Thursday, February 19, 2009

`In a Very Unusual Form'

A warm wind moved in Wednesday morning, turning Loreto into a typhoon of dust. We coughed and felt the grit in our teeth and eyes. On a dusty walk into town we found Baja Books on the Paseo Hidalgo. The front room is a catch basin of English-language videos and books, mostly paperbacks. On a rattan book shelf I found such titles as The Tarot of the Bohemians, Sartre’s No Exit and Other Plays, Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, The Fortune in Your Hand, They Cage the Animals by Night, two books by Krishnamurti, The Witches of Eastwick, two copies of King Lear, and Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s The Arts.

On the bottom shelf I noticed two volumes from a familiar imprint -- Everyman’s Library, in hard cover with shocking pink dust jackets. Such an unexpected discovery: George Borrow’s Lavengro and The Romany Rye. I first read Borrow 34 years ago when a friend whose reading was as intrepid as mine recommended The Bible in Spain. In three years studying English literature at a university, I had never heard his name. Borrow (1803-1881) was prized by A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell, who judged him a precursor of their approach to nonfiction, a mingling of reportage and fictional techniques.

In the second room I met the bookshop’s owner, Alberto Perez, who was born in Mission, Texas, on the Rio Grande. He settled in Loreto 20 years ago, lives off his time-share properties, and opened the shop in 2005 with his wife, Jeannine, a potter and former special-education teacher. We talked about Texas, Mexico and drug violence along the border. He sat in an oversized wooden chair with wagon wheels on the sides, and drank from an ice-filled glass.

Both Borrow volumes come with introductions by Walter Starkie, the translator and biographer of Rimbaud. Perez looked at them, hefted them, murmured, “Hmm, pretty old books,“ and charged me 60 pesos, less than $5. Both printings date from the nineteen-sixties and both have stickers on the cover saying “A.S.U.C.L.A.” -- the Associated Students UCLA, the group that runs the student union and bookstore. How did the books get to Loreto? Who left them? Has anyone read them? If so, do they regret the loss of the books? If someone has read them, what do they remember of Borrow? Who reads Borrow today? In his preface to the first edition of Lavengro, Borrow writes, in words with implications for the blogosphere:

“In the following pages I have endeavoured to describe a dream, partly of study, partly of adventure, in which will be found copious notices of books, and many descriptions of life and manners, some in a very unusual form.”

ADDENDUM: Anonymous kindly notes that Enid Starkie, not her brother Walter Starkie, was the biographer and translator of Rimbaud. My apologies. Memory is unreliable but how good it is to have attentive readers.


Nige said...

Both Lavengro and Romany Rye were among the small and very miscellaneous collection of books on the shelves of my parental home. They would have come down via my grandfather, I imagine, and my father read Borrow with pleasure. Sadly I never took the opportunity, and the books were disposed of years ago. Edward Thomas wrote a biography of Borrow - he sounds like the kind of writer who would appeal to Thomas - but I've never seen it.
Also on the family bookshelf was Handy Andy, a novel by the still more completely forgotten (but once big) Samuel Lover, A.E.W. Mason's The Four Feathers, W.W. Jacobs' The Monkey's Paw and P.C. Wren's Beau Geste - oh and a rather handsome complete Longfellow. Those shelves were a kind of literary fossil record.

Anonymous said...

your blog is one of the first things I read every morning with great enjoyment and profit.However, this morning
I note that you have confused Walter Starkie with his sister Enid. It was Enid who was the biographer and translator of Rimbaud.