Friday, 17 December 2010
"The wild, peering glitter of the bibliomaniac"
Never let it be said that I am a spontaneous man. Over three years ago, Danielle from A Work in Progress sent me Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley, in exchange for Miss Hargreaves. I can't remember whether Danielle has read Miss H yet, but I do know that I was making slow progress myself. After 16 months I read, loved, and reviewed the first title (the second is a sequel, but can equally well be read as a stand-alone novel) and promised to read the second 'soon'. In fairness to myself, I did add the following footnote: 'Soon is a relative term. I mean before books become obsolete.'
Fast forward another 18 or so months, and here we are... (this is why I love it when bibliophiles give me books - they don't expect me to have read them by that time next week.)
I should start by saying that The Haunted Bookshop (1919) is a misleading title. It is quickly explained that the haunting refers to the authors who linger there through their works; for Roger Mifflin and his wife Helen (the heroine of Parnassus on Wheels) have left their travelling book wagon in a shed, and opened up shop. Mifflin is less sprightly than before; Helen less sharp - but they are older now, and contented marriage has taken the place of peripatetic solitariness, so we can happily forgive them their mellowing. But Christopher Morley is still willing and able to provide a lively character, and he does this in the form of Titania Chapman - the young daughter of one of Mifflin's friends, who comes to work in his shop, as her father wishes her to better herself. Titania is full of enthusiastic naivety and well-meaning ignorance. Perhaps she can best describe herself, in this revealing excerpt:
"I do hope," said Titania, "you won't let Daddy poison your mind about me. He thinks I'm dreadfully frivolous, just because I look frivolous. But I'm so keen to make good in this job. I've been practising doing up parcels all afternoon, so as to learn how to tie the string nicely and not cut it until after the knot's tied. I found that when you cut it beforehand either you get it too short and it won't go round, or else too long and you waste some. Also I've learned how to make wrapping paper cuffs to keep my sleeves clean."
Isn't she adorable? And keen to learn - and there is nowhere better to do so than Mifflin's shop. The first few chapters of this novel take us through some wonderful passages, where Mifflin exalts the joy of reading - nay, the necessity of it. Every bibliophile will love the discussions about the role of a bookseller, and those on the latent hunger for books among the public. It was compelling, absorbing, and utterly right-minded - from the perspective of this bibliophile, of course.
But The Haunted Bookshop has another, rather different, thread running through it - and that is where the other new character comes into play. Aubrey Gilbert (brilliant name) works in advertising and isn't much of a reader, but wanders into the bookshop to see if the proprietor would consider using his business. Which - somehow - turns into a bizarre sort of thriller. The Haunted Bookshop was written in 1919, and the effects of the War are certainly felt. There is spying; near-kidnap; anonymous 'phone calls; mysterious disappearing and re-appearing books. Perhaps this kind of thing is your cup of tea. It isn't mine, and I found all this thread rather tedious. It had little of the ingenuity of Agatha Christie, and quite a lot of the gung-ho, xenophobic bombast of Bulldog Drummond.
So this review reflects the book and my reading experience, in that it seems to have a split personality. I loved, loved, loved the sections about books. Morley and Mifflin are alike bibliomaniacs, and Mifflin's dialogue is at all times scattered with literary references high and low. The Haunted Bookshop serves almost as a literary compendium, so vast and wide-ranging are the allusions. (Some are listed on the book's Wikipedia page.) But then... but then I would start skimming pages as the thriller story took the upper-hand. Which was frustrating, because if the novel had continued throughout in the vein it started, this would be easily my favourite book this year. Morley, Morley, Morley - what were you thinking?
In the end, which Morley novel did I prefer? I can't decide whether the best bits of The Haunted Bookshop push it above Parnassus on Wheels for me, or whether the worst bits push it below. Mifflin and Helen are fantastic creations, but only really vibrant in Parnassus on Wheels. I don't know - I certainly recommend reading both, and this would be a great novel to give any book lover - just make sure you are willing to skim some pages, if your tastes are the same as mine.
Thanks again Danielle for these lovely gifts!