Monday, September 19, 2016
a reasonable number of books
A report from the trenches, from the front lines of recurring book-love: once again I am sorting the book room. Cleaning, culling, reorganizing, reshelving. Moving entire subjects to new places, and merging others. Every fall I seem to get this urge to clean house, literally and figuratively. Some years I act on that feeling and this is one of those years. Over the past two weeks I have culled several hundred books from my various collections. I came to this pass after seeing stacks of books on the floor and thinking that I just couldn't stand this state of affairs for one more day. Seriously. Had it. Because I would like bookshelves with enough space to accept new arrivals now and then. An equitable flow of incoming and outgoing. A not-needing to hold on to every little thing I have ever read or been interested in. A reasonable number of books. I would like to walk into the book room and feel pleasure and comfort and not anxiety nor admonition. And the only way to reach such ideal circumstances is to weed out the languishing titles, as the new ones arrive. Those books I read and didn't love, those I love but don't need to keep forever, those I loved once but love no longer, those I meant to read someday and am now realizing that that day may never come and you know what, that is perfectly fine. The book police are not going to show up at my door and write me tickets for not having read these books, or those books, or that stack of books over there. Which, for the record, I did keep handy, for years - just in case. I realize this may have a lot to do with the passing on of my biological father last winter, who was so well-read it was frankly devastating, and whose shadow I was well aware of, even though he did not darken my door often. Sigh.
It was slow going, but during several rainy days and even some sunny ones, I unshelved, cleaned, and sorted out almost all of my books here at home. Some of these sections haven't moved since we brought them here, when we bought this house, so it was an undertaking. I did a few things I'd wanted to do for a long time, chiefly integrating memoirs and essays with literature and fiction, so all an author's books are now together, one one big wall, alphabetically, with books written about them, too. I also ransacked the travel and history sections, taking away most of the books therein, and then gave my art and poetry books significantly more room to breathe, since they are what I want more of, in general. I kept only one shelf of religion and spirituality, trying to stick to what I love best - first person accounts of spiritual experience (akin to the art and poetry books - direct accounts of how people manage, in this world of ours), along with seminal religious texts that I find meaningful, from various cultures. Other sections suffered similar fates - in the realms of house and home I kept only my very favorite books, on gardening, cookery, birds and animals and natural phenomena, and architecture.
The areas I had the most trouble with were the oddities, the unclassifiable stuff, family books, gifts, and the sections I used to love but find myself no longer even glancing at. (Ryan said, "But they're old friends...!" Oh, the heartbreak!) Seriously, though, some books are impossible to part with, and you know, I'm not going to, because I don't want to! Like these:
Books inscribed to me by authors I met when I worked in a new-book store, twenty years ago.
The book with my great-grandmother's name inside the front cover, written in her own hand (and many other such books, from family members on both sides, going way back).
The book my grandfather was awarded as a school prize, with a very nice bookplate stating such (a two-volume set of Virgil).
A book specially bound as a wedding gift for my grandparents, with their initials in gilt on the slipcase.
The book written by my first boyfriend (based on his PhD - he sent me a copy, thirty years later).
My favorite children's books, which I still read and love wholeheartedly.
A book signed by Lillian Gish.
A book signed by Hedy Lamarr.
The big sets I have read and loved over the past several years - Pepys, Byron, Mark Twain, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. Horace Walpole. And now James Lees-Milne, And, on order from booksellers around the globe as we speak, the diaries of Frances Partridge (I own one, and another volume arrived in the mail this morning, and the rest are on approach - she is my next reading project when I finish Lees-Milne, which will be soon).
A few in this category - oddities, let's say - I didn't find it that hard to part with after all. Such as:
The book inscribed to me by someone who wished to be a boyfriend, long ago (even though he told me, shortly before we parted ways forever - I kid you not - "I can't imagine that you could bring any gifts to our relationship that would equal what I would bring." I just looked at him.)
The book I found in my book booth, a duplicate of one given to me by another old friend, I won't say old flame since we weren't, but it contained a note saying, in effect, "This better not be the copy I gave you!" (It wasn't, but jeeze, so much pressure! Well, guess what. Shelf space is at a premium here. Off with its head!)
