Reading with a Cold: Alice Hoffman’s “The Red Garden” and Christopher Isherwood’s “Down There on a Visit”

Here I am on a lovely spring day, stricken with catarrh. Never mind, I am an expert on the common cold. Apply Vicks to throat and chest, and then to the nostrils (forbidden on the label, but it facilitates breathing). Then choose some multi-symptom cold pills: make sure the label claims it treats EVERY symptom. You need a cure for the cough, the congestion, the body aches, the headaches, the dreaded flu, and hypochondria.

You also need herbal tea, which, if possible, somebody else should prepare. You don’t want to spend much time away from the vaporizer.

And if you’re lucky, you’re well enough to read. Here are two “reviewettes” of what I’ve been reading.

Alice Hoffman’s The Red Garden. Hoffman, who is the American mistress of magic realism, is a critically-acclaimed writer with millions of fans. (Here on Earth was a selection for the Oprah Book Club.) According to a bookish newsletter in my email, The Red Garden is Hoffman’s favorite of her books. And it really is a masterpiece. I was charmed by this collection of graceful, delightful linked stories about the small town of Blackwell, Massachusetts. Over the centuries, the town is populated by strong, romantic women and handsome men, beginning with the founder, Hallie. In 1750, Hallie saves the first group of settlers during a glacial winter by milking a hibernating mother bear in a cave while the others quiver in a makeshift shelter. (She tells the pathetic group that it is deer milk, because they are such wimps.) And Hallie has a preternatural link with bears afterwards, as do some of her descendants.

Christopher Isherwood’s Down There on a Visit (1959). Isherwood planned to interweave these brilliant writings with The Berlin Stories (on which the film Cabaret was based), but these perfect sketches work brilliantly as a standalone novel. In four settings, from 1928 to the 1950s, this record of Christopher’s observations focuses on pivotal characters. In 1928, 23-year-old Christopher is dared by a distant cousin, Mr. Lancaster, to travel to Germany on a steamboat. Christopher has just published his first novel, and wants to prove his masculinity and gather more material for novels. And gruff Mr Lancaster has a soft spot for him. In 1932 in Berlin, Christopher has an eclectic social life, a memorable orgy, and many gay friends, whom he follows to a primitive Greek island owned by an eccentric, solitary rich man. In 1938 in London, waiting for the war to begin, Christopher is appalled when his gay working-class German friend Waldemar shows up in exile with an English wife. Waldemar does not fit in with the Christopher of the late thirties. In 1940 in Hollywood, Christopher writes movie scripts and meditates with an English guru. Then an acquaintance, the exotic, stubborn, infuriating Paul, telephones to say he is about to commit suicide. Paul, who has alienated and disappointed everybody, is a lost soul. Christopher lets him move in and introduces Paul to his English guru. They spend hours meditating together and, for a while, Christopher and Paul follow an extreme vegetarian regimen. I love Christopher’s character, so charming and accepting of people. Fascinating structure, perfect writing, an experimental novel but at the same time easy to read. A book to read and reread.

Stay Well, and Happy Reading!