings of the torture and murder of their child victims, on the moors.

He was as methodical in his reading as he was in his classical music listening; every mid-summer he would read A Midsummer Night's Dream. During the winter he would work his way chronologically through one Victorian novelist or other. With the completion of each of his own poems, he would assemble the whole family together to read it out loud to us, with never a suggestion of a critique to follow. The poem would be whole and complete by the time we first heard it, in his view.

When we were very young, my father would read aloud to my sister and me. I never liked the books he chose and would avoid the experience whenever possible. I didn't like the formality, the demands to sit still. My sister sat and listened to all of Pilgrim's Progress but preferred his readings of Arthur Ransome books, or Tolkien. She suffered through his reading of Mrs. Craik's John Halifax, Gentleman, written, Lindsay was certain, in 1857, but not for children. We had no choice in what was to be read. I knew I could win his approval by asking to see where the Hobbit lived on the maps used as end papers for the novel. But I didn't want him to read to me; I preferred my mother's bedtime reading, before my father returned from his London office when it was dark and I was sleeping.

The last time I remember my father reading aloud to my mother, it was get-well cards she had received during her final illness. She lay in her hospital bed at St. Michael's and my father would enter in his hospital gown and mask and sit by the bed reading these cards. Years later when a woman friend had suffered a mastectomy, he read her Shakespeare's sonnets at her hospital bedside. The last time he read aloud to me, it was a poem he had just completed about a friend's death; in the middle of the poem when the speaker cries out " where have you gone, John, my friend, my brother?" his voice broke in a sob. "Oh Daddy!" I cried, on the other end of the phone.

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