Sunday, November 3, 2013

Vacation Unpacking

Home and back.  As I do now every autumn, I went home for two weeks to see the old people in Pennsylvania.  And every year, I pack a stack of used books, because, honey, while home may be here the heart is, there ain't a bookstore for miles.  Here then this year's vacation books.

It's usually mass market paperbacks for the trip.  Otherwise, I almost never buy, let alone read, in this this format.  I like old books better, books I often can't find but in hardcovers (or, as here, in paperback EBM reprints.)  Old books tend to be better made books.  My books go in and out of my old leather bag every day, get stowed in a crowded cubbyhole at the desk, often bristle with Post-It notes and scraps of paper.  True, they travel only from table to sofa, from home to work and work to home, mostly, not from pillar to post, but as I usually mean to keep them, I try to be kind.   Old fashioned "pocket books" like the ones I pack on trips I only buy when I can leave them behind me, in airports or the trash.  Some of the less battered paperbacks may have another chance as donations to the permanent garage sale my parents put out in the warm weather, to pay for their heart medications when their medicare coverage falls into what my mother calls, "the don't die hole."  I don't really like the size of pocket books, or the paper they're made of, or the cheap way they're made.  I don't like the impermanence of paperbacks.  Of course, the very things I don't like about paperbacks makes them ideal for travel.

Years past, I've taken thick paperback classics, Russians mostly, or late Dickens and the like, thinking I'd make a proper reading-project of my two weeks back home.  Almost never happens, what with getting to the Golden Corral in time for the Early Bird on steak-night and what have you.  (This trip unhappily included time spent in waiting rooms, and hospital rooms and the like.  All that worrisome business turned out well enough in the end, thank you, but I can think of few places on earth less congenial for reading serious books.  Who can concentrate in such an atmosphere?)   What usually happens is that instead of reading all those big, important books I've brought with me, has been that I read whatever pulp or mysteries I find in Dad's garage-sale, and just a bit of poetry before bed.

That in mind, I packed three Christie thrillers this time, none of which feature either Marple or Poirot.  That way I could be pretty sure I hadn't read these before.  In recent years I've found a lot of unfamiliar titles without either star detective.  Moreover, the old girl seems to relax a bit when she doesn't have to write for her big names; there's a willingness to shift focus, to to explore a bit more away from country houses and the like.  (Poirot specially can make the outcome seem pretty inevitable sometimes.) On recent trips, I've read at least one Christie, and usually wanted more.  So this time, I was ready.

Murder Is Easy was a delight.  A classic bit of Christie twist in an old girl who suspects foul play in the village chatting up a stranger on the train and then turning up in a headline shortly thereafter herself.  Hit and run.  Her reluctant interlocutor turns detective to see if she wasn't right after all.  She was.  Good fun.

Murder at Hazelmoor starts with a bit of Spiritualist table-rapping, and, of course, a murder.  Trust Christie to come down on the side of devilishly clever reasoning rather than hocus pocus to solve the thing.  And -- I didn't guess the villain!

Of the last of my three Christies, The Mysterious Mr. Quin, frankly, the less said the better.  Not so much a novel as a series of linked mysteries, all with the same rather lazy-minded narrator and all resolved with irksome and unconvincing efficiency by the appearance of the ever increasingly metaphorical Mr. Quin, this is Christie trying without success to broaden the significance of her puzzles and make them -- what?  more literary, somehow?  infused with a more spiritual mystery?  Whatever she was about, this does not work.  I've already learned that with a few well-made exceptions, Christie isn't at her best in a short form.  Add to this the shock of this most sure-footed materialist uncharacteristically wandering afield at the end into (ick) allegory, and this, you may trust me, is a Christie to skip.

I'd a lovely old leather-bound copy of The Sonnets, from J. M. Dent, circa MCMV, to do for my poetry.  I hadn't read these straight through since forever.  Last year's ancient paperback of English Literature: The Seventeenth Century, edited by one Everett Mordecai Clark, and originally published by Charles Scribners' Sons in 1929,  proved one of my happiest finds in recent memory.  I've kept that one.  Reading nearly through The Sonnets every night before bed proved every bit as surprising and satisfying in it's way.  The standards, in their proper setting, proved to be like welcome and familiar songs in an otherwise unfamiliar set, and the narrative of the two parts, with all repetitions, quite fresh to me now.  Best investment I made this year.

