Ben Downing had me by the first comma. The rest of the sentence is a gift. I know him as coeditor of Parnassus: Poetry in Review and author of the poetry collection The Calligraphy Shop (2003) and the biography Queen Bee of Tuscany: The Redoubtable Janet Ross (2013). I’ve read his essays and reviews for years, but only this week discovered “The Water of March,” published in 2002 in the Southwest Review (thank you, Jstor). In five pages, Downing mingles memoir, travel writing and criticism, and moves literature from the classroom and into the heart of our life where it belongs.
Downing first read Eliot’s novel in the nineteen-nineties on a visit to Brazil. He chose a hefty Victorian volume, in part, because it “would keep me from the hideous eventuality of on-the-road booklessness.” We all know that anxiety. In addition, he figured Middlemarch would “prove to be a piquant contrast to all things Brazilian.” He turned reading the novel into an exalted ritual, which I also understand.
Downing’s mind is alert to correspondences, echoes and covert threads of meaning. His title comes from one of my favorite songs, one I linked to on this blog many years ago, “Águas de Março” (“Water of March”), as performed by Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim. He begins reading Middlemarch on March 15 – the middle of March. He mentions such linkages not out of pretentious symbol-mongering but because he finds pleasure in “the inscrutable rules of coincidence.” Search out the essay and expect to be entertained and to have your faith in the power of a good book restored:
“How many of our red-letter days arrive out of nowhere, unlooked for and unbidden! The counterpoint of reading and talk; of firm English prose and careless Portuguese banter; of Middlemarch and Minas Gerais—all this, played out against the rolling, pastoral landscape, left me, when after dark I finally got to Caxambu, fairly tingling with exhilaration.”
The essay only gets better after that, deeper and more somber: “Such extremity of feeling is in tune with the emotional compendiousness of the novel itself.”