One of the books that I took off the shelf this month was Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, what looks to be a first edition that my grandfather received through the Book-of-the-Month club soon after it was published in 1938. I have read parts of this book many times over the years, but never the whole thing. It is one of those works that is compelling in many ways, though it “lacks narrative interest,” i.e., it is not a page-turner.
It was sitting on my desk and one day I opened it in the middle and enjoyed, as always, the voice of the writer through her vivid stories. I transcribed one for my edification, and I trust yours.
In the Reserve I have sometimes come upon the Iguana, the big lizards, as they were sunning themselves upon a flat stone in a river-bed. They are not pretty in shape, but nothing can be imagined more beautiful that their colouring. They shine like a heap of precious stones or like a pane cut out of an old church window. When, as you approach, they swish away, there is a flash of azure, green and purple over the stones, the colour seems to be standing behind them in the air, like a comet’s luminous tail.
Once I shot an Iguana. I thought that I should be able to make some pretty things from his skin. A strange thing happened then, that I have never afterwards forgotten. As I went up to him, where he was lying dead upon his stone, and actually while I was walking the few steps, he faded and grew pale, all the colour died out of him as in one long sigh, and by the time that I touched him he was grey and dull like a lump of concrete. It was the live impetuous blood pulsating within the animal, which had radiated out all that glow and splendour. Now that the flame was put out, and the soul had flown, the Iguana was as dead as a sandbag.
Often since I have, in some sort, shot an Iguana, and I have remembered the one of the Reserve. Up at Meru I saw a young Native girl with a bracelet on, a leather strap two inches wide, and embroidered all over with very small turquoise-coloured beads which varied a little in colour and played in green, light blue, and ultramarine. It was an extraordinarily live thing; it seemed to draw breath on her arm, so that I wanted it for myself, and made Farah buy it from her. No sooner had it come upon my own arm than it gave up the ghost. It was nothing now, a small, cheap, purchased article of finery. It had been the play of colours, the duet between the turquoise and the “nègre”, — that quick, sweet, brownish black, like peat and black pottery, of the Native’s skin, — that had created the life of the bracelet.
In the Zoological Museum of Pietermaritzburg, I have seen, in a stuffed deep-water fish in a showcase, the same combination of colouring, which there had survived death; it made me wonder what life can well be like, on the bottom of the sea, to send up something so live and airy. I stood in Meru and looked at my pale hand and the dead bracelet, it was as if an injustice had been done to a noble thing, as if truth had been suppressed. So sad did it seem that I remembered the saying of the hero in a book that I had read as a child: “I have conquered them all, but I am standing amongst graves.”
Only a few pages into Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome, and I was enthralled; I began to want very much to make my own visit to that most historic and colorful city. But a chapter in, I realized that Doerr had brought me with him, and that my vicarious travels were so much more exciting and satisfying than anything I could accomplish in real life — all without the huge expense and strain of international travel.
Energy pours off the traffic, off the sidewalks; it feels as if we are pumping through the interior of a living cell, mitochondria careering around, charged ions bouncing off membranes, everything arranging and rearranging. Here is a pair of stone lions with crossed paws; here is a Gypsy sleeping on a square of cardboard. Down the white throat of a street a church floats atop stairs.
Doerr’s year in Rome was certainly stressful, but he was young and strong, and was able to take his adventures, which any of us might know in the present moment as anxieties,dilemmas,pain and suffering, and turn them into prose that conveys not just a complainy travelogue, but his own engagement with the sensory overload of living in Rome, combined with being a new father. Fatherhood alone is such a transformative experience, it would give such a writer plenty of material for a book, but to have twins, and then to take them at six months of age to live in Rome, where you don’t even know the language, is exciting to the point of crazy.
What did Columbus write in his log as he set out from Spain? “Above all, it is fitting that I forget about sleeping and devote much attention to navigation in order to accomplish this.” Henry wakes again at two. Owen is up at three. Each time, rising out of a half sleep, it takes a full minute to remember what I have forgotten: I am a father; we have moved to Italy. All night I carry one crying baby or the other onto the terrace. The air is warm and sweet. Stars burn here and there. In the distance little strands of glitter climb the hills.
Last year I read Doerr’s 2014 novel All the Light We Cannot See. All I did was run my eyes along the words and lines, and the author did all the magic of transporting me to another place and time, to rooms in Germany and houses in France, to the beach and along streets and into human hearts beating with fear and hope. I couldn’t help but love them, we were that close – and it was the writer who had brought us together.
It seems that he was already working on All the Light ten years earlier, while in Rome on a literature fellowship at the American Academy. It was a good thing he didn’t have to show anyone a progress report, because Rome and twins were all-consuming. He did write a lot of journal entries, which eventually became this delightful book.
During the Doerr Family’s year in Rome the twins didn’t let their parents sleep much. They also were very sick for weeks, and then Doerr’s wife Shauna ended up in the hospital. Pope John Paul II died, and a new pope was elected. The seasons changed, the husband and wife went on outings to Umbria, and the babies learned to walk. They watched the pines out the window:
Mediterranean pines, stone pines, parasol pines, and umbrella pines—all the same thing: Pinus pinea. Regal trees, astounding trees, trees both unruly and composed at once, like princes who sleep stock-still but dream swarming dreams.
