Publisher's Note — September 17, 2009, 8:02 am

Reading Great Stuff I Didn’t Know I Knew

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the September 16, 2009 Providence Journal.

Vacation for me isn’t just vacation from work; it’s vacation from reading for work. During my working year I read an enormous amount of journalism and history (all of it claiming to be non-fiction), and by summertime this steady ingestion of prosaic “reality” has worn me out.

So when I took off for Vermont and then Europe in August, I made sure my reading material was purely literary, though not necessarily highbrow. I don’t believe in “literature” as a rarefied luxury accessible only to an elite of educated readers. Serious (and some not-so-serious) novels, memoirs and poetry can make life more worthwhile for anybody, in part because they provide relief from the loneliness, often painful, that accompanies the thought: “Am I the only who feels this way?”

Years ago, the poets Mark Van Doren and Archibald MacLeish synthesized the essential value of “great” literature in a conversation that touched on Shakespeare’s genius. MacLeish ventured that “Shakespeare certainly knew things that nobody else knew,” but he was promptly corrected by Van Doren, also an eminent English professor at Columbia. Shakespeare’s “distinction” wasn’t that he had unique or exclusive knowledge, according to Van Doren, but rather that “he knew what everybody knew.” Yes, MacLeish acknowledged, “he knew what everybody knew, but he knew it in a way that nobody else could.” Van Doren then further refined his assessment: Shakespeare “was more like everybody else than anybody else was. . . . [T]hose lines of his that stun us, stun us because they are perfect statements of what we already knew.”

Perfectly stated, I think, although I didn’t take any Shakespeare to read on my trip. I favor directed reading, but with a certain amount of random selection, and for that there’s still nothing better than browsing a good, small independent bookstore, such as Shiretown Books or the Yankee Bookshop in Woodstock, Vt. How else could I have stumbled across Rachel Cusk’s Italian travel memoir, The Last Supper, which I bought for the Tuscan leg of my journey. I’d never heard of Cusk or her novels, but I like it when fiction writers try their hand at reporting. At the same time, I felt I needed a classic novel for my time in Vermont (we were staying at Sinclair Lewis’s former country house), and somehow a famous author like Anita Brookner looked more enticing on the Shiretown shelf than it would have in Barnes and Noble. Why had I missed all of Brookner’s previous 23 novels? Why not give Strangers a chance.

With the first half of my vacation covered, I needed books for the second half in France. Thanks to my French mother, I switch languages completely when I cross into “l’Hexagone,” so these works had to be in French. I’m embarrassed that I only recently discovered the late French writer and Resistance hero Romain Gary through his beautiful (though often falsified) memoir, Promise at Dawn. Both Gary and his second wife, the American actress Jean Seberg, committed suicide, so the arrival this past spring of a memoir by their son, Alexandre Gary, was a major literary event in France. How, I wanted to know, had the now 45-year-old son survived such a crushing trauma? Therefore, I had in hand S. Ou L’Esperance de Vie when I arrived at JFK for the flight to Rome.

However, I worried that too much literary sadness might cause excessive angst in sunny Italy. The last time I was there, 12 years ago, I read Frank McCourt’s spectacularly depressing Angela’s Ashes. McCourt’s description of freezing and starving in rainy Limerick had clashed rather starkly with the earthy cuisine and warm blue sky of Tuscany, so this trip, for emotional insurance, I selected an old reliable police novel, Maigret et les Braves gens, by Georges Simenon.

Of course, none of this guaranteed a satisfying read. I used to horde books I was sure I would like by my favorite authors for just this kind of long vacation, but I finally ran out of Graham Greene novels a couple of years ago and decided I ought to take more chances. This time I was lucky. To be sure, Brookner, Cusk, Alexandre Gary and Simenon aren’t Shakespeare, but they all seem to know things I already knew but didn’t know I knew. And they all write exceedingly well.

Brookner was a revelation, perhaps because she so surprised me with her narrative power. How could the interior monologue of a lonely, 73-year-old retired English bachelor hold my interest; how could I possibly care about his last-ditch romantic yearnings? Well, by the end of Strangers I was dying to know which path, or woman, he would choose. First, though, I felt his despair: for Paul, “the future held little more than the grim routines that had always sustained him, together with the hope that they would sustain him to the end.” But then came a glimmer of hope on the rue Madame in Paris: Suddenly, “that life of making do, of making the best of a comfortable but uncomforting existence, could no longer be sustained.”

I found myself rooting for Mrs. Gardner, a lively, impulsive divorcee of around 50 whose “evasiveness was a way of exculpating herself from obligation: it was pre-emptive, in the sense that it proclaimed her to be guilt free. And it was a technique that seemed to serve her well. She would pay for her company with the endless fascination of seeing her will at work.” Which isn’t to say that I didn’t sympathize with Mrs. Gardner’s competitor, Sarah, Paul’s acerbic ex-girlfriend, now widowed, gloomy and losing her nerve.

As for Cusk, I wasn’t initially optimistic, for she mostly traveled with her husband and two young children to places in Italy where I wasn’t going. Indeed, for the first half of The Last Supper I was more impressed by Cusk’s rendering of her native Bristol and fellow English then by anything she had to say about foreigners. Why not just stay home and describe what you know? Thank goodness she didn’t; every time I feared that Cusk was descending into Brits-abroad clichés she brought me up short with startling insights, particularly about art, tennis and Catholicism. And her miniature psychological profiles of St. Francis and Raphael seemed daringly refreshing, whether or not they’re true. I’m grateful when she goes home to England and avoids turning into a boring, professional expat.

I won’t try to translate Alexandre Gary, but an English-language publisher should do it, or at the very least revive a discussion of Romain Gary and the subject of suicides by artists. The son’s survivor’s tale is a harrowing one that stands on its own as a good book. Even when he falls into sentimentality — his invocations of Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday and sensitive prostitutes are annoying — I’m inclined to cut him slack. For a son to rebound from two such sensational acts of self-hatred and anger by celebrity parents is something quite extraordinary.

And then there was Maigret — unfailingly smart and persistent, but after all these years of catching killers still plagued by self-doubt. In les Braves gens he’s investigating thoroughly “decent” people, so the knots of deception are very hard to untie. The thing is, when Maigret finds the trail going cold, he just works harder (often fortified with cognac or white Sancerre) and interviews more people, which is a very good rule to follow for journalists, including me. Not surprisingly, Maigret and his creator view reporters and newspapers as nuisances, unavoidable background noise to be filtered when they impede investigation. A little hard on the journalistic ego, I admit. But then, we can’t all be Simenon, Cusk, Brookner or Alexandre Gary.

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