“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
Hector in Alan Bennett’s play “The History Boys”
Not so long ago there lived a generation of children in a world without television and Playstations, without DVD-players, iPods or mobile ‘phones and, as a consequence, these children spent much of their time out of doors, playing in their backyards and gardens or in the parks and in the streets, for in those days not every male stranger was considered a possible pedophile, there was no fear of melanoma and the traffic was sparser and slower. In the evenings children would do their homework, build and paint airplanes from kits, stick postage stamps into albums, listen to the radio and read. Most of them developed their early reading skills from the bubble encapsulated words of the characters that featured in the vast selection of comics like Beano, Captain Marvel, Eagle or Girl, progressing to the weekly, story-only Hotspur or Wizard. After that there was Enid Blyton, even now, a half century after her death, the fifth most translated author in history after Disney, Agatha Christie, Jules Verne and Shakespeare. Enid, born in Lordship Lane, East Dulwich, a ten minute walk from my grandparent’s house in Court Lane was, even in the 1950’s, considered by some to be politically incorrect and a purveyor of trivia, but she was the children’s choice and the bookshelves in my bedroom carried not only my collection of The Famous Five but my sister’s hand me downs such as “The Children of Cherry Tree Farm.” There were other books, but Grimm’s dark and sinister “Fairy Tales”, Charles Kingsley’s “The Heroes” and R M Ballantyne’s “Martin Rattler” are those that stick in the mind.
Books bind us closer together. The right books enrich your life. Some books, especially those you enjoyed in your early years, will stay with you forever. Even as I sit here writing I see Jason leaping from the bows of the Argo into the arms of the women of Lemnos, the Walker children steering The Swallow towards Wild Cat Island, Long John Silver standing parrot-shouldered on the poop deck of the Hispaniola, and Buffalo Bill locked in hand-to-hand combat with Yellow Hand.
Anyway, it’s Christmas and a time of gifts, and in my book, there’s no better present than a book. My local bookseller’s holiday catalogue is bung full of new novels, many of which will have been written after a week’s writing course in Ireland and destined to be remaindered in early January. Here are three novels and a book of short stories that will still be around in a hundred years. First editions will be difficult unless you are Donald Trump, but definitely no Kindles, for the attraction of books is also in the handling of them, their smell, the bookplates and inscriptions of past owners and finding that Paris metro ticket you used as a bookmark twenty years ago.
Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West
Cormac McCarthy 1985
In 2010 Wyoming legislation was changed to admit the principles of “Cowboy Ethics”. The new law, which carries no criminal penalties if broken, spells out 10 ethics singled out by Texas author James Owen in his “Code of the West”. The State of Wyoming now admonishes residents and lawmakers to live courageously, take pride in their work, finish what they start, do what’s necessary, be tough but fair, keep promises, ride for the brand, talk less and say more, remember that some things aren’t for sale and know where to draw the line. Although these seem principles that could stem from any civilized society, I can understand the cowboy association. In fact, when my son left home to spend six months overseas with a strange family, he took with him a similar, Western-slanted, letter of advice from his father.
Remember you are a cowboy’s son. We are tough and resilient. We can ride alone for days through unforgiving country or we can join with like spirits to defend our home and families from marauding bandits. We are always prepared; we look after our ponies and saddles and keep our six-shooters in good order so that we can do our job properly. On the trail we can mess down with the roughest roughnecks; in town we can sup at The Golden Slipper without embarrassing the Mayor’s daughter who loves us for our panache. We fear no man because we know that courage itself is a more powerful deterrent to our enemies than our trusty Colt. We are honest, straightforward and uncomplicated, but not naïve. We are not surprised by the knife in the boot or the guile of the bushwacker. We help the weak and stand by our friends. We love women because they are on earth to be loved. But if we are alone on the trail we take our pleasure from the bounty the world offers, be it from the journey itself, from the sip of whiskey at sundown or the knowledge that you are young and alive and a cowboy.
