Jul 23 2006

Strangers on a train

To a Distant IslandIn April of the year 1890, a group of friends boarded a train in Moscow headed northeast for Yaroslavl. It was an odd collection of intelligentsia; a doctor and his wife, a Jewish painter who was her current lover. Two musicians, a young and beautiful teacher, and a world-class mathematician who hid her intelligence under flamboyant clothes.  There was also an elderly, infirm woman who wrung her hands and gripped her walking cane with white fingers, a young man and woman who were obviously the old woman’s son and daughter.  The train compartment is too small to hold so many and so odd an assortment of people, the group shifts and eddies as they spill out into the passageway and into adjoining compartments. But the restlessness of the friends, obvious in their edgy and forced hilarity and the way they shift from seat to seat, is held in check by the last of the party, the one man whom they all seem to circumnavigate, whose internal gravity seems to keep them all in orbit. A stolid, respectable man, who might even be thought of as affable if it weren’t for the remote and aloof air that shrouds him. He talks quietly with the elderly, worried woman who must also be his mother, and gently with the woman who is his sister. He makes small talk with the painter and the musicians, he smiles, but doesn’t flirt with the mathematician and the teacher.  They all watch him anxiously, out of the corners of their eyes. They are worried for him, because when the train reaches Yaroslavl they will all turn around and return to Moscow, but he will continue on, bound literally for the ends of the earth, and none of them—not his mother, his sister or the women who wish to be his lovers—none of them know why he is going.

People go on journeys for lots of reasons and often those reasons don’t become apparent until the journey has already begun, or is even finally over.  In the spring of 1890, the Russian writer Anton Chekhov decided quite suddenly to travel across the whole of the Russian continent to visit the island of Sakhalin, over five thousand miles from his comfortable home in Moscow. He gave various conflicting and unsatisfactory reasons for this sudden trip to his friends and family, ranging from a desire for scientific discovery to artistic compulsion.  But various biographers have since peered into the recesses of Chekov’s life (he would be appalled if he knew) and come to other conclusions. He was fleeing a love affair with a married woman. He was fleeing a love affair with a married man. He was in financial difficulties (but really, who wasn’t in that era?). Most recent biographers now concur that the doctor-turned-literary star was suffering from severe manic depression.  Indeed, he may have been on the verge of a total breakdown, and was taking the only course that seemed open to him: he was fleeing his life. He was trying to escape.

Most people, when they think of “getting away from it all” usually have someplace sunny in mind, preferably with beaches. But either Chekhov wasn’t a sunbather, or perhaps he felt that the sun-kissed southern climes would stand in too sharp contrast to his current mood of despair. So he chose to travel across the northern Russian continent, through some of the most inhospitable and inclement country created by God, until he reached Sakhalin, a penal colony on an isolated island off the eastern coast of Russia, north of the Sea of Japan.  Once there, Chekhov—who was after all a physician and a scientist—conducted an exhaustive census of the prisoners and their families (some ten thousand people in all), all of whom lived in such abject conditions that its debatable to say that they “survived”.  Chekhov returned to Moscow by ship through the warmer waters of the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, and whether the experience “cured” him of  his mysterious malaise or not, it is true that it was after this trip that he wrote most of the stories and plays that he is known for today.

He also wrote a book about of the trip itself, a somewhat dry, “scientific” account called The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin, that is righteous in its declamation of the human suffering he witnessed, but utterly silent on the reasons that caused him to take such an arduous journey in the first place.

Perhaps it was this silence that drew author James McConkey to the story in the first place.  McConkey first discovered Chekhov’s trip in a series of letters he unearthed in a library in Florence—where he had fled to escape his own demons. Something in those letters—something of Chekhov’s spiritual apathy and despair must have called to him, because McConkey spent the rest of his year in Italy’s most beautiful city reading about the Russian steppes and the dark plains of a wide, cold country.

Naturally, like all readers McConkey was searching for himself in Chekhov’s letters and stories. Great fiction asks us questions, but leaves it to us to find our own answers. It was the search for answers that resulted in To a Distant Island, McConkey’s re-invention (there is no other word) of Chekhov’s expedition to Sakhalin. In a unique and odd blend of travel writing, memoir, philosophical speculation, and fiction, McConkey attempts to recreate the Russian writer’s arduous journey, both internal and external, and to find parallels with his own life and his own troubled spirit.

