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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Letter to a Friend in Pennsylvania on the Rewards of Immersion

Dear Ed,

Comment ça va chez vous? Très bien, j’espère! Nous sommes en bonne forme ici. Ed, I know you read “Books in Northport” regularly, and today’s topic is one I thought you would especially appreciate, so I thought directing it to you might help me put it together. Hope you don’t mind?

Our “intrepid Ulysses group” (as I refer to them, because we first got together to discuss, in seven or eight sessions, Joyce’s monumental work) met recently to talk about Voltaire’s Candide and Zadig, and at the end of that meeting we agreed that five of us would get together in November for a session on Proust, and the whole group would reconvene in early December. That tells you that while a few of us really wanted to read (or re-read, as was the case for several of us) Swann’s Way, the others just as adamantly did not want to do so. And I am not casting stones, by the way! When the group voted to read Faulkner, I took a time-out myself....

Anyway, I re-read of Proust back in August, worried that if I put it off until later, I wouldn’t get through the entire work again in time, but now October is here, and our meeting yet a month in the future, so must I re-read it again? This is always the big question: read so far ahead that the book is not fresh in one’s memory when the group gets together, or wait until the last minute and risk not finishing in time? But then I had a lucky brain wave: this time I’d re-read it in French!

Which brings me back to you and your recent purchase of Flirting with French and your concerns and doubts about your ability ever to be able to master the language. I stand by my statement that immersion is a necessary condition for learning to relax into a second language and to develop some feeling for its nuances. Of course, the younger one is when first immersed, the more successfully the bond will be formed. And, alas! Years spent away from any cultural-linguistic milieu, whether that of one’s first or second language, but especially a second, tend to blunt the edge of mastery. (A graduate school friend of mine from Yugoslavia told me that she and her husband were “losing” their Serbo-Croatian, as they only spoke English in the U.S., even at home with each other.) When young, I had high hopes of someday learning Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, and Russian, but now if I can hang onto my English and French and a smattering of Spanish words and phrases as I ease into old age, I’ll be well satisfied.

But now I’m going to go off into what will probably seem at first a digression, i.e., poetry. Many Americans, I’ve noticed, readers of fiction and nonfiction, are downright afraid of poetry. They turn away from it with a shudder, convinced they’ll never be able to comprehend the poet’s words, and this seems a terrible shame, for they are missing so much beauty, so many startling new visions of the world. “Don’t analyze every line for meaning,” I urge those reluctant ones. “Think of it as a warm spring rain, and just let yourself stand out in it and get soaked.” You see what I’m saying, right? Immersion again. The sound and feel and rhythm – before worrying about the meaning. After all, isn’t this how all children first learn language? Definitions and rules come much later. Analysis and explanation come at the end, not the beginning.

So as I’ve already read Swann’s Way in English at least three times and maybe more and once in French, this time in reading the French I am not trying to translate in my head at all but simply immerse myself, swim in it, let it rain down on me. When a word comes along that I don’t recognize, I go blithely on without consulting a dictionary. Certain constructions common in French and never used in English slow me down from time to time, but my goal is always to keep swimming. The story is familiar enough to me that I recognize scenes as they come along, and the words and phrases that are clear to me keep me from drowning.

It is so beautiful! I can hardly believe that for so many years of my life I said to so many people, very self-righteously, as if I’d “seen through” generations of less clear-sighted readers’ passion, “Life is too short to read Proust”! Now I would say that life is too short not to read Proust!

Our past, enchanted, immobilized and imprisoned in material objects unless and until, by chance (le hasard), we encounter it again, in some evanescent taste or smell (l’odeur ou le saveur), those senses which, like some souls (comme des âmes), carry the entire immense edifice of memory. The man sips a spoonful of tea containing crumbs from the cookie he has dunked, and suddenly he is filled with joy. A moment’s reflection makes clear to him that the joy, the truth, is neither in the cookie nor in the tea but in himself. No, it was not in him but was him. ...[C]ette essence n’était pas en moi, elle était moi. ... Il est clair que la vérité que je cherche n’est pas en lui, mais en moi. The past was yet alive, present, in his memories, in images (not limited to visual, bien sur) deep within (au fond de moi).

