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“Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past.” I first read the famous opening lines of “Burnt Norton”—the first of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets—in a dusty school storeroom, surrounded by books on tall metal shelves. The space was just big enough for a desk and a couple of chairs, and one of my teachers was giving up his lunch break to prepare me for a university entrance exam. The taking and passing of competitive examinations was the bedrock of the education system that formed me. I was trained for it, like an athlete, and I attacked the poem with all the vigor of an infantry recruit. I was prepared to swing from ropes and crawl through mud. I wanted to excel at understanding Four Quartets, to be the best. Later, after I’d passed, and was heading off to study English literature, another teacher took me into the same closet and handed me several sturdy plastic bags. “Take whatever you want,” he said. “Just don’t tell anyone.”

I was seventeen, and these gestures of care and kindness opened a path for me to become a writer. Inevitably I found myself thinking about that path as I sat with the filmmaker Sophie Fiennes in a Manhattan post-production studio, recording audio commentary for the film she’d made of her brother Ralph’s staging of Four Quartets. In that moment, I was in several rooms at once, at several different periods of my life—the dusty book closet, a cramped bedroom in a shared student house, a corner office in midtown Manhattan. As Sophie and I talked, the intensity of those times came back to me.

During lockdown, Sophie and Ralph had both revisited their own teenage encounters with Four Quartets, and Ralph had developed a stage production of the poems, which toured Britain in 2021. Sophie then filmed it in a huge rehearsal space over the course of three days. I listened to Ralph intoning Eliot’s lines, standing barefoot on a stark, minimal set, as Sophie described their wild childhood in Ireland, which had involved relatively little formal education and an extraordinary amount of the other kind. Four Quartets had been part of this, something personal and profound. Later, when Ralph was working for the Royal Shakespeare Company, the two of them sneaked into the gardens at Burnt Norton.

Much of Four Quartets was composed during wartime, and it marks a turn in Eliot’s work. As a young man he had become famous for expressing the sense of malaise and disenchantment that gripped Europeans and Americans in the wake of the First World War. The Waste Land reflects this sense of a damaged existence, listlessly sifting through the cultural and historical “fragments” that its author had “shored against [his] ruins.” But as a new conflict approached, Eliot was arriving at a spiritual settlement, derived from a conservative Anglo-Catholicism shot through with veins of Vedanta, which he had been exposed to as an undergraduate at Harvard. To a boy who believed that a great poem was a sort of Alp of literature, there to be heroically scaled, Eliot’s famous allusiveness—his habit of setting up echoes and reverberations with other texts—was a model of what serious writing ought to be: difficult, demanding of study, a puzzle that one had to work to unlock. So I chased down Eliot’s references, into Heraclitus and Dante, the Upanishads and Catholic theology. The alloy of European and Indian sources seemed formed expressly for me.

As I studied, I encountered many things for the first time: the Almanach de Gotha; the meaning, which currently escapes me, of “sempiternal.” The phrase “the unseen eyebeam crossed” sent me down a rabbit hole into the metaphysical eroticism of the seventeenth century: “Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread / Our eyes upon one double string”—John Donne’s “The Ecstasy” became a flower in my small but growing garden. It felt thrilling to discover all these connections, the more recondite the better, like flipping through the bins in a particularly dim basement record store. I fell in love with Four Quartets for the way the poems fused the high abstractions of time and memory with concrete places—a garden, a chapel, a stretch of countryside, a group of rocks. That one could do that—join these things together into a single poetic language—made me feel that it was the best way to write, the way I wanted to write.

From “East Coker” I have copied into more than one notebook the lines “each venture / Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment always deteriorating.” Though I have made my living as a writer since my early twenties, I was in my forties before I ever set foot in a writing classroom. I have never received any formal tuition. I have never shared a draft in a workshop. My sense of what constituted good prose was intuitive. I knew what interested me and went toward it. Simple. I had rarely been called upon to justify my taste, except in the most general terms. Now I was staring at a group of expectant graduate students who clearly believed—or at least hoped—that I had some kind of knowledge that would be useful to them. I was the writing teacher, and in the game we were playing it was my role to select a syllabus of books and to explain why they were, in a word, good.

