Where to start? This afternoon I went into my favourite remainder’s shop (actually the only one I know – but still it would be my favourite even if there were others). This is a serious collection of mainly hardback books for sale from £3.99 and up. I browsed and settled on a book called Does God Hate Women? Which looked at some of the abuses against women perpetuated (of course I mean perpetrated) by people who justify what they do on religious grounds (if ‘abuse’ is the kind of word you can use to talk about men taking 13-year-old girls and stoning them to death for the crime of being raped. Yeah God really hates that kind of thing!). You know where this happened. I don’t have to tell you. OK you all will have come up with different answers – but, you know what? You’re all right. Only the names have been changed. Anyway as I was purchasing the book, the owner just nodded “Know what? I think she hates men as well!”. We have a high level of discourse in my town.
This has been a really good two weeks for buying books. First off, I had just posted my last thoughts on Herman Hesse when I went to my favourite book street stall that’s only there on Saturdays. I don’t know what he does the rest of the week. He surely can’t earn what he needs to live on in one day. Anyway, what is the first thing I see? A box of a dozen books by or about Herman Hesse some of which are exceedingly rare. Clearly a man who treasured Hesse had moved on or passed on or maybe even got married and had to throw out a load of books to appease the woman in his life. How do I know it was a man. Well, you know, Hesse is a male thing. So is being so obsessed you buy up everything you can lay your hands on – including an exchange of letters between Herman Hesse and Thomas Mann. Anyway I wasn’t going to lay out whatever would have been necessary to acquire the collection (though my heart grieved because collections are valuable – and this one was going to be cast to the book jackdaws to peck away at.) Anyway I depleted the collection by one book – though I have promised myself to return it. This was a collection of Essays called ‘My Belief’. I thought there might be something here that would help me understand The Glass Bead Game better. There wasn’t. The Essays reveal Hesse to be a man of impeccable liberalism well ahead of his times in his appreciation of the cultures (and particularly the literature) of China and Japan. So, although some of these essays were written 80-90 years ago they actually sound modern (if somewhat banal) – but apart from one essay in 1933 decrying the rise of the Nazis, that’s it. Now, maybe the editor has ignored a body of anti-Nazi essays – though I would have thought that unlikely (far better to depict their man as a thorough-going enemy of the Nazis). What we are left with is a discussion of Klingsor’s Last Summer and Steppenwolf. There is nothing here to disabuse my original impression of a man who simply ignored the Second World War. There is much to support this point of view. In the Glass Bead Game the time of the novel is two centuries in the future and their world was created as a reaction to the awful time when the world was in a mess way back in the mid-20th Century. That’s it. This is in line with Hesse’s theology in which he says that the enlightened man realises he is not responsible for ‘the imperfections of this world, or our own, that we do not govern ourselves but are governed, that above our understanding is God or It whose servants we are and to which we may surrender ourselves.”
So Hesse is likely to have taken the view that the rise of Hitler and the war had nothing to do with him and so he ignored it and got on with his work. And maybe that was the smart, civilised, theologically-acute thing to do. Hesse does comment that his articles continued to get published in Germany under the Nazi regime – so presumably there wasn’t much there to offend them.
Anyway, enough of Hesse.
Among my haul (11 books for £25 (US$40)) was a Vintage collection of Joseph Mitchell’s writing, mainly from the New Yorker, among which is his classic essay on Joe Gould. When I saw the book I did not remember the name of the author but I read his article on Joe Gould ( a New York street bum) some years ago and it stuck in the mind as only the very best writing does. Sadly I bought this book new for £12 – but on the plus side this means the rest of the books cost me around £1.40 each. Letters from Flaubert; City of Sin – the sex life of the city of London (fascinating); The way of the Sufi: a collection of sufi literature (including such gems as these: “Speed becomes a virtue when it is found in a horse but by itself it has no advantages” and “Is the shepherd there for the flock or the flock for the shepherd?”); along side this was a book by Danny Wallace that I hadn’t read. And as Danny is the nearest thing to a sufi that I know – he is an exponent of the wisdom of innocence. For those who don’t know him he wrote Join Me – in which he asked people to join him – and when they asked “To do what?” he said he didn’t know yet and it wasn’t for him to decide, that would be for the all the people who joined him to decide. His second book – The Yes Man – was made into a film. For a period of time he decided he would say ‘yes’ to every suggestion made to him, without exception. And now there was a third (title: Friends Like These) in which he decided, aged 30, to look up all the close mates he had ever had. Just read the opening chapters but it looks promising – if only because Danny (I’m not usually on first name terms with writers I have never met but in Danny’s case this seems the best way forward) is clearly such a naïve innocent and nice guy to boot.
One thing I noticed while browsing my favourite shop with outside book racks was the number of biographies: Mozart, Tchaikovski, Wilde, Nabakov, Proust (it had the same biography in both English and French!), Flaubert, Kipling, Cromwell and a number of others. The rack was heaving with these fetishistic attempts to possess the lives of writers and musicians. I got a copy of Flaubert’s letters because they were written by Flaubert but I am only interested in the flights of his mind not the drudgery of his life. All lives are forms of drudgery. Does reading about Nabakov’s Russian past help us to enjoy Lolita more? I’m not sure it does. I think it helps some people think they know the man better but all they know is the facts of his life – a very different thing. Don’t get me wrong. Some people live fascinating lives – but very few of these are famous writers or musicians. We don’t read a biography of Mozart because he had an interesting life, we read it because he created great works of music. That’s no different than reading Heat magazine to perve on Jordan’s latest goings on.