Books written by my other grandfather, who was a terrible parent to one of my parents, and I decided I didn't need him looming around my library any longer, just because we happened to be related.
Some books I am still on the fence about, so am keeping for now:
My much-less-than-half-read set of Proust (hardcover Modern Library editions), which takes up so much shelf space, and does seem to admonish me from time to time.
The very few books I have kept as investments - some signed books, one valuable set, a few first editions, various antiquarian items - nothing amazing, just great books quietly accruing value as they age.
The Oxford English Dictionary, the "compact" edition in slipcase, with the magnifying glass in its little drawer, since I was raised to believe that a house was not a home without an OED, although come to think of it I haven't used it for anything other than a doorstop in years, and I am on the lookout for irritating signs of childhood conditioning, but still, don't we all want an OED on hand if the zombie apocalypse actually comes to pass?
These are the kinds of questions I ask myself, one by one, with book in hand, while I sort through what I own. It's raining today, so I took a look at the other place we keep a lot of books - the junk room, really, since we have no basement or attic storage to speak of - in which I have two large bookcases full of books about books. I approached them this afternoon with a sidelong look of despair, thinking of what they represent to me, the bookseller I'd hoped to be, the bookseller I did not become, the wonderful old boys' club that was the book world of the past, something I'd wanted to join but came to too late. I made and continue to make other choices, which are my own and which I do not regret in the least. I had my shop, and did the best I could, then moved on. Still, I love these books about the trade! Books about publishers, printers, booksellers, bookshops, type, bindings, great collections. It's going to be a challenge to decide what to keep.
More questions. What do I want to have around, want to live with? What do I want to read and re-read? What is reasonable and comfortable in a house this size? How many books is too many? I haven't yet counted what remains but I soon will, after I tackle this last subject.
Wednesday, August 31, 2016
editing the self
A few days ago I finished reading the aforementioned Untold Stories by Alan Bennett (Picador 2005). The last essay in the collection, after many other essays and a big section of his diary entries, is a fairly detailed account of the discovery of and treatment for and recovery from cancer. One of the things that blew my mind about the entire thing was his secrecy about it all, while it happened. For example, in the essay he quotes a few of his own diary entries from that harrowing time. Yet earlier in this same book, and out in public in the London Review of Books before that, his diary entries appear, I thought, in full. But no. In those versions, he edited out any reference whatsoever to his cancer. I flipped back in the book and looked at surrounding diary entries from that year, when he was undergoing surgery and chemotherapy, and found it mind-boggling that he presented everyday events as they occurred, while completely leaving out the biggie, the thing that must surely have been occupying much of his copious brain space, not to mention his time.
I have so much respect and affection for him, as a writer and person, and when I finished this wonderful compendium I actually kissed the front of the book and quietly said Thank you. Then (finally! after a two-month hiatus!) returned to the diaries of James Lees-Milne and proceeded to feel a bit petulant that they weren't more of Alan Bennett's, which I really want to continue reading. Because even while I love them, I recognize that Lees-Milne's have a tone, on paper - something like conservative persnicketyness - that gets under my skin. Only a little, like a tiny splinter. Since his diaries are fascinating and entertaining, and he's honest about who he is, even though he too edited out some major life events, when he was alive to edit his own diaries. He's no Alan Bennett, though, who seems to be an ideal writer for the likes of me. His diaries remind me of Michael Palin's. They have a friendly honesty, and some slight subversiveness to balance out what could seem like too much cheerfulness, if I didn't also recognize a tendency toward melancholy (which I identify with). Palin a definite up, Bennett a slight downbeat. But I feel like I could happily keep reading them both for years and years. And so I hope they keep writing their diaries and publishing them for years and years.
