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Lest We Forget

“We can bear almost anything. But now the sweat breaks out on us. We must get up and run no matter where, but where these cries can no longer be heard”

Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ was published in November, 1928, nearly ten years exactly since the end of the war it documented. It was a rich time for the publication of manuscripts, diaries and novels from the war: written perhaps out of a sense of delicacy, when the pain of the survivors was just beginning to wane. Or perhaps they were written out of fear: that a topic of great monetary potential was being passed over – that a calamity that had been called ‘great’ was about to be forgotten.

Before it had been two years in print, it had sold 2.5 million copies and had been translated into 22 languages. Its coarseness and vulgarity was taken by some to be mere attention-getting for its schlock and shock value. For its ugly realities ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ was one of the first degenerate books to be publicly burnt by the Nazis in 1933.

The novel opens with a statement which is a declaration of honesty and distance, that it is “neither an accusation nor a confession”. The author’s intent is only to describe the experiences of a single platoon of German soldiers, whom “though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war”.

Specifically, it is the story of Paul Bäumer whom, along with the rest of his class, was urged by his professor to join the army. His classmates were eventually scattered throughout the trenches that had just begun to circulate, branching like veins, from Belgium to Switzerland. Battles were never mentioned by name, but retained a shroud-like presence in every chapter, a destructive force even when the guns are silent or when the soldier is on leave.

Paul endures the filth and boredom of trench life that was never mentioned in his professor’s idealistic tirades. The stress and fear which makes a soldier long for home is relieved only by the detachment he feels when he gets leave to visit that haven, wary of describing experiences no one could understand. It creates a sickness of mind (‘shell shock’, ‘neurasthenia’) that would only be recognized, and just barely, later in the war.

Towards the end of the war, all of Paul’s friends are either missing or dead. Despite the rumors of peace he only sees a future that is empty, trapped within a generation that will be perpetually misunderstood. On the day of his death, the report from the front to headquarters was “all is quiet on the western front”.

And it is there that the novel ends; a harrowing journey that ends in the worst way, with a death that means nothing, that symbolizes nothing – a single, blank, unrecognized effort among millions.

In 1930 the book became a film of the same name. Screenings were besieged by Nazi-organized protests; there were mob attacks on theater goers: proof that the war was not over. But for all the ugly attention, the film won the Academy Award for Best Picture and its lead actor, Lew Ayres, became a star.

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Ayres work on the film did something more important than inaugurate a career. It made such a profound impression on him that in 1942 he was registered as a 4E conscientious objector and sent to a CO camp. He eventually served in the Pacific as a medic, setting up evacuation hospitals and providing care to soldiers and civilians in the Philippines and New Guinea, winning three battle stars. All of the money he earned during the war he donated to the American Red Cross. When Ayres resumed his career, he continued his work in film, but never attained the peak he attained when he played a soldier suffocating in mud and despair.

I have seen the film, and it is an honest, honorable effort. Hollywood however could not help but tie too neat of a bow on an ending which was supposed to mirror war’s hopelessness and desolation. Towards the end, Paul – who counted butterfly collecting amongst his civilian hobbies – sees a butterfly alight on the soil and wire of No Man’s Land. He is off screen, but the viewer sees his arm outstretched towards the creature. Suddenly, there is a crack of a sniper’s rifle, the arm stiffens, and then is still.

Before the screen is dark, there is an image of white crosses, marking an expanse of German graves. It fills the screen. Superimposed on the crosses is another image: that of a group of young soldiers clad in gray and wearing their pickelhaube helmets. One by one, each looks over his shoulder towards us: his expression full of disbelief, distrust, confusion, fear. It is a vision that is hard to forget.

Remarque’s bleak and realistic depiction of war struck a chord with the survivors – of the warfront and the home front – and commentary around the world was passionate, whether it was positive and negative. Critics accused him of denigrating the German war effort, of exaggerating its horror and sins. They insulted his endeavor. In short, many of them did not believe him.

I began this piece with a quote from the novel. The cries referred to are not from the men, but from the horses – terrified, eviscerated, their eyes rolling upwards in white-eyed panic. The sound is not human, but it is not quite animal. The horses haven’t the wit to wish for death, to pray to God or beg for help. All they know is an agony that is unexplained and inescapable.

The men heard these soul-destroying cries and one, named Detering, – who had been a farmer – is particularly appalled. Before the all clear is sounded and the wounded men could be gathered, he tries to bolt from their trench to shoot the animals and put them out of their misery. But he is stopped, lest their current position be revealed. In disgust, he says “It is of the vilest baseness to use horses in the war”.

