Thursday, February 4, 2010

of kafka and other stories

So, I stood in our local St. Vinnies, which is not, to me, the face of a gentle charitable institution that provides food and shelter to unhappy children, or a convenient social club for the elderly and disabled staff members who have nowhere else (you assume) to go, no other prospect of an assembly-room where cheerful faces wait to draw on their decades of accumulated skills -- perhaps without families, these people, perhaps lonely, suicidal, talking to their cats -- but instead a place where they once sold me the entire Alexandria Quartet for fifty cents -- therefore a business whose employees are slightly mad yet deserve to be treated with reverence, like deluded kings -- so there I stood by the video cassettes and a table of stuffed bears, thinking, "I must not buy these books. I must not buy any books." We're planning to move to the States at some point in the future, and I've been sorting out books to discard and books to leave behind. "If I buy any more books I will only have to worry about storing them in boxes and packing them and figuring out where they will go, and the cost of transportation, and what if they get lost …" and so on. "Put it back." So I put back Isaac Bashevis Singer's A Friend of Kafka and Other Stories, which would have cost me fifty cents with a photograph of the author on the back cover looking glum and squashy in a hat. "Put it back." So I replaced The Letters of Rachel Henning, with an introduction and illustrations by Norman Lindsay. Then there was Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, which I held in my hand as I moved around the shop, prowling undecided past an aisle of women's long-sleeved shirts. It was the tyranny of the Famous Name that had me. Again, as with George Meredith, I was held by the Famous Name that says to you from the cover of a book, "Look, you've heard of me. You must have heard of me for a reason. I must be good. Or even if I am not good, at least I am worth a dollar. A dollar! That's nothing."* I paused here to reflect with pleasure on a mistake made by George Perec in Life a User's Manual. He had Australian characters using dollars in the 1940s and the Australian dollar wasn't introduced until 1966. I picked up the mistake, hence the pleasure. Still, Perec wrote the whole User's Manual from start to finish and barely had to revise it after the first draft. A free and clever man. And here I am on the seventh draft of an interminable book-length thing I keep fiddling with. So who wins there? Perec surely. I still didn't know what to do with Henderson the Rain King. Finally I paid for it. On the way home I tried to threaten myself with punishments: "You'll have to throw out something else to make room for that. Why did you buy Henderson the Rain King? The U.S. is bursting with copies of Henderson the Rain King. America invented Henderson the Rain King." But the cover matches my copy of The Adventures of Augie March. "Since when did you care about matching covers? Since never. If you want all your books to match, go buy a Kindle." Nnh, they're not going to sell me the Alexandria Quartet for fifty cents. "No, and they're not going to leave you wondering where to store your boxes either. No boxes! Freedom! Dill."

Fall into reverie re. storms passing across the Arizona desert outside M.'s mother's house where there is nothing but cholla and hares for miles and all that weird storm-light across the bushes.

* But not quite like Meredith, because I'd already read several Bellows. Here it was the Famous Title. But why let it have this influence?


  1. Moving to the USA? Do tell. I've lived there a couple of times myself and have even done some battle with cholla!

    Love your comment about matching covers. My daughter has been known to be quite obsessive about that with some of her series ... I think she's grown out of it now, a bit anyhow!

  2. Moving because of fairness. M., who grew up in the U.S. south-west, scanning the brutal desert with cowboy eyes and beating off rattlesnakes armed with nothing but pioneering yankee can-do and a stiff tortilla, has done a stint in Australia, and now I'm due to do a stint in the U.S. I lived there once before, but not, I think, where you lived. I was in Vegas.