‘The Road to Oxiana’

The Road to OxianaThe Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Recommended, if you are 1) an anglophobe and 2) keen on descriptions of architecture.

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Which is to say, this book is not for everyone. His intended audience, I am sure, was more erudite than me. I needed a dictionary to understand much of how he described the lonely ruins he visited — in part because he employs more than a few archaic spellings. And there were plenty of British 1930s-isms that were over my head. Still, I am a sucker for these sorts of things. I sometimes entertain the desire to have lived in that time, knowing some of those people. These thoughts, warmly persistent like nostalgia, quickly dissipate when I reflect on the relatively dismal state of medical science and public hygiene in the 1930s. And the probable fact that this literate generation of snaggle-toothed Brits, Robert Byron, Patrick Fermor, Cyril Connolly, Norman Douglas and so on, were lecherous fiends.

At least there is no shortage of such books. In the introduction, the writer Paul Fussell writes that it sometimes seemed “that in the twenties and thirties virtually no one stayed home.” My favorite remains Mr. Fermor, whose “A Time for Gifts” is perhaps the best of the lot.

Toward the end of “Road,” Mr. Byron makes a comment that allows me to flatter myself that he and I would have got along, as we picked nits out of our flea bags and cracked jokes about Horace’s dirtier poems under the Central Asian night sky. In a paragraph where he mocks any advice for travelers that doesn’t allow for what books to take on a trip, he imagines endowing a prize for the “sensible traveler.”

£10,000 for the first man to cover Marco Polo’s outward route reading three fresh books a week, and another £10,000 if he drinks a bottle of wine a day as well.

Present circumstances perhaps make that particular route untenable. But the idea is one worth exploring. May I recommend a tiny plaza off the Carrer de l’Argenteria in Barcelona?

Ask for a bottle of the house red, a cutting board of cheeses and a plate of pimientos de padron.

Ask for a bottle of the house red, a cutting board of cheeses and a plate of pimientos de padron.

Word of the Week: Incarnadined

So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself), obdurate (stubborn), syllepsis (zeugma), parlous (perilous), crepuscular (twilightlike), concupiscent (lustful), cromlech (a formation of megaliths), sacerdotal (priestly), assize (law court), puissant (powerful), legerdemain (trickery) and apercu (insight) and homunculus (dwarf), termagant (nag), unctuous (smug), otiose (useless), punctillio (formality), orotundity (pretentiousness) and how about… incarnadined?

bookI am a good ways through “Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure,” by Artemis Cooper (John Murray, 2012), the biography about the gad-about polymath and well-reviewed travel writer who died in 2011.

And it has been a revelation.

For one thing, I have learned that it is possible to write about a fascinating life without, you know, actually being fascinating yourself. This book, though warmly recommended to any fan of Mr. Fermor’s work, is nearly as desultory and dissipated as Mr. Fermor himself.

But, more important, it has revealed the subject in a stark and authentic light. He was, it says here, kind of a jerk. Well-loved, of course, and with admirable qualities; whose every book I have bought and read, eagerly, from cover to cover; and whose life, as aimless as it was, still furnishes the mother lode of my dreaming life — but nonetheless a jerk.

Incarnadined, a transitive verb (inn-CAR-nah-deened) defined by Webster’s Fourth as “to make the color of either flesh or blood,” crops up in a case in point.

(Photo credit: Joan Leigh Fermor)

(Photo credit: Joan Leigh Fermor)

Mr. Fermor was staying with friends — which is what he was doing, more often than not — at a castle in Ireland. The previous weeks had been a riot of parties — it was, as Mr. Fermor wrote to a friend, “a mixture of a night-club, the Hons’ cupboard* and the Charge of the Light Brigade, so tremendous was the pace, even for me, all day and all night.” But now it was quiet, and Mr. Fermor proposed to his friends that they attend the Kildare Hunt Ball as a lark. No one liked the idea, though the owner of the castle finally agreed. But first, she asked her butler for, as Ms. Cooper puts it, something to make “a tiresome evening a bit more bearable. A pill the size of a hornet arrived on a silver salver and Paddy, intrigued, asked if he could have one, too.”