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For me, this one episode puts the lie to all the claims that ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ was nothing but a fantasy published to demean the German army and cash in on the new pacifism. Simply said, no one could make something like this up. This is another vision which is hard to forget.

And this could be war’s saving grace. That the dreadful memories will one day lead to a universal disgust and leave us only with a collection of histories that can’t be forgotten.

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Travel With Me

Towards the end of this last, lamented year – really, it never did have a chance – I had the sudden urge to leave.  But perhaps that is the wrong word, with its sense of finality and closed doors – rather, I wanted to escape.  Leave is of the body; escape is a talent of the mind.   

I had grown weary of modern things, and the contemporary world outside.  I suddenly felt bookish and secretive, as if I wanted to hold lives in my hands, watching them their chapters unfold between two covers.  I wanted a vision that was distant. I wanted to dip my toe into centuries that weren’t mine and look into the stories beneath the ripples, and listen to them lapping on unseen shores.

Libraries to me always seemed to be in an eternal dusk, where a dark sun insinuated itself down aisles that towered with promises and ideas.  I had hoped to live in that soft atmosphere, flush with silence and understanding.  And I wish I was there now.

Modernity is everywhere, and I tire of it.  Metal-bound and fast, it has consumed too much; demanded – and received – too many years.  I need to escape, but not physically.  My imagination, on the other hand, yearns to investigate time and distance:  to touch the glow that simmers beneath strange horizons.  I can feel that tempting heat now, and I want to follow it.

There are lives so distant, so buried, that it is hard to believe that they were ever blessed with existence.  Their breath has long since evaporated, but their aged molecules still wreath about our heads like ghostly crowns.  Their bones have long since fossilized into a sediment lively with the residue of spent lives – and their footsteps have cultivated the earth, making it into a sunken garden of past journeys.

Dark Country

I would like to see them alive again.  I want to see their centuries blossom like forgotten countrysides becoming fertile once more under a nurturing and understanding attention.  I wish I could walk through that landscape, feeling the green contour of the grasses on my fingers.  If I could be there, I would sense the lush atmosphere of history like a velvety perfume….it would sink into my skin with all the permanence of memory.   Realities that were not my own would assume shape.   I would step into the sudden dimensions like a traveler, warmed by foreign suns, shadowed by antiquity, aglow with the magic of unknown lives. 

 And it’s there that I would escape.  Who wants to come with me?

Book Group

Many years ago – when I no longer felt obligated to join such things, yet before I had lost complete interest and therefore chose to indulge that lack, I joined a book group.  I can’t tell specifically why I did such a thing; all I know is that when the leader announced to us that this was to be a Ladies Only group, I felt rather thwarted.  

At our inaugural meeting, we were instructed to choose three titles.  These titles were written on separate scraps of paper, which were then placed to simmer in a clay teapot.  This object – of mysterious origin – had a dour patina, dull and dark.  We each scratched our initials on this former haven for leaves and sympathy.

At each subsequent meeting we would discuss our chosen book, before we were positively weary of the thing and decided it was time to take another dip in the pot for our next book.  I always hoped it would be something about dragons or kings, but there was a strict law against non-fiction.

Aubrey Reads

Now, I am an infamous re-reader.  It takes a lot for me to actually step up and ask a stranger to dance.  So my choices were ones I had already read, albeit some time ago.   As for the other members’ choices, I was fairly sure that I would dislike each one (I recall wanting to use ‘Jitterbug Perfume’ for skeet-shooting – that was my offical review). And unwanted books are so tragic.  I had no desire to start an anthology of misery. 

We met every few weeks.  None of us were quick readers.  And none of the these books had pictures.  We read ‘Lolita’, ‘Perfume’, ‘The English Patient’, ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’, ‘Dictionary of Khazars’ (I quite liked this one, and actually kept it in my collection for some years)…many others.  Two of my books were chosen, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ and ‘Vile Bodies’.

In time, our interest waned.  Some of our members got married. (I went to one of these marriages – we were encouraged to attend in fancy dress; man and wife were joined by a priest dressed in an 18th century white mask and black domino.) Work for others got increasingly possessive: one’s husband was going to New Zealand to provide tech work on something called The Lord of the Rings.  (he hoped it would be a success)

Now, I have recently been cleaning my apartment.  Stray piles of Unwanted Things are occurring everywhere, like small, stationary tornadoes.  One evening, as I was waist-deep in the oddities of one of my closets, I found our teapot – if possible, even duller and darker than I remembered.

