There are times, it seems, for reading light fiction. And times for reading serious fiction. And times for reading no fiction at all.
Donanne is having trouble just now getting through her third Helen MacInnes novel in about as many weeks. The other two gripped her. She came upon them at a time for reading light fiction.
The present one fails to involve her. At the moment she cannot concentrate on paper-doll amateur spies who fall in love as they elude danger on the north Adriatic coast. Just now is a very busy period. It is not a time for fiction.
Once I encountered similar problems with Thomas Mann. The experience shattered me because Mann was my favorite author.
This reading block descended upon me just at the end of that period in which almost every girl I dated felt an equivalent passion for Thomas Mann – or was encouraged to acquire one.
Lilot and I, for instance, enthused about the mysteries of “Tonio Kroger” over the spaghetti special near the offices where we worked in lower Manhattan.
In Georgetown steak houses Judy and I analyzed the subtleties of “Death in Venice,” the literary devices of “Buddenbrooks.” We probed them with an intellectualism much too fervid to nurture romance.
In the presence of young Joyan I exclaimed with delight at finding “Stories of Three Decades” in her father’s library. I instructed her to read “Disorder and Early Sorrow,” which she may even have done.
Arriving for a blind date with Carroll, I carried a new-bought copy of “Doctor Faustus.” She eyed me skeptically, heard my enthusiasm with raised eyebrows, and declared her preference for Herman Hesse. We never saw each other again.
It was no inconsequential event to find Thomas Mann a bore. I had to ask myself: Am I losing my intellectual grip?
i was living in the Congo at the time, in a town called Bukavu on the eastern frontier. The country was enduring the last pangs of rebellion. I had twice evacuated an apparently doomed provincial capital in the northwest. I had been transferred to Bukavu. It was quiet there, presumably a good place for reading. I looked forward to enjoying books I had always wanted to read.
Rebels had besieged the town only months before, provoking a frightened Congolese army to make the first stand of the conflict behind barricades raised across Bukavu’s main street.
Many of the townspeople panicked. Soldiers shucked off their uniforms and fled in their underwear into the bush. Africans ran away to their native villages. Europeans crossed Lake Kivu by night, taking refuge in safer Rwanda. The consulate staff camped at Rwanda’s Kamembe airport.
Street fighting trapped my predecessor in his office at the rear of the USIS Cultural Center. This led to a residential consolidation. Most of the American Consulate staff, all men without women, were then living at two houses on the lake edge, eating together and keeping watch, arguing heatedly at dinner about whether the Congolese or CIA officers were better able to solve the country’s problems, yelling at each other without provocation, baring our private concerns more openly than we ordinarily did.
The town was tense and the soldiers’ behavior unpredictable. One morning leaving the Consul’s house, where I lodged, I found a machine gun trained on the front door. From the Cultural Center’s window one afternoon I watched what seemed the whole town flee up the main street away from army headquarters. There Katangese soldiers with rifles surrounded the commander’s office demanding more pay.
We were restricted to the confines of the town. Rebels still operated in the countryside. A band of them had recently overtaken the vice-consul while he did reconnaissance some 60 miles into the bush. His passport was found in his jeep; he was presumed dead. Early the fourth morning after his disappearance he walked, very footsore, into the Consul’s house. He laughed with relief, immensely grateful to the Congolese guide whose loyalty he bought with promises of wealth.
Bukavu’s Europeans prized us for our connection to American resources. Anxious mothers sought us to marry their daughters and rescue them from the Congo’s uncertainty. Well-armed fathers obsessively distrusted us, bristling with menace whenever their daughters cast at us yearning glances.
Still, time hung on our hands. The long evenings dragged.
I started to read Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain.”
With consummate skill the novel evokes the life of an Alpine sanatorium. It possesses high seriousness. In some passages its characters spring to life; in others it skillfully dissects the propositions preoccupying pre-World War I philosophers.
Despite these values, it set me to yawning. Somehow there seemed much more reason for the sanatorium-bound to read about us than for us to read about them.
But with a doggedness born of boredom I slogged through every page. I trudged through that immense tome like one of the characters struggling through Alpine snow.
All I really remember – and this very vaguely – is that one evening Mann’s hero feels magnetically attracted to a woman met at a sanatorium party. But he never manages even to kiss her. This is the stuff of life, and Mann described it beautifully. I felt Hans Castorp’s every emotion. But…
But it was not a time for novels. Even the heightened experiences of fiction, I finally realized, were less intense than those I was living myself.
This, I suspect, is why the magic has flown from Helen MacInnes. When Donanne was awaiting the baby, light spy fiction lightened the waiting’s discontent. Now that the baby has come, the adventures of real life underline fiction’s artifice.
I came upon them this afternoon during little Pauly’s “waketime.” In this his seventh day of life he was lying upon the vast plain of our king-size bed, well-bundled and wide-eyed, staring at his mother. She was staring back.
“We’re holding hands,” she said. She showed me his tiny hand clasped around her little finger. She smiled at me. Then stared back at him with an absorption that neither Mann nor MacInnes will ever win from readers.