Monday, June 1, 2009

Some Gods of My Youth

A friend sent me a brief article from The New York Times Opinion Page, of all places, by Verlyn Klinkenborg, on the pleasures of rereading. At the start of his piece, the writer references the joy in repetition that is so much a part of the pleasure of stories when we are children and suggests that when first this is lost, when a child learns to move from book to book, childhood is gone. I do not much remember being read to, though I was, but I do remember reading and rereading such books as came my way when I was little. This, in part, was a symptom of a rural childhood, in a house and a place largely bereft of books. When an older neighbor shared her OZ books with me, sensibly allowing me to borrow them but one at a time, I read my way through the set, not once, but many times. I came to love particular volumes best: The Lost Princess of OZ, which I was eventually given and own still, and The Land of OZ, from which I first learned the mutability of gender, though I would hardly have been able to define my discovery as such at the time. Initially, these books were as important to me for John R. Neill's elegant illustrations as for the stories by L. Frank Baum. Neill's work was my copybook, and from him I drew many happy hours of concentrated effort, trying to reproduce in pencil and markers what he had so masterfully made in ink. Baum however created what Neill only illustrated, and the revelation of this, for such it was to me, made my study of those stories into something more than a mere child's pleasure in the familiar. Baum taught me that character could be unique, that authority could be humbug, that survival depended on friends, that worlds could be conjured in words, and that the words -- such as "home" -- need not be unfamiliar to be magic, and that the real power of wizards came as much or more from that of which they could convince others, as from any actual magic they may otherwise have had. Baum was then my first teacher met on the page, and his influence is probably evident even here.

Later, though not by much, when at a revival I suffered myself to be "saved," I began to read The King James Bible with something of the same absorption, though with considerably more confusion than I'd found in OZ, because, I should now think, the authors of that black book, while sharing something of Baum's knack for invention and affection for the improbable, lacked his inspiration. The maker of The Patchwork Girl never never thought to put sin into her, nor did he require that children should suffer and die, inexplicably, that they might achieve Paradise. Baum may have been, by comparison, deficient of poetry, but his was the sounder theology for refusing the supremacy of an arbitrary and malevolent agency in the universe. The evil in OZ was always reliably human, whatever its race, and sprang more often than not from the same petty motives: jealousy, greed, the desire for conquest or arcane power, that have plagued our actual history. What better explains and anticipates the behavior of such diminutive monsters of the century just past such as Hitler and Stalin? the God of the Old Testament, or The Gnome King?

In 1976, when I was all of thirteen, the BBC adapted I, Claudius, and its sequel, Claudius the God, by Robert Graves, into a television series that ran in this country on PBS. I watched the first episode on the family's color television, until my parents' understandable disapproval of the admittedly awful behavior of the Romans drove me to watch every episode and rerun thereafter in the privacy of my own room, on a small black and white TV rescued for me from the dump from my father. Eventually I had to have the books from which the series was adapted and then read and reread these until the my treasured paperbacks fell to pieces. I've since replaced and reread Graves' novels many times. In Graves I may first have come to understand history as an unreliable narrative of personal survival and as a record as much of civilization's frailty as of it's triumphs.

And just tonight I have been watching, in arbitrarily segmented episodes on, with badly synchronized soundtracks, hours of the series that first enthralled me as an adolescent. Of all the pleasures, viewing and reading, first introduced to me by Alistair Cooke on the old Masterpiece Theater program, none still offers quite the same forbidden thrill of I, Claudius. Of Graves' two novels, and the resulting television series, as with the OZ books and the musical made from the first of these, I can evidently never tire.

Other books I read and reread in youth, Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, for example, or Ann Rice's Interview With a Vampire, I would hesitate to revisit, for fear of finding them lacking in the magic they once had for me. Those books, for me, remain happy memories, though neither ever led me on to others, as Graves did to the Latin writers, as Baum did, in a way, to the library around me now. Perhaps that it the secret of the books that continue in our lives, or at least in mine: however familiar they may become with rereading, they open something new within us every time we reopen them.

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