To the ball we go. Mr. Fermor’s celebrated charisma, no doubt accustomed to consorting with alcohol, did not get on well with whatever was in the hornet-size pill. And he was no stranger to chemical enhancements; he once celebrated Christmas in Cairo with a Benzedrine-stuffed turkey. But at the Kildare Hunt Ball, Mr. Fermor did not exactly ride high in the saddle. The climax came after he picked out the tallest mug in the room and asked him, as Ms. Cooper writes on Page 281, “if it was true that the ‘Killing Kildares’ were in the habit of buggering their foxes.”

Bedlam ensued. “There we were, all slamming away at each other like navvies [‘an unskilled laborer, as on canals, roads, etc.’],” Mr. Fermor wrote a friend.

I was being dealt with by a half a dozen great incarnadined Nimrods;** Robert Kee came to my rescue, only to be brought down by Roderick More O’Ferrall, and the scarlet maelstrom surged over them and me.

Puppies!

Puppies!

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Fermor, himself incarnadined from a small gash in his head, was eventually rescued by a female acquaintance (not his girlfriend).

The verb comes from the adjective incarnadine, from the French incarnadin, snug in my dictionary appropriately between incardinate, “to attach a cleric to a particular diocese,” and incarnate, “endowed in a body.” It is tempting to think that Mr. Fermor meant that his assailants had been bloodied, but in reality I think he is referring to the red hunting jackets, above right, worn by members of the club.

In any case, this is just the tip of the boorish iceberg when it comes to Mr. Fermor. A few pages earlier (Page 278), Ms. Cooper diverts from her narrative to give a brief disquisition on sexual hygiene, noting that “his weakness for the sleazier pleasures of the night sometimes led to a nasty surprise for his more respectable girlfriends.” Ms. Cooper is herself so diverted that she quotes in full a letter Mr. Fermor wrote to one such unfortunate. Mr. Fermor, after examining his “fragrant and silent glades” for tiny livestock, concludes sheepishly that the “crabs of the world fly to me, like the children of Israel to Abraham’s bosom…”

(Yes, he really did.)

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Mr. Fermor in 1966.

And so on. Mr. Fermor, when he isn’t cadging money from friends, swilling their wine and brandy, popping their pills, fornicating with their wives, sisters and daughters, was also a card-carrying member of a thoroughly irritating species: the writer unaware of deadline. He once, having been asked for a few thousand words on a well-known episode from his wartime service, turned in months late nearly 40,000 words.

Words, I will add, that have still not been published.

Unpublished is what you might say of the word incarnadine. It is the title of a recent collection of poetry, and it has a rich life in online role-playing games, apparently. But few writers have been seduced by its charms.

Except for one you might have heard of:

Macbeth: Whence is that knocking?
How is’t with me, when every noise appalls me?
What hands are here? Hah! They pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
“Macbeth,” Act 2, Scene 2, 54–60


* “Hons’ cupboard” refers to a secret childhood hiding place of the Mitford siblings, English aristocrats whose style and politics were the stuff of scandal in 1930s Britain.
** A nimrod is a foolish person, of course, but capitalized here I believe Mr. Fermor is referring to King Nimrod, a renowned hunter and a stout Babylonian king. It was his ill-conceived plan to build the Tower of Babel, which seems to indicate that Mr. Fermor was reserving similar divine judgment for his Kildare persecutors.

‘The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands’

The Traveller's Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean IslandsThe Traveller’s Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands by Patrick Leigh Fermor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Part travelogue and part ethnographic study, which climaxes in a weekslong, torch-lighted trance of voodoo drums and dancing.

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I am not making up the part about voodoo drums.

“Traveller’s Tree” (1950) is in its DNA an erudite traveler’s diary, but it reaches an emotional peak — a feverish dream may be more apt — in the dusty fringes of Port-au-Prince. Fermor and his companions apparently spent most of their time in Haiti waiting for the nocturnal thumping that signaled a voodoo convocation. They would slip quietly into the background of these spectacles like the late arrivers at a movie theater, their white faces conspicuous in the firelight.

Not for nothing, Fermor devotes several pages to a disquisition on voodoo and related mystical practices. He is earnest in an attempt to assess these artifacts as part of Haiti’s culture, hearing out an exasperated priest before indulging in his nightly field trips. He conjures an interpretation, heavily tinged with (medieval European religious) history, of zombielike possessions. He observes a host of rituals, including not the first chickens in the islands he has seen dismembered. But he fails to satisfy himself; voodoo is “impatient of explanation,” he writes.

