Tuesday, November 18, 2008

`The Best Kind of Reading for the Long Winter'

“Some people, seduced by the demon of knowledge, read systematically, coupling one book with another. Others – like Montaigne – read for pleasure, trying a bit of everything. Still others buy famous and expensive books, though they never have time for them.”

Into which category of reader does the author of this passage fall? And you? I’m squarely in the second with an occasional migration into the first, and no experience of the third. The author, Jerzy Stempowski, places himself in another category entirely -- “My reading was guided by what I found on my way.” – because history had prepared a detour.

The excerpts are from “The Smuggler’s Library,” included in Four Decades of Polish Essays (1990), edited by the theater critic Jan Kott (author of Shakespeare, Our Contemporary). Stempowski (1894-1969) was a Krakow-born literary critic and essayist whom Kott calls “the undisputed master of the Polish essay.” As best I can tell, none of his books has been translated into English though Kott also includes “Essay for Cassandra.”

“The Smuggler’s Library,” written in 1948, reads like an intellectual adventure story, one in which private history intersects violently with global history. It’s late December 1939, almost four month after the Nazi invasion of Poland. Stempowski is a patient in a makeshift hospital in the Carpathian Mountains, sick with pneumonia and a kidney disorder. We never learn how a middle-aged writer ended up in this remote corner of southeastern Poland or where he had been on Sept. 1. When discharged, he’s befriended by smugglers who provide him with a hideout. One says to him:

“`You must have been reading your whole life, and now you’re going to be sad without books. I’ll try to get you something to read.’

“On the next day a young smuggler, Andrijko, appeared with a sack on his shoulder. He put it on the floor. When the room warmed up I untied the bag and started to take out the books. The first to appear was a good edition of Horace, then the Metamorphoses, Virgil’s Bucolics and Georgics, and some Latin poets of the Renaissance. Next there came some Spanish publication, mostly from the time of the Civil War, although they included Gracián y Morales. At the very bottom of the sack I found the English romantics – Southey, Coleridge – and also several volumes of Walter Scott, Pride and Prejudice, and a slightly worn copy of Spencer’s Faerie Queene.

“It was the best kind of reading for the long winter.”

Stempowski spends much of the rest of the essay piecing together the histories of the volumes, how they came into his possession in wartime Poland. Basically, good fortune – for him; ill fortune for previous owners -- delivered them:

“During wars and upheaval a reader leaves his library at home. He takes only his favorite book, but even this book is soon abandoned in a roadside inn or at a forest crossroads. The smugglers’ library was a vivid testimony and a warning. A wartime reader must rely first and foremost on his memory. At the end of the road he will be left only with what he remembers.”

I have a friend, not notably paranoid, who embodies the Boy Scout motto – “Be Prepared.” He boasts he can pack and be on his way in less than five minutes. He lives alone and has never been acquisitive. He is ready if – what? If the secret police come knocking? I don’t know. He’s a sensible fellow. His preparedness is not a response to external events, past or present; it’s an obscure but insistent demand. If he fled in the night, I’m certain, he wouldn’t pack a book.

It’s an adolescent parlor game, like debating whether I would crack under torture (I would): What book would I grab in the middle of the night on the way out the door? My Shakespeare is bulky – three hefty volumes. Montaigne and Boswell, too, are bricklike; same for Ulysses. My Walden, Dante, Lives of the English Poets and Gulliver’s Travels are pleasingly compact. How to calculate the sustenance-to-weight ratio? Perhaps I should invest in a paperback Lear.

Read Stempowski’s lovely essay to see what he reads and what he concludes from his reading. The only spoiler I’ll offer is that he spends most of his time that winter with Virgil, and that those books influence his decision over what to do when spring arrives. Here’s the conclusion of the essay:

“On the last day of my stay in the mountains I carried the bag of books back to the smugglers’ inn. As far as I know the place was later ransacked many times, and its inhabitants either died a violent death or dispersed throughout the world. Who knows what fate befell the books? Soldiers and bandits plundering the inn were looking for vodka and tobacco and probably took little interest in books. Perhaps they still wait in the ruins of the inn for their reader. To the one who will find and read them – the unknown lover of Virgil and the Latin poets of the Renaissance – salutem.”

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