David can be transported back to childhood by crisp bacon. Dried apricots do that trick for me, as does the sharp perfume of a small, nondescript weed that takes me back to driveway make-believe, at my parents’ home and my grandmother’s little place in the country. For Proust, it was the petite madeleine that was the key to an entire era of his life, his summers in Combray. I read his detailed memories of the stained glass windows of the church at Combray and remember enduring long sermons in my mother’s church by imagining myself a tiny creature with wings (not an angel, mind you, or I would be too big in scale), flying among the intricate Gothic spires of the altarpiece carved by German immigrants. However grey the sky, it was always beautiful in the church, Proust wrote.

The church, his old great-aunt’s eccentricities and those of her made, the shopping and the meals, his longing for the theatre, an unplanned visit the boy makes to his uncle with no idea in the world that it will be their last meeting.... Immersion! You immerse yourself—in poetry, in another language—and then will come, with poetry some personally salient metaphor, with French some strikingly beautiful word, with either a phrase that goes straight to your heart, and that metaphor or word or phrase is a door leading into another world. Proust describes the theatre posters he saw in the street as a child in terms of their colors. How do you see in your mind the color called lie de vin? Maybe it isn’t even the words but only the music (to me, listening to French is like listening to music), as in the musical phrase le roucoulement du colombe. You hear the dove when you murmur the words aloud.

Yesterday when I began writing this letter, Ed, it was a quiet, dreary, rainy Friday afternoon. I’d had several sales earlier in the day, but somehow when the woman was buying the children’s reader from 1930 and I was writing the date on the sales slip, for the first time it registered with me that the next day (now today) would be (now is) the birthday of my #1 favorite philosopher, Henri Bergson, né à Paris, 1859, the last of the great metaphysical dualists.

Bergson argued so brilliantly against materialism that William James thought there was no longer a need to read Kant: “Bergson,” he wrote, “has resolved all the antinomies.” Bergson’s chief contribution was to bring the attention of philosophy to what the phenomenologists after him called “lived time,” as distinguished from the uniformly measured time of clocks. His own term was ‘duration’ (la durée), and he insisted that duration was real. “Duration is the continuous progress of the past which gnaws into the future and which swells as it advances,” such that “the past in its entirety is prolonged into the present and abides there actual and acting.” Past images living as memories; consciousness enlarged by an increasing field of choice which in its turn enlarges consciousness; the living being as a center of action, a focus of redirected force, a center of “creative evolution” – all this Bergson proposed over and against the deterministic materialism still, oddly, in vogue today.

Today the 155th birthday of Henri Bergson, and Bergson was married to a cousin of Marcel Proust, and I love seeing the thoughts of each in the work of the other. I’m inexplicably glad that Bergson’s birthday did not slip by me unnoticed this year.

Alors, heureuse anniversaire, Henri -- et bon courage, Edouard! We’re here now. Cette petite tranche de maintenant (hold it in your hand!) est à nous d’en profiter!

A la prochaine,

toujours amicalement,


Friday, October 17, 2014

Even Stones Are Not Forever

The moving of stones is the course of history, and of rubble and forgetting.
 – W. S. Merwin, The Mays of Ventadorn (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2002)
Friends of ours were in Scotland recently. As always when visiting the U.K., they spent quite a bit of time searching for megalithic sites, ruined abbeys, ancient churches, and especially for stone circles. Kilmore Stone Circle, thousands of years old, they had found years ago, hidden away in a dark pine forest, within its own clearing in the forest. On this trip several such destinations eluded them (one obviously fallen victim to the clear-cutting of a pine forest), but they did at last succeed in reaching hidden-away Loch Buie Circle and felt more than repaid for all their efforts.

Stone “ruins” in my neighborhood are not ancient by European time measure, but an old farmhouse fallen into its foundation in the 1960s and overgrown since with vegetation gives me some feeling of communing with those who came before us here. Here is one I saw for the first time last Monday, on a walk with a friend. It is very difficult to photograph, overgrown as it is with vegetation. Photograph at left is close-up of one side wall; those below I tried with fish-eye mode to get in more of the walls.

