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Vol. LXV, No. 50
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
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Book Review

“The Touch of a Vanished Hand”: Conan Doyle, Michael Dirda, and a Father’s Message

Stuart Mitchner

My father was easy to shop for at this time of year. “Anything to do with Sherlock Holmes” was the Christmas mantra. As December came around, some publisher always had a book to offer, although nothing could top William S. Baring-Gould’s boxed two-volume The Annotated Sherlock Holmes published in 1970 by Clarkson Potter. Any time I want to commune with my taciturn father, who died in 1986, all I have to do is browse in either volume, looking for his pencilled notes. Another way of getting in touch with him is to take out the bound typescript of his dissertation, an editing of the first three books (“which treat of Incorporeal Substances”) from the medieval encyclopedia that I cannot, to this day, pronounce without a hitch (De Proprietatibus Rerum), every word of it typed by my mother on a Royal portable.

My father’s scholarly fondness for Sherlock Holmes is not atypical. Michael Dirda, for one, pursued medieval studies, among other subjects, as a graduate student at Cornell before becoming a book critic for the Washington Post, a bibliophile, and a member of The Baker Street Irregulars (BSI). That society of true believers spearheads the complex Sherlock Holmes subculture described in Dirda’s contribution to Princeton’s Writers On Writers series, On Conan Doyle: The Whole Art of Storytelling (Princeton University Press $19.95). In the realm of the BSI, fiction is truth and truth fiction, and if this playfully serious merging of reality and make-believe resembles a child’s game for adults, what else would you expect of a group named for the street urchins Holmes enlisted at a shilling a day in his quest for clues?

Salinger and Sir Arthur

There are moments in Dirda’s account of the inner workings of the Irregulars when the tone verges on becoming too “clubby,” as in his reference to the “absolutely wonderful time” he had at his first BSI weekend (an evening “for fraternal refreshment and for harmony”), where he felt “connected to an otherwise vanished era of literary bonhomie and frivolity.” While language like “literary bonhomie” rouses my inner Holden Caulfield, the fact is that Holden’s creator, the late great enemy of all things phoney, J.D. Salinger, had a soft spot for Sherlock Holmes.

Consider Conan Doyle’s place on the daunting list of books for summer reading at Camp Haworth that five-year-old Seymour Glass requests of his librarian, “the incomparable Miss Overman,” in Salinger’s “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which appeared in the June 19, 1965 issue of The New Yorker. After requesting that he be sent the works of Tolstoy, Dickens, Austen, and Proust “in their entirety,” among many others, Seymour asks for “the complete works, quite in full, of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with the exception of any books that are not utterly concerned with Sherlock Holmes.” (By the way, Dirda celebrates some of the books Seymour takes exception to.) At this point in the prodigious letter Seymour recalls how, while he was swimming in the lake, “It was suddenly borne in upon me, utterly beyond dispute, that I love Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but do not love the great Goethe!” The essence of Seymour’s revelation is not only what “Hapworth 16, 1924” is all about, it’s what Dirda and groups like the Baker Street Irregulars are all about; it’s the difference between admiration and adoration. Says Seymour: “As I darted through the water, it became crystal clear that it is far from an established fact that I am even demonstrably fond of the great Goethe, in my heart, while my love for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, via his contributions, is an absolute certainty!”

The equally buoyant enthusiasm at the heart of Michael Dirda’s appeal as a writer demonstrably in love with reading is underscored by the quotes on the back cover of his book, one of which declares that Dirda’s “life’s work” is to “declare his adoration for some literary gem” (“On Conan Doyle traces the arc of one such love affair”) while another uses the word “love” three times to explain why Dirda makes you feel “as if you’ve been inaugurated into a secret society of people who love what can be done with words.”

Living the Book

Although “love” may be the word of choice, it’s not really Sir Arthur Conan Doyle readers adore, it’s the act of reading itself, the moment of complete submission as you settle into the motion of the narrative and can feel the creaking of the horse-drawn coach, taste the fog, or, the ultimate reward, when you actually for the first time in your life experience the names, Charing Cross Station, Victoria, Marylebone Road, and Baker Street, and all those places you’ve known in the company of Holmes and Watson. It’s as if until that moment London had been a wonderful fantasy, something in a storybook co-authored by Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens. In James Joyce’s Dublin, another fictional character with a devoted following in the real world, Leopold Bloom, guided me on the night walk I described in a June 16 Bloomsday column last year. Whether it’s London or Dublin or Balzac’s Paris, the authors of the books you love seem to hover watchfully over the cities you’re exploring.

