Friday, March 30, 2012

Well Read By Moonlight

Over the past few days, a few literary bloggers (you know who you are) have been discussing what constitutes a “classic” and how the “canon” is formed: in other words, how literature comes to be valued collectively. Amateur Reader of Wuthering Expectations generously (and humorously) offers that “a classic is whatever other people say it is, and also whatever you say it is.” It’s that second category of valuation that interests me here: each reader’s “personal” canon, those works he or she might carry along to a desert island. When the “classics/canon” discussion arose, I’d just been musing about that topic in a tangential context.

On a less than 24-hour passage through London recently, I spent one of those rare travel days when everything clicked, the whole day an enchaînement of enchantments. I spent some time in second-hand bookshops, emerging both relieved (no more books to cram into my bags) and disappointed (no more books to cram into my bags). The shops seemed ransacked; I found nothing I was seeking, nor anything I wasn’t. But heading back to my hotel in the remains of the day, I noticed a bookshop I’d missed earlier, like the others not clean, not well-lighted, bereft of all but the most forlorn books. But suddenly I spied a pristine Folio Society edition of William Stanley Moss’ Ill Met By Moonlight, a work I’d wanted to read since learning of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s role in the tale it recounts. For the few British coins remaining in my pocket, it was mine.

Some books seem to leave one reluctant to the risk tarnishing the singular power of their storytelling by something so superfluous, mingy and indecorous as critical commentary (a few that come to mind: Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). Ill Met By Moonlight, Moss’ log of his and Fermor’s daring 1943 kidnapping, with the help of local partisans, of the Nazi general overseeing the occupation of Crete, fits this mold. It’s a supremely absorbing adventure tale. I read it in a single sitting, finishing in the jet-lagged wee hours of the morning. I wish to add or subtract nothing from its mesmerizing story, but one marginal, bookish element snagged my attention.

I’d found this notable elsewhere, even in Fermor’s own travel books: the supreme importance, on a personal level, given to literature, to the point of hauling it around as a travel accessory (necessity, more like). Reading Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, an account of his travels in the 1930’s through Persia and Afghanistan, I couldn’t help but notice the number of books Byron brought along. Byron’s library for his punishing travels – not exactly beach reading - included Proust, Boswell, Thucydides and some detective novels, as though he were toting along a whole civilization, like a talisman to prevent him from losing himself in foreign lands. In a less cumbrous example of literature as travel necessity, Antonio Tabucchi, writing about Miguel de Unamuno, notes that when exiled to Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands, Unamuno insisted on taking along the New Testament, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and the Canti of Giacomo Leopardi. Certainly there are hundreds of other such lists.

But finding this same phenomenon in Ill Met By Moonlight raised an eyebrow. Unlike Byron, off on a self-initiated grand cultural adventure, and unlike Unanmuno, fleeing into indeterminate exile, Moss and Fermor were on a clandestine, highly dangerous war-time mission, involving night travel on precarious goat paths, hiding in caves and ditches, evading German patrols and myriad other perils. Nonetheless, writing in a canyon after a long night’s rugged march several days after his secret disembarkation on Crete, Moss reveals:

I have with me the books which Paddy and I selected in Cairo to take with us, and among them there is something to suit every mood. My literary companions are Cellini, Donne, Sir Thomas Browne, Tolstoi, and Marco Polo, while in lighter vein there are Les Fleurs du Mal, Les Yeux d’Elsa, and Alice in Wonderland. Then there are The Oxford Book of Verse and the collected Shakespeare which Billy MacLean gave us on our last night in Tara…smiling shyly and giving us these two volumes, one to Paddy, one to me, saying that they had been with him in Albania and would surely bring us luck.

What a commitment to literature! What an almost superstitious faith in its power! This attitude is underscored by the role that literature and poetry play in the mission itself, as when the young Fermor completes in Latin some lines from Horace that the kidnapped German general has begun to mutter, or in the numerous poems and songs recited by the Cretans and Brits alike to provide solace, courage and sustenance.

But it’s not as though hauling around a load of literature is restricted to those on grand explorations, perilous missions or trips into exile. After all, on my fortuitous London evening, Ill Met By Moonlight joined 18 other books I’d already picked up during two weeks of travel. I wonder, though, which books I’d bring along on a voyage if I knew there was a more than significant chance I wouldn’t come back. The canon formed by what other people think is a classic is certainly not something I dismiss; I suspect, though, that it wouldn’t be the first place I’d turn to make my choices for this journey.