Quote“In the realm of human consciousness the highest and most sophisticated form of self-regulation is based on our ability to see ahead. It requires a knowledge of self and the cosmos and of self in the cosmos. The evolutionary need is to increase our breadth of consciousness as human beings, to expand our range of choice for the wisest alternatives. The human capacity to anticipate and select will be the means whereby the future of human evolution will be determined.” - Dr. Jonas Salk
"On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide - it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese - the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope."
- Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides
"A wise man once said that next to losing its mother, there is nothing more healthy for a child than to lose its father."
- Halldór Laxness, The Fish Can Sing
"Studs Lonigan, on the verge of fifteen, and wearing his first suit of long trousers, stood in the bathroom with a Sweet Caporal pasted in his mug."
- James T. Farrell, Young Lonigan
"Dennis awoke to the sound of the old man upstairs beating his wife."
- Tim Hall, Half Empty
"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board."
- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
"We always fall asleep smoking one more cigarette in bed."
- Joseph G. Peterson, Beautiful Piece
"Tonight, a steady drizzle, streetlights smoldering in fog like funnels of light collecting rain."
- Stuart Dybek, The Coast of Chicago
"Beware thoughts that come in the night."
- William Least Heat Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey Into America
"'There they are again,' the doctor said suddenly, and he stood up. Unexpectedly, like his words, the noise of the approaching airplane motors slipped into the silence of the death chamber."
- Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key
"Now that I'm dead I know everything."
- Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad
"In the end Jack Burdette came back to Holt after all."
- Kent Haruf, Where You Once Belonged
"It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days."
- Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
"I'd caught a slight cold when I changed trains at Chicago; and three days in New York - three days of babes and booze while I waited to see The Man - hadn't helped it any."
- Jim Thompson, Savage Night
"Since the end of the war, I have been on this line, as they say: a long, twisted line stretching from Naples to the cold north, a line of locals, trams, taxis and carriages."
- Aharon Appelfeld, The Iron Tracks
"The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry."
- Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure
"Early November. It's nine o'clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again. I don't know what they want that I have."
- Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses
"Picture the room where you will be held captive."
- Stona Fitch, Senseless
"Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk."
- Sinclair Lewis, Elmer Gantry
"Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon...Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come."
- O.E. Rölvaag, Giants in the Earth
"Click! ... Here it was again. He was walking along the cliff at Hunstanton and it had come again ... Click! ..."
- Patrick Hamilton, Hangover Square
"It is 1983. In Dorset the great house at Woodcombe Park bustles with life. In Ireland the more modest Kilneagh is as quiet as a grave."
- William Trevor, Fools of Fortune
"The cell door slammed behind Rubashov."
- Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon
(A compendium of memorable opening lines of novels, updated occasionally as I come across new discoveries.)
"...happier, or less unhappy..."
I'm reading Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, and enjoying it more than I expected. It tells the story of newlyweds Florence and Edward, both virgins, on their wedding night. Here, they are lingering over dinner in their hotel rooms, anxious (him) and dreading (her) to finally have sex. As they dawdle, they listen to the faint strains of the BBC broadcast that the hotel's other patrons are listening to in the bar room below.
"We could go downstairs and listen properly."
He hoped he was being humorous, directing his sarcasm against them both, but his words emerged with surprising ferocity, and Florence blushed. She thought he was criticizing her for preferring the wireless to him, and before he could soften or lighten his remark she said hurriedly, "Or we could go and lie on the bed," and nervously swiped an invisible hair from her forehead. To demonstrate how wrong he was, she was proposing what she knew he most wanted and she dreaded. She really would have been happier, or less unhappy, to go down to the lounge and pass the time in quiet conversation with the matrons on the floral-patterned sofas while their men leaned heavily into the news, into the gale of history. Anything but this.
McEwan really manages well the difficult trick of shifting the narrative perspective back and forth between Florence and Edward, often in the same paragraph, as in the passage above. I love her imagined image of the them being the bar room (I can't help picturing Fawlty Towers), her with the matrons, him with the men, anywhere but alone together.
What I'm reading
I just finished Shalom Auslander's Hope: A Tragedy (meh) and only at the last moment settled on my next book: Leonard Michaels' The Men's Club. I've had the book for several years and was mentally saving it for a "Bitter White Guys" segment of my periodic Structured Reading project, along with Richard Yates and John Cheever. But after reading Auslander's novel, I decided that reading Michaels next might be the logical progression. Auslander is a great admirer of Michaels, and from what I've heard about the latter I sense the two are kindred spirits. I just hope The Men's Club is better than Auslander's novel. (That Bitter White Guys segment still might come about eventually, once I find a third writer, preferably someone as Wasp-ish as Yates and Cheever. Maybe Updike?)
