The Rue de l’Odeon Book Club


I started with Turgenev and took the two volumes of A Sportsman’s Sketches and an early book of D. H. Lawrence, I think it was Sons and Lovers, and Sylvia told me to take more books if I wanted. I chose the Constance Garnett edition of War and Peace, and The Gambler and Other Stories by Dostoyevsky. — “A Movable Feast,” by Ernest Hemingway.

When it comes to books, and reading, I have covetous tendencies, and occasionally daydream about the possession of a magical power to be able to memorize any book with the touch of a finger.

This is not, I imagine, a popular request heard by your average genie in a bottle, but I confess I think more about that than I do a million dollars.

This jealousy also manifests itself in an avid curiosity about what people read, or more specifically what they used to read — especially figures of historical or literary importance. There are few things that can arrest my progress over a printed page more than a list of books that someone has brought home from a bookstore or packed in a duffel bag.

To wit, in “A Time for Gifts,” a well-known travelogue by the handsy inebriate Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mr. Fermor writes that for his journey to Turkey by foot he packed the “Oxford Book of English Verse” and a volume of Horace’s Odes.

There is a kind of gravity that comes along with that sentence. I don’t know how far it is from where he started, the hook of Holland, so to speak, to where he was going, Istanbul, but the question of what to pack is obviously not a light one — nor was his bag after the addition of that poetry volume.

When I read those words, I grew very curious and tried to deduce which edition of those books Mr. Fermor was likely to have had. Eventually, I could not help it and I bought them for myself.

So you see how it goes.

I have written here before about Mr. Fermor, and his musing about what books he would want on a desert island. But here I am overtaken by another idea: the book-club-within-a-book club.

And what really got me thinking in this direction was my reading Helen Hanff’s “84 Charing Cross Road,” a much-recommended (by me) epistolary of letters between a book-hungry protagonist and a tweedy bookstore in London. Wikipedia has the firstlings of an inventory of the books therein mentioned — including the “Oxford Book of English Verse” — and it struck me then that it would make an interesting reading list.

odenlistWhich brings me to the first edition of an occasional series. I will start with “A Movable Feast,” by Ernest Hemingway, also recommended.

I confess that I have a certain weakness for books like this, in particular the smoky scenes sketched in Paris cafes (pictured), where a few paragraphs can be passed innocently and unobtrusively with a serious-seeming discussion of the right kind of beer to have with a certain plate of oysters. In weak moments, I get covetous about this as well, and have often wished that my magical powers were expanded to include the ability to occasionally lounge around, drinking and scribbling in foreign cities, at 1920s prices.

Anyway, in Chapter 3, Mr. Hemingway introduces us to Shakespeare and Company, “which was the library and bookstore of Sylvia Beach at 12 rue de l’Odeon.”

…arguably the most famous independent bookstore in the world…

via Shakespeare and Company: A Legendary Bookstore in Paris | Vanity Fair.

Mr. Hemingway, or at least a literary version of his impoverished self, makes the acquaintance of Ms. Beach and is astounded by the liberal policies of her lending library. The fees are suspended until “whenever it’s convenient,” and the proprietress encourages him to add to his borrowings. He eventually leaves with a stack of books.

The first is “A Sportsman’s Sketches,” in two volumes, by Ivan Turgenev, a book that if the Internet is to believed made Mr. Turgenev’s reputation as a writer and played not an insignificant role in the abolishment of serfdom in Russia. I’ve never read it, but I will put it on my list.

“Sons and Lovers” by D. H. Lawrence is No. 9 on the Modern Library’s Top 100. And also on my to-read list. This has, again if the Internet is to be believed, some pretty racy bits.

Third in Mr. Hemingway’s pile is “War and Peace,” by Leo Tolstoy, of course, but the translation by Constance Garnett. He raved about it to his friends.

Without Garnett, the nineteenth-century “Rooshians,” as Ezra Pound called them, would not have exerted such a rapid influence on the American literature of the early twentieth.

via The Translation Wars – The New Yorker.

She was apparently something of a translation horse, scribbling page after page until reached “almost up to her knees,” Mr. Lawrence, a friend, once said. Of course, it’s not hard to find folks — notably many Russian authors — who grumble about how she was prone to mistakes and heavy-handed in her work.

Who isn’t?

(I’ve read “War and Peace,” but the version by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.)

Presumably, Mr. Hemingway picked up the Garnett translation of his fourth title, “The Gambler and Other Stories” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

This is not exactly Mr. Dostoyevsky’s most popular work, and was supposedly, perhaps ironically, written to pay off the author’s own gambling debts. (The Times loved it in 1917; “…these stories would suffice to give him rank about the great writers.”)

Which brings us to the end of our reading list, and something of a wild card.

After Mr. Hemingway’s character returns home from the library, he recounts the experience to his wife. She is immediately concerned about the expense, but he changes the subject.

Sure we’ll pay, he says, and “then we’ll walk down by the river and along the quais.” He proposes they get cocktails and have a cozy dinner at home (radishes, foie de veau, mashed potatoes and an endive salad, with apple tart for dessert).

This distracts his wife, so much so that once the itinerary is in place she quickly asks, “Does she have Henry James, too?”

Of course, she does. So for No. 5 in the program, choose anything from Henry James. (I read “Portrait of a Lady” earlier this year.)

“We’re lucky you found the place.”
“We’re always lucky,” I said and like a fool I did not knock on wood. There was wood everywhere in that apartment to knock on, too.