May 15, 2016
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The Pleasure of Reading

by Antonia Fraser, ed.

In a collection of memoirs on The Pleasure of Reading, Gita Mehta remembers how

In darkened dormitories with the monsoon rain beating so heavily on the tin roof it almost drowned our sobs of homesickness we could be tricked out of loneliness by a teacher reading aloud stories of Harry the Horse and his fellow citizens playing games of chance; or the fortunes of Mrs Bennett’s daughters; or Mehitabel signing off to her cockroach with the inspiring sentiment: ‘Toujours gai, Archy. Toujours gai.’

When my father went off to the war, this is what he smuggled into his duffel: Damon Runyon’s stories and Don Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel. Dad took Notes From Underground rather than Pride and Prejudice, perhaps anticipating that Jane Austen’s tales were not really ideal for the South Pacific. I think that, later, he’d have swapped Alice in Wonderland for Dostoevsky.

Still, one sees little enough Damon Runyon these days, and hardly anyone talks about Archy and Mehitabel. It’s amazing to find in an essay that begins:

Sahib. Latest from Plato. The Republic. Also, James Hadley Chase and P. G. Wodehouse. You want Catcher in the Rye, sahib? MAD magazine? But sahib, just now unpacked. At least sample Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens.