There are very few books I’ve read more than once. Life is short and the TBR pile tall. In fact, there are really only two. In my twenties I read The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky several times over, in part because it was required reading in a number of clases, but also because I loved Dostoevsky‘s passion. It would be interesting to return to those pages now.
The one book I keep going back to every ten years or so is A Walk with Love and Death, by Hans Koning, a spare, elegant love story set in 1538 in France. The author was Hans Koningsberger when I first read him—it must have been the spring of 1963. I was at the end of my first year at San Francisco State College, and I was being courted by an older student. I remember him handing me the book—”This is good,” he said. Someone had likewise handed it to him in this fashion.
In later years I found it difficult to find copies of the novel. This was before the Net, and finding a copy of a particular out-of-print book meant stopping in at various used bookstores and searching the shelves, one bookstore at a time. I ordered it thought my small-town library, and a copy was sent to me from afar. I read it, loved it yet again, but could not bear to be parted from it. I was beginning to write myself, and Koning’s spare style was something of a beacon for me.
So: I had the book photocopied before returning it to the library. It’s a beautiful (if illegal) copy, its stark white pages bound up in a fat black plastic coil. I don’t believe I’ve ever read this “edition,” but I’ve carried it with me fondly. It reassured me just to know it was there on my shelf.
I wrote him; I wanted the author to know how much this beautiful little novel meant to me. I sent it his publisher, to Hans Koningsberger—not knowing that he had changed his name in 1972. The envelope was returned. I assumed he had died.
And then, with the Net, and the all-powerful and astonishing ability to seek out any title, any author, I discovered that the book I loved was by Hans Koning, that he was a professor at a university in the U.S., and that not only was he alive and well, but had published quite a number of books. I might have written him then…but my life was busy, and so I did not.
A few weeks ago, having sent of the “final” changes to my soon-to-be-published novel,I took A Walk with Love and Death down off my shelf. It had been 44 years since I had first read it. Perhaps the author had a website, I thought. In no time I found it, and through the contacts page, I was finally able to send him a letter, telling him how much I love this novel, and how much it has taught me about writing.
The email was bounced back. Hans Koning had died that spring, only months before. It brings tears to my eyes even now. I had missed my chance.
I have just finished yet another reading of A Walk with Love and Death. I still love this book. Such beautiful sentences! I’m going to quote from the opening lines, which I think set the tone beautifully for the bitter-sweetness of the story, and the elegance of the prose:
In the spring of that year, 1358, the peasants of northern France did not sow their fields any more.
I had succeeded in getting out of Paris just before sunset and walked to Saint-Denis in the twilight; I had found a room there to sleep and now was on the road again.
The sun was rising almost opposite me; a harsh light skimmed the empty fields. The war was in its twentieth year, but I was happy.
The ending: ah, I resist the obvious.