The Rue de l’Odeon Book Club

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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.

‘…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 Edward 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.)