Friday, May 22, 2015

burnt into a velvet curtain


Katherine pulled up a deck chair and lay there, under the stars, under the wind, under the vastness of the universe, while land became lost in the September night, and water reached out, illimitable, mysterious, on all sides.
--The Small Rain, Madeleine L'Engle

I just finished the most astounding book: The Small Rain, by Madeleine L'Engle. In fact, it was her first novel. Which makes its delicate beauty even more astounding. This book, has made me so enchanted with L'Engle all over again. This is not the science-fiction, family novel L'Engle. This is the coming-of-age L'Engle, just L'Engle the women, writing down her world of New York, and art, and the country, and the strange relationships and stories a person finds herself in the thick of when she is nineteen.
It is the story of a woman I feel I know from the inside out. I know Katherine's loves and romances and attractions intimately. I know who Sarah is, Aunt Manya, Charlot, and certainly Justin.
I want to underline every word she writes; like a poetry circle snapping in agreement during a reading.

Someone had lent it to me last spring, with the injunction: here is my favorite book. Among bibliophiles, this is a liberally applied recommendation to many a dog-eared volume. To be a favorite book is not a singular position, open to only one tome, but a level of dearness that a book can hope to achieve.
So, I was glad to read it, because I assumed that it had great artistry and beauty that had won it that dear title.
But then I did that thing where I didn't read it because I was finishing up a bachelor's degree.
And then I did not read it, because it was summer, and I could only read Dorothy Sayers mysteries and think about the past that had gone by and the future which was rapidly approaching.

And then I did that thing--that awful thing you do--where you start a book in the wrong frame of mind, or in the wrong phase of the Zodiac, or under the wrong mood, or on a wet September day when the entire world is foggy and muddled, or while digesting something bilious-- and I read the first few pages, and although I am an adult who can absorb analyze texts, somehow I read clear through the first ten pages without any of it sticking on me. And, of course, since I wasn't really reading it, a great wave of boredom and jaundice struck me, and I stuck a bookmark past the slim margin of cream-colored pages I had worked through, and it become the Sodom and Gomorrah to my Lot. That jaunty bookmark I had tucked in a few sheets from the front cover might as well have been a gravestone for this poor book. I had not read it, but attempted, and left off, leaving the poor book eternally begun, never actually read.

Thus, a year passed.

This spring, in a foul mood one day at work, and having been forced to return all my library books to the library, and having let all my holds expire, because I could actually find no time before 7pm in which I could pick them up (damn the theatre and libraries that aren't open until the decent hour of midnight. Even suburban libraries are open until 9pm, NYC Public Library!), I was left with nothing to read on my subway commute, except this squat little volume that had been sitting on my desk all year, with the demure patience of books that are not library books.

Books that are not stamped with bar-codes can linger; they can collect dust: where else do they have to go? Library books are rushed, hurried travelers, always running from one new shelf to the next. You have to carpe diem those little bastards. They run away from you before you know it. But I kind of like that better. I love the urgency that library books possess; their wild nomad air. Books you own are too domesticated. Give me the wild, stampeding, bar-coded book any day.

Anyhow, I picked up The Small Rain, and--in a rare moment of wisdom--realized I hadn't really read it at all, plucked out my bookmark, and started over again at the beginning. I was transfixed; captivated. I was tempted to shake my fist at the unlucky stars I first read it under: why oh why had I not read this book sooner?! And yet, I didn't. Because it was one of those books that when you read, you know you had to read it now. It is one of those books that ushers in a new period of your life. Somewhere between the preface and fin you cross a threshold, you are dragged through a portal of your life. It is a moment suffused with grace and kairos. And so, I am glad that I read this book now, now that I have lived several months in New York City. Enough months to long for the New York City of the past, and wonder what Park Avenue looked like eighty years ago, and how different the Village must have been when Katherine Forrester lived on Tenth Street with her mother.

I am so glad I read this book now; when I realize that awful people who insist on being awful for you cannot be persuaded by reason or justice or fairness. When I realize that aspiring to be like one's mother is actually the sweetest of realities, instead of remaining eternally locked in a teenage rebellion. When I realize how you cannot be in love with Charlot, but you sleep with him anyway: and not entirely because you were drunk. When I realize why you couldn't possibly tell Pete that you were looking for him all over town on a rainy evening, and because of that, that love affair is doomed to a tragic end from the very beginning.

Katherine is one of those heroines I read so often when I was young, and I don't think I realized how important they are: those sensitive, mature, naive-yet-wise, artistic outsiders whose stories I devoured with unwitting enjoyment. And now, as I read Katherine's story, all I can do is marvel at the craft of her creator; who has captured the story of growing from a girl into a woman so marvelously, delicately, and with such an array of colors. Each chapter of Katherine's life is so elegant and simple, imbued with all the tumult of emotion that life's awful happenings usher into your heart.

It is one of those novels that is so full of grace; it is a story that reveals a bit of you to yourself.

In fact, it may be one of my new favorite books.

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