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Reading Chatwin, Gide, and Connolly

The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin

It makes sense that Bruce Chatwin and Werner Herzog were friends. Of course they were. According to Herzog, the two of them met in 1984 in Australia’s Northern Territory. Chatwin was doing research for the book that would become The Songlines and Herzog was working on his film Where Green Ants Dream. They spent two full days talking to each other. Chatwin on his deathbed supposedly gifted Herzog with the leather rucksack he’d used on so many of his travels. Parallels both of style and substance can be drawn between the two artists, but I suspect that Chatwin must have been the happier person. Curiosity in Herzog seems most of the time to serve his melancholy. Chatwin is no less curious, but more sanguine. In The Songlines Chatwin’s curiosity turns toward the roots of human language, early human evolution, and the origins and meaning of wanderlust. The book is in part a travelogue (though one should never take Chatwin’s reportage at face value) and in part an essay in speculative anthropology. Fascinating and great fun at the same time.

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Lafcadio’s Adventures, André Gide

Diverting, satirical, but nothing very deep, despite the fact that it reminds me of a Dostoyevsky novel in some respects. I mean that it deals with questions of faith and corruption and the peculiar allure that some people feel for motiveless crime. But this is not Gide at his best and Lafcadio’s Adventures is only a cheap-shot, bitter-at-heart version of Dostoyevsky.

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The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly

Connolly made his name as a critic and so when he opens his book with the statement that “the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and no other task is of any consequence,” it serves both as a jab at fashionable contemporaries and an announcement of his intention to make his own “assault on perfection.” The book was written during WWII and is part journal, part commonplace book, and part philosophical essay. There are lengthy quotations from French authors which, unfortunately, I was usually unable to decipher without help, but Connolly’s own prose is engrossing, his ideas engaging. He was exorcising some personal demons here: his marriage was falling apart at the same time the world around him was falling apart, and the general sense of catastrophe is strong. The Unquiet Grave may not be quite the masterpiece Connolly hoped for, and I can’t endorse certain of his Freudian obsessions and conclusions. Nonetheless, the book is highly quotable, bright if only with a fractured light, and in the end it makes a powerful meditation on the significance of love and of art and of being human in a world that is often short on all three.

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Loss and Raptors

H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald

Your father dies unexpectedly. You wrestle your grief by training a goshawk, a temperamental, bloodthirsty, half-mad sort of bird. It’s natural enough – inevitable, almost – if you’re Helen Macdonald. It’s inevitable, too, that you’ll spend half the book you’re writing about it trying to explain your fascination with T.H. White’s troubling, unintentional masterpiece – The Goshawk – about failing utterly to train the same sort of bird. Sharing Macdonald’s interests in raptors and in White, I waited impatiently for H is for Hawk to arrive in the States. The British reviews were so gushing it was embarrassing to read them. I special ordered the book from a distributor who, by an oversight, had no hold placed on the title, and so I received my copy a few weeks before its official American publication date. It mostly lives up to the hype, though I do have a few complaints. For one, Macdonald is overfond of the word “indeed.” And two or three chapters might have been excised entirely. Macdonald makes awkward transitions sometimes from the choppy, poetic, descriptive language that shows her at her best to a slangish informality (“And I was all, bloody hell…”) that rings comparatively hollow. Her anguished emoting at the loss of her father was sometimes hard for me to slog through, but there really is an alchemy to her book. As you read it the image of Macdonald herself and of Mabel (the goshawk) blur and overlap in surprising ways, ways that alternately challenge and invite sympathy. When she’s writing from her eye (i.e., from a point of observation, either of Mabel or herself or White) rather than from her heart, Macdonald is compelling and you won’t want to put the book down. Her engagement with White and the strange appeal of his book is also well done and makes an excellent counterpoint throughout.

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A Thinking Person’s Apocalypse

Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel

This is a very fashionable book. For example, it deals with a worldwide apocalypse (viral in this case) and its aftermath, which is nothing if not fashionable these days. It also has a character list of exemplary diversity, such as no single person’s circle of acquaintance is likely to reflect. These are authorial choices with more than a hint of market-consciousness to them. Being fashionable, however, does not prevent a book from also being good. Is Station Eleven a good book? It’s not a bad book. It’s by no means a great one. The prose (which smells suspiciously of MFA programs and writers’ workshops) is inoffensive if rarely interesting. Mandel creates suspense and doles out her horrors with some skill. Her characters, however, I found generally uncompelling. The figure of the “prophet” is especially weak. The book touches – but barely touches – on several interesting questions about the nature and value of art in an age of brutal necessity, and on the philosophical issues involved in the annihilation of 99% of the world’s population. Published reviews of Station Eleven will tell you that Mandel’s apocalypse is more reflective than those we’re used to nowadays. I’m afraid I disagree. For all its fireworks and brutality, The Walking Dead has more depth to it. In this reader’s opinion, if you want an atypical apocalypse novel that deals thoughtfully with the questions it raises, open a copy of Canticle for Liebowitz or, even better, Watership Down.