A small section of one of the author’s already-groaning bookshelves.

This is Fermor’s first book, and it makes the last of his eight real books that I have read. An odd reading plan, perhaps. But, interestingly, “Traveller’s Tree” contains the seedlings of his next few titles, notably the eruptive plot device that convulses his only novel, “The Violins of Saint-Jacques” (1953); the admiration for monks and monastic life that colors “A Time to Keep Silence” (1957); and the unquenchable curiosity that branches “Mani” (1958) and “Roumeli” (1966) into so many welcomed tangents.

I do not consider it his best. In my view, that is “A Time of Gifts” (1977), the first volume of his famous-but-never-finished memoir of a trip (mostly by foot) across Europe in 1933-34. Fermor is never better as a writer, if you ask me (which I know you didn’t), than in the first half of “Gifts.” It fairly bursts with a romantic longing for the Europe before World War II, as Fermor recalls tramping through the snow, teaching himself German with a paperback edition of “Hamlet,” and describing, chillingly in retrospect, an embrasure stacked with Nazi military caps.

Neither do I consider this a good place to start. The novice should check out the anthology “Words of Mercury” (2003).

But it is heartily recommended.

English: scenes from a Voodoo seen in Port au ...

Voodoo, in Port au Prince (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What interested me most of all about “Traveller’s Tree” was its ethnic studies, if only because these seem so fusty — perhaps understandably so — with the passage of time. Travelling in places populated mostly by black people (and by scant few tourists), Fermor takes great pains to describe what was unusual to him. Naturally, this was most things, and in many cases — as in his description of the distinctive, old Harlem dress of Trinidad’s Saga Boys — passages remain vital and engrossing. But in others, the tone of his opinions and his continual description of skin color can be jarring.

I don’t mean to suggest Fermor is a racist. But I am not the first reader to make such observations.

The book’s introduction, for one, casts some of Fermor’s racial views as “hopelessly naiive.” Last year, in The Boston Globe, Katherine A. Powers wrote that Fermor’s obsession with “the various kinds and degrees of black and white mixtures is unseemly.” (To be fair, he applies the same queer interest in racial and ethnic provenance to the peasants of the Balkans and the shopkeepers of England.) In 2004, James Ferguson, in a magazine called Caribbean Beat, noted in Fermor’s words a “tone of slight snobbishness.”

Moss and Leigh Fermor pictured in German unifo...

Patrick Fermor, right, on Crete in German uniform. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For his part, at frequent points in his book, Fermor acknowledges the difficulty of being who he was (white, Anglo-Irish) and trying to write about race in a place like the Caribbean. Still, he forges ahead. His vagabond sojourn in the years before World War II, as recounted in “Gifts” and “From the Woods to the Water,” and his experiences during the war, as a leader of the resistance on Crete, probably impregnated him with a sense of being a citizen of the world. Fermor, as he lolled about in a sequence of island paradises, wistfully yearning to have been witness to the past — whether it be Carib raiding parties or aristocratic French soirees — was certainly not blind to some of the racial injustices of the time. But he was perhaps not fully equipped to write about them.

To be sure, his well-attested curiosity and experience — sharing “wisdom weed” with angry Rastafarians, to name but one from the book — are persuasive of an enlightened, catholic outlook, even if it is slightly raffish and wrapped in worn English wool. As Powers wrote, Fermor found in “the varieties of race and racial mixtures” an “exhilarating vividness and dash.”

Nevertheless, a modern reader will first have to tune the ear to monotonous discussions of skin color and a liberal use of words like negress.

Consider this a mild warning.

‘…A Wave of the Wand…’, Part Two

Patrick Leigh Fermor.

The first part of this post was published on May 30.

The writer and polymath Patrick Fermor once contributed to an anthology on reading and blah, blah, blah, toward the end of his essay, he smirkingly plans for the library he would want in exile on a desert island. Way leads onto way, and I began thinking about my own list.

A list of “books” for a library in exile compiled by the writer Patrick Fermor.