What makes a book good? I remember finding the question oddly confronting. Surely it should have been the easiest thing in the world to answer. But as I taught my first class, I found that several of the books I’d chosen, books I relied on, books I had rhapsodized about for years at dinners and parties, turned out to be bad. Others were still good; I could see their brilliance, but only from a distance. The things they offered I had either assimilated or no longer needed. I’d moved on. It was as if I’d fallen asleep at the wheel and been jolted awake. What did I actually like? Where was I? I’d read so many books. Were none of them actually good? I muddled my way through the course and embarked on a new period, the period of rereading, of arriving, in Eliot’s terms, where I started, and knowing the place for the first time.

At university, I’d quickly discovered that liking Four Quartets was incredibly basic, about as interesting as liking the Beatles. So I hurriedly moved on to other kinds of writing. In my second year, I lived in a damp house with two friends, both of whom had tastes far more developed than mine. Jon was reading Rilke and listening to Glenn Gould, turning the volume up on his tape of Bach’s Goldberg Variations so I could hear the pianist humming. Hal had two meticulously ordered collections, one of underground heavy metal records, the other of books. Though I did end up listening to some Napalm Death, it was the books that left an impression. Among the rows of alphabetical titles, what stood out were the numerous white-spined Picador paperbacks.

Hal didn’t like to lend out his books, or even touch them very much. He was the kind of reader who seemed to be able to work his way through six hundred pages of William Gaddis without leaving so much as a crease on its fat white spine. I don’t mean to imply that he didn’t actually read his books. He read them carefully and had interesting opinions about them. It’s just that he was very neat. Before long I had my own catch-up row of white paperbacks, somewhat more beaten up than Hal’s. I remember I started with Robert Coover’s Pricksongs & Descants, then moved on to Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories. I can’t remember exactly what Hal had. Blood Meridian, certainly. Borges. Burroughs. Kathy Acker. Richard Brautigan. Michael Herr’s Dispatches. Angela Carter. Beloved, Midnight’s Children, One Hundred Years of Solitude . . .

Many years later, I found myself sitting in a corner office in the Penguin Random House building, nursing a single malt and trying to explain to the publisher of many of those books what his list had meant to me. He made some self-deprecating remark and lit a highly illegal workplace cigarette, but I could tell he was pleased. By that time, Sonny Mehta was the editor in chief of Knopf, but in the Seventies he’d worked in the United Kingdom as the editorial director of Picador, and was thus indirectly responsible for the aesthetic values—difficulty, transgression, a kind of maximalist flashiness—that I had gleaned from the books on my roommate’s shelves.

I had begun my rereading by then, and had little use for the antic vibes and terrible stoner puns (typical: a German spa town called “Bad Karma”) of my once-beloved Thomas Pynchon. Don DeLillo’s Libra was still magnificent, but I was less tolerant of the machismo and showboating of some of the other American writers I’d adored—and disastrously used as models—when I was in my early twenties. I could no longer pretend that I was invariably enchanted by postmodernist fireworks. I now loved many books I would once have dismissed as too constrained, too slow. Twentysomething me wouldn’t have been caught dead reading Anita Brookner, and would have found Patrick Modiano disappointing and opaque.

This process of revision didn’t happen all at once. My taste is, of course, always evolving, and more or less everything I read before the age of thirty now hits so differently that I might as well not have read it at all. I had gone back to Eliot—at least certain poems—more than once, but when Sophie asked me to talk about Four Quartets, I realized that it had been a long time since I’d really sat with them. I found them familiar in the expected way, full of phrases I knew: “at the still point of the turning world”; “dark dark dark. They all go into the dark”; “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope.” But I also found another kind of familiarity, in lines like, “The wounded surgeon plies the steel / That questions the distempered part.” The perfection of that “questioned,” a word for a kind of probing that is both physical and metaphysical, brought me back to the wonder I’d felt at seventeen. I realized, with a kind of shock, that my notion of what constituted a good phrase hadn’t really changed. I still aspired to combine sensuousness and precision, philosophical abstraction and concrete particularity. I wasn’t the same person, but here was an unbroken thread connecting me to a long lost version of myself. “Home,” Eliot wrote, “is where one starts from. As we grow older / The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated / Of dead and living.” As I write this, I am checking references in a paperback edition of Eliot’s collected poetry that has a bookplate showing that I received it as a school prize in 1987. Unfortunately, in opening it after so many years, I cracked the spine, and several yellowing pages have fallen under my desk, like dried leaves.

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