Sep 3 2006

Too Much Information? A rumination on Javier Marías’s Written Lives

Written LivesAre all the great writers weirdos?

Um…the answer to that question would be ‘apparently so.’  For the last week, my “going to bed” book has been an engaging little work called Written Lives by the deliciously erudite Javier Marías.  It is a series of literary sketches of famous writers—treated, according to the author, as if they were fictional characters, “which may well be,” he comments, “how all writers, whether famous or obscure, would secretly like to be treated.”

I thought it would be an easy book to like, especially for someone like me, who has no trouble remembering the names of authors and book titles and characters and even publishing houses although I can’t reliably tell you who is playing any of the lead roles on The Sopranos.  I’m blinkered that way. I happen to live in a town with a small scale movie-industry, and I have had Matthew Broderick, Dana Carvey, Kelly McGillis, John Cusack, Jamie Lee Curtis and a host of other movie stars in my little bookshop at one time or another. The only one I recognized was Curtis—who had, after all, written some great books for kids.

But I digress. Sort of.  As the week went on and I read amusing and affecting little anecdotes about Faulkner and Kipling and Rilke and James. At first, I read them out loud, delightedly sharing the foibles of these writers with a spouse who might have been more interested if I were talking about John Cusack.

I hadn’t known that the only reason Faulkner ever opened a letter was to see if there was a check in the envelope.  That Henry James was unable to appreciate most of the novels of Gustav Flaubert because he discovered Flaubert wrote in his dressing gown. That an elderly Djuna Barnes had a horror of beards. (Well, it is hard to blame her for that.)

Yet as the week progressed, I found myself more and more reluctant to go on with the book. My enjoyment and amusement was making me feel uneasy.  I stopped reading aloud, and I started finding excuses not to go to bed, where I knew the book was waiting, lying face down and opened at the place I had left off.  I dithered—rifling ahead to look at all the photos of the authors Marías discusses—and I avoided, switching off the light before I was really sleepy, rather than face the next chapter.  Lying in bed, awake, staring at the dark ceiling because I was afraid to read a book seemed like a completely ridiculous thing to do.  I turned the light back on and read another chapter.  The next night, when I caught myself surreptitiously placing an older book I had already read on top of the one I was trying to avoid reading, I realized that I was fast approaching the kind of neurotic behavior I shouldn’t be exhibiting until I was old and senile—surely a year or two away.

Why was I so reluctant to keep reading a book that I had been enjoying so much?  It wasn’t the writing—Marías is a fine writer—very clear and precise in the way he uses language, and like the family I have married into, gifted in making a story out of the smallest scraps of material. If I didn’t know he was Spanish, I would suspect him of being Southern.  Nor was it the subject—I find any book that explores the lives of writers to be fascinating, and I have dozens of literary and artistic biographies on my bookshelves to attest to the fact that I can’t resist the topic. What’s the saying? Those who can’t do, read about those who can?  And anyway, Written Lives is not even serious biography. It is more like a book of literary gossip.

And that, perhaps, was at the root of my problem with my bedtime reading.  I was starting to question my motives.  As weird fact after weird fact came to light, I began to feel less like a reader, and more and more like one of those ghoulish people who stop to stare at traffic accidents, hoping to see something really gory. Or perhaps like one of the devotees of reality television, many of whom I’m convinced watch simply to see human beings in orchestrated failure and humiliation.

And I found myself wondering, what does the writer have to do with the reader?  What do we need to know to enjoy the book?

I’m not speaking of writers like the lamentable James Frey, or the pseudo-Navaho writer Nasdijj, who set out deliberately to deceive their readers and win lucrative publishing contracts.  No, I’m talking about the writers who have labored over their work only to release it into the world to be loved or be killed by a capricious reading public.

I have a very satisfying relationship with all my favorite authors—when reading their books, I don’t think of them at all.  I allow the book to wrap me up and take me traveling, and I find that the notion that the book has an author somewhere in the background is completely irrelevant to how much I am enjoying the journey.  Readers have a more serious and intimate relationship with a novel’s characters than they ever will with a novel’s creator.  (I suspect that if given the choice, most children would far rather meet Harry Potter than J.K. Rowling).  So when a favorite novelist makes headlines by uttering some idiocy—when, for example, John Banville goes on record saying that when the judges awarded the Man Booker Prize to his own novel, The Sea, they had at last given the award to a “REAL” book—a breathtakingly arrogant comment—it troubled me not at all and did not diminish my pleasure in reading his novels, including The Sea, one whit. (What is a whit?).

In fact, I am in agreement with Banville when he says “Fiction gives the illusion of showing how we live – but it is a thing in itself. Great art looks and smells like the world, that’s its trick. But the work of art is always about the work of art.”  Or, as Azar Nafisi puts it more gently in her introduction to Reading Lolita in Tehran, “…what we search for in fiction is not so much reality but the epiphany of truth.”* So whether or not Henry James was a fastidious bundle of neuroses has no bearing at all on the excellence of A Portrait of a Lady.  And the fact that Rainer Maria Rilke went through women like I go through Coca-Cola does not make the lovely and lyric advice he gives in Letters to a Young Poet any less valid.