There were still some scraps of paper inside.  Thirteen stories still waiting to be discussed, waiting for their plotlines to take to the air for their subtleties to be thrashed out, misunderstood, hated or applauded:

  • ‘The Golden Notebook’ – Doris Lessing
  • ‘Cakes and Ale’ – Somerset Maugham
  • ‘Travels with Charley:  In Search ofAmerica’ – John Steinbeck
  • ‘Love In The Time Of Cholera’ – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • ‘Gidget’ – Frederick Kohner
  • ‘Atonement’ – Ian McEwan
  • ‘Humboldt’s Gift’ – Saul Bellow
  • ‘The Crimson Petal and The Wine’ – Michael Faber
  • ‘EmpireFalls’ – Richard Russo
  • ‘Michael Connelly’s most recent’
  • ‘American Pastoral’ – Philip Roth
  • ‘Vida’ – Delacorta
  • ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus’ – Joseph Conrad

Which of these titles was my final suggestion?

A Yellow Book and a Yellow Chair

Bookish Children

I own a lot of clothes.  I own a lot – A LOT – of jewellery.  I own a lot of shoes.  Hats.  Scarves.  Gloves.  If it can be used to adorn my poor self, then I own a lot of it.  Really, there are so many pretty things in the world – I need them all. 

But these collections are not permanent.  Evanescent compilations of uselessness, maybe, but at some point they were so desirable.  Periodically they will prey victim to an onslaught of tidying and clearing out.  This slimming down doesn’t last long, because I eventually do go shopping again (all the pretty things!)…but for a while it looks nice.  The point is that it rarely stings when I part with these items.  Many I haven’t worn in years – some I’ve lost sight of for years.  But whether they haven’t been worn enough, or have been worn out – out they go. 

But I also have a lot of books – and that is different.  I don’t tire of books.  They don’t become less attractive, less charming, less important.  If I forget I have Vita Sackville-West’s “The Edwardians’…how delightful to suddenly come across it once more!  If I noticed that my copy of “The Annotated Alice” is falling apart, do I throw it out?  Certainly not:  books, Velveteen Rabbit-like, show the love they have earned by their shattered and torn appearance.  Some tape and a few rubber-bands and all is serene.

So.  I have a lot of books.  And I intend to keep them all.  Parting with them would be like parting with a child.  All those hopes of storied adventures…where did they go?  Therefore, I try to control my book-buying tendencies.

But last Saturday – against all better judgement – I went to a local bookstore.  I spent 1 1/2 hours there and bought the following:

“Unknown Lands – The Log Books of the Great Explorers” by Francois Bellec (No one should pass any book by with the words ‘unknown lands’ in its title.  The author’s name is pretty dashing, too.)

“The Guns of August” – by Barbara W. Tuchman (She is a sublime historian, approaching her subject with facts and humanity. This book should be delicious.)

“And Even Now” – by (the incomparable) Max Beerbohm (This is a selection of fleeting, delightful essays. The first one was a thesis speculating on the history of a broken fan he found in his portmanteau. A fan! A portmanteau!)

I Shouldn't Have

I could have purchased more:

“A Handful of Dust” – by Evelyn Waugh (the dialogue was snobbish and British and wonderful…but for some reason I held back.   At some point I will buy this one)

“The Parisian Prowler” – by Charles Baudelaire (Originally, “Le Spleen de Paris”.   There were two translations available – both quite different. So I got confused and put both books back. Damn!)

“The Handbook for Conscientious Objectors” (Published in 1968; so this was for the objector to the Vietnam war. But I would have bought this for decoration, not education. Didn’t feel right.)

So that was my rake’s progress through this shop…and my family of books will ever be on the increase.  But whether I’m visiting them for the first time, or stopping by after a long hiatus – all my bookish children are content to wait – as am I.

The Dreaming Cat

Some time ago, I wrote about a bookstore which housed a small, dainty cat.  Her name was Zola, and she had that peculiar feline quality of making one ashamed in her presence.

Before being accepted into that literary haven, she had a hard life.  Misuse and untended infections destroyed her teeth, and took away one of her golden eyes.  Her remaining eye, though scarred, has still kept all of its facets:  a yellow diamond embedded in a petite icon.

Her paws are like snowflakes:  small and silent.  Her voice is a little song:  I can see notes and flats and sharps falling from her mouth each time she meows.  Boyfriend and I hadn't seen her lately.  But the last time we were at the bookstore, I quietly pointed out to him the warm, dappled rug curled on top of a pile of books, fast asleep.

