Friday, September 05, 2008

Sinking the Submarine Library

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Thinking about the Invisible Library over the past couple of weeks reminded me that I never got around to sharing a memorable passage in MacDonald Harris's Mortal Leap (1964) when I wrote briefly about that novel earlier this summer.

Harris's novel is about a man who, having lost his identity to a shipwreck while serving in the Merchant Marine during World War II, is given a chance at a new life when a woman claims him as her husband, a naval officer who died in the same battle; Harris uses the man's story--and his choice to allow this unexpected new life to become his own--to explore basic yet essential questions of identity, individuality, and purpose. It was brought to my attention by the Neglected Books Page, whose editor raved about it:
I first read Mortal Leap almost thirty years ago, and I remember how the narrative seized my attention. It was one of those books you begrudge the rest of your life for taking you away from. When you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, you feel as if you are hurtling forward along with the protagonist.

When I reread the book recently, it seemed even more powerful and affecting. I knew how it would turn out, but now the suspense was in seeing how Harris could make it plausible. What I saw this time around was how he manages to make this wildly improbable situation into a very basic lesson about being. So the man learns how to imitate Ben Davenant without getting caught–or at least, so he thinks. The man has made the leap and a new bar is in his hands. But he still has to confront the question, “Now what?”
I wasn't as taken with it as he was: the set-up was smartly conceived, and the narrative voice was strong and distinctive, but the book's second half, when the man begins to decide what sort of life he wants to lead, felt a bit flat--as the philosophical questions driving the narrative began to find answers, the story itself lost some of its inherent interest. Regardless, I'm glad I read it, and it's well worth the push the Neglected Books Page has given it--it's made me want to search out more of MacDonald Harris's novels.

But what has caused it to resurface in my mind tonight is a scene early in the novel, when the sailor, having fled the Utah home of his boyhood for a directionless life at sea, begins to use the dead hours in his bunk to become an autodidact. At each port, he takes on more books:
During those five years I read on the average two or three books a week, but I had never been educated properly or shown how to read books and I would get things all mixed up and twisted in my head. I never could get it straight that there were two Samuel Butlers and what the difference was between Malraux, Maurois, and Mauriac. I didn't read Conrad anymore because I had decided he was a sentimentalist. In San Francisco or Melbourne I would buy a box of books and when we got out to sea I would take them out one by one and read the first ten pages. If it didn't interest me I would throw it overboard or give it to Sailors' Relief. In this way I discovered Malthus, Ricardo, Gibbon, Veblen, Spencer, Bakunin, Kierkegaard, Vico, Mencken, Fourier. I didn't like Hegel or Kant or any author who got involved in abstractions, and any kind of speculation or general theorizing made me impatient; I wanted the books that had the answers. I read everything, biography and fiction, but it was the same with the novelists; I threw away books by tea-party fairies like Proust and read the naturalists, Zola, Crane, Dreiser, Celine, Steinbeck, Dos Passos. Somewhere on the bottom of the Pacific is a copy of The Forsyte Saga I heaved overboard one afternoon. I very quickly saw what was wrong with it; Galsworthy was a gentleman, and no gentleman would ever write a good book.
Now, anyone who calls Proust a "tea-party fairy" is planting his feet firmly on my bad side, and though I have never been willing to commit the time to attempting Galsworthy (perhaps in part due to the influence of Anthony Powell, who argued that The Forsyte Saga "cannot hold a candle to Vanity Fair," and that Galsworthy "lacks the pitiless knowledge of human nature to be found in, say, Proust or James"), I'm fairly confident it doesn't quite deserve burial at sea. But I will admit to enjoying the image . . . rather than an Invisible Library, a submarine library, pages slowly swaying in the silent currents of the trackless deep, read in that pitchy blackness only by those fish with the good sense to have evolved their own light sources.

I have a water-damaged copy of Love in the Time of Cholera, victim of a careless roommate and a bathtub, that I'm happy to contribute. Anyone else have books with which to help me outfit a soon-to-be-scuttled submarine library?


  1. Oh, but you must read the Forsyte Saga, right now. Or at least the next time you need a fat book for a voyage or a convalescence.

    Remember what Melanie said to Ashley: "I like Mr. Thackeray, but I fear he is not the gentleman Mr. Dickens is." So being a scoundrel isn't necessarily a qualification for writing a great English novel.

  2. Thanks, momvee. Powell's disdain aside, I think I've always been waiting for someone to offer a personal recommendation before I picked up The Forsyte Saga--it always seemed like such a commitment to undertake under the power of faint praise. You've definitely convinced me to keep it in the back of my mind . . .