Thursday, November 20, 2014
The books on my bedside table remain the same, since last we spoke. At least the authors do; the Patrick O'Brian novel at hand changes its title every few days, as I work my way through the entire Aubrey/Maturin series once more. I don't feel the need to expound on plot points and timelines and history, as I read: instead I simply bask and let the prose flow by in waves. So much happens, just as in life. And yet, "...salt water washes all away..." (The Commodore p.249); and besides, as Stephen Maturin himself said at one point, "...very highly detailed accounts of war at sea reduced him almost to tears after the first hour." (ibid p.9). Thankfully the case is not the same for this particular reader. I remain enthralled.
And I will mention that Maturin continues to exhibit all the signs of a classical eduction, one I am attempting to emulate this winter, albeit in a desultory minor way. I suppose I have made a beginning already, having read the Iliad and the Odyssey some years back. Maturin says,"'...never was such a book as the Iliad!'" (The Far Side of the World p.127), and my heart warmed even more when he mentioned reading De Consolatione Philosophiae by Boethius (ibid p.249). Then, at one point, he mentions in passing that he knows the Aeneid in its entirety, having learned it by rote as a child (The Wine-Dark Sea p.166). I took his hint and brought a copy of the Aeneid home, from my own book booth. Whenever I do finish the O'Brian series I will surely need something ancient and strong, as a sort of chaser. I have the Robert Fitzgerald translation (Random House 1983), and the opening lines make my flesh creep (p.3):
"I sing of warfare and a man at war.
From the sea-coast of Troy in early days
He came to Italy by destiny,
To our Lavinian western shore,
A fugitive, this captain, buffeted
Cruelly on land as on the sea
By blows from powers of the air - behind them
Baleful Juno in her sleepless rage,
And cruel losses were his lot in war..."
Brrrr, how frighteningly wonderful.
Away from the bedside table, a few other books are waiting in the wings, not least among them Michael Palin's third volume, Travelling to Work: Diaries 1988-1998 (W&N 2014) which is being so polite and patient: Read me next, please and thank you. And a few days ago I visited my bookseller friend Vicky at her lovely little bookshop, Front Porch Books, and came away with Electric Delights, a book of essays and occasional pieces by William Plomer (Godine 1978), and My Ideal Bookshelf, a collection of gorgeous paintings of book spines by Jane Mount, accompanied by mini-essays by all sorts of amazing people (Maira Kalman! Dave Eggers! Jonathan Lethem! Patti Smith!) about their quirky influential favorite books, edited by Thessaly La Force (Little, Brown 2012). I saw this elsewhere when it was first published and was so happy to find a secondhand copy. The opening lines of the preface are tantalizing (p.xi):
"The assignment sounds straightforward enough. Select a small shelf of books that represent you - the books that have changed your life, that have made you who you are today, your favorite favorites."
That might be a good topic for another day. I suspect I would have trouble picking only a handful (you think?). Meanwhile I will enjoy reading 200+ pages about other people's favorite books. And the paintings are so very pleasing, I have to say. After more than 25 years in or around the book trade I recognize so many of the specific editions she paints (like this entire shelf of poetry), and it's neat to see the books themselves in this new way, yet have them feel so familiar at the same time. I will consider what my own shelf might hold, and report back here soon. I mean, I can think of several right off the top of my head. But, a tricky question immediately arises - may I count the Patrick O'Brian series as one book...?
Friday, October 31, 2014
Something, a delightful papery something, has been lingering near my elbow for days now, and since I'm clearing the decks today, I'll take a brief hiatus from the joys of Patrick O'Brian to talk about it for a few minutes before it makes its way into the book room.
