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Original Essays | August 21, 2014 1 comment
Our title is, of course, a problem. "Why Literature Can Save Us." And of course the problem is one of definition: what those words mean. What is... Continue »
Halliday on Holidayby Ayun Halliday
The only negative thing I have to say about The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter concerns its paltry trade-in value. A thick piece of jay like The Prince of Tides kicks its literary heiner in that department, or it would have if I hadn't sprung like a fool for a copy that was missing its front cover. Someone had cobbled together a makeshift one from cardboard envelopes. It was priced to move. Had I loved that book as passionately as The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, I might have kept it as a one-of-a-kind souvenir. Its fly-by-night cover could have qualified as outsider art. "Is it any good, thin?" a ruddy Australian asked doubtfully, reluctant to swap her just-finished, de rigueur copy of Midnight's Children for damaged goods.
"No!" I screamed, unable to suppress information that might hurt a fellow reader, even when I had something to gain from it. I still feel like I traded the family cow for a handful of beans when I remember how a nice young couple I met in Indonesia talked me into their copy of The Magus. I'd sat with them for nearly an hour, rapt at the man's description of this 'incredible,' 'mind-blowing' book. I probably would have let them have my camera if that's what it had taken to get my hands on it. By page five, I was certain that I'd been swindled. It was even worse than the time my male traveling companion's man-purse was boosted at a whistle stop on the night train from Varanasi to Delhi. We lost a camera, a tape recorder and Of Human Bondage (half-read), but the crime was faceless. We were asleep at the wheel, gawking out the window at the chaotic swirl of paan-wallahs and little boys selling tea in unfired clay cups. I was wide awake when I agreed to take on the Magus, but then so are those morons who think they can tell which cup the little white ball is hiding under in a subway shell game. I could have identifed the perps who stuck me with The Magus, but by the time the crime was discovered, they'd taken a powder for Malaysia. Jackie? Ari? I know that you're out there and one day, your doorbell's going to ring and it's going to be me.
It's amazing how much ill will one can harbor toward a book one doesn't care for when it is the only thing one has to read, not counting a two-week-old International Herald Tribune and The Lonely Planet Guide to India, which while fascinating, is not exactly a page-turner. A book that transports you is also indelible, lingering much longer than the name of that backwater Thai town where you read it in a hammock, oh you know, that place with the monk, the place with the sticky rice. I rumbled across Tanzania with my nose so deeply buried in One Hundred Years Of Solitude, I missed entire herds of wildebeest and giraffes. I've always envied Gabriel García Márquez that first sentence. How's this for a kickoff if I ever write No Touch Monkey II:
But why would I write about myself in the third person like that? That's a lot of Colonel Aureliano Buedias for one sentence. Wouldn't it be better to start a book with a good sentence, like the one that ends The Great Gatsby?
Señor Márquez is not the only author to have his way with me in an exotic location. Jeanette Winterson plucked me from the coral of Gili Air, dumping me into a gondola piloted by a Venetian boatman's web-footed daughter. Milan Kundera whisked my heiner out of the frying pan into the fire, the civil unrest of Kashmir morphing into 1960s Czechoslovakia. Milan Baby, one of these days I'm going to paint my living room to match the cover of Immortality, the British edition that I picked up in... where the hell was that? India, somewhere. Speaking of Britain, one of my boyfriends and I enjoyed a threesome with Charles Dickens in the shadow of Notre Dame. (Toss in Quasimodo and Esmerelda and call it an orgy.) There's nothing like being young, semi-in-love and on such a tight budget that the only thing you can afford to do in Paris is take turns reading French Revolution romanticism aloud in the very spot where Marie Antoinette's troops were doused in boiling oil.
Fond recall of reading on the road is not limited to books I personally read. In Rwanda, a Canadian named Leigh checked hourly to see if I had anything to swap for her Interview with the Vampire, which she had found wedged between the seats of a bus. It was only missing the first seventy or so pages. Her copy of Dracula had been promised to someone else. I've yet to read either book, but whenever one of these titles comes up in conversation, I feel that I have. Well, all but seventy pages or so. They're about vampires, right? Leigh, if you're out there, I'm sorry I never mailed back the chamois shirt you loaned me in Kenya and, also, I put you in this book called No Touch Monkey!: And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late but I gave you a pseudonym. The Old Snatcheroo. Hope that's okay.
Sometimes I think that instead of holding a stoop sale, I should fly to some far-flung location with a backpack stuffed with books I've decided I can live without. At market rate, I should be able to travel for three months on my earnings! Okay, a week. A few days. But at least I'd have an empty backpack to fill with gauzy hippie clothes and carved wooden frogs! Ironically, I'd pay through the nose to regain some of the books I cashed in at distant bookstalls or swapped with fellow travelers over the years. They would have to be the exact copies, though, not just the same edition. They're no good to me without the rubber stamps in the front and the name of some guesthouse a fellow traveler recommended scrawled in the back. I want to experience that same sense of déjà vu that I got rooting around on my friend Heather's bookshelf. I was so excited to discover that someone I knew had a copy of Somerset Maugham's Collected Stories. "Oh my god, Heather," I cried. "Have you read these? Remember how I told you about dislocating my knee in Sumatra and how I had to lay there for nearly a week? Well, this book is what kept me from going out of my mind!"
"I know, you told me," she remarked, with the wary smile of someone who has heard a few too many long-winded accounts of The Time I Ate A Civet Near The Burmese Border variety. She flipped open the front cover to display stamps from bookstalls all over South East Asia and a price pencilled in Indonesian rupiah. To the best of my knowledge, she has never traveled farther east than Germany. "I bought it from your yard sale, right before you and Greg moved to New York. Remember?"
No. All I remember is my knee swollen up like a cantaloupe and the gin fizz Somerset Maugham tossed back on the verandahs of colonial government representatives to whom he'd presented his letter of introduction. I love how he gives himself a cameo in all of his stories, patiently waiting for the cocktails to unloose true (or true-ish) tales of murderous depravity amongst the Sun-Never-Sets-on-the-British-Empire set. The man was blessed with some magical combination of people skills, big ears, total recall and a lively imagination. Plus he dragged a trunk full of evening clothes all over the globe without the help of airplanes, Lonely Planet or Immodium. Somehow his tattle makes me feel less worried about the consequences, should ex-boyfriends come crawling out of the woodwork because someone tipped them off about this book that graphically details their gastric distress in distant lands. What are they going to do? Sue me? Issac? Wylie? Nate?