Booksellers, Books, and Dreams

The bearded man sits at his desk against the wall on the left, looking a bit like Uncle Alm himself, as I bring up a copy of Heidi. This will be my last book purchase in England, and I want to take away something I know I’ve loved and will continue to adore. Around him, the rooms are packed to the rafters with used books, bursting with the energy of wanting to be taken away and read; he is the placid core, typing on an ancient desktop computer, somehow making sense of the order or chaos within.

He is quite unlike the bookseller with floppy salt-and-pepper hair who stands under the portico on rainy Tuesdays, watching quietly as the odd browser fingers the spines of the used books laid out on wooden stands. His is a limited collection – but I’ve bought quite a few books from him, the most precious one being a lovely dark green-and-gold copy of Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train. The most nondescript book I bought from him, one last purchase for memory’s sake, was The Bodysurfers. All I recollect is that it has a faded cover and lies deep in one of my several to-read stacks.

***

At The Lantern, a sweet old woman volunteers at the cashier’s desk. Wizened and pushing arthritically at the buttons of a calculator, she asks me to pick a bag from the motley bundle beside her. A younger woman in glasses steps up and helps us pack the books. This is our last visit to the shop, and I have searched painstakingly for the authors I rarely saw on bookshop shelves or in online stores in India. I grin for a while as we walk back, thinking of the Hart Crane, Bryher, and Rumer Godden in my bag. I look forward to the Europe trip we are planning and dream of Paris.

***

I have just finished The Paris Wife, a reasonable page-turner written from the perspective of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley. Read it if you like the nostalgia of names and places – if you want to be reminded of Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear, of the settings and characters of The Sun Also Rises, of grey evenings and endless absinthe drunk in the cafés of Paris. Read it if you want a piece of Hadley, a bit of Hemingway, and the heady delights of jazz and indulgence in post-war Paris. Break your heart over the complicated relationships and the unfaithfulness that hangs heavy over the café tables and in Riviera villas. Don’t expect much in the form of words that seep into your head and emerge deliciously at the least expected moments; for that, you have Fitzgerald. (Incidentally, it is one year since I visited Fitzgerald’s grave in Rockville.)

I have gobbled up books about 1920s Paris over the last year, and have at least three others lined up. The one I’m most looking forward to is Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, for reasons I’m unaware of. I want to pace these Paris books well, though, and I’m taking a break with Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, a satire on Fleet Street and the English aristocracy. And it is this that has reminded me of booksellers and churchyards in England. Five years on, I look back longingly at the walks down damp, narrow paths, leaves crunching underfoot. I miss the garden gnomes and the painted doors that remained mysteriously shut all the time. As the sun blazes down on Chennai’s sleepy streets where not a breath of wind stirs, I want to be spirited to the Downs, or to the exit of Heathrow or Dulles Airport, stepping into the open for the first time to be confronted by a sharp wind that pierces through my thin coat – utterly unsuited to the season – and chills me to the bone.

Then, when I’m there, I’ll dream of the tropics.