Winter 2006 - Volume 9 Number 1
|Reviews||Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books
Toronto: Viking Canada, 2005
This is a gentle book. Or, as gentle as any memoir can be when its opening describes its author losing control of his motorcycle and winding up in a British Columbia hospital with a broken wrist and ankle, one cracked and one shattered vertebra, paralytic ileus and pulmonary contusion (nicely translated as “paralyzed intestines” and “mashed lungs”). I was tempted to think of it as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance meets The English Patient. I didn’t have to. Ted Bishop already made the connection.
You will be happy to know that Mr. (or, rather, Professor) Bishop is better now. He is teaching English at the University of Alberta and riding his Ducati at speeds in excess of 150 km/hr.
Ted Bishop is well published. He has written about Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. He has written for Cycle Canada and Rider and the airline freebie, enRoute. In fact, portions of this volume have appeared in nine previous publications. It would be churlish to say that this is a cut-and-paste book. To do so would explain some minor discontinuities in style and an occasional repetition, but the effect is not serious.
The main theme is a trip from Edmonton to Austin, Texas, to do archival research at the Harry Ransom Centre. A “giant white marble cube with gun-slit windows for offices,” it used oil-cash reserves in the 1960s to acquire “all the best literary manuscripts … for [the study of] modernism, Austin was at the centre.” Bishop reports that the British despised the Ransom Centre. Archivists might tolerate the notion that, as the charming Texas country-and-western singer Gary P. Nunn intoned, “even London Bridge has fallen down and moved to Arizona,” but losing the cream of the British literary tradition to the USA and, worse, not even to Harvard or Yale, but to Texas rendered them inconsolable.
Before following Bishop through his adventures with early editions of Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s suicide note, however, we are invited to ride south through Idaho, Utah and New Mexico. I spent just enough time on motorcycles in my 20s and have crisscrossed the American west often enough to have an experiential inkling of what Bishop relates. His journey is nicely recorded in terms of elegiac commentaries on desolate scenery, descriptions of bad to worse motels, snippets of conversation with restaurant staff, curious strangers and New York City transplants. He introduces us to people he meets for only moments and to old friends he looks up on the way. For the impatient, commentaries on the interior decoration of cheap motels may become tedious; too bad, the impatient should fly airplanes.
Within its covers, Bishop recounts not only his trip to and from Texas, but takes a number of fascinating digressions. I have, for example, long since understood that the infamous Scopes “monkey trial” in Tennessee was as much a matter of local boosterism for the small town of Dayton which orchestrated the judicial hi-jinks as it was a “watershed moment” in the pathetic history of creationism in the United States. I had no idea, however, that the great legal debates about Ulysses and James Joyce’s right to publish Molly Bloom’s terminal soliloquy was similarly stage-managed by the exemplary editor and television quiz show personality Bennett Cerf as a deft marketing strategy. I also learned a good deal about D. H. Lawrence’s temporary residence in New Mexico and the craft of judging the commercial value of original manuscripts, the social importance of the Ducati motorcycle plant in Italy (yes, the Austin expedition is interrupted for a brief sojourn to Europe) and the musical delights of a Texas bar called “Antone’s”.
From an enlightening discussion of the various editions of Ulysses (“Who said you can’t tell a book by its cover?”) to a revealing account of the problematics of visiting a Navajo reservation as a tourist, Bishop’s book rises above the level of an ordinary “travel” book without becoming so earnest that it seems like a thinly disguised sociological treatise or, worse, an exercise in postmodern journey-journalism. It is what it appears to be on its cover, a personal report by a self-effacing, sensitive and sometimes sensual writer who, in the words of the CBC Literary Awards jury combines “minimalist descriptions … with the adrenaline of a motorcycle at full speed.” Add in a measure of literary insight and a thoughtful evocation of the place of the archivist in a recombinant culture and you have a good story, well told.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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