Monday, April 20, 2009

A Little Beach Reading

One of the joys of having a partner is that there are certain duties you can delegate, particularly when you're very busy. The annual post-busy season recuperative vacation is a prime example. I was involved, some months back, in the initial destination selection (where "involved" means b&c's saying, "I thought maybe this year instead of going to New York City, we'd go to the Virgin Islands and just relax," was followed by my saying, "Good idea"), but after that, he took care of all the details, and when -- at various times between late February and mid-April, he'd inform me of one of those details, I'd give my input, usually in the form of "Huh?" or, if I was actually not completely exhausted that particular evening, "Oh. Whatever."

But there are certain things you can't delegate. Packing, for instance. And, more to the point: reading material. Well, I suppose that you could say, "Pick me out something good to read while we're on vacation," but that's a lot like saying to a friend "Can you bring me home a partner from the bar?" Who you're going to spend the next several years of your life with is arguably a bigger deal than what you're going to read on vacation, but it's an argument you'd lose. Besides, if your friend is a reasonable person, he'd probably do a lot better job of picking a partner for you than you'd do for yourself. I mean, judging from the available evidence.

By way of example, if b&c weren't already my partner, he could probably do a halfway decent job of selecting one for me. By contrast, when I complained earlier today that I'd done a poor job of selecting my beach reading, his response was, "I would have loaned you one of my Gordon Merrick novels." Dude. But I'm on vacation, and we're having far too good a time for me to experience anything like pique, so I just said, "Your faith in my intellectual prowess is truly touching." Then he tried to backpedal, but I had already moved on. On the other hand, less than an hour later, we were sitting at a beachfront bar, nearing the end of our first Margarita of the evening, and we had the following conversation:
B&c: So do you want to go see Siegfried with me, or should I find someone else?
TED: Siegfried?
B&c: Yeah.
TED: The opera?
B&c: Yes.
TED: By Wagner?
B&c: Right.
TED: Part of the ring cycle?
B&c: Yup.
TED: How many questions am I going to have to ask before you know the answer to your question? You should have known before you ever asked. When have I ever wanted to see anything by Wagner?
B&c: Well, that one time we saw the first act of Siegfried in concert at the NSO, you said you liked it.
TED: I said it was tolerable.
B&c: Well...
TED: And it was an hour and a half. One act. How many acts are there?
B&c: Three.
TED: Three acts plus two intermissions equals not tolerable. Do the math.
B&c: Maybe you're just not old enough to appreciate Wagner yet.
TED: Fine. You can take me to the entire ring cycle when I'm dead.

And at that moment, it probably should have occurred to me thinking I might be willing to endure Siegfried was not entirely consistent with suggesting a Gordon Merrick novel, but it didn't, not because I was in too good a mood (which is why, now that it has occurred me, I only find it amusing), but because I was fairly drunk and well on my way to very drunk. The variety in the alcoholic content of Margaritas in different Virgin Island bars is quite large, but none of them were nearly as strong as tonight's. When I remarked -- appreciatively, of course -- that the Margaritas were on the powerful side, the barwench replied, "Really? They're only half Tequila and half mixers." I have no idea whether half Tequila is usually considered strong, but these particular Margaritas were practically devoid of ice, and I believe they were served in a ten-ounce glass, so each of them had, I'd estimate, about 4.5 ounces of Tequila in them. I didn't notice until I was starting on my second one, and by then it was too late to un-order it (Not that I would have, anyway, because "Margaritas" is plural, and who goes out "to have Margarita"? Well, maybe straight guys if Margarita happens to be the local bawd, but she isn't, and I'm not.). B&c didn't notice until he stood up from the table, which turned out to be considerably more difficult than he'd anticipated. The barwench explained that she'd only been brought in as a back up and that "I usually work on the front desk." I told her that I was sure she had now found her true calling.

