The tale of The Princess Bride grows each time I "tell" it by reading it aloud. I look through its familiar window and see the old bookshops and steak houses and bars and ethos of New York City in the 1970s. I see the young boy in the 1940s with pneumonia trying to get the game to come in on his radio. I see the bench in Central Park in the dead of winter where a writer sat and puzzled over his childhood memories and I see the Southern California pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Sunset Boulevard, past which I drove each day in my youth.
Each recitation was to someone new and in a different era of my life. As Uta Hagen said, we always have a reason for telling a story. We are not living in a memory, we are reproducing a tale for an express purpose.The same can be said of the books we read to our loved ones -- we want something from the listener (identification? camaraderie? wordless understanding?) and we want to convey something about the book we've chosen that we cannot find our own words for. Fortunately, that "something" is in the book's words themselves.
This week's New Yorker article about the three sisters who run the Argosy Bookshop on 59th Street is rich in detail.
But it missed one.
"Helen?" I said then. "Listen, do me something. Buzz the nine-nine-nine bookshop and have them send over "The Princess Bride."So begins the meta journey in which an adult William Goldman hunts down a beloved classic from his youth, read to him by his father when he was feverish with pneumonia. It's called The Princess Bride, by S. Morgenstern.
"Lemme get a pencil," and she's gone a while. "Okay, shoot. The what bride?"
"Princess. By S. Morgenstern. It's a kid's classic. Tell him I'll quiz him on it when I'm back next week and that he doesn't have to like it or anything, but if he doesn't, I'll kill myself."
Published in 1973, The Princess Bride may not have pre-dated the concept of meta (though it may have) but it certainly pre-dated the truncated term "meta" and its current ubiquity.
The nine-nine-nine doesn't have the book, in the original "Florinese" or in the English translation. Goldman stews poolside at his hotel, and tries again. He hears his father whispering in his ear, telling him the tale of true love and high adventure. He is distracted by a starlet desperate to take advantage of him, as he is of her, but he is distracted more by his sudden and overwhelming need to share this book with his son, who is about to turn ten. He calls his wife back. He asks her to try Doubleday. She calls him back to deliver the news: "The Morgenstern's out of print."
He calls her back.
"Call Argosy on Fifty-ninth Street. They specialize in out-of-print stuff."
He gets a list from his own publishing house of every bookstore in the Fourth Avenue area and tries one after another. He finds himself frantically dialing New York on the eve of a blizzard.
And then the final call.
"You don't get much call for Morgenstern nowadays.
(After 17 interminable minutes of hunting and crashing in the back room, in which Goldman describes much Yiddish cursing and many complaints of physical ailments, the old bookseller returns to the phone.)
"Well, I got the Florinese like I thought."Goldman's lawyer picks up the books as the blizzard starts -- he has to take the Florinese if he wants the English -- and delivers them to his New York apartment in time for his son's tenth birthday. He wants so much to find a listener in his ten year old son. He also knows, as do we, that such a desire is futile in the case of this particular son.
So close. "But not the English," I said.
And suddenly he's yelling at me: "What, are you crazy? I break my back and he says I haven't got it, yes, I got it right here and it's gonna cost a pretty penny."
I read this book to my mother on my third reading. I was sixteen. I'd been twelve when I'd first read the book, in the last week of summer before seventh grade. A lot happens in four years and when you return to a book, it seems to have grown older and wiser. You don't realize that it may be you who is just a little bit more so.
We were living on the 11th floor of a high-rise on Wilshire Boulevard. My stepfather had departed, at last, for good. We were two now. Well, three, actually, counting our loyal Maltese, Chloe. We were free. We were free to read a book all day on my mother's king-sized bed in the Wilshire Estina. The shadow had vanished and oxygen rushed in to fill the the newly sunny space. We greedily inhaled and luxuriously exhaled.
The sick little boy with the raging fever listens to his immigrant father sound out the words of The Princess Bride. The grown man can't get him out of his head as he sits by the pool with the Hollywood starlet.
"Hunters," my father was saying now. "Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies." He was camped in my cranium, hunched over, bald and squinting, trying to read, trying to please, trying to keep his son alive and the wolves away.Not a dry eye on the bed. Even Chloe wept, but that's probably because Maltese dogs tend to have leaky tear ducts. My mother and I cried because we identified, not just with the text, but through the text with each other. Happy tears. Nostalgic tears. Poignant tears. Big fat longing for everything and understanding each other tears.
A few years later, I found myself in a quandary as a sophomore at Columbia, three thousand miles from my mother and Chloe. The quandary occurred suddenly and I felt that quite possibly, my life was over. I wandered downtown. I recall it as an Autumn day, but my memory is always that it's Autumn when the magic comes.
I was headed toward Bloomingdales, I think. I thought the perfume counter might be of some cheer. Then a sign on 59th Street caught my eye. Argosy. Argosy Book Store. Oh my god. It had stepped out of The Princess Bride and it was towering over me on the sidewalk. Argosy.
I went in. I don't remember the staff as being especially pleasant or unpleasant. They left me to my own devices. I spotted a book called Book of Common Sense Etiquette, by Eleanor Roosevelt. I fondled the cloth cover and laughed at the more antiquated suggestions for housewives. But it was the last sentence of the introduction that sold me the book:
If you ever find yourself in a situation in which following a formal rule would be manifestly unkind, forget it, and be kind instead. -Eleanor Roosevelt, New York, 1962And here's the ending of the introduction to The Princess Bride:
I bought the book for 25 dollars, which might as well have been a thousand for a college kid. I decided it was going to be my guide in this time of trouble. I could rise to the occasion if I had this book. I would develop character and triumph over adversity. If Argosy was a real place, then the rest of William Goldman's story probably checked out too.
S. Morgenstern wrote it. And my father read it to me. And now I give it to you. What you do with it will be of more than passing interest to us all. -William Goldman,
New York City, 1972
P.S. On the first night of December many years ago, I went to the movies with a young man, beginning my own tale of true love and high adventure. It was warm for December, and after leaving The Paris Theatre after a criminally long and boring film, I asked him to walk me home. I took him past Argosy on the way. I told him about that college experience and the Book of Common Sense Etiquette. I don't know if he thought I was stuffy or old-fashioned or just strange, but if so, he got over it and we married four years later. Or maybe he never got over it. In fact, I hope he didn't, and never will. It was the greatest date of my life. William Goldman concludes in the end of the introduction that he doesn't think there is such a thing as true love or high adventure --fans of the film might find some delicious if dark surprises in the novel-- but having stumbled on Argosy after dreaming about it and then stumbling on a first date I couldn't have hoped for in my wildest dreams, I respectfully disagree. On that lonely day when I bumped into Argosy, I had been wrong that my life was over. In fact, it had yet to begin.