Friday, September 30, 2011

A gigantic hound!

The re-reading of a good book, however pleasurable, is never as enjoyable as the first time. Washinton Post book columnist, Michael Dirda, in this excerpt published in the Paris Review, describes an experience with which I completely identify. My elementary class also ordered those books and I must have read Conan Doyle at about the same age as Dirda:
The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle, was the first grown-up book I ever read—and it changed my life. Back in the late 1950s, my fifth-grade class belonged to an elementary school book club. Each month our teacher would pass out a four-page newsletter describing several dozen paperbacks available for purchase. .... Lying on my bed at home, I lingered for hours over these newsprint catalogues, carefully making my final selections.

I had to. Each month my mother would allow me to purchase no more than four of the twenty-five- and thirty-five-cent paperbacks. ....

To this day I can more or less recall the newsletter’s capsule summary that compelled me to buy The Hound of the Baskervilles—as if that ominous title alone weren’t enough! Beneath a small reproduction of the paperback’s cover—depicting a shadowy Something with fiery eyes crouching on a moonlit crag—blazed the thrilling words “What was it that emerged from the moor at night to spread terror and violent death?” What else, of course, but a monstrous hound from the bowels of Hell? When I opened my copy of the book, the beast was further described on the inside display page:
A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen. Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smoldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish, be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog.
.... In the lowering darkness I turned page after page, more than a little scared, gradually learning the origin of the dreaded curse of the Baskervilles. At the end of the book’s second chapter, you may recall, the tension escalates unbearably. Holmes and Watson have just been told how Sir Charles Baskerville has been found dead, apparently running away from the safety of his own house. Their informant, Dr. Mortimer, pauses, then adds, hesitantly, that near the body he had spotted footprints on the damp ground. A man’s or a woman’s? eagerly inquires the great detective, to which question he receives the most thrilling answer in all of twentieth-century literature: “Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” .... [more]
The passages above are excerpted from an excerpt from Michael Dirda's book, On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling, that will be published later this year. "'When I was starting out as a writer,' P.G. Wodehouse once wrote, 'Conan Doyle was my hero. Others might revere Hardy and Meredith. I was a Doyle man, and I still am.' So, in fact, [Dirda writes] was I." Me, too. A part of what makes Doyle so attractive:
...Conan Doyle once named “unaffectedness” as his own favorite virtue, then listed “manliness” as his favorite virtue in another man; “work” as his favorite occupation; “time well filled” as his ideal of happiness; “men who do their duty” as his favorite heroes in real life; and “affectation and conceit” as his pet aversions. It should thus come as no surprise that Conan Doyle’s books are all fairly transparent endorsements of chivalric ideals of honor, duty, courage, and greatness of heart. ....
The Hound of the Baskervilles (with illustrations by Sidney Paget)

Paris Review – A Doyle Man, Michael Dirda