Now, when asleep, most cats will dream of champagne-colored mice, spilling out of glasses, with infuriating whiskers and tails.  They will dream of velvet pillows, smelling of feathers and sky, warming in the sun.  They will dream of exploring fields of white flowers that nipped at their noses and drove their muscles into delight and madness.

But it is the special cat that will make a bed of books.  She absorbs the visions and histories, adventures and tragedies, poems and meters that drive upward like roots from a fertile, creative ground.  Languages that are not her own course through her and create new, purring dreams.

She might be stalking through jungles, drawn towards heartbeats hidden in the thick darkness.  She could be on the seas, riding on the back of a whale – with every twist and turn thundering like an earthquake.  Perhaps she will be in a Victorian alley – concealed by the smoke of nearby opium dens – watching a man in his parlor reading about murder and brandishing a syringe.  Or maybe she would be lost on a battlefield, stepping over shredded flags, glancing distastefully at the stale, red pools, comforting the dying horses' white-eyed pain with her whiskers.

Or that lucky cat would feel its substance losing dimension, until it could walk through centuries of art.  She would nibble at Dutch still lives:  broad plates of tulips, bread and cheese.  Her form might appear in a carved frieze of warriors and slaves, riding in a chariot.  She would invade the portraits of women who hunted the courts with feral intensity.  Resting by their petticoats, her tail would wrap around shoes painted with scenes of masquerades and banquets. 

Before we left that day I saw that Zola was awake, and was yawning luxuriously.  Whatever story she had chosen (or had chosen her), it must have been a very fine and lengthy journey. 

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Talk And Thought

One evening, feeling oddly energetic, I thought I would wade through my book collection – intending to dip my hands into the glinting river of words and photographs, to lift each book up and then tell it to its face whether it could stay or not.

A hard job, but a necessary one.  It had reached a point when I would have to use a blasting compound (oh, how the neighbors would fuss) to mine the desired book.  And of course, if any room was freed up, it meant that I was now able to buy more.  A Catch Twenty-Who Cares situation, actually.

In the course of my burrowing I extracted, delicately and with a dentist's art, many titles.  Titles that taught me dialogues, dialects, style, how to think and how to see:  beyond my life, beyond my time, beyond my city, beyond the black of my dreaming eyelids.

I found books that I had forgotten:

A pocket-sized 'Cyrano de Bergerac' (with owner's signature and date:  1900)
'The Edwardians' by Vita Sackville-West (signed, "To Claire Beresford, Christmas, The Antibes – 1930.  From D.")
'The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion In The Year 1764-1765' by her 'kinsman' Alexander Blacker Kerr ("To Helen with much love, Aunt Janet – 1926") 

And then I took out a very sorry littlte thing.

It had lost its cover.  Tape yellowed the binder.  The edges were thin:  like tissue, like skin.  The brown pages were weak and torn.  It smelled musty, woodsy – thinking perhaps of the forests where those pages were born, shaved from fragrant acres of fallen trees.  When I picked it up, it fell apart in flakes – words and phrases scattered into my hands.

It was my Roget's Pocket Theasurus.  I remember using it in college, when I wrote my history papers – a cup of tea at my elbow, pretending I was a scholar.  I used it for my English compositions, when a word would stop me with the efficiency of Becher's Brook.

Sometimes I would just read it – its Plan of Classification was my Periodic Table.  The trails of definitions and uses were a word's DNA.  It was a book of alchemy, a guide to magic.

Now, I use the thesaurus on my computer – always with a twinge of guilt.  But I always remembered how this little book used to lead me through the tangled path of my language to find its hidden, living words. 

I looked at it gently – I feared that even a hard glance would shatter it – before putting it carefully back.

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Look Of Love

It's torn and discolored.  The cover is scuffed and ragged.  In a human face these are signs of a life well-spent.  Or of a long night out spent with some bad liquor.  

But in a blanket, or a stuffed animal, or a book – anything that gives comfort, it seems – these are signs of love, of constant use.  A look which – if these comfortable items could talk – above all things they want to have.  A blanket was meant to be wrapped around its owner until the threads grew thin.  A stuffed animal was meant to be cuddled until the fur began to fall off.  A book was meant to be read until the pages were bent and weary, and the edges were oily from the reader's fingertips.

I bought this book a long time ago.  It's a good one.  The facts of Elizabeth's life are firmly entrenched in a fluid, easy narrative.  I honestly can't say how many times I've read it, but I clearly had been alternately overeager and brutal in taking it out of the bookcase and putting it back.  Its marks are not signs of abuse, but merely of use.  And a book that has been used has been enjoyed; it has been read: which is all it wanted.  A book doesn't want to be rebound in gold and morocco and kept in a display case.

