In the book I’m reading, I come across this passage:
There is the old story of Somerset Maugham reading Proust while crossing the desert by camel, and to lighten his load he tore out each page after reading both sides and let it fall behind him—one wants to say the wind was involved, but on most days there was no wind. With or without wind, who had a more memorable reading experience, Somerset Maugham or the one who came after him, the one who found and read a page here, a page there, in some strange new order with stellar gaps?
And of course, I must stop there and look up from the page to imagine this scene: I’ve never read anything by Somerset Maugham and I don’t know what looks like so in my mind, I give him floppy, boyish gray hair and a short gray beard to hide his features. I dress him in sweat-stained, ebony-colored linen with a pair of bottle green aviator goggles to protect his eyes. He sits astride a dusty camel that has just regurgitated its foul-smelling breakfast to be re-chewed and swallowed again, but Somerset does not notice the cloud of rotten-broccoli camel breath and he doesn’t feel the sand kicked in his face by the camel in front of him, he is completely unaware of the sun threatening to set his straw hat on fire. His eyes are screwed tight on the page in front of his face, a page in a book I think I read in college but I can’t remember (ha ha, that is sort of funny—I can’t remember Remembrance of Things Past). Somerset gives his finger a greedy lick and turns the page, letting his finger trace a sensuous trail down and when he reaches the final word, he tears that page out with a quick flourish and tosses it over his shoulder. Behind him, a long trail of pages lie baking in the sand.
I see all this clearly for a moment before my actual setting sinks back in. I’m on the BART train coming home from work during rush-hour traffic, squeezed in by the door, clinging to a rather greasy vertical metal pole with my left hand while my right strains to hold the book open in front of my face. To my right, the back of a woman’s head hangs close enough for me to smell the acrid scent of her hair. I don’t know who’s standing behind me but whatever they’re holding juts into the small of my back every time the brakes are applied and when the train stops, I must step outside the car to make way for those exiting, then push my way back into my corner and grab the metal bar before anyone else does.
When the train lurches forward again, I look back down at my book and it only takes a moment before I’m gone again, wondering how Somerset could tear those pages. The story says he does it to lighten his load but really, how heavy could those pages be? When I love a book, I will write in its margins, dog-ear its pages, and keep it close forever. I’d never tear a book. For practical reasons, as well. What if you need something to start a fire? What if your hat blows off or you need a fan or you run out of food? I wonder if a good book tastes better than a sucky one. I bet it gets cold at night in the desert. I’d be the one trailing behind the camel, chasing down each page, and tucking it under my arm for later, because you never know when you’re going to need a book.
What if you’re trapped on a crowded train?
A woman’s voice mutters behind me. “He touched me, he touched me. If he touches me again, I’ll bite his finger.” I turn to see the very short, squat figure clad in several layers of sweaters who has given words to what we’re all thinking. Her backpack is huge and she’s not tall enough to reach the looped handle dangling over her head so instead, she has her arms and legs placed wide like a surfer. Her narration has nudged the crowd away, leaving her a little room.
The train rises and breaks the surface again and when the sunlight bursts in, it’s a huge relief. I didn’t notice I was holding my breath until I breathed again, and it feels like everyone on the train breathes with me. The air is just as stale as it was before but the sunlight and the long view of the bay and the bridge in the distance fool my eyes and I inhale deeply and fill my eyes with space. The world is golden yellow with rusty edges. Beyond rows of apartment buildings, the bay dangles like a muddy cashmere scarf and the city is a geometric smear in the distance.
One of the things I love about reading on the train is that in a book, you travel so far and when you look up, your mental shift is reflected by the altered view, and the world becomes a metaphor. The train is the perfect place for reading a book. Reading and riding are both easy ways to meet people and see things but you don’t have to smile or chat or entertain. You can just sit there, being alone together.
Somerset clearly knew how to be alone together, so maybe he had a different motive for ripping the book. After all, I’m reading Mary Ruefle reading Somerset Maugham reading Proust. Proust could have written “read” and Somerset read “thread” and Mary heard “bread” and I saw “braid” and we’re all perfectly happy with the crumb we found on the trail; no matter what, it was metaphorical, filled with meaning, and reassured us that we were headed in the right direction.
I could tell you a story about the time I stood on the BART train reading a book by Mary Ruefle. The train was crowded but I didn’t mind, because the book was that good. But this story needs a conflict, this story needs oomph. Maybe when she was finished, the woman that was me left the book on the train, left it there for you, so you could see for yourself.
Maybe my buddy Somerset didn’t rip so carelessly. Maybe it was love, not the need for a lighter load, that made him ruin the book. Maybe he kissed each page once and pressed it into his beard before he let it fly. Maybe he was thinking of the readers who would come later and find those miraculous pages like gifts from god, like rain.
About the art: I met my artist friend Kristijan Hranisavljevic at work. In other words, I’ve never met him, which is something that can be said about many friends these days. He lives in Serbia and I’m in the US; he was doing an illustration for an article I edited and when I saw the eloquent ears he drew on the side of a fishbowl (long story), I knew he was someone to watch. I admired his art and he liked my writing he offered to illustrate something I’d written.
It tickles me that the Somerset Maugham I imagined looks nothing like Kristijan’s illustration looks nothing like the actual author. Nonetheless, now I will always think of this drawing when I think of the author. This is how art trumps reality.
Thank you Kristijan.