These were the rules left in the psyche of two or three generations by the great volume of Western literature and films ground out from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, mostly stories of hardship in a beautiful but uncompromising land. Gradually, from the 1960’s the mythology of the period was exposed by books like “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee” and films like “Soldier Blue”, although the whole question of the “American Dream” had already been questioned by Scott Fitzgerald in that finest of novels, The Great Gatsby. We now see that the future envisioned by the pioneers as they rolled their wagons Westward has been surrendered for a world of soulless communities, fast food, insincere commercial cheeriness, red-neck obstinacy and silicon breasts. From the plains of Kansas to the canyons of Wall Street.
It has been Cormac McCarthy’s lot (with some help from Larry McMurtry and Pete Dexter) to restore some of the grandeur and dignity to the West. Blood Meridian, a story of violence and slaughter based on the true history of the Glanton Gang, a bunch of scalp hunters operating on the Tex/Mex border in the mid 19th Century, has all the beauty and horror of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, the writing almost Old Testament in its blunt purity and intensity. Moving forward in time McCarthy produced his “Border Trilogy”, novels that trace the movement and fortunes of men and horses across the hard land that was “No Country for Old Men”.
Boule de Suif and Other Stories
Guy de Maupassant 1880
Lack of sex played a big part in a school boarder’s days and nights. There were the occasional glimpses of the Burser’s secretary, her clicking heels echoing down the cloisters, but fantasies were mainly fed by the literature available in the School or House libraries where certain passages from seemingly harmless books were singled out to provide some level of erotic stimulus. Charlie and Rose’s moment of passion on the deck of the African Queen from CS Forester’s book of the same name springs to mind. But there was one book in the library that, without containing any overt descriptions of sexuality, provided a special kind of titillation. The title story takes place during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 where ten citizens from Rouen, deciding to flee the conflict by coach to Le Havre, unwittingly enter enemy occupied territory and are placed under indefinite house, or rather Inn, arrest until such time as one of the captured party – Elizabeth Rousset, a plump, attractive prostitute (Boule de Suif or “Suet Dumpling”) – agrees to sleep with the Prussian’s commanding officer. At first Elizabeth refuses, exercising her right to sleep with whom she chooses and declining the Prussian’s offer out of patriotism. The other passengers, who represent a cross section of French society, from the petit-bourgeois Loiseau to the aristocratic Comte de Breville, eventually tire of their detention and, using every form of argument, persuade Elizabeth to surrender herself so that they can continue their journey. Having given herself to the Prussian officer and once aboard the coach Boule de Suif is rudely ostracized by her hypocritical fellow passengers. “She felt herself swallowed up in the scorn of these virtuous creatures, who had first sacrificed, then rejected her as a thing useless and unclean.” There are great similarities between this story and Ernest Haycox’s “Stage to Lordsburg”, filmed by John Ford in 1939 as “Stagecoach” with Claire Trevor playing the Boule de Suif role.
In another story, “A Day in the Countryside”, Monsieur Dufour, a shopkeeper, and his family spend a day on the banks of the Marne near Argenteuil. Two cynical young men that the family meets in a restaurant plan to seduce Madame Dufour and her daughter Henriette. While Monsieur Dufour and Anatole, his shop assistant, fish, Madame Dufour flirts with one of the young men and Henriette falls in love with his friend Henri. The whole interlude by the river is infused by the sleepy lushness of the countryside, the idle hum of bees, a languorous sensuality. On the family’s return to Paris Henriette yields to her parents’ petit bourgeois expectations and marries Anatole, condemning herself to life in a loveless marriage.
De Maupassant fought in the Franco-Prussian war, saved Swinburne from drowning and was a protégée of Flaubert through whom he became acquainted with Zola, Turgenev and Henry James. He died, fittingly as a chronic womanizer, of syphilis at the age of 43.
Across The River and into the Trees
Ernest Hemingway 1950
Hemingway had very firm views as to how a man should live. His main characters were men of action, much like himself – uncomplicated, knowledgeable and philosophical about the craft involved in the violent lives they had chosen, whether it was soldiering, bull-fighting or big-game fishing. Knowing how to face death was also part of that code. Confederate General Thomas (“Stonewall”) Jackson’s attitude to death must have impressed him for they are Jackson’s last words –“Let us cross over the river and rest under the trees” – that provide the book’s title. In what many consider to be one of his less successful books, fifty year old Colonel Cantwell looks back on his recent involvement in WW2 and his passionate affair with a young Venetian Contessa as he hunts for duck in the marshes near Trieste. Knowing that the next round of heart attacks will finish him, he climbs into the back of his staff car and calmly sets his affairs in order before the final hammer blow takes his life. Although The Old Man and the Sea won Hemingway the Pulitzer in 1952, the seeds of his decline are already evident in “Across the River”. Dogged by health problems, alcoholism and depression Hemingway staggered through the last 10 years of his life until one July morning in1961 he walked out onto the front porch of his home in Ketchum, Idaho, and blew his brains out with his favourite shot-gun. It was, says Janet Flanner (1) ‘a permissible act of liberation from whatever humiliating bondage on earth could no longer be borne with self-respect.”
