Mount Holly, 11 July
Dear Karl Ove, Our day trip was to Chester where there was an excellent little bookshop called Misty Valley Books. What I like best about these small bookshops is that they are often run by people who actually love books and read them. Even though there are not thousands of books to chose from, the selection is curated so that the little shelf space isn’t cluttered with uninteresting popular books.
Misty Valley Books had, in the back corner, an area devoted to small publishers, and there was an extensive selection from Europa Editions, the imprint that publishes Amelie Nothomb’s amusing books. Have you ever read her? I just read Life Form recently and thought is was clever and tightly constructed. I first learned about her work when I was making a serious study of the French language so that I could master it. At the time I read French magazines and chanced upon an article about the Belgian author and that prompted me to get her Tokyo fiancee. I’ve read that one a couple of times now because it makes me laugh. All her books make me laugh. They are funny and smart.
One thing that intrigued me about Amelie Nothomb was the way she worked. Like me, she gets up early each morning to write. Steady, slow work allows her to craft a slim novel each year — the perfect length, about 120 pages. I can’t recall how many novels she’s published at the moment, but the total number isn’t as important as the reliability of her production. She has that in common with Cesar Aira, another writer whose method is a model for my own.
I picked up the new novel by Amelie Nothomb, Petronille, thinking that it would be a fun read, something light for the evening. Then I continued browsing. A book called My Brilliant Friend caught my eye. There was a handwritten review under the book written by one of the Misty Valley Books patrons. The review praised this story of two young girls growing up in post-World War Two Naples. The book is by Elena Ferrante, an author with whom I’m not familiar. Have you heard of her? The handwritten review, while praising the book highly, did nothing to entice me to want to read it. A coming of age story set in post-war Italy just didn’t sound like the sort of thing that would appeal to me. But I did reach for the book to look at the opening paragraphs.
The reason I decided to look at the book more closely is that I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the physicist Ettore Majorana recently. He disappeared without a trace after getting on a ferry at Naples bound for Palermo. A few months earlier Majorana had taken a teaching position at the University of Naples. It’s probable that Majorana killed himself by leaping into the Mediterranean. But since no body was ever found, there are competing theories about what might have happened to him. We can’t resist a story without an ending and naturally want to complete it.
So when I picked up My Brilliant Friend I was thinking about Ettore Majorana. And when, in the opening pages of Ferrante’s novel, she writes about how her friend, the brilliant one, went missing without a trace, I thought, ah ha! this is a sign. I should read this book. There’s probably something in this book for me — my sense that there was a disappearance, a mystery that needed solving.
When we’d finished at Misty Valley Books, Alice suggested that we walk through the cemetery that was across the street. It was a large cemetery, an expansive field of monuments, some crumbling, some covered with lichen, a few shining, polished granite slabs. I’m not sure why we walk through cemeteries. Is this something that most people do? Given my deep and abiding aversion to death, it’s odd that I would be interested in touring such places. Of course, what I’m doing is measuring. Each headstone I look at, I read off the dates and do a mental calculation. He was 87. She was sixty-two. And here’s one who died when he was 46. I wonder what happened? When a man dies at 46, there must be some story. An illness, an accident, suicide? What is most sad are the graves of children. Often, if the dates are recent, one will see a few toys set up on the headstone. A few years ago, Alice and I chanced upon a grave in a cemetery in Rhinecliff that had a plastic Buzz Lightyear toy reclining against the headstone. Why do we do this to ourselves? I asked Alice. Perhaps as a reminder that we shouldn’t take anything for granted.
All the best, Donavan