The trail at the new Clay Cliffs Natural Area north of Leland winds back and forth with long switchbacks up a gentle grade, with only short steep portions, and it comes out at a platform over Lake Michigan, giving onto an almost aerial view. The beach is a long way down, and you don't get there from here.

In my memory of that day, my first on the Clay Cliffs trail, however, the most vivid image will be one not captured by my camera. Beyond the undercut edge of the clay bluff, a closely curled leaf caught my eye. Its erratic jerking and twisting could not be accounted for by breezes, as other leaves nearby were still or, at most, gently drifting through the air, and so, abandoning our survey of the vast surface of Lake Michigan before us, my friend and I watched the dancing leaf, just beyond our reach. We were spellbound, entranced, mesmerized, and I convinced my friend that there must be a caterpillar wrapped up in the leaf, spinning a coccoon. “But it’s hanging in midair!” “No, it must have spun a filament to hang its coccoon from.” My friend called this my ‘hypothesis,’ so we looked as closely as we could but the filament I had ‘hypothesized’ remained invisible to our eyes.

The leaf continued to gyrate in the air, sometimes spinning, sometimes jerking up and down. I was sure the gyrations could only be caused by something inside the leaf, a creature that had pulled the leaf around itself like a cloak and was now at work spinning a winter home, its spinning movements causing the entire leaf to swing. That original silken thread must be very strong, my friend and I marveled. We were so caught up in the drama that had we brought chairs along with us we might have stayed an hour or more, watching this real-life nature documentary. We spoke of coming back in a few days to check up on the creature’s progress but at last started on the return leg of the path.

Most of the trees on this land have grown up since it was originally cleared, perhaps only since it’s no longer farmed, but one field remains open, cut for hay each year by a farmer on the other side of north Lake Leelanau. From that hayfield, one can see across clear to St. Wenceslaus Church. During the winter, did the original farm family take a horse and wagon across the ice and up the hill to attend mass?

As it happened, the day I met my friend to walk the trail I’d just that morning finished reading Merwin’s book about medieval troubador poets and his own life and explorations in rural southcentral France. He writes of finding an old farmhouse, buried in vegetation, such as was the farmhouse I was to see only a few hours after reading his description:
The thicket of brambles had grown over the path to the front door, which faced south toward the road, and had made its way up onto the roof, into the tiles. To the left of the parched front door buried in its thorny tangle, another, older doorway, like a barn entrance, had been bricked up.... I peered through the hole into the half-dark of an empty, ruined room.
He writes also of the neighborhood chateau (something my northern Michigan neighborhood definitely lacks), built and rebuilt over the centuries, its stones at times sold and carted off to pay the taxes, finding their way here and there in other buildings of the region -- here part of a barn, elsewhere adorning a house, etc. Trees and stones: we tend to think of mountains and stone buildings as fixtures, but Merwin tells us differently; like forests, like orchards, they rise up and are taken town, either by man or by nature.
Stones lie wherever they are as though they had always been there. Our awareness of our own pace in time keeps us from recognizing that the motions of stones are akin to those of snowflakes and molecules, and to us the moment in which they lie seems like an unchanging condition, and they come to exemplify permanence. So the Venus de Milo looks to us as tough she had never had arms at all, and the ruin appears to have been the truth of the chateau from the beginning.
Merwin was only in his 20s, a young poet just setting out in life, when, thanks to a bequest from a relative and his own frugality in investing it and leaving the principal untouched, he managed to buy an old farmhouse in this magic, troubador-haunted region. He tells us that, for him,
...the awareness of the deep past was inseparable from the lure of the land, which soon held me there, and the structures themselves appeared to me as palimpsests of unsounded age....
This, I think, is what it means to love a place. One loves its history as much as the trees and wildflowers and hills of one’s own lifetime. To live in a place, truly, means living with its past as well as its present. And isn't that a lovely idea, the structures as palimpsests?

