The change of TO scenery was welcome, and the change of reading material more so, because I'd been reading Graham Greene.
I read a bunch of his novels in hospital in France, they being about the only English books the French bookstores had, or perhaps the only thing my cousins thought I might want to read. (I'd been travelling with War and Peace, and Greene was indeed a pleasant change.) I remember nothing of them now, but that might be due to, well, reading them in hospital flat on my back in traction. The only impression I retain is an odd kind of strangling claustrophobia.
I often felt it in bookstores back then, and feel it even more now, when faced with a Penguin paperback and its small serifed letters. Partly it's the typeface, yes, because I get claustrophobic no matter what nationality of author I'm reading (I can't think of Russian and French authors in Penguin Classics without feeling the need to open a window) but some of it is the airless atmosphere of the world that many English writers write about- yes, even when they write thrillers. They write a narrow unlikable place, tatty and not, on inspection, overly clean, and no one in it is particularly likable or admirable. It depresses the living daylights out of me: it posits a universal smallness and meanness and pointlessness, and I was in the middle of a Greene-induced what's-the-use depression, boosted by July mugginess, when I switched to Brust's sunlight on Saturday.
The reaction is odd in view of my background. I grew up in a city that was quite proudly both British and English and filled with post-War immigrants from Over 'Ome. A British voice was both reassuring and comforting. All the police and half the bus drivers had Scottish accents. All my Classics profs were from English universities. Americans were a rare breed that only appeared in any great numbers in the '70s. More to the point, American books were also a rare breed, because all ours came from England. So England was a pleasantly familiar place to me: and of course, after the early 60's, it was not only familiar but desirable: the source of all wonder, as Japan is now for the people who are the age I was in 1965.
Consequently I have on my shelves one paper England that seems perfectly normal and everyday, the place I knew of in my childhood, and another that suffocates me, and I'm not sure what the difference is- unless indeed it really is all a matter of typeface. The first contains the likes of Antonia Forest and Dick Francis and, in contrast to the 19th century French and Russians, pretty much all the 19th century English writers, and Robert Louis Stevenson as well. The latter has... oh, the Amises and Burgess, of course- nasty men- but also Anthony Powell, Elizabeth Bowen, Henry Green, Iris Murdoch... Muriel Spark and Doris Lessing as well, though one is Scots and the other a child of Empah like myself.
And of course, Graham Greene. What I was reading was one of his autobiographies, picked up off the lawn of a house a few blocks over, since my neighbourhood contains a few lazy souls (I'm one of them) who regularly put out a box of unneeded books on sunny weekend afternoons to be picked up by passersby. I was always half-inclined to give Greene the benefit of the doubt: maybe it was the typeface or the traction that did it, because everyone has nice things to say about his humanity and insight into human character. Yes, well.
Maybe he was being too reticent about himself; maybe he expects people to read between the lines. But I found him bloodless, unlikable and annoying. And an insupportable name dropper: but it's place names he drops:
"(The school's requirement to take walks only in threes) surely must have had some moral object, though one which eludes me today when I remember how deftly the "Emperor's Crown" used to be performed by three girls at once in a brothel in Batista's Havana." "Like the bar of the City Hotel in Freetown which I was to know years later--" "(I remember well the unmistakable question mark I fished out of the water one Stockholm night which fixed in lead my doubt of the future.)" "I noticed with pleasure one year when I was travelling in the restaurant car between Hankow and Peking that there was a fly swatter beside every place, but alas! there were no flies left to swat." "Never again, I swore, would I read a novel of Conrad's- a vow I kept for more than a quarter of a century, until I found myself with Heart of Darkness in a small paddle boat traveling up a Congo Tributary in 1959 from one leper colony to another." Yes, Graham, we get it: you've travelled. *And* you've met Pope Paul who admired your novels. Now go away.
I don't know why this chronic geographical reminiscing doesn't strike me as charming. It ought to: I'm a place person myself. It doesn't. But possibly the problem is revealed in another reminiscence: "On the riverside (in Bonn) that night, encouraged by the atrocity stories we had heard in Cologne, we followed innocent Senegalese soldiers in the hope of seeing a rape, which never occurred." Oh you did, did you? That settles it. Next sunny day you go out on my front lawn in a box, and if no one picks you up, next paper recycle day you go out with the trash.