To begin, one of the disadvantages of living in a rural place, a truly out-of-the-way spot, and loving it enough to generally stay put, is that many things I would love to know about escape my notice completely. For years and years. Even with the world at my doorstep, via the book reviews and blogs that I read regularly, and as bookish as (I think) I am, I came across something the other day that I truly don't think I've ever heard of. Until now. I found a used copy of a little magazine at a thrift shop last week. It was a dollar and I looked askance for a moment - only a moment - thinking, Do I really need this, I mean, holy crackers another odd little bookish thing, complicating my life...? before deciding to bring it home. And I'm so glad that I did. Here it is - a quarterly book review - the little magazine of my dreams:
Because the whole thing is edited and written by book people, for book people. Real book people. In fact the sixteen book reviews/essays contained in this issue all seem so pleasingly bookish I can hardly stand it. The authors review books that are decades old, even centuries old. Among them Alexander Smith's Dreamthorp (1863; and even quoting from Christopher Morley's fine introduction to the 1934 edition), Richard Mabey's Food for Free (1972), The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker by Tobias Smollett (1771), a travel memoir by Lady Macartney entitled An English Lady in Chinese Turkestan (1931), Julian Tennyson's Suffolk Scene (1939; and mentioning Ronald Blythe to boot), L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables (1908), and so it goes. One essay, entitled Confessions of a Manuscript Curator, is written by C.J. Wright, "...Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Library until his retirement in 2005." (p.92). Another essay, entitled Social Climbing, deals with the clandestine sport of night climbing buildings at Cambridge, and reviews two books on the subject. Funny and fascinating. And every piece draws the reader in immediately. A few first sentences, to prove that assertion:
Jeremy Lewis, writing about Michael Wharton (p.14):
"I got to know Michael Wharton in the early 1980s, when I was working as an editor at Chatto & Windus."
Michele Hanson, about to recommend Smollett (p.35):
"Last year I was invited to join a friend's book group."
A. F. Harrold, on Robert Herrick (p.61):
"I remember hearing Leonard Cohen being interviewed some years ago, and he said, when asked whether he minded being referred to as a 'minor poet', that no he didn't mind at all, in fact he had spent many delightful hours in the company of minor poets, such as Herrick."
Lucy Lethbridge, beginning her review of Roderick Grant's Strathalder (1978; p.78):
"There are few things more guaranteed to provoke a pleasurable wallow in melancholy than a ruin."
Daisy Hay, sneaking up on Anne of Green Gables (p.82):
"Last summer, during a trip to Canada's maritime provinces, my husband and I went on a literary pilgrimage."
On and on it goes, like this. Book talk, of all kinds, covering all genres. Each review - each essay I will say, because they seem so much more than reviews - has me taking notes and nodding my head in agreement, and wondering how I can get my hands on the hitherto-unknown-to-me titles the editors kindly cite in footnotes, even - especially!- the ones that quietly say "...out of print."
All back issues are still available, and current subscription information is on their website. With a quote from Ronald Blythe to seal the deal ("Slightly Foxed is pure happiness."). And naturally the good people at this little magazine also publish books, both hardcover and paperback reprints of worthy memoirs and autobiographies. And they own a bookshop in London. Which sells new and used and antiquarian books. They are even seeking a manager for the used and antiquarian department, if anyone's interested. (Don't think that I didn't think, though only for a second, What if...).
But forgive me for all this effusion! Oh, I love books too much, it's terrible! Should I have even bought this issue of Slightly Foxed in the first place? Or should I have left it there alone in the thrift shop, with a faint sigh and no backward glance? What with ten years of back issues to pick and choose from somehow, not to mention their books, which look so enticing I can't even say, I am thinking perhaps yes...? Ryan heard me expressing this worrisome thought and calmly reminded me that the holidays are on approach. He is a pearl beyond price, I'll say it once again.
Thursday, October 30, 2014
I continue on, a happy woman, in the Patrick O'Brian series. In the wine-dark sea of his prose I feel like a small nameless boat trailing along effortlessly just beyond his wake. I smile and make notes as his characters tell me about classical authors - Martial, Diocletian, Lucullus, Homer, Thucydides, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Plutarch, Pindar. Recently I brought home an old Modern Library copy of The Latin Poets from my very own book booth, so I could attempt to keep up, but honestly I haven't even opened it yet. There it sits, atop a pile of other books on the ancients, some I've mentioned here already and some not. I will attend to them, I know, when snow flies. Which, according to our local forecast, may be this very weekend.