I'd love to hear from others about this - do you keep a diary? Or did you? If you stopped, how and why did you stop? Did you begin again? Or would you like to start but haven't yet? I kept one as a child, then again in college, then stopped for several years in my late 20s, then began again and am still writing today. And plan to continue indefinitely. Michael Palin has written a sweet note for would-be diary-keepers. And made a goofy video too. I know from my own experience that what goes into a diary isn't what gets written on a blog. Many things I've written about extensively only in my diary - really to exhaustion - and I can't imagine they would interest anyone else, so they never make it to the blog as a subject or even as a hint. Nothing terrible or tragic, I don't think - just run-of-the-mill life events, so don't worry about that! More like, notes about each of the paintings I make, as I make them, a gazillion quotes from the books I read, as I read them, and family events and suchlike (okay, some terrible and tragic, but that's life) - things that are other people's business, and I respect that and don't want to air anyone's laundry in public, even in a small way such as this. And, all my deep thoughts, about life, the universe, and everything - I mean, omg, ugh! Helps me to put it down, I know, and I've gotten into the habit, and it feels natural and good to do so. But the unedited self can be a bit much at times! Well, diary, or no diary? Handwritten or electronic? Am finding myself curious about what other people do, in this day and age...
Friday, August 26, 2016
The blog habit is a hard one to break. I have tried and failed a few times and apparently here we are once more. Are blogs over? It seems so, but it feels akin another question I hear sometimes, namely, Is painting dead? I answer, if only to myself: painting never; blogs perhaps, but writing never. August is nearly done and I have painted and read and written less than I'd hoped to, all month long. I have, however, read two books that I cannot contain myself about any longer and so here I am to mention them somewhere other than merely in my diary. Which I do write in, regularly, but which doesn't offer much in the way of reciprocity in the realms of empathy or community. Instead it just shows me more of myself, which frankly I am sick of at the moment. Anyway. The books in question. Both are from the library sale haul I wrote about a few months ago. I finally picked them up in turn and thought Read this now.
The first is Pat Conroy's collection of bookish essays, My Reading Life (Nan A. Talese 2010). I had never read anything of his before, none of his sagas, no fiction whatsoever, none of his memoirs. But a good book about books I am always up for and this one sure does shine brightly. All the essays therein are about books, reading, his family and education, and his writing life, but one of the best deals with a bookshop (p.110):
"...by accident, I had discovered the nerve center of my deliverance in a nondescript bookstore in Atlanta.... Thousands of books roared out my name in joyous welcome when I entered that shop for the first time."
He elaborates (p.111):
"Books are living things and their task lies in their vows of silence. You touch them as they quiver with a divine pleasure. You read them and they fall asleep to happy dreams for the next ten years. If you do them the favor or understanding them, of taking in their portions of grief and wisdom, then they settle down in contented residence in your heart."
My Reading Life is a delight and almost convinces me to read War and Peace, so fervent is his chapter on repeatedly doing just that. A sample (p.271):
"On the third reading, I found that spending time between the pages of War and Peace was one of the most compensatory pursuits I had ever discovered."
"...this novel will make you dizzy with joyous affection for the people you will meet on these pages."
And again, as if we remain in any doubt (p.281):
"Over the years, many critics have said that War and Peace is not even a novel, and they may be right. Whatever it is, there has never been anything close to touching it. It stands alone. A star in the east. Magnificent. One of a kind.... I envy the young man or woman picking up this book for the first time more than any reader in the world."
Okay, okay, I'll get to it! He out-effuses every other book reviewer or critic I have ever come across. A noble feat. I have a recent translation of War and Peace, should I read it this winter? I want to, and I wonder if I actually will. I did read another Pat Conroy book, after finishing My Reading Life. His memoir about teaching black children at a tiny school on an island off South Carolina, The Water is Wide (originally published in 1972, still in print, I read a recent softcover edition). Pretty rough, pretty fantastic. Not like anything else I've ever read, it left me wanting much more.
