Tuesday, January 30, 2007

One of Life's Great Pleasures

There comes a time when reading a sizable novel -- if it's a good one -- when the characters are people you know and whose company you enjoy. Their story, whether an adventure of an inner journey, has become fascinating. You hold the book in your hand and see you are a smallish portion from the end, maybe 75, or 80 pages. You look at the clock and it's late, you have to get up early tomorrow ... so, being a relatively slow reader, you put the bookmark in its place and set it aside. The the next evening, assuming you are an evening reader as I am, you know that you are going to finish the novel. You are going to find out what finally happens to those people, how they manage to overcome the complications or obstacles or if they face tragedy ... in short, what will happen?

Such was last night. I finished Jean-Christophe Rufin's THE ABYSSINIAN, which is an adventure story with bold and slightly unbelievably noble and brilliant characters along with a whole plot-full of shallow and greedy, narrow minded, sometimes sly, wily and sinister characters. I don't often read such novels so I was putty in Rufin's hands. I sat and read and read and finished it and went to bed and then could not fall asleep, being caught up in the final scenes on storied Mt. Sinai and the monastery of St. Catherine, of which I have read in travel literature. How intelligently the author turned these subjects of Louis XIV into modern people -- bold and moral and brave in the face of a greedy and ignorant world! I had such difficulty turning my mind off ,,, this is the magic of literature. All my life I have admired -- deeply and profoundly admired -- those who can create such stories ... and now I admire even more those who not only can write so well but managed to get through the forbidding obstacles of modern publishing to actually have their work in print and widely available.

The only question is what I'll read this evening -- I think I'll get on with the biography of Frederick Law Olmstead, a poly-genius with a fascinatingly complex life who accomplished so much despite failing at many undertakings and going through several periods of serious depression. I love Central Park, which is mostly his creation, but that is an early example -- he designed so much more. I don't read a lot of biographies but it's good to know about the viscitudes of extraordinary people -- the course to greatness and to major contribution to the world around you is extremely various and by no means consistently satisfying or easy. The title of the book is A CLEARING IN THE DISTANCE by Withold Rybczynski. I admire the title because is refers to one of Olmstead's landscape tenets but also to the life of many such a genius -- life is often fraught but the trust in the "clearing in the distance," that is their vision of how a life well lived ... they do not expect it to be without the tangle and difficulty of the moment, but they see afar the peaceful scene they hope to achieve.

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