The Beauty of Beau Geste

My first semester in Oman I didn’t read anything except texts for classes. I simply couldn’t get ahead of class preparations as there was so much to learn, process, translate and understand. When I lived in Boston I always had a book to read on the T (metro) so I started to carry Gulliver’s Travels with me when I left the house in Salalah. I finished it piece-meal: working through it while waiting at the phone or electric company, standing in line to pay a bill or at the grocery store or waiting for meetings to start.

Gradually, as I settled, I started back in on fiction only to find, somewhat to my horror, that there was a reverse correlation to what I was teaching. In Boston, I belonged to two book clubs at the Boston Athenaeum: Arcadia, Pale Fire, Invisible Cities, Passage to India, Trollope, Lolita, Racine’s Phaedra, Flaubert’s Parrot, The Movie-goer, etc.

Two different long-distance friends and I set up mini-book clubs; we would read the same book then make a phone-call date to thrash it out: The Forsyth Saga, Anna Karenina, Tristram Shandy, Herodotus, Brothers Karamazov, Reservation Blues, Tuchman, Tolkien, Wharton, various Greek and Latin dramas. On my own, I read all of Proust, most of Stendhal, Flaubert’s letters, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and the first part of Autonomy of Melancholy. There were a few mysteries mixed in (Ian Rankin, Charles Todd, Barry Maitland and Julia Spencer-Fleming) and some Robertson Davies, but I reading mainly hard-core.

Then came Oman. The first non-class text I managed was Island of Sheep by John Buchan. Talk about a come-down. And worse: I really liked it. Restful. I remembered what I had tried to long suppress, that when I was teaching in the Emirates, I read all sorts of that type of late 1800s, early 1900s adventure books. Wordsworth Classics publishes “classics” for $3 each and living in Sharjah I read my way through most of Kipling, Beau Geste, H. Ridder Haggard, Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Last of the Mohicans, Prisoner of Zenda, Hound of the Baskervilles. Feeling guilty, I read the Post-Colonial Reader and Candide to make up for novelistic slumming. I tried to up-grade to C.S. Forester and The Three Musketeers but my heart was with Ivanhoe, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Lady Audley’s Secret.

In Boston, when I wasn’t teaching, I needed the intellectual challenge of good writing, but in Oman, teaching the “greats,” I drifted back into literary la-la land. After Island of Sheep, it was on to Greenmantle, The Children of New Forest, George MacDonald Fraser’s MacAuslan stories, Louisa May Alcott and Bemelmans’ essays. I dabbled with a few travel writers (J. Maarten Troost, Chris Stewart, George Courtauld, and the always marvelous Mark Salzman) but my heart went back to the fluff: Beverly Nichols! The Green Archer! The Black Arrow! Swallows and Amazons! The Coral Island!

I have read almost every canonical book in English literature (Middlemarch is still out there), representative works from all stages of American, French and German literature, a sprinkling of translated works written in Spanish, Scandinavian langauges, and Russian. I am working my way through classical and modern literature written by Arab writers. Every semester I read several hundred pages of English and Arabic poetry and short stories looking for texts to teach, but after a nice dose of Persuasion, I sneak off with Gerald Durrell.

One summer, in the time before Kindles, I ran out of books a few weeks before the end of the semester. I couldn’t get out of town to the capital to restock and found nothing at the small English language bookstore in town but Clive Cussler. So I jumped, making it through three Cusslers and then several Douglas Preston/ Lincoln Child books.

Most modern literature leaves me cold. Everyone is suppressed and unable to be themselves. How damaging it all is. And everyone has a miserable childhood. Sigh. Of course you have a miserable childhood. That is the point. Either your childhood is miserable, or you think it is wonderful and realize later it was horrible, or it truly was wonderful but you later become miserable because nothing is as nice as your childhood. All three choices result in desolation; let’s not dwell on that.

And all these serious novels about people who lost themselves. Well really, how does one do that? You are there – there you are. How can you get lost? Modern novels always seem to be set in living rooms, airports, cafes, bars and uninteresting offices, grey carpeting, anguish, but no one is actually doing anything. Give me a sword-fight, tundra, cannons, water-falls, honor, wolf packs, revenge, frantic horse rides across the moors, palm trees, a leaky boat, pirates, tigers, someone mysterious and threatening in the hedgerows, snipers, tea thermoses, terror, floods, breaking the square, hip flasks. Let’s get to the 2-seater running out of fuel over the desert, let’s get to the polar bear attack.