The second book I feel compelled to mention is Untold Stories by Alan Bennett (Picador 2005) - over 650 pages, the middle section of which is made up of his diaries from 1996-2004. The next installment (diaries 2005-2015) will be published in the U.K. in late fall and in the usual way of things I cannot wait but will have to, unless I want to read bits online, since his diary entries have been published annually by the London Review of Books. Apparently it's no good having set aside my reading of James Lees-Milne's diaries, since here he is in Alan Bennett's diaries. Not James Lees-Milne himself, but his diaries, since Alan Bennett is re-reading them himself and mentions the fact in his own diary. I am lost in diary-heaven! The volume of Lees-Milne I left off with is still sitting on my bedside table, by the way, and has been all summer. Even though it's on the bottom of the pile I won't forsake it much longer, I know. Meanwhile Alan Bennett unknowingly provides me with the impetus to continue my blog, even if only sporadically, when he writes (p.179):
"Diaries lengthen the days. To read back over a year when nothing much seems to have happened is often to be nicely surprised.... A diary is undoubtedly a comfort. I feel better for having it written down, however hard the experience." (p.179)
I look back in my own diaries and again here in this edited online version, and I must say I cringe sometimes, but at the same time I regret nothing! A funny paradox. Perhaps I have reached the stage of life where I'm no longer embarrassed by myself and my literary and artistic attempts and aspirations. Not certain about that point yet, but there are glimmerings at least. I don't know if I can bear to leave good books un-talked about, or diary entries unwritten, or paintings unpainted. By me, I mean - tons of people are doing all that stuff, all over the place. But I am talking about mustering up the bravery to make my own particular contributions, slowly, over time. So I muddle along, and my work piles up as it usually does. The older I get the more I think that these small day-to-day attempts are all that there is - they accumulate and may become something bigger or may not, but all start with the small choice, on any given day: This happened; I have feelings about it and here they are. You know?
Back to Alan Bennett, whose voice is so different from Pat Conroy's - reticence versus boldness perhaps, or even more simplistically, British versus American. The essays in Untold Stories are terrific, and his diaries are compulsively good reading. I want them to go on forever and dread that they won't. Here is an example, perfect in my eyes - one entry from 1997 in its entirety. Perfect purely for itself and also for that early-fall feeling, much in evidence around here, not to mention blackberrying, which I have been doing myself, along the roadsides of our small Maine town. I'll leave you with this passage, which has everything I love most in prose - the decidedly rural, in contrast with the urban, where Bennett also lives; painterly colors and evocative repetitions of imagery; outward circumstances echoing inward feeling (p.217):
"15 September, Yorkshire. Blackberrying up Black Bank, taking with me one of Miss Shepherd's old walking sticks. Huge clusters of berries so that one can gather them almost by the handful. Never so utterly at peace as when picking blackberries or looking for mushrooms, the spread of Ingleborough and Pennyghent still sunny while black clouds gather over Morecambe. A flock of sheep comes up the road and won't pass me until I stand in the ditch. The pretty farm girl who is bringing up the rear seems almost as reluctant to pass as the sheep, just giving me a shy 'Hello' and running on. A mountain ash tree, weighed down with huge swags of crimson berries, catches the last of the sun. It's like something by Samuel Palmer; paint it as bright and glowing as it is and it would seem like a vision."
Thursday, July 14, 2016
Gorgeous summer is in full bloom around here. I am working and working and working some more, at painting mostly, and various other projects. For one, I've been putting together a small book of my watercolors, with some text, and I hope to finish it later this year. Because of all this busyness, many other things and experiences have fallen by the wayside, at least temporarily. I cannot, I find, do it all, much less do it all well. So I am saying no to many things, in real life and virtually. Especially virtually - screen time of any kind has become less and less pleasurable for me in recent months. So I am letting myself off the hook and taking an extended break, here, for the foreseeable future. Besides, my reading life is languishing - right now I read art books and look at the pictures, mostly, and have made no more headway in the diaries of James Lees-Milne. Much less in any other books. And my bookselling life, well, that has slowed to a veritable crawl. Thus with no book news to report, I feel as if this so-called book blog has become as a field of chirping crickets. Pleasant, distracting - to myself if not to anyone else. Gentle noise. When I am in need of quiet. After more than ten years of sharing my life in books, I am content to call it a day. Rest assured that I will return if and when I have anything of note to discuss. Because it has been a great joy to write and communicate openly with other readers and book lovers, in this way, and the fact of that will never change. Thanks for reading what I have written. Thanks for talking with me about those wonderful papery-magic objects-that-are-more-than-objects that we all love. Doing so has lifted my heart during many dark days and brought further illumination to many already sunny days. I appreciate it more than you will ever know. Please keep seeking out and reading wonderful books. I promise to do the same. ♥
Wednesday, June 15, 2016
read it and weep
