A River Runs Through It

People keep telling me that I look very calm for someone who’s getting married at the weekend.

Really??? I want to ask. Are you mad? Or deeply unobservant? Or else have I developed a strange glazed expression that hides the neuroses beneath?

Seemingly people like the printer, the florist and the man from British Gas (yes, in an instance of perfect timing, our boiler broke) can’t tell that last night, having given up on sleeping thanks to all the anxious table-plan related thoughts, I was googling options for confetti, and fanatically ticking names off a list while trying to match them to the table plan until two in the morning. As my dreams have all become scarily wedding-related, when I awoke I did wonder if it had just been a nightmare, but then I saw an email full of links I’d sent to myself and realised that this was in fact the rather pathetic truth.

All these little stressful errands that need to be done by Saturday are fine really. I mean, I’ve got the week off work, I’ll get them done, and then the wedding will be so fantastic I’ll soon forget about all this hecticness. It is strange, however, that my to-do lists are defying the laws of Physics and just getting longer and longer, no matter how many things I tick off.

But the slightly more troubling side of this is that I haven’t had a moment to write anything other than thank-you letters (which helps to explain this very belated post) and I’ve been unable to concentrate on reading anything much at all.

It was really quite fortuitous that my last post was about the benefits of reading short books. For short is all I can manage at the moment. And I realise now that I neglected to mention last time that one of the many virtues of a short book is that when one is terribly busy with other things, it makes one feel that at least one is finding time to make progress with something.

And, last week, I did feel incredibly grateful to one short book in particular.

I had gone down to Battersea to pick up my dress from the place where it was being altered. They’d had it there for several weeks, and were supposed to be making various little changes. I’d made several trips down there for measurements and fittings and things, and then they’d changed the date I was to pick it up, until it really was the last possible day I could get it (due to various long-winded complicated reasons).

So, as you might imagine, I was a bit nervous when I went down to Battersea for the final time to collect it. I tried it on and honestly – I know this sounds melodramatic, but it is the truth (I have low blood pressure) – nearly fainted when I saw they hadn’t done several things they were supposed to. Added to which, the lady who had been helping me was on holiday.

Several cross, confused, tearful, stressed words came out of my mouth all at once. The receptionist disappeared to find the manager. The manager appeared with pins and things. She said she could fix it all but it would take at least an hour.

I stepped out into a particularly bleak bit of Battersea in a daze. So much panic was whizzing around my head, I was almost blind. I found my way to a café, and ordered some toast and herbal tea. Sitting down at the table I realised I had to distract myself for the next hour. I had already spent half an hour flicking through bridal magazines while waiting for my appointment, and couldn’t possibly look at another grinning bride or read another sentence about flowers, veils or decorations. Especially one that used words like ‘inspiring’, ‘glossy’, or ‘romantic’. Bleugh, bleugh and bleugh.

I remembered that I had a book in my handbag. A slim one. Out came A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean. The story itself is a mere 104 pages, so the book is somewhat bulked out with an introduction by Annie Proux and some of Maclean’s other short stories.

Sipping some hot water which tasted of nothing much and smelt a bit like damp, I recovered my vision and started to read.

Like many women of a certain age, I had a bit of a late-nineties crush on Brad Pitt. Which was the only reason I watched the film as a teenager. I watched it with friends and tubs of cookie dough ice cream, and we talked all through it, telling each other how gorgeous he was and how much we wanted to snog him. But something in the film must have made an impression on me, because I remember a few bits of it really quite clearly. I remember a beautiful river landscape, and lots of fishing, and also an image of a man and a woman, naked, sunburnt, lying on the river bank, and she had a tattoo on her bum. So it was quite funny reading it, knowing that this bit had to happen at some point, yet not sure at all how it would get there.

I’ll say straight away (or 800 words into this rather rambling piece) that A River Runs Through It is a great book, or, perhaps, novella. It’s about two brothers – one is always getting into trouble, and the other has his own troubles, mostly to do with his wife’s family. Their way of fixing everything and helping each other is to go fly fishing.

I  grew up with many men in my family fly fishing on the River Test in Hampshire, where my grandparents lived. I never really understood much about it, but was told to be very quiet around people fishing, in case I scared the fish (or, I suppose, the fishermen) but not so quiet that they cast while I was behind them, in which case they’d catch me instead of a fish.

Perhaps it was partly due to the fear of getting caught but I’m afraid I was always slightly repelled by fishing. It was all very well to sit with a grown up by the river, doing some colouring, while they sat quietly watching the river, but when something bit, it all got a bit horrid. First there was the process of reeling it in, which seemed to be a very sad struggle to me. It was easy to see the fish tire itself out, move from hectically thrashing around to slowly resigning itself to death and the frying pan. Out it would come in a net, then lie there, twitching on the wet grass, all shimmery. Then, the worst bit, it would be clubbed over the head with a short fat stick, and that would be that.

Now, my vegetarian days are well and truly over, and I have come to see that one simply can’t get upset over killing animals if one is going to eat them. And surely, if one is going to eat a fish, all the better to have caught it oneself. Still, it does seem a little gruesome.

But fishing in A River Runs Through It is far more than a quiet sport with a sad ending, it is a form of meditation, the answer to any problem, a way of relaxing.

And some of fishing’s soothing effects seeped out of the pages into my head, as I read about it, while feeling less and less stressed out about my wedding dress, in a café in Battersea.

I didn’t quite finish it then and there. Thankfully I was left with enough to get me through the tube ride home, stopping me worrying too much about creasing my dress, and being late for whichever silly princessy wedding appointment I was going to next.

There’s a fair bit of rhapsodising about nature in A River Runs Through It – which I found uncanny to read in an American voice, used as I am to reading similar things by the very British Roger Deakin or Gavin Maxwell. It’s much more matter-of-fact out there. Take the following:

We sat on the bank and the river went by. As always it was making sounds to itself, and now it made sounds to us. It would be hard to find three men sitting side by side who knew better what a river was saying.

Maclean manages to be both simple and opaque. The river was making sounds to itself, ‘as always’, totally usual, unremarkable … and yet, somehow these three men, knew what the river was saying – that’s pretty mystical. The language is simple. There’s no attempt to describe the river’s sounds, no bubbling, gurgling, whispering etc, just straightforward ‘making sounds’. Yet, this simplicity only heightens the impression of the strange mystical spiritual intelligence of the three wise men – they don’t need all the descriptive words to understand the river’s sounds.

And as well as the nature-writing element, there’s a great deal of detail about the actual how-tos of fly fishing. From how the flies are tied to look like real flies through the prism of water, to how many to take with you, to how to know which one to use … and then the technique of casting, where to stand, where the fish might be. It’s all pretty technical and pretty skilful. I feel that now I could join in a fishing conversation.

Of course the fiancé managed to go one up on me, and rather just reading about it, actually went fishing for his stag weekend. Although I’m not sure how much of a meditative, thoughtful trip that one was … But I have to say, that little pocket of reading a brilliant book in Battersea turned what could have been the most stressful hour of the past week into one of the most peaceful. Thank you Norman Maclean!

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One Response to “A River Runs Through It”

  1. Re-reading: The Go-Between and Rebecca « EmilyBooks Says:

    […] in just a single sentence which is set as a paragraph on its own. It reminded me a little of the end of A River Runs Through It. Less is more, I tell my writerly self, […]

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