Chekhov may have been fleeing, in part, a growing political unrest in his country as students and radicals began to erupt against a glittering and repressive regime.  McConkey himself fled to Florence after a brutal year watching student violence and racial tensions explode on his university campus.  An English professor and rather gentle literary critic, he found himself devoured by the simmering violence underlying the anti-Vietnam protests and the marches for civil liberties and racial (and sexual) equality. The more rarified atmosphere and the ancient stones of Florence—which had seen far more violence than his upstate New York campus—were supposedly to help him recover his equilibrium. Yet he spent hour after hour staring out at ancient olive trees, unable to put pen to paper, until he discovered Chekhov, and felt a familiar echo in the Russian writer’s sad letters home to his bewildered friends and family.

Although it would be fair to call this book “travel literature”, To a Distant Island, originally published in 1984 and now re-released by Paul Dry Books as a “forgotten classic”, is not your usual adventure story.  The goal is not to see distant exotic lands or marvel at the customs of unfamiliar people. It is not even to climb mountains simply because they are there to be climbed. Chekhov’s purpose was to wrest free his psyche by cutting his ties with all he has known. The journey may be external, but the territory he must conquer is internal.  McConkey follows both expeditions with a determination that is almost fearless, and the book rocks back and forth between the vivid accounts of the people and countryside that Chekhov sees as he makes his way eastward, and rarified explorations into the nature of hope, despair, and what it is to be human.  The author is a literary critic and a trained philosopher himself, so abstract concepts have mass and solidity, and he uses ideas the way most people use a knife and fork.   This makes reading the book go nearly as slowly as Chekhov’s original journey, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Instead, the reader is inclined to stop every few pages lest he accidentally skim over some teasingly profound observation.

McConkey’s, To A Distant Island is a literary chimera of the sort that would drive most historians mad but will delight people who love to see language used beautifully. Although his account of Chekhov’s expedition is basically accurate when it comes to dates and places and railway timetables, he brazenly invents scenes and conversations, describes inner conflicts and dreams he can have no way of knowing, and creates a vivid internal life for Chekhov that, while wholly unsubstantiated, nevertheless like all good fiction has the weight of reality. One feels, at the end of the book, that McConkey’s invented Chekhov is somehow the REAL Chekhov.

Jul 9 2006

A Pale Blue Eye

Pale Blue EyeEdgar Allen Poe. The name is one of the most alluring and tragic in the annals of American Literature.  He is, after Mark Twain, the most widely read American author ever (Dan Brown and The DaVinci Code not withstanding). His fertile and weird imagination created an entire new kind of literature—the horror story. He invented the short story as we know it—that extremely tight, condensed literary form where everything leads to a single point; every action, every word spoken, every gesture brings the story inexorably towards its conclusion—as implacably as fate itself. The cold ripples of his literary explorations lap at our feet even today:

No Poe, no Alfred Hitchcock.

No Poe, no Stephen King.

And he ruined ravens for all of us.

But although he may be one of the most familiar writers in America, Edgar Allan Poe is also one of the most misunderstood. The facts of his life have been buried under mountains of spiteful invective. What most folks know, if they know anything at all, is that Poe was an alcoholic and a drug addict. That he died like a dog drunk in a ditch.

Unkind and unfair and inaccurate. Poe’s reputation has been somewhat rehabilitated of late, but he still suffers from the most dreadful misapprehensions about his character.  It is one of the reasons why I picked up Louis Bayard’s novel The Pale Blue Eye with the tell-tale beat of a conflicted heart.  My admiration for Poe’s writing borders on worship; it wasn’t likely that I’d be able to resist a novel centered around one of my favorite writers. But I was prepared to be both distressed and disappointed.

Instead I was gratified and captivated.

