There was a time — in what has come to seem more and more a mythical past — when books were everywhere. Along the relatively short stretch of Fifth Avenue between the New York Public Library and Central Park were three magnificent bookstores: Doubleday, Brentano's, and the most architecturally stunning of them all, Scribner's. Around the corner on 47th Street was Gotham Book Mart ("Where wise men fish"). A few blocks west, on 57th Street, was the prodigiously well-stocked Coliseum Bookstore. All of these inhabited just one little chunk of midtown!
Although there was a certain mystique about all those old-world bookstores, Coliseum was my particular oasis, the most seductive spot in New York, a place I could roam in for hours at a time, tingling with book lust. If I hadn't shed so much money on books at Coliseum, I would probably be in better fiscal shape today. Yet who could resist all those crisp, shiny, new books and the promise of what they might contain? How could I possibly know what I wanted to read before I had actually seen it in front of me, rifled its pages, scanned a few tantalizing paragraphs? While I hungered for many sorts of books, all it took was a cover by Whistler or John Singer Sargent and a faint whiff of Masterpiece Theater and I was instantly hooked.
Without those bookstores, it would have been difficult to come in contact with the reissued literary novels of an earlier time, fiction I would never even have known existed if it hadn't been thrust before me. (Yes, it is now possible to download anything and to read it on an electronic gadget, but it is also possible to drink fine wine out of a styrofoam cup.) I cannot count all the serendipitous reading discoveries I made during those heady bookstore days. Here are three of them; if they are new to you, and your curiosity is piqued, I invite you to pick them off the shelf and browse their pages with me.
During the mid-nineteen eighties, Penguin reissued the novels of Australian expatriate Martin Boyd. I read all of them as they become available, but to this day the 1946 Lucinda Brayford remains the most memorable. It is a leisurely saga tracing three generations of an aristocratic Anglo-Australian family from the early twentieth century through the start of World War II. Along with its twin themes of class and culture, the novel is threaded with an elegant eroticism. Everyone desires or becomes involved with someone else, usually the wrong person, as in an Iris Murdoch novel. Lucinda's mother becomes pregnant after a brief affair with an anthropologist in Ceylon. Young Lucinda is sought in marriage by the socially prominent Tony Duff, but she doesn't know why he seems less interested in her than in flower arranging and fabrics. Much against her family's wishes, she marries virile Hugo Brayford, who whisks her off to London; but it soon becomes apparent that Hugo has married her for her money, and it is not long before he resumes relations with his long-term mistress. After Hugo is horribly wounded in the Great War, however, it is Lucinda who embarks on a series of adulterous affairs. I recently called up from the library's stacks the first London edition of this work; it is in gently worn condition, the binding and typeface have a wonderful vintage feeling, and I covet this volume even more than I once did my long-since disintegrated paperback.
From Lucinda Brayford:
They sat down to rest after the climb. Lucinda lay back and closed her eyes against the sun, white and blinding in the mid-heaven. Hugo began to make love to her. At first she tried to restrain him, because of the time and place. But then the time and place, the high and piercing sun, the stark earth, seemed to fuse in her body in a wild desire. A kind of ferocity seized them, a joy passed beyond endurance to pain. She felt that she was consumed by the sun itself, by some first principle of life that immolated her body in an act of new creation.
They never referred to this day again, nor mentioned this hill-top as long as they lived. They were both too conventional to care to think that they might be the passive instruments of forces outside themselves.
Joyce Cary is not so much forgotten today as sorely neglected. Between the mid-thirties and the late fifties, he wrote a number of fine novels, quite popular in Britain and the United States. By the time I discovered him, however, he seemed to be known only to a few stalwart enthusiasts. Although I had seen the Alec Guinness movie, The Horse's Mouth, about Gulley Jimson, an old rogue of a genius painter, I had no idea that it was based on Cary's most famous 1944 novel. I also didn't know that it was the third part of a trilogy consisting of Herself Surprised (1941) and To Be a Pilgrim (1942). In the early 1980s, The Horse's Mouth was the only work of his available in paperback, and I had to scour used bookstores until I had assembled the other volumes. When put together, it became apparent that the trilogy was really a single comic novel in three distinct parts, each written in the voice and within the consciousness of a different narrator, each reflecting on and qualifying what had come before. Here (as well as in the latter trilogy, consisting of Prisoner of Grace, Except the Lord, and Not Honour More) Cary is a master of impersonation, inhabiting his characters completely, and without a single false note. The first two narrators are old, plump, sensual Sara Monday, who drives men wild with desire, and crotchety, wealthy, socially conservative Tom Wilcher, who has a disturbing taste for sexual exhibitionism. Most memorable, however, is cunning, cracked old geezer Gulley Jimson, who cavorts through these three novels and is probably the most convincing artist in all fiction.
