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SECOND CHANCE : A Venerable Actor Gets to 'Moby Dick,' at Last

October 06, 1985|JOHN HOUSEMAN | Actor John Houseman, 83, has produced 17 films, directed 37 plays and operas, and written 3 volumes of memoirs. He has also appeared in several film and television productions, including "The Paper Chase," for which he won an Academy Award, and "The Winds of War."

A classical education at a British public school left me with a general sense of what I should read and, failing in that, what I should pretend to have read.

My intensive reading has, in fact, been limited to two brief and widely separated periods of my life. The first was between the ages of 23 and 26. As an apprentice and a future executive of a leading firm of international wheat exporters, I found myself traveling incessantly between the wheat-producing and shipping centers of the North American continent. I was friendless and homesick and, in my loneliness, my only companions (besides my own dream figures and fantasies) were the characters and ideas I discovered in the books I borrowed from the public libraries of the various places through which I passed.

These created a strange and complicated emotional geography of their own. Thus I have always associated the wonders of 'The Golden Bough' with a hill of tall grass and yellow daisies in a public park overlooking the Missouri River in central Kansas; 'The Brothers Karamazov' with a peeling green bench in an Oklahoma courthouse square on which I sat waiting all afternoon for a bus. Much of Proust was absorbed in the maroon Pullman cars of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the first 100 pages of 'Das Kapital' in a sand- and soot-filled lower berth behind a wood-burning Southern Pacific locomotive speeding at night along the Gulf Coast. Rilke and Rimbaud were revealed during a weekend spent in a bare cabin in the Ozarks, which I shared with an insurance salesman from St. Louis; Michelet, 'Tom Jones,' 'The Possessed' and the 'Revelation of St. John the Divine' are forever associated in my mind with the gray skies of the Pacific Northwest, where I spent two rain-sodden winters. Finally, there is the vivid memory of a hotel room in Joplin, Mo., where, through a missed connection, I found myself lying awake all through the night of the Fourth of July, 1926. I was reading Prescott's 'Conquest of Mexico,' and the miseries of Hernando Cortes and his men, beleaguered on the causeways of Tenochtitlan, are forever related in my mind to the stained brown carpet of that high-ceilinged, ill-lit, second-floor room and to the patriotic explosions of torpedoes and firecrackers in the street below.

My second intensive period of reading is just beginning--more than half a century later. As an octogenarian with three volumes of memoirs behind me, I am finally finding time to enjoy some of the great works with which I have for so long pretended to be familiar. A friend recently gave me a beautiful edition of Herman Melville's 'Moby Dick,' which I am alternately reading with 'Caracteres de La Bruyere.' It is an exciting adventure to discover the books I have so often discussed without having read them and to check my belated reactions against the erroneous assumptions that I had held about them for more years than I care to admit.

Of necessity and for pleasure I read a number of plays every month, but I have difficulty (even if I had the time) in becoming absorbed in contemporary English and American novels. I find most of them predictable and their characters so introverted that I have trouble working up empathy for them. By contrast, perhaps because the subjects are new and strange to me, I find myself attracted to the new crop of South and Central American novelists whose political and social preoccupations make their works absorbing and revealing.

This brings me to the final category of books that I expect to be reading as long as my eyes and brains hold out. These are the works of contemporary and classic historians, in which I must include the biographies and autobiographies that I read with an ever-growing awareness of their relevance to our current cultural and political problems. They range from Thucydides through Toynbee and Braudel to Schell and others of whose writings I understand something and continue to hope to understand more."

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