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Riding With Rilke: Reflections on Motorcyles and Books

by Ted Bishop
272 pages,
ISBN: 0670063851


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Riderly Obsessions
by Barbara Julian

The subtitle of Ted Bishop's road memoir is Reflections on Motorcycles and Books, which may make some readers wary. These are disparate subjects, and devotees of one¨ books, for instance¨may be fairly indifferent to the other subject of motorcycles. But on the whole, Bishop makes this marriage work, and he even conveys the lure of both of these passions.
This book is a familiar non-fiction hybrid: travel book combined with literary analysis, with autobiography added; we often glide from one facet to the other within a single sentence in the stream-of-consciousness style that Bishop admires in his literary subjects (Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and others). We begin with the motorbike, a "Ducati"¨how it was purchased, the catalogue of its virtues, and the first stage of an odyssey that takes Bishop from Edmonton to a research library in Austin, Texas. After some eighteen pages Bishop gets to the "books", slipping into a discussion of Virginia Woolf as easily as into the passing lane of a wide-open highway. This gear-shifting takes place throughout the book and mirrors Bishop's double mental life: while reading and researching he thinks about riding, and while riding he composes his writings ("writing in my helmet" he calls it). There comes a point at which thinking about writing about riding, he loses perspective of the actual road and comes close to crashing.
He explains early on the difference between a "Biker" and a "Rider": a Biker may be a criminal hooligan, hulking in leathers, while a Rider is simply someone who travels by motorbike and is a connoisseur of engines. Bishop the literary scholar is a Rider of course, yet suited up for the road he enjoys the fantasy of looking and feeling, if not exactly like a criminal, than at least like a "Byronic Biker"¨mad, bad and dangerous to know. His fantasy sends up the archetypal swaggering biker who roars into town, booted and steel-jawed, and takes over the local coffee shop, making the men tremble and the women swoon.
Bishop is both Ted the biker/rider and Edward the bibliophile who roots around in archives in search of the "archival jolt" of handling original texts. He waxes equally poetic about engines, book covers and marginalia, about suspensions and brakes on the one hand, and texts, paratexts, subtexts and pretexts on the other. The road trip is itself a pretext for the book, and vice versa. Written by Edward, the book is all about Ted the rider. Ted is fascinated by that other writing motorcyclist T.E. Lawrence, but Edward is scandalized that Lawrence sold a Fourth Folio Shakespeare to buy one of his bikes. Between such snippets about literati, we are taken on many side trips to motels, greasy spoons and jazz bars along the road between Alberta and Texas. We accompany the author on a pilgrimage to D.H. Lawrence's house in New Mexico, during which we conclude that whether or not his novels were significant modern works, Lawrence was a rather nasty piece of work himself.
Although they have to plough through a lot of material about Ducatis to reach it, for bibliophiles Riding With Rilke is a rich mine of publishing lore. We learn about how in 1933 Bennet Cerf and Random House finally overcame the ban on the publication and distribution of Joyce's Ulysses in the U.S., and a great deal about the editions, covers and scholarly glosses that the novel has accumulated almost continuously ever since. We shake our heads on reading that T.E. Lawrence actually rewrote his prose to make it sit more attractively on the printed page, ensuring that paragraphs ended with the page so as to leave no "rivers" of white around the text.
The quirks of archivists and librarians are brought amusingly to life, as in the tale of the Texas librarian who shot a bullet through a copy of Ulysses. It happened around the time of the Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie; the librarian was making a point about "the Khomeini school of literary criticism". "Of course, I would never shoot up a first edition," he assures us¨the librarian apparently overruling the Texan. Bishop muses on the physical nature of archives and the buildings that house them¨the artificial temperature-controlled environment where literary artifacts are sequestered outside of time and the real world, but where a scholar might nevertheless experience a "physical shock . . . that collapse(s) the intervening decades." Bishop experienced such a shock during a visit to the British Library, when he unexpectedly found himself holding Virginia Woolf's suicide note.
Bikes and books pass each other on the highway of Bishop's narrative until the biking part finally overtakes the book part thanks to a dramatic crash near the end of the story. This is followed by an epilogue-like account of Bishop's recovery, a period during which, immobilized in a body cast, he learns to see the world anew with "post crash clarity". During his recovery he reads not in order to "use" a book professionally, but merely to follow where it takes him. This puts him in mind of Rainer Maria Rilke's poem about our longing to move, like animals or small children, into pure space with no foreknowledge of death¨whence the title of the book.
Bishop's meditations are a little less engaging than his storytelling, and sometimes he strains to keep the reader/rider metaphor going. "The road too is a text," he says too glibly, and one might anyway quarrel with that: it's the landscape that is the text; roads are merely the defacing scrawls made on its margins by illiterates¨or so it seems to those who don't have to "read" them for tire-friendliness. Bishop's language is brightest when describing concrete detail, as when the tired eyes of a library-fatigued researcher "[drop] down like the metal shutters on a Paris shop at the end of the day," or when speeding along a gravel road "the bike squirmed like a three-year-old at a shopping mall."
The best passages are the novelistic and comic ones, such as the description of Bishop's visit to the North London home of an eccentric and elitist collector from whom he was to pick up a letter written by Ezra Pound. The collector, who happened to be the grandson of John Maynard Keynes, kept books instead of food on his kitchen shelves. He lived behind barricades and towers of them, including the largest Richard Burton collection in the world ("the explorer of course, not the actor"). Bishop had to transport the Pound letter safely to a Joyce conference in Rome without being bugged, tailed or mugged by literary thieves along the way. He enjoyed making up a titillating espionage fantasy for himself as his journey took him to an overnight stopover at his brother's home in Geneva. "Argentina is the new Chile," says the brother, leaving Bishop alone with a meal and a few novels. Was this code? No: the brother was talking about wine. The proffered Argentine wine seemed harsh at first while Bishop read Kafka over his fettucini, but it got progressively more "drinkable", and by the time he had switched to a Lynne Truss novel it had become "superb", which led him to theorize that wines¨whether dry, crisp, mellow, bold or whatever¨should be matched properly with books (meat for the mind) just as with food.
Much of Bishop's humour is delivered with endearing self-deprecating modesty. Just as he mocks his own pretensions as a swaggering biker, he downplays his literary ambition by playing with the concept of the "bagatelle"; he claims that even before discovering its meaning, he intuited that it should be prefaced with the word "mere", and that it had nothing to do with bags.
Etymologically, of course the word is related to "baggage", and suggests a small piece of it. Most of us relate it to a trifling piece of music, and Bishop seems to be content to blend here a series of literary trifles (with consciousness streaming in various directions) on the theme of travelling along roads and through research libraries. He is concerned not with the essentials of scholarship but with ornaments and curiosities, and has produced a cheerful and diverting hybrid of genres. But some would say the ornaments are the essence (like the medium is the message and the subject is the object), and this book nicely satisfies a popular appetite for lit-crit raconteurism. Maybe the bagatelle is the new symphony. Certainly this book will go with any wine.
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