By Scott Graber
It is Saturday morning, early, and I’m in Port Royal where it is raining.
This morning I’ve got my coffee, Chock Full o’ Nuts, and a cranberry scone — the scone actually baked by me several days ago. Today being Saturday, I’m without a newspaper — and though news stories can be retrieved from the laptop, which I’m now using, am reluctant to clutter-up my sleep-laundered brain.
Perhaps I’ll read.
Somewhere along the line, perhaps when I was 16 or 17, I wandered into a library and picked-up a novel written by Nevil Shute entitled “Trustee from the Toolroom.”
I don’t understand how this happened because previous trips to this small, underused hospital library usually involved looking through large photographic folios chock full of photographs of German soldiers ransacking Warsaw or bedraggled American soldiers on the 38th Parallel. These folios, and 25-cent hamburgers at the nearby hospital cafeteria, were my motivation in those long-gone days.
“Trustee from the Toolroom” is a story about an underachiever who is given a job well beyond his pay grade. This task sends a quiet, contemplative man on a quest to the South Pacific where he recovers a small inheritance that enables him to raise his dead sister’s child.
“Trustee from the Toolroom” captured my imagination, leading me like a Sidewinder heat-seeking missile to other writers of fiction.
Twenty years later I stumbled upon Shirley Hazzard and her novel “Transit of Venus” — a novel that compelled me to read everything else this woman had written including, “The Great Fire.” In November of this year, I was delighted to see that the New Yorker had done a retrospective profile on Shirley Hazzard and her writing.
“The Transit of Venus” articulates the values by which it seeks to be judged; one character is praised for having a “meticulous voice from another century”; a second for his “fidelity to unfashionable ideals.” A book within the book passes the ultimate test – “Open at any page and find truth, like the Bible.”
When I was 16, sitting in the Landstuhl Army Hospital library, I wasn’t seeking truth; I just wanted an escape from what I perceived to be an oppressive, boring life. I didn’t know that throughout “Trustee for the Toolroom” I was getting a subtle set of “truths” – a syllabus of ideas and values. And I was getting these things without a lecture from an adult.
Characters seduce, wed, widow. They betray and grant mercy. They break one another’s hearts and attempt to mend them only after it’s too late. Beliefs espoused in youth gain dramatic irony from the vantage of old age. Life altering events are revealed in in offhand comments or clause-long slips into the future tense.
Nor did I realize, back in Landstuhl, that I was getting a cast of characters who would “seduce, wed, widow.” As I read my novel, “Trustee,” I found I was drawn to the quiet, self-effacing protagonist; disliked his egotistical brother in law; and admired the fact that this settled, unremarkable man would leave the world he knew and risk his safety for his dead sister’s child.
Few other 20th-century authors dared the audacity of Hazzard’s melodrama. The sense of destiny that shrouds her characters gives them — and, by some transitive property, the reader — an archaic grandeur of feeling. Perhaps you really are fated to live where and when you do, surrounded by secret heroes and villains. Perhaps you really were meant to have fallen in love with that person and to have had him cleaved from you on the exact date that he was.
I don’t know if I felt a “sense of destiny” as I sat in that small library (discretely eating my cheeseburger) but I think I thought, “If this bland, nondescript man can have a great adventure in life, maybe I can also have that adventure.” I only know that I was inspired by the success of the character that I then inhabited.
I wanted to live his life.
As I finished-up the Shirley Hazzard profile, I decided I really liked the writer’s prose, so I turned back to the first page and discovered that the piece was written by Alice Gregory.
Many years ago I had helped move a historic house across town to the Point where it was bought by Noel Seeburg. Noel and I thereafter became friends and eventually I befriended his daugher, Vandy.
Then, many years later Vandy and her husband, Michael Gregory, gave us Alice Gregory.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at email@example.com.