The Path to Rome

However this book made it into my list of books to read, I thank the source. Incredible, hilarious, philosophical, graceful account published in 1902 by a man’s walking pilgrimage from France to Rome. I knew I was in love after having to look up three words in the first few pages (prolegmenaical, snaffle, pusillanimity). Belloc begins with a tongue in cheek “Praise of This Book” section in response to contemporaries’ bad habit of “belauding themselves in this prolegmenaical ritual,” but admits that “whether there will be praise or blame I really cannot tell, for I am riding my pen on the snaffle, and it has a mouth of iron.” This is page four and I am already reeling. I cancelled all further appointments for the day and settled in for hours of reading.
He walks around 30 miles a day with only boots, staff, and sack containing bread, wine, and a journal he uses to sketch landscapes and details that arrest his attention. He crosses through France, through the Alps via Switzerland, then down into Italy, getting by with the three languages he knows well (French, English, Latin) and hand gestures when the German-speakers or Italians could not understand. Throughout the description of his travels, he intersperses musings on various other topics, such as how a book is best ended (rummage around your manuscripts until you find a bit of Fine Writing, no matter on what subject “to lead up the last paragraphs by no matter what violent shocks to the thing it deals with, to introduce a row of asterisks, and then to paste onto the paper the piece of Fine Writing.”).
He sets off on the journey from Toul, France, telling stories of his time in the army around this area, the man who wouldn’t be bargained with for wine, but then upon getting his price agreed to, gives the wine to the army for free. “That is the story of the wine of Brulé, and it shows that what men love is never money itself but their own way, and that humans love sympathy and pageant above all things.”
He intends to start each day of his pilgrimage by going to Mass because it provides 30 minutes at the beginning of the day for silence and recollection, putting you in a good frame of mind, and continuing the tradition that has been going on for thousands of years.

The most important cause of this feeling of satisfaction is that you are doing what humans have done for thousands of years… Whatever is buried right into our blood from immemorial habit that we must e certain to do if we are to be fairly happy (of course no grown man or woman can really be very happy for long – but I mean reasonably happy)… Thus one should from time to time hunt animals, or at the very least shoot at a mark; one should always drink some kind of fermented liquor with one’s food – and especially deeply upon great feast-days; one should go on the water from time to time; one should dance on occasions; and one should sing in chorus… and every man should do a little work with his hands.

The book contains reproductions of his sketches, and after the “In Praise of” section, is one long continuous chapter, with varying headers on each page that sum up the action of that page, or provide a particular detail of the page (“Balm, “The Conflicting Minds”, “The Tempting Bridge”). This may only be a function of the particular edition I read. I also noted the book’s signature marks which I’d never seen before. I read the 1958 edition printed in the UK by the Unwin Brothers.
Another hilarious feature of the book was the dialog Belloc put in between himself (Auctor) and the reader (Lector), such as “LECTOR. Why on earth did you write this book?” AUCTOR. For my amusement. LECTOR. And why do you suppose I got it? AUCTOR. I cannot conceive…” After one section where the reader tells the author that he should be more terse, the Auctor rambles: “I see. you would not pile words one on the other, qualifying, exaggerating, conditioning, superlativing, diminishing, connecting, amplifying, condensing, mouthing, and glorifying the mere sound: you would be terse.”

It is permissible, and a pleasant thing (as Bacon says), to mix a little falsehood with one’s truth… It is much more delectable, and far worthier of the immortal spirit of man to soar into the empyrean of pure lying – that is, to lay the bridle on the neck of Pegasus and let him go forward, while in the saddle meanwhile one sits well back, grips with the knee, takes the race, and on the energy of that steed visits the wheeling stars.

Belloc creates a fake Guide Book which tells “blunt truths. Look you out ‘Garfagnana, district of, Valley of Serchio’ in the index. you will be referred to p 267. Turn to p 267. you will find there the phrase: ‘One can walk from the pretty little village of Sillano, nestling in its chestnut groves, to the flourishing town of Borgo on the new Bagni railway in a day.’ You will find a mark (1) after that phrase. It refers to a footnote. Glance (or look) at the bottom of the page and you will find: ‘(1) But if one does one is a fool.”
He ends, of course, with a poem that knocked me asunder.

In these boots, and with this staff
Two hundred leaguers and a half–
(That means, two and a half hundred leagues. You follow? Not two hundred and one half league…. Well–)
Two hundred leaguers and a half
Walked I, went I, paced I, tripped I,
Marched I, held I, skelped I, slipped I,
Pushed I, panted, swung and dashed I;
Picked I, forded, swam and splashed I,
Strolled I, climbed I, crawled and scrambled,
Dropped and dipped I, ranged and rambled;
Plodded I, hobbled I, trudged and tramped I,
And in lonely spinnies camped I,
And in haunted pinewoods slept I,
Lingered, loitered, limped and crept I,
Clambered, halted, stepped and leapt I;
Slowly sauntered, roundly strode I,
And …
Let me not conceal it… Rode I.
(For who but critics could complain
Of ‘riding’ in a railway train?)
Across the valleys and the high-land,
With all the world on either hand.
Drinking when I had a mind to,
Singing when I felt inclined to;
Nor ever turned my face to home
Till I had slaked my heart at Rome.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

The clerk at Green Apple had no clue that I was already knee-deep in reading up on Indians in America when she recommended this book to me. Alexie’s prose is poetic, rhythmic, enchanting. The Indians spin tales, drink beers till they can’t see, play basketball, fight, drink Diet Pepsi from the 7-11, bitch about the BIA, loan each other anything and everything, fancydance, drive around. This is a fantastic collection of short stories by the poet, worthy of a read despite the stereotype of every Indian being drunk or on the wagon.

Cat’s Cradle

Recently mentioned somewhere (I forget) as the best book ever, I swooped in for what I assumed was a re-read, but I actually had never read this one. The writer writing a book about the day the world ended, research into the creator of the atom bomb, discovering what famous people were doing the day the bomb dropped on Japan. The creator, Hoenikker, was sitting in his study and playing with a string, making a cat’s cradle, then oddly deciding to play with his youngest son Newt, who cried and ran away because daddy was ugly. The writer drops the idea of the book, but ends up meeting Newt and his sister and brother on an island ruled by “Papa.” Honestly, trying to summarize this book makes it seem even crazier than it was while reading it. It’s like Vonnegut dropped acid, sat down at the typewriter and churned this book out. The religious movement of Bokonon, an island prophet. The ice-nine that freezes everything and ends the world. The Indiana woman that insists he call her “mom” as a fellow Hoosier. The staid ambassador couple who hold hands as their part of the crumbling turret rushes into the sea. Magical surrealism?