Once I had settled that in my mind, I was able to turn back to the interrupted pleasure of Marías’ book.  The uneasy feeling of voyeurism left me. I started to appreciate the author’s stated goal of treating his subjects as fictional characters.  This means, as any fiction writer knows, that he subsumes truth to the demands of the narrative—and the events of each writer’s life become telescoped and oddly disproportionate. In short, each writer becomes somewhat ‘heroic’ in the literary sense. I suppose the author is correct in suspecting that his subjects wouldn’t be likely to mind.

If Marías had been the writer for a reality television show, he could have created a devastating and cruel collection of biographical sketches, but luckily he is not.  Instead, he shows himself to be a lover of literature and the people who create it.  Written Lives is actually a very affectionate work, a kind of gentle tribute to the foibles of two dozen beloved writers.  Marías evokes our pity and our indignation over the injustices suffered by Emily Bronte, he invites our indulgence at the quirks of  James and Faulkner, and coaxes out our horrified respect and even awe at the terrible death of Mishima–who committed hari-kari after a failed attempt to take over the Japanese army long enough to give a speech.

Written Lives is that rare kind of book that actually makes you want to go in search of the writers it treats and read all their books, for which I can only commend it. But I think that anyone who does become inspired by Marías’s enthusiasm to seek out the novels of Faulkner or Bronte or Kipling or Sterne will discover that the collection of odd facts now rattling around in their head won’t help at all when it comes to reading the books.  In the end, it is only the reader and the novel in the room.


*Quoted from “The Art of Self Exposure” by Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian Unlimited, Friday August 18, 2006.

Aug 20 2006

I want to be John McPhee

Uncommon carriersI think I wanna be John McPhee.  Talk about the perfect job! The guy just wanders around the country, stopping now and then to write about whatever catches his interest—and his interest is caught by all sorts of weird stuff: why people go off to die in Alaska. Where oranges come from. The life of the shad fish.  The origins and history of the cattle brand. And most recently, Uncommon Carriers, his homage to the freight industry—a riveting subject if ever there was one.

But therein lies McPhee’s talent.  He must be one of the most inquisitive and enthusiastic creatures on the planet, and his enthusiasm spills all over his subject and basically gets itself all over his readers.  I have been a fan of McPhee from way on back and I still find myself drenched with his innate excitement whenever I open one of his books. Enthusiasm is contagious.

When McPhee writes about the freight industry, he isn’t talking about the logistics behind UPS, or the hassles suffered by passengers at the mercy of an out-gunned airline industry.  He is talking about the really big stuff: Trucks with at least 18 wheels. People who captain ocean-going tankers that take more than an hour to come to a full stop. Pilots who fly the massive cargo planes over oceans and that will never show an in-flight movie.  He rides on freight trains that race across the plains at ninety miles an hour, and river barges that race up rivers at about four knots. Wherever there is a way to move a large amount of very heavy stuff a very long distance, he has poked his nose into it, much to the bemusement of the men and women who make their living on this unseen foundation of modern life.

Usually it takes a novel to get me interested in this stuff (in fact two of my favorite novels involved life on tankers: The Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith and Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg).  I can honestly say that I have never, not once, thought to be curious about all the colored placards on the tanker trucks I pass on the highway—except of course to give them a wide berth (because anyone who has ever scene a Hollywood movie knows that tanker trucks explode at the least provocation).

But thanks to McPhee’s insatiably curious nature, I now know that alcohol is considered a class 3 hazmat (hazardous material) and that the difference between Beefeater and Glenlivet is in its flashpoint—the first is flammable (will catch fire) and the latter is combustible (will explode with very little provocation)—that must be the stuff in all those tankers in the movies.

It is no accident that one thinks of various bestselling novels when reading Uncommon Carriers—John McPhee was a pioneer in the art of not making nonfiction boring. His very first book, A Sense of Where You Are (1965), issued in the new era of “literary nonfiction” by shamelessly using a novelist’s techniques with dialogue and description to bring his subject—the basketball player Bill Bradley—vividly to life.  McPhee has continued to write in this vein over the next forty-odd years and twenty-odd books, and he can claim the distinction of creating a whole new literary genre with hundreds of grateful followers including writers like Simon Winchester (Krakatoa), Sebastian Junger (Perfect Storm), Erik Larson (Devil in the White City) and Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit).

But not like John Krakauer (Into Thin Air) or Tony Horowitz (Confederates in the Attic)—McPhee has an old-school ethic of not injecting his own views into his topic. He still believes in the journalist’s creed “be objective” and he understands that there is a difference between empathy and sympathy.  As a result, his books remain refreshingly free of the proselytizing and frenetic diatribes that mar so much of the nonfiction that is published today. Even when McPhee is writing on emotional subjects—environmentalism, for example, or development, his first priority is always the people, not the cause.

