Travel by Map

Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky ~

Even today, I could spend hours looking at maps – but when I was twelve years old and had the hours to spare, I did. Any kind of map would do: world atlases and road atlases, globes and National Geographic maps, topographical maps, boating maps, flight maps, geological survey maps, weather maps, vegetation maps and species range maps, the maps you might find printed on the endpapers of history books or art books, or scattered among the entries of an encyclopedia.

I soon began drawing my own maps. I practiced the shapes of states, countries (contemporary or historical), and continents until I was able to do a fair job with many of them by memory. I drew maps of imaginary places too. In the cartographic style immortalized by dog-eared Tolkien paperbacks, I carved out coastlines with my pencil, plotted rivers, raised up hills and mountains, and marked out villages and citadels. In pursuit of greater scale and detail, I taped together sheet after sheet of painstakingly drawn maps until they covered my bedroom floor in a sort of visual epic narrative.

Knowing my love of maps, my children got me a copy of Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands for Father’s Day this year and I couldn’t have been more pleased. It’s a beautiful, fascinating book. Schalansky’s avowed aim is to raise the genre of the atlas to the status of literature, and she rather succeeds. Each of the fifty islands included is tastefully illustrated; it’s situation, total area, and population (if applicable) are described; and notable points in its history are plotted on a timeline.

The real pleasure of the book, however, lies in the brief essay-vignettes Schalansky writes for each island, capturing a moment or event of local historical note, often from an oblique or unexpected point of view. Some poetic license is taken, for sure, but it works. Every page is a surprise. However, as Schalansky notes in her delightful introduction, islands may be little hells as well as little heavens, and the grim and diabolical element plays strongly here.

Open the book, hold its covers flat on the table, and within the 180-degree compass of its pages you will visit every conceivable island terrain, from the merest coral atoll at the equator to a scabbed shelf of ancient seabed thrown up above the waves of the circumpolar sea. You will meet adventurers, prisoners, madmen, hermits, pirates, mutineers, scientists, nudists, utopians, explorers, murderers, and self-proclaimed kings.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything quite like this book. I detect echoes, perhaps, of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities or of Melville’s Mardi, but it is very much its own thing: like an island.


Summer Bestiary

We have learned to live with the ants in the kitchen. In fact, I don’t mind them at all anymore. We’ve ceded them territory in the vicinity of the waste bins; they’ve given up their claims on the cat’s food dish. Now we all get along. I admit that I’m tempted sometimes to buy a packet of diatomaceous earth and see what happens if I sprinkle it in their way, but then I feel a pang of guilt at the thought of their murder. I dislike the way they struggle through the hair on my arms (which happens occasionally), but even drowning them in the sink feels like a trespass. We’re all neighbors now.

Hyacinth, our Ameraucana hen, has gone broody again. She spends all day in the coop and would sit on a rock for weeks if it were shaped like an egg. The other hens are afraid of her. When anyone gets near she fluffs her feathers and makes a sort of Jurassic growl-and-click sound that proves once and for all that birds are descended from the dinosaurs.

The toad died. My daughter had caught him as a tadpole at a lake in the mountains and raised him at home for more than a year. He had become like a corrupt Roman of the patrician class. He refused to exert himself for anything. We had to feed him by hand or else he would starve. We found him one day in his shallow bath, bloated and still, with his tongue sticking out.

The garden spiders have recolonized the back yard. Every morning they spin new webs under the porch or between the smoke tree and the alder. The rhododendron is full of them. They’re small still, little orange things full of ambition and energy. By the end of August they will be ten times larger, old and wily, more stoical but more intimidating. I’ll be less careless of walking through their webs then; it won’t be so easy to brush them off my face without a shudder.

Smith the cat came to us last year as a stray, half-feral and hungry. We tried to keep him indoors but he began knocking over lamps and plants to show his displeasure. He’s more manageable now that he spends the day outdoors. The trouble is that he kills songbirds. The neighbors dislike him for this reason; they say they don’t see as many birds this year as last. We didn’t want to blame Smith, but we put a bell on his collar anyway. Even so, I found a half-eaten finch in the grass yesterday.