“Drunk in a ditch” may be the (declining) common perception of Poe, but not many people realize that he spent for years in the military, including a year as a cadet in (the then very young) West Point Academy.  Poe joined the military for the same reason many people today join the army—it promised a respectable career for someone can’t afford other education. This obscure fact becomes the central setting for Bayard’s novel, which does a wonderful job of capturing the very “Poe-ness” of Poe—his passion, his weirdness, his genius, his vulnerability, the “overweening dignity” of his youth.

West Point Academy in 1830 was not the hallowed institution we know today.  It was regarded with suspicion by a new country that wasn’t convinced of the need for a standing army. Its future rested precariously in the hands of politicians who still remembered the depredations of British rule and the suffering of the War for Independence. So when a young cadet is found hanged on the grounds, an apparent suicide, it brings unwelcome attention to the Academy. More is at stake than the fate of one despairing young man—the future of West Point itself may be at risk.

The Commandant sends for a retired New York City detective to investigate (and hopefully bury) the incident. Augustus Landor, in ill-health, world-weary and thoroughly prepared to molder away his final days in his isolated farmhouse in the Hudson River Valley, reluctantly agrees to help, especially after he discovers the cadet’s body has been oddly, horrifically desecrated.   Landor recruits a helper for himself–a young cadet with a penchant for poetical observation named Poe.

I think there are two kinds of historical fiction. There is the kind that treats the reader as a tourist and shows them around the era, showing off their research and happily explaining the little details of life in another age.  Then there is the kind that dumps the reader in another time and leaves it to them to sink or swim, which is a much more effective way to bring a different era “to life”. Bayard definitely leaves us to sink or swim.  Any history lessons the reader wishes to draw must be inferred through the eyes of the story’s finely drawn characters—even the most minor ones have weight and solidity. There is a contemplative feel to the novel that elevates it beyond terms like “mystery”, “thriller” or “suspense”. Landor’s logical and “Holmesian” approach to finding the truth struggles against, and eventually gives way to Poe’s passion and poetical grasp of evil.

Bayard pays tribute to the gothic atmosphere that saturates Poe’s work: there are dark nights, mysterious and tragic women, frightening scientists and even a witch doctor.  And he seems to understand that the “horror” we feel in Poe’s stories is less about ghosts or dark ruined buildings and more about the worm in the apple, the inescapable ruin in our own souls. The suspense and horror builds much faster than the body count, and although the author can’t resist throwing in a few plot twists and turns nothing twists and turns quite so horribly as the young men Landor keeps finding hanging from the trees. And when you think you finally know what happened, you don’t.

It’s a tricky thing, fictionalizing a real person, especially one so famously distorted as Edgar Allan Poe. But Bayard does a lovely job. He captures Poe’s passion and untempered genius, his penchant for falling instantly in love, his frailties and intolerance for alcohol, his justified faith in his own intelligence and his belief that to be a poet is to surrender yourself to the spirits of an unseen world. The events of the novel are completely made up (no hangings ever occurred at West Point in the 1830s), but the Edgar Allan Poe of the story feels completely real.

Jul 8 2006

When books multiply

The first piece I ever wrote for this column [Bibliobuffet] was an account of what it felt like to pack up my library in preparation for moving.  I’m afraid I was a little poetic—I think I nattered on about archaeology and peeling away the layers of books on the shelves to discover the previous infatuations of an earlier life.

It has been nearly a year now since I first began to packing up the approximately eight thousand books I own and putting them into what felt like (and may well have been) hundred of boxes.  It has been about eight months since I moved house. It has been about two weeks since I took the last book out of its box. It will be at least six more months until they are all off the floor and shelved. Until that time, they litter the room I like to call my library, stacked in piles by subject, and occasionally moved from pile to pile as new topics and interests (obsessions?) begin to declare themselves.

It is perhaps the first time in over a decade I’ve had all my books in one place at one time, and it was a revelatory experience.  If the process of packing was one of self-examination, then unpacking has been one of critical reflection.  When I was putting books into boxes I reflected on the person I was when those books had first come into my life.  But as I took books out of their boxes weeks (and sometimes months later) I found I was much more focused on the book itself.  What was the story? How well did I remember it? How well was it written? What did I think about the author?

