November 15, 2008

Literary crushes

The other day I came across a great post from Alison Flood in The Guardian books blog. Having heard about a petition launched in Japan to allow people to marry cartoon characters (hey, don't laugh, Fox News is convinced Donald Duck could vote in the US Presidential Election), she was inspired to think about what fictional character she would marry. A few, it turns out, from Georgette Heyer heroes to Jay Gatsby, by way of Gilbert from Anne of Green Gables. Who are your literary crushes, she asks?

This is the kind of question that could probably keep me alive a few extra days while waiting to be rescued at the bottom of a ravine. Say I was precocious, but when I was still being read aloud to I can remember hanging on my mother’s words as she read to us about mysterious, one-armed Freckles in Girl of the Limberlost. Although, since I remember that the other high point of the book for me was the description of Elvira’s lunchbox with its cunning little compartments, maybe I wasn’t that bad.

Later – that would be puberty – there was the Louisa May Alcott book Eight cousins and its sequel Rose in bloom, about an orphan named Rose and her seven boy cousins, one of whom she is of course destined to marry. The main players are the oldest cousin, Archie, the natural-leader type; Charlie, nicknamed “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, talented, charming and fatally flawed; and bookish, absent-minded Mac. I think I was a little bit in love with all of them -- well, maybe not Archie!

I was pleased to see just now on The Literature Network site that readers are discovering and gushing over this sweet, romantic and proto-feminist book in 2008.

In high school I fell in love with Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun also Rises and spent many nights picking out a sophisticated, androgynous one-syllable name that I would change my name to as soon as I moved out of my parents’ house. With my best friend, I shared a crush on Mercutio, the melting point being established in Franco Zeffirelli's film version of Romeo and Juliet. And of course there was Dean Moriarty.

But my biggest literary crush of all is my high school Honours English teacher. He had beautiful blue eyes, a romantic limp, a passionate soul and he interpreted poetry so sublimely. The day he read us "Ode on Melancholy," when he got to the part about he whose strenuous tongue can burst joy’s grape against his palate fine, I was, if not his, John Keats’s forever.

So, who are your literary crushes?

November 04, 2008

Bargain Book Sale

This month at Central Library we’ll be holding one of our twice-yearly bargain book sales, so be sure to come in and rifle through the hundreds of older items we take off our shelves every year to make room for all the new purchases. And a used book gave me an amazing book moment today, an unexpected post-script to last month’s post about Banned Books.

It happened like this. The announcement of the sale set me to remembering some of the secondhand books I’ve owned. I have an acute memory of a book I bought when I was nineteen, somewhere in Europe. I like to think a bookstall along the Seine and perhaps it was. This book, Les premieres illusions ("First illusions") by an unknown to me Michel del Castillo, I chose for the title but nearly as much for the cover, its blotting paper texture, the words in red capitals centered and boxed in the plain white field, so serviceable, so elegant. The classic Gallimard design, I realise now.

Reading this book turned out to be like diving into someone’s dream. It was a story of a childhood passed in a world in which it was impossible to know what was real and what was false, where the ordinary was extraordinary and vice-versa. I read it two or three times before it passed out of my hands somehow somewhere along the way.

Having never come across the book or the author again, I decided to have a look on the internet, expecting if I were lucky a listing on Alibris. Instead I was amazed to find that Michel del Castillo is still alive, has written twenty or thirty books (one on Amazon rated 4,723,410 in sales), has a website, a blog and a rare and intense biography.

He was a child living in Madrid with his mother Candida Isabel, a personality as extravagant as her name, when the Civil War broke out. Despite her bourgeois origins, she threw her lot in with the Communists, writing articles and transmitting as “Isabelita’ every night on Radio Madrid and having a couple of tragic liaisons with officers from the International Brigades etc. who would be killed in the war. Just before Franco’s troops entered the city, they fled Madrid for France, where they reunited with her French husband  (Michel's father), who “fou de rage” (crazy with anger) denounced her to the Commissariat as “susceptible de troubler l’ordre” (likely to disturb the order).

 It goes on and gets worse. His mother deserted him, he was deported and interned in Mauthausen until the end of the war, when he was repatriated to Spain where as the son of a "Red” he spends four years in a sort of penal camp.

And then I read this: “Four years of hell which he evokes in many of his books; but also, in this prison, there came the revelation which will transform his existence: Dostoevsky.”


I go looking in his blog for more. It's Dostoevsky above all, but there's Miguel de Unamuno, Thomas Mann, Thomas Bernhard and also Celine, of whom he praises his “epoustouflante” inventiveness (I have to look it up in the dictionary. it’s… it’s ... “mind-blowing”? Are we sure?)

"Je n’ai pas d’autre biographie que les livres, ceux qui m’ont fait et ceux que j’ai faits."
 ("I have no other biography besides books, those which made me and those which I have made.”)
Yes, it is in French, for English (sort of) try this:

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