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Two by Gide

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The Immoralist, André Gide

I expected something along the lines of Huysmans’ A Rebours, but Gide’s tale is really very different. Both protagonists are – or, in the case of Gide’s Michel, become – rank sensualists. But these are different forms of sensualism. Huysmans’ Des Esseintes makes a fetish of aesthetic decay; Gide’s Michel lusts after freedom and vitality, in a Nietszchean mode. Huysman’s is a sensualism which, as the title suggests, runs “against nature” while Gide’s is, in certain respects, a rough embrace of nature. The books differ too inasmuch as Gide succeeds in making his protagonist sympathetic, while Huysmans doesn’t even try to do so. I want to say that Huysmans’ book describes an end-game of Catholic intellectual retreat while Gide’s describes a triumph of Protestant nihilism, but I’m not sure I can argue either case successfully. I will say that I think Gide’s book is better. The Immoralist is a stark narrative descent. I also read it as a fairly damning indictment of the instinct it describes. To my mind, Michel is a monster. Gide himself, however (for reasons which aren’t hard to divine if you know a bit about his life), famously refuses to pass any final judgment on his protagonist.

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Strait is the Gate, André Gide

Simon Leys in his “Little ABC of Gide” quotes the author as saying that each of his new titles was specially designed to “upset those readers who enjoyed the preceding one.” Strait is the Gate did not follow precisely on the heels of The Immoralist but it may as well have, the two are so clearly linked. Where the earlier book trades in the excess of sensualism and self-indulgence, Strait is the Gate trades instead in the excess of asceticism and self-denial. Parting from one another at a theoretically balanced middle, both these paths will be seen to curve round until they mirror each other’s trajectory and finally embrace. The plot: Alissa Bucolin is in love with Jerome Palissier and there is no reason in the world they shouldn’t marry except for the fact that it would make them happy. Unfortunately, you see, Alissa’s God did not make man for happiness – the way of the Lord is too narrow for two to walk abreast, she says – and so she crucifies her heart (and the hearts of those around her as a side-effect) for a mystical solace which, of course, proves elusive. The final scene of the novel is devastating. …Once in college a girlfriend dumped me “for God” too; it was more forgivable than Alissa’s case, however, because I knew that rather than creating a divine prohibition for the sake of self-glory she was inventing a divine sanction for what she really wanted all along. Weakness, I think, is always more sympathetic (and perhaps more renderable into holiness) than flexing your muscles.

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Travels: Sir John Mandeville & William Bartram

Illustration of alligators on the St John River of Florida by William Bartram
My wife will tell you that I am a poor travel companion. I like the idea of travel but the facts of it do, at least briefly, bring out the worst in me. I fall sometimes into stupors of indecision over questions of where to stay, how to get there, where to park, and what to eat. I also dislike being out at night. The happiest part of travel, in my opinion, is the rediscovery of home comforts, but I acknowledge that this pleasure is available only to those who leave home in the first place.

Travel of the arm-chair variety I am more comfortable with. Travel writing is allegedly a form of non-fiction. Under scrutiny, however, most travel books will be seen to edge now and then into fiction. This should upset no one. Some effort of mind is necessary to synthesize and represent any experience whatever through the medium of language. I do not require perfect factuality from authors of travelogues.

Someone (it might have been Nicolas Bouvier in The Way of the World) once called travel itself a creative act. This is a fairy notion, if you ask me. Traveling, I suppose, is no less “creative” than any other act is creative, but it’s hard for me to see why it should be more so. If travel were essentially creative, however, this might further explain why travel writers so often slip into otherwise unlicensed imagination.

On this theme, I offer below some brief reading notes for two very different books, both admixtures of fiction and non-fiction, and both titled Travels.

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville

Dear reader, eschew all modern “translations” of this book. The true original seems to have been written in Latin or some kind of mongrel Romano-French, but English texts of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville survive from circa 1400. You will not regret this older version of the book for all its sithens and clepes and y-bornes or for all the lovely, impossible spelling variations of Middle English. If you managed Chaucer in college, you’ll do fine. In fact, the 1920s Everyman’s Library edition I read was easier than Chaucer. The bulk of Mandeville’s travelogue is utter hogwash, of course, and Mandeville himself was very likely a fiction, but this Mandevillian hogwash is hogwash of the best sort. Where else are you going to learn how Seth (third son of Adam) buried his father with seeds from the Tree of Knowledge (a cypress) in his mouth, which sprouted the trunk which was felled for the wood of the cross of Christ? Or where else will you learn that gold-mad Christians are strangled by invisible devils in the Valley Perilous, or about those islands bordering the Kingdom of Prester John where a tribe of men perish if they lose the smell of apples and another tribe grow feathers over their faces and dine only on raw flesh? Herodotus, Pliny the Elder, and Marco Polo offer their own tall tales, but the English Mandeville’s charm lies in the diction and pace of his story, and the besmudged clarity of the medieval world’s reflected self-image. To read Mandeville is to lovingly pore over an antique mappa mundi, tracing a path from the relatively familiar districts of western Europe step by step into the outer circles of the world, where strange monsters rise from mountaintops and men order their lives by incomprehensible rites on the shores of alien seas.