Although it is about big subjects—big trucks, and very big boats—Uncommon Carriers is not a long book, especially for someone who has been working on it for at least eight years.  It is really more a series of vignettes or sketches, portraying some of the fascinating people McPhee has discovered as he routed around in umpteen docks and shipyards and truck stops, and some of the fascinating stuff they do. But the book lacks the scope of some of McPhee’s earlier works—lacks, perhaps, any underlying big question to be answered—such as the “what makes people leave it all behind and go off into the wilderness?” question that makes his book on Alaska, Coming Into the Country, so perennially seductive.  Perhaps, too, a man who has a fondness for geology and has written several books on the rise and fall of mountain ranges can’t help but see these trucks and trains as fragile and ephemeral motes skittering across the surface of the disinterested planet.  People who write about geology have a different idea about the concept of “long-term” or “permanent”.

But although he is not really asking why men move mountains (of stuff, all over the place), there is plenty to hold our attention in how they do it. McPhee scatters facts like pearls across his pages—the reader can’t help but stop to pick them up. By the end of the book the reader is possessed of all sorts of extraneous trivia that could really be annoying at parties. (Does one really need to know that the tanks of cement trucks are cleaned with high-pressure sugar water?) But more importantly, they have learned enough about the freight industry that the next time they pull into a gas station and see it’s tanks being filled by some shiny round tanker sprouting hoses and warning signs, they will know what exactly what they are looking at.

And knowing what you are looking at makes the world a more interesting, more fun place to live. That is the job of a writer, after all–to help us to see the weird and wonderful world right in front of our eyes. In this, McPhee never fails.

Aug 5 2006

Literary Expeditions

The Nobel-prize winning author Naguib Mahfouz neither knows nor cares anything about it, but he owes his presence on my library shelves to a little-known British zookeeper with a penchant for exaggeration and a wicked sense of humor.  When I was ten years old, my mother decided it was time that I made the transition from reading books written for children to those written for adults.  So she handed me a copy of a book called My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.

My Family and Other AnimalsFor those of you who have been suffering from the absence of this funny little memoir in your lives, My Family and Other Animals is an account of the five years the rather eccentric Durrell family lived on the Greek island of Corfu.  Gerry Durrell was, at the time, also only ten and completely obsessed with animals—an enthusiasm he never out grew and which explains his future occupation as a zoo keeper and animal collector.    Durrell wrote the book to finance one of his collecting expeditions, and as such he had intended it to be a casual account of the fauna of the island. A ten-year-old boy’s memories of his first dog. His first turtle. His first pet gull. His first pet snake. His first pet scorpion.  But, as he states in an introduction he felt impelled to call “A Speech for the Defense”, “…I made a grave mistake by introducing my family into the book in the first few pages. Having got themselves on paper, they then proceeded to establish themselves and invite various friends to share the chapters. It was only with the greatest difficulty, and by exercising considerable cunning, that I managed to retain a few pages here and there which I could devote exclusively to animals.

Gerry Durrell has reason to thank his family’s impetuous commandeering of his memoir.  Their eccentricities and sheer outrageousness turned a nostalgic account into a fine slapstick comedy, and the book became an immediate bestseller and has remained in print for the last 50 years. But what is significant in terms of Naguib Mahfouz’s future book sales is that Gerry Durrell’s oldest brother was named Larry.  And Lawrence Durrell is now known as one of Britain’s greatest novelists.

At the time of Gerry’s hilarious account, “Larry” was only twenty-three, so one can perhaps excuse him for being the self-centered, self-important, and self-indulgent artiste that his younger brother says he was.  Even at the time he was a writer, which in ten-year-old Gerry’s mind meant something vague to do with typewriters and the consumption of large quantities of home-made Greek wine.

Sadly, my mother made me return my copy of My Family and Other Animals to the library so other people could have a chance to enjoy it. I made a beeline for the “D’s” on the shelf, and that is how I found Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet.

This is how I found most of the books I read when I was young: One book would naturally lead to another, which would lead to yet another in a meandering sort of progression; a literary expedition.

JustineNow, it could be argued that while a humorous story of a boy growing up in Greece with a bunch of animals might be appropriate reading for a ten year old girl, the rather more sophisticated Alexandrian Quartet most certainly was not.  But my mother was never one to censor my reading; trusting, perhaps, in that supreme self-centeredness of children that allows them to blithely skip over anything that does not pertain directly to them. She was right to do so, because while the ten year old me disregarded the heavy sensuality of the books, the allusions to sex in all shades of its perversions, I was very much captivated by the city of Alexandria; it was the first time I understood that a city—a place—could be a character itself in a book.  I was also mesmerized by the way the stories were told; conversationally and poetically, braided, with people and events constantly shifting before the reader’s eyes as the point of view changed in the novels.  I had never realized stories could be told like that. It was the first time I consciously thought that I would like to be a writer.