The rules are, in short, and as already stated here, You are headed to exile, and can only bring 10 books (not including the bible and all of Shakespeare, which are freebies). What do you pack? (Besides underwear.) It is important to note that Fermor had trouble choosing his favorites from particular authors, and so, for instance, he proposed to glue five books by Evelyn Waugh together. Never mind what you think about arts and crafts, an observer must be philosophical in this case about what is meant by the word “book.”

The interesting thing about the problem, obviously, is that it seems to be one thing on the surface, i.e. a list of favorite books, but it really is a whole other kettle of fish. Many books feel like favorites, of course. I recall reading “The Monk,” a Gothic novel by Matthew Gregory Lewis, and being surprised and thrilled. But how often would that happen? The compiler must consider re-readability and length, and so the adjective “favorite” slips a little farther from the mind. And (egad) some books, no matter how loved, seem altogether inappropriate: “Lord of the Flies,” “Robinson Crusoe,” “Treasure Island.”

Swooping into the mind are other things. I began to consider books that have felt a little above my head, like the erudite “God’s War,” a history of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman. Well-reviewed and enticing, “War” has sat tantalizingly unread on my shelf for a year or two. While I am easily absorbed when picking it up, I soon begin to think of things like taking notes and, Where is my dictionary. I get a similar, if sinking, feeling from Diarmaid MacCulloch’s superb “Christianity,” though I conquered that (with a notebook) two years ago. Further twisting my mind is the thought of finally vanquishing old enemies like calculus. Perhaps Fermor would allow uncounted a suite of textbooks and reference works?

In any event, presuming I can operate under the same lenient guidelines that Fermor did, occasionally gluing volumes together and sneaking things into my pocket, and maybe even coming up with a list of 11, here is my top 10, in no particular order:

History of Western Philosophy” by Bertrand Russell.
I would have happily included Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall” on my list, but since Fermor already mentioned it I propose Russell. Not only is this fun to read, it also serves as a kind of history of the world, covering some of the same territory Gibbon does and with a similar, engaging style.
The Viking Press’s “The Sagas of the Icelanders.
I would have happily included Homer on my list, too. In its place, here are epics of a different stripe. These are awesome, swaggering tales that make modern action movies seem piddling, trifling things. If you by chance have not read either these or Homer, start with these; they are far more fun.
The Age of Entanglement” by Louisa Gilder.
This was one of The New York Times’s notable books from 2009, and is both a fascinating history of the golden age of physics and a readable primer on the complicated principles involved.
The Road to Disunion,” volumes one and two by William Freehling.
Freehling brings a lively style and bright commentary to antebellum America, and the result is probably the best general history of the United States there is. His twin volumes, in some ways, tell the story of the Civil War better than most Civil War histories.
A Time for Gifts,” “Between the Woods and the Water,” “The Traveler’s Tree,” “Roumeli“ and “Mani” by Patrick Fermor.
This is a Fermor-style indulgence, but it is all Fermor. These cover the best-known titles of his travel writing. Gluing these books together forms an unwieldy five-inch binding, and so I for now have left out “Three Letters From the Andes,” “A Time to Keep Silence“ and “The Violins of Saint-Jacques.” Probably, I will stuff these in my shorts while waiting on the pier for my trunk to be loaded.
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,” “Theodore Rex“ and “Colonel Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris.
This would create a binding perhaps more than a foot long, but it can be understood as a single work and feels less like cheating. My comment is that the prologue of “Rise” is perhaps the best writing I have ever read. More generally, I do not remember books I’ve enjoyed more than any of these three. (Strongly recommended.)
Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Emma,” and “Persuasion” by Jane Austen.
Another Fermor-style indulgence, but for Austen it seems fair. I’ve never read any of these (I know!) but have dabbled with several passages, notably from “Pride” after having seen feature-film versions and the probably-more-famous BBC mini-series. A desert-island exile seems like the perfect time to start.
Kahlil Gibran: The Collected Works” from the Everyman’s Library.
Haunting, humorous. You don’t have to be a hippy to get into Gibran.
Every Man Dies Alone” by Hans Fallada.
This is simply great, a contender for favorite book. I have also read Fallada’s “The Drinker,” which is quite good, if morose, and “Wolf Among Wolves,” which is compelling but occasionally dry. But “Every Man” deserves a slot of its own in my exile.
Death Comes for the Archbishop,” by Willa Cather.
Cather sneaked high up into my most-read authors list on Goodreads without my even realizing it. “Death Comes” is my favorite, and must be some of the best writing about the Old West there is. Were I as self-indulgent as Fermor was in compiling his list, I would have included Cather’s “O Pioneers!” and “My Antonia,” among others.

