Beloved Books: Part Two
A fortnight ago, some of my friends shared their favourite books. “Older than a hundred years,” was what I asked for. This opened a flood gate to writing that has more than lasted the centuries. Today I asked the same question of the people who work at BiblioBuffet. The answers are even more fascinating than last fortnight. Lauren Roberts—our esteemed leader—was a bit puzzled that she chose novels, but what novels she selected! I found it very reassuring to find that she, too, sees the sorrow in Frankenstein.
I’ve left everyone's words as their own. This means that there are different forms of spelling this week. Two of us use real spelling (‘colour’ and ‘fibre’) and everyone else uses the American version of words. One day I shall review an old Webster’s dictionary to show exactly how these differences happened. Today, however, I’m very reassured to discover that, no matter what the spelling, my fellow-BiblioBuffeteers’ taste is impeccable.
Nicki Leone (A Reading Life), who edits me (poor soul) gave a long list of books she loved, but also explained why we love old books. I was going to give my own description in a deep and meaningful fashion, but she said it and so I don’t have to.
I was thinking about your email last week about why we read old books—books over a hundred years old—and I realized just how many of my favorite books fall into that category. The precise figure is “a helluvalot.”
I used to think I read such books because it was as close as I could get to time travel. But in fact that isn’t true. Nor is it quite true that I am drawn to issue-novels, books about big ideas (although I am). Lately I’ve realized that what I like about such books is not how strange and exotic and different they are, not how allegorical they can be, but how familiar, and recognizable they are. Persuasion isn’t my favorite Jane Austen novel because of its description of card playing in late eighteenth century drawing rooms. It’s my favorite novel because it’s about a woman who finds faith in her own judgement and insists on self-determination. Anne Elliot—and the pressures she faces, the challenges she overcomes—is wholly familiar.
And perhaps this is why old books are still read. Because what the books are about, are not old at all. They are, at their heart, human condition stories, whether you are talking about a woman's determination to act with integrity, like Anne, or a wife and son’s grief at seeing their father leave for war (thinking of Hector’s farewell on the walls of Troy), or a young boy’s growing love for his “Holy One” on an impromptu trip through Northern India to search for a river of healing. The clothes are different, the languages are different, the scenery is different. But the love, the grief, the determination to act according to one’s conscious no matter what—these are all very human things, no matter what the era or continent.
I think it is what is familiar, not what is different, that gives a book its staying power, and makes it relevant a hundred or even a thousand years later. Fashions change. People don’t.
The specific reflects the general principles in this case. People don’t fall in love with old books—they fall in love with specific books. Lauren explained:
You only need to fall in love with a book once to remember that feeling forever. There are many books with which I have an affectionate relationship, but I have been fortunate enough to find three that made me fall in love with them.
It’s interesting to me that I would choose all novels because I’m not a modern fiction reader. I seem to be allergic to fiction published after the fourth decade of the twentieth century. I’m not sure why, but if I had to guess I would say that I don’t want to read about stories set within a couple of decades of my lifetime. When I read fiction I not only want to be taken away on that high that new love always generates but go places I haven’t, and could not have been, before. These books do that for me.
So what were these three very special books? The first was a favourite that appeared last fortnight, Anna Karenina.
Anna’s vulnerability has been mine, is still mine in many ways despite the differences in time, culture, lifestyle. I too have made a choice between a life and a husband, a dead marriage and an uncertain future. Unlike Anna, I have had the fortitude to live with the consequences. I don’t see Anna as a weak woman at all; instead she has enormous courage and for several years lives her life in spite of the social outcasting she endured to the point she could not endure it any more. Her deliberate death left me devastated as though I had known her in real life. And in some way I had; she was and remains as real to me as my real life friend, and I still mourn her. Loss like that doesn’t come around in books that often.
