Thursday, December 23, 2010
There aren't actually that many books or authors from which I was warned away as a kid. Not really the kind of thing most people would have thought to do at the time. Oh, there were busybodies aplenty following their vocation even then; saving the children, policing the libraries, writing letters to the local newspaper about Playboy, wrapped in paper, being kept behind the counter at the only magazine store in town, right where kids could see the title, if they craned their necks and knew just where to look. Imagine. As a critical part of keeping my hometown dry, clean and Christian, I don't doubt there were committees of the busy, policing what was shelved where, sold at gas stations, purchased, subscribed. As a kid, all I felt of this was a vague but sure sense, learned mostly by means of the television, but reinforced by the local librarians, editorials, and preachers, that there was more to the written world outside than was dreamt of, or suspected, in the fenced yard of the local library. But there were few instances of direct intervention to preserve my individual innocence, or to form my education, taste or preference. Nobody much talked to me about books, except as an abstract good, and or an unspecified danger.
The few times anybody noticed what I was reading as a child, that I can remember now, would include being "caught" reading a history of the movies in the new Waldenbooks, at my first mall, in Sharon, PA. The blushing clerk reached over my shoulder to close that book on a picture of Brigitte Bardot in a sheer shift, over which he mistakenly assumed I was lingering. "You're too young for... girls and that," he said primly. He reshelved the book and shooed me away. Actually, my curiosity, on that occasion, was perfectly innocent. Honest. It wasn't Bardot I'd been staring at, it was Jean Marais, on the facing page, that had caught my eye. I would later discover that Marias was strikingly beautiful, but it was a photograph of his Beast in Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête, which I had never seen, that had held my attention at age eight or nine. I wanted to look at the monster in the ruff. I was baffled at what harm there could be in a fairy tale, even a French one. Who cared about Brigitte Bardot's tits?
At an even earlier age, a Sunday school teacher once noticed that I was carrying one of the OZ books under my arm and told my grandmother confidentially that Baum's books were not religiously sound. My grandmother, highly offended, told this person that if she ever saw any of that lady's children reading such a book, or any book, she'd be sure to let her know, as unlikely as that possibility may have been. That was the end of that.
Then there was the public librarian who wouldn't let me have Don Quixote out as I was too young for that as well. My mother, when she heard of this, fixed that problem, for good and all. "Is it a bad book?" my mother asked her, "Is there anything wrong with it? Don't know why you'd keep it is there is." Then Mum settled the matter, "He's my kid, not yours," she told the self-righteous old party, "and he can read any goddamned book he wants to, you understand?" Bless her, she was as good as her word.
My folks are not bookish people. They saw no harm in it that I was and no reason to discourage me. "Take that outside, will you" was something my mother said regularly in summer when she would find me underfoot, yet again lost in a book. "At least get the dust off of you," she'd say, and push me out the door. I would go out, and read under a tree. My people worried I was "too much to" myself, in another phrase I remember all too well from childhood, and that I might "spoil" my eyes, but not that anything I might read could do injure me in any other way.
"To each his own," may be as near to a motto as my family ever came. It is as good as any other, I should think.
When I was a little older, and encountered people more widely read, I eagerly sought recommendations, and was sorely disappointed to find that few adults, even teachers, expressed much enthusiasm for the books I'd assumed every literate person would have read. I knew from watching Dick Cavett that there were books everybody seemed to know, books I ought to read if I wasn't to embarrass myself at my first cocktail party in New York. I could probably fake liking the cocktails, but not the books, I felt sure. I hoped there might be someone, a teacher maybe, to help me navigate the reading lists I was compiling from talk shows, and the "classics" rack at the bookstore in the mall. My teachers, as it turned out, for the most part, weren't much help. Tolstoy, Melville, Poe, even Dickens, more often than not, were shrugged off as being "difficult," or too "remote" from contemporary life -- as if the value and relevance of literature was determined primarily, at least for children, by its reflection of exclusively childish experience, and as if this was not a feature, for example, of David Copperfield! or books were assumed in general to be best understood by children only when written about in language that a child might himself use, for want of any better. I was encouraged -- to the extent I was -- instead to read books "more appropriate" to a boy my age; meaning books about boys playing baseball, fixing cars, or solving harmless mysteries like the Hardy Boys, or boys inventing harmless things, like lightbulbs, as that boy Edison had. I had no interest in baseball, then or ever. And I had no more interest in doing any of these things that boys were evidently meant to be interested in doing, or in reading about them, after about the age of seven or eight, than I had in, well, Brigitte Bardot. It did not at first occur to me that any of my teachers might not have read the books I wanted to. I could not then conceive of a person with a teacher's certificate and a degree in English admitting to such ignorance, and they seldom did, preferring to suggest that what I was up to in reading War and Peace at twelve, with whatever little guidance or comprehension that I did, was simply "getting ahead" of myself, if not just "showing off." I heard that sort of thing often enough, by the time I was in high school, to learn a very valuable lesson as to the relative value of sheepskin as compared to a paperback book.
