Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Why do I read?

Eastside Road, Healdsburg, December 31, 2008
NOT MUCH TO DO beyond read, these days, read and socialize. The party was over yesterday, so the reading resumed.

It was discouraging, as I've noted elsewhere, to finish reading Sense and Sensibility and find at the bottom of the last page the notation 12/29/95 — the date I'd previously finished reading it. I had no recollection of the book: neither the book itself, nor of the process of reading it.

I guess I'm not surprised: I read it that December while recovering from abdominal surgery. I probably should have picked something a little less — well, subtle, I suppose. Will I remember this reading in nine years? Who knows. That's not the reason to read, nor is it the reason to live.

Yesterday I read a very different book, John Muir's My First Summer in the Sierra (New York : Modern Library, 2003). Muir knew how to live, and this book, his first, celebrates The Moment. Having recently recovered from a serious eye injury, and having warmed up by walking a thousand miles from Indiana to Florida decided then, in 1868, thirty years old, to go to California, where the next summer he took a job following a flock of two thousand fifty sheep into the high Sierra, ostensibly to keep an eye on their shepherd.

He didn't like the sheep much. Some of the funniest and sharpest passages in the book record that judgement, one of the few negative judgements Muir was to make. But he fell in love, or rather was confirmed in his love, for the high Sierra. "Love" is not too strong a word; he uses it often himself; and although his father was a preacher, and he himself had memorized the New Testament and much of the Old, he doesn't hesitate to identify the whole of Nature as an expression of love:
How boundless the day seems as we revel in these storm-beaten sky gardens amid so vast a congregation of onlooking mountains! Strange and admirable it is that the more savage and chilly and storm-chafed the mountains, the finer the glow on their faces and the finer the plants they bear. The myriads of flowers tingeing the mountain-top do not seem to have grown out of the dry, rough gravel of disintegration, but rather they appear as visitors, a cloud of witnesses to Nature's love in what we in our timid ignorance and unbelief call howling desert.
As you can see, Muir's prose is ecstatic: but it is also aware, accurate, and detailed. Page after page records observations of botany, geology, the climate. And while Muir is alone much of the time his notes on the personalities he meets — Portuguese, Indian, tourists; and also squirrels, houseflies, bear, not to mention the tedious sheep — enliven the book and bring his ecstasy back to earth.

Having walked among alpage sheep-pastures last summer I was perhaps particularly enthralled with My First Summer in the Sierra: I would like to reconstruct Muir's journey, his book in one hand, a GPS in the other. It's the sort of thing you dream about in winter, on the last day of the year.

A VERY DIFFERENT MATTER is Willem Elsschot's Cheese (New York : Granta Books, 2002), today's read, also a Christmas gift. It paired well with Muir: urban rather than rural; centered on business, not Nature; resigned, not ecstatic; it's a novel that brings to mind Svevo and early Pirandello, even Queneau and Beckett.

The story is simple: a humdrum clerk in a shipyard falls into a cheese-distributing job; his personality swerves into quite a different world. The book may well be a parable: Elsschot's afterword (which artlessly spans literary criticism, surreal poetry, and philosophical speculation) warns
The reader should gradually be seized by a feeling of uneasiness, making him turn up his collar and think of his umbrella while the sun is still out in all its glory.
(I should add that the book first appeared in 1933, and that Elsschot, whose real name was Alfons-Jozef De Ridder, was a Belgian advertising man.)

Cheese is a very funny book, but a tender one, even moving. Very economical, it brings Depression-era Belgium to life, portraying a lower-class bourgeois family intimately and sympathetically with virtually no sentiment. An interesting achievement, it reminds me of how little we know about European literature: here's another Flemish-language writer to pursue in the year to come.

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