In last Sunday's New York Times Book Review, the last page was called "Summer Shares," in which 8 writers were asked about "random literary encounters," e.g. books they found in the place they were staying and read instead of the books they actually brought with them.
This made me remember 2 random literary encounters of my own, one good and one less good. Neither occurred while I was staying at a friend's summer house, but I think they count anyway.
1) Spring, 2000, Udaipur, Rajasthan, India.
I was directing a study abroad program based in Jaipur that year, and each semester, we visited the lovely city of Udaipur, most famous for Lake Pichhola and the Lake Palace Hotel in the midst of it.
Needless to say, we did not stay at the Lake Palace Hotel. But while the students stayed at a cheap but cheerful hotel a way from the lake, my co-director and I were given the option of staying at Rang Niwas Palace Hotel, which, despite the story I'm about to tell, I highly recommend. It's not as grand as the Lake Palace, and not on the lake, but the owners are lovely people, and the grounds and hotel both are peaceful and pretty. (The top photo is the view of my balcony when I stayed there in 2006.) Apparently, in years past, the whole program had stayed at Rang Niwas and had also helped finance its renovation. After the renovation and the subsequent raise in rates, however, the program was priced out of staying there. As a consolation prize, the program's directors were given a discounted rate whenever the program was in Udaipur and were housed in the guest room in the private wing of the hotel rather than in the main section. My co-director had been based in Udaipur while doing dissertation research, so he and his wife chose to stay with a friend in town. (This was fine with me, as my polite name for his wife was the "bitch queen from hell.") Both semesters, I was lucky enough to have a friend with me for our stay in Udaipur, Abby in the fall, and Bill in the spring. Both semesters, however, I was also unlucky enough to get just about as sick as I've ever been in India, and sick in the extremely unpleasant stomach sort of way. I was convinced it was because someone in the kitchen was not washing his hands, but as neither Abby nor Bill got sick, that might not have been it.
From Udaipur, our students spent several days in a rural village called Oghna. The second semester, they left for Oghna exactly when I was so sick, so I couldn't join them for a few days. Bill, alas, had left for Varanasi, so it was just me left in the room in the private section of the hotel, still feeling too queasy to eat much of anything but over the worst of it, so starting to get bored. One day, I crept out of bed to look at the bookshelves in the hallway. On them, I found a fat Maeve Binchy novel. I'd read a couple of Binchy novels in the past and thought she would serve the purpose--keeping me distracted and reasonably diverted while I lay in bed and sipped 7-Up and nibbled on cream crackers. The novel was Firefly Summer, and I read and read and read. There was the small village in Ireland. There was the American who wanted to build an upscale hotel on the ruins of an old estate. There was tragedy, family drama, romance, and more tragedy. At some point, when I was a few hundred pages in, I realized that I wasn't exactly sure what was going on. Things in the novel had taken a rather surprising turn. When I looked back to see if I'd skimmed over some key details, I discovered that a full 60 pages were missing from the middle of the book . . . and I had read another 30 or so past that before I noticed anything was wrong. Whoops.
I did recover from my dreadful illness, of course, and six years later, the next time I went to Udaipur, I returned to Rang Niwas. The family was as lovely as ever, remembered me, and gave me a deluxe room for the price of a standard one. The cook with dirty hands was nowhere in sight, and I enjoyed my stay there without even the merest hint of indigestion. Since I was no longer staying in the private wing, however, I never got to check whether the accidentally abbreviated Maeve Binchy novel was still there.
2) Summer 2001, near Portsmouth, New Hampshire
That first study abroad experience did not end well, as I lost my job in an administrative reshuffling that involved the active collusion of my colleague who turned out to be a rat. (Soon thereafter, his marriage to the bitch queen from hell fell apart, which was only fitting.) A year later, however, I was offered a job in Varanasi with a different program. This one was much smaller than the first, and our orientation occurred at the program director's house in New Hampshire. While my first study abroad orientation had involved directors from programs all over the world, this one was tiny, just my one American colleague and one Indian colleague. (Our Australian colleague didn't make it.) I didn't know then, that my American colleague would drive me up the wall or that our boss would get fired by his boss partway through the program, leaving us in the middle like children of divorcing parents. More significantly, I didn't know that I would get involved with Alex a few weeks later or that the twin towers would fall on my 35th birthday. Those few days in New Hampshire that summer are still emblematic to me as Before.
I was sleeping in the room of the director's house that doubled as his novelist wife's study and his prayer room. So, in addition to the desk, there were bookcases and a shrine with many statues of the Buddha in it. I was sleeping on an air mattress on the floor, which gave me a perfect view of the lower shelves of her bookcases. And there, on the shelves, I saw Dodie Smith's novel I Capture the Castle. I'd never heard of I Capture the Castle--though I read the book version of Smith's 101 Dalmations when I was a kid--but the book had blurbs from JK Rowling and Susan Isaacs (two writers I usually don't think of together), and it looked intriguing.
I Capture the Castle turned out to be the perfect book to read during those long days of pseudo-bonding and orientating. By the end of each day, all I wanted was to curl up on my air mattress and read the words of Cassandra Mortmain, the book's narrator, one of two daughters of a once famous blocked writer now living in a falling apart castle--"a crumbling ruin surrounded by a sea of mud," Cassandra's sister Rose calls it--and waiting for something to happen. This being fiction, something does happen. Two American brothers appear and turn out to have inherited the castle. One--or perhaps the other--falls in love with Rose, and things proceed apace.
I Capture the Castle, I eventually learned, had been a bestseller when it came out in the late 1940s but had gone out of print and fallen out of fashion. Thankfully, someone rescued it and reissued it. Eventually, it even got its own movie version, with "thinking woman's crumpet" Bill Nighy as the father with writer's block and Tara Fitzgerald as Topaz, his artist's model wife who liked to commune with nature wearing nothing but her rain boots.
Almost a year later, Alex and I went to a wedding in Maine, and on the way home, we stopped in Bridgton, Maine, where we ate an excellent breakfast, collected a container of grapenut pudding for the road and paid a visit to Bridgton Books, where I found a copy of I Capture the Castle--hardcover, gray, dingy and published in 1948--for $4.50. I snatched it up eagerly. There is a rather large stain on the front cover, right above a small drawing of the castle and tower, but I don't care.
When I take it out, I still think of myself lying on the air mattress at night, reading the paperback version with the Isaacs and Rowling blurbs, enjoying my foray back into 40s England and life in a ruined castle. Like Cassandra Mortmain, I was waiting for something to happen, and I didn't yet know how soon it would.