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The comfort of well-read texts

Familiar world: “Though Crompton wrote for nearly 50 years right till her death, the universe of William is constantly unchanging.” A page from a William book.

Familiar world: “Though Crompton wrote for nearly 50 years right till her death, the universe of William is constantly unchanging.” A page from a William book.  

Sometimes, when the world hurts, all you want to do is pull a story over your head, like a blanket

The career of a reader follows a certain arc. The beginning is a feast. You consume worlds with each reading. After that wildfire of discovery and delight, taste develops. You understand how much mediocrity there is out there. One starts to reread, revisit old favourites. A certain equilibrium is reached — where you read as many new books as you do old. The dial stays in the middle until finally there comes a retreat.

Books are meant to be doors into new worlds. We are encouraged to explore, to seek out new experiences. Sometimes though, you want a childhood returned, taste the flavours of a summer that shall never come back. Sometimes, the world hurts and you want to pull a story over your head, like a blanket.

Some find this refuge, this land whose every contour is known, in P.G. Wodehouse. For others it could be the doings of the Moomins, those hippo-ish creatures conjured by Tove Jansson. Or everyone’s favourite: Calvin and Hobbes. And then there is William.

Bittersweet stillness

William is an 11-year-old boy who lives in an unspecified village somewhere in the south of England. He came into the world sometime just after the First World War. His creator was Richmal Crompton, a schoolteacher.

My first acquaintance with William was in the home of an uncle and aunt. I often spent Sundays there, playing with their children. Their house was high up on a hillside with the city and the sea spread below. My aunt, seeing incipient boredom, gave me a copy — and I’ll be forever grateful to her for saving me from the institutionalised namby-pambyism of Enid Blyton and company.

That afternoon’s after-effects can still be felt — one entire shelf in my study is a blaze of red. I have the entire run of nearly 40 books, all reissued in their classic red jackets. I pick up one, whose cover still proudly says, “The most popular boy in fiction”.

The adventures, such as they are (for William never leaves the village and its immediate environs), have a set template. Either there is an act of injustice imposed by an uncaring adult, or William and his friends, collectively called the Outlaws, decide to take up a new career: spies, pirates and undercover police are usual, though there are diversions when becoming “Nanshunt Britons” or Members of Parliament. William is also a prolific author of plays, though as his friend Ginger points out: “You’ve had international gangs an’ smugglers in nearly all of them… there was the one where the man hid watches in jars of honey an’ got stung to death by bees. Then there was the one where the man was head of an international gang that pretended to be frogmen an’ had meetings in an ole wreck under the sea an’ got caught by a seal that Scotland Yard had trained to catch international gangs that pretended to be frogmen an’ had meetings in ole wrecks.”

The stakes in the stories are always low — acquisition of a penknife, finagling an outing to the fair, intercepting an unkind school report. More than that, the Outlaws are bound by a bushido-like code of honour, which makes the stories come alive. You slip into that landscape, of woods that need to be explored, adults with their incomprehensible rituals who need to be avoided, of endless summer days.

I lived in Bromley, just down the road from Crompton’s old house. Like most Indians who visit the Old Blighty, I found it difficult to recognise the cloudless England of the books with rain-stricken reality.

Though Crompton wrote for nearly 50 years right till her death, the universe of William is constantly unchanging.

A critic’s description about sitcoms applies equally well: “This stasis lends a vein of thematic melancholy to the proceedings. Every lesson learned will be forgotten, every triumph will be undone, every advance pushed back to square one”.

As we sail through the maelstrom of years, there is this bittersweet stillness that we yearn for.

In fantastic worlds

Antipodal to this pole of safety is Clark Ashton Smith — to read “Klarkash-Ton” as he styled himself, is to invite an utter sundering with the known.

I look at my copy of The Emperor of Dreams, Number 26 in the Fantasy Masterworks series brought out by Gollancz. Smith wrote only short stories, but what jewels! Reading them is having your brain dipped into a vat of strange chemicals.

The very first page of The Abominations of Yondo has this descriptive passage: “Before me, under a huge sun of sickly scarlet, Yondo reached interminable as the land of a hashish-dream against the black heavens... struggling on, I saw great pits where meteors had sunk from sight; and diverse-coloured jewels that I could not name glared or glistened from the dust. There were fallen cypresses that rotted by crumbling mausoleums, on whose lichen-blotted marble fat chameleons crept with royal pearls in their mouths. Hidden by the low ridges were cities of which no stela remained unbroken — immense and immemorial cities lapsing shard by shard, atom by atom, to feed infinities of desolation. I dragged my torture-weakened limbs over vast rubbish-heaps that had once been mighty temples; and fallen gods frowned in rotting pasammite or leered in riven porphyry at my feet.”

This is the other zone of safety, to disappear into the dense architecture of fantastic worlds beyond ken.

Searching for books

I am having coffee with a German friend, a student of medieval texts who has spent long hours over epics such as Parsifal. She brings up the idea of Horizontverschmelzung. As far as I understand, it could be described as “your horizon melting within the horizon of the book”. Each time you read, you change, and your ‘horizon’ of the world changes.

Much of reading then is a search for a book that is worth reading again. A search for that harbour of words when the storm rises.

Jaideep Unudurti is a freelance writer.

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 10:35:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/The-comfort-of-well-read-texts/article16756318.ece

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