At his best and even with his hard pruned language, Hemingway managed to communicate layers of feeling that more verbose writers never achieve. “In his writing,” says Flanner “his descriptions of the color of deep sea water beside his boat or of the trout’s fins in the pool where he angled were like reports from the pupil of his eyes transferred by his pen onto his paper.” While many famous novelists remain faceless, their personalities and lives seemingly incompatible with their writings, Hemingway himself intrigued as much as his characters. I made the island-hopping pilgrimage to Key West; on evenings at the Closerie des Lilas in Montparnasse I would seek out the chair with its little brass plaque recording the writer’s patronage in the 1950s and in a bar in Genoa I met a man who had competed in (and won) a drinking competition with the author. It was clear from the care with which he pulled a creased and fading photograph of himself and Hemingway from his wallet just what the encounter meant to him.
Venice in autumn has that melancholic gravitas that suited Colonel Cantwell’s tragic end. Harry’s Bar and the countryside of the Po delta also figured in my story with Honeybee but the outcome, fortunatamente, has been somewhat happier.
1. Janet Flanner. American journalist based at “Les Deux Magots” from the early twenties when she began writing her “Letter from Paris” for “The New Yorker” under the pen-name Genet. Member of the Left Bank American colony, which included Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Scott Fitzgerald.
James Joyce 1922
This is an interesting book, not just because of its place in the history of English literature as the first truly Modernist novel but also because of its difficult and exotic birth. Although his greatest book is set in the city of his birth, Joyce spent nearly all of his life in self-exile working as a journalist, writer and English teacher in Paris, Trieste and Zurich. It was in Zurich during WW1 that he first began work on “Ulysses”, which follows a day in the life of Leopold Blum as he wanders through Dublin, carousing with his mates, whoring, arguing, his peregrinations roughly following a contracted version of the journeys of Odysseus and Jason. In its allusions, puns and ribaldry it has echoes of Rabelais. Between 1918 and 1920 excerpts of the book were serialized in “The Little Review” in America where the rude bits, catching the attention of the authorities, resulted in the book being banned. In need of money Joyce turned to a Pastor’s daughter from New Jersey who had arrived in Paris in 1917 and opened a bookshop called Shakespeare & Company in the rue de l’Odeon. Sylvia Beach worked tirelessly, finding subscribers, organizing the printing in Dijon, and on 2nd February 1922, Joyce’s birthday, she presented the Irishman with the first two copies of “Ulysses”, bound in blue Morocco and printed on white Dutch paper. The book was an instant sensation. Janet Flanner was enthusiastic; “In its unique qualities, in 1922 it burst over us, young in Paris, like an explosion in print whose words and phrases fell upon us like a gift of tongues, like a less than holy Pentecostal experience.” Not everyone approved; Gertrude Stein and her companion Alice B Toklas both cancelled their subscriptions to Sylvia’s bookshop.
The book, which almost caused Sylvia’s financial ruin, immediately made Joyce a rich man and even richer in 1932 when Random House paid him an advance of forty-five-thousand dollars when the ban on the book’s US publication was finally lifted. Sylvia, who has her own footnote in literary history, never begrudged the fact that Joyce did not as much as tell her about his good fortune. “I understood” she later wrote “from the first that, working with or for Mr. Joyce, the pleasure was mine – an infinite pleasure, the profits were for him.”
Physical love is hard to write about in fiction; it can sound crude or self-conscious and even famous writers can fail. These last lines of Ulysses, from the longest sentence in English literature, leave you saying yes, this is how it should be.
“…and O that awful deep-down torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the fig trees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rose gardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes