Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Other worlds than this

Apologies for a prolonged silence. Life has been insistently literal this fall. And my reading of late has been scattered and haphazard, mostly consisting of brief sojourns in fat anthologies. Two exceptions - I've been spending time with Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, via their published diaries and letters, and travel memoirs. I rediscovered an anthology they assembled in the early 1940s - I'd forgotten I'd owned a copy and found it again while moving books hither and yon recently - entitled Another World Than This... (Michael Joseph 1945). It combines two of my favorite literary formats, the anthology of quotations and the almanac. The jacket copy states that the compilers "...have been guided by no principle other than a desire to provide for every month of the year a small selection of passages which may interest or please the ordinary reader." The ordinary reader of the British 1940s, alas, is very different from the ordinary reader of today, but I find we can still meet on some common ground - that of recognition of beauty. I love the way a good anthology can weave a common cloth from disparate sources across time and space, and theirs is like a fine antique carpet. The quotations are short and long, from all eras except the current one (with a very few exceptions), and must have been a joy to find and mark in the first place, particularly as an antidote to the very visible destruction of the war (the antithesis of beauty and intellectual or soul-ful pursuits).

A quote (p.180), from poet Coventry Patmore (1823-1896, Magna est Veritas) which suits my way of thinking quite well at the moment, and a recent painting to match:

"Here, in this little Bay,
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,
Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,
I sit me down.
For want of me the world's course will not fail:
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not."

The other anthology I've been reading (I said two exceptions) is The Sayers Holiday Book, a thick Dorothy L. Sayers omnibus of mystery novels and stories (Victor Gollancz 1963). Not my usual fare at all, but I must say her Gaudy Night is a deeply sublime and satisfying story, and I wish in my heart of hearts that Peter O'Toole had been able to play Lord Peter in a film of this tale, when he was a young man. Gaudy Night is the kind of story you need a stack of reference books beside you while you read, if you want to be able to understand all the literary asides and quotations within, except the story itself won't allow you to break from its spell in order to do a little bit of dry research. Keep reading! Keep reading! it says.

And I read half the novel in one sitting, finally had to go to sleep it was so late, dreamed about who the culprit might be and whether or not Harriet Vane would allow herself to be loved, and woke up starving to read the rest of it over breakfast. Now that's a good book. I can say it took me away, and I couldn't ask for more than that.

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