Andre Aciman was the editor of The Proust Project, and, boy howdy, does it show. It is impossible, if you've read even as little as a long excerpt of In Search of Lost Times, to get more than twenty or so pages into Call Me by Your Name without being reminded of Proust. I have nothing against Proust, but I wouldn't bring A la Recherche to the beach, and I would probably go so far as to say that if it's your idea of beach reading, you and I are very likely not ever going to be soul mates. As with Proust (Another good example would be Faulkner, whose writing I adore: I would not bring Absolom, Absolom!, or even Light in August to the beach.), Call Me by Your Name is the sort of work that requires attention, even immersion. You cannot read a few pages of it and then rise up and towel it off so that you can go immerse yourself instead in the Caribbean.

While on some levels the book is brilliantly written -- and deeply affecting: I would almost certainly have wept at the end had I not been experiencing such fine times and weather -- on other levels, it's just a bit too much. The topic is desire (more specifically desire in the context of a first true love), and while thinking at length about desire is something that many of us, myself included, have indulged in, there is a point where examination, however enlightened begins to lessen, rather than add to, the experience being examined. And I'm pretty sure that this novel would have passed that point even if I hadn't been reading it on the beach and in a hotel room. If you haven't already, you should read Call Me by Your Name and notice how many of the paragraphs begin with "or." It is, of course, the nature of intelligent young men wading for the first time into the turbid waters of love and desire to obsess over the possible meanings of each minute detail, and that obsession is well captured here. But anyone who hasn't already lived through it won't get it no matter how long you go on about it, and anyone who's been through it will surely have recaptured the feeling by the third or fourth "or perhaps." Some abridgment, or perhaps editing, would have been helpful. Or at least I sometimes found myself getting more impatient with the author than the narrator was impatient with himself.

The Homeric hymns might not seem like the ideal reading material for situations where time and attention spans are likely to be brief, but they actually have much to recommend them for beach reading. The subject matter is familiar and engaging, and the format (The edition I'm reading takes about one hundred fifty pages to get through the thirty-three hymns, and while the lengths are highly variable, none of them is very long, and each can be read independently of the others.) lends itself to short periods of reading interrupted by long stretches of bathing or debating the comparative merits and shortcomings of the trip's various Margaritas. But there are two problems. First, the translation. It is, I recognize, impossible to translate Classical poetry into English without sacrificing either the meter (the hymns were written in a sort of hexameter where the individual feet, I believe, were a flexible mixture of dactyls and spondees) or the meaning (It's possible that it's better not to try. It may make more sense to take the overall story and start afresh. Shelley wrote some good hymns that way.), but if you accept, as I do, that the meter won't survive translation, then at least you can try not to make the English leaden. There is nothing either playful, emotional, or moving about this translation. I find that I can keep reading for several stanzas before I realize that I've gotten so bored that I've begun thinking about something entirely different even while my lips have continued reading the hymn.

And that brings up the second problem. They're hymns, and they really have to be read aloud. Fortunately, the hotel beach here is large and uncrowded enough for me to put my beach chair far enough away from anyone else so that I can read aloud, as long as I do so softly. If that means I stumble over some of the pronunciations (No! Please don't make me try to say "Eileithyia" again. Oh, hell, I'll just call her "Fred." I'm sure that's what the goddesses did.) then so be it. But I'm flying back tomorrow, and I'm only about a third of the way through the hymns, and there's no way in hell that I'm going to read them aloud on the plane. They also wouldn't work on a more crowded beach. And even on a relatively uncrowded beach, people will look at you and think that you're too dumb to read without moving your lips. The shame.

Fortunately, b&c finished at least one of the books he brought along to read, so on the airplane back home tomorrow afternoon, I'll be reading Manil Suri's The Age of Shiva, which, I believe, has little in common with any part of the oeuvre of Gordon Merrick. It seems the most likely of the three books he brought to be entertaining. I am pretty sure that I would not pick up a book titled The Cellist of Sarajevo unless I were looking for a gift for b&c. And, truly, I don't know whether pity or terror is the appropriate response to a man who thinks that something called Wittgenstein's Poker has any place in a vacation.

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