Wednesday, March 16, 2011


All roads lead to Samuel Johnson

I think Samuel Johnson would have been shocked that historians and literary scholars frequently refer to his era as the Age of Johnson. He was a deeply humble man, for all his great intellectual weight. His influence certainly lives on. Regarding which, I thought I was finished with my winter Johnson-Boswell reading project, but then I picked up some books at a library sale, and bought another stack at the local Goodwill.

From the library sale I brought home a book that looked good - Lapham Rising by Roger Rosenblatt - his first novel, set in the Hamptons, the tale of a man who has had it with society, particularly in the emblematic form of his billionaire neighbor and the gargantuan house he is having built. Our hero lives in a dilapidated seaside home next door, and exists in a mild state of crazy, talking to his dog, who talks back to him. He is a novelist who isn't writing. One of his novels is about a man who lives in an antiquarian bookshop. This is mentioned in passing, and I do wish Rosenblatt had chosen to elaborate, other than to have the main character say that this was a metaphorical theme, representing "...a mind that wanted to live in the past." (p.108) (That would be a novel I'd like to read.) But, back to Samuel Johnson. Our hero has given away all the books in his home, from a generous library accumulated by three generations of his family. Given them a few bags at a time to the local library. Except for the one book he feels is truly worthy: a slim volume, containing Johnson's long poem The Vanity of Human Wishes:

"...a single humble yet confident, self-aware yet not self-involved, brief yet eternally expansive book. This one I could not bring myself to toss. It made no unseemly noise. It did not plead for its life. It did not preen or strut. It was, in fact, the English language's supreme argument against noise, against pleading, preening, and strutting." (p.54)

Rosenblatt introduces Johnson much earlier in the novel, though. We first meet him on page 10: "Wealth heaped upon wealth, nor truth nor safety buys, /The dangers gather as the treasures rise: Dr. Johnson wrote that, and Dr. Johnson was always right." Dr. Johnson is always right is in fact one of the novel's leitmotifs. Which I didn't know until I began to read it, and was a lovely surprise. One small note - the ending of the book left me unsatisfied and a bit confused - I expected to turn over one more page and read the real ending - but overall, very good. A satirical send-up of certain members of the Hamptons summer set and their wealth, and one man's last stand against the hubris of it all.

Then, at Goodwill I found a coffee table book, The Mountains of Rasselas by Thomas Pakenham (Seven Dials reprint 1999). Originally published in 1959, and now reprinted with new material and color photographs by the author, this travelogue chronicles Pakenham's search for the truth behind Johnson's novel Rasselas, in the mountain ranges of Ethiopia. I've just started reading and must say I'm enjoying it thus far - a very young British academic sets off on an Indiana Jones-style adventure. His narrative lured me in from the very beginning:

"In May 1955 I had been dining in a Venetian Gothic house overlooking the Thames at Oxford. We had begun to talk of amusing places where we might spend the summer holidays after Schools. Abyssinia cropped up frequently in the conversation. The place had exciting associations for us all - was this not the land of Prester John and the Queen of Sheba, the birthplace of Evelyn Waugh's Black Mischief and Scoop? After Tibet, Abyssinia sounded the most exotic place for a holiday." (p.8)

A Byzantine scholar suggests he not merely ramble aimlessly, but instead mount a search for a mountain near Gondar called Wachni, a place never seen by Europeans, and the inspiration for Johnson's short novel Rasselas. Abyssinian kings would isolate their sons there, so they wouldn't get into trouble (or make trouble), until such time as an heir was needed to reign. In Johnson's novel, a prince and princess escape from their imprisonment in order to experience the world as it really is and discover if happiness in life is possible. (Short answer, according to Johnson: No.) Johnson wrote his novel after reading the travel accounts of two of his contemporaries. I read Rasselas a few months ago and loved both its spirit of inquiry and its moral conclusions. Now I'm 25 pages into Pakenham's account, and it promises greatness.

Johnson lives! I wonder where he'll turn up next?

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Makeover season?

For a while now I've been thinking of giving the old blog a new look. And I have to say I've decided against it, other than making a few changes to the text here and there. So many blogs I read lately have so much going on in their margins - tons of pictures, lists of followers, blog rolls with links aplenty, clouds of words - jittery bits of information that seem to light up my latent OCD like so many flickering fluorescent bulbs. Which I find difficult to read by, by the way. So no, I will not upgrade this ancient template. I will keep it spare and simple and hope that plain old words, and a picture once in a while, will satisfy - who? Well, myself, and a few readers from time to time. I do not need to feel any more socially networked (what a term, I am certain William Strunk would shudder) than I currently am. Meanwhile, I just got a haircut and am assiduously practicing yoga and getting around a bit after being housebound for much of this long winter. Generally feeling good and dusting myself off in anticipation of spring. I guess I was the one who needed a makeover.

Monday, March 07, 2011


My Italian travels

As winter turns to spring here, with heavy rain today steadily shrinking the massive snowbanks, I continue to travel in my books. Italy looms large and I become determined to go there someday soon, to eat and paint and gaze at art.

Two very different views of Italy are presented in the memoirs I recently read, Naples '44 by Norman Lewis (reprinted by Da Capo in 2005) and A Traveller in Italy by H.V. Morton (Dodd Mead 1969). Both are first-person accounts presented chronologically, both descriptive and well-written, both unforgettable, both written by justly famous travel writers, and in both the Italian landscape figures heavily. They are both books of place, but there the similarities end. Naples '44 is a wartime diary, a short book to devour in a day, full of famine, violence, treachery, corruption, and the deeply unbeautiful, a view of one city and its immediate surroundings seen from the point of view of a young British intelligence officer caught in the bureaucracy of occupation. The war is an ugly living reality. A Traveller in Italy takes place over two decades later and is a long ramble around northern Italy, from Lake Como to Venice and down to Florence, a thick book which will take a week or two to read at least, easy to put down and pick up again, full of refined observation, dense history, connoisseurship, and intimate description. The war is a memory and becomes one more link in the long chain of violent events and shifts in power in this fought-over region.

Naples '44 captures a moment. A Traveller in Italy speaks of centuries. Both are highly compelling. I read Norman Lewis with fascinated horror, almost in a state of panic, he shows so clearly what we are capable of under extreme duress. After that, I calmed right down and read H.V. Morton as if strolling hand in hand with the most civilized man I'd ever met. He reminds me that horror passes and what endures is culture, art, the landscape, and generations of people simply living their lives. Generations who might choose not to repeat the corruptions of the past. They probably will, but they might not, and in the meantime, much good happens.

I didn't find Lewis to be quotable. At least, I didn't make any notes while I read, the way I usually do. His whole book was too immediate and blunt. And disheartening, it must be said. Of course, I took several pages of notes from Morton. Here he is on Pliny the Younger's villa, built in 1570 on the edge of Lake Como:

"The charm of Pliny's villa continued to haunt me and it will always do so. I know what my books would look like there, and where I would put my desk. It was one of those places, and they are few, where I knew I could be happy and content until the end of my days." (p.126)

Morton tells us Shelley tried to rent the villa in 1818. (Read his book if knowing little details such as this pleases you - it's full of them - it's what the entire book consists of, really.) In my to-be-read pile are a few more books about Italy. Italian Hours by Henry James is there. I've also started to read selections from Vasari's Lives of the Artists and am in the middle of the wartime diaries of Bernard Berenson, who chose to stay near Florence for the duration. But that's a story for another time. To end today, a bit of fine advice from A Traveller in Italy, something we can all take to heart (p.179):

"...trouble has a way of straightening itself out if you continue to collect books and to read them."

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