Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Three Books I Finished Last Week

Martha Gellhorn, born in St. Louis, grew up to become a great reporter, covering wars, more courageous probably than Ernest Hemingway (if he ever really did anything courageous at all or just knew how to write about courage).  Along the way she became Hemingway's third wife.  (Their divorce was bitter.)  She loved travelling to new places.  "As a traveller," she wrote, "I have learned that it is wise not to return to what was once perfection."  

She deserves an excellent biography; this one isn't it.  It's interesting but cluttered, not well organized; and it was a tad disconcerting to read that when she was residing in Mexico in the late forties she brooded "over Arthur Mizenir's life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, which reminded her all over again about how badly his friends had behaved toward him and how ashamed she felt of Hemingway's part in it."

Mizener's biography of Fitzgerald wasn't published until 1972.  When you come across an error like that it makes you wonder what else in the book is not accurate.

Sometimes when I was reading Role Models I found myself thinking: oh man this guy is really weird.  Then I remembered, oh, right, that's one of the reasons I like him so much.  This book is sort of like going out to dinner with him and listening to his wit and great stories without having needed to remember to put my deaf device (as the Irish call it) in so that I wouldn't miss a single word of what he says.  I think John Waters is the happiest person I know, and deservedly so.

It's a beautiful book by the way.  Handsome.  Great textured dustcover and pukey green hardboards.  And funny.  And well-written.  And totally unique.  

Forster could delineate character with a devastatingly slice of words, as in his first novel Where Angels Fear to Tread he writes: "The Reverend Mr. Beebe takes down Emerson's copy of A Shropshire Lad from a bookshelf and announces, 'Never heard of it.'"

Or in The Longest Journey there's the sraight-laced devoutly Christian, Agnes:  "'The soul's what matters,' said Agnes, and tapped for the waiter again."

In real life, Morgan (as Forster was called) and Lily (his ever-interfering mother) "toured the chateaux of the Loire Valley.  Morgan joked to [a friend] that there was 'no escape from Table d'hote.'"
One of the greatest books I ever read was T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  Amazingly sensuous prose, constructed in the desert's heat.  Forster and Lawrence were friends.  Wendy Moffat writes:

"The friendship between T.E. Lawrence and Morgan had settled into a fitful correspondence.  Several times Morgan had visited Clouds Hill, the spartan little cottage on the verge of the RAF camp at Bovington in Dorcet, delighting in the raucous male company of Lawrence's working-class enlisted mates.  To mitigate the cooling of their friendship over his strange response to Morgan's ... stories, Lawrence had revealed the manuscript of his next book, The Mint.  It was an uncensored recounting of barracks life, full of foul language and homosexual camaraderie; Lawrence decided, ruefully, that it was unpublishable.

"Lawrence's office work since he had returned from Pakistan was all very hush-hush.  Though he professed to be uneasy about the public image of himself as the icon of British manhood -- debonair, reckless, patriotic, humble -- Lawrence alternately stoked the public fantasy and retreated from it.  One month he would be testing speedboats in the Solent on some top-secret orders from Winston Churchill himself; the next he would hole up in the whitewashed cottage and listen to music on the gramophone .... Morgan accepted an invitation to visit Lawrence there, sensing that [Lawrence] might need company after he was discharged from service.  The conditions would be little better than camping: no toilet, and only the sparest bath in a lean-to, two sleeping bags .... the guest on a little leather banquette, while Lawrence spread out on the floor.  The lane to the cottage was so remote that Lawrence assured Morgan he would place a whitewashed stone in a newly built wall to mark the place.  In early April, 1935, just weeks after he had been severed from the RAF, Lawrence worked with a friend to make ready for Morgan's arrival.

"On the very day that Morgan was to arrive, he learned that Lawrence had been hideously injured in a motorcycle accident just down the road from the white stone in the wall.  Restless and despondent, Lawrence had become careless -- overtaking two boys on bicycles, he lost control and crashed.  Instead of the company of Lawrence, and the Victrola, Morgan found himself attending Lawrence's funeral in the little village.  He stood beside a sobbing Winston Churchill as they laid Lawrence in the ground.
Early in the year I made a list of the best books I'd read in the first decade of this century.  If I live long enough to make a list of this second decade I know that A Great Unrecorded History will be on the list. All that was wrong with the Martha Gellhorn biography is perfect in this one.

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