When I am wandering back home from my morning coffee on Sherbooke street, I usually stop about halfway at The Word bookshop on Milton, where the proprietors Adrian and Donna have an easy chair that has come to be known as Boyce’s chair. Sometimes an interloper may be sitting in it: in such a case I would never dare to give him his comeuppance; but usually it is free for me to sit in, and to cast my eye over the ever-changing books laid out on the table alongside the chair. This, as I have often told Adrian, is my personal daily recognition of my poor education, because there are never fewer than a dozen books on that table that I know I should have read, and should now read, but that all now seem far beyond my intellectual capacity. I am sure most of my readers know exactly what I mean: they know they should have read more Dickens or Dostoevsky in their youth, but they never got around to it, and now feel they don't have the intellectual energy to plunge into such a huge task today.
Parenthetically I should say that this almost daily visit to this superb little bookshop mirrors a similar thing I used to do when I first started to work as a reporter in Montreal in 1957. I was on the hotel beat in those days, and every day made my way up Bleury street from the office of the Montreal Star, pausing on my way at Archie Handel’s Diamond bookstore for a half hour, sometimes hour-long, chat with Archie. I have to add here that Adrian’s store and Archie’s bear little resemblance to each other: Adrian’s is a model of order, its choice of books evidently the result of precise and highly informed intellectual choice, whereas Archie’s was a scene of disorder, books scattered everywhere, most of them unsorted, so that you almost had to fight your way in through the chaos of books, in just the way that another favoured book store of my memory, Bonder’s on Bernard, was through all its many years of service to the book-reading public. (One of the Bonder sons told me years later that their mother would be hard at work with the accounts in the basement, trying to make ends meet, while their father whose natural inclination leaned more to giving away rather than selling books, was the always-amiable master of events upstairs. A wonderful couple, the Bonders.)
Anyway, all this is by way of introduction to an account of my recent only half-successful attempt to fill in some of those gaps in my reading that we all know about. I have to begin the story one step before I can settle into the chair: outside, The Word always has a line of books, many of them excellent books in good order, that it sells for 50 cents each. On a recent occasion I spotted three volumes of Laurence Durrell’s Alexandria quartet, one of those books I should have, but never did read. In fact, on one occasion years ago I tried to read one of these books, but had to give it up, after which I never again dabbled in Durrell.
I started to read one of the three books I bought, the second one, as it happens, but it contained so many references to characters from the first volume, which was the missing one, that I went back to the bookshop to ask if they could whistle up a copy of Justine, No 1 in the quartet. They found it but only in a volume containing all four volumes. Donna, always willing to oblige a regular customer even if one most of whose purchases seldom reached beyond 50 cents, said if I paid for the complete novel, once I had read the missing volume, I could bring the book back and they would reimburse me.
Great deal, right? So off I went and began to plough through this tiresome account by this intensely pretentious narrator about how he was in love with his woman Justine who was married to an elderly man who was also in love with her, and also about a third man who loved Justine so completely that he had gone so far as to write a book based on her character. I got to about 100 pages before these tiresome characters, so pretentitous sounding, so determined --- in the case of the narrator --- to exhibit his knowledge of words no one ever used, or certainly none that I had ever come across, that I decided, oh well, I tried, and at least this was one classic novel that I could live without. So I took the book back, and Donna reimbursed me as she had promised. A princess of a woman, this Donna.
