If in life you safely arrive at an age when most of the gang is already dead, the desire to sum up is ineffable. I wonder, father and mother dead, two step-children, friends I once knew gone, and me gone too, conceivably, at a moment's notice, how did I grow up or did I grow up at all? Do I still live with the facts and theories I was taught in school? My mother bid me the usual principles—be kind to your neighbor, love your country—, and one I have always had a problem with: give until it hurts, then give a little more. Or have I progressed to something if not larger, different? Novel? More specific? More possible? What proof do I have that my StoryNoir was spent with eyes open, and not half dead shut? In short: what have I, pilgrim amid a life, honestly come to believe?
Just recently with this topic in mind I spent a rainy afternoon picking out books I have lived with. What have I been reading the last fifty years, and why? My thought is: shouldn't that tell me what is, at least to me myself, really important? It is not uncommon to lose track, to become involved in unclear notions. Should not the books one reads tend to correct that?
Of course I'm behind the times. Styles change, tastes change. A ten years younger book lover may not share my interests. Maybe, a young student of today won't know most of the books I've spent a good portion of my life wondering about. Do they still read John Milton in school? I was pretty much finished with school before Salinger and Kerouac and Fitzgerald became assigned reading. I remember clearly how wonderful it was to read On the Road and The Great Gatsby without anybody nagging at me. Milton, on the other hand, was shoved down my throat. It is only recently I have learned to look forward with pleasure to reading him again. Shakespeare escaped all that, as who gives a damned which pedagogue is looking over your shoulder when you are reading him? On the other hand, reading Shakespeare made textbook reading for me forever an insufferable chore. Though I may wonder what the kids are reading, once upon a time I was surely wondered about, too. I do hope they will know who Jesus and Socrates are, though last I heard Socrates was a figment of Plato's imagination, in which case, I suppose, Plato at least must be real. The real Jesus seems to be holding his own, whether married or not, and I take it as divinity that his bones never have been found, move over Harry Potter.
|You might not know where Pablo is, but you sure can tell where Pablo was.|
Anyway, looking out the window of my book lined man cave, I note the dark and dreary. In the wind the rain descends sideways. I am grateful to have a shelter that is paid for, hope it will stand straight till I am dead. So I begin to collect my most often read in books. I try very hard to be honest. I admonished myself not to include books I dreamed about reading, such as Joyce's Ulysses, but never did. Or books I thought I should read and did read mostly but not to the end, such as David Copperfield or War and Peace. On the other hand, books I read through and never thought much about again, such as Huck Finn, or read through once, thought about a lot but never read again, such as The Catcher in the Rye, I did include. Except that they have good names that had a nice sound—especially when combined with the blood red cover of my paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye—when they dropped in my life, all told I gave both books rather short shrift. Take Walden, I read it a few times—"Economy" was assigned in school—still nothing special, then for a long time I found a home in Thoreau's voluminous Journals. Out of respect for The Journals I included Walden, then I included both Huck Finn and The Catcher in the Rye because of their eminence as American books. Not so such very similar, well known books, such as Mailer's The Naked and the Dead or Heller's Catch-22 or Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-5, this last of which I never did read. I have owned most of Vonnegut's books at various times in my life. I can't remember where they went. They are journalistic in style, in fact they remind me of newspaper work. I had a nice week or so with The Naked and the Dead, never finished Catch-22.
Lots of books go straight over my head. I once had an Aunt I was very fond of, a sprightly little woman, whose every word flew like a dove high over my head and disappeared in a hurry. There are in this category many books, so many, I wonder that I am really a book lover at all: Pride and Prejudice, David Copperfield—a book Tolstoy admired—Vanity Fair, Middle March, The Scarlet Letter, Winesburg, Ohio, The Great Gatsby, and so on. I have been chided and criticized for my lack of comprehension of William Faulkner. "These are books you should know!" They have insisted. Hemingway didn't think Faulkner was so great either. There are many meritorious books. I have tried Fielding's Tom Jones numerous times. Gatsby, supposedly a very vivid book, I remember in an haze. But since it was not a good enough book yet to assign in school I forged on alone. Who were these rich people? Why did they act that way? The Scarlet Letter struck more of a chord with my Roman Catholic upbringing. In fact the professor leaned on it quite remarkably, I thought. I studied the book, dug out a regular sink hole of details, and aced the test cold. Although the professor did not directly accuse me of somehow cheating, from his remarks on the test paper the inference was obvious. But these books, and others similar, such as The Red and the Black, went straight over my head, and the odds are against me ever having enough time to read them again. Their authors did not write them with me in mind. But I did make an effort to appreciate them, and I did appreciate them, but in the end I didn't care about what I was appreciating. These I did not include in my special book shelf. But the non-special bookshelf a few feet away on the other wall keeps them. Some day I will hide them away in boxes. Their constant presence accuses me of the possibility of a lifetime of gloomy ignorance.
