Review: "Riding with Rilke" by Ted Bishop

Review: "Riding with Rilke" by Ted Bishop

Saint John's : Canada | Mar 25, 2011 at 8:16 AM PDT
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Ted Bishop always had a secret desire to be a writer, which is probably why he became an English scholar. He has submitted a few articles to motorcycle magazines and was published in Cycle Canada and Rider, an accomplishment that made him feel like a “rock star” (164) when people told him they had read his non-academic publications. Now he has unequivocally fulfilled this lifelong dream with the book Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles & Books. In this book, Bishop chronicles his research trip from Edmonton, Alberta to Austin, Texas, a large part of which he undertook solo on his Ducati Monster, with numerous stops along the way

The book weaves together his two loves, motorcycles and modernist English literature. These topics work together surprisingly well, as he switches from one to the other as easily as he changes from his biker gear into “a white shirt and tan cotton pants” (100). For those unfamiliar with motorcycles, he provides enough basic knowledge to appreciate the intricacies of his bike. For the literately challenged, he offers appealing new angles on fiction writers that may not have been discussed in the reader's high school English class. Thus, Ulysses becomes a book about sexual performance (119) and Virginia Woolf turns into a wannabe motorcycle buff (39). Bishop rejects the apparent contradiction within the idea of “the silence and stillness of the archive after the roar of the Ducati on mountain passes and desert highways” (124) by showing that “archival work was the inverse, not the opposite of motorcycling” (124).

Bishop captivates his readers with his sensual, evocative descriptions. The girl he meets in Durango appears as “This strange violin-playing psycho gypsy with the incandescent eyes” (62), “the land suddenly yawns” (49) on the way into Twin Falls, and the winds “coming over the Hualapai Mountains, well, they were giving me a wallop” (210). He also plays with the details of language, as evinced in his statement that he “was determined to be determined” (45). His wit shows most strongly when he portrays the changing accents as he travels south; by the time he hits Idaho, he “no longer merged verbally with the natives” (45) who call his homeland “Kyan-uhduh” (45). His reactions to place names also tend to cause those embarrassing laugh-out-loud moments engrossed readers hope to avoid in public. According to Bishop, “Mountain Home... is one of those fraudulently named places like Greenland that aimed to attract settlers. If honesty had prevailed, Mountain Home would have been called Flat-Brown-Boring-Scrubland Home. There wasn't a mountain in sight” (49).

While Bishop's characterization of the people he encounters in his travels exudes authenticity, the reader learns surprisingly little about the protagonist, that is, Ted Bishop himself. Dialogue is dominated by others, reflecting either a quiet authorial personality or a deliberate effort to erase his own agency from the text. He comes off as a man out of his league in the motorcyle world and much more at ease in the world of archives and books. He invites the reader to laugh at his mishaps on the road but speaks with gentle authority about history and literature. He recounts how it started to rain during his first motorcycle road trip with his partner Hsing. Fortunately, they were near a Tim Hortons, so they went inside and changed into their rain gear, “me in red, white, and blue, Hsing dazzling in Day-Glo yellow and reflective stripes. 'I feel like we've changed into Super Heroes,' I said. 'I feel like a fire hydrant,' said Hsing. I had to admit, as we waddled out to our bikes that we were about as sleek as one of Tim's apple fritters” (84). His comment on his “rider” status (as opposed to “biker”) leads to the self-deprecating remark that perhaps he is “just a wannabe writer who occasionally rides” (207), suggesting once again a lack of confidence in the motorcycle world.

In sharp contrast to this continual state of mild bewilderment on the road, Bishop comes off as a sharp-witted insider in the sphere of English academics. He jokes lightly about how “Joyce editors seemed to have names that leant themselves to parodic limericks that would circulate mysteriously at conferences” (108) and offers some of his background knowledge without sources, as discussed below, revealing his self-assurance in this area. The form of the title reveals his academic bent as well, with the typical short, creative phrase followed by a colon and a more explanatory subtitle. He also admits that he publishes academic writing with his official first name “Edward,” reserving the jaunty “Ted” for his indulgent general audience pursuits. He feels unable to reconcile with any finality this dual identity as “Edward Bishop the archive diver [and] Ted Bishop the rider” (166), since he “never did run into anybody who had read both [his academic and his motorcyclist] articles” (166).

Due to the fact that much of Bishop's time is spent traveling or researching by himself, the reader is very often privy to his internal reflections. From stunning landscapes to unabating rainstorms to musty private archives, his hours on the road and in the library are filled with wry and insightful commentary. Here he sometimes draws on impressions more than fact, for example when he states that “the land had not changed in a hundred years, maybe a thousand”(92). Clearly, this assertion is unlikely, and Bishop probably realizes this fact. However, it evokes the sense of timelessness that he felt while driving through this part of the United States. Other times, he appeals to a sense of history, whether literary history or the history of native peoples who formerly inhabited the land. Touring through Mesa Verde, formerly inhabited by the now-extinct Anasazi people, he compares the area to “an archive” of bones and physical history that shows how “preservation and access were yoked to violence and destruction” (59).

