Saturday, September 21, 2013

Chance Readings

"It was a Sunday morning in the beginning of April 1813, a morning which gave promise of one of those bright days when Parisians, for the first time in the year, behold dry pavements underfoot and a cloudless sky overhead.” 

The literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki died this week, a looming figure in German contemporary culture. His life story is fascinating. A Jew, he was deported to Poland and just escaped concentration camp, being hidden with his wife in rural Poland by sympathetic people. One thing that really got me about his story was this: 

“When I was arrested in Berlin and deported from Germany in 1938, I was not permitted to take any luggage. All I had in my briefcase was an extra handkerchief and a book. It was a novel I was reading just then - Balzac’s A Woman of Thirty.” 

I love how the detail, so incidental, the book so seemingly random, yet well-remembered as a companion at a fateful moment. In hindsight, he also remarks A Woman of Thirty is "not one of Balzac’s best.” 

The detail of Into the Wild that stands out for me - both at the time I read it and now, years later, when I’ve forgotten most of the story - is that the main figure (whose name escapes me) was reading Dr. Zhivago when he died. I was struck by the romantic coincidence, the stark landscapes of both stories and how they fatefully crossed. 

On Monday my daughter left for a class trip to London. A couple days beforehand she told me which books she would take and asked if I'd pick out a poetry book for her. I didn’t get around to it, and apologizing at the airport I realized I happened to have Federico Garcia Lorca’s Poem of the Deep Song in my purse, which I gave that to her. I can’t imagine I could have picked a better book even with hours of generous deliberation. A class trip isn't as grave an occasion as those above, thank god, but reading Lorca can surely make it more memorable. 

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