The four books of the Alexandrian Quartet—Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea—became one of the way-stations of my bookish explorations.  Because of Lawrence Durrell, I went looking for works by D.H. Lawrence and C.P. Cavafy—both writers whose work are tantalizingly flirted with in the Quartet.  I’ll leave it to another time to talk about where DH Lawrence led me—that is another journey entirely.  But Constantine P. Cavafy, who Durrell called “the poet of the city”, was a revelation. For one thing, his was the first poetry I read that didn’t date back to the time of Robert Frost. His verses preserve an Alexandria of a bygone era—rich, romantic, decadent, tragic:

C.P. Cavafy: Collected PoemsIn Harbor

A young man, twenty eight years old, on a vessel from Tenos,
Emes arrived at this Syrian harbor
with the intention of learning the perfume trade.
But during the voyage he was taken ill. And as soon
as he disembarked, he died. His burial, the poorest,
took place here. A few hours before he died,

he whispered something about “home,” about “very old parents.”
But who these were nobody knew,
nor which his homeland in the vast panhellenic world.
Better so. For thus, although
he lies dead in this harbor,
his parents will always hope he is alive.

Constantine P. Cavafy (1918)

Cavafy was born and died in Alexandria. He was a Greek, and the central, luminous star of the pre-war city’s intelligentsia.  I think I was in love with the idea of it as much as the verse.  I scribbled little snatches of his poems in a journal throughout high school, and started to comb used bookstores for books about Egypt.  When I was let loose in Boston, my first month away from home for college, almost the first thing I did after I dumped my suitcase in my dorm room was find the college bookstore and start wandering around, looking at all the texts.

MiramarSomebody that semester must have been teaching Middle Eastern Studies because there was an entire isle of literature from the area—Greek, Turkish, and Arabic. And there, on a shelf with the cryptic label “EGP 405” was not only Cavafy, but, at last, a hitherto unknown writer named Mahfouz.  I bought a slim little novel called Miramar because it was set in Alexandria, and read it in about two hours.  I came back, decided I’d rather have books than a new pair of sneakers, and spent the rest of my money on Midaq Alley and Children of GebelawiMidaq Alley remains one of my favorites, possibly because it does for Cairo what Durrell and Cavafy have done for Alexandria—made it breathe, given it life.

In 1988 I was hired by a bookstore in Cambridge and Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I was the only one in the store who had read or even heard of him (I think that’s what got me the job).  To this day, I still feel compelled to go back to his early novels to capture and understand some of the Arab feeling in the perennial conflict that besets the Middle East. I’ve read the writers that he claimed influenced him (he doesn’t mention Cavafy specifically, but he must have known of him), and those that claim him as an influence. He may be the “father” of the modern Arab novel, but for me he is more of an ambassador, or a guide.

This little reading expedition has one final scene; a brick thrown through the window of my Cambridge bookshop in 1989.  Mahfouz’s most controversial book was Children of Gebelawi, an allegorical tale in which women are depicted as strong and independent, and the Prophet Muhammad does not come across as especially holy.  It raised an outcry among Muslims in Egypt, and there were calls for the book to be banned and the author to be arrested for blasphemy and obscenity.  A leading Egyptian theologian, Omar Abdul-Rahman, went so far as to issue a “fatwa” against Mahfouz in 1959.  The author has survived one attempt on his life and lives to this day under armed guard.

Three decades later another Muslim writer had a fatwa issued against him: Salman Rushdie, for his novel The Satanic Verses. Abdul-Rahman (soon to be arrested for conspiracy in the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993) claimed that had Mahfouz been properly punished for his blasphemy thirty years earlier, Rushdie would never have dared publish his novel. Which means we would not, to show our support for the writer, have put Satanic Verses in the window of our shop. And presumably, no one would have become so offended they felt compelled to hurl a brick through the window in response.

The scattered broken glass, the tumbled, bent books, the dirty red brick and scratches it made on the old floor was another “first” for me: my first and best lesson in how literature has real and physical consequences in our lives.

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.

Jun 10 2006

Surprised by Poetry

The Haiku ApprenticeSeveral summers ago I happened to be walking my dog along our boat dock, when a swan paddled out of the marsh—hoping, no doubt, for some tossed bits of bread.  It’s a startling thing to have a picture so suddenly dominated by a new element. The entire vista of marsh and sky and water seemed to zoom in on this swan—which became, for a breath, the center of the universe.

It felt a little like having vertigo, and I wanted to remember the moment. I didn’t have a camera. I didn’t have anyone to I could grab and say “Look! Look at the swan!” So I did something that was completely and utterly out of character for me—I fished out a pen and paper and wrote a poem about it.*

It was the first poem I had written since grade school, when like all schoolchildren I was forced to produce embarrassingly indifferent poetry in whatever style was being taught that week in English class. (My crowning achievement, I remember, was something silly about how new shoes made me feel like dancing). But writing it down fed an impulse, and I found myself more and more aware of what my writer friends call the “poetical moment.”

The following years have been marked my tentative flirtations with a state of existence that might be called “fledgling poet.”  Like a wallflower still trying to work up the nerve to walk into the room where the party is. The sheer unlikelihood of the whole thing is what drew me to Abigail Friedman’s The Haiku Apprentice: Memoirs of Writing Poetry in Japan (Stone Bridge Press, $14.95).

Friedman is a career diplomat and an accidental poet.  She was stationed in Japan at the time when North Korea first started waving big red nuclear flags, and her days were filled with lengthy reports on the likelihood of a pending Armageddon. It was her job to assess the mood of the country and render it in the succinct emotionless language preferred by the State Department. Perhaps that is what first drew her to haiku, a poetry of mood and moment and a kind of national pastime in Japan the way that gardening might be considered a national pastime in England.

