Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

Reading at random

I found Pierre Loti in Candle Lane Books, Shrewsbury’s wonderfully disorganised second-hand bookshop. There are other second-hand bookshops in Shrewsbury, this is the wonderfully disorganised one. Your sense of disorientation will begin before you even get there if you ask for directions to Candle Lane. It’s in Princess Street, behind the Old Market Hall.

When you do get there, its lack of organisation will not worry you if, like me, you don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it. If I know what I’m looking for, I look for it on and order it online. Otherwise, I go from one second-hand bookshop to another until I find it. I wander happily from shop to shop, room to room, shelf to shelf, until the contented drone of my browsing rises suddenly to a high-pitched whine, my hand leaps out and there it is. In this case, Iceland Fisherman by Pierre Loti.

I am always attracted by an author whose name I don’t recognise, although in this case it seemed to ring a very faint bell. Perhaps I had read somewhere that Puccini’s Madame Butterfly was based in part on Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème and the name had stuck in my mind. I am also attracted by any book in the Everyman’s Library series, of which this was No. 920.

Iceland Fisherman (Pêcheur d’Islande) turned out to be about Breton fishermen who fish in Icelandic waters, in particular two young men, Sylvestre and Yann, the former betrothed to the latter’s sister. The story has two settings, the land and the sea. The men go to sea, the women stay on the land. Life is happy and sad. Men and women marry, but the men also marry the sea, from which they do not always return.

Standing in front of the shelves, somewhere near the middle of the alphabet, with more books piled on the floor at my feet, I read the first paragraph.

There were five of them, mighty-shouldered fellows, round a table drinking, in a gloomy sort of room which smelt of brine and the sea. The den, for so it might be described, was too low for men of their stature, and tapered towards one end, like the interior of a great hollow sea-gull; it rocked gently, giving out a monotonous plaint, with a slowness of sleep.

A lesson in good writing which made me want to read on. In any case, it was only £3, less than half the price of a new paperback and in excellent condition, printed in 1943 on the grainy paper of the Book Production War Economy Standard. The introduction told me that it was Loti’s seventh book, ‘the story that established his great fame as a novelist and story-teller.’ There follows a list of his thirty-odd books, ‘most of which have been translated into English.’ Where are they now?

Everyman’s Library, edited by Ernest Rhys, helped to organise our reading for us. Every one of the 1,239 volumes published between 1906 and 1975 had on its flyleaf two lines from the medieval morality play after which the series was named: ‘Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy guide, In thy most need to go by thy side.’

Oxford’s World’s Classics belonged to the same tradition of what might be called public service publishing. Penguin Classics went on to do the same thing in paperback. It was a tradition that went hand in hand with universal education, the emancipation of women, night schools, Mechanics’ Institutes and the mission of the BBC to educate, inform and entertain. Publishing, like broadcasting, is different now. Education is universal, job done. Personally, I’m glad that Ernest Rhys is still there to go with me on my visits to second-hand bookshops and be my guide to the world’s great writers. Without him, I would never have read Iceland Fisherman and would not, now that I know what I’m looking for, have received my order for Madame Chrysantheme.

Pierre Loti

Pierre Loti

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This entry was posted on April 10, 2013 by in Literature and tagged , , , , .
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