Travels, William Bartram

About the time the American colonies were forcibly dissolving the political bands which had connected them to England, William Bartram was running around the wilds of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida looking for undiscovered plants and making sketches of alligators and Indian sachems. His father, the Quaker John Bartram of Philadelphia, was a noted amateur naturalist and proprietor of a nursery that supplied New World trees, shrubs and flowers to Old World gardens (read more about him in Andrea Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners). As the youngest son, William had struggled through several failed ventures before finally determining (to his father’s dismay) to seek fortune as a writer on natural history. Travels is the fruit of that determination. It would seem from all this that Bartram’s book should be a very different sort of thing than Mandeville’s had been. But while it’s undisputed that Bartram was a real person who really visited the places he describes, an honest examination of his narrative (as provided, for instance, in the lengthy historical introduction of the Lakeside Press edition) reveals the extent to which Bartram’s interests and disinterests, his temperament, and his clearly artistic goals shaped the final product. He was a romantic who painted in the colors of Eden, and he found in the world of men and nature a single fathomless index of wonders. In fact, Bartram very conveniently discovers in the anciently unsuspected western hemisphere something very like the exotic cultures of men, the natural curiosities, and the terrifying monsters of the wilderness that Mandeville and his contemporaries imagined resident in the farthest east. A telling sketch made by Bartram of two alligators at the St John River of Florida looks suspiciously like a sketch of two dragons. He even gives them smoke issuing from their nostrils.

I don’t know why anyone should require a definitive unraveling of truth and fiction in travel literature. It would spoil the fun. Besides, if we’re going to have anything to do with them, even real places must be imagined, and even purely imaginary places must own a sort of reality to the minds in which they are conceived and to which they are communicated.

Allow me to note in closing that the microscopic type of my two-volume OED grudgingly admits the fact that “travel” and “travail” are, etymologically speaking, the same word, so perhaps there’s something after all to that fairy notion I derided above. Travel really is toil, suffering, the labor of childbirth. Travail is to journey from one place to another. At any rate, the writing of travels will constitute a creative act even if the trek itself does not.

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Revisiting Brideshead Revisited

The last time I read this book, about fifteen years ago, I was disappointed. It was the first Evelyn Waugh title that I had ever read and although the prose was stellar I felt that the story wandered, that the characters (most of them) were unappealing. It was a good book, I thought, but not perhaps the very great one that it’s often made out to be. Much to my surprise I find now on re-reading it that my earlier judgment was excellent. If anything, I liked Brideshead Revisited less this time around, though I’m sure I understood it better.

The language, for one thing, while above average, is also sometimes painfully sentimental and over-inflated, a fault admitted by Waugh himself in the preface he wrote for it years later in 1959. Then there are the characters. We do not (or should not) read novels merely to be introduced to sympathetic people but it gets to be an unpleasant burden spending time with the cast of Brideshead. Only the flaming homosexual Anthony Blanche seems to have any really redeeming qualities – but he gets no more than ten pages in the entire book. Lady Julia is a blank, a cipher. Bridey is a numbskull. Sebastian for all his appealing frivolity in the early chapters is a mental child and absent for more than half the novel. Charles Ryder, our narrator, is an even more intolerable ass today than he was when we were first acquainted fifteen years ago. The man has no heart. He is one of Elliot’s hollow men – but perhaps that’s the idea.

If you understand the circumstances of Brideshead’s composition (it was drafted in a rush as Waugh recovered from a wound during WWII) some of the novel’s failings – and obsessions, like food and leisure – begin to make sense. It was a dark time. After the war, once things had settled and Waugh had digested his experiences, he went back to work with much the same materials (war and faith and love) and managed to succeed. On the whole, I think that Waugh’s Sword of Honor Trilogy is what Brideshead should have been.

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Reading Lytton Strachey

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Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey

In one of the more famous take-downs in the history of biography, Lytton Strachey sets out to slay the sainted beast of a golden age in the persons of four representative figures, and he mostly succeeds. It may be hard for us to appreciate the feat at this distance (Eminent Victorians was published in 1918); the memory of that once-imposing Jabberwock – the Victorian era – is well faded. The fading itself, however, owes something to Strachey. The section on Cardinal Manning makes an irreverent history of the Oxford Movement, illustrating the sandpit dangers of odium theologicum and the mutual jealousies of worldly-wise politicians (Manning) and otherworldly mystics (John Henry Newman). In Strachey’s Florence Nightingale we find a woman so dogged in her work, and yet so doggedly hampered by her sex, that she runs a man to death. Thomas Arnold, the education reformer and headmaster of Rugby School, makes Strachey’s briefest subject. The best, however, is reserved for last in “The End of General Gordon.” And here’s why I say that Strachey “mostly” but not entirely succeeds in his take-down, because for all his personal misalignments Strachey’s Gordon Pasha (like Nightingale to a degree) is nonetheless an object of legitimate awe, even when his goals seem to us culpably eccentric. Through the whole volume – and in prose as crystalline as Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, a book with thematic similarities – the message is clear: A culture is no less likely than an individual to fail in suspicion of its own motives or to manufacture divine endorsement of its most selfish desires, though thousands perish in consequence.

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