Notes from the Bookshop 3: The Story So Far or “Little, Big” comes to Blossom

The last time I wrote of my visit to the bookshop was more than two years ago. A lot has happened since then: I’ve read a lot, started buying books online, discovered Blossom (“Bangalore’s favourite bookshop”), discovered new authors, rediscovered known ones, and, as always, bought more books than I could read. My intention in this post is to consolidate all the notes that I never wrote from my numerous unreported book-buying sprees and bookshop visits including the latest one.

Of all that has come to pass, the single most important event of bibliophilic significance was my discovery of Blossom, a (the?) labyrinthine used-books shop on Church Street, Bangalore. On my first visit, it seemed, to my naïve imagination underfed by chain-store commercialism, as endless and infinite as the Library of Babel, and as filled with treasures and wonders as the Arabian Nights. After the swirling clouds of delirious joy had cleared, my mind was free to enthusiastically take stock of the place and it became immediately apparent that Blossom had a conspicuously substantial collection of the works of Robertson Davies. This is still true. They seem to stock an inexhaustible multitude of the Canadian master’s works. Over time I have found everything from the Deptford and Salterton trilogies to his later novels, his delightful collection of ghost stories, and most of his collected non-fiction. That’s a sumptuous spread, even for an avid Davies fan.

Blossom, however, is more than just a Robertson Davies temple; it is a veritable treasure trove of all sorts of literary marvels and masterpieces. Here’s a list of what I found, discovered, and dug-out and dusted over the last year and a half:

  • The Baker Street Dozen, a collection of twelve of the best Sherlock Holmes stories with accompanying essays by members of the Baker Street Irregulars.
  • All three volumes of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy.
  • A 1955 Reprint Society edition of T. H. White’s Once and Future King.
  • The first volume of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun.
  • The first volume of Addison’s Spectator in a handy 1945 Everyman’s Library hardback edition. It is said that John Steinbeck never travelled without his three volume set. Charmingly, this particular volume had the name “K. K. Salkade” inscribed on the inside of the back board. I also found a folded piece of paper marking pages 511 and 512 with the note, “Mr. Salkade is now engaged in the construction work of our new head office building at Worli, Bombay”, scribbled on it.
  • A well-thumbed Penguin paperback edition of The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh.
  • Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and The Ruin of Kastch.
  • A 1974 Vintage paperback edition of W. H. Auden’s collected criticism, Forewords and Afterwords. Most of the essays were first published as introductions, forewords, and afterwords to other books. The opening essay, The Greeks and Us, first published as an introduction to the Viking Portable Greek Reader, edited by Auden, is the most fluent, lucid, and readable account of Greek literature that I’ve ever read. Here, Auden deconstructs and spreads open, for the interested reader, all of the classical tropes, epics, and tragedies (“the patterning works” as Michael Dirda calls them) that underlie the Western Imagination.
  • A 1936 edition of H. V. Morton’s In Search of Scotland. This edition has an ethereal sepia toned plate of “Auld Reekie” facing the title page.
  • The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie by Charles Osborne, a delightful biography of sorts of the life and works of Agatha Christie. Although it runs the gamut of Christie’s works, there are no spoilers in this one; as the author writes in his preface, “Let me assure potential readers of this book that they may proceed in perfect safety. Nowhere in these pages do I reveal the identity of any of Agatha Christie’s murderers.”
  • A single volume edition of a trilogy of fantasy novels that I’ve been on the trail of for quite some time, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy. Peake was a gifted illustrator by vocation, and it is said that his writing has something of the architectural quality of an illustration to it. I kind of agree; sample a description from the opening paragraph of the first volume, Titus Groan, “This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists o knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.” The trilogy is considered a masterpiece of British Fantasy alongside the Lord of the Rings. However, it would be apt to point out here that Peake was a Gothic fantasist and therefore his work draws its atmospheric effects not from wide open spaces, as in Tolkien’s masterwork, but from claustrophobic confines soaked with rituals, guilt, and treachery.
  • Lawrence Norfolk’s second sprawling historical fantasy, The Pope’s Rhinoceros. At two fifty bucks, it was a steal.
  • And finally, John Crowley’s enchanting Little, Big has come to Blossom (pun unintended). I possess a copy already (a Harper Perennial edition), so I did not buy it; but I’m glad for the potential reader to whom it is destined, for this is the novel that a Washington Post critic once described as “the greatest fantasy ever written by an American.”

In other news, I’ve discovered the NYRB (New York Review Books) Classics Library and am currently reading their edition of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts. Also on my TBR list are Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man and Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado in adorably handsome NYRB Classics editions.

The Leopard: Revised and with new material, Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa                                                  

In more news, I’m reading and savouring Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, a masterpiece of twentieth century Italian literature. It is, as others have pointed out, a quiet book. Though set during the “Risorgimento”, the period of the unification of Italy, the revolution stays largely in the background, rumbling and occasionally thundering, but never seizing the narrative. The novel is more concerned with the tale of the gentle fall into oblivion of the aristocratic Sicilian house of Salina and its prince, Don Fabrizio. The prince’s solitude soaked interior monologues form the main narrative fabric. I’ve also discovered the incandescence of the mundane, through the works of John Updike and Richard Ford. Updike calls it “giving the mundane its beautiful due.”

A few words on the non-fiction that I’ve been reading:

book cover                        Front Cover                       Front Cover

  • I finally bought Michael Dirda’s Readings. The essay describing his experience of reading Murasaki Shikubu’s The Tale of Genji, Heian Holiday, alone is worth the price of the book. However, there are other sparkling gems too.
  • David Bellos’s Is that a Fish In Your Ear? is a delightfully readable and thorough deconstruction of “Translation and the meaning of Everything.” Highly recommended. By the way, the title is an allusion to the “Babel Fish” from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
  • I’m also reading Daniel Dennett’s take on evolution, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. As its subtitle, “Evolution and the Meanings of Life”, suggests it’s a delightful romp through the history and philosophy of ideas.

So that’s it in this edition of Notes from the Bookshop. Thanks for reading.

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