Friday, September 27, 2013

Summer Reading in One Town or Another

With the inmates of the public school system on furlough, our funding source for greens fees was necessarily curtailed during the summer months, so we indulged in a cheaper, but not less loved, pastime.

By the way, we were recently reacquainted with the young scholars and are here to report that boxer-revealing jeans for lightfoot lads and the skinny variety for rose-lipt maids are still the fashion, as is their disdain for a sophomore curriculum that begins with the sermons of Jonathan Winthrop. 

However, our reading addiction remained a demanding mistress this summer.  She led us to a variety of leafy glades and sunny perches.  A favorite was a public bench in front of a Southern state capitol shadowed by a monument to the Confederate soldier, the decorative flora of which, we observed, was tended by the descendants of American slaves.  This is called irony, a device we have tried to explain with little success to the denim-clad lightfoot lads and rose-lipt maids.

Before we turn to handicapping college football and the Federal Reserve, we take a minute to look back at a summerful of books under buttery buckets of sunshine.

We kicked off with an almost forgotten American novelist, James Gould Cozzens.  We had read “The Just and the Unjust” many years ago at the behest of a professor also smitten with Cozzens.  This go-around we picked up “Guard of Honor,” Cozzens’ World War II novel set on an Army Air Force base in Florida.  Sinuous revelations of character sans authorial comment -- from the meretricious to the noble, the weak and the strong -- wash against the background of race relations circa 1943.

It seems all our summer reading was invested in works exploring the variety and universality of the human condition.  We found both in Katherine Anne Porter’s “Ship of Fools” (aren’t we all?), whose cast of characters run from nattering Nazis to Spanish whoredom.  Losers take all in this one.

We also resumed our habit of reading deeply of a writer we have neglected over the years.  We had read Henry James’ “Daisy Miller” and “The Turn of the Screw” and were not inspired.  That was a mistake of callow youth.  In our dotage, we embarked on a gluttonous Jamesian journey through his earliest works:  “Watch and Ward,” “Roderick Hudson,” “The American,” “The Europeans,” and “Washington Square.”  All delineate the interior life exposed in love thwarted and requited.  Our favorite by far was “The American,” in which character is revealed by a self-made Westerner’s courtship of a young Parisian widow from a shabby noble family with a dark past.

For the coward in us all, we met another tortured soul in Conrad’s “Lord Jim.”  The inwardness of Jim rivals that of Hamlet, which we re-read this summer.  The story is told by Marlow, the narrator we encountered years ago when we read “Heart of Darkness” after seeing “Apocalypse Now.”

Speaking of movie-inspired reading, we re-read Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is the Night,” after seeing the re-make of “The Great Gatsby,” a failure, we thought, though DiCaprio was very good.  In any event, we wanted to revisit “Tender,” having re-read “Gatsby” in the spring.  The last lines of the former resonate deeper with us than the iconic close of the latter.

Dr. Dick Diver has lost his troubled rich wife and children to another man after expatriate escapades in France that include a young movie actress, a sodden musician, a fatuous novelist, a duel and some serious mental health issues:

“After that he didn’t ask for the children to be sent to America and didn’t answer when Nicole wrote asking him if he needed money. In the last letter she had from him he told her that he was practising in Geneva, New York, and she got the impression that he had settled down with some one to keep house for him. She looked up Geneva in an atlas and found it was in the heart of the Finger Lakes Section and considered a pleasant place. Perhaps, so she liked to think, his career was biding its time, again like Grant’s in Galena; his latest note was post-marked from Hornell, New York, which is some distance from Geneva and a very small town; in any case he is almost certainly in that section of the country, in one town or another.”

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