Sunday, October 23, 2022

A Book That I Am Reading

 A Gentleman in Moscow.

By Amor Towles.

Before I say anything about that I - to make whatever it is that I may say about this book be in some sort of context, a context that is important to me if not anyone else - I need to talk briefly about the book I had just finished before I started reading A Gentleman in Moscow.

That book that I had just finished was East and West.

By Sommerset Maugham. 

That was a thousand-page tome consisting of 30 short stories by the author,

The first four or five stories were OK, pretty good, but not up to Of Human Bondage, not even remotely.

Or so I thought as I read them.

They were all set in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness place: Borneo or Singapore or Malaysia or maybe even Indonesia; I don't really know, and I'm of a sort that I really don't care.

A year in Saigon was all I had in me for that sort of thing; I wondered why Maugham was subjecting me to fairly banal stories set in a place that I would prefer to forget.

I did notice however that each story seemed to point forward - a thing I could only know by reading the next story - and backward, a phenomenon that I am not brain-dead enough - yet - to have missed.

Then there was a loud literary clang.

About story six Maugham returned to his home field - England - and began unleashing his mild, entertaining and utterly beguiling invective about the British system.

Those stories were page turners.

And they all pointed forward, and pointed backward, and just made lines in the sand for their very transient existence; a plot was unfolding.

Which was when he switched to spy stories.

I can't find the words to describe how entertaining those stories were; I didn't want them to end; but they did end; he started writing mysteries; they were so fun that I forgot about how much I had wished the spy stories to continue.

And then he finished it off with a bunch of fairly bitter little tales, all of which pointed forward, and pointed backward, to the final words: THE END.

I had just read a novel that was built out of short stories.

I was dazzled.

But not surprised.

Maugham is the last of a set of writers that for some reason are perfect writers for me.

Trollope was the first.

I possess and have read - some more than once - about twenty of his sixty or so novels; I love them all.

Sometime after discovering Trollope, I started reading Thomas Hardy - Jude the Obscure - and I wandered off on that track for another pile of books (I am fairly convinced that The Belton Estate by Trollope is Hardy's inspiration for Far from the Madding Crowd) that I have in my larder, all about furze, mist, heather, and heaths and dark clouds and dark things happening to humans and cows.

Fairly quickly I realized that Hardy was telling tales parallel, if not identical, to the tales that Trollope was telling.

Just some years later.

And then I discovered Maugham.

In desperation for my next book a few years ago I picked Of Human Bondage off the bookshelf in the jumble of disparate things that we have dubbed "the office" on Lopez Island and started to read.

Same tales, clock moved forward.

I have only also read Cakes and Ale.

But when I can get back to Powell's, I will fix that paucity of inventory.

To have one of those tales told via the vehicle of a thousand-page collection of short stories.

What can I say?

Genius, I guess.

But back to A Gentleman in Moscow.

Towles, as far as I can tell after 75 pages is not a writer.

He is a magic painter who, with frighteningly few verbal brush stokes, tells tales present, points to tales past, and presages tales future.

I have never had so much fun reading a book.

He may be the fourth in my personal pantheon: Trollope, Hardy, Maugham - and now - Towles.

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