It was while attending a diplomatic function that she had her first encounter with a haiku poet—a pudgy businessman dressed more like he was headed for a golf course than a company board room (or Buddhist temple).  Their brief conversation revealed their mutual interest in poetry “I liked reading haiku before going to bed.” Friedman admits, “They were short and quick to read, and I was a busy person.” The man invited her to come to his haiku group, despite her protests that she only read haiku, she had never written it. He seemed to find this irrelevant.

Over the next year and a half, Friedman learns to write haiku, and in the process learns much about “assessing” the mood of Japan that never makes it into her official reports.

It turns out, there is much more, and yet much less, to haiku than a simple three-line, 5-7-5 syllable format that we all were force-fed in school.  It is a poetry for describing nature, and “seasonal” words are very important. So important that there are books that are nothing more than lists of seasonal words; “Ducks” for example, is a winter word because that is when they arrive at the imperial palace.  So any Japanese, reading a haiku about ducks, would automatically think “winter”. A haiku about ducks and summer flowers would be oddly surreal.

It is, like all poetry, fundamentally oral in its foundation—the seventeen-syllable, 5-7-5 “rule” arises naturally out of the patterns of Japanese speech (and is therefore not really applicable in English, which has different patterns.)

Freidman spends most of the book attempting to write a “true” haiku— which she discovers has little to do with the form of the poem, and everything to do with being true to herself, her experience. She buys herself a stone lantern and spends fruitless hours trying to write a haiku about it (because it is the kind of thing poets write haiku about), and fails. She spends about ten minutes writing a haiku about giving her son a bath, and it is one of the best poems she wrote. She is still trying to write “true” as her time in Japan comes to a close.

The book is not designed to make the reader a poet, but it does, perhaps, help us to pay more attention to our poetical eye. One friend, when she finished reading The Haiku Apprentice, told me that she was much more conscious of the natural world around her—even in the city.  I found myself “framing” odd moments of my life in captions of seventeen syllables, wondering “can I make a haiku out of this?”  Like this morning, when I drove by the hitchhiker on my way back from the supermarket:

“Onward”–a sign

in the bent hands of a man

Sitting by the road.

–Nicki Leone


*Before the Hurricane Comes


Before the hurricane comes, I take the dog for a walk.

Down to our neighbor’s dock

out over the water through the heavy air.  It is still

here at marsh-level,  the clouds above are whipping

by, heavy with rain.

The storm they herald

is still two states away.

Indifferent, the marsh birds stalk

through the spartina, stepping

carefully into the rising tide.  Seabirds

balance, one-footed, on every piling.

And I am standing at the end

of the dock, looking out

when a swan suddenly slips

out of the grass and into view.

I step back–

startled at this sudden change.

a place that was swan-less suddenly full of swan.

It paddles towards me, expecting bread and I wonder

what else is hidden in the grass.

Then the dog lopes up, nails clicking

on the dock and the swan is startled.

A place that was dog-less so suddenly full of dog. Slowly,

deliberately, the swan turns away, intent

on taking itself out of the picture.

The dog smells everything but sees nothing, happily

licking at the spattered grey boards of the dock

I’m morbid enough to wonder

what does bird shit taste like?

The dog, the swan and I all look

up as the jet roars over head.

The sound is all around us although we see nothing

but a ghostly glimpse as it breaks

through one cloud, charges

into another.  It leaves no trace

but this echoing roar.

The swan is gone, leaving no trace

the ripples of its wake disappearing

into the grass,

The dog has gone back, leaving no trace

Just a few soft paw prints

in the marsh mud.

And I go too, leaving no trace

at all, except this.

May 27 2006

Secret Anniversaries of the Heart

Secret Annivesaries of the HeartI don’t think I’m the kind of person anyone really imagines would read Lev Raphael’s story collection Secret Anniversaries of the Heart.  Or perhaps I should say, when the marketing department at Leapfrog Press got together (I’m imagining a couple of guys and a six pack) to discuss their target audience or likely readership, I probably didn’t make the list.

There is some justification for this—the overwhelming reason people like a book is because they like, or think they are like, or perhaps wish they were more like its main characters.  It was one of my greatest hurdles when I was a bookseller—trying to convince people to read a book about somebody they didn’t think they would want to know.

Secret Anniversaries of the Heart is a strongly-themed collection of stories that deals with issues of Jewish identity, the loss and finding of faith, growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust, coming of age and homosexual identity, and the insidious nature of anti-Semitism and homophobia. These are stories about what it is to be Jewish in a culture that consigns Jews forever to the realm of the exotic and foreign.  What it means to be religious in an era that is materialistic and spiritually barren. What it means to be homosexual in a country where the veneer of tolerance is sometimes as thin as the membrane around the yolk of an egg, and what it means to live in the shadow of a horror so great its victims will never again be at peace.

These stories explore what it is to be a young, gay, Jewish, and the child of Holocaust survivors.