But I digress. And instead I want to mention how well Patrick O'Brian convinces us of the reality of his fictional world - as a willingly captivated reader, I enter that world, and believe, and live there. And in a twenty-book series (actually, twenty books and a fragment of a twenty-first), I will gratefully live there for a long time indeed. Completely convinced, I might add, thanks to O'Brian's use of contemporary accounts and reference books, his thorough characterization, and his attention to the minutiae of daily life in the early eighteenth century. It feels so complete and so true.
Until recently I didn't know that there is a term for this level of detail, this creation of time, place, people, the whole shebang - world building. It's usually used in connection with science fiction and fantasy, in books and film (The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, etc), and also in gaming, but I think it could equally apply to any work of literature in which another place and time is recreated with this extremely high level of detail. After all, the past is another world, isn't it? Some time ago I came across the term on the terrific daily weblog of artist and author James Gurney, himself a world builder (he's written about how he came to paint and write his Dinotopia books in this great series of posts from a few years ago). A more recent post addresses a question regarding the age range for prospective readers of his illustrated books. Part of his response is this lovely statement:
"A book should be like a swimming pool, with a shallow end and a deep end."
Well, in re-reading Patrick O'Brian, it's easy to skim along, but I also find that the books go as deep as one could ever wish. In fact they seem to mean even more to me, this time around. Anyway, I don't know where I'm going with all this, other than to say how satisfying it is as a reader to encounter writers who have the ability to transport us so convincingly to places and times other than our own, and allow us to feel at home there. Off the deep end, in books as in life? Or in another world? It's a good place to be.
Monday, October 20, 2014
the slow fall
A seasonable passage, from H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O'Brian (p.12):
"In Whitehall a grey drizzle wept down upon the Admiralty, but in Sussex the air was dry - dry and perfectly still. The smoke rose from the chimney of the small drawing-room at Mapes Court in a tall, unwavering plume, a hundred feet before its head drifted away in a blue mist to lie in the hollows of the downs behind the house. The leaves were hanging yet, but only just, and from time to time the bright yellow rounds on the tree outside the window dropped of themselves, twirling in their slow fall to join the golden carpet at its foot, and in the silence the whispering impact of each leaf could be heard - a silence as peaceful as an easy death."
And so it is here this beautiful October morning - the quiet, the falling leaves, the pale woodsmoke, the hillside, even the old cemetery near our house. I notice it all, I mean I pay close attention indeed, but I don't think I could write a paragraph like that if my life depended on it. Instead I look and look, and paint and paint, and I tell myself that that is another kind of worthy description. As a painter friend of mine says, "You can only do what you can do." I take her advice and keep doing what I do. Noticing, painting. Reading.
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
picking up where we left off
In his Ancilla to Classical Reading, Moses Hadas says (pp.135-136):
"Comments or opinions here offered are in no sense authoritative, and by no means justly apportioned.... For modern and more systematic opinion on ancient writers the reader will naturally turn to more formal histories of literature; here nothing more than marginalia to such histories can be expected."
And in A Book of Voyages, Patrick O'Brian says (pp.xv-xvii):
"Most books of voyages say in their prefaces that they intend to be useful. 'Let us have no unnecessary ornamentation at the outset of a work in which we propose nothing but the weighty and the useful,' begins one; they hardly ever speak of giving entertainment.
The intention of this book is quite different; its aim is to give the reader pleasure. It makes no claim to being a scholarly work, and it has no didactic purpose."