The one that I'd already started reading before I left, and that I haven't finished yet, was The Life of John Sterling, by Thomas Carlyle.  I had this copy printed up for me on the Espresso Book Machine.  The volume from my complete hardcover set of Carlyle in which I'd started the book was frankly too fragile to take traveling across country.  (Seems I've found yet another use for the EBM!  Travel editions!)  Like most modern readers of Carlyle's only biography of a contemporary, I was reading this book for the biographer rather than the subject.  This seems easily the Great Man's gentlest book -- though even here, the old boy can't help himself from being the most cantankerous brute.  He wants to memorialize his talented young friend -- a poet and playwright of admittedly unmet promise who died tragically young -- but Carlyle could do nothing without thunderous disapproval of all human frailty, even when he tried to be kind.  A grand old monster, was poor, pity-less Tom. Fascinating monster, Carlyle.  I wanted something of his with me this trip as I'm reading fairly deeply in him and his biography by Froude just now anyway and don't want to a) stop or b) try carrying heavy Victorian volumes with me on the "aeroplane."  Despite being a bit too much of muchness for a vacation, I'm glad I had it with me; now and then a body needs some chewy, really flavorful prose.

The Stephen Fry contained his first two novels, which I'd always meant to read but never had.  The first, The Liar, was very much the bright boy's portmanteau: chapters from a spy thriller, a coming of age romance, elements which are now familiar to any reader of Fry's first memoir, with Wodehouse and Waugh and what-all besides.  It was a delight, front to back.  I already knew that Fry is a brilliant entertainer and a crackerjack writer.  He is firmly established in my affections by virtue of being a remarkable comedian, actor, director, and one of that uniquely British tribe of in-house BBC intellectuals.  He's written an entertaining and very sensible book about poetry.  For whatever reason, I've avoided his fiction 'til now, largely I think for fear it would prove inferior to his other efforts.  I needn't have denied myself the pleasure.

Which is not to say I like the other novel in this "traveler's" paperback, because I didn't.  The writing was just as good, and if anything the structure and plot of his sophomore effort was superior in every way to his first.  But, I didn't finish The Hippopotamus -- nearly, but, no.  The central character was a a Kingsley Amis type, the artist as boar; straight, drinky, and more than a bit of a dick.  I know this is meant to be forgivable, even ultimately endearing, and very much of a tradition, and it's not as if Fry didn't do the thing justice, he did, but I'm tired of dick in literature.  Okay, that's not quite true in every sense, but in this it is.  After a hundred pages I had to admit I wished the protagonist dead and the book over, so I gave it up.  True, there was quickly much saving camp, and some truly funny satire, but... perhaps I was tired of the fun.  Who knows?  Anyway, it remained unfinished, and on I went.

My other unfinished novel this trip was Statues in a Garden, by Isabel Colegate, but only because I lost the book somewhere.  Presumably I left it in some waiting room, or it fell out of my pocket somewhere or something.  A pity, because 60 pages in , I was enjoying it.  Colegate is the author of The Shooting Party, among other excellent things.  (That one was made into a very good movie with, as I remember it, James Mason as a country squire in one very good, and very brief scene featuring John Gielgud as a militant if mild antivivisectionist singly and rather sadly protesting the eponymous hunt.)  When I got back to my library, I discovered that I did indeed already own a nice hardcover copy of the novel I lost, so I'm reading the rest just now.