One of the funnier discoveries I made as I unpacked was that I have lots of “doubles”; one of the piles in my living room is made up entirely of books I already owned. These were extras. Doubles, ostensibly to be given away.  It is one of the taller stacks in the room-currently at about fifty books and climbing as I sort through the rest of my shelves and discover other multiples lurking.

When you own over eight thousand volumes, I guess it isn’t so surprising you might end up occasionally with a couple copies of the same book. But when the stack started to tower over the wicker armchair it was leaning against, I found myself contemplating it with some curiosity.  How did this happen? How could I have doubles (and in some case triples) of so many books?  I found myself thinking with alarm of the way we discovered my grandfather had been hoarding extra pull cords for the lawnmower he no longer owned, or the way my mother-in-law would, if left to her own devices, fill up closets with stockpiled rolls of toilet paper, a security against her deep abiding horror of ever running out.

But as I looked closer, I realized there were a variety of reasons for each and every extra copy in that pile.  I have been a career bookseller for twenty years—so publishers often sent me books. A fair number of the books in the stack were accumulated that way;  as review copies or promotional books sent to me for events and newsletters.  It was nice to know I hadn’t actually PAID for those.

Some of the books I had received as gifts, although this was a much smaller category because my friends rarely give me actual books. Instead, they give me gift certificates and the like—having long since abandoned the idea that there is a book on the planet I hadn’t already heard of and probably read.

There were a few, a very few, I had obviously forgot I owned, or thought I had lost, so I bought replacement copies (Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris falls into this category).  And there were a few I had apparently read in paperback, and liked enough to search out in the hardcover, which I tend to prefer because I’m as hard on books as I am on shoes and clothes—much to the despair of friends and family. “You’re like a crash test dummy for shoes” grumbled one, after the latest pair of sandals gave out within two months. I’m murder on books as well, so the hardcover edition of The Great Gatsby and most of the novels of Jane Austen was by way of an investment.

But the largest portion of this pile of doubles are indeed books I had bought quite deliberately, and these I find a little more interesting—or perhaps the word is “revealing.”  There are, for example, a whole set of books that I can’t seem to decide if I want to own or not. They will get purged in my rare attempts to get rid of books I think aren’t “serious enough” to keep. Invariably, a year or so later I will find myself craving those supposedly “fluffy” books, and buy them all over again. This has happened to me with most of the novels by Dick Francis, Ngaio Marsh, and various other mystery or science fiction/fantasy writers. I believe I have repurchased the first three of Anne McCaffrey’s “Pern” novels at least six times over the last twenty years.

And then there are the books I am obviously compelled to buy from sheer lust and obsession.  How else can I explain the fact that I seem to own not one, not two, but three complete sets of Samuel Delany’s fiction? Four separate copies of Robin Morgan’s poetry collection called Monster? Three different copies of an obscure travel book by Hilaire Belloc called A Path to Rome?  Two copies of a weird little book called The Outlaw Cook by John Thorne? FOUR editions of Olive Schreiner’s beguiling The Story of an African Farm?

The truth about this last, most important set is that I am driven to buy these books. There is a moment in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s wonderful novel The Shadow of the Wind where the young protagonist, Daniel, is told to choose a book from a library to be his forever to guard and cherish–to “…adopt it, making sure it will never disappear, that it will always be alive.”

I think I have dozens of books I have “adopted” in this way. They are books that more or less obscure, go in and out of print, are sometimes hard to find, and sometimes rediscovered. But whatever their current status, I simply cannot stand the thought that they might fall out of existence altogether, so I buy them when I see them. (In that sense, I am more like my toilet-paper-hoarding mother-in-law than I thought). When they are republished, I purchase the new editions—a weak voice of grateful support for the publisher who has brought them back into the world. There isn’t a bookseller on the planet that hasn’t, at some point, purchased a favorite book from their own store just to give it a sales history, just to have an excuse to order another copy, or keep it in stock a little bit longer. And if they are out of print completely, I ferret them out from the dusty shelves of the used bookstores, take them home, and dispense them with loving care to people who I think may find them as wonderful, as transformative, as I did.

Because ultimately, what makes a book alive is that it is read, and loved.  The books teetering in that stack on my living room floor may not ever reach a bookshelf, but they are some of the most ALIVE books in the room.