I was particularly happy with Merwin’s observation that the “crumpled” landscape of the Quercy was yet farmed, when first he came there, by the practice of ‘polyculture,’ or what we in the midwestern United States know as diversified agriculture. Isolated as the communities were, it made sense for them to be self-sufficient. Besides, their land was in no way suited to large fields and heavy machinery. Here in Leelanau Township, as well, farms here tend to be very human in scale, and recently there has been a turnaround across the entire country, with more and more small farms coming into production under the hands of a young generation. This is not “turning back the clock.” It is working with rather than against nature – and living as a human being rather than as a slave to mechanical industry – and preparing a happy, healthy future for generations to come, as well as enjoying our present good fortune.

Stones may move or be moved, over the course of the earth’s long history, by nature or by man, but we are here for only a short time, and while here, “we must cultivate our garden.” 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

“We Must Cultivate Our Garden”

The latest self-assigned reading project for our intrepid Ulysses group was a double-header: Candide and Zadig, by François-Marie Arouet, known to the world as Voltaire. Comparing notes when we met to discuss Voltaire, we learned that all of us had read Candide first. It is, after all, Voltaire’s most famous work, and in the Signet Classic paperback edition we read (translated by Daniel M. Frame, with introduction by John Iverson and afterword by Thaisa Frank), Candide gets top billing on the cover and is the first work in the book, Zadig and Selected Stories trailing after.

Voltaire was no stodgy writer. When one member of our group observed, a trifle disparagingly, “He’s no Proust,” another agreed enthusiastically and gratefully. (Only five of the nine of us will meet in November to discuss Swann’s Way, the others begging off.) Voltaire’s outlandish adventure tales move right along, calamities and reversals of fortune piling up so fast it makes a reader’s head spin. This is not ‘realism,’ magic or otherwise, but sharp satire.

So, like the others in the group, I read Candide first, and when I reached the last page and the final words, I was overcome with deep satisfaction. Candide’s teacher, Pangloss, having learned nothing from all his experiences, is still holding forth with his metaphysics of optimism:
“All events are linked together in the best of all possible worlds; for after all, if you had not been expelled from a fine castle with great kicks in the backside for love of Mademoiselle Cunégonde, if you had not been subjected to the Inquisition, if you had not traveled about America on foot, if you had not given the Baron a great blow with your sword, if you had not lost all your sheep from the good country of Eldorado, you would not be here eating candied citrons and pistachios.”  
“That is very well said,” replied Candide, “but we must cultivate our garden.”
I loved that, and the morning I finished Candide, I posted a line or two on Facebook about how satisfying I found the protagonist’s final words. One of my friends objected. He felt the end of the book counseled withdrawal from the world and a retreat from action. (What is the word I’m forgetting here? The entire Fb exchange appears to have vanished into thin air, including the message I sent my friend.) I hadn’t read it that way at all! Metaphorical, yes, but meaning -- ???

Set that aside for a moment. I'll come back to it.

Turning to Zadig felt like coming down a few steps on the literary-historical ladder. The character Zadig was nearly perfect in the beginning – not only handsome and rich but also wise, generous, etc., etc., etc. – and rewarded in the end. He had a hero’s challenges (ho-hum) but not much to learn. Well, he did have a little something to learn, not in how to behave or how to live or how to counsel others but how to view the world. The most intriguing and bothersome passage to me in all of Zadig was his conversation with the hermit who transformed into an angel, come to enlighten him.