Praise be! Since I revel in marginalia, and dislike didactic purpose... I mean, bring on the unnecessary ornament! All this is to say that since we last spoke, I have had a million and one things to do, and the only things I truly want to do are snack and read ancient poetry and Patrick O'Brian novels. Thus I find myself reading his Aubrey-Maturin series for the fifth time (I think - it's been at least seven years since I last read them), and in fact have already finished the first two, Master and Commander and Post Captain. I cannot even begin to tell you how utterly satisfying I find them. All I will say is, if you haven't yet sallied forth into his fictional realm, adventure awaits, alongside oceans of splendid writing. Not convinced? No interest in the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars? Well, do back-of-the-book blurbs ever convince you to read a book? How about these:
"The best historical novels ever written." - Richard Snow, New York Times
"Master and Commander raised almost dangerously high expectations; Post Captain triumphantly surpasses them... a brilliant book." - Mary Renault
The novels are about the British Navy, certainly, but really they are about that which never gets old. Human nature - disappointment, triumph, ambition, passion, jealousy, self-control, friendship, love. It's not for nothing that he's considered by many to be a latter-day Jane Austen. Sometimes I think that his writing is what would have occurred had the naval officers in Jane Austen's Persuasion been able to tell their own version of events. Well, as I travel around the world and back with Patrick O'Brian's cast of characters this winter, I will continue to investigate classical authors too. I don't have to look far, though. This week, in Post Captain, I smiled to see mention of "...half-remembered instances of courage from Plutarch, Nicholas of Pisa and Boethius..." (p.109), and a translation of a fragment of Sappho (ibid p.433):
"'The moon has set, and the Pleiades; midnight is gone; the hours wear by, and here I lie alone: alone.'"
In pursuit of more reading about Moses Hadas, I came across this wonderful essay, by his daughter Rachel Hadas, which makes me want to seek out some of his translations. And in pursuit of more Patrick O'Brian, I found this, which I read long ago and was happy to rediscover, the Paris Review interview from 1995. Here is a little bit, a very pleasing little bit:
What is it like to fall into the past?
The sensation of falling into the past is not unlike that of coming home for the holidays from a new, strenuous, unpleasant school, and finding oneself back in wholly familiar surroundings with kind, gentle people and dogs—inconveniences of course, such as candlelight in one’s bedroom (hard to read by), but nothing that one was not deeply used to."
That is the feeling of his fiction, and of some of the classical translations I've been reading - a homecoming. A lovely rich emotion, and a perfect counterpoint to the spare emptiness of the approaching season.
Sunday, October 05, 2014
back to the source
After weeks of having nothing, not a single book, lingering on my bedside table (the waiting stacks in the book room notwithstanding), I'm feeling more like my old self, and have finally started a few books I'm excited about reading. Yesterday I visited a favorite local independent bookstore and came across this:
A Book of Voyages edited by Patrick O'Brian (Norton 2013). New to me, though the publication date in this country was last year, and the copyright page says 1947. All to the good, this eccentric anthology of obscure travel narratives, mostly from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with sections entitled Pleasant Travels by Land, Unpleasant Voyages, Oriental Splendour, Inefficient Pirates, and other miscellaneous subjects. The jacket copy hints that some of these real-life tales may have been primary sources for O'Brian's fiction. I've just started to read his brief introductions to each section, and realized quickly how much I've missed his voice, so to speak. Maybe this will be the winter I read the Aubrey-Maturin novels yet again, it's been far too long.
My other winter reading project is taking shape. After delighting in the immediacy and relevance of Boethius, and examining my scant collection of other authors of classical antiquity, I've decided to give it a go and read some Greek and Latin literature over the coming months. In translation of course, since, although I did take Latin in high school, I retained precisely none of it. To start with I am returning to an old favorite, a great browsing book, one I am now reading from cover to cover. I've mentioned it here before, many years ago. The wonderful Ancilla to Classical Reading by Moses Hadas (Columbia University Press 1954). Which begins at the beginning, thusly (p.3):
"The simplest explanation for the survival of the classics is that ordinary readers have found them worth preserving. Their vogue has naturally fluctuated with vicissitudes of history and vagaries of taste, but periodic renascences have returned to them with renewed zeal and fresh advocacy."
Regarding the ancients, Hadas continues (p.5):
"Aside from professional and traditional judgments, can vulgar opinion and gossip throw light upon our authors and help bring them to life?"
Gosh, I hope so! I'm over a hundred pages in, and so far we've discussed the origins of Greek literature, why books were declaimed and then written, and distributed, with some fascinating glimpses of the development of reading as a pastime, and collecting, libraries, and the book trade, in Greece, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome. Drama, poetry, prose, literary criticism, censorship - and this is all just in part one of the book, entitled Production, Reception and Preservation. I am about to begin part two, Literary Gossip, which covers, chronologically, all the Big Names of antiquity, with copious quotations from their works. Hadas says early on, again in the spirit of primary sources, "I myself have always believed that text is more useful than commentary, and so have cited ancient authors freely." (p. vii) Can't wait.