The other two books Lauren loves are both famous speculative fiction novels. They feature rather special monsters. One was written by Mary Shelley and the other by Bram Stoker and they have fuelled the imaginations of many. Lauren points out that, in Frankenstein:
The monster has the same continuing emotional hold over me that Anna does. I don’t think I have ever read such a sad book. I ached desperately for monster’s loneliness, and I think that is because it paralleled my young (and maybe not so young) life so closely. The good-hearted but horrifying monster who just wants to fit in yet is ridiculed and rejected. He hides his body from the world but he cannot hide his emotional needs from himself or from his creator. Is there a more pitiful cry for help than when he confronted Victor with this plea: “You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather from your fellow creatures, who owe me nothing? They spurn and hate me. . . . Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?” I sobbed my way through this chapters-long discussion in which the loneliness and despair came pouring out because even though I do not share the physically repulsive characteristics I had been that “monster,” known that social disdain by classmates, teachers, and others. Even now, the scars from that social ostracizing linger, tearing at my fiber. This book was one of the most difficult I have ever read. Yet it is also one of the most memorable.
And the Lauren’s final book and her final reason for loving it? About Dracula she explains that:
Unlike the other two, I don’t feel any personal emotional ties to any of the characters. Nevertheless, the book made me fall in love. Not with vampires or such things but with a story that held enormous power in its prose. This was writing at its best, a horrifying experience. And a most satisfying one.
I love this reason. Sometimes beauty is enough, of itself.
Carl Rollyson, whose column, Biographology, concerns itself with biographies, not surprisingly is fascinated by the author rather than a single piece she wrote. Her whole life is his subject and his description of her writing makes me want to read more of both Rollyson and Rebecca West. Rollyson’s enthusiasm for her made me realise that Rollyson writes about at least as many female subjects as male—this is unusual. And that the selections people have made, both last fortnight and this have a significant number of female writers. This is very different from many of the ‘top hundred’ lists I’ve read recently.
On November 30, 1911, Cicily Fairfield published her first article in The Freewoman, a pro-suffragist journal, less than a month before her nineteenth birthday. In her debut performance, she reviewed a book on women in Indian life, declaring in her first sentence, “There are two kinds of imperialists—imperialists and bloody imperialists.” The tone, of course, is striking: clipped, authoritative, brash, and meant to shock—“bloody” reflecting the indelicacy her mother deplored. To the world, Cicily would be better known as Rebecca West (1892-1983), a brilliant writer of novels, travel narratives, political and cultural essays, biographies, and much more. I fell in love with her writing because it was nothing like that of her contemporaries and unmatched by my own generation of writers. Who writes with that kind of panache before the age of twenty? I just had to know why—in so far as one can know why—a genius writes as she does, and so I wrote her biography. What made me remain in love with West’s writing, though, is that there was no falling off. She wrote in the same high-spirited way until she could no longer live. In her book, 1900, published in 1982, she describes Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, the descendant of a boot manufacturer: “by a curious coincidence he himself looked like a single, highly polished boot.” West’s early writings are collected in The Young Rebecca and Open Road Media has just reissued several volumes of her work in e-book formats.
Lev Raphael writes excellent novels, interesting articles and also Book Brunch for BiblioBuffet. I was going to write about Henry James in my personal take on books of a certain age, but Lev has beaten me to it. What I love about James are these moments of insights that echo into the world I know and change the way I see things:
Forty-plus years after I first read it, I’m still in love with The Portrait of a Lady. The story line won me over immediately, as did the setting and the subtle characterizations. But it was the pivotal discovery scene in Chapter 42 that blew me away and made the book part of my emotional life forever. In that chapter, Isabel Archer has a dark night of the soul. She sits up late staring into a fire, and starts to unravel how and why her marriage has gone so wrong. It dawns on her slowly that despite her hopes for freedom and love, she lives in “the house of dumbness, the house of deafness, the house of suffocation.” That not only described the complicated dynamics of my own very un-Jamesian family, it was so stunning an insight and so beautifully observed that for all those reasons it changed me and my writing. Within weeks my stories for creative writing class showed a shift in awareness and depth. And I started seeing into myself as I never had before. I felt tremendous gratitude for that book and was in awe of James. But in the years afterward, the book became something else: comfort reading. I love the rhythms of James’s prose in that period of his career. I love the pace, the descriptions of Americans in Europe, the humor, and the very American story of dreaming for a better life. I don’t even remember now how many times I’ve read it, but I have a handful of editions because I’ve worn some of them out (and because they have too much underlining). It may not be a perfect book, but it’s perfect for me.