Immediately before the following exchange, the old hermit threw a widow’s nephew into the river, where he drowned. When Zadig protested, the hermit said that the young man “whose neck Providence has wrung would have murdered his aunt in a year and you in two.” The hermit then sprouts wings, Zadig falls reverentially to the ground, and the following conversation takes place.
“Men,” said the angel Jesrad, “pass judgment on everything without knowing anything; of all men you were the one who most deserved to be enlightened.” 
Zadig asked his permission to speak. “I mistrust myself,” he said, “but may I venture to ask you to clear up one doubt for me? Would it not have been better to have corrected that child and made him virtuous than to drown him?”  
Jesrad replied, “If he had been virtuous and if he had lived, his destiny was to be assassinated himself, together with the wife he was to marry and the child that was to be born to them.”  
“But,” said Zadig, “what? Then it is necessary that there be crimes and misfortunes? And the misfortunes fall on the good!”  
“The wicked,” replied Jesrad, “are always unhappy. They serve to test a small number of just men scattered over the earth, and there is no evil out of which some good is not born.”  
“But,” said Zadig, “what if there were nothing but good, and no evil?” 
“Then,” replied Jesrad, “this earth would be another earth, the chain of events would be another order of wisdom; and that other order, which would be perfect, can exist only in the eternal abode of the Supreme Being, whom evil cannot approach. He has created millions of worlds, not one of which can resemble another. This immense variety is an attribute of his immense power. There are not two leaves of a tree on earth, or two globes in the infinite fields of the heavens, that are alike; and everything you see on the little atom on which you were born had to be, in its appointed place and time, according to the immutable orders of him who embraces all. Men think that this child who has just perished fell into the water by chance, that it was by a similar chance that that house burned down; but there is no chance; all is test, or punishment, or reward, or foreseeing."
Is the angel Jesrad a precursor of Pangloss? All that is, must be? But Pangloss, for all his contorted reasoning, did not go so far as to see reward and punishment in necessity! Pangloss told Candide, “...private misfortunes make up the general good, so that the more private misfortunes there are, the more all is well.” It is not that those visited by misfortune have been punished. Besides, pointed out a sharp-eyed group member, the angel goes on to say that Zadig has been sent to change the fisherman’s destiny! Change it? Change destiny? Is it destiny, or isn’t it?

John Iverson writes that Voltaire was troubled by the philosophical system of Leibniz, “who reasoned that if God was perfect then He must have created a perfect world.” My French edition of Candide has an introduction (in English) by Julian Eugene White, who claims that Voltaire was better acquainted with Alexander Pope’s “perversion” of the Liebnizian philosophy reconciling the existence of evil with God’s perfect goodness. The general view, at any rate, still assumed everything in nature to have a purpose, or what Aristotle called a “final cause.” This is not ‘cause’ as we understand it today, coming before the effect and bringing it about, but one serving as a goal, a reason “in order to” rather than a reason “because of,” if you will.

At this point, one group member took off after Aristotle, blaming him for centuries of convoluted rationalizations on the part of the Roman Catholic Church, but I’m not going to take up that fight. Instead I’ve looked up birth and death dates for Voltaire, the three giants of European rationalism, and the triumvirate of European empiricists.

Rene Descartes, 1596-1650
Baruch Spinoza, 1632-77
John Locke, 1632-1704
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, 1646-1716
Francois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, 1694-1778
David Hume, 1711-1835
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1712-78

Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz are the rationalists, and to understand the world, they simply reasoned about it. No telescopes or microscopes needed – an armchair would do. Descartes, by means of a famous thought experiment, demonstrated to his own satisfaction that he could always trust his own God-given mind to lead him to the truth. Cartesian confidence was clearly at work in the reasonings of Voltaire’s Doctor Pangloss.

But John Locke, the first of the empiricists, was born ahead of Voltaire, and David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were of Voltaire’s generation. Voltaire, then, is on the cusp. The authority of the rationalists is waning, and scientific experiment and the authority of experience are coming to the fore. Candide, malgré lui, is an empiricist: although his only goal was to be reunited with his beloved Cunégonde, he learns from his travels and his experiences. Interestingly, one of the things he learns is to judge and think for himself, which was a very Cartesian proposition, but let’s not think too much about that....

Here’s something I found myself wondering: How optimistic, really, was the philosophy of Doctor Pangloss or Alexander Pope or Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz? It was not, surely, the optimism of a happy modern individual, sure that things will always go right in his or her life. The optimism, if one wants to continue calling it that, was instead a faith that the clockwork of the world was running on some rational basis. Thus, early in the story, when Pangloss reappears exhibiting all the ravages of venereal disease, he reasons that his personal sufferings are all necessary to go into making up the general good. Punishment? No, simple necessity! – So what I wonder is, why could we not call this fatalism?