Summer is underway here in Maine, at long last. I am getting my self and my stuff organized for my annual island painting time, and will be away for a few weeks (or rather, going away and then coming back and then going away again) and wanted to wish everyone well for the time being. And also have a say, before I go. Since it's been another dark week in this country, with another terrible mass shooting, and I don't know about you but my heart is in my throat much of the time. However, fear and anger and anxiety and outrage are not places or states I can live in for long. I can visit them, and take some necessary action (such as voicing my concerns to the nearest elected officials, which I have done), then I need to gather myself and my courage and return to where I usually live - places of peace, quietude, respect, empathy, compassion, and love. When I act from those places, I am effective and functioning at the highest levels I am capable of. When I act from the other places, only more of the same is generated, and that is not what I wish to add to the world, in any way or form. I speak only for myself - I know that anger and even rage can and does propel necessary change in the world, like rocket fuel. I recognize the darkness that all of us carry within us, and the brokenness, it is part of being human and being whole. It shows up in my paintings and in other ways, from time to time, and I will never deny its existence, or shun it. But it is a shadow self compared to the one standing in full sunlight. During this summer solstice week, when the light is at its longest, I'll be out working to add to the good in the world.
Speaking of empathy, I'd like to relate a tale from the bookshop. This happened many years ago. A regular customer of mine asked if I had read a particular book that he found in the literature section. He showed it to me. It was My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok (Knopf 1972). Yes, I told him, I'd read it and loved it and thought it was one of the best books ever about what the inner call to be an artist really feels like. And the difficulty and beauty involved in answering that call, when circumstances seem to be against you, if not insurmountable. Fantastic book. He liked the recommendation, I guess, and bought the book. Then returned some days later, after reading it. He said to me, I paraphrase but you will get the idea, "How could you possibly have liked this book? How could you get anything out of it, since you're not Jewish, you're not a Hasidic Jew?" (Asher Lev is a young Hasidic Jew, and the novel is set in 1950s New York, and deals with Jewish history and themes, as well as art. And, full disclosure, the customer in question was himself Jewish.) I distinctly remember being at a loss for words, being in near-disbelief, actually. I think I just looked at him, across the desk from me, there in the bookshop. It sounds extreme, but I wondered for a moment if I was looking into the eyes of a sociopath. Someone with zero or little empathy. It was a long time ago but I think I said something along the lines of, "I don't need to belong to a particular culture or race to empathize with that culture or race, or want to learn about them. We are all human beings. And I'm interested in the world, in all kinds of people. The book fascinated me." I either said all or some of that, or later, in my head, it was what I wished I had said. I don't remember what he replied, but I do remember a look of something like scorn on his face. It felt like being told I shouldn't read James Baldwin or Maya Angelou, since I happen to be Caucasian. Seriously. It may have been a simple case of what is now (horribly) termed mansplaining but I was still shocked. Isn't this life - and this reading life - all about empathy? Reading takes us places that we may never go "in real life," but gives us something even more precious, the soul of the author, the world of the author. Which becomes then our shared world.
This episode came to mind this week because I took a break from the James Lees-Milne diaries to re-read an old favorite - a short novel called Franny, the Queen of Provincetown by John Preston. It was originally published in 1983, and I have a great reprint from Arsenal Pulp Press. Which is still in print, and contains extra material about Preston and his life and work, as well as Preston's unfinished sequel. This novel is a little gem. Built up slowly in small paragraphs of first-person accounts, starting in the 1950s and ending in the 1980s, it follows the lives and fortunes of a gay man named Franny and his circle of friends, in Boston, Chicago, and then Provincetown. There is one scene early on in the novel which centers around a gay bar in Chicago, and every time I read it I have tears in my eyes. I couldn't help but think of it again this week. It has been a long time since I myself went dancing in (what we called in the late 1980s and early 1990s) a gay bar, but during a particularly difficult year in my life I spent significant time with a dear friend, dancing the night away, in a nightclub that everyone who went there simply called "the bar." LGBTQ people and some heterosexual people were there together - sometimes not many of us - dancing and generally feeling blissed out, usually without alcohol - we just wanted to dance and be together, and besides, drinks were too expensive for my minimum-wage bookstore clerk salary. Those nights were fantastic. I remember acceptance, euphoria, joy - people being themselves, ourselves. And, the music was so great, and we all looked so good! Or thought we did, which also counts! I remember everyone smiling, relaxed, happy. It was a good place made great by the people and I feel so lucky to have had that experience. And yet "the bar" was located a brief walk away from the site of a terrible hate crime - the murder of a young gay man, Charlie Howard. He was killed the year after the first edition of Franny, the Queen of Provincetown was published.
