Rick Gekoski is an expatriate American, long established as one of the leading antiquarian book-dealers in Britain. As one might expect, books have been his passion for as long as he can remember, his reading as integral a part of his development as anything experienced in the world outside. ‘Every reading experience vibrates subtly across the jelly of being,’ he writes. ‘We are made and continually transformed by what, and how, we read.’ This autobiography, Outside of a Dog, described as a ‘bibliomemoir’, is extravagantly enjoyable, lively, candid, and wonderfully well-written.
Gekoski’s first literary love affair was with Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr Seuss (‘Then they cheered and they cheered and they CHEERED more and more/ They’d never seen anything like it before!’), read aloud to him by his parents when he was a small boy living on the outskirts of Washington. From this moment young Rick is hooked and nothing can stop him. ‘In adolescence, caught up in a hot-blooded cycle of lust and teenage alienation, he drools over Krafft-Ebbing and recognises in Holden Caulfield his alter-ego. ‘Soon Salinger’s anti-hero is usurped by Allen Ginsberg and the poets of the Beat generation, ‘[who] pointed the way to something larger, more generous and more dangerous … I didn’t know it at the time … but the Sixties started here.’
As a student at the University of Pennsylvania, Gekoski is hit hard by T. S. Eliot, who is to become a constant reference point, the close companion of a lifetime. To the keen members of the English class at Penn, their instructor’s challenge to recite the famous first line of The Waste Land appears frankly pathetic.
What was this guy: stupid? … We all knew it, and recited it almost as if it were a nursery rhyme: ‘April is the cruellest month…’ ‘Wrong! … Think again.’ And sure enough the first line reads: ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding …’
And so begins a fascination, a passionate absorption in the poem, that is read and reread, embedding itself deep in the imagination to become an integral part of the author’s own self-definition.
For this big, bearded, Jewish American, the move from Penn to Oxford is a seismic shift, with the affectations and anachronisms of the ancient university an endless source of bemusement. Even before he leaves home, the statement that ‘gentlemen are responsible for bringing their own tea crockery’ had intrigued the family.
My mother adored the phrase, and used it repeatedly over the months before I left for Oxford. ‘He’s responsible for bringing his own tea crockery, you know,’ she told her friends. ‘What’s tea crockery?’ ‘I don’t know,’ she admitted.
At Merton, Rick Gekoski does his best to turn himself into R. A. Gekoski, Englishman, sporting the college scarf and ordering a suit from Hall Bros. He reads Matthew Arnold with Hugo Dyson, whose courteous, diffident approach mystifies him, and D. H. Lawrence with John Bayley, whose ‘Bunterish affability… concealed a mind like a velvet trap.’
It is at Oxford that Gekoski meets his first wife, Barbara, whom he courts with the poetry of Yeats. Despite the birth of two adored children, it is not a happy relationship, the neurotic Barbara spending more time with her analyst than with her husband. By this time Gekoski has landed a job as lecturer in English at Warwick, where again he tries hard to fit the mould, teaching, and miserably struggling to write an ill-conceived book on Lawrence. Here one of his colleagues is Germaine Greer, first encountered striding along a corridor modishly dressed in purple suede gaucho pants. The famously foul-mouthed Dr Greer is already a celebrity, her book, The Female Eunuch, having effectively undermined the entire male sex, and Gekoski wisely treats her with caution, only to be surprised by an unexpected act of generosity on her part.
Inevitably the Gekoski marriage falls apart, and it is during the divorce proceedings that everything changes for the author. The process begins with a terrible shock, when his wife insists on keeping every single one of the books he has spent a lifetime collecting. At first reeling with horror, convinced he will never recover from the loss, he suddenly realises he is free. He leaves the academic milieu in which he never felt at home, abandons the work on Lawrence which he has come to hate, produces his first catalogue of antiquarian books, remarries, and, crucially, starts writing for the first time in his own, distinctive, quintessentially American voice.
It is this voice that makes Outside of a Dog so irresistibly appealing. Rick Gekoski is a superb narrator, vivid, colloquial, funny and tough. He is an inspiring literary critic, engaging vigorously with his chosen texts; and he has a novelist’s gift for creating character. It is his own character, of course, which dominates the book, and despite his clear-sightedness over his numerous failings — ‘thoroughly childish … fidgety, noisy and attention-seeking … greedy, over-anxious to please and easily hurt, competitive and self-referring’ — he has the reader enthusiastically on his side every step of the way.
Selina Hastings’s latest book, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham will be published next week by John Murray.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 29, 2009Tags: Non-fiction