The only real difficulty a reader might have with the book is keeping track of what happens in which order. The narrative is framed by the serious accident Bishop had while riding Hsing's motorcycle Matilda, which has a dangerous speed wobble. From there, the reader is led backwards in time to his sabbatical doing simultaneous research on Virginia Woolf and early editions of James Joyce's Ulysses, respectively. His work takes him from the United States through Europe and back again. He tells the story somewhat unchronologically, which renders the narrative a bit confusing at times, if not read within a short period of time. When Bishop introduces new characters, he often explains how he met the person and how their previous encounters have led to the current moment (“I had met Robin at one of the Scholars’ Coffees” [105]; “Someone had introduced me to Glen because I was the motorcycle guy” [173]). This approach can muddy the reader's sense of time sequence, if he or she has not been paying close attention.

His scholarliness and his ability to teach make the book sneakily educational. In the midst of staccato phrases that quicken the pace and create suspense as to whether he is going to make it to his destination or collapse on the side of the road, the author throws in a question to himself that simultaneously informs the uninitiated reader of one of the many intricacies of motorcycling: “Soft asphalt? Do you need your crushed pop can under the foot stand? No. This is Vegas. A soft asphalt parking lot would be glue for half the year” (215). He then returns to the stress of his plight, relieved to let himself and his audience know, “You made it” (215). Bishop is able to make his readers relate to what he is experiencing, even if the situation is completely foreign to them. At the same time, he surreptitiously adds to the reader’s knowledge by tossing out tasty tidbits of information that spice up the story.

The same applies for those unacquainted with early twentieth century, modernist English literature. He introduces D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf as warmly and familiarly as Ducati genius Philip Vincent, reluctant rare book salesman and archivist Will Goodwin, and the Texan man who first appears as “a voice from a purple Grateful Dead T-shirt” who “looked rough” (200). In the chapters called “ReCovering Ulysses” and “Archives and Honky-Tonks,” Bishop takes the reader on a journey of discovery through the many editions of Ulysses, starting from its original “plain blue”(106) cover with white “serifed type” (107) that is “part of the chiseled simplicity of the whole design, giving the sense of stone in sea” (107). He charts the book's evolution through many versions to “become a monument of modernism, endorsed by innumerable critics, scholars, and writers” (116). Bishop makes this potentially dry material more palatable by portraying the dramatic characters and events that shaped the book's trajectory, including Random House's nearly failed plot to advertise the book to the company's US market by making it the centerpiece of a court case (116-117) and Joyce's contractual agreement to “[testify] that this [the Random House version] is the one true edition” (118). By juxtaposing the materiality of Ulysses with its social repercussions, Bishop presents his research in a widely accessible way.

In spite of the overall success of his writing style, Bishop appears to be somewhat hesitant about accepting responsibility for the presentation of the book. He analyses how various editions of Joyce's Ulysses give different impressions of its contents (120) and, in a reflection on Ezra Pound's haiku, affirms that his “favourite aphorism was 'Authors do not write books.' Because they don't: books are not written, they are manufactured […] . And form effects (not just affects) meaning” (223). Whether meant as such or not, this idea could be interpreted as an appeal from Bishop to the reader not to judge his book by its appearance, but rather solely based on its literary merit, as he has been trained to do as an English scholar. He explains that “there is no such thing as pure text; we always reach it through the paratext, and though we may try to ignore it, it shapes our reading” (119). He tries not to get distracted by the “paratext” (119) except for when his studies take on an explicit focus on the materiality of literature, as in the Joyce research, where he discovers that “the words on the page remained more or less the same, but the paratext turned the text into something different with each edition” (119). The question arises of how he perceives the paratext of his own publication, which only has one edition.

