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.
“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:
- “Poets of the English Language” by W. H. Auden (five volumes).
- “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon (seven volumes).
- “Decline and Fall,” “Vile Bodies,” “Black Mischief,” “Scoop,” and “Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh.
- “Antic Hay,” “Crome Yellow,” and “Those Barren Leaves” by Aldus Huxley.
- “Old Calabria” by Norman Douglas.
- “Unquiet Grave” by Cyril Connolly. *
- The Temple Classics Dante (six volumes).
- “Kim” by Rudyard Kipling.
- “Odyssey” and “Iliad” translated by Robert Fitzgerald or Richard Lattimore.
- “Ulysses” by James Joyce.
- “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?
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.)