The Charterhouse of Parma Stendhal

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“The Moment”: Readers Meeting the Just-Right Book

In the introduction to his and Hannah Liebmann’s translation of selected Rilke poems, The Essential Rilke, the late Vermont poet Galway Kinnell shares a “moment.” You know, one of those moments when reader first meets some wonderful writing.

He writes, “The wish to translate Rilke’s poetry first came to me in 1948, when I read all the way through J.B Leishman and Stephen Spender’s exuberant translation of the Duino Elegies while standing in the poetry section of the old Eighth Street Bookstore in New York. Even in that first spellbound encounter, I thought I sensed under the words of the translation another, truer Rilke struggling to speak.”

We all carry with us such moments. Moments married with certain books. I remember, for instance, being holed up in a warm farmhouse on a mountain in Maine during a November blizzard. I sat by a Franklin stove crackling with firewood, reading Ivan Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album. Forever, that book will be associated with that place. That moment in time.

And once, on vacation in the Bahamas. Outside the hotel poolside. It was the opening section of Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream—the part where the painter Thomas Hudson and his sons are staying in a house “shaded by tall coconut palms that were bent by the trade wind and on the ocean side you could walk out of the door and down the bluff across the white sand and into the Gulf Stream…. It was a safe and fine place to bathe in the day but it was no place to swim at night.” Sharks, of course, which will figure in a dramatic moment with one of Hudson’s sons further down the book.

And once, on a beach chair in Scarborough, Maine. It was the Charterhouse of Parma, of all books, following the adventures of Fabrizio del Dongo during the Napoleonic Wars. I heard cannon and gunfire instead of gulls and ocean surf.

And once, feverish and sick with flu for five days as a grown man, when I decided to reread a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, a dusty copy that had sat on various bookshelves for decades as I moved from house to house through the itinerary of my life. Particularly appropriate? “The Land of Counterpane”:

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down amount the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.


I discovered that being sick makes “going back” all the easier when it comes to children’s literature. The “moment” showed me that sickness has a way of encouraging the child in us all, coaxing back that moment when creativity first worked at a feverish heat in our imaginations.

And so it was, reading this introduction, preparing to read Rilke’s Duino Elegies for the first time, that I first enjoyed the moment of picturing Galway Kinnell enjoying his moment.

I saw it all: Kinnell in 1948 at the tender age of 21, reading, reading, and unable to stop reading. Rilke’s prisoner. Caught in the moment.

Books That Lead You to Books


Word of mouth is powerful exchange in the market of book selling. No publicist can match it. Person A reads a book and recommends it to Person B, who immediately tells Person C, “You have to read this!” right on down the alphabet.

Me, I’ve had more recommendations via “word of author.” If I admire an author, I often read the writers he or she admires. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Especially if you believe as I do that writing is informed by the writers you admire, consciously or subconsciously.

My first reading extravaganza came thanks to the young and tortured anti-hero, Holden Caulfield, in The Catcher in the Rye. In an early scene in his private school dorm, Holden is found reading.

What’s the title? As the reader bends for a closer look, he finds it is none other than Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen. It might have been a strange choice for a teenager, but as a teenager myself, I hunted it down and read it as well, feeling cool in a Caulfield kind of way.

The other book Holden recommends in this scene is The Return of the Native. Thomas Hardy, the author, was the kind of guy you’d like to call up and talk to, Holden says. Though I was still in high school, I met Eustacia Vye because of Holden. Talk about a blind date! I made it to the end, too–classic or no–and even read a few more Hardy’s (most memorably, Tess of the D’Urbervilles).

Another great word-of-author guy is Ernest Hemingway. He loved to write about eating, drinking, and reading. In A Moveable Feast (misspelling and all), he shares the books he’s checked out of Sylvia Beach’s Paris bookstore, Shakespeare & Co. One was Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches, a book I took with me on a deer hunt in Maine.

We often associate books with location read, and that collection of stories will forever go down as the one in my hands when the early snowstorm socked us into a farmhouse on a Maine mountain. I’d rather read than hunt, anyway.

Hemingway also was reading Constance Garnett’s translation of War and Peace while playing the starving artist in 1920s Paris. That and Dostoevsky’s The Gambler and Other Stories. I credit Ernie with making me the Russophile that I am–at least when it comes to Russian literature from the golden age (19th century).

In The Green Hills of Africa, EH talks books some more. He’s still reading Tolstoy, in fact. “The Cossacks” and Leo’s other stories of Sevastopol. I bought these stories, too, and read them quickly and selfishly, like a hungry dog that doesn’t want to share his meal.

Hemingway doesn’t stop there. He has Stendhal while big-game hunting in Africa, reading Le Rouge et Le Noir. Suddenly and dutifully, I was reading Stendhal as well. I think I liked The Charterhouse of Parma even better, but I never would have read either if not for Ernie.

It’s like dominoes after awhile. When reading Tolstoy, I got to read books he mentioned. Chekhov’s short stories. Pushkin’s wonderful Belkin’s Tales. Lermontov’s atmospheric  A Hero of Our Time, another short masterpiece featuring an anti-hero.

Perhaps it speaks to my shy nature as a teenager. Word of mouth was for the social sorts. Me, I hung out with writers in a vicarious way, and followed up on their every recommendation. That habit has brought nothing but literary gold, making me a “wealthy” man of sorts, at least if “well-read” counts for something on the stock exchange.

And if you find Tolstoy and Turgenev and Hemingway in my poems (and you will), it’s for a reason. Books that led me to books.