Do I not know what savage blossom only under the
Of your inclement season could have prospered?
Green leaves to wade in, and of the many roads not
one road leading outward from this place
But is blocked by boughs that will hiss and simmer
when they burn – green autumn, lady, green
autumn on this land!
Do I not know what inward pressure only could inflate
its petals to withstand
(No, no, not hate, not hate) the onslaught of a little
time with you?
No, no, not love, not love. Call it by name,
Now that it’s over, now that it is gone and cannot
It was an honest thing. Not noble. Yet no shame.
“What Savage Blossom” – Edna St. Vincent Millay
Sometimes, when you’re not feeling all that good, only a certain type of old friend will serve. When you’re walking around town or waiting at an airport or trying to pretend you’re not at a poetry reading, your best old book-friends are just who you want to help you out – for me, these are my big guns, the unchanging voices I listen to over and over (I’ll spare you all the list, especially since its names are fairly obvious by this point).
But when you’re feeling sick, when you’re laying on the couch swaddled in blankets and basset hounds, those very best book-friends feel wrong. You worry that in your present condition, you’d be wasting their time (yes, I know that makes no sense – book-people aren’t very sensible). No, in such miserable circumstances, you reach for a different kind of friend entirely. Voices at once more casual and more comforting.
My list of such second-tier book-friends is very, very long, but this weekend I reached for five that will serve very well as a thumbnail for all the rest:
The Code of the Woosters – P.G. Wodehouse is, I suspect, on many and many such a list as this one, and deservedly so: absolutely nobody writes more cheering-up books than he does, and this 1938 classic is, in my opinion, his single best. I have the paperback with the J. C. Leyendecker cover, and this weekend I smiled again to read the adventures of hapless, good-hearted Bertie Wooster and his all-knowing valet Jeeves. The Code of the Woosters involves a vicious little dog, a disastrous flirtation with the M-word, a touchy French cook, and a ghastly little cow-creamer, but no matter how dire the circumstances seem to be, nothing serious is of course ever at stake, as you can tell from the caliber of curses Bertie’s feisty Aunt Dahlia calls down upon her foe:
May green flies attack his roses. May his cook get tight on the night of the big dinner party. May all his hens get the staggers. May his cistern start leaking, and may white ants, if there are any in England, gnaw away the foundations of Totleigh Towers.
Strong stuff, as Bertie comments, and I trust I may not be misconstrued when I say the book is full of it.
The Daughter of Time – Naturally, when bedridden, there’s nothing that answers quite so well as a murder mystery (I once had an old friend who used to contrive being bedridden, solely to stimulate this feeling); they feel so neat and controlled right when we ourselves are feeling anything but. And this 1951 staple of the genre is quite possibly the best murder mystery ever written, despite being so preposterous it ought to provoke appreciation only for giggles, not craft. It’s the story of Inspector Grant, who’s laid up in the hospital with a broken leg but can’t stop investigating – so he turns his deductive powers to one of the greatest mysteries of British history: what happened to the Princes in the Tower? Did Richard III have his nephews killed so that he could seize the throne? Grant spends a great deal of time reading books of history, and it’s a testament to Tey’s narrative ability that she makes it all as exciting as a Glasgow car-chase:
He [Grant, of course – the book is very nearly a one-man show] reached for More’s History of Richard III. It had as preface a short life of More which he had not bothered to read. Now he turned to it to find out how More could have been both Richard III’s historian and Henry VIII’s Chancellor. How old was More when Richard succeeded?
He was five.
When that dramatic council scene had taken place at the Tower, Thomas More had been five years old. He had been only eight when Richard died at Bosworth.
Everything in that history had been hearsay.
And if there was one word that a policeman loathed more than any other it was hearsay. Especially when applied to evidence.
Well, OK – that does prompt some giggling, but still – it never fails.
Probably understandably, most nonfiction won’t work in circumstances like the ones we’re talking about here, but the books of Stephen Jay Gould are happy exceptions – probably because they’re largely composed of short columns he wrote for a smart popular audience during the heyday of Natural History magazine, so they’re primed to entertain. The first of these volumes, 1977’s Ever Since Darwin, has been one of my go-to sick-books for thirty years now, mostly for bright-eyed segments like this one on the growth of the human brain:
But what about our preoccupation with ourselves; does anything about the history of vertebrates indicate why one peculiar species should be so brainy? Here’s a closing item for thought. The most ancient brain cast of a primate belongs to a 55-million-year-old creature named Tetonius homonculus. Jerison has calculated its encephalization quotient as 0.68. This is, to be sure, only two-thirds the size of an average living mammal of the same body weight, but it is by far the largest brain of its time (making the usual correction for body weight); in fact, it is more than three times as large as an average mammal of its period. Primates have been ahead right from the start; our large brain is only an exaggeration of a pattern set at the beginning of the age of mammals. But why did such a large brain evolve in a group of small, primitive tree-dwelling mammals, more similar to rats and shrews that to mammals conventionally judged as more advanced? And with this provocative query, I end, for we simply do not know the answer to one of the most important questions we can ask.
The King Must Die – This brawny 1958 historical novel by Mary Renault is now a staple of school reading assignments, so who knows but that it might not become immortal, but my affection for it dates to well before it achieved such deification – although really, like with Wodehouse, I’ll reach for any Renault when I’m feeling under the weather. This novel tells the story of wily young teenager Theseus, recasting all his mythological adventures from Edith Hamilton into a authentic-feeling evocation of pre-historical Greece. Renault is a pleasingly subtle writer, and that subtlety is stamped on every page of this great book, including the end of a riveting scene where young Theseus hosts the slightly older king Pylas at an outdoor feast and incites the curiosity of his followers as the night winds down:
The fire crumbled; the ashes grew red and gray with a few sparks of gold; the dogs mumbled their bones full-bellied. As it grew quiet, we leaned and fell to whispering; I could seem more than one of my Minyans lying awake to watch if he would make love to me. We agreed together to press for war that autumn rather than wait for spring … He laughed and promised. Then we slept; I on my face, because my back was sore. Next morning when we all set off home, he gave me his gold-rimmed cup as a guest gift. The Companions stared, and wondered if they had stayed awake long enough.
See the joy of the intellect at play there? See the winking hints, so entirely adult in a genre that produces so much pap for children? We’re told a practical reason why Theseus sleeps face-down, but no other reasons are excluded; we’re told his Companions wondered if they’d stayed awake long enough not to miss some lovemaking, but we’re not told they didn’t miss something – Renault assumes there are some things her readers might like to decide for themselves. It’s entirely refreshing, especially when you’re curled on a couch lost in effluvia.
Collected Sonnets - that state of being lost in effluvia is conducive to a bit of self-pity, and when you’re feeling so inclined, nothing quite caps things off like somebody else’s self-pity. And nobody strikes that old lachrymose note quite as beautifully as the great second-rate poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her performances of these sonnets had to be seen to be believed, but even the unaided works drape down upon the reader like a fine shroud:
Not that it matters, not that my heart’s cry
Is potent to deflect our common doom,
Or bind to truce in this ambiguous room
The planets of the atom as they ply;
But only to record that you and I,
Like thieves that scratch the jewels from a tomb,
Have gathered delicate love in hardy bloom
Close under Chaos, – I rise to testify.
This is my testament: that we are taken;
Our colours are as clouds before the wind;
Yet for a moment stood the foe forsaken,
Eyeing Love’s favour to our helmets pinned;
Death is our master, – but his seat is shaken;
He rides victorious, – but his ranks are thinned.
See? “Our common doom”? I feel better already.