With that unfortunate experience out of the way, I can now move back into my chair, or My Chair, as perhaps I should describe it, with a touch of proprietorial defensiveness. As I cast my eye over the books on offer, picking them up, glancing through them, putting them back, my interest was caught by a copy of Eyeless in Gaza, by Aldous Huxley, another author whose works I had picked at idly in the past, but without success. Some of the pages I read from the book seemed to be written as if he expected your average reader-guy might follow them. So, after putting the book back, picking it up again, putting it back, and finally picking it up, I decided to invest the huge sum of $12.50, the asking price. This book was a revelation to me. Although I had always thought of Huxley as a charter member of that society of men I classified as Big Brains, he showed in this book that he had a delightful, accessible narrative drive, a beautiful sense of humour, and from time to time was capable of delivering elements that might almost be classified as lectures, on this, that or the other subject about human life as he found it being lived in those years before the Second World War. I kept thinking, I would like to read passages from this book aloud to my friends, the ultimate accolade, although I know people in the modern world don’t have time for such indulgences. The book contained at the back a very useful account of the many changes Huxley went through as he set out to examine his fellow-creatures in the society in which he had been brought up as a more or less privileged intellectual. I had never associated him with humour, but he apparently made his name by writing some pitiless satirical studies of his contemporaries, for which he had first become known. As the drums of war began to beat following the accession to power of the Nazis in Germany his thinking took a pacifist twist and it was in this book that he first exposed this strain of his thinking. Not long after its publication, Huxley took off for the United States, where he remained for the rest of his life.
The book opens with the narrator Anthony Beavis, in bed with his latest mistress, who happens to be the daughter of a woman who had been his lover twenty years before. It jumps in non-chronological order through the various periods of Beavis’s life from his childhood, his schooling at Eton, where he made close friends who recur during later chapters, and so forward to 1936, the year it was written and published. It contains fascinating portraits of men and women who are seen both in their youth and later in life, and especially attractive is how those who were put-upon cruelly as children grew to responsible citizenship while many of their torturers emerged later as slightly pathetic characters, worthy of attention, but no longer really of admiration.
Anyway, I was so impressed by this book that having studied the landscape of Huxley’s novels, I decided to invest in what sounded like the most successful of his satirical attacks on British society, Point Counter Point. Here, although the writing was of high quality, the character of the leading figures seemed such as one might have thought would not have engaged so much attention from its fastidious narrator. In short, it seemed like a prentice work when set against Eyeless in Gaza, a book that carried a much more persuasive critical account of society, and a more impressive collection of brilliantly described people.
I have the book, more than 200 pages read at the moment, but temporarily set aside, among a number of others, also started and not yet finished, that share my bed with me these days, with the promise that when the fancy takes me, I will get back on to it, and finish it for sure.
One of the books that has taken its place is called Freedom Next Time, by the Australian left-wing journalist, John Pilger. In my reading world Pilger is notable for having written one of the few books that I have not been able to finish because I found its content so horrible as to be almost unbearable, even to read about. It was a 1960s epic about the Vietnam war that he had covered, and his account of it was so horrendous that I had to give it up. God knows what it must have been like to have been actually fighting that unnecessary, brutal and appalling war. I have been thinking back to that war often in these days, as the Americans, whose use of poisonous chemicals to destroy the very forests within which the Vietnamese lived, must rank as one of the most heartless and brutal acts of war ever committed, and yet now those same Americans today, unblushing, are prating around the world as if using chemical weapons were something so far beyond their own thoughts as to be unimaginable. Talk about hypocrisy!
Pilger is a man who seems to have taken on to his own shoulders virtually the whole world of injustices suffered by the poor and disregarded and imposed by the powerful. He has done an amazing job merely in finding the way to stay alive and active in a journalistic environment so inimical to his attitudes, and if he occasionally shows signs of a slight paranoia, I believe one can forgive him that. In this book I have not quite gotten through his description of the way in which the Chagos Islanders who were living on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, were bundled out of their homeland, subjected to every lie, brutality and provocation that our political masters could contrive, and left stripped of everything they ever had, pleading to be allowed back into this place that has now been handed over to the Americans for a huge air base from which they have conducted their terrible Asian wars.
In short, I am not wanting for reading material these days. My most recent 50 cent purchase from outside The Word is a book of four compete novels by Dashiel Hammet, the 1930s master of mystery, and a writer who never forgot his humble origins. And when, if ever, I finish that, I also found for 50 cents the other day a new Trollope of which I had never ever heard before, The Belton Estate. Happy reading, folks!