Summer’s Escape Artists

By David Ignatius (THE WASHINGTON POST, 26/07/07):

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” arrived at our house last weekend, all 759 pages — two copies to be shared by my wife and three daughters. I’m missing the party, but only because of this summer’s addiction to Anthony Trollope — luxuriating at present in the 841 pages of “Can You Forgive Her?” with a mere 3,643 pages left to complete the sextet of the Palliser novels.

If ever there were a summer for escapist literature, this is it. The news of the real world is so bleak that it’s a blessing to retreat for a while into the imagined worlds of fiction. There is a character in Evelyn Waugh’s “A Handful of Dust” who, at the end of the book, flees London and is stranded in the Amazon jungle, where he is compelled to read the novels of Charles Dickens over and over again. That sounds pretty attractive right now.

But it is always a summer for escapist reading. A wise person (my mother, actually) once observed that it was essential to read novels, because otherwise people would not know how to behave. They would encounter problems of the heart that would be insoluble, save for the education they had received in watching the great characters of fiction struggle to make moral choices. (My parents, who are in their 80s, are in a Jack Kerouac phase this summer, having driven themselves across the United States in high style, despite the entreaties of their children.)

One of the unlikely benefits of travel to distant places is that it gives you so much time to read — especially those big, fat English novels. Is there anything more pleasurable than fastening the seat belt at the beginning of a long flight and opening a thick book — taking wing from ordinary life and enfolding yourself in the imagination of the author? I’ve passed long weeks in places such as Baghdad, Basra and Beirut worrying as much about the tribulations of Dorothea Brooke, the unforgettable heroine of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” as about the machinations of the local militias.

What makes these 19th-century English novels compelling are the women. The virtuous men tend to be human icicles, so encumbered with manly restraint that their deeper emotions are frozen, only to melt in the last few chapters just in time to win the hearts of their beloveds. A classic example of manly froideur would be Darcy, in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” The emotional men in these books tend to be unreliable cads, as in Trollope’s dastardly philanderers — Sir Felix Carbury in “The Way We Live Now” or George Vavasor in “Can You Forgive Her?”

But the women in these novels are passionate seekers, embodying bourgeois Europe’s journey toward free thought and personal freedom. They refuse the easy comforts and arranged marriages of their class in pursuit of deeper values. Often, as with Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet or Trollope’s Alice Vavasor, they make themselves positively miserable trying to escape the worthy men who will make them happy. They are too rebellious for their own good, these fine ladies, and when they finally achieve a happy ending (for there is always a happy ending in these books), it is, to the sentimental reader, deeply satisfying. There are so few opportunities in real life to see virtue rewarded.

Graham Greene, who capped this literary tradition of escapist moral education, summed up in “The Heart of the Matter” the English conviction that when it comes to emotion, less is more. He puts the message in an admonition from the Syrian trader Yusef to his forlorn hero, Major Scobie: “Of two hearts one is always warm and one is always cold: the cold heart is more precious than diamonds: the warm heart has no value and is thrown away.” Greene should know; he threw away a lot of warm hearts.

Many years ago I found myself on a Libyan Airways flight bound from Tripoli to Benghazi. I was seated between two burly Libyan gentlemen who I felt certain had been assigned by the local security service to keep an eye on me.

Fortunately, I had a good book to read, and as the plane roared over the North African desert, I reached a particularly amusing chapter that had me laughing out loud, quite literally to tears. Seeing my enjoyment of the book, one of my Libyan seatmates poked me in the ribs. “It is about sex, isn’t it?”

No, I told him, it wasn’t about sex. The book in question was “Little Dorrit,” by Charles Dickens. But never mind. It was intensely satisfying just the same. So to readers everywhere, from Harry-o-philes to fellow Trollopians, a happy summer.