So. That is that. But there is more.

At the end of Fermor’s essay, as a kind of footnote, he writes a sort of farewell to all the books he cannot take with him. In one passage, for instance, he writes, “I stroke ‘Wings of the Dove’ for the last time.” I had a similar feeling when editing this list. There was:

    • “Illumination in the Flatwoods” is a memoir of sorts written by Joe Hutto, a naturalist who raises a brood of turkeys from hatchlings. It sounds absurd, but it is a tremendously moving story. The ending is sadder than “Old Yeller.”
    • The Penguin Classics “Collected Fictions” of Jorge Borges is a great book I have already reread. Which reminds me of “Borges and the Eternal Orangutans,” which any fan of Borges should read.
    • I love poetry, and recently fell in love with “Spain, Take This Chalice From Me” by Cesar Vallejo. I would be sad, too, to leave behind Pablo Neruda, Garcia Lorca and William Henley, to name a few.
    • “The Scientists” by John Gribbin, which tells the story of science beginning with Copernicus, and “Age of Wonder” by Richard Holmes, which focuses on the Romantic Age, are enjoyable histories of science easily as fascinating and readable as “Age of Entanglement.” Also, for desert exile, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” a compilation of the landmark works by Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Einstein edited by Stephen Hawking, seems like just the thing.
    • I read a lot of history, so not surprisingly there are a lot of books I would be sad to leave behind. Shelby Foote’s “Civil War” has strong sentimental value for me, but it obviously is excellent and its three volumes conveniently come in a box. (No glue required.) “Crucible of War” by Fred Anderson, which is about the French and Indian War, is full of charm and wit (and I, for one, cannot wait for his entry in the Oxford History of the United States). David McCulloch is arguably the finest American historian, and his books (“The Great Bridge,” “The Path Between the Seas” and “1776”) are some of the best I have ever read. But I left him off my list because I had done enough gluing and could not choose just one. And “The Vertigo Years” is an innovative history of the buildup to World War I, going not chronologically but by broad subject areas, so that the reader gets more than the dry politics.
    • I love travel writing, and was thrilled to recently find “Black Lamb, Grey Falcon” by Rebecca West before traveling to Croatia. “The Way of the World,” “In Patagonia,” “As I Walked Out One Summer Morning” and “The Great Railway Bazaar” are justifiably classics, too. But perhaps a one-in-a-lifetime trip is not the time?

And, ugh, way leads onto way. Title mounts upon title. And I almost wish I hadn’t started thinking about it.

‘…A Wave of the Wand…’

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The writer and polymath Patrick Fermor once contributed to an anthology on reading that was published in 1992, and his essay is mostly an autobiographical sketch that he annotated with influential books. It contained nothing surprising to anyone who has read his stuff even a little.

Toward the end, though, he smirkingly plans for the library he would want in exile on a desert island.

Patrick Leigh Fermor

“If it were Prospero’s Island,” Fermor writes, “a wave of the wand could float an illicit watertight trunk ashore, enough to fill 10 sand-proof shelves” – it is not, of course, and he pinches himself to get serious. The ground rules are to list 10 books – not 10 shelves – to stock an island hut, not including all of Shakespeare and the Bible, which go in as a matter of course.

I found the list Fermor came up with compelling, partly because I admire him and partly because I had read almost nothing on his list. He seems to be literally thinking about a desert island, though, and populates his list with doorstops to maximize re-readability. Even so, I have reproduced the list here, for your further edification, and I have made it my own project to read them all.

Well, sort of. As Fermor is liberal in his definition of a “book,” I am taking liberties with the word “all.” You will see that, for instance, he lists as one book five titles written by Evelyn Waugh. Fermor’s excuse is that he intends to glue them together, making one big, sloppy book. As he writes, the fantasy crew of the ship taking him to exile is obligingly “indulgent about staples and glue.”

