Sunday, March 11, 2007

A weekend's reading

I spent the weekend reading about lost worlds. First I was wrapping up George Orwell's Coming Up for Air (1939), which is an engrossing monologue by an unexpectedly thoughtful low-level insurance executive who, like everyone else in 1938 England, is dangling between the ordinariness of daily life and the certain horrors of impending war. The thought of war leads him back to his own childhood, before World War I, the last, lingering years of old country life in England--a life that would have been recognizable in its contours, if not its particulars, to his great-great-great grandparents. His appraisal is fairly clear-eyed, but he looks back on that time (and his youth, cut short by war), with real nostalgia:
I'm back in Lower Binfield, and the year's 1900. Beside the horse-trough in the market-place the carrier's horse is having its nose-bag. At the sweet-shop on the corner Mother Wheeler is weighing out a ha'porth of brandy balls. Lady Rampling's carriage is driving by, with the tiger sitting behind in his pipeclayed breeches with his arms folded. Uncle Ezekiel is cursing Joe Chamberlain. The recruiting-sergeant in his scarlet jacket, tight blue overalls and pillbox hat, is strutting up and down twisting his moustache. The drunks are puking in the yard behind the George. Vicky's a Windsor, God's in heaven, Christ's on the cross, Jonah's in the whale, Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego are in the fiery furnace, and Sihon king of the Amorites and Og the king of Bashan are sitting on their thrones looking at one another--not doing anything, exactly, just existing, keeping their appointed places, like a couple of fire-dogs, or the Lion and the Unicorn.

Is it gone for ever? I'm not certain. But I tell you it was a good world to live in. I belong to it. So do you.

The world he speaks of is greatly changed, yet it is not totally lost. But in my reading, things got worse from there. I moved to Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (1954), which tells of a man living in Los Angeles, barricaded in his house by night, the only survivor of a plague of vampirism. Matheson builds up a terrifying account through layers of plausible detail, leading us through the difficult, repetitive tasks that take up the man's day--and that are essential to his survival:
In the beginning he had hung these necklaces [of garlic] over the windows. But from a distance they'd thrown rocks until he'd been forced to cover the broken panes with plywood scraps. Finally one day he'd torn off the plywood and nailed up even rows of planks instead. It had made the house a gloomy sepulcher, but it was better than having rocks come flying into his rooms in a shower of splintered glass. And, once he had installed the three air-conditioning units, it wasn't too bad. A man could get used to anything if he had to.

That ability to cope--or lack of it--is at the heart of the book I read next, John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (1951), which envisions the utter breakdown of society that would occur if nearly everyone went blind. Though Wyndham complicates the story wonderfully, introducing a second, effectively creepy threat in an invasive species of woody shrubs known as Triffids, the collapse that the blindness alone brings about is instant and total. London is left with perhaps a couple of hundred sighted people, and The Day of the Triffids is concerned with the different ways they respond, the possible ways they imagine structuring a new society. Like I Am Legend--or any other good apocalypse novel--it uses detailed accounts of the hard work necessitated by the failure of our specialized supply and production system as the backdrop for the fundamental questions about nature, sufficiency, society, and knowledge that would instantly be laid bare by such a fundamental rupture of daily life.

Then I watched 28 Days Later, which, not being a book, I won't discuss here beyond saying it's scary and was perhaps, on top of the two books, a bit more than I needed in that vein in one weekend. Dark, apocalyptic, riddled with loss and unresolvable questions--this reading list is a reliable recipe for swampy anxiety dreams.

But then today the sun came out, the temperature warmed up and nearly chased the last of the snow--the ice on the lake went out, floes of it floating from the shore carrying groups of seagulls--and after taking a walk, Stacey and I sat on the back steps in the late-afternoon sun with our pet fish and some iced tea. She embroidered and I read out loud from The Letters of E. B. White (2006). And the large-hearted humanity that comes through White's letters immediately began to change the tenor of the whole weekend.

