Ex Libris: The Proddings of Chance
By Steve Donoghue
Is there such a thing as planned serendipity?
It might sound like an odd idea, but I’m thinking it must apply to the life of a professional book reviewer. Although it’s true that I never quite know what’s going to show up in the next day’s book-mail, I know it can’t be just flat-out ANYTHING. It’ll be a few selections from the lists of upcoming releases from mainstream US publishers, either galley copies or finished copies. True, there are lots and lots of such upcoming releases, so each day’s assortment is a bit of a surprise. But there’s a broad infinity of things those assortments certainly won’t be: hence, planned serendipity.
There’s quite a bit of difference between that and the genuine article, as I was prompted to remember the other day when I was out for a long rambling walk with my bossy little Miniature Schnauzer. I often try to steer those walks into the woods or fields, but my little dog is a city girl who very much prefers sidewalks and the likelihood of meeting humans she can browbeat into fussing over her (she’s only 10 pounds, but she doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer). So we were wandering around endless leafy side-streets on what we used to call an unseasonably warm day.
We encountered a few Little Free Libraries, which is always fun – and which is the heart and soul of true serendipity. By the time our walk was over, I was carrying three books picked at random. And since I give true serendipity the serious respect it deserves, I put all three of those books directly into my “read right now” rotation, even though I’d read each of them when they first came out, spaced roughly 10 years apart.
The first was John Le Carré’s 1974 novel “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (in the lovely Penguin paperback re-issue from 30 years ago), another adventure by Le Carré’s cynical spymaster George Smiley, who became a fan favorite with readers in the author’s breakout 1963 novel “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.”
The second book was Anne Tyler’s 1983 novel “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,” which was Tyler’s ninth book and the first one to really catapult her to national notice, although some of her earlier books had been well reviewed (Tyler, always her own harshest critic, likewise looked favorably on it). This is a wonderfully complex family drama about a trio of siblings reviewing their very different memories of growing up with their memorably idiosyncratic mother.
And the third book was a little paperback of “Foucault’s Pendulum,” Umberto Eco’s 1988 novel – here in William Weaver’s 1990 English-language translation. This fiercely weird book appeared eight years after Eco’s “The Name of the Rose,” which was a monster bestseller of the type most author’s lay awake at night dreaming of writing.
I read each of these books when they first appeared (well, nearly – I waited on the Eco book until it appeared in English), and I had varying reactions at the time. The Tyler novel was solidly constructed and written with warm sympathy, but when I first read it, it did nothing for me at all – I kept wondering why I should care about anybody in the family, and I kept waiting for Tyler, that family’s creator, to give me a reason. I finished the book feeling polite interest, as though I’d just spent two hours listening to intricate family stories from a distant acquaintance.
The Eco book utterly bewildered me, right from the start. “The Name of the Rose” had had odd chunks, no doubt about it – but at its heart it was a broadly accessible tale of murder, deduction, and shattered faith. It might have had its self-indulgent digressions (what debut novel doesn’t?), but you could like it in part because you could GRASP it, in a sentence or two. But “Foucault’s Pendulum” opens with weird flights of intellectual fancy – and just keeps flying. Thirty years ago, I finished the book thinking “That was clearly a tour de force … and I missed the tour bus.”
And what can I say about “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”? I read it eagerly when it first came out and unabashedly loved it. Right from the beginning, it’s full of some of Le Carré’s best dialogue, sharpest human insights, and most sharply cynical political observations as Smiley vies with his Soviet counterpart on the sprawling chessboard of international espionage.
And this time around, prodded by merciless serendipity? Well, I appreciated the tough, kindly wisdom in “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” a lot more than I did the first time – very likely because in the interim I’d done 40 years of the kind of living Tyler writes about so unobtrusively and so well. And likewise I loved “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” even more this time than the first time, not only because of that intervening 50 years of living but also, maybe more so, because the whole world had changed in that half-century.
And “Foucault’s Pendulum”? Still don’t understand more than ten consecutive words in the thing. Even serendipity can’t expect miracles.