I've been hearing quite a bit lately about some character called "the reluctant reader." This would be a boy, as I understand it, roughly pubescent, for whom reading is a struggle and a library an unknown country. (We called these kids "boys" in my day, just "boys." The assumption being that most boys were more interested in gigging frogs, setting fires, fighting, and, for most I suppose, Brigitte Bardot's tits, than in literature. It was assumed, safely then, that most boys would grow up to work where their fathers did, on dairy farms, in manufacture, or fixing cars. Didn't have to worry much about them. I certainly didn't. Still don't.) Now, the efforts to reach this poor boy, this "reluctant reader," and to lure him into literacy sound all too familiar to me: maybe books about boys his age, written in simple language he might use himself, books about things he might be expected to like, like baseball, fixing cars, solving harmless mysteries, or inventing useful things, like the Internet, and as the nation has grown more sexually liberated, maybe even books about boys who fantasize about whatever the contemporary equal of Brigitte Bardot's -- or Jean Marias' -- chest... The poor child has my sympathy.
What I wanted, as a youth, was taste. I knew I hadn't any, to speak of, and I assumed better educated people had it and that I might acquire some by the same means. I assumed someone would, eventually, point me in the right direction. Failing that, I thought I might at least be warned off from the worst with a friendly gesture now and then. Didn't happen, much.
It was a friend's mother, when I expressed a rather tentative interest in reading more poetry, who gently warned me away from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Not bad advice, at the time. My taste, as I say, to the extent I'd been able to acquire any, was worse than unformed, in fact, was barely more than a worried confusion about the Moderns, and such snatches of Edgar Alan Poe, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," and stirring old barnstormers like "Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight," that I'd heard at Grange recitals. My friend's parents were both educated people. They were from New York City! They owned books. They'd been to college. Their children read, most of 'em. What I might have made of Edward Fitzgerald when I was thirteen, I can't imagine. He certainly wasn't the sort of poet I was likely to find in my friend's house, or about whom I might look forward to a midnight jaw come college. What the good lady was trying to spare me was wasting my time on what was, no doubt, for intellectuals of her generation, yet another dusty relic of the Victorianism at which even her parents' generation had already long since given up rolling their eyes. I was being spared an embarrassment. It was a kindness. Quite right, too.
I carried that low opinion of The Rubáiyát with me down almost to this day. Once I was in the business of selling books, every new edition that came along, and one comes along every few years, however tarted up with gilding, or with covers decorated in artful Arabic script, with facing pages of the original, or some new introduction, I let pass with roughly the same disdain I might reserve for a gift edition of Gibran, or some Mother's Day anthology in pink silk and ribbons. I recognized, of course, the most famous quatrains:
"The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it."
And that most parodied:
"A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!"
Pretty much the end of my experience of Fitzgerald. That is, until I became insane for letters again recently. Well, I've finally read Edward Fitzgerald's The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, and found it delightful. Whatever it is as translation -- and the consensus now seems to be that Fitzgerald's is both unfaithful and superior to the original -- and however old-fashioned, in terms both of form and sentiment, it seemed to my older friend, it is charming. Having read Byron's Don Juan, or Moore's Lalla Rookh with admiration and pleasure, I'm fine with pantomime versions of The Mystic East. In fact, I almost prefer them. I've read a little in more modern translations of the classic Persian poets, and, well... it all must be so much more so in the original, because in English? Let's just say, it ain't entirely to my taste.
Edward Fitzgerald was a scholar, almost the now lost gentlemanly definition. He had plenty of money to live comfortably, though he didn't do much with it, it seems, but buy pictures and books and give loans to friends, money I don't think he ever saw again, or expected to when he sent it. He paid his friend Alfred Tennyson a pension for a couple of years, just to write, until Tennyson came into money of his own. Fitzgerald lived for his friends, but then, as I said, he could afford to. By the middle of the 19th Century, when Fitzgerald was dabbling in translating Spanish classics, among other things, the idea of a rich man doing that sort of thing for his own amusement and or as a service to literature was fading into embarrassment, a mere eccentricity, like vegetarianism or composing at the pipe-organ. Professionals, meaning paid academics, were already largely in charge of the footnotes and variant readings and the like even by then. So Fitzgerald's anonymously published little 1859 first edition would probably have sunk into complete obscurity, had it not been discovered in a by-the-way bookshop, on a remainder table, and purchased for a penny as a gift for Dante Gabriel Rossetti. His enthusiasm for the book, with that of Swinburne and a few others among the high Victorian literati, sent the book out into the public, where it found, and kept, an amazing popularity down almost to this day. Fitzgerald tinkered with his Rubáiyát for the rest of his life. The fifth and final edition was actually completed by a friend, based on Fitzgerald's final revisions, after the poet's death in 1883. The used hardcover I finally bought and read contains both the first and the fifth versions.
