Sunday, 13 March 2011

A Life of Privilege, Mostly by Gardner Botsford: Review, And The Problem of Book Lag

In my house, there are mountains of books. Everything is organised, of course. There are my bookcases, upstairs, which contain my favourites (alphabetised, naturally); in the foothills are, unorganised, books which, owing to space, have either been expelled from the bookcase or are awaiting a new life upon those shelves. Downstairs, there are my classics books (organised as best as they can be); my first editions; then there are the piles. The pile of review copies I have read (kept in case I am questioned or I need to refer to them); the pile of books to be reviewed (ever changing); the pile of books to be looked at (sent by publishers and sundry well-wishers); and then the worst (and best) pile of them all. This is the pile of books that I have put aside, for one reason or another, to read in my own time, for my own pleasure. At a current estimate given by a Sherpa who knows the territory well (but was never seen again once he tentatively entered into it) it stands at over 100 books. This number changes, of course; some people claim it to be nearer 200. One thing is certain: nothing is ever thrown away or reconsidered. At present it consists of tomes ranging from The Shorter Pepys, Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day and David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, to biographies - endless biographies - of Saki, Donne, Malory, Naipaul - and books by friends (apologies to any of you who are reading this: I won't name you.) There is a political treatise by Loyseau; there is a children's book from the 1920s; there is Clausewitz, Bronte, Castiglione, Eliot, Angela Carter, Nemirovsky, Edith Wharton, all gazing at me, alternately imploring and castigating.

Sometimes I look at the pile as I walk past it every morning and think, I'll never get through all that. Sometimes I think I will go mad. Other times I fantasise about never reading anything ever again; other times I think that is a ridiculous notion. But sometimes, just sometimes, I will pick a book out of it, in between reviewing and writing, and always, nearly always, it will turn out to be a gem. The Book Lag is worth it for such moments.

The Book Lag is the time between the moment I notice a book and the time I read it. In some cases it's a day (as with Leo Benedictus' novel, or Julia Leigh's first novel, The Hunter.) In the Case of Gardner Botsford (pictured) it was five years. Five years of sitting on my pile, chucked about from London borough to London borough, keeping company with such low lives as Kerouac and William Trevor, until yesterday morning I actually started it.

It is a joy. A Life of Privilege, Mostly is an almost perfect memoir, up there with Diana Athill's Stet. Botsford was an editor at The New Yorker for decades; this memoir is in three parts. The first is an extremely well-written account of his life in the army, which manages to be both witty and terrifying. He is unsparing in his account of himself, cheerfully admitting that he'd rather have been in a cosy office job than on the front line (where he was sent by a clerical error). His time in London is chronicled hilariously: at one party he was invited back by a mild-mannered couple to their flat. Here he found a group of people not unlike those one would find at a university press party. All went as normal, until the host opened a door, and out came a woman dressed in nothing but a tiny piece of leopard skin, who then proceeded to advance upon the guests cracking a whip. The other guests all leapt over each other to take off their clothes; Gardner fled, along with a kilted Scottish officer.

The second third tells of his (extremely) privileged life as an upper-class American: they had five cars, more servants, several houses; although he is keen to point out that he got his job at the New Yorker in spite of the fact that he was related to the publisher. I don't doubt it: his style, charm and intelligence leap out of the page.

The book is invaluable for anybody considering a career in the torrid world of magazine journalism - although in my experience (so far) it hasn't involved women wearing leopardskin. Mr Botsford's work will now make its way upstairs, where it will lie reverently across Boccaccio until I get some bigger shelves... At least he can swap some stories with the old Italian. And Diana Athill's just nearby, too...

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