Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Van Loon's Lives

When I feel out of sorts I often go to my bookshelf and pick out a book that I might have bought when I felt out of sorts at some earlier time. The book I picked up yesterday was Van Loon's Lives by Hendrik Willem van Loon. I bought it at a used book store thinking that it was the book I tried to read in second grade (I wanted to read every book in the school library, and this was the biggest one of all) called The Story of Mankind by the same writer. When I realized I had the wrong book it went on my book shelf and sat there for a few years, until yesterday.

The book, written in 1942, is a series of scenarios involving dinner parties with various people from various times history. Some dinner party "groups" are made of people who lived at around the same time, and some groups are made of people who lived in entirely different times from one another. Van Loon introduces each guest to the reader, he and his wife have to decide what to serve, and we get to read about their dinner discussion. Here are some of the chapters that involve musicians:

Chapter IV: This Time Erasmus Had a Surprise for Us, and we Make the Acquaintance of the BACHS and the BREUGHELS

In the course of this chapter the host plays Bach a recording of his Toccata and Fugue as orchestrated by Stokowski, and Bach is not impressed. He thinks it sounds like something Vivaldi might have written before he learned to write. J.S. Bach is joined by his ancestors and his sons, and W.F. does a considerable amount of drinking. Of course the Bachs spent much of the evening playing music while the Breughels painted their portraits.

There is reference also to dinner guest from another evening, Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire (I learned his full name from this book), who was impressed with Frits' (another member of the party-giving crew) typewriter. "If I had one of those contraptions," he said, playing with the keys, "I might have done a little writing."

Chapter XI: SAINT FRANCIS, H.C. ANDERSEN, and MOZART Come, But They Do Not Come Alone

Chapter XVII: And Now a Rather Strange Combination, EMILY DICKINSON and FREDERICK CHOPIN, But Emily Has the Time of Her Life, and Chopin Shows us What Can Be Done With a Minni-Piano

This book is sure to keep me "in sorts" for a long time.


Anonymous said...

I'm sure that you have finished the book by now and hope you enjoyed as much as I have. It's one of my favorite books and I re-read it every couple of years. It does keep you "in sorts".

Unknown said...

It is so interesting to read that people are still enlivened by Hendrik Willem! He is supposed to be an uncle or cousin of my end of the family and I tend to believe it--he certainly writes in the van Loon style! My library boasts an entire shelf of his output, something none of us has yet achieved. Working on it, though--I am a community publisher and writer, and so is my daughter.

Read on!

steven edward streight said...

Just bought a good 1st Edition of this book at a Salvation Army store. The illustrations by Van Loon are astonishing, radioactive color riots, very avant garde.

This is the Dutch Twain. His smart sarcasm, irony, dry wit are refreshing. The kind of book that smartens you up, makes you savvy, installs a skeptical comical attitude within the observant reader.

I bought this for its art value, but started reading and I can't stop, I love his mind, his style of writing, his humor and idiosyncratic angles.

Wow. This is so great!