Monday, December 21, 2009

`Watching the Doves Cavort with Impunity'

A reader in Texas writes:

“I just returned from a quick business trip abroad. I love these more for the time afforded to read and reflect than for almost anything else. Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses made me think you might enjoy it -- if you haven't already.

“Then I read back to back `The Duel’ and `The Wife’ and experienced a spiritual reaction to Chekhov, as if he were a good pastor. His dissection of people exposed my soul and made me want to expand mine.

“Now I'm sitting in the south room of our little house in the Hill Country, watching the doves cavort with impunity. It's so quiet I close my eyes to hear more.”

It’s a pleasure to have thoughtful friends, friends who are full of thoughts and generous about sharing them – Chekhov as “good pastor,” for instance. I thought of a story from 1887, “Happiness.” “Pastor” is from the Latin pastorem, “shepherd,” and “Happiness” deals with two shepherds, grandfather and grandson, tending a flock of sheep. The story might be set in King David’s day or the Wild West. The older shepherd is superstitious and forever telling moralistic tales. The pair is joined by a mysterious overseer who reminds me of the Lee Van Cleef character in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. He tells stories of treasure buried nearby, and then leaves. Both, the old man in particular, believe the stories in the abstract but do nothing about them:

“The [grandfather] was haunted by thoughts of fortune, the [grandson] was pondering on what had been said in the night; what interested him was not the fortune itself, which he did not want and could not imagine, but the fantastic, fairy-tale character of human happiness.”

Another reader in Texas sent a postcard of Judge Roy Bean’s office in Lantry, Texas, “where the fabulous Judge administered `Law West of the Pecos.’” My friend writes:

“All this, and Mopsy Pontner too.”

The initiated will recognize the reference to a minor character of dubious morals in A Dance to the Music of Time.

ADDENDUM: My postcard sender writes: "December 21, 2009 is Anthony Powell's 104th birthday. I'm happy to report that I finished my fifth (or possibly sixth) reading of A Dance to the Music of Time last week. (Notations in one of the volumes suggest that the last reading was a little less than five years ago.) It was, as always, better than I remembered, which is presumably a comment on the quality of my memory. I will continue commending it to anyone even remotely likely to enjoy it, though, from long experience, I expect no success. My interlocutors' eyes seem to glaze over when I mention that it runs to twelve volumes."

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