Linking Book and Reader

The reader will find many of my friends in this book, both friends that I know and…many whom I have never met, yet know through reading, through having been taught about them and by them.” This passage is from James Schall’s The Unseriousness of Human Affairs by way of Patrick Kurp on his blog, Anecdotal Evidence.

Schall suggests the literary friends we have are both writers as well the characters they write about in their stories. But what types of friends are they? Some live with us forever, while others drift away soon after the story concludes. But did you ever hear of someone falling in love with a literary friend?

Elizabeth Hawes in her book, Camus, a Romance, says she has. “During my last college years, I had photograph of Albert Camus prominently displayed above my desk…I had fallen in love with him. Not romantic love in the only sense I had experienced in those days…but something deeper, like the bonding of two souls.”

She says Camus had an enormous impact on her life, that his insights literally changed its course. “I had never before experienced such an intimate relationship with a writer, poring over his prose and filling up with his rhythms, thinking his thoughts, trying to crawl under his skin.”

Her feelings led Hawes on a lifelong search to learn more about this very private man. Camus, a Romance is a fascinating portrait of Camus, the man and the writer. It chronicles her experiences following in his footsteps in North Africa, Paris, New York and Provence. In an effort to come to some kind of understanding of this complex man, she tracked down his friends, members of his family, and the writers that knew him

Her journey reminded me of a comparable one by the classical language teacher, Raimund Gregorious. However, Gregorious was not a writer, rather he was one of the central characters in Pascal Mercier’s masterful novel, Night Train to Lisbon. Gregorious had been teaching at the same secondary school in Berne Switzerland for decades. He was fixed in the same, daily solitary routine and had no desire to change it.

“Mundus, the most reliable and predictable person in this building and probably the whole history of the school, working here for more than thirty years, impeccable in his profession…respected and even feared in the university for his astounding knowledge of ancient languages…his head also held the Hebrew that had amazed several Old Testament scholars.”

On his way to school one day he encounters a distraught woman on a bridge who says her mother tongue is Portuguese. The woman walks with Gregorious to his class, sits there for a while, then departs. Soon thereafter Gregorious realizes his own life is drawing to a close and suddenly walks out of the classroom to the utter astonishment of his students.

“…Simply to get up and go: what courage! He just got up and went, the students keep saying. Just got up and went.” He eventually winds up in Spanish language bookstore where he chances upon an antique Portuguese book, A Goldsmith of Words by Amadeu de Prado. He buys the book and a Portuguese dictionary, begins reading, is astonished by the power and the beauty of the words and the next morning leaves Switzerland, his school, and his daily routine to take the train to Portugal on a journey to track down the life and world of Amadeu de Prado. “…he had the amazing feeling, both upsetting and liberating, that at the age of fifty-seven, he was about to take his life into his own hands for the first time.”

Like Hawes’s relationship with Camus, the one I had with the characters in Night Train to Lisbon was a strong as any I have had in reading literary fiction. I entered into the lives of Raimund Gregorious and Amadeu de Prado as if they were virtually my own. I admired them, thought about the same questions they posed on every page, and found myself just as perplexed by them as they did. And I came to know these fictional characters as well as any of the friends I have in real life, actually in some respects even better. This is the kind of encounter that can sometimes link a book with a reader and make the experience of reading literature so compelling.