'Lovelorn' is bad.  'Lovetorn' is good.

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An RK and a Boer-ing Book

 

 

In North Hollywood, there is a marvelous bookstore named The Iliad.  I gave it a visit last Friday – laden with food as I was, I was still agile enough to be able to scurry through its doors.

Inside, it is slaughtered with books (Does that make sense?  I mean that the interior is simply OVERWHELMED with books).  All ages, all categories.  I mean, there's a shelf labeled 'Oddities'!  Who couldn't spend a minimum of 2 hours there?

I bought an armful of books, one in particular that I'd like to mention.  The title page reads thus:  "Souvenir of the Willesden Carnival and Torchlight Procession, for 'The Daily Telegraph Soldiers' Widows and Orphans' Fund', Held on May 16th and 17th, 1900".  Willesden occupies a handful of NW London.

It's a narrow, hard-covered book.  Ten dollars.  A title unusual enough for me to want, and cheap enough for me to buy.  Which I did. 

Now, in the early summer of 1900 the Boer War had just begun and the Seige of Mafeking had just lifted.  So the theme of many of the floats was patriotic in nature.  For instance, above is a float dedicated to Col. Robert Baden-Powell (known as  "B-P").  He was largely responsible for the the British troops' survival of a seige that lasted over 200 days, using some rather clever tactics.  But look at the photo carefully, peeps – there is a CHILD posing with a rifle.

Swivel to the right – sorry for the quality of the scan – to see a sad thing.  The lettering on the side reads 'His Last Letter' and features a Florence Nightingale-type of nurse (don't think the uniform had changed much from the Crimea) and a fellow officer, with helmet doffed.

But there are some things which are just plain evil (turn eyes warily to the left).

And yes, what is a carnival without ladies and their festive bycicles?  Go, Miss Allnutt!!

But there's more:  this place was in possession of what all bookstores should have:  an RK, or Resident Kitteh.  I heard her mewing softly from behind the check-out counter, and when I asked – delightedly as well a a little hysterically – 'do you have a KITTY here?', her owner answered in the affirmative before going to feed her, which is really all Zola had on her mind at the moment.

Zola is a one-eyed, petite, floofy tortie kitteh, with a sweet, musical meow.  When I was about to leave, I saw her again, completely settling down into 'Ignoring Aubrey' mode.  But I was able to skritch her between the ears, and suddenly I was worthy of her presence.  Such a dear, pretty creature.  I took her picture from the Iliad's website (am I allowed to do that?).   Her bio on the site is terrifying:  she spent her first two years in a hamster cage, never receiving the care of a vet.  Untreated infections led to the loss of one eye and some teeth, as well as leaving a scar on her remaining eye.  If anyone is near The Iliad bookstore in North Hollywood, give it a visit, buy some wonderful things and give Zola some love.

 

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“But what are we to wear?”

I have a lovely book.  Well, one among many lovely books.  I bought it in Wales, in a place blessed among men called Hay-on-Wye. It's chief industry is the selling of books. Over thirty bookstores, in a tiny green town.  One store was called The Castle Bookstore.  Because, I'm thinking, it was a bookstore…and it was located in a castle.  Sometimes my bouts of clear-thinking approach epiphanies.

It was there that I bought a lovely book:  "Fancy Dresses Described:  What To Wear At Fancy Balls".  It was published in 1888, when such matters were more important than they are today.  There were no Halloween parties, where the limit to one's dressing up abilities would be wearing a sixpack of Coca Cola for a hat and going as a coke head.

Different costumes were suggested for different physical and age types.  Being dark-haired, I would be referred to as a 'Brune'.  Suggested outfits for me would include:  Arab Lady, Autumn, Bee (which I did go as at the age of nine, one Halloween long ago), Gipsies of various kinds, Carmen, Cleopatra, Druidess, Esmeralda, etc.

The book would list the fabrics and decorations needed for each costume (back then, they didn't come ready made!).  If I was to dress as, say, Carmen, I would need an "equisite Spanish lady's dress, short white satin skirt…headed by bands of ruby satin, bordered with gold; down the front bows of gold braid tagged; stay bodice of white satin, with gold buttons…" and on and on.  I would find the possibility delicious myself.  If you were transplanted to the late 19th century, invited to a fancy dress ball, had your own couterier and unlimited funds – what would you go as?

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