The story of Fitzgerald's book, and it's amazing popularity, particularly in the US, would be a worthy subject for some American student of popular culture. (I see, via the Internet, that in 2009, there was just such a collection of scholarly essays, all from professionals, on this topic. Not a book I would imagine anyone reading, in the version I saw, but that needn't discourage others.) There was a time, lasting nearly one hundred years or more, when Fitzgerald's poem was perhaps the likeliest to be known by heart by the American swain. It had a reputation, not only as poetry, but as a tool of romance, you see. I can't quite see it now, but the sometimes swooning illustrations by the likes of Edmund Dulac and Edmund J. Sullivan probably helped. It was this all but universal popularity among the Hoi Polloi in grandpa's and great-grandpa's courtin' days that probably earned Fitzgerald's less than fully respectable reputation among the New York intellectuals of the generation to which my friend's parents belong.
Reading Edward Fitzgerald's letters, first in a handsome little two volume set purchased used, and locally, and now in four full volumes ordered from the esteemed institution, Powell's Books in Portland, I'm reminded how little one's taste may actually be influenced by education, and how much more by inclination and friendship. Fitzgerald, like many a rich man's, or in his case really, a rich woman's son, as it was his mother who had and kept the greater fortune, completed his education in a most dilatory fashion; collecting only a second rate degree. Most interestingly, it was to please a younger man in whom he had taken a passionate, if sadly chaste interest, that Fitzgerald first took up Persian poetry. Edward Byles Cowell, who went on to become a noted translator of Persian poetry himself, and the first professor of Sanskrit at Cambridge University, first sent his friend Fitzgerald a manuscript of Omar Khayyám's quatrains, taken from the British Library, before Cowell, and his wife, went to live and teach in Calcutta. As with nearly all of Fitzgerald's extant writing, including most obviously his wonderful letters, his translations were undertaken then to please not just himself, but his friends. Fitzgerald learned Persian, at least in large part, so that he and Cowell might "study a little together." As the title of the biography of Fitzgerald, by Robert Bernard Martin, -- the biography I also ordered from Powell's,by the way -- suggests, Edward Fitzgerald was With Friends Possessed. It was not always a happy thing for Fitzgerald to be so. Obviously queer as a tea dance in Provincetown, and just as obviously either unaware himself of the fact, or unwilling or unable to act on it sexually, Fitzgerald devoted himself, body and soul, to a series of masculine friends, from school days forward and throughout his life, never apparently laying one of them. He, and we, were lucky in Cowell, in so far as that romantic friendship yielded up Fitzgerald's Rubáiyát.
There is an obvious irony in that poem being used by generations of straight if aesthetically inclined undergraduate males to woo their ladies fair, just as there is another in more people in the West still knowing the name of Omar Khayyám because of Fitzgerald's translation than will ever have heard of any other Persian poet, or of Fitzgerald. I should think Fitzgerald, a fundamentally friendly, if shy and modest man, who when he published at all, did so by preference anonymously, would have been amused, and just fine, with these developments. It is because of his talent for friendship, and the very real affection he inspired in lifelong friends as diverse as the brothers Tennyson, William Makepeace Thackeray, Cowell, and others, obscure and more famous, and the wonderful letters they kept, that we know anything of Fitzgerald at all. This would also please Fitzgerald, I believe.
If, in childhood, I expected a friend or mentor to guide my tastes and refine my opinions, and found few enough willing or able to do so, my own reading, pell mell, has brought me such friends since; real and in books. Perhaps that is how I could come finally to read Fitzgerald in my forties and find, specially in his letters, yet another I now count among my friends, someone I would eagerly introduce to others. Perhaps that is where the busybodies, old and new, go so far wrong in worrying about this "reluctant reader," and his less likely opposite, the boy who reads beyond his station and so "gets ahead" of himself; in thinking anyone reads for pleasure to any purpose other than in search of better friends.
Let me then, for any who may not know him, recommend my friend Fitz, and hope that you will make him