In Person

Imagine for a moment what Sherlock Holmes could do online. Out of all the scholar geniuses of fiction, he’s the one easiest to imagine conceiving the internet, or at least dreaming it up during a cocaine high. In fact, we can all scan the internet the way Holmes scanned the agony columns in The Times. Search for clues in this Byzantine universe and, if you like, you can spend ten and a half minutes with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his dog. You don’t need a seance. Forget the ectoplasmic mist. Here he is in the flesh, for real, looking and sounding at age 68 pretty much as you’d expect Dr, Watson would. It’s clear that he dotes on his dog — a sprightly, happy, loving little terrier he calls “good old boy” as he walks toward us with a book in his hand. The year is 1927 and the author is being filmed for Fox Movietone News. After setting down his book and putting his hat on top of it, Conan Doyle explains his conception of Sherlock Holmes and celebrates the veracity of his psychic explorations. His voice is pleasant and throaty, with that Scots burr, becoming most assertive on the subject of the spirit world: “I am not talking about what I believe. I am not talking about what I think. I am talking about what I know. There’s an enormous difference, believe me, between believing a thing and knowing a thing.”

So saying, Conan Doyle expresses the determined act of sympathetic imagination that gives an almost spiritual force to groups like The Baker Street Irregulars. But that’s not all. When he utters his last words to us, about all the people his psychic views have comforted — “how they have once more heard the sound of a vanished voice and felt the touch of a vanished hand” — I find myself having a Sherlock Holmes moment. The guise of the aging writer begins to dissolve around another, most unlikely image but one that makes sense and can be captured with a few taps on the keyboard, yes, here he is, Shri Lahiri Mahasaya, disciple of Babaji, teacher of Shri Yukteswar, who was Parmahansa Yogananda’s guru. As I foresaw, there is a definite resemblance between the avuncular, white-mustached Scotsman petting his dog and the bare-chested, dhoti-clad, white-mustached sadhu who revived the science of Kriya Yoga while marrying, raising a family, and working as an accountant for the Military Engineering Department of the British Indian government. How did I get from Sir Arthur to Shri Mahasaya? Elementary, my dear Watson!

When I open my eyes and return to reality, Sir Arthur puts on his hat, picks up his book, bids us goodbye, and softly tells the dog to “come on,” as he goes back into the house.

In the Margin: Yes

My reclusive father’s copy of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes occupied the place of honor in his study. Reading “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” in his copy of the second volume just now, I found a “Yes” lightly written in the margin next to the following paragraph:

“It was a cold morning of the early spring, and we sat after breakfast on either side of a cheery fire in the old room at Baker Street. A thick fog rolled down between the lines of dun-colored houses, and the opposing windows loomed like dark, shapeless blurs through the heavy yellow wreaths. Our gas was lit and shone on the white cloth and glimmer of china and metal, for the table had not been cleared yet. Sherlock Holmes had been silent all the morning, dipping continuously into the advertisement columns of a succession of papers until at last, having apparently given up his search, he had emerged in no very sweet temper to lecture me upon my literary shortcomings.”

As far as I can tell, that’s the only “Yes” my father permitted himself in the whole 1500-plus pages of the two-volume tome. This is someone whose highest compliment was “That’s fine,” and whose marginalia consists primarily of technical signals such as “false lead” or “plant” or “hint” for passages pertaining to the solution of a case. So why this “Yes” for a paragraph where nothing remarkable appears to happen? I deduce that this is, in fact, a clue — my father’s way of signaling that here is the essence of what he loved about these stories, though he would never have been so forthcoming “in real life.” It’s all there, the cheery morning, the thick fog, the ominous presence of “dark, shapeless blurs through the heavy yellow wreaths,” the gaslight, Holmes’s silence, and his scouring of the papers. That’s what it’s all about, the mood, the ambient essence, or what Henry James would call “the real thing.”

Michael Dirda will be in the Community Room at the Princeton Public Library tonight, Wednesday, December 14, at 7 p.m. On December 15, also at 7 p.m. in the Community Room, there will be a showing of “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Robert Downey Jr.

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