Thursday, January 11, 2018

`It Provides Novelties in Old Age'

“I like books of observation, memoirs, letters, anything that tells how people actually lived. Truth is certainly better than fiction, if you can get a bit of it.”

That’s C.H. Sisson explaining his tastes in reading to Michael Schmidt at the start of his eighth decade. The interview appears in PN Review 39, published as part of a 1984 Festschrift on the occasion of Sisson’s seventieth birthday. He mentions reading the Historiettes of Tallemant Des Réaux, Saint-Simon’s memoirs and Madame de Sévigné’s letters. Sisson’s drift to the factual late in life mirror’s my own reading experience and reminds me of William Maxwell’s preference for biography, memoir, diaries and correspondence when selecting books to review: “what people said and did and wore and ate and hoped for and were afraid of, and in detail after often unimaginable detail they refresh our idea of existence and hold oblivion at arm’s length.” Such books, he says possess the “breath of life.” [The Outermost Dream: Literary Sketches, 1989]

My ostinato book, read casually but consistently in the background in recent months, has been Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. After almost twenty years I’m reading it a second time. Last weekend I read Victor Sebestyen’s new biography of Lenin and David Thomson’s Warner Bros (2017)Bob Barth suggested I try a 1963 pamphlet by the novelist Caroline Gordon, A Good Soldier; a Key to the Novels of Ford Madox Ford. Flitted among are Chekhov’s stories, Frederic Raphael’s Byron (1982) and Lincoln’s Sense of Humor (2017) by Richard Carwardine. Raphael notes of Lord Byron as a boy: “[He] was already a keen reader, particularly of Roman history and Mediterranean legend. (Poetry he despised.)”

One result of steady reading is steadily discovering new and desirable books to read. On Sunday, Nige tipped me off to the novels of Dezső Kosztolányi, which I hope to investigate soon. And I’m scheduled to review a couple of new books about the Gulag that are still in transit. Sisson says at the conclusion of his interview:

“It is nice still to have so many gaps in one’s reading when one grows old; it provides novelties in old age.”

2 comments:

mike zim said...

Re: Maxwell’s preference for biography, memoir, diaries and correspondence when selecting books to review: “what people said and did and wore and ate and hoped for and were afraid of, and in detail after often unimaginable detail they refresh our idea of existence and hold oblivion at arm’s length.” Such books, he says possess the “breath of life.”

Joseph Epstein (unknown source):
Early in his biography Boswell remarks “that minute particulars are frequently characteristick, and always amusing, when they relate to a distinguished man.” In the hands of an artful biographer, these minute particulars, like so many well-placed dots in a pointillist painting, conduce to provide a satisfyingly full picture. So it is with the “Life of Johnson.” Boswell shows us his subject’s gruff table manners, how he walked, his laugh (like that of a rhinoceros), his terror of death, his immense—one can only call it his Christian—generosity to the poor and those defeated by life.

Dave Lull said...

From A Biography as Great as Its Subject.