And now, looking back at Zadig (1748), don’t the angel’s pronouncements – pronouncements the author seemed to endorse at the time of writing that work – seem only ever so slightly improved upon in the philosophy of Pangloss, the latter philosophy one that the author at the time of writing Candide (1759) clearly rejected? Pangloss may have thought it “not fitting” for a philosopher to recant an earlier opinion, but the philosophe Voltaire, it seems, was not ashamed to learn and move forward.

The group member who noted the inconsistency in the angel’s lesson on destiny was concerned with Voltaire’s opinion of his imaginary Eldorado, the land where all goods were freely shared, no courts of law needed, and God only thanked, never petitioned. This was the only place Candide visited, she observed, that the author never seemed to mock. Was this, then, his Utopia, his ideal society? Was it a possible society? I asked. Wouldn’t it get boring? a couple others wondered. We left the question unresolved.

But now, let's come back to our sheep. For me, the most burning question was the meaning of “Il faut cultiver notre jardin,” or, “We must cultivate our garden.” Admitting the phrase to be ambiguous, White nevertheless chooses what he calls “the more optimistic interpretation” (!), which he articulates in the following proposition: “Practical action should be substituted for ... vain speculation.” White argues passionately that in the latter part of Voltaire’s life, “cultivating his garden” took the form of unremitting battle for humanitarian causes, unceasingly writing pamphlets against all manner of intolerance and injustice. Écrasons l’infâme (“Let us crush infamy!”) is hardly the slogan of a man who has retreated from the world to live complacently behind his garden walls! Thus the author’s life supports the pragmatist interpretation.

Il faut cultiver notre jardin.
Écrasons l’infâme!

If not identical, the two phrases are certainly compatible, n'est-ce pas? I would even say quite compatible.

Voltaire’s garden was the world. It was not that of Eden, where no work was necessary. And as for Voltaire, so for us: our garden is the world we have, it admits of improvement, and it is up to us to do the work. At least, that is the lesson I take from Candide. And to my mind, he could not have chosen a happier metaphor.

This past year I have cultivated my bookstore garden very well, I think. Dog Ears Books hosted fewer events, but every single one of them was a roaring success. I have used this blog, at least from time to time, as a platform for important social and environmental causes. My vegetable garden, on the other hand, the literal garden in my life, was the victim of shameful neglect. I’m not happy about that. I can’t do everything, but I hope to have a real garden again next year -- even with the realization that, for my bookstore customers and guest authors, the metaphorical garden of my bookstore is undoubtedly the more important ground to be worked.

Need I Say More?

Leelanau Township, Michigan,
October 15, 2014
Wednesday afternoon

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

One Day with Poetry

It started that day with a slim paperback volume, picked up at random and opened because I recognized the publisher’s name, David R. Godine, on the back cover. The book was Difficulty, poems by William Logan. The poems stopped me in my tracks. I can’t say I understood them, but I didn’t want to get into analysis, either. The lines put me under a spell. “Who could tire of the false variations of sky / when any night can level the corn / or take from the trees an unripe fruit?” That entire page – more pages. “An evening. Each sunset window finds its flame....” Do I understand my own life? ‘Encounter’ rather than ‘understanding’ captures what I felt. I was encountering something that was somehow very familiar in beautiful, unfamiliar words. Familiar but other. Not a mirror but a window --.

Another book came to my hands, again apparently at random. It was Paper Trails: Selected Prose, 1965-2003, by Richard Howard, the first piece in it “A Consideration of the Writings of Emily Dickinson” (1974), startling me line after line almost as much as does Dickinson’s poetry, as Howard claims not only that her poems were not only never “finished” but were never meant to be, that what seem to be problems in her work were, in fact, for her, solutions. And then this:
That is why I have called my paper a consideration, a word which first meant seeing the stars together as significant constellations, in relation to one another.
Who can read such a sentence and not stop, wide-eyed and astonished, to read it again and to marvel. Really. That’s what it meant?Sidereal.