In another place I read that Anthony Doerr likes to quote Victor Shklovsky, who wrote 100 years ago: “Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.”
And this is what Doerr tries to do – but first he must shake himself out of the habit of not seeing, this habit that he explains is quite necessary:
Without habit, the beauty of the world would overwhelm us. We’d pass out every time we saw—actually saw—a flower. Imagine if we only got to see a cumulonimbus cloud or Cassiopeia or a snowfall once a century: there’d be pandemonium in the streets. People would lie by the thousands in the fields on their backs…..
“Habitualization,” a Russian army-commissar-turned-literary-critic named Viktor Shklovsky wrote in 1917, “devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.” What he argued is that, over time, we stop perceiving familiar things—words, friends, apartments—as they truly are.
If I did go to Rome, I’m sure I would be shaken out of my everyday way of seeing things. This has happened to me many times, being in a new place without The Usual surroundings and schedule and people in my life. Even the air smells different, and seems to wake up the brain. Reading Doerr makes me want to take off the blinders more often and really be attentive to what is bombarding my senses.
It could be scary, I know – or exhausting, as he warns:
The gaze widens and drifts; the eye is insatiable. The brain drowns.
So Anthony Doerr is very good at what he does, but he is more than a skilled observer and wordsmith; as he imparts to the reader what he receives from the world, his own warmth and humanity come with the package. He is a grateful and caring man who reveals his humble likableness in this very personal account. As he tells you what he sees, he can’t help but tell you who he is. When he looks at his little son:
…his entire four-pound body motionless except his eyelids, it seemed he understood everything I was working so hard to understand: his mother’s love, his brother’s ceaseless crying; he was already forgiving me for my shortcomings as a father; he was the distillation of a dozen generations, my grandpa’s grandpa’s grandpa, all stripped into a single flame and stowed still-burning inside the thin slip of his ribs.
When it is time for the Doerrs to return to their Idaho home, Anthony tries to put the experience of leaving Rome into words:
I know nothing. I lived in Rome four seasons. I never made it through the gates between myself and the Italians. I cannot claim to have become, in even the smallest manner, Roman. And yet I can’t stop myself: a pen, a notebook, the urge to circumscribe experience. Roma, they say, non basta una vita. One life is not enough.
I was grateful to visit Rome by means of this book, but of course, it was enough for me. I don’t have a bucket list of books or places to see or experiences to have, because if I ever start to think like that, I am reminded of the example of our Lord’s earthly life that was on the surface quite confined — He didn’t go to Rome, either — but was the expression of the best human life ever lived.
I could also be content not reading another book for the rest of my life, but I did just order Doerr’s collection of short stories, The Shell Collector, and in that way hope to see more wide views through his brain-drowning gaze.
When Mrs. Quin was a wisp of a girl, the house called China Court was her favorite place to be, though she was only grudgingly allowed to cross the threshold, and that by the back stairs. She grows up and by strange twists and turns becomes the main character, an old lady who dies in her sleep in the first sentence of Rumer Godden’s novel China Court.
“Shouldn’ us pull the blinds down?” asked Mrs. Abel.
“She wouldn’t like it,” said Cecily. “She always says, ‘Don’t shut out the garden.'”
Soon begin flashes back to a younger and younger Mrs. Quin at various stages of her life. We get to know her through the memories that play in her mind and heart of her in-laws and other people who held powerful positions in the family over the generations. Bits and pieces of stories of a score of relations, their suitors and servants are gradually revealed to the reader in a very realistic way. Haven’t we all had the experience of knowing someone personally for many years before we learn a surprising or even shocking fact about them?
In the case of this novel, we are taken back to the building of this granite house in the mid-19th century, and the first parents who birthed nine children there. Some of that first “Brood” marry unhappily, and some behave very badly, but by the end of the book you see them all, and the following generations peopled with similarly bumbling humans, with varying degrees of understanding. I think this is because of the example of Mrs. Quin, who has the ability to accept happiness when it comes to her, and to keep humble in the awareness of how little can be known, even of the ones we love and communicate with.
Homes must know a certain loneliness because all humans are lonely, shut away from one another, even in the act of talking, of loving. Adza cannot follow Eustace in his business deals and preoccupations….Mr. King Lee, kissing Damaris, has no inkling of the desolation he has brought her….Jared hides himself from Lady Patrick, and John Henry and Ripsie, in their long years together, are always separated by Borowis. The children especially are secret….It is better not to ask questions….”Even if they told you,” says Mrs. Quin, “you would never really know.”
This kindness and compassion for her characters is one way in which Rumer Godden reminds me of author Elizabeth Goudge. Also, as with Goudge, there is the feeling that things will work out in the end, that in kairos, or God’s time, He will gather all the loose ends and broken parts together and even we will see the sense of them. For me, reading China Court was a chance to see a century’s worth of this household’s loves and sorrows with a fraction of that heavenly perspective.
