There are times when the mind hesitates to
enter a substantial book, aware that it
will not be able to do justice.
I thought I had sent off a lot of my books, packed in cardboard cartons, waterproofed against the sea breeze, stuffed into a container. And yet as I stand before the bookshelf, it seems strangely full, as if it had replenished itself in the enchanting manner of some magic pitcher.
Its actually quite simple — the books hidden for years in the second row have stepped forward to fill in the gaps, those lying in undignified horizontal piles have straightened up to show their spines. Several titles that I haven’t seen in years catch the eye but nothing seems to hold it: there are times when the mind hesitates to enter a substantial book, aware that it will not be able to do justice.
So I look for the slimmest volumes, nothing more than a hundred or so pages, nothing that cannot be finished in one sitting. Surprisingly, there are many and the pile soon builds up: poetry, plays, stories, and novellas. I would like to read them all; on second thoughts, I pick four.
The first one
The first, The Kiss by Anton Chekhov, is a pocket Penguin of only 54 pages and can almost be read over a leisurely breakfast. In the title story, the officers of a reserve artillery brigade, camping for the night, are invited to tea by the local landowner. It is a perfunctory evening, especially for a shy captain, Ryabovich, who is a typical Chekhov character, no hero but an ordinary man “short, stooping…with spectacles and lynx-like side whiskers”. He sulks and watches the smarter officers make moves on two beautiful women. Wandering back from the billiards room, he finds himself lost in the large house, in a dark, unused room where a young woman, mistaking him for another man, kisses him in the dark and flees in confusion.
Suddenly, Ryabovich’s life is no longer his own. For months he lives like one deeply in love, feeling the kiss around his mouth “like peppermint drops,” daydreaming, in that magical moonlit landscape of flowering rye fields, poplars and cherry trees, about the girl who kissed him. Crazy with yearning and passion he returns to the farm to find that there is nobody there, not even a light in the house. The sadness of life, the reality of it comes home then “and the whole world, the whole of life” strikes him “as a meaningless, futile joke.”
In a hundred years we will all be happy, Chekhov used to say. Until then we have to live with life as it is, enigmatic, untidy, unpredictable, without neat endings and nicely tied ribbons.
There is another story in this little volume — “A Visit to Friends” which starts with one of the most pregnant sentences possible: “A letter arrived one morning….” The reader can only read on.
“The Fifth Column” which, in all probability is Ernest Hemingway’s only play is next to hand. It is all of 95 pages, a play about love and espionage in the Spanish Civil War, told in three acts.
It features Philip Rawlings as the typical Hemingway tough hero, conceited, hard drinking but with a heart of gold and Dorothy Bridges as his vain and very beautiful fellow correspondent and lady love.
More than the play itself, I found two other aspects intriguing. First, the title itself. The term originated in 1936 when a nationalist general broadcast over the radio that the four columns of his forces outside Madrid would be supported by a “fifth column” of supporters inside the city, determined to undermine the Republican government from within. Hemingway points out in his preface that members of this “fifth column”, men like his Rawlings, were dangerous and like other soldiers were killed or given long prison or labour sentences when captured.
The second was the writing of the play. Hemingway wrote it in the fall and early winter of 1937 while waiting for an offensive in the Spanish Civil War. He wrote it while living in Hotel Florida in Madrid under shell fire: the hotel itself was struck by 30 shells. As he says: “So if it is not a good play perhaps that is what is the matter with it. If it is a good play, perhaps those thirty some shells helped write it.”
Up at the Villa, a 1941 novella written by Somerset Maugham, is again just right at 95 pages. Set in Tuscany, with its gentle light and straight rows of cypress trees, the tightly paced work begins like a typical Maugham story of complicated relationships with a colonial angle but ends up almost like a crime thriller.
Its protagonist is a beautiful 30-year-old widow Mary caught between three men: her suitor, 24 years her senior, who has known her since she was a little child and who now wants to marry her before he goes and takes up his post as Governor of Bengal; her confidant, a wastrel of independent means with a bad reputation with women; and a young Austrian student, eking out a living playing a violin badly in a local restaurant.
The poor and unhappy student is the one to whom Mary wants to give “a unique experience, an hour of absolute happiness, something that he’d never dreamt of and that would never be repeated….” And thereby hangs this short and violent tale.
Incidentally, Chekhov, of whom we have spoken earlier, wrote in 1889 that “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” In Maugham’s novella, the first chapter itself tells us, more than once, that the heroine is going to be carrying a gun in her bag.
Scars on the Soul, crossing the 100-page mark, cannot truly be called a novella. It is a combination of an essay, autobiography and novel by Francoise Sagan, who became famous at age 19 with Bonjour Tristesse. Soon Sagan became more famous for living dangerously, drinking hugely and driving Jaguars barefeet, and very fast. She also became a chronicler of the ennui-ridden, languid and amoral middle classes; her lonely heroes and heroines, with their fractured personal lives, fill up the gaps with a relentless seeking of pleasure.
In this 1974 book, she takes a pair of Swedish twins, a brother and sister, leggy, beautiful, idle and plants them in Paris. There they play around with love in a typical decadent fashion.
Every now and then, Sagan steps in, as Sagan herself, to talk about life, politics, the process of writing….these interruptions are the ones that are the most gripping, honest and straight from the heart, written and pushed out before the ink goes dry.
So sometimes, four slim books can add up to more than four slim books. Or perhaps there are times when things simply resonate more.