I’m unpacking and shelving my books after moving.
Once, inspired by the book-lined walls of lecturers’ offices in which tutorials were conducted, I aspired to acquire books. I suppose I felt that to own a book was to own its contents.
At some point I began to cast off books. What’s the point of owning them? If you need one, find it in the library! Well, if not the library, given the way libraries are going these days, the internet.
I have sometimes sold old books. In preparation for the move before last, I found that so dispiriting and the prices offered so insulting that I arranged for volunteers from 2MBSFM to come to my house. They took boxes and boxes away (as well as practically all my LPs).
On my latest move I didn’t manage such a ruthless culling, though I did take a few boxes over to the radio station and gave others away. That included my set of Anthony Powell novels which I had previously given away to my friend Sq/Sx. After his death, his parents offered them back to me and it seemed churlish to decline the offer.
I still have just a few vestiges of a collection: the remnants of a poetic canon, books about music, a few favourite writers. Otherwise, it’s a scrappy assemblage: books with some sentimental attachment (school prizes, parental keepsakes, books by friends/relatives); a very few books that I expect I will want to read again; some reference books (increasingly supplanted by the internet); books which are rare or hard to replace (foreign language materials; obscurities which will never make the internet); and, worst of all, books which I have not previously discarded because I thought I ought to read them first. Some of these I’ve had for years and still not got around to reading.
And so this week I finally got round to reading James Baldwin’s Another Country. I took it with me for train reading on the way to and from Armida. There my (somewhat older than I) friend CB told me that Another Country was originally banned in Australia and that CB had only a single weekend to read the illicit copy passed to him before returning it.
My copy is a book club edition from London which has had the bookplate torn out but retains a pencilled note that it was a gift on 23.6.67. Somebody, possibly me, paid 20 cents for it.
It took me a while to get into it. Everyone was either an artist or a novelist or a musician. The central character, Rufus, beats up his girlfriend and takes his grievances out on a male lover as well. He’s a black jazz musician down on his luck – why doesn’t he just get a day job? – and then Baldwin lets slip that Rufus is a drummer. But as Rufus’s despair spiralled the writing drew me in. Rufus jumps off the George Washington Bridge to his death on page 72.
It’s a well known book and you can find out practically everything you need to know about the plot on the internet so I won’t attempt to recount it further. But there were two little aspects I want to record as a memento – a way of, possibly, saying goodbye to the book before I pass it on.
One of the characters is an expatriate actor in France. He has a (younger) boyfriend. They are somewhere warm and sunny and going swimming. The boyfriend goes swimming in a “bikini.” I suppose that means that bikini originally meant any skimpy swimming costume. Who knew?
Here Baldwin is describing a scene in a bar. It’s ostensibly from the point of view of Vivaldo, an Italian-Irish wannabe novelist who a little later has an MSM epiphany which is central to the book.
I just love “who really should have been home in bed, possibly with each other.” I don’t think that is Vivaldo – his gay sex is yet to come, and it’s too sharp. Baldwin just couldn’t help himself from slipping it in.