If the makes the I of his story is a little quicker on the uptake, a little more level-headed, a little shrewder, a little braver, a little more ingenious, a little wittier, a little wiser than he, the writer, really is, the reader must show indulgence. He must remember that the author is not drawing a faithful portrait of himself, but creating a character.---W. Somerset Maugham.
A Jewish burial and mourning is heavily ritualized; and a few weeks ago I took advantage of the ritual in order not to make any decisions. But now that my sister and I are confronting his estate there are many choices to be made in cleaning out his house and dealing with the administrative aftershocks of a completed life. In the division of labor between us it fell to me to go through my dad's library in order to decide what we may wish to keep and what we will give away. There was another reason for this; in my academic wandering and moves, many of my books had ended up in his library. And in recent years I had moved most of my stuff back in with him. So, the exercise also involved deciding which of my own external memories to discard and which to hold on a bit longer.
Not unlike me, dad clearly did not like giving or throwing away books. But he was not a serious book collector; the vast majority of his books have a use and sentimental value only. Nearly all of his books are, in fact, cheap paper-back editions; the vast majority of them were never commented on not even in passing. Most of these are once best-selling spy-novels, detectives, historical novels, and thrillers (but almost no horror stories): on his shelves there are countless Dick Francis, Nancy Mitfords, Deightons, Folletts, and Macleans--most of these bought at airports. It's not that he didn't read more literary books in that genre (Graham Greene, le Carré, Mailer, etc.), but I am sure he bought those at the very same airports without any distinctions.
During the last few years of his life my dad lost interest in reading. So the books on many of his shelves were lined with a thick layer of dust, untouched by any hand. I noticed that birthday presents of the last few years from us, cruel optimists, who pretended nothing had changed, clearly had never been so much as caressed. He kept playing bridge long after he stopped reading.
While cleaning out the book-cases, I noticed quite a number of titles he owned in duplicate and triplicate (sp?) He had once confessed that sometimes at the airport he could not remember having read a book only to discover, after 80 pages or so, on his way to the Far East, that the story-line was familiar. (Some of these duplicates had different covers, not uncommon among English and American editions.) In a few cases, I suspected that we had bought the same book separately (for example, I found multiple copies ofThe Bonfire of the Vanities).
I could tell and recall that he had gone through a brief phase of interest in the biographies (and autobiographies) of once famous politicians (Gorbachev, Reagan, Moshe Dayan). His library reminded me of his interest in the 1960s and 70s counterculture (well represented fictionally), including the gay underground scene -- I was struck he owned a biography of Joe Orton and John Rechy's The Sexual Outlaw, which itself is dedicated to "all the anonymous outlaws."
In his youth (teenage and early twenties), he read more serious fiction in German. About thirty of these are well-preserved hardbacks (including a few in the older Gothic font). Several of them have his name inside the cover. He read almost no Dutch literature (except a few authors which were big in the 60s and 70s). He owned a few coffee-table art books, including one he cherished with works of Brancusi. I found over twenty Holocaust autobiographies given to him by his generational peers; all of these seemed in pristine condition and surely never opened.
As the hours past, and dusk started to approach, I started to get antsy. The dust was triggering an asthmatic reaction, and I had a feeling of unease over the fact that all this dusty, cheap ink and paper had outlasted my dad. I did not smell him in their pages. There was nothing sentimental about this exercise. Just the dull fact that most of these books would be discarded. And the more sober realization that his library was filled with books that -- unlike the paintings and sculptures he owned -- could properly be called distractions from his thoughts.
Yet, at one point I had been convinced my dad was a great admirer of W. Somerset Maugham. But I could not say why. I did not encounter his works among the cheap paperbacks. I was about to call it a day when I stumbled upon a well-worn, hard-back with a nearly destroyed spine. I was strangely pleased, even excited that it contains The Complete Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham,Vol II, with my dad's handwritten name inside the cover. I hope to find find Vol. I soon.