After Michaels, I might continue the Jewish writer theme, going back even further to Isaac Bashevis Singer's story collection The Spinoza of Market Street. Or I might change course completely. Who even knows.
"...they were fragments of a colossal dream..."
I’m slowly working my way through Hamlin Garland’s memoir, A Daughter of the Middle Border, reading just five or ten pages each night before bed. Here he describes taking his aged father (a Civil War veteran) to the annual convention of the Grand Army of the Republic, where they watch the veterans’ parade from the grandstand.
We were in our place hours before the start (he was like a boy on Circus Day - afraid of missing something), but that he was enjoying in high degree his comfortable outlook, made me almost equally content.
At last with blare of bugle and throb of drum, that grand and melancholy procession of time-scarred veterans came to view, and their tattered flags and faded guidons brought quick tears to my father’s eyes. Few of them stepped out with a swing, many of them limped pitifully - all were white-haired - an army on its downward slope, marching toward its final, silent bivouac.
None of them were gay yet each took a poignant pleasure in sharing the rhythm of the column, and my father voiced this emotion when he murmured, “I ought to be down there with my company.”
To touch elbows just once more, to be part of the file would have been at once profoundly sad and sadly sweet, and he wiped the tears from his cheeks in a silence which was more expressive than any words could have been.
To me each passing phalanx was composed of piteous old men - to my sire they were fragments of a colossal dream - an epic of song and steel. “In ten years he and they will all be at rest in ‘fame’s eternal camping ground,’” I thought with a benumbing realization of the swift, inexorable rush of time - a tragedy which no fluttering of bright flags, no flare of brave bugles could lighten or conceal. It was not an army in review, it was an epoch passing to its grave.
Garland being Garland, sometimes the prose gets dangerously overwrought, as in that last paragraph. Still, it’s enjoyable in small doses.
Boy's gotta have it.
Jacob's Ladder and Mercy, the last two books in Jan Fridegård's Lars Hård trilogy. I just re-read the first book, I, Lars Hård, and loved it, which was quite a surprise since I don't remember loving it after my first reading, in the Scandinavian fiction class I took in college. (Still, something about the book must have registered with me, since I hung onto the book for all these years.) I found a hardcover copy of the latter book online for only fifteen bucks, and will probably take the plunge soon, even though another book is not exactly one of my critical needs at the moment.
"Schools and universities ought to help us to understand that no book that talks about a book says more than the book in question, but instead they do their level best to make us think the opposite. There is a very widespread topsyturviness of values whereby the introduction, critical apparatus, and bibliography are used as a smoke screen to hide what the text has to say, and, indeed, can say only if left to speak for itself without intermediaries who claim to know more than the text does."
- Italo Calvino
This quote reminded me of Woody Guthrie's House of Earth, a 209-page novel published in an edition that also includes a 44-page introduction by the editors, plus a bibliography, discography, biographical timeline and acknowledgments page.
Laxness: no fan of hipsters"No sane or healthy man had ever grown a beard. There was no conceivable work at which a beard did not get in the way. The only people who grew beards were men with tender skin, and the only cure for that ailment was to seize them by the beard and drag them back and forwards through the whole town."
- Halldór Laxness, The Fish Can Sing
Reading the rails
Another forgotten bookmark: an Amtrak ticket stub for the Washington, D.C.-Philadelphia route, from April 2004. $45 seems like a bargain to me, especially after driving expressways to work for three hours a day during the past month.
Found in The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness, which I bought at Mr. K's Used Books in Asheville, North Carolina ($3! another bargain!) several years ago but didn't finally crack open until today. I always love finding used UK editions here in the states - this one is published by Harvill Press.
"Stay in your own country whatever you do."
Hamlin Garland, admonishing a young American (the younger sister of Lorado Taft) who was intent on traveling to Europe to study art:
"You can acquire all the technic you require, right here in Chicago. If you are in earnest, and are really in search of instruction you can certainly get it in Boston or New York. Stay in your own country whatever you do. This sending of students at their most impressionable age to the Old World to absorb Old World conventions and prejudices is all wrong. It makes of them something which is neither American nor European. Suppose France did that? No nation has an art worth speaking of unless is has a national spirit."