Thursday, August 29, 2013
Into the Box and Out of the Box
Read 'em all. Loved them. Into the box. I've donated the lot to a friend's neighborhood book sale. Bonne Chance, Dame Anita!
And then there's this, a book I've now bought half a dozen times at the Used Books Desk, and sold through every time. Don't misunderstand me, the book pictured is not and has never been a book of mine. When I read Christie, I read mass market paperbacks. I started taking her books with me on vacation a few years ago, along with who knows what literary masterpieces I may or may not have finished. I always finish the Christie. When I go back to Pennsylvania to visit the old people, I just buy any old beat-up paperback copy I can find, and leave it behind me to go into the permanent floating yard sale the folks run in retirement to pay for their heart medicine. Dad might sell the book for a nickel. When I'm traveling generally, I want something I won't feel the slightest hesitation about leaving on the plane if I finish it before we land. Besides, I love those rather lurid old covers, particularly the "prop" covers I remember from my own reading of Christie in the Seventies. You know the ones I mean: a flat, feauture-less background with just props, no people in the foreground; maybe a dagger, a candlestick, a string of pearls, that sort of thing. So evocative of Clue and the rather bare-bones characterizations of the great English puzzler. (Hell, these old paperbacks might even be, by some improbable but not impossible chance, some of the very books I'd bought at yard sales in my youth. Could happen. Books are like witches, the only way to really destroy one is to burn or drown it, otherwise there may still be magic in whatever survives. Books seem to travel sometimes by supernatural means.)
This ugly old thing, this cheap Book Club Poirot in hardcovers, pictured above is no bad example of this seeming immortality. The design of the jacket is amateurish and bad. The binding's sound enough, the "interior is clean," as we say in the trade, but there is absolutely nothing special about this book. I'm pretty sure this edition is just an inexpensive reprint of an earlier, doubtlessly more attractive collection of the same name. As I said, I've sold this edition half a dozen times, for about seven bucks a go, and could sell it again tomorrow if another came along, and it will.
The book's got fifty Poirot short stories in it. That's it's only plus. What's more, I've never much liked Christie as a short story writer, certainly not the stories featuring her greatest detectives, Poirot and Miss Marple. The reduction to the shorter form spoils the sauce for me; what in the novels are the characteristic and amusing eccentricities of her protagonists, in her short stories become annoying ticks, or worse. Miss Marple loses her deliberation, her glorious sangfroid evaporating into a kind of smug omniscience; "Isn't obvious, dear?" her knitting needles working with all the self-righteous pleasure of Madame Defarge, "I knew the minute I saw those expensive shoes under the old coat..." And Poirot! Already more than a little insufferable -- even to Christie after the continuing demand for him began to exceed her patience -- in the short stories loses his inevitable third act apology, "But I was so foolish as to not see my mistake sooner. If only I had, Poirot might still have saved poor Miss..." -- insert name of second body here. Without that admission of error, before the ingenious finale, the clockwork machinery of "the little gray cells" can really grind.
Christie herself preferred her stories without her more famous characters, and she's right. I've read half a dozen of these independent numbers in the past year and they have all the virtues of perfect puzzles, including the interchangeable, instantly forgettable but ingeniously arranged pieces that pass for people in these plots. (By way of interesting comparison, at least to mystery buffs, consider the very different but equally satisfying short stories of Georges Simenon, who's Maigret is, if anything, like Sherlock Holmes, at his best when pressed. And there, perhaps the difference between great characters and great puzzles. Does anyone really remember, or much care just what it was Maigret worked out, let alone how? Does anyone like Holmes less for being abrasive? Still, Christie had wit, and more than either of those other old boys, humor -- which is not the same thing. Maigret is most endearing, particularly if he must miss his supper, but he's never really funny. And Holmes could no more have made a joke than Watson can identify a cigarette brand by the ash. I may get myself in trouble, should a true cultist read this, but Conan Doyle was really just too kind a man to be really witty, which is why, I think, Sherlock Holmes is both lovable and never makes me laugh; he's too self-involved to be anything but unintentionally sharp. Christie, on the other hand, can be wonderfully bitchy.)
So here then is a dreary reprint of by no means Christie's best stuff, and yet it survives, and sells, and sells. Why should this book continue to find new readers when other, frankly better books, by considerably better writers, much more attractive books, I say again, don't so much go away as go straight to the dollar-a-book-table at a charity sale?
One of the first thing a new buyer working in used books has to learn is that just because a book is good, or even important, does not mean it retains it's retail value. Particularly true of hardcover novels, literary and otherwise. We hardly buy them anymore, unless they are very new titles, or titles that have crossed over into being "classics." I put that word in quotations here even though I am a believer. I do believe that there are works of art superior to their time and even the memory of their authors. For the used book dealer though a "classic" is any book that will still sell in hardcover. Ah, the rough judgement of the marketplace! If a true classic is any book people will continue to read because of what's in it, the "classic" in the quotes is any book people will buy after it is out of print. To achieve either status for even the best modern fiction is still a pretty dubious proposition. I know just how good a novelist Stanley Middleton was. I read him. He was handsomely published and reviewed throughout his long career. He won prizes. True likewise Patrick White, who after all won the bloody Nobel! And what's become of them? What's become of my collection of both of them? Into the box.
Why? I don't suggest that any of these writers don't or won't still find readers. Not while I'm alive, and she's in print will Anita Brookner want for a very insignificant champion. With or without me though, I think there will always be people pleased to discover such an elegant and ethical writer. She's never written a chapter that's not worth reading, never a misstep in either sympathy or observation of life. I have read every novel she has ever written and will happily read any she may yet write. As a writer I think she is a model of both elegance and maturity, unchanging perhaps in both a good and a less good way. The fact remains, I don't know that I have ever or will ever feel the need to reread a single one of her books, nor frankly could I tell you the name of a single heroine, or honestly distinguish any title of hers from any other by either the plot or characters. While that doesn't preclude for me the pleasure in reading another book should there be one, it does not speak well, I think, for any of her books achieving the status of a classic, with or without quotes. Neither new readers nor admirers, at least of the common variety like me, would seem to need to keep her books. I did, for years of course, but I don't know that I ever opened them again once they had been read. Into the box. (May she live to be one hundred, may I abashedly say, and go out with a pen in her very elegant hand!)
Fiction, by even the most respected and admired writer, need not live forever, or even outlive it's author to be good and worth reading. What a ridiculous standard that would be to impose on one's contemporaries! As a bookseller, I do wish I could find a way to sell more of it, but no matter. Not my job to right the world, even in so small a way.
The reason then the above unhappy object still sells, even if I don't much like it otherwise, would now seem to me to be it's frank familiarity. Someone will always recognize Poirot, and Christie and want a go at this one. These stories, in my admittedly flawed and snobbish system may not qualify as classics because I don't actually think most of them very good, but they've at least earned their quotes; they will always sell, someone will always want to read them, even if I can't imagine anyone, including me, reading them more than once.