Thursday, November 12, 2015

New Reading of old Books

Detail of a poor photo of a rabbit (Jill's), but all I could think of as a heading was a rabbit, and Durer's is too wild, too fine, and too alert to illustrate Dorothy Sayers' characterization of an unhappy drunken college girl: "The general impression of an Angora rabbit that has gone loose and was astonished at the result"—but what I need is the face, and of an Angora, and I can recall but cannot find the image of my sister Linda's big old rabbit.

In any case, that characterization is from Gaudy Night, and I hadn't meant to risk being disappointed after fifty years by that one.  Actually, I was wondering whether I would still admire her Dante commentaries as much as I had when the three Penguin volumes were new, but the font is too small till I get new reading glasses.  And, in the first place, looking across the room at my big oaken chair with the mask of a goat pan on its back, I was thinking of a student couple in Eugene, Oregon, c. 1970, who had found a chair just like mine but with a lion mask (indeed mine is the only one with an aegipan mask).  I think it was to Roger that I lent the paperback of Busman's Honeymoon, as fun to read, and he found it "castrating".  That rather spoiled the fun, though later I realized that one needed to know that the personality of Peter Wimsey had evolved so that, though he might not have liked the book, Roger might have chosen a different epithet.  Besides, between the two wars, and especially after the trenches, working with what we call PTSD, and after the worst experiences of World War II we called Shell Shock, as I recall, was de rigueur for writers who took themselves seriously.  After Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf, et al., who called Dorothy Sayers a feminist?  And girls raised in Oxford were generally well educated even before the women's colleges.  There's a whole literature on them.
Anyway, I found out that Busman's Honeymoon had been a highly successful play before she turned it into a novel a year later.  That accounts perhaps for its wonderful conversations, perhaps more numerous than even in her other detective stories.  But only those readers who just don't like Sayers (even as I just don't like P. D. James, though it seems to me normal to have one's favorites, and James has her own admirers), and I enjoyed Busman's Honeymoon more than ever.  So much, in fact, that I re-read Gaudy Night, too.  It had been the first of her books that I'd read, and I enjoyed it even more for getting all of the references (I think, all of them).  This time, between the two of them, I have decided finally to read Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy.  Kindle obliged handsomely, but they don't have those three volumes of Dorothy Sayers' commentary on Dante in eBook format.  Famous poetic versions abound, and those everlasting DorĂ© illustrations, but not commentaries.  I suspect that we are supposed to treasure the Commedia,  but not to study it, not to get from it what Dante put in.  Not even if one wants an Italian commentary.  I pulled down the Penguins, but the font that seemed so reasonable until recently now might as well be 6-point.
Surely I am not the only reader-for-pleasure to pluck choices from chapter headings in the books I'm reading currently.  There's always plenty more.  It is not the sort of reading you'd get course credit for in college, but it was there that I formed the habit.  You study for one final exam then steal time to read something that appeals to you before facing preparing for the next exam.  During final exams you don't have to dress or go out to do anything...  I protest, I didn't read detective fiction during exam weeks; in those early days I'd read travels or journals or sometimes the novels by authors that I couldn't afford to take whole courses on (or, to confess it, that I hated to answer the predictable essay questions on, spoiling the book for me!).  
I think I'll write a couple more posts about reading things I've always meant to read or that I haven't read again since I was fifty years younger.
Here is that chair again that I got in the 1960s.  It really is white oak, but the black is a product called japalac, which is original.  Roger and Judy (I think I have their names right) "cleaned" their lion-head one, stripping it right down to the bare wood.  That was the fashion at the time, alas.  The chair is American Renaissance Revival, c. 1885, I think.