And here we are today. Obviously I am not a gay man, but oh how I love Franny, the Queen of Provincetown. I wholeheartedly recommend it. Preston is quoted in the introduction - he wept over his typewriter as he wrote the pages - tears streamed - because it was his own life, his history, and his future life, that he was writing about, and the lives of people he loved, and their fates, and their terrible struggles, and the evolution of love. Acceptance. Empathy. Read it and weep, alongside him, there at the typewriter. There at the bar. One street away from hate. That's right where my bookshop was too, come to think of it. And now? The nightclub in Florida... all the tears and pain, I can't even imagine. But I've read the news, and seen pictures, and have feelings, so I can come pretty close.
I keep thinking I will stop writing, but I keep finding words in my way. Here are a few more. We live next door to a school. One morning some years ago, when we weren't home (we were out of state), there was a man with a gun at this school, in a classroom full of kids. Holding them hostage. No one died and I think that's one of the many good things that can be said about that day. I tried to write about it, here, when it happened, and then again after the Sandy Hook school shooting, and I couldn't do it. I still can't, I find. But the gist of it is, here we are, all of us, right next door to violence, all the time. Hoping and working for peaceful change. Choosing empathy, choosing love. Much love! Back in a few weeks.
Tuesday, May 24, 2016
of houses and humans
The spring weeks fly by. This past weekend held our first truly summery days - hot sun, shorts, flip-flops, a remote empty beach, desultory watercolors, the full picnic basket, a sense of delicious idleness. Long days filled with what feels like all the time in the world. Most welcome around here, after a month of anxiety about house repairs (chimneys rebuilt and roof re-shingled), all finished now. Except for, of course, the paying of the bills.
But let's not dwell on that. Instead, books! I make progress in the diaries of James Lees-Milne. Am nearing the end of volume six - Ancient as the Hills: Diaries 1973-1974 (John Murray 1997). Many thoughts regarding this and all the previous volumes too, mostly involving people and places.
People: Lees-Milne encounters a fascinating cast of characters, and writes about them at length. Some of my favorite passages and turns of phrase in the diaries are his descriptions of people:
"Mrs. Stirling was bedecked in jewels and gems. When she walks across the room it is like a chandelier which has been let down from the ceiling and, without collapsing, mysteriously manages to move." (Diaries 1942-1945 p.83)
"Grandy Jersey lunched but when alone with me is apt to fall asleep like a large and beautiful dormouse." (Diaries 1946-1949 p.7)
"Mary is as majestic as ever, tall, robust, windswept, exceedingly untidy. Her tweed coat and skirt are stained and torn, and the pockets have holes in them. Her breeding and dignity are impeccable; her views are uncompromising, proud and right. Her humour is unimpaired. She is a splendid creature with a massive soul." (ibid p.93)
"She is still quick as lightning, sharp as a packet of needles and capable of seducing God. She is going to invite me to stay at Donnington, which I rather dread and much look forward to. (Daisy Fellowes; ibid p.253)
"Lunched with that fiend Charles Fry at the Ritz.... He is unchanged - detestable. I really dislike him unreservedly. He is utterly untrustworthy, without conscience, moral scruple, or decency." (ibid p.277)
I could go on, Lees-Milne certainly does. His diaries come across as remarkably even-handed in the praise and blame departments, which I honor him for. Clear-eyed descriptions, as far as I can tell, especially of those he knew well. Speaking of whom, I would recommend these diaries for anyone even remotely interested in the doings of the Mitford family. Lees-Milne went to school with Tom Mitford, who died during the war (hence during the course of these diaries), brother of the famous Mitford sisters. Nancy and Debo make many appearances throughout, along with all the rest. Early on Lees-Milne says, "What a catching disease Mitfordism is!" (Diaries 1942-1945 p.66) He considers Tom his oldest friend and loves the whole family. And yet mentions several times their unkind and often cruel wit, especially Nancy's. As a sidelight on the lives and times of the Mitfords, these diaries are invaluable. Ditto the Nicolsons/Sackville-Wests.