Mrs. Quin had many years’ experience with being treated cruelly, and not getting what she so much wanted. But she early on seemed to learn the wisdom of seeing that she was quite content at present, so why make a fuss about all this water under the bridge? One of the things that always gave our protagonist great satisfaction and rest for her soul was the garden, so I can relate to that major aspect of her character.
A fact of history that didn’t seem to be fair, Mrs. Quin discusses with her daughter-in-law:
“I think that’s sad,” says Barbara.
“Sad and glad,” says Mrs. Quin.
How can something be sad and glad at the same time? For most of the Quin women, it has been like that. “All unhappiness,” says Mrs. Quin, “as you live with it, becomes shot through with happiness; it cannot help it; and all happiness, I suppose, is shot through with unhappiness. But I was usually happy….”
I enjoyed the descriptions of the girls’ Victorian party dresses, and of the old furniture that Mrs. Quin never bothered to re-upholster, and of the teatime ritual: “Two teapots stood ready and warmed; the cups had to be warmed too for, ‘If the tea touches anything cold it loses the aroma.’ Mrs. Quin impresses Tracy with that. ‘Only vandals,’ says Mrs. Quin, ‘put the milk in first.'” Towards the end of the book the serving of tea even brings a brief respite from squabbling among some relations whom Mrs. Quin would likely have relegated to the category of Vandals.
A thread that connects all the parts of the story, shown to us in Mrs. Quin’s bedroom in the first chapter and on the introductory page to each chapter after that, is a medieval Book of Hours. Other old and rare books and an old maid of the Brood who collects them come to play a crucial part in helping Mrs. Quin, in her death, to right many wrongly drifting tendencies in the family and to bring a very satisfying ending.
Is it unnecessary and even unprofitable to analyze my reading habits? Why not just read what I like? Because I don’t seem to know what I like, or what I have the strength for. In times of stress, such as in my current bereavement and during my husband’s illness before that, the intellect still jumps at the chance to read books of theology or philosophy, so I have gone on acquiring stacks of them… only to find that my mind will not be engaged enough to get through the first chapter.
Or, I try a “good novel,” hoping to be pulled into the story and have some vicarious excitement. Aha – that is the problem, as I realized yesterday, sick and sitting by the fire with a quiet book. I need rest, not excitement. I need, as I wrote a few years ago about another novel, to embark on a reading journey “as one takes a needed vacation or The Cure at a sanatorium.”
Rumer Godden is a writer whose presence on the pages of her fiction or non-fiction is always strangely comforting and nourishing to me. I suppose my recent acceptance of weakness led me to take her China Court off the shelf, after passing over it for years. Lately it seems that I have almost daily been wandering among the four rooms that house parts of my library, as I look for the Right Book. As I held this one in my lap I mused about why it is that.
When you need to heal and build strength, where do you like to be? Me, I like to be either alone in an orderly and comfortable place, or with kind and gentle, competent people who take care of the place and might even cook for me. If there is a garden attached, and lovers of trees and flowers who might stroll its paths with me, all the better. I could sojourn in this place indefinitely, until I felt in my bones the renewed energy that would prompt me to go home and dig in my own garden or clean house.
Being in Rumer Godden’s books is like that. And China Court is especially so, because it is about a well-appointed house and the generations who have lived and worked and died there, servants making up beds with fresh, age-softened linens and a grandmother who secretly hand-picks little bouquets for her favorite people to find on their nightstands. It has the drama of stories going back a hundred years, if you want that, but it is mostly about being there with real humans, many of them quite sympathetic, and of course none of them requiring anything of me.
I haven’t read too far yet 🙂 but I was charmed by this one scene and wanted to share it:
In the big house in Cornwall the large Quin Family gathers downstairs while breakfast is being cooked in the kitchen nearby. As the father Eustace reads from the Bible and prayer book…
The smell of bacon drifts across the Lord’s Prayer — always for Eliza, the two are mingled, though she does not, at that age, get any of the bacon — and as the smell rises Eustace increases his pace….breakfast is waiting; the children, upstairs, have porridge and milk, white bread and the second best butter; but for Eustace and Adza the morning-room table is laid with porridge in blue and white plates, cream, brown bread, muffins, honey and rolls, while the bacon keeps in a silver dish over a flame, with another dish of kidneys or sausages or sometimes kedgeree.
-from China Court by Rumer Godden
Do you wonder what kedgeree is? I had never heard of it, but when I read on this page Kedgeree and saw the picture, it made me want to try making some myself. Sounds tasty!
Last week I was frying something using bacon fat left over from our Christmas feasting, and the smell of it warming in the pan brought back happy memories of my father and his mountain cabin, my grandma’s kitchen… it was curious how nourished I felt, before I had taken a bite.
I enjoyed reading about this Victorian Era breakfast and the well-supplied kitchen and staff that produced it. I sipped my tea before the fire, glad that I long ago graduated from the Porridge Upstairs stage of life, because I do like a little meat with my breakfast, though I haven’t tried kidneys yet. Winter days are cozy when taken with Rumer Godden, some bacon — and of course, prayer!