Sunday, January 24, 2010

Casanova, William Bolitho, Geoff Bocca

Yesterday it occurred to me that I had left Casanova's Memoirs out of the Books You Should Read post, so I have added it as follows:

William Bolitho's essay on Casanova, in his wonderful book Twelve Against the Gods, will help you understand why I believe Casanova's Memoirs should be considered essential reading for all teenagers:
“His love making had nothing more esoteric in it than what every woman who respects herself must demand; all that he had, all that he was, with (to set off the lack of legality) the dazzling attraction of the lump sum over what is more regularly doled out in a lifetime of installments."

“Most children will form an attachment to reading more easily if you encourage them or at least permit them to start by rreading (a) comic books, (b) soft semi-pornographic romances like Love in the Sun or Warrior’s Rest and (c) science fiction.” I used to like Albert Payson Terhune’s dog stories, too -- because they helped me understand courage. In dogs. and men.

William Bolitho and Alexander Kinglake, I first ran across while I was living in Richmond, Virginia. The Richmond Public Library had a copy of a book of literary "my life and times" memoirs by the English writer Geoff Bocca, who my father used to know back in the fifties.

In addition to recommending Bolitho's book, Bocca noted his opinion that Kinglake's History of the Crimean War -- to use its short title -- was a book by which "no intelligent man could fail to be fascinated, no matter to which page he might open it."

I thought that an extravagant claim, and all the more so since I had NO interest in the Crimean War. I believed that "Into the Valley of Death rode the 600" from Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade was as close as I needed to come to that dreary subject. Nine volumes!

But they had the book down in the stacks at the Richmond Library. I asked the librarians to bring them all up. I spread all nine volumes out on the reference counter, and asked the librarians to shuffle them around while my back was turned. Then, with my eyes closed, I turned around, selected one of the volumes -- they were all about the size of one of Anthony Trollope's longer novels -- opened it at random, and began reading.

I immediately became fascinated.

Well, that's just an accident, I thought, so I asked the librarians to try one more time again.

Same result. I immediately became fascinated. So I took all nine volumes -- or is it 8 volumes? Depends on the edition, I think -- and read them in a state of happy fascination.

Bocca claims that Winston Churchill said Kinglake had taught him to write. I believe it.

And Bocca told a funny story about a Fleet Street dinner at Lord Beaverbrook's, to which he had been invited as a very promising young writer. Churchill and other luminaries and writers were at the dinner. Lord Beaverbrook was an important Press Lord in London. He occupied somewhat the same position in those days that Rupert Murdoch does today. At some point after dinner, the conversation turned toward the Middle East. Israel didn't exist yet, so it was still possible to have opinions about the Middle East and the "Arab Question."

Geoff Bocca ventured an opinion. Probably a brash opinion. At any rate, conversation stopped. All eyes turned toward the youngster. Churchill, removing the cigar from his mouth, asked "Have you read Kinglake?"

"Why no," Geoff Bocca said. "Kinglake? Who's he?"

No one talked to him again for the rest of the evening.

Back in those days, intelligent men believed that it was probably impossible to understand what we now call The Middle East -- without having read Kinglake.

And even today, Kinglake's History is a good place to begin.

It is a book that has been in print continuously since it was first published. Kinglake's subject, I believe, is "character in men." He was Lord Raglan's aide de camp in the Crimea, and the book breaks off with Raglan's death in front of Sebastopol.

This link will take you to Kinglake's shorter book, Eothen, begins with a marvelous description of crossing out of Christian lands in Yugoslavia into the country of the Turk -- and knowing you could not come back without spending a month in the quarantine house for fear of the plague.

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