White is sometimes comfortably curmudgeonly--in August of 1944, despite being concerned about the war, he writes to Harold Ross of the New Yorker, asking that items sent to him not be stapled together. In response, Ross sends him an unstapling machine:
18 August 1944
Dear Ross:
The unstapling machine arrived yesterday and has given me new courage to go on. So far, the only thing I have had to unstaple is the card marked "Mr. H. W. Ross," which was attached by staple. Anyway, it gave me a nice workout, although in order to hold the box properly, I had to cover the instructions with my hand, which made it necessary for me to memorize the instructions, instead of reading them as I went along. The "Mr." in front of your name sounds like a phony, by the way. Sounds like the "Prince" in front of Romanoff. I suspect you are an imposter--have all along.

If they can invent a thing to remove staples, it is conceivable that they can eventually find something to emasculate a rocket bomb. Anything is possible today, as you know.

This is just to thank you for the Ace Staple Remover.
Brig. Gen. White

At other times, White tells of his life in rural Maine, which usually takes the form of a slightly pixilated comedy. A few weeks after the stapler exchange, he writes to his brother:
I had just gone out when you phoned last night, and Aunt Caroline took the call. She is slightly deaf, and probably had to make up all the answers. The reason nobody else was in the house was that we were all out returning a visiting pig to its owner. When the owner came along the road to meet us, he looked accusingly at the pig and said: "Hell, everything I own is adrift tonight."
Later in the letter he says of a visitor: "Her St. Bernard left last week, and the departure of a St. Bernard from a home is one of the finest things that can happen to the home." This particular St. Bernard, a footnote informs us, "insisted on rescuing swimmers who were not in need of rescue."

New York can provide comedy, too: he writes to his wife's secretary at the New Yorker to say:
I know you will be interested to hear that I left New York, by mistake, one day sooner than I intended to. Meant to go Friday, got on the train Thursday in error. Pullman seat was for Friday. I just stood up.
Yrs in error,

Even business correspondence includes jokes and anecdotes, written in White's wry, careful, balanced prose. Here he writes to his editor about Charlotte's Web (1952):
I am relieved to learn that the first printing wasn't too ambitious and that there will be a second. My wife is buying a great many copies and has, I believe, managed to exhaust the first printing almost singlehanded. I'm not sure there is any profit for the author in this sort of arrangement, but I shall not attempt to work it out on paper.

Meanwhile, he replies to fans in surprisingly straightforward fashion:
There is no sequel to "Stuart Little." A lot of children seem to want one, but there isn't any. I think many readers find the end inconclusive but I have always found life inconclusive, and I guess it shows up in my work.

To another, he writes:
Dear Mr. Mouthrop:
Thanks for your letter. I'm very glad to know that Stuart and Charlotte can take someo f hte pressure off an adolescent. I haven't been an adolescent for a number of years but I can remember that the pressure was fierce.

But my favorite of the letters I've read so far, and the one that seemed most fitting for the lovely late-afternoon light of this unexpectedly springlike Sunday, is one from 26 December 1952, to Grade 5-B in Larchmont, New York:
I was delighted to get you letters telling me waht you thought about "Charlotte's Web." It must be fine to have a teacher who is a bookworm like Mrs. Bard.

It is true that I live on a far. It is on the sea. My barn is big and old, and I have ten sheep, eighteen hens, a goose, a gander, a bull calf, a rat, a chipmunk, and many spiders. In the woods near the barn are red squirrels, crows, thrushes, owls, porcupines, woodchucks, foxes, rabbits, and deer. In the pasture pond are frogs, polliwogs, and salamanders. Sometimes a Great Blue Heron comes to the pond and catches frogs. At the shore of the sea are sandpipers, gulls, plovers, and kingfishers. In the mud at low tide are clams. Seven seals live on nearby rocks and in the sea, and they swim close to my boat when I row. Barn swallows nest in the barn, and I have a skunk that lives under the garage.

I didn't like spiders at first, but then I began watching one of them, and soon saw what a wonderful creature she was and what a skillful weaver. I named her Charlotte, and now I like spiders along with everything else in nature.

I'm glad you enjoyed the book, and I thank you for the interesting letters.
What a thrill that deeply generous letter must have given Mrs. Bard and her students when they returned from the Christmas holidays!

And what a good note on which to end a weekend.

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