But some books I read more than once, such as For Whom the Bell Tolls. Fidel read it, claims to have learned from it, and so did Che. I read it three times, the latest about ten years ago, and I might just read it again before I die. Nobody has to remind me the mess of things a single person who happens to show up at the right place and time equipped with mighty modern firepower can make of things, since it seems to happen every day, no war necessary. Ernest Hemingway, the author of this book, has stuck with me over the years but not as a writer of long stories—I have yet to figure out what a novel is so I'll just call it a long story—rather more as a writer of short stories. I have spent many hours reading The Complete Short Stories and The Old Man and the Sea with edification and pleasure. I have also read various biographies, essays and so on about Hem with less edification and pleasure. It is nice to know that a writer that you have enjoyed reading over the years also lived an interesting life, but I don't think it is necessary for him to lead the interesting life or for me to have to read about it.
Another great writer of short stories whom I have read quite often over the last forty years is Isaac Babel. He is a writer very similar to Hemingway, though in other respects very dissimilar. Hem, a doctor's son, a middle class American boy, who summered in Upper Michigan and was attracted to foreign wars, was nowhere or time similar to the poverty stricken boy whose youth was disturbed—this youth, incidentally, portrayed by several ravishingly dark and beautiful stories—by the anti-Jewish pogroms of Odessa, Ukraine. Isaac Babel was allowed a short, feverish lifetime to write in; he told the truth the best he knew it, and then the Soviets buried him. There is much else that can be said in comparing these two writers, but that is not my purpose here. I'll say this: while Hem has come to an erstwhile conclusion with me, Babel strongly soldiers on. I just read a few days ago a story by Babel entitled "The Beginning" and I suddenly realized that nobody I had ever read had written a story quite like it. The subject is almost too obviously common to write about. But Babel sifted it out of the darkness of the obvious and made it stunningly new. There is nothing in Hemingway to compare it to. Babel reached truths in the human condition that Hem also tried to reach. And what a youth he was, this Babel, who was dead before most men learn to think! Both writers have an exceptional understanding of the revolutionary zeitgeist that has drenched the 20th century and threatens in a cataclysm the 21st.
Please indulge me: in the end I am a patriotic American. I never could figure out if Hem was really an American, and of course Babel was a Rooshian. In my opinion, you are whatever country you were born in. There's no switching in mid-stream; you become a man without a country. The new country will never accept you and the old one won't either. Henry Thoreau hardly ever left Concord. Why should Hem and the others, Pound, Fitzgerald, Eliot, and who else?, leave America and end up getting smothered in European cross purposes? Babel was always a Russian. He left Russia in order to stay alive, but he was in a deadly hurry to get home again anyway. Hem followed his whim of the day for whatever reasons. It made him famous, because Americans love anything foreign, but it hurt the spiritual growth. Everybody bitches about the lack of the spiritual in Hem. It might not have helped that he'd chase and kill anything that swum or walked or flew. Still when he finally got home in "Wine of Wyoming", for instance, the words practically jump off the page at you. These two authors are prominent in my special bookshelf.
So these two I am sure of. But I have sifted out of my numerous, compendious bookshelves not just 48 others, to make up the 50 I have promised myself on this rainy day, but 75 others, all of which I have read more than once. I remember thinking in High School how unpromising little me could not expect to be taught to by an energetic hopeful master, therefore I must depend on a lifetime of self-education if I would ever attain a state I shyly referred to as wisdom. And beyond the 75 there are at least another 25! So this project of mine may take more than one rainy day. I was at once stuck in the dismal swamp of indecision but hopeful too, because the next rainy day may not be long in coming.