Miracles and games

Library, books, writing, walking, pilgrimage, milan kundera, philip roth, Cambridge

Some hours ago I went for a walk. I put on a podcast about pilgrimage (a subject pertinent to the project I was avoiding) and played a childish game: if I took the long route to the two-shelved mini-library three roads away, I might discover a book that would help.

Stories of pilgrims filled my ears as I walked: hopes of healing and pleas for purification; holy wells and holy bones; the medieval genre of miracle narratives; journeys requiring laxatives and reliquary theft by a monk.

As I neared the library, I heard about scapegoats and persecution, pilgrimage by proxy, and the connected problems of curisoitas and Chaucer. And that money mattered.

I began to lose faith in my micro-misson.

Nevertheless, I’d come to the library with a plan, so I opened one of its glass windows.

Lo and behold, there on the top shelf, in prime position, was Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel.

This answer to my quest almost called for a Hallelujah and restored my faith in childish games.

The only problem was that the ‘librarian’ had written: ‘Take a book, leave a book.‘ And I’d come empy-handed.

I shut the window, resisted hiding my find at the back of the bottom shelf (reckoning that competition for this title at the end of a cul-de-sac was probably close to zero), and I took the short route home.

I searched for a book for which I had a double and raced back (by bike) to the library. The Art of the Novel was still there. I grabbed it.

I had switched Milan Kundera for Philip Roth. Once home, I thought about never having read either of my copies of Roth’s American Pastoral. Even though I still had one, I felt twice the guilt. It didn’t make sense, but there it was.

Roth’s book is widely regarded as one of the greatest novels in the English language. Arguably, I could learn just as much about the craft of writing from him as from Kundera. I might also learn from his work ethic. He produced 31 books in 52 years: “a labourer who spent his days turning sentences around until they gleamed.”

In any event, despite my delight in finding Kundera’s The Art of the Novel at an apposite moment in time, on page 139 the author writes that: ” … the essence of the novel as an art [is] irony. And irony doesn’t give a damn about messages!

However, I like to make something out of nothing and discovered that the Czechoslovak secret police kept a file on Philip Roth (whom they labelled ‘Turista‘) when he visited Prague in the 1970s, and that ‘The Tourist‘ was largely responsible for introducing Milan Kundera (among other Eastern European writers) to English-speaking audiences. Two of their conversations were recorded and shared in 1980. When Roth comments that his friend’s characters “come to grief … because they bump against a world that has lost its sense of humour.” Kundera refers to life under Stalin: “A sense of humor was a trustworthy sign of recognition. Ever since, I have been terrified by a world that is losing its sense of humour.”

The last thought, then, should also go to Kundera who closes The Art of the Novel with his Jerusalem Address and the words: ” … it is time for me to stop. I was forgetting that God laughs when he sees me thinking.

21st century pilgrimages

Find or found a mini-library.

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