Poetry and language have me at their mercy now. To catch my breath, I go online to look for Richard Howard and learn that he has translated over 150 works from French, so I step away from my desk, step to the poetry on my shelf of new books and pull down Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal, and sure enough, the translator is Richard Howard – and the publisher is David R. Godine. (Bless his heart.)

I am come full circle. A browser in the bookstore is asking me if I have something by --. Reluctantly, loathe to leave the fire’s circle, I put down my book and search the shelves for something I’m already sure is not there – making the effort, showing interest, demonstrating goodwill -- but today poetry is tugging at my sleeve, and it’s past closing time, and I’m eager to be gone, to be out under the open sky with my dog in the blazing late afternoon October light, a field of rustling corn on one side of the dusty road, trees from which the fruit has been harvested on the other, all around gentle hills, and in the road’s dust a mysteriously dead goose lying in contorted stillness. 

Who could tire of the variations from one day to the next? False? That I must consider.

Thursday, October 9, 2014


First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, 
and Jane Austen,
by Charlie Lovett
NY: Viking, 2014
Hardcover, $27.95
On sale October 20, 2014

Like a wary horse led toward a new and unfamiliar horse trailer – i.e., suspiciously, nervously -- that’s how I approach modern fiction claiming inspiration from Jane Austen’s work. My mind is not closed but is definitely guarded. At the same time, I’m also prepared to be won over. That’s it, though: I’ll be passing judgment on every page with a standard set 200 years ago by Jane Austen herself. How could it be otherwise?

Charlie Lovett did not win me over on the first page or even in the first chapter of First Impressions. I found fault with his adjectives and even his verbs.
Her first impression was that he was the picture of gloom—dressed in shabby clerical garb, a dark look on his crinkled face, doubtless a volume of dusty sermons clutched in his ancient hand.
But Jane Austen herself is the main character in that and every other chapter, so Lovett has given himself quite a challenge. Attempting to imitate Jane Austen! It is all too easy for words to fail: he who attempts and she who critiques had best tread carefully here. And so I read on.

After only four pages of his fictional Jane and her fictional and purely invented friend and mentor, our modern author shifts to the present day, introducing us to young Sophie Collingwood, and you’d think Sophie would seem easier to accept than first-chapter Jane, but maybe I’d allowed my skepticism to deepen over the previous four pages, because I did not immediately cotton to Sophie, either. Reading ostentatiously as she walked along, looking down on the strange young man for being American and casually dressed but then speaking to him of her father in a manner seemingly designed to invite the development of a relationship -- that is Sophie as we first meet her. “Sophie rolled her eyes. ‘He likes to shoot things.’” Is she trying to give Eric the brush-off or encourage revelations? Maybe she’s not sure herself, and maybe our first impression of Sophie will not be a lasting impression.

Back to Hampshire, 1796, in the third chapter, the Reverend Mr. Richard Mansfield gives the fictional Jane the first suggestion of many to follow as to the development of a story she has in progress.
“I only felt that if Sir John Middleton were a more affable sort – the type to throw parties or host picnics – your younger characters might be thrown together with more frequency.” 
 “I confess I had not yet given much thought to the character of Sir John,” said Jane. “But I think you are right. And it should not take much rewriting to set him on a course to host picnics and balls aplenty.”
Now the horse is asked to walk up the ramp to the trailer, and this horse plants hooves squarely on solid earth and digs in! Stiff legs, ears laid back! Jane Austen needing literary guidance from an older man? One whose own writing is pedestrian in the extreme? What kind of liberties are being taken here with one of my favorite writers of all time?

The structure of First Impressions is two stories, however, one historical fiction and the other modern mystery. Eventually the two will intertwine. And fortunately my second impression of Sophie was more favorable than the first, the revised view beginning where Lovett starts cashing in the promise of “old books” in his subtitle. Sophie’s Uncle Bertram, I learn to my great delight, was a book collector. Soon Sophie finds a job in a secondhand bookshop! She gets to know a customer whose passion is early printing, and this intrigues her (though she’s never been interested in the printing aspect of books before), as her family is descended from an early English printer. She learns to question her own first impressions of everyone and everything.