Places: Lees-Milne's work for the National Trust has him visiting houses and their owners all over the countryside, all the time. He says of his preservation work, "... my loyalties are first to the houses, second to the donors, and third to the National Trust. I put the Trust last because it is neither a work of art nor a human being but an abstract thing, a convenience." (ibid p.153) Another reason to honor him - his love for art, in the forms of architecture and its details, houses and their contents, especially in the face of war, destruction, and societal change on a massive scale. He and his cohorts saved what they could, when they could. Lees-Milne also says, about the National Trust at that time, "...we are not a bureaucratic team of experts, but a dedicated group of happy-go-lucky enthusiasts, who ought not to be bossed about." (Diaries 1946-1949 p.49)
As I read along in the diaries I find myself taking notes about both houses and owners. They often share names, or not, and sometimes I can't tell which is which until their context becomes apparent. Viz.:
Felbrigg = house
Wyndham Ketton-Cremer = human
Ockwells = house
Compton Beauchamp = house
Monk Hopton = house
Upton Cresset = house
Stafford Cripps = human
Polesden Lacey = house
Lydiard Tregoze = house
Wentworth Woodhouse = house
the Medlycotts = humans
the Grazebrooks = humans
Shardeloes = house
Worplesdon = house
Clumber = house
Swanton Morley = house
Gwynne Ramsey = human
Riette Lamington = human
Mindy Bacon = human
Burnett Pavitt = human
Lytes Cary = house
the Stavordales at Evershot = humans, house
How varied and wonderful the English language is! Lees-Milne's writing certainly highlights the oddities and beauties of it. He is usually straightforward as a writer, in his style, but is also wide awake to poetry and beauty:
"Set off this morning for Norfolk. Lunched at Saffron Walden - a poetic, medieval tapestry, wild-flower name..." (Diaries 1946-1949 p.131)
Enough for today, I've got to catch up in my own diaries - I still haven't copied notes from Lees-Milne's volumes five and six. I did finally find a copy of volume ten (see last post) - it was just a little over forty dollars, and is on approach from a bookseller in the U.K. as we speak. Phew. Glad to have the complete set. My summer reading is taken care of! I say that even as other books encroach, more or less all the time! Well, there are worse problems to have, I know. If anyone feels like chiming in, I would love to know your summer reading plans. Meanwhile, enjoy lilac-time. Which is so fleeting it must be savored as it happens.
Monday, May 02, 2016
unscrupulous, nasty, and frivolous?
A rainy day. Here we are. Um, so. Yeah. James Lees-Milne. Have I mentioned him before? ;O)
After several weeks of reading his diaries (the John Murray hardcover reprints) I feel like I am beginning to know him and learn his language. I'm in the thick of it. In volume four, today, it is late April, 1948. I don't want to get ahead of myself, though, and so will begin at the beginning, by saying yet again how much I enjoy reading other people's diaries. Lees-Milne is a conscientious diary-keeper and writes every day, or nearly every day. Most of his entries are not long, just notes with the details of "I did this, I did that, so-and-so was there, and said such-and-such." He does have decided opinions about everything and everyone, and states them often, with long strings of adjectives attached like kite tails. Even so, his diaries are so much less snarky and scandalous than I set out thinking they were going to be. In fact they seem neither snarky nor scandalous at all, really, and not just by today's standards (do we have standards...?). Yet another lesson in abandoning all preconceived notions about anything. So far his diaries are just diaries - observations, notations, records of the day-to-day. But his day-to-day is quite different from ours, and so I read on, fascinated. Through many lunches at many clubs. And many visits to many historic houses for work and for pleasure. Days of action and days of boredom. Books he's reading and writing. Views on politics and religion. Friends wandering in and out (and what friends they are: the Mitfords, Emerald Cunard, Ivy Compton-Burnett, various Sackville-Wests, Harold Nicolson, the Pope-Hennessy family - a veritable waterfall of names). And as an impossible-to-ignore backdrop to everything, in the first two volumes and beyond, the war. Bombs dropping in London, for months on end. Uncertainty and death.