As for Shakespeare, I’ve already digested “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” and “Romeo and Juliet;” that seems like due diligence to me. And I am embarked on a methodical reading of my “New Oxford Annotated Bible” that should be wrapped up by the end of the year.

Fermor’s desert-island library is as follows:

  1. “Poets of the English Language” by W. H. Auden (five volumes).
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Thomas Gibbon (seven volumes).
  3. “Decline and Fall,” “Vile Bodies,” “Black Mischief,” “Scoop,” and “Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh.
  4. “Antic Hay,” “Crome Yellow,” and “Those Barren Leaves” by Aldus Huxley.
  5. “Old Calabria” by Norman Douglas.
  6. “Unquiet Grave” by Cyril Connolly. *
  7. The Temple Classics Dante (six volumes).
  8. “Kim” by Rudyard Kipling.
  9. “Odyssey” and “Iliad” translated by Robert Fitzgerald or Richard Lattimore.
  10. “Ulysses” by James Joyce.
  11. “Remembrance of Things Past” by Marcel Proust.

But that’s 11, you say. (Really, it’s 18.) Never mind. Fermor has it covered: “…a voice shouts, ‘Island in sight.’ All eyes turn to the porthole and with a conjurer’s speed a slim volume flies into my bush shirt pocket: ‘The Unquiet Grave’ is safe!”

So, still 11. But one is being smuggled. And Fermor unintentionally confirms my theory that all elderly Englishman have a unnatural predilection for safari wear.

Not surprisingly, after compiling his list, Fermor expresses buyer’s remorse in a few, concluding paragraphs, though not because he chose no female writers. He closes with a harder-to-decipher roster of authors and titles that, presumably, he will miss. These are, again in order, a kind of valedictory footnote:

The mischievous Saki, whose real name is Hector Hugo Munro; “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens; “Letters of Horace Walpole;” Burckhardt (who I assume is the 17th century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt); Sheridan (who I assume is the Irish short-story writer Sheridan Le Fanu); the Roman lyric poet Horace; “Nightmare Abbey” by Thomas Love Peackock; “Christian and Secular Latin” by F.J.E. Raby; the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins; Browning (who could be Robert Browning, maybe, or his wife, Elizabeth, probably); Pius II’s “Memoirs;” “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy; the Roman historian Plutarch; La Rochefoucauld (who I assume is the French writer Francois de La Rochefoucauld); “Les Fleurs du Mal” by Charles Baudelaire; Geoffrey Chaucer; John Donne; Michel de Montaigne; “The Wings of the Dove” by Henry James; “Tristram Shandy” by Laurence Sterne; “Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour” by Robert Smith Surtees; “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain; Boswell (who I assume is the biographer James Boswell; “Torrents of Spring” by Ernest Hemingway; “Phineas Redux” by Anthony Trollope; “Far From the Madding Crowd” by Thomas Hardy; “Uncle Fred in the Springtime” by P. G. Wodehouse; “Urn Burial” (which I assume is a book by Thomas Browne; and the cartoon character Tintin.

The footnote refers to 15 specific books, which makes 26 including the “books” from the main list, and 13 authors. How to proceed?

[Pause.]

Carefully, I suppose. At least knock on each of 39 (26+13) doors. (Steps?)

The only things from the Big 11 that I was acquainted with beforehand was Gibbon, which I recently read in the abridged Modern Library Classics version; “Put Out More Flags”; Dante, but only “Inferno” and not the Temple Classics version; “Kim,” which is in a two-volume collection of Kipling I own; and the “Iliad” except for whichever chapter it is where he lists all the ships. (I tried reading Proust once, and gave up.) From the footnote, as I call it, I had read some Plutarch; a collection of Le Fanu’s ghost stories, which I found to be occasionally long-winded and predictable; some Chaucer, though not since high school; and, of course, “Huckleberry Finn,” though not since adolescence. Except for the Proust, Plutarch and Chaucer, I will consider those doors knocked. (Though, if I am honest, I will add that I was planning to read most of the Waugh that Fermor listed, anyway.) Call it, Seven down out of 39.