From The Horse's Mouth:
Certainly an artist has no right to complain of his fate. For he has great pleasures. To start new pictures. Even the worst artist that ever was, even a one-eyed mental deficient with the shakes in both hands who sets out to paint the chickenhouse, can enjoy the first stroke. Can think, By God, look what I've done. A miracle. I have transformed a chunk of wood, canvas, etc., into a spiritual fact, an eternal beauty. I am God. Yes, the beginning, the first stroke on a picture, or a back fence, must be one of the keenest pleasures known to mankind. It's certainly the greatest that an artist can have. It's also the only one. And it doesn't last long — usually about five minutes. Before the first problem shows its devil face. And then he's in hell for the next month or six months or whatever it may be.
Elizabeth Bowen seems to have a secure literary afterlife, and I well might have discovered her at another time or in another place, but our first acquaintance was at Coliseum bookstore, where I found her ten novels reprinted in not-especially distinguished looking paperbacks. These were followed by a massive hardcover of the collected stories. Where to begin with an author who seemed to offer such a wealth of riches? As my greedy eyes roamed the shelves, I was fortunate enough to first choose Bowen's best-known novel, The Death of the Heart, which only whetted my appetite for the rest. The story is set in the thirties, between the two world wars, and a note of anxiety and the sense of things spinning off-course seems to permeate the atmosphere. Sixteen-year old Portia Quayne, recently orphaned, comes to live in the sophisticated and treacherous world of her wealthy half-brother, Thomas, and his wife, Anna. She falls in love with Eddie, an attractive but irresponsible cad who ends up betraying the girl's trust. Anna violates Portia's innocence in a different and even more complex way. What finally sold me on this novel? I believe it was the precision and subtlety of the language. Even as I stood in the store, reading the opening paragraph, it seemed as if an entire visual landscape was being painted for me. All of Elizabeth Bowen's fiction demands to be read slowly and savored, as if every word were a stroke of the impressionist's brush.
From The Death of the Heart:
That morning's ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments. These tapped together or, parting, left channels of dark water, down which swans in slow indignation swam. The island stood in frozen woody brown dusk: it was now between three and four in the afternoon. A sort of breath from the clay, from the city outside the park, condensing, made the air unclear; through this the trees round the lake soared frigidly up. Bronze cold of January bound the sky and the landscape; the sky was shut to the sun — but the swans, the rims of the ice, the pallid withdrawn Regency terraces had an unnatural burnish, as though cold were light. There is something momentous about the height of winter. Steps rang on the bridges, and along the black walks. The weather had set in; it would freeze harder tonight.
These are just three of the many authors I discovered on the shelves of various New York bookstores. Would I have been so lucky today? Sure, there are still some bookstores about, but it's not the same, is it? You can wear out your shoes walking through Manhattan in search of a bookseller. And if you actually find one , by the time you reach the book section through the maze of puzzles, games, toys, greeting cards, Shakespeare mugs, Jane Austen mousepads, Godiva chocolate bars, and the cappuccino counter you will probably have lost interest. Bookstore mystique, it pains me to say, is a thing of the past.
Fortunately, for those whose great joy used to be browsing books, circulating libraries can take up some of the slack. They will have a few of the books and authors I have mentioned, and you will often find me there, a guy in a kind of fever, picking up one book after another and wondering what to read next. For other, more obscure titles there is the research library, and even though these books must remain in the main reading room, it is somehow a comfort to know they are still there.