I was listening to the Diane Rehm show the other day, huffing away on my elliptical, and they had a book review edition on C.P. Snow’s The Masters, part of his Strangers and Brothers sequence of novels.
God, how I loved those books when I first read them. I was so callow at the time as to figure, when confronted with them on the shelf of the library, that they must be okay having been written by the author of the Screwtape Letters. A bit of confusion and conflation: C.S. Lewis for C.P. Snow (and how was I to know that the protagonist of Snow’s series was named Lewis, further adding to my dithering confusion?).
Brit lit was not my major. And after all, I had only really started to love books after I determined to be a writer.
I remember sitting down with the first in that series and being lost in the lives of those characters just as I had in those inhabitants of Alexandria created by Durrell (accent on the first syllable, please, “Durl”–I met him once, Lawrence, not Gerald, at a reading in Vienna and he was as marvelous a human as are his books). Immersed in the characters not in the same way of course, not with the passion and fury and what-the-hell-is-going-on-here in medias res manner of Durrell, but lost in a leisurely, bookish, God-I’m-happy-there-are-eleven-books-in-this-series way.
I was introduced to Snow and Durrel and D. H. Lawrence, Graham Green, J.B. Priestley (so many double-initialed names), John Fowles (another tricky one to say, pronounced Foles), Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Trollope–the list goes on and on–at the British Council Library in Vienna. If you could fall in love with a space, I did with that library.
When I was first in Vienna it was located in the rather down-at-heel Palais Harrach on the Freyung. It was on the mezzanine, as I recall, which in the peculiar European floor-numbering system, means the second floor. High enough for bountiful light to pour through the tall windows of the reading room. It was the cozy reading section I remember best about that library: overstuffed armchairs forming a horseshoe around a ceramic stove that purred invitingly with warmth in the winter months. The books were stored in a warren of smaller rooms that meandered through the old palace. There was a modest membership fee for non-nationals, even for callow Americans, and for those few schillings you could take up to four books out at a time.
Nostromo accompanied me about Vienna for weeks, dogging me on lunch breaks in the gardens between the twin museum across from the Heldenplatz; Lord Jim was my mate on hikes in the woods. (I renewed the former novel three times; I could not get enough of Conrad. Hemingway once remarked on how lucky an acquaintance was who had not yet read all of Conrad. Hemingway saved the novels over many years, parceling them out like water on a life raft.) Lawrence I loved as well, and wished only that he had had a more ruthless editor. Then for months on end I imagined a tune for the catchy ditty “Slipping ‘Round the Corner” from Priestley’s Good Companions, and whistled it most manfully as I walked to work at the International Atomic Energy Agency on the Ring.
We Americans had our own library, the Amerikahaus in the Rathaus quarter; I discovered the understated humor of Saroyan there, the high political drama of Warren’s All the King’s Men. But there was a desks-in-a-row utilitarian quality about the Amerikahaus that was not as inviting as the BC, as we called it. (Both have gone the way of the dodo in these days of budget cuts and security threats.)
However, it was in the British Council Library one blustery day in the mid-1970s when I discovered how truly unworldly I was, a lesson that has remained with me almost forty years. And it came about in the plummy pages of Punch, of all publications. There was a short fictional memoir of a Vietnam vet in the magazine one week, and I read it with real interest, for the writing was so immediate, so heart-rending as the author described the loss of his friends, the miasma of battle, the sorrow of betrayal. I found my heart racing as I read on, hoping against hope that the narrator would not die–how could he? He was, after all, the narrator.
But this was the 70s; narrative tricks were mightily afoot.
In the end, no, he did not die. But as many as a million of his countrymen did. Lieutenant Nguyen Ho was one of the lucky ones.
It was, of course the fact that our narrator was a North Vietnamese soldier and not some private from Iowa that was my revelation that wintry day. I read the entire story envisioning a young American high school graduate humping his rifle and pack through the paddies, this son of the heartland dodging bullets and trip wire.
Among the many other joys and revelations I owe to the British Council Library is this further one– the removal forever of my nationalistic blinders.