Wednesday, October 25, 2017
Hello there. I've been meaning to write here for a while and today is finally the day. The rain is bucketing down outside for the first time in ages. A good day to be indoors. It's been a remarkably warm and golden fall around here and I have been out painting and watching the season change. This annual transformation of the landscape I know and love never gets old. I feel like I don't have much to say at the moment but will see what arises as I sit here staring into space. A long ramble, I'm sure. Please forgive me in advance.
What's happening? Simply take it as a given that I am appalled and terrified by the news, every damn day. And I'm not going to let fear sublet any more space in my head and heart than is absolutely necessary. So, books, let's start there. I've been reading again, first and foremost the new novels by John le Carré (A Legacy of Spies, Viking 2017) and Mark Helprin (Paris in the Present Tense, Overlook 2017). I bought both immediately upon publication and read them so quickly that re-reading may be in order, soon, to do them justice. I can't say I loved either book unequivocally, they were too difficult for any kind of blanket acceptance or praise. Difficult in theme and tone, I suppose. By that I mean that both novels focus on a central character - an anti-hero, an older man being called to account for his actions past and present, actions in a morally gray area. Helprin and le Carré write with totally different styles but both deal with big, relevant themes - morality, honor, secrecy, loyalty, legacy.
In the case of the le Carré novel, I found it a delight to revisit the past actions of the main character and his circle, all known to me from previous novels. The trope (Is that the right word? I wonder, and I think not. Maybe simply plot.) le Carré uses is that the main character, Peter Guillam, is delving into his own past, under duress, in a secret archive, at the behest of government lawyers, to trace his own actions through a series of terrible Cold War events, as first described in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (I have a decent copy of the first U.S. edition in dust jacket, Coward-McCann 1964). As A Legacy of Spies unfolds, we read over the shoulder of Peter Guillam as he pulls his own reports from decades ago from this archive, and stares his past self in the face, as it were. At the same time that current events are threatening to end his life, he meets many of his old compatriots and enemies once again on paper as well as in real time. This is not a long novel, but is so suspenseful that I'm frankly glad it wasn't.
In Mark Helprin's book, the main character is Jules Lacour, a cellist and widower living in Paris, who becomes entangled in not one but two ethical dilemmas of life-changing proportions and who, with the help of the fates and the snail-like pace of French bureaucracy, manages to see them through on his own terms. I know I'm falling into the trap of putting words in an author's mouth, when the author has merely put those words in the mouth of a fictional character to create that character, but I can't help it - Jules Lacour seems to be Mark Helprin, to me. Making a stand for art, for love, for things that matter most in life, even when those things are technically outside the law, and morally ambiguous, to say the least. One reason I think this way: in the novel Lacour speaks of a friend, who is a photographer. He says:
"'He stuck with that art because, even though it was as defeated as if a tank had rolled over it, it was beautiful, it was better, he loved it, and he was loyal to what he loved.... He continues to suffer. But loyalty is like magic. It makes suffering immaterial.'" (p.136)
I read this and immediately thought, Helprin is loyal to the art of writing, and the way he thinks writing should be; he remains loyal to art with a capital A. This novel is his statement. And, as in his other books, here he once again touches upon the themes he loves above all else. Lacour is a man on a mission, and because in Helprin's other magnificent novels (A Soldier of the Great War, Memoir from Antproof Case, etc) his heroes are also all men on missions, cumulatively that makes me think that Helprin himself is too. Which is as it should be. And oh, have I mentioned what beautiful prose he writes? I should have said that first of all, since it is one of the greatest pleasures of reading his books, above and beyond any plot or storyline or character. His sentences are often gem-like in their clarity:
"As he aged, everything was eroded away but love and conscience, which were left sparkling and untouched in the stream." (p.385)
I could read them all day long. In fact I have, on many days, over many years. And I hope I will again, if he publishes more books.
Unlike the le Carré novel, I did want the Helprin novel to be longer. Throughout. It is much shorter than his other novels. And there are wonderful sidelight characters - scoundrels, heroes, and inbetweens, all worthy of more pages - who I wanted to know much more about. A larger-than-life businessman, a wicked friend, a pair of bumbling yet charming police officers, a victim of a hate crime, a daughter, a grandchild, a son-in-law, a reviled insurance salesman, a potential love interest, and many more. This was a short novel by Helprin standards and yet he packs everything in that's necessary, and then some (including, to be honest, a few scenes I could have done without, but that's not my focus today, or really any day). His language is as lush and gorgeous as ever, and the whole book is an elegy - a lament and a paean. And the ending... well. The ending. I won't spoil the book for anyone else who might be reading it. I'll just say that until the last page, I was unsure about what would happen, and even more unsure about what I wanted to have happen, as a reader. Like the le Carré novel, it is a cliffhanger until the very end. And like the le Carré novel again, it is ultimately about growing old and the reckoning one makes with oneself and the world as the inevitable end approaches.
Oh, such gloom and doom! Which suits my current mood in every possible way! In only slightly brighter news, the just-published Nigel Slater book (The Christmas Chronicles, Fourth Estate 2017, see previous post) is on approach and will in fact be in my mailbox any day now, and I'm looking forward to its gentle brightness as the days darken toward winter. He has a lovely downbeat melancholy paired with a certain kind of stalwart cheerfulness that matches how I feel in December. All that and recipes too, I can't wait.
And, even though this is becoming a longer ramble than I originally intended, I must say one more thing. Since we are already speaking of winter. And aging. I have a birthday coming up in December - it's a decade-change, a biggie for me, the big five-oh! - and I've been thinking a lot lately about what I hope to work on and even accomplish over the next ten years (if I am so lucky). I have too many ideas and plans to get into here and now, but I will say that I am taking active steps toward some things I have always dreamed about but never done. One specific item I will mention, which I am very excited about. It seems frivolous, like there might be no good reason for actually doing this thing, but you know what, that is the very thought that has stopped me in the past, and those days are done. So here it is. A small thing, that means a lot to me. I will even write it out in bold. I have always wanted my own bookplate. The idea of a bookplate has been with me since I was little. And I have finally acted on that idea. I recently commissioned not one but two - two! - bookplates from a wonderful artist-engraver who specializes in making them, by hand, with boxwood blocks and an antique printing press. We are currently in design talks, and he is sketching, before the engraving and printing begins. Pursuing this long-time dream feels so wonderful. I have been very fortunate with sales of my paintings this year and turning right around to pay another artist for his work feels just right to me. One bookplate will be for my art books and the other bookplate for all the rest, including the books-about-books that remain with me, the ones I began this blog talking about, so many years ago. I plan on tipping in the bookplates by one corner, or even leaving them loose inside the front covers of my books, since I've never been one to mark up a rare book, or even a run-of-the-mill used book. I will write about this in more detail as events warrant doing so. For now, I suppose I will say that I too am thinking about legacy - as we age, what are the traces of things we leave behind? Books and their attendant ephemera, marginalia, addenda, and paraphernalia have always been among my greatest loves, and now I am honoring that love by adding to the continuum. Some books on a shelf? And paintings on a wall? A fine legacy, I hope.