There is a lot in this book for bibliophiles. My part-time bookstore helper, Bruce, will love the beginning of this chapter (page 79):
Almost without thinking ... Sophie had walked to Cecil Court, a short pedestrian lane between Charing Cross Road and St. Martin’s Lane that was lined on both sides with bookshops. Cecil Court, with its rows of tall glass windows framed by green painted woodwork and filled with displays of every type of book imaginable, was the heart of London’s secondhand book trade. The world seemed to move more slowly here....
And Sophie’s Uncle Bertram, expounding to her on the beauty of rare books:
“If you mail a rare stamp it becomes worthless. If you drink a bottle of rare wine, you’re left with some recycling. But if you read a rare book it’s still there, it’s still valuable, and it’s achieved the full measure of its being. A book is to be read, whether it’s worth five pounds or five thousands pounds.”
Because that’s the kind of collector Bertram was, a reader rather than a trophy hunter. It’s impossible not to love him, so I was grateful to have so many encounters with him in flashbacks, despite his death early in the novel.

Death? Uncle Bertram? Did he fall, or was he pushed? Is Sophie’s imagination running away with her, as did young Catherine Morland’s in Austen’s Northanger Abbey?

Whatever will be discovered later on, Sophie’s impression that Uncle Bertram’s death is suspicious constitutes a mystery for her. The second mystery has to do with a couple of very specific 18th-century books and the relationship between the fictional Jane Austen (remember, this is a novel Lovett has written) and her aged mentor. Sophie is determined to solve both.

Jane’s mentor, Richard Mansfield, is mirrored in Sophie’s life by her Uncle Bertram and later, in lesser fashion, by the bookseller, Gusty Boxhill. Sophie’s loving relationship with her sister Victoria mirrors that of Jane and Cassandra. Eric and Winston, Sophie’s “suitors,” seem to have no parallel in the fictional Jane Austen’s story. Are we to believe and trust either one of them, or do the older men hold all the truth and devotion cards?

For me, the modern chapters of this book worked better than those with Jane Austen, although I enjoyed brief two-century-old glimpses of the fictional printer. As for the mysteries, they felt contrived, and I could have done without them, whereas the world of old books, bookshops, bookselling, printing history, and primary source research had me spellbound. But this is, as always, a subjective response: I am a bookseller, and I live in a world of books. It’s also no small matter to me when a writer undertakes to re-invent one of my favorite authors.

The bottom line, though, is that First Impressions is an entertaining book and makes enjoyable reading. It will be irresistible to Austen fans and bibliophiles, and mystery readers and book club members will enjoy it, as well. The discussion possibilities are endless.

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A Colorful Fall in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

My photographs do not do justice to the color we saw in the U.P. last week. It was the most and best fall color we’ve ever had north of the Bridge. For one thing, we went up later than usual, but even so, people who live there year-round were saying it was an unusually beautiful autumn.

Some of the color was subtle, and some was spectacular. We were viewing a lot of it in the rain, however, which does make a difference.

Much of the spectacular color, too, we saw along the highway. I’d see something, but then by the time we stopped that particular view was gone, so it was only in an old stumpfield, logged over and burned over long ago, that I finally had time to wander on foot, so many of my scenes of U.P. fall color are miniature in scope, small Arctic landscapes. Bracken, blueberries, reindeer moss, and a few ankle-high seedling trees.

And then came a moment that meant a lot to me, and I cannot begin to explain why. Two years ago I’d stumbled upon a bearing tree, and this year, by diligent searching, I managed to re-find it. It is only a stump among acres and square miles of stumps, but it was once a tree, and the tag on it is a unique place identifier, and the serendipity that first led me to it has endeared it to memory.

When we were planning our drive from Grand Marais to Marquette on H58, I told David I wanted to look again this year for the “witness tree.” Why my mind came up with that name, I don’t know. Technically, a witness tree and a bearing tree are not the same thing, and as I understand it (assuming I do), a witness tree is identified in cases where a bearing tree cannot be marked. Mine is a bearing tree. But witness tree? I love the poetry of names in general and that name, in particular.