I am almost none of those things. I was raised solidly middle class. We weren’t religious.  When I asked my parents about God, they told me I could decide what to believe when I was older and made up my own mind—as if belief in God was simply a scientific theory to be proved by the weight of the evidence.  We were blandly free of religious identity, ethnic identity, and all the rituals that accompany such self-definition. My father managed to avoid the draft in perfectly legal ways. There were no horrors in my life or theirs. No past shadows blocking out the present sun. In fact, I am very much what various characters in Raphael’s collection refer to as typical Amerikanski—a generic group of privileged, spoilt people who have no idea what real trouble looks like.

The only things I have in common with any of the protagonists of the stories are a general love of literature (several of the characters in the book are fixated on Henry James or Edith Wharton in a way that I can wholly appreciate) and the fact that I’m gay.  But that last isn’t as strong a commonality as you might think—I can empathize with the young men in Raphael’s stories as they come to terms with their awakening sexuality, but the strong thighs, large hands and wide shoulders they desire don’t exactly float my boat, you know? The finer points of male beauty are usually lost on me. I have the same reaction to a group of men that I do when having to pick out a pair of sneakers—none of them look any better than the others. They all just look like sneakers.

The impressive thing about Secret Anniversaries is that none of all that matters. This is, among many other things, simply good fiction and like all good fiction it breaches our self-imposed limits and identities and truly lets us into another person’s life.  Which is, after all, the whole point of fiction.

The story collection is culled from a quietly impressive literary career spanning twenty-five years or more. Despite the apparently narrow focus of the stories, the breadth of emotional territory they cross is staggering.  The collection starts off with a bang in its first piece, “The Tanteh”, as a young boy attempts to understand the silences that envelope a great aunt, a survivor of the War, who is, not exactly beloved, but a source of compelling fascination.  As stepping off points go, the Tanteh’s self-contained fury at her nephew’s persistent intrusiveness into the past is a pretty high one. But each following story rises even higher. The author is good at setting a scene, has a generous sense of humor that bursts forth at unexpected moments (he seems to have it in for the television show Will and Grace), and he has an obvious ear for dialogue. But Raphael’s greatest gift is his ability to create emotional and psychological complexity within the space of a few short, simple sentences:

Ira’s father had an odd, stubborn way of standing: His hands were inevitably in his pockets and all of him seemed to lean forward, as if he’d placed himself in your path and the next move was up to you.”

Each new story turns another facet of the characters’ quest for identity to the light. “Doesn’t it bother you?” asks one young man of his lover “pretending to be something that you are not?” He is talking about the fact that there is a Christmas tree in the hall, not that they are gay.

One doesn’t need to be gay to understand the breathless desire some of the young men feel for their college roommates. One doesn’t need to be Jewish to feel the sense of peace some of the characters find in Temple rituals and prayers. And readers certainly don’t have to have a connection with war to feel the suffocation of living with such a horror as the Holocaust constantly in the background—rarely mentioned but always present.  The author sees to it that the reader feels all these things, viscerally.  He is too good a writer to let his readers off the hook with platitudes.

But he is never dogmatic.  Raphael leaves it to the reader to see, for example, the uncomfortable parallels between anti-Semitism and homophobia.  He rarely lectures, despite the fact that many of his characters are university students with the penchant for political speeches young students often possess. (Students come off rather well in his stories—I suspect he has a kind of affection for young people all excited to learn things). But we are left with no illusions about the damage such hate can cause—both the institutionalized and the internalized forms. One of the common themes among all the stories is how people attempt to heal the internalized scars and shame that come from living under persistent fear and hate.  In a few stories they fail, and violence erupts suddenly. It is all the more startling and frightening to the reader because when it happens it isn’t gay-bashers or skinheads who end up causing the most harm. That would be easy and clean.  Instead, it is almost always a result of someone’s internalized shame exploding outwards with deadly impartiality. The young man, his family, his lover and a few Amerikanski who happens to be in its path all suffer for it.

For all its dark themes and explorations, though, Secret Anniversaries of the Heart has an optimistic feel. I hesitate to use the word “redemptive”, but there is certainly a strong faith in the stories that some things do triumph.  Love, for example.  The young men and women (there are a few stories told in a female voice) who decide to pursue these questions of identity despite resistance from their families, or the obstacles of unspoken past horrors, seem to draw strength from even beginning the journey.  It isn’t always an easy path, but it is always better than refusing the quest.

May 13 2006

Rescuing Patty Hearst

Rescuing Patty HearstIn the spring of 1974, I was eight years old.  Every morning I walked about a mile to school, through city neighborhoods and crossing three busy streets, including one six-lane highway.  Every afternoon I walked back.  Now, my mother and I just shake our heads at the folly of it.  It was a different world back then.  A safer world where a little girl could walk to school without the fear of drugs, violence, or being snatched by strangers.

