Solitary holidays

I want when I ring in the new year to be a better person.
  • I want when I ring in the new year to be a better person.
  • Image by Peter E. Horjus

From now until Christmas, days grow shorter, nights longer. We get more rain. I like the long nights. I like the rain. I like walking against the wind, sheltered under a huge umbrella. Office parties and gift shopping and gift exchanges and family gatherings are what I don’t like. They bring the worst that’s in us out. Drinkers sop more drink, overeaters overeat more. My misanthropy enlarges to include me. I become more a hermit.

The clock on the mantelpiece Has nothing to recommend. Nor does the face in the glass Appear nobler than our own. — W.H. Auden, “For the Time Being, A Christmas Oratorio”

I buy more books. For myself. For friends, for family. I am tempted to enclose a card in these books on which I would paraphrase Sir Edward Dryer’s verse:

“Your mind to you a kingdom is, / Such present joys therein you find, / That they excel all other bliss / That earth affords.” What those four lines say is: Stay home.

But I want when I ring in the new year to be a better person. So I approach the 40-odd days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s as time to revive happier aspects of myself. Reading is part of that venture. I begin by finding a book in which an author I like has collected his book reviews and essays on reading and writers. This book leads me to other books (and gets me out of the house to search stores that sell used books). Other years, I’ve been guided by poet Robert Hass’s Twentieth Century Pleasures that inspired me to reread Rilke and John Updike’s Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism that introduced me to Edmund Wilson’s journals.

I was attracted to Jonathan Raban’s For Love and Money, A Writing Life by its notice in The New York Times Book Review column “Noted With Pleasure.” (In this column, Times book editors offer quotations from a Whitman’s Sampler of new books.) The Times quoted Raban’s memory of finding the book that changed his life:

Drawn to the book by its title (I’d never heard of its author), I read Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I hadn’t realized. I’d thought that novels were cleverly contrived escapes from the world and that writing them must be something a bit like fretwork. Portrait of the Artist made the reader live in its language and made him live more arduously, more unhappily, more intelligently in the book than he had ever lived in the world. It made some obscure but fundamental change to the essential grammar of things. I read it with excitement and shock, three times over in quick succession, dazed to fmd myself so deep in a book and so deep in the world.

Raban, an Englishman, is most familiar in the United States as author of Old Glory, an account of his journey down the Mississippi River. For Love and Money Raban describes as “partly a collection, partly a case-history.” The pieces gathered Raban recalls himself as a boy — “asthmatic ... wire-thin ... no asset as anyone’s friend. So (and this is how the story always goes) the child made friends with books instead.” Books, he notes, admitted me to their world open-handedly, as people, for the most part, did not. The life I lived in books was one of ease and freedom, worldly wisdom, glitter, dash and style. I loved its intimacy, too — the way in which I could expose to books all the private feelings I had to shield from the frosty and contemptuous outside world. In books you could hope beyond hope, be heartbroken, love, pity, admire, even cry, all without shame.

No author ever despised me. They made me welcome in their books, never joked about my asthma and generally behaved as if I was the best company in the world.

It is no surprise, then, that Raban at eight or nine wished to be a writer. Nor is it a surprise that he has gone on to write so well — and feelingly — about what he reads. For Love and Money includes assessments of Byron, Thackeray, Trollope, Twain, Evelyn Waugh and reviews of books by Tom Wolfe, Updike, Robert Lowell (who, when he lived in England, often went trout fishing with Raban).

About Waugh:

His sensibility had the extravagance of a brilliant child’s: adult moderation never got in the way of clarity. What he admired, he worshipped; when he disapproved, he was appalled. The bourgeois virtues of common sense and good manners (the besetting vices of so many modem English novelists) were totally foreign to him — not because he was a snob but because he never forgot what it was like to be a child.

Of the reviews collected in Updike’s Hugging the Shore, Raban writes:

“[Updike] can recollect a whole style in a phrase, as when he points to Iris Murdoch’s ‘sly and glossy spookiness’ or talks of Saul Bellow’s ‘lavish, rippling notations of persons, furniture, habiliments and vistas.’

In his criticism as in his fiction Updike is a three-dimensional realist.”

Psychologists suggest we may find ourselves unhappy during this happiest of seasons by reason of loose family ties. In his essay “Living With Loose Ends,” Raban proposes:

[the] logic of prose narrative in English is inextricably bound to the family.... For to have a narrative to tell at all one needs the continuity of relations, the stake in the future and the Fixed point of moral certitude which the family provides. The novel does not thrive on one-night stands.... Some lives are simply too random, too accidental, too lacking in moral or historical direction, for novels to make much sense of them. And literature, even the most serious literature, is as prejudiced against these lives as the censorious matrons of both sexes who set themselves up as custodians of society’s morals.

Raban admits that it seems “distinctly odd that novelists should be so ready to collude with that view of the family promulgated by domestic moralists....

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