Sometimes I wonder if the reason I read so much is that I love watching people.
When we were in high school and university, my sister and I used to go out for a meal and just observe the people around us, trying to comprehend, or guess, why they were there, who they were with, what they cared about. We would eavesdrop, read body language and predict life histories.
My favorite novels are those that help me see someone, especially someone unlike myself. From the straightforward young adult novel to the experimental contemporary piece, I read to see the world from a unique perspective. I read to listen to a person’s thoughts and conversations. Reading, in this way, is the ultimate eavesdropping.
Robin Jenkins was a Scottish novelist whose work spanned the second half of the twentieth century. He was prolific, writing over thirty novels while teaching English in Scotland and at various international locations, including Malaysia and Afghanistan. He wrote novels based on his educational experiences, his forestry work as a conscientious objector during World War II and his thoughts on post-colonialism. He wrote about people. He wrote about Scotland, about Glasgow, about coming of age between the great wars.
Willie Hogg is the story of an aging Glaswegian and his wife, Maggie. After receiving an unexpected letter, they make a trip to Arizona to pay their last respects to Maggie’s sister. It’s a novel told at the pace of an elderly couple; it’s full of the practical worries of a man who worked steadily his whole life and now makes his peace with the provision of a modest pension. Willie is embarrassed by attention, dutiful to a fault and thoughtful beyond his appearance.
As I read, I realized that I’ve always considered age to be synonymous with stasis. I’ve assumed that growth, self-knowledge and moral development were the provenance of the young. Jenkins gently reminded me, though, that the regrets of the aged are real and that possibilities for self-discovery and change are tangible.
Everybody, including himself, had thought it was she who had put a blight on him, but he realised now that it would be just as true to say that he had blighted her. He had taken away her self-confidence. He had never been fair to her … Why had it taken him so long to admit that he loved and needed her?
The story isn’t particularly tragic or comic although it touches both notes. It’s the story of coming to the end of something and realizing that the end is not what you thought it would be. Eavesdropping on Willie’s thoughts, conversations and moral quandaries wasn’t life-changing, but many good things aren’t. Sitting with someone is undramatic; overhearing a person’s small regrets and cautious hopes is a quiet thing. But, it’s a quiet thing that demands our patience and attention, and rewards us with the chance to see a person clearly.