Sunday, January 24, 2021

'Forget Them Now That They Are Ashes'

“But no book remains; my library, with so many other libraries, is gone.” 

A friend sent me a link to an essay by Rose Macaulay (1881-1958) I had never read before. She published “Book-Building after a Blitz” in the June 6, 1942 issue of the  American magazine The Saturday Review of Literature. Macaulay had been in Liss, a village in Hampshire, making arrangements for the family home after the death of her sister. She returned to London on May 13, 1941 to find that her flat in Marylebone and its contents had been destroyed during a German bombing raid three nights earlier. She writes:


“Of furniture, books, and pictures nothing stayed but a drift of loose, scorched pages fallen through three floors to street-level, and there lying sodden in a mass of wreckage smelling of mortality, to trouble me with hints of what had been. Here was a charred, curled page from one of the twelve volumes of the Oxford Dictionary, telling of hot-beds, hotch-pots, hot cockles, hotes [“a promise; a vow”], and hotels; there, among a pile of damp ashes and smashed boards, were a few pages from Pepys, perhaps relating of another London fire, a few from Horace Walpole, urbane among earthquakes, revolutions, and wars, knowing that all things pass.”


The London Blitz had started on September 7, 1940. For fifty-six of the following fifty-seven days, the Luftwaffe bombed the city. The day-and-night raids lasted until May 11, 1941. Some 37,000 civilians would eventually be killed in Great Britain. For three years, Macaulay volunteered as an ambulance driver in the London Auxiliary Service. The day after she discovered the destruction of her books, she wrote to her friend Daniel George: “I now have nothing. I came up from Liss last night to find Lux House no more—bombed and burnt out of existence, and nothing saved. I am bookless, homeless, sans everything but my eyes to weep with.” [See Jane Emery’s Rose Macaulay: A Writer’s Life (1991).]


Macaulay writes without self-pity or any suggestion of having been singled out for misfortune. She recounts the titles of books lost with sadness but also with a sort of actuarial coolness. She knows what she has lost and will never recover, and writing about it is an act of homage to her books, some of which were originally her father’s. Her literary taste is impeccable, and her library is one any respectable reader or writer would envy. Among her “indispensables” are Browne, Burton, Boswell, Johnson and Gibbon. Of the dozens of books she lists, only a few are fiction, though by 1941 Macaulay had published more than twenty novels. She describes friends giving her books to replace those she has lost as “the brighter side of getting bombed.” Now it makes even more sense that after the war Macaulay published The Pleasure of Ruins (1953), my favorite among her books. In her essay’s final sentence, she writes:


“One keeps on remembering some odd little book that one had; one can't list them all, and it is best to forget them now that they are ashes.”

1 comment:

Cal Gough said...

Wow, what a story. The fact that Macauley's library was destroyed somehow makes me admire her writing even more than I already did. Thanks for mentioning her book THE PLEASURE OF RUINS.