Colegate is a cool, careful writer, an historical novelist who works almost within reach of living memory, mostly.  She is one of those English novelists of a certain age rightly preoccupied with the passing of Empire, and a kind of innocence.  It's an obvious a subject, I suppose, The Fall.  Worked pretty well since Genesis.  But the reader would be mistaken to confuse Colgate with those professional nostalgists of the pre-war glory, the kind of darling hacks who make us Americans go all moony over great houses, and loyal servants and cliches served on silver salvers.  Colgate is a very serious writer, and for all her convincing charm and eye for historical detail, she's not much interested in the past as a missed garden party.  She can write completely convincing Edwardian scenes, but just when it all begins to feel a bit too untroubled and lovely, she will invariably shift the temper and the tone, and often also the point of view, and shake the reader from his hammock.  It's actually quite a subtle sort of dislocation, and her novels never break the spell of historical verisimilitude, but she does periodically draw the reader up short in the most unanticipated and bracing way, reminding us that what she is about is both writing thoughtful, modern fiction and a kind of social retrospection only really possible at the distance where she stands.

J. G. Farrell's unfinished last book, The Hill Station, was no effort at all and ran smoothly, if not all that interestingly right up to it's unfortunate and abrupt end.  I know his reputation for the "Empire Trilogy", but I admit I haven't tackled that and thought this book might be an easier way to have a peep into the author's work without taking on the big book.   As it stands, this seems an entirely conventional piece of post-colonial fiction and admirable as that, if hardly a shock to any reader familiar with the standing flood of both British, Indian and "commonwealth" novelists who've addressed the same subject now for thirty years or more.  Clearly, if I'm to know Farrell, I shall one day have to buckle down and take on The Siege at Krishnapur.

Finally, I took up an early Murdoch I'd never read, The Sandcastle, only finishing it as the plane landed in Seattle.  It's been years since I read a Murdoch novel, and I was reminded how easy it is, at least with her earlier books, to simply read her as a rather eccentric practitioner of the English comic novel, forgetting that the old darling was, after all, a philosopher.  She will remind one though, often as not in one of those ponderous patches of unlikely dialogue -- usually, weirdly meant to be part of the lovemaking, and even pillow-talk between her invariably mismatched lovers.  Here we have an unhappily married old stick, a school master with political ambitions, taking up with a pixy who paints portraits.  In support of the main plot there are the expected Murdoch players: the wise and slightly wicked old cynic, various weedy academics, a clumsy sort of Labour Party Lothario, a completely convincing, thoroughly, wonderfully weird child or two, and, a Murdoch must, an abandoned son of god, this time in the person of a stuttering art master.  It all works most wonderfully well, of course and reminds me why the late Dame Iris is one of the only important English novelists of my lifetime who can still be read and reread with real surprise.  There's invariably something off on.  More importantly, she writes descriptive scenes of startlingly vivid reality -- as here, for example, a little girl's walk through the fields  with her imaginary dog, or another when the lovers' car-ride through the countryside goes comically, and menacingly awry.  Nearly as important, at least to me, is the very strong sense I always have, reading Murdoch, that her sympathies are nearly universal; that she actually tries in her fiction to practice what she's actually preaching; that love lends us a dignity close to grace, even if sex, among other things, makes fools of us all.  (I must just say though, She does always betray a kind of touching innocence about the way almost everyone other than the lady herself probably ever talked anyone into bed.  Good for you, Iris.  Gives the bookish hope, does that.)

I'm reminded that Murdoch has every gift of a great novelist: invention, sympathy, humor, a great dramatic gift, depth of feeling and thought.  All her novels also have all the flaws of the mid-century modern -- as opposed to either classic or modernist fiction: a wobbly command of narrative interest, a sameness of psychology that assumes a world almost exclusively populated by the educated, middle classes, and an almost crippling preoccupation with sex as a vehicle for the development of character and ideas.  Even if posterity should find her no better than the best of her time and kind, well, what better can be said of any artist other than the very greatest?  There's an honorable immortality in that.  Without any qualification beyond a sustained acquaintance and affection, I would say she's the equal of any novelist in my lifetime, and certainly better than her nearest literary predecessors, I should think, and here Huxley and the novels of Sartre come first to mind.  It's true I suppose that she wrote no single work likely to transcend the body of her work, but she also wrote very little that was much inferior to her best.

It was reading Murdoch again that proved my happiest hours away, though this time it was all well worth the packing for once.

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