It's been an eclectic few months of reading, with more globetrotting coming up. Last night I finished "Champlain's Dream," a riveting biography of the man who did more than anyone else to establish and shape "New France." David Hackett Fisher is a historian at Brandeis who won the Pulitzer for his book about Washington at the Delaware and the surrounding events, titled "Washington's Crossing." I was fascinated to read this one, though, because Samuel de Champlain (~1570-1635) not only explored, shaped, (and named!) much of the St. Lawrence valley from Tadoussac, near the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to Montreal and far beyond; his explorations and courageous attacks (with the Huron and other Quebec tribes) to repel the Iroquois took him as far south as present-day Syracuse (Onondaga) and as far west as Lake Huron; he also explored and mapped much of the Atlantic coast, down to Cape Cod. What this means is that he had an influence over all the area where I've spent my life - and in northern Vermont and northern New York, a much greater influence than the New England first settlers we're taught about in history books.
He was also a remarkable man who I've come to admire greatly, not only for his leadership and creative vision but for his great humanity, most obvious in his love and respect for the native Americans which resulted in cooperation, mutual admiration, and a peace that endured throughout his lifetime - a record neither the British nor Spanish can begin to approach. Champlain's humanity was rooted in his catholicism - and I write that deliberately with a small "c" - he was Roman Catholic but much less interested in dogma or the organized Church than in his deep belief that all human beings were equal. He actually encouraged intermarriage between the native people and the French, and like his king, Henri IV (who actually may have been his father) dreamt of a New World free of the sort of religious and cultural strife that had plagued Europe for centuries. I can certainly see lingering effects of his legacy in the Quebec of today, and am anxious to follow out some of the threads that were started by my reading of this book.
At the same time, I'm into another Conrad: this time, "The Secret Agent," set in London. I can't say that I'm wild about Conrad, even though I'm reading most of his books. He is, however, one of the best descriptive writers I've ever read. The problem stems from the fact that none of his characters are people you come to love. Conrad's interest is in exposing the flaws that lurk in every human, and expose them he does, perhaps better than anyone. So it's not pretty, but he has a great deal to say, not only about individuals but about the times and places he's writing about, and this psychological and cultural drama, combined with his remarkable writing, have kept me going through this particular reading project.
Knowing about my interest in Orhan Pamuk and Istanbul, as part of my larger interest in the Near and Middle East, Elizabeth Angell recommended "A Mind at Peace" to me because its author, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar, was one of Pamuk's greatest influences. The book is about a doomed love affair in Istanbul; that is, the love between the man and the woman is doomed, but the entire novel is a love poem to the city itself. It's a wonderful book that I am very glad to have read, not only for its insight into Pamuk but for its own story and the delicacy of Tanpinar's writing. "A Mind at Peace" weaves a sort of spell for the reader, while speaking of the spell cast on the protagonist by his love for a particular woman, and creates an atmosphere and a world that I became immersed in and was sorry to leave. No wonder Elizabeth said, as she took it off the bookstore shelf in Brooklyn and handed it to me, "If you want to see where Pamuk is coming from, this is the book to read." Pamuk's concept of the city's embodiment of melancholy, or hüzün, clearly comes directly from Tanpinar, but Orhan, while a great storyteller in his own right, has never written about love as convincingly as Tanpinar.
That book led me to two by Louis de Bernieres, "Birds Without Wings," set in a small Turkish village, and "Captain Corelli's Mandolin," winner of the Commonwealth Prize and a beautiful and harrowing story of the occupation of a Greek island by Italian soldiers at the end of WWII, and I'd happily recommend either.
Next up: another Turkish novel by an author I discovered through the recent BBC radio series about Istanbul: "The Bastard of Istanbul" by Elif Shafak. That will complete the little Turkish focus for this spring and summer; it's time, I think, to finally come back home and read (or re-read) some American novels. First will be "The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner, and we'll see where that leads. The others on my immediate list are "Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis" by Jose Saramago, recommended by Wah-Ming Chang who has written an excellent essay on Saramago after his recent death; and "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" by Haruki Murakami and "Experiments in Ethics" by Kwame Anthony Appiah, both highly recommended by my friend Bill Gordh (he and another close friend are also reading the Faulkner right now.)
I'm excited -- and we'll see how much of that I actually get through by fall, or will there be an unexpected but serendipitous detour?
(Note: there's already been a detour! When I couldn't get the Saramago or Murakami listed above at the library, I got Murakami's "South of the Border, West of the Sun" instead and immediately read it in two obsessive sessions between 10:00 pm and 8 am. A remarkable, deceptively simple book.)