Monday, January 06, 2014
"...the storm of thoughts..."
I would like to say that the books on my bedside table have been all I've been reading. I'd also like to talk about a few of them that I've finished reading, and even go into some depth, with commentary, effusion, and quotations (Nigel Slater's Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard, for instance, which contains fabulous sentences such as these, on page 360: "The flesh of a ripe pear is giving and its effects on the eater calming. It is the most serene of fruits and often brings about a certain thoughtfulness."). These books deserve full and fulsome reviews, each of them, but instead everything must make way, because the personality of personalities has driven all else out of my mind. A huge personality, a super-sized American personality. I speak of Samuel L. Clemens, Mark Twain. While reading the first two massive volumes of his three-volume Autobiography in the past two weeks (Volume 3 will be published in another two years), I can't decide what name to call him by. Mark is so sharp, and Sam so soft. The longer I read, the more I am beginning to prefer Sam. Here he is:
Shall we begin at the beginning and talk about Volume 1 first? University of California Press, 2010, 730 pages, this massive hardcover is a pleasure to behold. It has a very strong sewn and glued binding, durable black spine cloth, and paper-covered boards, and is printed on real paper. Reading it is a physical experience. I needed a strong reading lamp and a lap pillow, because the font is slightly too small for comfort and the book is far to heavy to hold in your bare hands for long.
As for content, well, what doesn't this book contain, I wonder. His intent was to dictate whatever he happened to be thinking about on a given day - what interested and electrified him that very morning, and make that the topic at hand. Thus the text is not chronological, or any kind of -logical, but instead meanders from his distant past to the news of the day - literally a newspaper clipping or story he wanted to comment on, or a letter in the mail that released a flurry of meaningful associations for him, and took precedence over anything else. So, not like Tristram Shandy, exactly - much more legible and readerly, is that a word? - but not like anything else I've ever read, either. I'm sorry if this is old news to everyone but me, I didn't know until I started reading. He was convinced that in this apparent disorder, he'd finally found the perfect form to get his autiobiography down, after years of false starts. He obviously loves this discursive format. It suits him, and he revels in it (p.278):
"I don't mind excursioning around in an autobiography - there is plenty of room. I don't mind it so long as I get the things right at last, when they are important."
And again (p.378):
"In this autobiography it is my purpose to wander whenever I please and come back when I get ready."
As soon as he tires of a topic, he drops it like a hot potato and is on to something else. This continues for hundreds of pages. The results are fresh and alive. And by some alchemy, soon his narrative does knit together, and does not seem disjointed in the least, and we come to love him because he is speaking just as we think. Which is more or less all over the place, about everything, every damn day (pp.256-257):
"...the events of life are mainly small events - they only seem large when we are close to them. By and by they settle down and we see that one doesn't show above another. They are all about one general low altitude, and inconsequential.... life does not consist mainly - or even largely - of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one's head. Could you set them down stenographically? No. Fifteen stenographers hard at work couldn't keep up. Therefore a full autobiography has never been written, and it never will be....if I had been doing my whole autobiographical duty ever since my youth all the library buildings on the earth could not contain the results."
I believe him. His topics range from his childhood, through times in the west and overseas, to his marriage and children, his terrible business decisions and his fine ones, his books, friends, cats, triumphs, disasters, and the news of the day. A book like this could never be complete. It takes place in an eternal present. And he is frank, to say the least - he intended that most of what he said would not be published until long after his death, and the deaths of everyone he was speaking so frankly about, and their children. He didn't want to cause anyone pain, but he had to have his say. And what a say it is. He is scathing one moment, and unbearably tender the next. He roasts enemies over hot coals, then forgives them. The cumulative results are totally disarming.
This is enough for now. More on Volume 2 to follow, soon, I'm finishing up reading the explanatory notes today. Then I begin the first six volumes of his complete Letters. And a few of his travel narratives are waiting in the wings. Hey, it looks like I found my winter reading project!