The state of a volume is so often a sign of devotion and the fact that a volume has been read over and over again. Elizabeth Creith (Strata of Ephemera) explains:
Among my books is a rather battered little red-cloth-covered copy of Kipling’s Just So Stories. The first edition was published in 1902, and although my little book isn’t quite that old, it was still old when I bought it in 1968. Perhaps, since Kipling titled it Just So Stories for Little Children, I was a bit old for it myself. I was fourteen at the time. So be it; I’m much older than that now, and I’ve never, ever outgrown my pleasure in the book. I’ve bought and given away several copies; it’s one volume that I’ll always buy if I find it in a used-book store.
I recall a noontime children’s radio programme hosted by an announcer who went by the name of “Uncle Bing”. It was on his programme that I first heard “The Elephant’s Child”, “The Beginning of the Armadillos”, “How the Camel got his Hump” and – my perennial favourite – “The Cat that Walked by Himself”.
Do you really want to get me started on the delights of this book? I’m a fan of English writers in any case; Nevil Shute, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman and Richard Adams all captivate me. Crumpets, water-meadows, hedgerows, school-rooms, aeroplanes and the long, long history of England: I love the Englishness of English writers, the way they stand out from a bland, global vocabulary. The Just So Stories, however, are in a league of their own.
Fables are among my favourite stories; they exist across the world, in every culture, and speak to our human need to know why things are as they are. Kipling’s dozen stories explain why the whale eats only krill, why all proper dogs will tree a cat, and how the tides came to be, along with the origins – spurious, outrageously inaccurate and completely charming – of the western alphabet.
I love the language of these stories. They may be presented as being for little children, but the language is poetic and captivating, no matter the age of the reader. Kipling doesn’t talk down to children, and I’m grateful that his work has not been simplified into pap for modern young readers. The language is delightful and memorable and quotable, and I never tire of it.
“He was a man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity.”
“I am the Cat Who Walks by Himself, and all places are alike to me.”
“In the very middle of these times was a Stickly-Prickly Hedgehog, and he lived on the banks of the turbid Amazon, eating shelly snails and things. . . . And he had a friend, a Slow-Solid Tortoise, who lived on the banks of the turbid Amazon, eating green lettuces and things. And so that was all right, Best Beloved. Do you see?”
And, of course, “the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever trees.”
For years I've used the term “Best Beloved” to refer to my husband. I love to quote The Cat Who Walks by Himself, the Bi-Coloured Python Rock Snake, and the Camel (“Humph!”), not to mention Painted Jaguar’s Mummy. (“Son, son,” she said ever so many times, graciously waving her tail, “I should call it Armadillo, and I should leave it alone.”) The repeated phrases and the oral-formulaic flavour, reminiscent of fairy tales, makes the stories perfect for reading aloud.
I love Kipling’s illustrations, too, and the notes that go with them. The pictures, all in black and white, have charm and elegance, as well as accuracy. Anyone who saw Kipling’s Rhinoceros or Elephant or Kangaroo would have no trouble identifying the beast.
Throughout the stories is a consistent love of the narrator for his Best Beloved child. Every child who appears in this story is a girl, and the relationship between Tegumai the cave-man and his daughter Taffimai is particularly close. It’s easy to imagine these stories being written down as a sort of memoriam to Kipling’s oldest, and possibly favourite, child, his daughter Josephine, who died in 1899 at the age of six. He may have told versions of them to his daughter during her lifetime, and to his son and remaining daughter later on.
It’s fashionable to accuse Kipling of jingoism and disdain his work. I find it odd that Mark Twain’s writing is defended, even and especially in its less politically-correct aspects, as being a document of the time, and Kipling’s derided for the same reason. The two men admired each other’s work greatly, and they were both men of their times.
Don’t read the Just So Stories because they are a classic of children’s literature. If you think of them as broccoli – and you don’t like broccoli – then pass them by for something you’d prefer. Classics become classics for many reasons, chief among them being that they are readable, and oft-read. But, like broccoli, books are a matter of taste. If you think you might like the taste of an English fabulist’s work, I can’t think of a better place to start than with the Just So Stories.
If you want to know what books I love that have been missed, if you want to know more of what I think about all of this . . . you’ll have to wait until next time.
Books mentioned in this column: