whim: an odd or capricious notion or desire; a sudden or freakish fancy

Thursday, July 12, 2012

speaking to the dead

I had a nice conversation with Charles Lamb yesterday. Well, to be honest, it was with his gravestone, but his remains were there, so it might as well have been true.

Let's see. Allow me to back up for a mo ("mo" being "moment," a Britishism that I fully intend to incorporate into my daily vocabulary. Moving on). For those of you who don't know, I'm in England this summer, not to be an annoying tourist, but to be an annoying student researcher. I'm reading my way through the canonical writers of my genre––the personal essay. I've covered quite a bit of ground so far, but all the way back in May I started with Charles Lamb, who is considered by many to be the father of the English personal essay (with Michel de Montaigne as the father of the essay in general. But he was French, so of course we needed an English forefather as well). Anyway, because of his reputation, I started off my British adventure by reading a couple of his essay collections, Essays of Elia and The Last Essays of Elia (Elia being his pseudonym), and although I've moved through nearly a dozen essayists this summer since Lamb, I keep coming back to him.

Quite literally, in fact. Last week I visited one of Lamb's former homes in London, which happily still stands today. Steeling my courage and suppressing my shy nature, I knocked on the door to see if I could persuade the current resident to show me around. Luckily, a nice woman named Julia opened the door and happily obliged. The house was tall and narrow with fantastically creaky staircases, and the view from the very top floor, as Julia informed me, still looked similar to what Lamb would have seen as he and his spinster sister Mary looked out the window, because the architecture at the street level had changed more than the top levels of the homes on the street. Yesterday I traveled to Edmonton Green, which is in North London, and is also where Lamb lived until he died. Lamb's Cottage, which also still stands, had a lovely exterior, but unfortunately the locked front iron gates stopped me from accosting the current residents. Oh, bother. So I moved on to St. Anne's church, just right up the street, where Lamb and his sister Mary were buried.

It took me awhile to find the gravestone, as it was a pretty well-occupied churchyard cemetery and many of the gravestones were worn enough to make the text indistinguishable. After a few goings-over, I found it, and sat down to have a small chat. At first I felt odd talking to a gravestone, but after eating a granola bar and chatting for a minute, we were old friends. You see, his writing is so endearing––not that he was singularly good natured, because he definitely had a crotchety streak (although not as much as his pal Hazlitt), but because his essays portray both the amiable and crotchety sides of his character so well that the reader (at least this reader) instantly feels like a friend and confidant. His faults, those that he frankly exposed to the reader, make him infinitely more real and interesting. Because we humans aren't really attracted to people who are perfect––we want to be friends with those people who are as messy and moody as we are.

Anyway, we had a good talk. I even picked a few flowers around the churchyard to set on his grave (I'm not sure if it's unlucky to pick flowers off another man's grave, but for crying out loud, one guy had an entire lilac bush growing around his tomb. I just took one).

I think that the best literature, whether it be nonfiction, fiction, poetry, drama, whatever, is the kind of literature that makes us want to know the writer (even if it's just because he/she is so wildly crazy that you can't help but imagine what a riot he/she would be in person). I don't know if anyone has thought, after reading a really lame, trashy book, "I really want to meet [insert name of trashy romance novelist]." When I read something truly fascinating or strange or witty, I really just want to sit down with the writers and ask them what in the world was going through their brains when they wrote said story/essay/poem. So the reason why I wanted to sit down and have a chat with Charles Lamb is that I was wishing I really could sit down with him and see if he was as great as I think he is, and see what kind of a brain produced writing that people still love.

And that's my two cents for the day.

Pictures to follow.