In the spring of 1974 Virginia Holman was also 8 years old, and one morning while I was probably tripping blithely towards school, she and her little sister were packed into the family car by her mother.  But while everything was right in my world, young “Gingie” could sense that things were not right in hers.  Her mother was happy, ecstatic, even- about the prospect of going to the family cottage on the Virginia Peninsula.  She seemed filled with a sense of mission, which made sense, since she believed that she had been inducted into a secret army and given orders to turn the cottage into a field hospital in preparation for an imminent war.    As I would have been negotiating the six lane highway between me and my second grade class, Gingie was negotiating with a mother held in the thrall of a full-blown psychotic episode.    For the next three years, while family, friends and neighbors turned a blind eye to the situation, she helped her mother make preparations, endured “night maneuvers”, and took care of the baby sister her mother had all but forgotten.  Her mother’s mission required that all the windows in the cottage be painted black.  Gingie’s mission was to cope with her mother’s paranoid and delusional reality.

The period is documented in Virginia Holman’s beautifully written and heartbreaking new memoir Rescuing Patty Hearst.  The title comes from her sense of identification with the woman who, originally a kidnap victim, went “Stockholm” and joined the cause of her captors. The 70’s were a mad, mad decade, but a bad decade in which to go insane.  When Holman’s mother bought 35 pairs of shoes for children who didn’t exist, the neighbors just shook their heads.  When she took her daughters out into the woods for “training exercises”, everyone thought she was simply “finding herself”.   It was a do your own thing kind of decade, and no one wanted to interfere

Amazingly, there was a father, who knew where his family was the entire time.  A workaholic in a high-pressure job in Richmond, he chose to believe that his wife was simply “resting” at the family cottage, and stayed in the city.   It was nearly four years later before relatives finally stepped in and decided something was very wrong. (An aunt, having just seen the film Amityville Horror suggested an exorcism).   The father finally took his wife to see a doctor, who immediately had her institutionalized as a schizophrenic.  She has been in psychiatric care ever since.

Young Virginia was left with the wreckage of her family.   Incredibly, she condemns no one, although surely she could indict everyone- mother, father, an entire society, for the ordeal she and her sister were made to endure.   Instead, as an adult she was reluctant to tell the story at all, because of the pain it would cause herself and her family.

It is agonizing and awesome to read such a horrific story, written so beautifully.   The book jumps between the present and the past as her mother tilted between delusion and lucidity, and Holman herself vacillates between fear, compassion, and -incredibly- humor. One of the most frightening and moving moments occurs late in the story, as she is going through the attic looking at family memorabilia as she tries to convince herself to begin writing this book.  Suddenly she hears music, and goes cold with fear.  You or I may have assumed that someone had turned on a radio. But the author is all to aware that schizophrenia can be hereditary—she is frightened of unexplained sounds and voices, having been at the mercy of the voices in her mother’s head for years. When her husband tells her he did indeed turn on a radio, she all but weeps with relief.

Holman wrote this memoir to make sense of her life and to alleviate her own fear that she will also go mad.  But you  can still hear, underlying all her hard won wisdom and circumspection, the nine-year-old girl asking “Why? Why? Why?”

Apr 27 2006

The Perils of Homer (A True Tale)

The IliadSo I’m driving east on Interstate 40 headed towards the coast and I am way, way beyond anything resembling civilization. There isn’t, and isn’t going to be a rest stop or turn off to break the monotonous view for miles. The only thing I have to look forward to is the upcoming exit for Faison, NC—the proud home of the Mount Olive pickle.

It’s boring as hell but I don’t really mind, because I have the audio version of the Iliad playing and Achilles is wreaking havoc among the Trojans.  It’s been five long books, but he has finally gotten off his duff to fight and is slaughtering the enemy left and right. “Rage” intones Homer, “red, red Rage”.  The Bard has long since stopped talking about the “flashing helmets” of the armies and the “bright armor” of the heroes. Now it is all blood and gore—the spatter of it as Achilles’s chariot drives over the bodies of the fallen—Greek and Trojan alike—the way blood and tissue sprays up onto the flanks of his galloping horses, the way it cakes the wheels and sides of the chariot, and coats his outstretched arms.

The red rage of Achilles becomes an inferno when he sees Hector, the great Trojan warrior, on the field of battle wearing the armor he stripped from Petrocles, Achilles friend and lover. And he leaps towards Hector mad with wrath, shouting, shouting in his fury and anguish and Hector flees all the while begging for mercy although he knows there is none to be had and the noise of war is incredible, roaring, and even the goddess Athena is shrieking and all of a sudden woooo-wooo-ooooo….

…I get pulled over by a sheriff because I apparently blew by him doing 85 miles an hour and never even saw him.

I enjoy audio books—they help me with the tedium of monotonous house-cleaning tasks, they make the time go by when I’m doing yard work, and of course they are invaluable in the car, especially since I had moved out of town. It takes me at least thirty minutes to get anywhere. Audio books are a kind of inoculation against road rage.

My trip into the classics began when a good friend gave me the audio version of Virgil’s Aeneid. The Fitzgerald translation, read by Christopher Ravenscroft. It was a few weeks before I found myself on the road with nothing new to “read”,  so while keeping one eye on the logging truck ahead that was hogging up highway, I rummaged around in the box between the seat for an audio book that felt unopened, and came up with Virgil.  On the theory that it was a classic for a reason and therefore must be pretty good, I tore open the plastic with my teeth, swerved slightly as I tried to extract disc number one, and settled in for the next four hours prepared to hear about the travails of the Trojan survivors looking for a new land to call home.

