Oh, how I love commendations of neglected or forgotten books. Michael Chabon beautifully praises one called The Long Ships. Whose fault is it that this book is unknown?
The fault, therefore, must lie with the world, which as any reader of The Long Ships could tell you, buries its treasures, despises its glories, and seeks contentment most readily in the places where it is least likely to be found. Fortunately for us, it is in just those unlikely places, as Red Orm quickly learns, that the opportunities and treasures of the world may often be found. My encounter with The Long Ships came when I was fourteen or fifteen, through the agency of a true adventurer, my mother’s sister, Gail Cohen. Toward the end of the sixties she had set off, with the rest of her restless generation of psychic Vikings, on a journey that led from suburban Maryland, to California where she met and fell in love with a roving young Dane, to Denmark itself, where she settled and lived for twenty years. It was on one of her periodic visits home that she handed me a UK paperback edition of the book, published by Fontana, which she had randomly purchased at the airport in Copenhagen, partly because it was set in her adopted homeland, and partly because there was nothing on the rack that looked any better. “It’s really good,” she assured me, and I would soon discover for myself the truth of this assessment, which in turn I would repeat to other lucky people over the years to come. Gail’s own adventure came to an end at home, in America, in the toils of cancer. When she looked back at the map of it, like most true adventurers, she saw moments of joy, glints of gold, and happy chances like the one that brought this book into her hands. But I fear that like most true adventurers—but unlike Bengtsson’s congenitally fortunate hero—she also saw, looking back, that grief overtopped joy, that trash obscured the treasure, that, in the end, the bad luck outweighed the good. That is the great adventure, of course, that reading holds over what we call “real life.” Adventure is a dish that is best eaten takeout, in the comforts of one’s own home.