Immediately to follow, waiting on the bedside table (remember the bedside table?), is the gorgeous, massive hardcover Latin Literature: A History by Gian Biagio Conte, translated by Joseph B. Solodow (Johns Hopkins University Press 1994). I see from my secret code inside the back cover of the book that I bought this in 2006 for ten bucks. I've thought about selling it, since even the softcover is a pricey item these days, but it's just so comprehensively beautiful that I've always kept it, throughout all the moves and culls of past years. And I find that the first sentence of the foreword, by Elaine Fantham, puts all doubt to rest (p.xxiii):
"The book you are holding in your hand is an extraordinary achievement. If you care at all about Rome and its literature, pagan and Christian, this book will soon become your friend, and before long you will wonder how you ever managed without it."
Keep this book, KEEP it! It practically shouts at me to do just that. Would that I had done so with all the Loeb Classical Library editions that have passed through my hands over the years. I think the only Loebs I currently own are a few volumes of Virgil, won by my grandfather as a Latin prize at his prep school. I do have a shelf of other classics, mostly poetry, to slowly work my way through. Between those, and whatever else I can turn up locally, and the Patrick O'Brian novels waiting patiently in the wings, I should be occupied for the foreseeable future. This must sound absolutely insufferable - All she does is read! - which is so, so not the case. Trust me on that.
Monday, September 29, 2014
what, a coincidence?
See you, September. I was away for a week-long art retreat, then I spent a week helping one of my sisters get through a difficult surgery, then I had a head cold for a week. Which brings us to now. I still am suffering from the head cold. However, things are looking up, and I am at the point in its denouement at which I am taking an interest in life again. Reading, even. I spent much of the month escaping into Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer novels - re-read for the umpteenth time, each of them, purely for comfort - and last night was the first time in weeks I picked up something brand new to me. I read it in one sitting - a little softcover I found at Goodwill a few weeks ago for two bucks. The Red Notebook: True Stories by Paul Auster (New Directions 2002), a collection of short yet completely compelling anecdotes all hinging on the actual occurrence of the highly improbable. Each tale is tied up with his quick, smart, to-the-point prose like tidy ribbon around a gift. They are gathered from several decades of his life, and either happened to him or were told to him. Once you read the first one, there's no stopping. I had to read them all, immediately. They get better and better as the book unfolds. They are too short to really even talk about or quote from, although I will just mention that near the end of the book he says (p.98):
"What a coincidence.... My life has been filled with dozens of curious events like this one, and no matter how hard I try, I can't seem to shake free of them. What is it about the world that continues to involve me in such nonsense?"
Nonsense, yet portentous nonetheless? Well, he draws no conclusions about the coincidences he writes about. He simply presents them as fact, as undeniable history, even saying at one point (p.15), "...facts are facts, and there's nothing I can do about it." We read and think Dot dot dot (...) and move on, wondering.
Everyone has some of these in life, I think. One such happened to me, when I was waiting in a hospital in Boston with my sister, nearly two weeks ago. She was asleep, post-surgery, and I was sitting next to her, feeling sorry for both her and for myself (ugly, I know, but it must be said). I decided to read a bit more of a book I mentioned previously, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (Harvard University Press 2008). I opened it to where I'd left off weeks before and immediately read the following (p.10):
"'...have you understood what I have been saying? Has it sunk in, or are you a donkey hearing a lute? Why are you still weeping?... If you want the physician's cure, you must bare your wound.'"
Needless to say, I was electrified. Lady Philosophy continues on a few pages later, saying (p.38)
"'...stop your weeping. Fortune does not hate everyone in your family, and when those anchors still hold fast, the storm, however violent, is not overwhelming. You have present consolation and you have hope for the future.'"
That doesn't sound like much, but to me, at that particular moment, boom, I was thunderstruck. And equally, consoled - which is indeed one of the main precepts of the book, and which is why I must have brought the book along on this trip in the first place. So, not a pure coincidence, more of a pre-planned one, but still. I find there's a lot to be said for carrying around small books of real-life philosophy. And I plan to do so more often.