He originally means to write his diaries only during the years of the war, and in fact he quits writing them after peace is declared. But soon starts again:
"Sunday, 6th January.... An explanation is now called for. Why do I resume this diary which three months ago I brought to an end? There is no explanation. I merely missed it like an old friend." (Diaries 1946-1949 p.3)
But I'm getting ahead of myself, jumping right in to volume three like that! How about the earlier ones? Well, the first two alternate in tone between Siegfried Sassoon's memoirs and Edward Gorey screenplays, if he had ever written such things. As I read along, I kept thinking of Gorey's mock-Edwardian-roaring-twenties country house folk, languishing on settees and going mysteriously missing during thunderstorms, etc. Like this, Lees-Milne at a country house for the weekend:
"Sunday, 9th August. The others sail spasmodically on the lake in their beastly boats, but the weather bores me and I don't go near it. When we all meet the fun is not furious and the conversation not sparkling. I feel discontented and unwell. Indeed I wonder why on earth I ever came." (Diaries 1942-1945 p.78)
Most of his writing, however, isn't so self-indulgent. Instead it's a long look at one person's experience during an extraordinary time. He writes about everything, including diary-keeping itself:
"I said that more people ought to keep diaries, but the trouble was that the most unscrupulous diarists were too scrupulous when it came to putting personal truths on paper. James (Pope-Hennessy) said that Cecil (Beaton's) diary would be the chronicle of our age, that we would only live through it. I said Eddy Sackville West kept one. James said, 'We could not be hoisted to posterity on two spikier spikes.'" (ibid p.196)
And he worries about what posterity (us) might think of him, because of the self-portrait he writes:
"I fear that in this diary I disclose the nastier, the more frivolous side of myself. I sincerely believe and fervently hope that I am not as nasty as I may appear. It is difficult to be entirely honest about oneself, because one does not necessarily know oneself. One thinks one knows. The consequence of being as honest as I try to be, must surely be that readers of these lines would pronounce me worse than many of my contemporaries who do not keep frank records of themselves. Frank? Not entirely, because I withhold things." (ibid p.384)
But isn't this why we read other people's diaries? To encounter the whole person, whether he or she would like us to or not? The writer of diaries always discloses more than originally intended, it seems to me, allowing us to read between the lines, as well as reading the lines themselves. And besides, no one can be nasty and frivolous all the time. Lees-Milne certainly isn't, if he is at all. I think about this when I write in my own diary. Sometimes I even write: this is how I am feeling, even when I wish I wasn't feeling this way, and am not in the least proud to be feeling what I am most certainly feeling. Ugh. It can entail painful self-revelation. But cathartic, too. I truly believe that keeping a diary is an excellent way to get otherwise haunting things off your mind and on to paper, where they belong, so you can get on with your day. I'll have more details about his diaries, not mine, soon. I'm enjoying them mightily, on so many levels - as personal disclosure, as a new language about art and architecture, as literary history, and especially as a record of all those small events which slowly add up to the whole of life. Even with everything happening here, regarding my own life and art, I'm happy that I still managed to read through three volumes of Lees-Milne and begin the fourth. And I only have one errant volume left to buy, out of the twelve-volume set. The hardcover copies I see online for sale are beyond my comfort zone, price-wise, even though there are many copies available (oh how I dislike online used book pricing algorithms and the havoc they engender). So I wait, and hope that someone will list a slightly less expensive hardcover, with a dust jacket, and describe both accurately. Is that too much to ask? Possibly. Beneath a Waning Moon, volume ten, is what I seek, in case anyone reading this knows of a copy for under, say, forty bucks. I have some time before the situation becomes desperate - at least as long as it takes for me to read volumes four through nine. I'm ordinarily a fast reader, but life events of late have me reading at the proverbial snail's pace, so I'm not worried. Yet.