When discussing and explaining his research findings, Bishop usually relies on specific sources, many of which he names in the text itself. Some of his data comes from primary sources, such as the original 1922 edition of Ulysses that he holds in his hand in the Harry Ransom Center (100), while some of it reflects the written works of other scholars. Within the narrative proper, his only hints at secondary sources, however, appear in the mention of the International James Joyce conference he attends in Rome (162), and of the “editorial offices of James Joyce Annual” (105), the latter of which implies that he has probably read this journal at some point in his life, especially since he has an article published in it (164). A substantial portion of the information comes from (or, for the sake of a good story, is woven into fabricated accounts of) informal conversations with fellow enthusiasts, for example when Quentin Keynes lays out his appreciation of the copy of Ulysses inscribed by Joyce to Barnet Braverman. Keynes seems put off by the fact that the inscription does not thank Braverman, “after all the help he gave Joyce getting those books into America” (148). At times, however, Bishop neglects to mention where his knowledge comes from. When he discovers that T.E. Lawrence (i.e. Lawrence of Arabia) purchased two copies of Ulysses when it first came out, he proceeds to describe Lawrence's work on “his own epic, Seven Pillars of Wisdom” (131). Nowhere in the page-long description does he mention how he knows anything about the subject. Presumably, for the average reader, his status as an English professor establishes him as a reliable source in his own right. Upon further investigation, it is possible to discover in the acknowledgments found in the back matter of the book where exactly he drew his information from. Here he gives credit to his sources and acknowledges permissions granted for reprinting particular passages, along with the conventional thank yous to people who assisted in the writing, editing, and publishing process.

Compared to his literary knowledge, Bishop's stories about motorcycling depend much more heavily on immediate contact with other riders and his own personal experience. When he visits the Ducati museum in a Bologna suburb, his “opening query about the museum opened a floodgate” (153) of information with which he then proceeds to enlighten his readers. Here as elsewhere, his process of discovery becomes the reader's, an effective tool for engaging one's imagination and attention. A similar process occurs in his description of riding his first Ducati, an old “250 cc Mach 1” owned by his brother Lloyd (43). This endeavour fails at first, with “the Ducati and I sputtering more and more slowly” (45), but Bishop manages to get the bike going and finds that it suits him perfectly. These scenes elicit empathy and passive participation on the part of the reader, taking him or her along for the ride.

The book takes a varied approach to travel. At times, Bishop enjoys the simple motion of going, as “traveling itself becomes the job, the road the destination” (94). When his motorcycle journey comes to an end in Texas, he feels a bit bewildered at first, unable to immediately readjust to a more sedentary lifestyle. Even his regular clothing feels awkward and foreign: “These were my clothes but my body felt different in them. The street shoes had laces and felt weird on my feet […] . My stride had changed and for the first block I carried my briefcase out from my leg like a motorcycle helmet” (100). He soon manages to reconcile his divergent passions for biking and literature, and settles into a new pattern based on his research. While he is on the road, his research – the principal purpose of the whole trip – is largely forgotten, except for when he stops in places of literary note, like the “Leonard and Virginia Woolf museum, which had somehow wound up not in New York, not in London, but at Washington State University” (31).

The only visual aid in the book is a black and white map of Bishop's trajectory through the western parts of Canada and the United States. His stops are marked on this map, which gives an easy frame of reference to the narrative. However, this map is hardly necessary, but rather seems to work to fulfill some readers’ mild curiosity, instead of actually clarifying the text. Bishop’s writing conveys a sense of location through verbal depiction of landscape, climate, and cultural nuance, making the desire to flip back to the map almost non-existent; doing so would simply interrupt one’s reading for no useful reason.

One of the dilemmas presumably encountered by Bishop while working on an early draft led to his introductory note “To The Reader” about systems of measurement used in the text. He explains how he used metric and Celsius for the passages that take place in Canada, and miles, the imperial system, and Fahrenheit for the United States. He goes on to comment that for many Canadians, metric is still relatively new and “certain measurements have no resonance” (n.p.), such as “1.69 meters” instead of “six feet” (n.p). He quips that “even my Ducati became confused at one point, but I trust the context will make things clear for the reader” (n.p.). As with the map inserted at the beginning of the book, this note appears superfluous in a book intended for a general (mostly Canadian) readership. As he rightly states, many Canadians are able “to think in both systems” (n.p.), so this sort of elaboration and near-apology on the matter of measurement might be a case of overthinking on Bishop’s part.

Overall, this book provides a light, satisfying read, with an engaging narrative peppered with interesting facts and peopled with everyday eccentrics. Perhaps the book is best enjoyed by those who are themselves travelers and who need something to read during those dreary hours spent encased in an airplane or on a train. Bishop himself feels that “different modes of travel demand different books” (48), and the relatively short pieces of Riding with Rilke flow seamlessly into one another, allowing many opportunities to pause one's reading, should it become necessary to do so (as in the case of a flight transfer). Conversely, the abundant section breaks provide a smooth series of leaps from one scene to the next, should the reader wish to ingest the book in larger pieces. Ted Bishop has fulfilled his dream of becoming a writer outside the ivory tower of modernist English scholarship. In spite of his hesitation about presentation, his sometimes apparent lack of self-confidence, and the inclusion of a more or less unneeded visual prop, he should be proud of this book as a contribution to the literary genre of humourous travel writing.

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Riding with Rilke
Ted Bishop's travel book
Marion Lougheed is based in Saint John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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