Since my resolution, I have, from the Big 11, read only “The Unquiet Grave,” which is profound in parts and distressing in others. Connolly was sort of the Chris Hitchens of the 1930s (at least I am saying so), though he never really wrote anything other than criticism. He believed he was meant to write a masterpiece of literature, or said so, anyway, and “Grave” might have qualified had Connolly kept his mouth shut. As it is, it is more of a curiosity, some parts of it maddeningly in untranslated French and others in heartachingly introspective asides.

From the footnote, I read:

  • “The Unbearable Bassington” from “The Complete Saki,” which is bright and brilliant. So fun. Saki has the cheek and wit you will wish “Downton Abbey” would display about halfway through the I-haven’t-seen-it-yet Season 3.
  • “Torrents of Spring,” and hated it before realizing that Hemingway wrote it basically in a temper tantrum to break a contract with his publisher. Numerous critics call it a wry take on writing and writers. I was not in on the joke.
  • I just finished Baudelaire. I was nearly inspired to write my own bawdy imitations (e.g. “I gazed upon my one-legged Jewess and smelled the seaport…”), but I lacked the requisite ennui.
  • And before “Flowers,” I became happily acquainted with Phineas Finn. “Redux” is well along in Trollope’s political-drama series, and the namesake protagonist is only a supporting player in the grand scheme. But Trollope likes to explain things, and so I did not feel left out. He has an engrossing style, and I frequently found myself missing whole subway stops because I was so taken in. I craved free time so I could start reading again. The odd thing is that the plot is convoluted and maybe a little dull — you finish a particularly breathtaking chapter, and then nearly exhaust yourself trying to explain it all to a companion. (Not that I cared.)

That makes 12 doors knocked so far, 6 from the Big 11 and 6 from the footnote. I congratulate Fermor on introducing me to Saki and Tollope, and thank him cordially for Connolly and Baudelaire. For the afflication of “Torrents,” I will, for now, glumly blame myself.

And so way leads onto way. And I begin to wonder how my list would take shape. (To be continued.)

‘Three Letters From the Andes’

Three Letters From The AndesThree Letters From The Andes by Patrick Leigh Fermor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Typical. That is to say, excellent.

[Pause.]

Not that it is particularly related, but I observe that Fermor has a peculiar, sometimes-maddening, often-perplexing knack for stumbling into sublime, almost preposterous, encounters. His wit and wisdom, his polymath existence, his seemingly boundless charm, generate plenty on their own, of course, but his life is riven with out-and-out flukes. Like when, late at night, after pulling himself, sodden sweater and flooded boots and all, from an icy pool on a seemingly barren, rocky shoreline, he discovers a cave glowing with campfire and the good cheer of large party of rustics. They naturally take to Fermor as if he were a brother (“A Cave on the Black Sea” in “Words of Mercury”). Instead of shivering the night away under a scratchy wool blanket, Fermor gets drunk with shepherds and fishermen, who eventually indulge in a bawdy dance performance that is perhaps best left to be discovered on one’s own.

In “Letters,” this eye-rolling moment occurs after six weeks in the dazzling glacier white of the Andes. Fermor attends a dinner at the British embassy and is seated next to a woman who he learns over the succeeding hours is the sister of one of his comrades in arms from World War II Crete. Never mind that the ambassador’s wife happens to be Bulgarian, an ethnicity squarely in Fermor’s ample wheelhouse. Wine-soaked hours pass, and when Fermor isn’t telling war stories to the sister, he is crooning Bulgarian folk songs with the “ambassadress.”

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‘Words of Mercury’

Words of MercuryWords of Mercury by Patrick Leigh Fermor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fun to read, and an accessible starting point for Fermor.

Except that, it occurs to me, the book itself may not be very accessible in the States. My own copy is stamped with the Hammersmith library logo.

In any event, as it is a greatest-hits-type compilation, it is great fun to read. Fermor’s digressions are winding road maps of thought and reminiscence, and this volume gives the newcomer to Fermor a broad parade ground to muse on.

There are excerpts from “A Time for Gifts,” of course, but other highlights include an accounting of books Fermor would want with him on a desert island (he limits himself to 10, and then tramples on the limits) and a breathlessly engaging letter to a friend in which Fermor recounts a vacation in Spain. To him, I am sure, it was an ordinary trip, and an ordinary letter; but to my admiring eyes, it was anything but.

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