As Christmas approaches, my fellow villagers try to cope with the results of an unprecedented nineteen inch snowfall. In my house, we recently celebrated Hanukkah and we before we join our friends neighbours in a round of holiday jollity, we indulge in the Oblomovian pastimes a winter storm sanctions. We keep Morsolino, our splendid Scandinavian wood stove, working full time and we try to find good flics to watch–the latest ones on our list were a French production of La Belle Helene and the Russian House of Fools–and good books to read. Natasha’s Dance: a Cultural History if Russia and A People’s Tragedy, by Orlando Figes, are among the history books I enjoyed recently, along with Jason Goodwin’s Lords of the Horizon. Goodwin, whose Yashim novels take the reader on a delicious romp from Ottoman Turkey to Italy also writes approachable nonfiction with a good novelist’s elegant touch. He keeps the considerable weight of his scholarship from crushing the reader and he adds delectable anedoctes fit to to enhance chat at many a Christmas feast. I reccommend, particularly, his history of the Ottoman Empire, Lords of the Horizons.
Snowy Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
This is Goodwin’s Christmas message,
Late at night I travel to Istanbul, courtesy of the magic carpet author Jason Goodwin provides with The Janissary Tree. There, gardens bloom on Iznick tiles of splendid blues, greens and pomegranate reds. I dream of asking Goodwin how he recreates this world of opulent color, singing fountains, bright jewels. Good writers are magicians and I am in awe of their power. Dare I ask this particular magician for an interview? Why not? The worst that will happen is that he will say no. I ask and hold my breath, metaphorically speaking.
I wake up to a sky as grey as a chunk of hematite. The temperature has zoomed into the upper eighties. The air is oppressive. The garden looks dry and exhausted. The round ruffled leaves of the Rond de Nice squash droops forlornly. When is these stony clouds going to resolve themselves into a cooling rain? We have had brief showers for the last three days, so brief they do no more than coax plant roots into coming closer to the surface to absorb a few drops before they evaporate. I go out with watering cans filled with grey water. This is not enough, I know. What my plants need is a series of long drizzles, gentle and sweetly thirst quenching.
The day ends without the promised downpour.
“Later,” says the weatherman. “Later.”
I labor over sentences. I murder paragraphs. My characters rebel, throw off the alphabet, become mute. I find a poem that is as fresh and cool as if it had just been written. It refershes the soul. And then, joy of joys, Goodwin says yes. What else can a provincial writing gardener want> Rain, perhaps. But has been promised. It will come.
Conrad Aiken (1889–1973)