Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Jim Crace Reading from his Works

Hear British writer Jim Crace read from some of his prize-winning works, including the novel Being Dead, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Quarantine, the Whitbread Novel of the Year and shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Crace provides an intro to each reading.

The Ransom Center acquired Crace's archive in the spring of 2008.

Published: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997

JIM CRACE: I'm going to read the third chapter from my novel, Quarantine. And I'm going to read this particular chapter not just because it's very short and therefore it's self contained, but because it introduces us to a woman called Miri who is a favorite character of mine when I was writing the book. And if I have to spend a little bit of extra time with Miri, I'm always happy.

Here, however, we have this young woman at an unhappy time in her life because—or a mixed unhappy—unhappy because her husband who's a hateful man, her husband Musa, is dying and she's having to prepare for him in the Judean desert, 2,000 years ago at the time of Christ, she's having to prepare for him a grave in the hard rock of the Judean desert. It's a hard job but the Judean desert itself in some way loves this woman, as indeed I do.

The salty scrubland was a lazy and malicious host. Even lizards lifted their legs for fear of touching it too firmly. Why should it, then, disturb itself for human travellers—a pregnant woman and the almost lifeless body of a man—no matter if they were abandoned in the furthest of the hills beyond Jerusalem and with non to turn to for some help and salutation except the land itself? It would not, normally at least, have expended its hospitality on them. It was undiscriminating in its cruelties. The scrub, at best, allowed its brief and passing guests to stub their toes on stones or snag their arms and legs on thorns. It sent these travellers to Jericho in rags. Or it lamed their animals. Or, should they spend the night with this hard scrubland as their inn, it let its snakes and scorpions take refuge underneath the covers of their beds.

Yet the scrubland welcomed Miri there, to its dead hills, it gave its hospitality to her. And should she end up on her own, she need not have much cause to fear the night, or hunger, or the animals. It would use what little skills it had to make her life more comfortable, to keep her bedding free from scorpions, her skin unsnagged by thorns, her sleep unbroken. And it if could, it would direct some rainfall to her tent or save her billy from a fall or drive gazelles towards her traps. It would be the one—hooded in a brown mantle—whose breathing twinned with hers. It would be the one, mistaken for a thorn bush or a breeze, that rustled at her side. It would be her shoulder-blades, and then the one that brushed the sand-flies from her lips and eyes. It was bewitched by her already, if that is possible, if the land can be allowed a heart. The stone had stubbed itself upon the toe. The earth was showing kindness to the flesh. It let her pull its stones quite readily out of the ground, so that her husband's grave grew waist deep without exhausting her and causing any strains. She only broke her nails, though there were some cuts and bruises on her knees. The torment of her buttocks and her thighs was even eased a little by the exercise.

So this is happiness, she thought. Or this, at least, is what adds up to happiness. Here was the mix that she'd been praying for. There's hardship and bad luck in happiness, for sure. There's broken nails. There's blood. There's solitude. But there was the prospect, too, with Musa dead, of sleeping peacefully without his bruising fingers in her flesh, of never running after men and camels any more, of being Miri without shame or hesitation, of letting drop her headscarf for a change and loosening her hair from its tight knots so that nothing intervened between her and the sky.

Indeed, her headscarf was pulled off. Her coils of hair were left to drop and unravel on their own. She then lay back beside her husband's grave, put her uncovered head on stones and, open-eyed, the sky her comfort sheet, she almost slept. She was exhausted and invincible. Her pregnancy had made her so; exhausted by the digging and the dying; invincible because that pulsing in her womb was doughty, irresistible. What greater triumph could there be than that—to cultivate a second, tiny heart?

She had been told, when she was small, that the sky was a hard dish. She might bruise her fists on it if only she could fly. It was a gently rounded dish, blue when not obscured by clouds or night or shuddered into pinks and greys and whites by the caprices of the sun. But now she raised her hands into the unresisting air above the open grave and wondered if the dish were soft. And she could fly right through it, only slowed and coddled by its softness, like passing through the heavy, goaty curtains of her tent, like squeezing through the tough and cushioned alleys of the flesh, to take a place in heaven if she wanted, or to find that place on earth where she'd be undisturbed.