I already knew the story, of course.  I grew up on Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and Frazer’s Golden Bough. Like most little kids who liked stories, I loved myths and fairytales—they are the basic building blocks of literature, as fundamental to the written word as the primary colors are to an artist’s palette.  So I knew that Aeneas would find refuge in Carthage. That the queen of the city would fall in love with him. That he would leave in search of the land fated to be his new home. That the refugee Trojans would fall afoul of god and goddess alike in their wanderings, before coming at last to the soil that would eventually be Rome.

What I had forgotten, and what held me so utterly enthralled that I missed my damn exit and didn’t notice for at least five miles, was that these poems were meant to be performed. Recited. Heard.  Experienced.  Passages that had been merely repetitious when read on a page became rhythmic and sonorous in the reader’s rich voice. I started to feel lulled by the beauty of the constant references to “wine-dark sea” and the “Dawn, touching her rose-red fingers to the sky”. I shivered at his descriptions of “Rumor…A huge and horrid monster covered with many feathers: and for every plume a sharp eye, for every pinion a biting tongue” as it appeared again and again to thwart the hero’s way.

I spent a week with Aeneas, and then went out and found copies of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. I spent at least a month with Achilles and Odysseus. For the longest time when friends asked “what are you reading” I found myself talking about the battles of the Greeks, about Calypso’s desperate love for her shipwrecked sailor, about Telemachus, waiting bitterly for the return of a father he last saw when he was a baby. I got a few very odd looks.

I had also forgot—or perhaps never properly understood—that these epics were Literature (note the capital “L”).  They were narrative. They had plot and character development. They were psychologically fraught.  The Aeneid isn’t just a story about the founding of Rome. It is very much about how men and women live in a constant state of war.  What it means to be honorable or loved in an era when everything is settled by “the blood of your enemy dripping from your sword“.  There is an intensely vivid moment in Virgil’s epic where the poet describes the hero striding through the ruin of Troy, lit now only by the sputtering flames of burning buildings when he suddenly catches sight of Helen in one of the gaps between billowing smoke clouds. She is cowering and afraid. He is filled with black rage at the sight of the woman responsible for the destruction of his city, and their eyes meet across all the chaos–she knowing she will die, and he ready to kill…until the gods whisper in his ear “but what of the fate of your own family? Are they safe?” He gasps and shudders, and wrenches himself away from the flaming city to seek his wife and son.  Helen, we last see, crouching in the remains of a temple that offers nothing in the way of sanctuary.

Epics like the Aeneid, the Odyssey, the Iliad (well, scratch that, because nothing is really like the Iliad),  are full of these intense personal moments.  There is a beautiful scene in the Iliad (Thomas Cahill mentions it in his lovely book Sailing the Wine-dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter) where Hector, about to go off to battle, stops to play with his infant son, and the boy starts to cry—frightened by the war helmet crowning Hector’s head. The father laughs, takes off the helm, and dawdles the child until he is smiling again.

I’ll tell you something about the legend of Troy—that scene isn’t in the myth.  It is a piece of sheer poetic brilliance.  Homer isn’t interested in national founding myths. He isn’t overly concerned with the religious devotion to the gods. He is interested in what it is to be human.

The travels of Odysseus were always entertaining—a kind of classical pulp fiction where the pace and the action just never let up. First he defeats the Cyclops. He confronts the Sirens and escapes. He barely survives the clashing perils of Scylla and Charybdis.  But the scene that sent shivers down my spine wasn’t any of these; No, it is the homecoming scene, where Odysseus returns to find his house overrun by worthless young men attempting to bully his wife into marriage.

He slaughters them all, of course, in a grim battle for which the word “bloodbath” would be whitewashing. When it is over, Penelope and her son confront this stranger in their house.  Odysseus stands there; grimy, bloody, panting with exertion and anger and utterly changed from the man who had been forced to leave his home almost twenty years earlier. “Mother” busts out the boy “do you not recognize my father and your husband?” Odysseus looks up and meets Penelope’s steady gaze. “Patience” she replies. “if this is truly Odysseus I will know.  Husbands and wives have ways of making themselves known to each other.”

Oh. oh.  WOOF!

Re-acquainting myself with the epics of Homer, the poetry of Virgil, made it hard to read anything else that month. I found myself looking for excuses to get in the car, drive around, listen to the next stage of the hero’s journey, the next campaign in the battle. Somehow, the new “Miss Julia”, or the paperback re-issue of the DaVinci Code just didn’t seem so important compared to Dido, frantically begging the man she has secretly married to stay, stay, just for one more season, one more month, even one more day. Listening to the ballads, losing myself in the sheer joy of the language and the fierceness of the stories, re-invigorated my reading.

It also made my driving rather reckless, but I was lucky. The sheriff was either a poetry lover or amused by the novelty of a woman speeding along the highway listening to Homer. He let me off with a warning.