Augustus by John Williams ~

Why did Shakespeare so often choose kings and dukes for his protagonists? Ben Jonson drew his characters from the rabble of the streets. Shouldn’t we, in the democratic spirit, more readily sympathize with and prefer them? But we don’t; Shakespeare was right. In his aristocratic exceptionality, we see the king as emblematic of ourselves because we can’t help but consider ourselves exceptional. No man is a democrat within the borders of his own mind. He is always a king.

Or an emperor, as the case may be. And yet John Williams in Augustus holds Octavius at a distance from us for nearly the entire book. We are not invited into the protagonist’s mind and perspective as we are, say, in the first-person narratives of Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian or the I, Claudius of Robert Graves. Instead, Williams’s novel is made up of the (fictional) letters, recollections and dispatches of the people surrounding Octavius. We watch him become Augustus Caesar only through their eyes.

Williams took a risk here, since distance can make sympathy difficult. He justified the gamble by saying: “I didn’t think I could handle it in a straight narrative style without making it sound like a Cecil B. DeMille movie or a historical romance. And I didn’t want it to sound historical. Those people were very real and contemporaneous to me… I wanted the characters to present themselves. I didn’t want to try to explain them.”

I’ve never cared for epistolary novels. Reading through strangers’ correspondence may be as tedious as listening to strangers’ dreams. Despite admiring Williams’s prior efforts in Butcher’s Crossing and Stoner (especially the latter), I put off reading Augustus because I imagined myself plodding through it pleasurelessly for a hundred pages or so and then throwing it off the couch in frustration.

And yet Williams’s risk pays off – and not merely in the end but at every step. The personas and moments he selects, captured in the best prose he ever wrote, reflect an ever-shifting light on each other and, by a sort of narrative triangulation, compound the fascination of their object in the character of Octavius. The book is somehow a page turner.

The structure of the novel is like a three-part sonata. The first movement is full of energy, an exposition of all the book’s major themes, charting Octavius’s rise to supremacy through rivalry and war. The second, more deliberately paced, elaborates the consequences of his achievement, both for himself and for those nearest to him. In the third part we come through the hall of voices at last and find ourselves before the elderly Augustus himself as he revisits the tale to pass judgment.

It is difficult, however, to extract objective judgments from subjective experiences, as we all discover if we live long enough; we would need the wisdom of a god that never cowered in fear of Time, “the barbarian which none can escape.”

In his final letter to Nicolaus of Damascus, the old emperor writes:

“The young man, who does not know the future, sees life as a kind of epic adventure, an Odyssey through strange seas and unknown islands, where he will test and prove his powers, and thereby discover his immortality. The man of middle years, who has lived the future that he once dreamed, sees life as a tragedy; for he has learned that his power, however great, will not prevail against those forces of accident and nature to which he gives the names of gods, and he has learned that he is mortal. But the man of age, if he plays his assigned role properly, must see life as a comedy.”

The Odd Shelf

Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman ~

Anne Fadiman says that most serious readers keep an “odd shelf” of books on a topic mismatched to the rest of their personal library. Her own contains books on polar exploration, north and south. She’s particularly fond of failed British expeditions, Scott’s suffering and death having more romantic appeal than Amundsen’s easy jog to victory.

It never occurred to me that I might have an “odd shelf.” Perhaps I’m not a serious enough reader. My bookshelves are hardly organized at all, so the volumes that might inhabit an odd shelf are scattered to the four corners of the house. Also, I never expected my interests should follow some general pattern or show consistency with one another.

But of course new and unexpected interests will crop up in most readers’ lives. Some of these come and go, while others come and stay. Two of my own that might surprise acquaintances and fill up odd shelves of their own are patristic theology of the fourth and fifth centuries and North American Indian captivity narratives.

I almost never read theology anymore but I still love St Augustine’s Confessions, which fairly blew my mind at age sixteen when I bought a tattered paperback at a garage sale. The Orations of St Gregory Nazianzen are wonderful, as are the letters he and St Basil exchanged as young men fresh out school in Athens. Then there’s St Gregory of Nyssa, whose warning about the danger of abstract theologizing still lives with me: “Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything.”

The appeal of Indian captivity narratives is perhaps more understandable. At one time these filled the place now taken by science fiction stories of alien abductions. My personal favorites include Mary Rowlandson’s tale of her captivity during King Philip’s War (1675-76) and James Smith’s memoir of five years (1755-60) with the Delawares. The best, perhaps, and the saddest, is the autobiography of John Tanner (1780-1846) titled The Falcon in the Penguin edition.

