Over the past week, I indulged in a little black-and-white nostalgia with a few remarks on W.C. Fields and Laurel & Hardy, and highlighted a particularly germane (for these trying times) passage from Gulliver’s Travels.
Tonight I travel to the City of Light for a weeklong vacation from the Land of the Multitasking Moron, where so many things seem to go so wrong in such a short period of time. These brief vacations lend me a little time for reading, and when travelling overseas I like to bring books by authors of the countries I visit. Sometimes this is delightful. I carried Jaroslav Hašek with me through Czechoslovakia many years ago; Arthur Schnitzler and Karl Kraus were at my elbow in Vienna, and excellent companions they were; a few years ago I saw London in the company of Sherlock Holmes. But last year, when I went to France, the laudable project backfired. In the Loire Valley and in Paris I read Voltaire’s Candide, thinking that the French Swift was a congenial choice for the likes of myself. But despite its brevity, it was too long for me. There’s something twee about Voltaire, something in his manner (perhaps it was his prejudice for the promises of the Enlightenment) that left me stone cold. Voltaire seemed to me to lack the satiric precision of Swift, and further and more importantly, his heart didn’t seem to be in his hatred of human pretense. This you certainly couldn’t say of Swift. Voltaire’s conclusion was that, in the end, everything might be all right; Swift knew it wouldn’t. Earlier this year I turned to Balzac’s Old Man Goriot, thinking I’d find a rather blunter picture of Paris and the human condition, but I couldn’t get more than half-way through the thing, the narrator’s annoying asides becoming pestiferous before page 75, like those of an infuriating tour guide. “I can see that for myself, goddammit; you’re not helping,” I mumbled as I came across each of these authorial intrusions. The hell with Goriot and all the rest, I thought as I tossed the book aside. And, especially, the hell with Balzac.
But age brings wisdom. Last year my favorite reading in Paris was Mark Twain’s observations on the French and their history in The Innocents Abroad. This year I’ll be bringing along a few of my own countrymen I’ve been meaning to revisit; trapped in my Kindle will be Joe Heller and Henry Mencken, and I’ll be delighted to let them out again once I’m on the plane to Paris. I’ll be raising a glass to all of you from the Champs-Élysées before tomorrow is out; good luck while I’m away.