I have always been fond of rating things and particularly like to entertain such questions as “what is the most beautiful country I’ve ever visited” or “what are the five most enjoyable films I’ve ever watched” or “what ten books have most influenced me in my life?” So this month I wish to report that Little Demon and the City of Light by Steven Levingston is the most engaging contemporary non-fiction book I’ve read in the last five years. Levingston, a veteran international journalist, has produced the “true story of murder and mesmerism in belle époque Paris.” (Click on this magnificent picture for a real treat.)
He takes us back to the 1880’s when an attractive but unpredictable coquette named Gabrielle Bompard and her lover, the multi-lingual, charming, but brutish Michel Eyraud, lure in and murder a very respectable Paris businessman named Toussaint-Augustin Gouffé. The two then flee the city and travel to the United States while the Paris police busily investigate and unravel the mystery and then send out an all-points bulletin throughout the world to find the missing couple.
This book has everything: mystery, intrigue, interesting characters (including several of the detectives), and is set in one of the most engaging cities during one of the most engaging periods of French history. I read the book because of a review in the “New Yorker,” I believe, and noted later that it has been on the New York Times’ best seller list. Among other things, Gabrielle Bompard was highly hypnotizable, and the question for the authorities, ultimately, was how responsible was she for her participation in the murder given the mesmerizing influence her lover, Eyraud, had over her.
While on the subject of book recommendations, and since I am old and most people reading this blog are younger than I (this blog now receives 10,000 hits a month, a most satisfactory sum), here are five of the most influential non-fiction books I have read in my life of literature, all fascinating in their own way—some you probably have not heard of, but all of which are worthy of perusal.
First would be The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, by Francis Yeats-Brown. Published in 1930, this autobiography recounts the many adventures of a British Bengal Lancer in India prior to the First World War. With a discerning eye and a lyrical writing style, Yeats-Brown describes such varied events as a yogi who can magically produce any odor in the air just by willing it, the frantic and dangerous hunt for wild boar in the bush by Bengal Lancers armed with only horse and lance, and the search and location of a dangerous cobra in a community by a saddhu using something akin to extrasensory perception. When the author asks this little man covered with ash how he found the snake, he replies, “I can swallow five different colored handkerchiefs and vomit them up in any order you like, sahib. My eyes can see through walls.” But he does not answer the question. This book was made into a Hollywood film in 1935 starring Gary Cooper, and although it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, the movie does not capture the mystical appeal of the book.
Another biggie is Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger. The author was educated in Britain but spent most of his life wandering the deserts of Arabia in the 1920’s and 30’s. He hated most of modern technology and said, “I was exhilarated by the sense of space, the silence, and the crisp cleanness of the sand. I felt in harmony with the past, travelling as men had travelled for untold generations across the deserts, dependent for their survival on the endurance of their camels and their own inherited skills.”
With only camel and a few comrades, Thesiger mapped out previously uncharted areas in the middle east, at times venturing into lands where hostile tribes would kill you for the flimsiest of reasons. He wrote many books of his adventures (Marsh Arabs being another of his best) for consumption by a western reading public but preferred to live in the primitive cultures of Northern Africa with a minimum of modern conveniences. Apparently he died happily at 93 having lived the fullest of lives. His books describe a world that will soon be gone altogether.
City of Joy by Dominique LaPierre relates the profoundly moving experiences of a Catholic priest who is assigned to serve the poor in Calcutta, India, and decides to live with them, under the open sky, that he may truly understand and share their fate. One sees the influence of the caste system here, the exploitation of the downtrodden by the rich and influential, and death everywhere from bone breaking work or no work at all.
Despite all of this, there are reasons to be appreciative of life itself, and minor miracles appear periodically amidst the most appalling conditions. Hence the people call this slum their “city of joy” because they continue to feel there is much for which to be grateful. (I suppose we could all learn something from this.)
Kabloona by Gontran de Poncins relates the adventures of a French aristocrat who travels to the arctic to live with the Inuit Eskimos in the late 1930’s. In the beginning he looks down on them as inferior people but comes to develop an appreciation of their survival skills in the most trying of situations.
He lives in igloos, eats their food, and even sleeps with their women (everything is shared in the Inuit culture, even one’s wife). At one point he has to run 1400 miles behind a dog sled in the interest of survival. Every day is a struggle to stay alive. The author is a skilled observer and describes the many personalities he sees and the harsh conditions in which the Inuit live. Life is stripped to its most basic elements and everyone must stick together when the temperature plummets to a dangerous forty degrees below zero. This book was rated by the National Geographic as 84th in its 100 greatest adventure books of all time.
Lastly, Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer tells the real life experiences of an Austrian mountaineer in Tibet between 1944 and 1951, before the takeover of the country by China. Harrer describes the amazing devotion of the people to the Dali Lama and how much influence religion has over every aspect of their culture. Cut off from the rest of the world by surrounding mountains, and reclusive as a society by nature, their culture is like a time warp. Medical treatment is primitive and Harrer even expresses his fear of dying from something as simple as appendicitis because the local doctors have no surgery for such an ailment.
He becomes friends with the 14th Dalai Lama and reveals the strict regimen under which the man lives as he develops the skills to become leader of his people. In the end Harrer reveals a great love for these people who have come to accept him and laments what ultimately happened to them under Chinese domination. (Note: the author has been to China and Tibet, and though the former has brought many useful modernizations to the Tibetan people, its presence is, despite what the Chinese might say, bitterly resented.) (Suggestion: click on this last picture for a truly beautiful photograph.)