The cold winds are coming down hard from Alaska and the Yukon. If I have not answered your recent query as quickly as you would have hoped it is because I have been rather busy the last several days compiling a list of autumn reads. These are books for the coming season.
I look forward to it. Like you I have a specific routine for the chilly weather. After a long day at the orifice I light a fire, settle in to a leather chair, pull up a Pendleton tartan wool blanket, open a bottle of whisky, and rip into a book. I typically acquire a pile of titles only to have them sit on the antique Peruvian blackwood tea table in the middle of the room for months on end until I get around to finishing them.
For the coming months I have already identified a few key choices. As usual I consult reviews before purchase to determine suitability; I am an inveterate reader of book reviews. I see one of my favourite authors, V.S. Naipaul, is under intense fire from the usual establishment apologists in the UK media for his study on African belief systems, Masque of Africa. But the gem for me this season is the Bruce Chatwin book, Under The Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin. More on this in a moment. I suspect both books will be ignored or trashed by the provincial Noo Yawk literary establishment in this country. I hope I am wrong. But never mind.
Something about the Chatwin book immediately struck me as unique. And then I understood. How many major authors in recent years wrote actual letters using pen, ink, and paper? Chatwin was probably the last one. As Chatwin's biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare, says: "These constitute possibly the last letters by a contemporary author, from seven years old to shortly before his death, that are written on card and paper and not on Microsoft Word."
And Christian House writes in The Independent: "In her preface to this fascinating volume, [Chatwin's] widow Elizabeth asks whether, by dying at the dry-nib end of the time when writing letters was an everyday act, Chatwin represents the last great writer for whom such a collection will exist."
Good question. I do not know about you, but I used to write letters every week. Hidden away amongst several parcels recently sent to me by my uncle in Connecticut that had been in storage for 15+ years was a small collection of personal correspondence. In the photograph (at left) is a biscuit tin full of letters received by me more than 20 years ago, mainly from girlfriends but also from chums, family, and various school and university officials from England. I was a much greater presence in these peoples' lives then, but over the course of decades they have dropped away and we have become isolated from one another. Not that I mind. A cache of personal love-letters is a reminder that you were once loved. You were loved once, in other words, before you turned into a monster. And that is enough.
Times have changed. Today the bitter-sweet track-record of recent relationships and love affairs can be obliterated simply by pushing a button. And it often is. But can it be removed from one's memory? Not very easily. Unless one consumes consistently vast amounts of wine and codeine. And even then, I can report, it is not so effective. God knows I am trying. With the actual matter in front of you it is harder to get rid of the evidence, at least for a homesick cretin like me. So the love-letters sit in a side drawer or in the back of a changing room closet.
One of the advantages of the anonymity afforded by the electronic newspaper column format is the freedom to be candid. In person, if I were to discuss it, I would probably turn scarlet and mumble something and turn away. So with that in mind I will reveal to you, in an Admiral Cod exclusive, that in one of the piles of letters here is a small lavender envelope containing the last letter written to me by my first love and a lock of her light auburn hair from England in the late 1980s. Silly? Not to a 17-year old. But at my age? I dare not look. In fact I do not plan to read any of these letters ever again. Once or twice is enough, I think.
In a recent review of his friend's book of letters, the French author Paul Theroux said: "But with each passing year I am more convinced that [Chatwin] was the real thing, an original in all his work, and Rimbaudesque in acting on his belief that life is elsewhere."
Yes, indeed, both life and love, Theroux might have added, are elsewhere. It is a belief to which I have adhered for years. The future is provisional.