Sunday, January 3, 2010

vanity is, I take it

On Tuesday afternoon I stopped by a secondhand bookstore where I found a row of dull-red George Meredith hardbacks the size of my hand - my hand with the fingers spread out very slightly - not right out, and not held together, but just relaxed and settled like a spider. Some of them had covers raised in vertical hard pinstriped ridges; these ones made a zipping noise when I ran a fingernail across the stripes. I bought The Shaving of Shagpat and went home. After that, a wave of covetousness, because I wished I'd bought The Egoist as well.

My Shagpat opens with this dedication.

G. Nora Young
George D. [?] Young
November 1906

"Age cannot wither her,
nor custom stale
her infinite variety."

"Antony & Cleopatra"

Why covetous? I'd never read Meredith before, I didn't know if I'd like him or hate him, so why covetous? The books were attractive, but there were other attractive books in the shop; I didn't want to buy them. The books were old, but there were other, older books there. I picked Meredith off the shelf in the first place because I'd read an essay by someone who called him a great forgotten Victorian, quoting Oscar Wilde, "His style is chaos illuminated by flashes of lightning."* Still, I'd read other books that people praised, and I hadn't liked them, I knew this, I knew this, so why did I feel that I must have Meredith? I was irritable the next morning, short-tempered, distracted, I kept thinking of The Egoist, I was in a knot of anxiety because I was afraid that someone else would buy it. Eventually I went back and picked up the set, carried them around the shop, thought about putting them back on the shelf, didn't: paid for them - not only The Egoist but Beauchamp's Career, Diana of the Crossways, Rhoda Fleming, and The Ordeal of Richard Feverel. Once I had them in my hands I felt calm. The covetousness had been switched off as suddenly as a light.

I've seen people write about this kind of behaviour as if it's laudable, beautiful, joyous, exciting - I'm a bookaholic! - I must have books! - I love books! - the books are falling off my shelves yet I buy more! - books books books! - but mine was a barbaric compulsiveness, reason couldn't budge it. I know that if this had been a collection of mismatched editions, some modern paperbacks, some older books, one from the 1930s, let's say, and one from 1900, a TV-tie-in from the 1990s, a Signet Classics edition with the smudged-looking Signet cover, I might have bought The Egoist out of curiosity, remembering that it was his most famous book, but the rest wouldn't have seemed interesting. But I knew in the shop that if I left one behind I would fret over it. It was as if there was a charm over the books, marked out by the boundary line of George or G. Nora Young's signatures inside the covers.** I'd been reading about this kind of spell in the Anatomy of Melancholy. Burton identified love as a cause of melancholy, and spells as one cause of love, telling us that Charles the Great once fell in love with a woman "of mean favour and condition" because she kept a magic ring in her mouth.

The bishop went hastily to the [woman's] carcass, and took a small ring thence; upon the removal the emperor abhorred the corpse, and, instead of it, fell as furiously in love with the bishop.

Eugene Field in his little Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac, makes a comparison with love.

Just as a man who takes pleasure in the conquest of feminine hearts invariably finds himself at last ensnared by the very passion which he has been using simply for the gratification of his vanity, I am inclined to think that the element of vanity enters, to a degree, into every phase of book collecting; vanity is, I take it, one of the essentials to a well-balanced character -- not a prodigious vanity, but a prudent, well-governed one.

But Fields is too whimsical for me: this inclusion of "prudent, well-governed," seems to mask the pointlessness of walking around a bookshop with half of George Meredith's oeuvre in my hands, wrestling against the feeling that I must buy these books that I might never read. I didn't feel prudent or well-governed - I felt disgusted, and closer to Burton:

"For love," (as Cyrus in Xenophon well observed) "is a mere tyranny, worse than any disease, and they that are troubled with it desire to be free and cannot, but are harder bound than if they were in iron chains."


* I don't remember who wrote this essay or where I found it. Paging through Aspects of the Novel today for a different reason I discovered that E.M. Forster thought Meredith was bad at character, that his descriptions of nature are "too fluffy and lush," that the social values in his books are "faked," but, "He is the finest contriver that English fiction has ever produced, and any lecture on plot must do homage to him."

** It looks like her first name was Gladys. The dedication inside Beauchamp's Career reads:

With love from G.D.Y.
19th Sept: 1920


  1. Oh Deane *chuckling* I loved reading this. You have captured exactly my behaviour in 2nd hand bookshops too: covetousness, impulse, regret, anxiety and yes, barbaric compulsiveness followed by a (mild) sense of shame.
    Lisa (unrepentant LOL)

  2. I'm not sure if I'm repentant yet, but if the first two hundred and fifty-four pages of Richard Feverel are any guide then Forster is right about his handling of character. These people are not caricatured enough to be caricatures, and not real enough to be real, and the female lead has gone from being fairly normally romantic in a squirrelly glade to bursting into tears every two pages, which is what you might call kind of annoying.

  3. You describe this feeling beautifully ... and it's most common in second hand shops I think because you feel you are getting something special and/or a bargain!

  4. You're right, that was the kicker here. The books were all part of the same set, with the same owners' names inside them, which made them something special, and they were only three dollars each, which made them cheap, and so part of me was saying to itself, "For the sake of three dollars you're going to leave one behind? For the sake of three dollars you're going to break apart the Youngs' library? Together they have some special value! Apart they're less special." There's a sort of humiliation in falling prey to this. And realising that you're falling prey to it, too - identifying it and yet not being able to un-feel it. It's the urge the marketers of Pokemon are capitalising on when they tell their customers to Catch 'Em All. Burton doesn't tell us if Charles the Great knew he was under a spell when he loved this woman, and then the bishop, but in my mind he did know, and he went through with it anyway. He couldn't help himself.

    On the plus side I'm being entertained by Meredith's take on the Victorian literary habit of removing a character's eyes from her head and making them perform uneyelike acts. "Her eye roamed around the room," etc.

    Exhibit A: gruesome when you try to picture it literally:

    A succession of great sighs brought his father's hand on his shoulder.

    ``You have nothing you could say to me, my son? Tell me, Richard! Remember, there is no home for the soul where dwells a shadow of untruth!''

    ``Nothing at all, sir,'' the young man replied, meeting him with the full orbs of his eyes.


    Exhibit B:

    How the dark unfathomed wealth within us gleams to a woman's eye! We are at compound interest immediately: so much richer than we knew! ---almost as rich as we dreamed! But then the instant we are away from her we find ourselves bankrupt, beggared. How is that? We do not ask. We hurry to her and bask hungrily in her orbs.