I’m generally distrustful of books about books. Reading them produces in me the sort of unease I feel when watching Hollywood movies about Hollywood. Some of these books are certainly well done (see Holbrook Jackson’s The Anatomy of Bibliomania or Alberto Manguel’s The History of Reading), but they more often reek of publishers’ propaganda or communicate an over-enthusiastic sort of clubbishness.

I wasn’t sure I would care for Ms Fadiman’s book, and there are some precious bits, some “humblebragging” (as the kids say) and some blatant name-dropping (didn’t she already mention that Mark Helprin is a personal friend?). But in the end she won me over with the breadth of her interests, her humor, her fine prose, and of course her frequent quotations from Charles Lamb.

Dalrymple on Dalrymple

~ Out into the Beautiful World by Theodore Dalrymple ~

Theodore Dalrymple unwittingly gave me a terrific compliment by adopting my surname for his nom de plume. He was born Anthony Daniels and might have chosen any name he liked, but he chose mine. If I ever have the opportunity, I will thank him personally, but I’ll also ask: Why Dalrymple? Fond as I am of my last name, I don’t consider it very mellifluous, nor does it sound particularly sophisticated or imposing.

Perhaps the sometime-Mr Daniels hates highlanders: after all, it was a Dalrymple (Sir James, First Earl of Stair) who ordered the infamous Glencoe Massacre. Or perhaps he likes highlanders: there was a Dalrymple (Charlie) in the musical Brigadoon. It may be that Mr Daniels is an admirer of middle-shelf P.G. Wodehouse novels: there’s a Vera Dalrymple in Bachelors Anonymous. Alternately, he may have renamed himself after Alexander Dalrymple FRS, who famously hypothesized an unmapped southern continent but was beaten to the punch when his rival James Cook charted the eastern coast of Australia first.

Whatever his reasons, I can only consider Mr Dalrymple’s choice of pen-name a compliment because he is, in my opinion, the best writer of essays in English today – and one of the very best living writers of English prose.

The essays collected here were originally published in New English Review. They’re offered as light, informal pieces, but this may be misleading. Dalrymple’s sense of humor tends toward the dry and dark. He has a low opinion of human nature, though his misanthropy can be winsome. He manages to bring a moral seriousness to every subject he considers. In this volume, that includes topics like famous medical serial killers, the behavior of the cuckoo, the question whether it’s better to be oppressed by a foreign power or your own kind, the field of forensic entomology, free lunches used as bribes, and the pleasure of collecting worthless inflationary banknotes with denominations in the billions.

My only complaint with Out into the Beautiful World is that Mr Dalrymple is seriously failed by his editors. The book is inexcusably riddled with typos. The folks at New English Review Press owe him an apology – maybe even a free lunch.

On Gratitude

I had a small revelation the other day. My wife and I were in the kitchen and one of us (I’m not sure which; this happens after twenty years of marriage) mentioned gratitude. Gratitude, as in, a spirit of thankfulness.

According to the old philosophers, the cultivation of gratitude is needed for a life worth living. This is a notion I endorse, and in a prayer I recite for my children before bed I’ve long included a petition that we might learn “to be grateful for the many blessings we enjoy.”

But something in me – some voice – sneered at the phrase. After all, it’s easy enough to be grateful, said the voice, when your life has been such a field of flowers. Wait until life gets hard and see how easily gratitude comes to you then.

I could only admit the voice was right (I’ve had little to complain of in my life) and hope for endurance when the time of trial arrived.

And yet, the other day in the kitchen I suddenly understood that this was the wrong way round; the truth with regard to gratitude is quite otherwise than the voice had stated.

My life has not been without its share of loss and suffering, and the fact is that I have always found gratitude easier in times of adversity, more difficult in times of ease and abundance.

The time one needs most to pray for gratitude is when things are, to all appearances, going well. This is when we are tempted to take the present state of affairs as somehow our due.

Curiously, when I recall periods of pain and turmoil in my life, I see it was then that I was most keenly and consciously thankful.

Perhaps it’s as simple as this: To have our peace wrested away from us teaches us to value peace; it makes us thankful for what we have known. Or perhaps the loss of consolation in one direction teaches us to discover it in another.