Saturday, December 10, 2011

   "Did it really never happen before that? Before 1973?"
   Aparicio breathed in and out - a kind of ethereal idea of a shrug. He waited a very long time before answering, as if registering a dignified protest against the demand Affenlight had placed on him. "How many times does something happen before we give it a name? And until the name exists, neither does the condition. So perhaps it happened many times before, but was never named.
   "And yet. Baseball has many historians, including among its players. There are statistics, archives, legends, lore. If earlier players had experienced similar troubles, it seems likely the stories would have been passed down. And then the name would be applied in retrospect."
   1973. In the public imagination it was as fraught a year as you could name: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, withdrawl from Vietnam. Gravity's Rainbow. Was it also the year that Prufrockian paralysis went mainstream - the year it entered baseball? It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation - the Modernists of the first World War - would take awhile to reveal itself throughout the population. And if that psychic condition happened to be a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action, then the condition became an epidemic when it entered the realm of utmost confidence in same: the realm of professional sport. In fact, that might make for a workable definition of the postmodernist era: an era when even the athletes were anguished modernists. In which case the American postmodern period began in spring 1973, when a pitcher named Steve Blass lost his aim
   Do I dare, and do I dare?

- Chad Harbach
The Art of Fielding
   He was becoming more substantial in other ways. "My good man is so very fat that I am lean as a rail," Abigail bemoaned to her sister Mary. He acquired more and more books, books being an acknowledged extravagance he could seldom curb. (With one London bookseller he had placed a standing order for "every book and pamphlet, of reputation, upon the subjects of law and government as soon as it comes out.") "I want to see my wife and children every day," he would write while away on the court circuit. "I want to see my grass and blossoms and corn...But above all, except the wife and children, I want to see my books."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

   Paris booksellers soon found they had an American patron like no other. In the bookshops and stalls along the Seine were volumes in numbers and variety such as Jefferson had never seen, and his pleasure was boundless. To Madison he would describe the surpassing pleasure of "examining all the principal bookstores, turning over every book with my own hand and putting by everything related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable to every science." There were weeks when he was buying books every day. In his first month in Paris, he could not buy them fast enough, and ran up bills totaling nearly 800 francs. Nor was the book-buying spree to end. The grand total of books he acquired in France was about 2,000, but he also bought books by the boxful for Washington, Franklin, and James Madison.

- David McCullough
John Adams.
   "I'm a playful fellow - it's my artistic nature. Look, I know them: they're swine. I supply them with troughs. It amuses me; many things do. I like to see them prating about Liebe and Schonheit - and coming to the trough in the end. Did you notice, my inattentive friend, how many of the faces are familiar? They start out at the Zaubertheater and end up at the Schwarzen Stiefel: yes, it pleases me to make certain experiments, I won't deny it. Let me tell you something. When I was a lad of sixteen I went about with a blue-eyed maiden from a cultured family. Or to be more precise: the father was the owner of a pork butcher shop and the mother read Kleist and Nietzsche and Baudelaire and played Liszt and Wagner on the pianoforte. She took an interest in me, lent me books, and was in every way so superior to her empty-head daughter that I soon dropped every pretense of caring about the girl and looked forward only to my next dose of spiritual food from the lips of the mother. I wasn't by any means unaware of the more material charms of my maternal Beatrice, but I no more thought of violating that shrine than I thought of attempting to discuss the Ubermensch with her daughter. Need I say more? One twilit afternoon, as I turned the pages of a Chopin nocturne while she played, she seemed to grow faint as she neared the end of the piece, and as the last chords died away I was astonished to feel her head against my shoulder. Like a nice young idiot I asked her if she wanted a glass of water. She asked me to lead her to the couch. She was very direct. One detail I remember quite vividly: at the moment all youth dreams of - I had never been with a woman before, and had to be shown how to make her wet - but at that famous moment I saw, not far beyond her tense, flushed face, which appeared to be the strangely distorted mask of the woman whose soul I adored - I saw, lying upon a little mahogany table, a copy of volume two of Dichtung und Wahrheit, from which she had earlier read me a passage in order to compare it unfavorably to the nervous prose of Kleist. It was then I realized that art is nothing but a beautiful cool hand placed by a woman, sometimes not very carefully, over her hot pudendum. She spoke to me of beauty and the soul, but she really meant to speak of less rarefied matters. During her orgasms, which she herself compared to the Liebestod, she was fond of sighing out "Beautiful...oh, beautiful..." - a chant varied by the frequent interpolation of choice obscenities. Our meetings grew less and less artistic until one day - but that, my friend, is a story I shall save for my memoirs. i still have a dread of pork butchers. And so at the tender age of sixteen I learned an important secret: all words are masks, and the lovelier they are, the more they are meant to conceal. If it pleases me to be an unmasker - why, all to the good, I serve the fatherland in my own generous way. They chatter about the soul, I give them what they really want, and in the process I satisfy a sense of world-irony and a love of truth. Yes, I drag them down, the swine - I drag them down."

- Steven Millhauser
"August Eschenburg"

Friday, December 9, 2011

   At a picnic on the Chesapeake shore one Fourth of July, he fell in love with a sister of one his friends. She was a tall, heavy-moving, handsome girl. With his eyes, he followed her in the steady, fiery sparkle of the bay when she climbed to the dock from the excursion boat and started arm in arm with her brother toward the grove and the spicy smoke of the barbecue clouding in the trees. Later he saw her running in the women's race, her arms close to her sides. She was among the stragglers and stopped and walked off the field, laughing and wiping her face and throat with a handkerchief of the same material as her silk summer dress. Leventhal was standing near her brother. She came up to them and said, 'Well, I used to be able to run when I was smaller.' That she was still not accustomed to thinking of herself as a woman, and a beautiful woman, made Levanthal feel very tender toward her. She was in his mind when he watched the contestants in the three-legged race hobbling over the meadow. He noticed one in particular, a man with red hair who struggled forward, angry with his partner, as though the race were a pain and a humiliation which he could wipe out only by winning. 'What a difference,' Leventhal said to himself. 'What a difference in people.'

- Saul Bellow
The Victim
Tante Claire loves birds. Here geese with red beaks recognise me as soon as I come home from school, as soon as I turn into our little road. She hears them squawking and she comes out to talk to me. They are always there, the geese, they wake up every morning, they guard the house, they lay eggs, they never forget to look up twice every minute to see who's coming next and to quack, and if the grass is too tall and they can't see over it, they flatten the grass down with their feet which are like flatirons. If one of her feet is hurting, a goose limps like I do when my foot hurts.

- John Berger
To the Wedding
   In the small hours, Edward suddenly called Emily in his sleep.
   She woke up: "What is it?"
   "It's rather cow-catching, isn't it?" he asked anxiously, his eyes tight shut.
   "What's the matter?"
   He did not answer, so she roused him - or thought she had.
   "I only wanted to see if you were a real Cow-catching Zomfanelia," he explained in a kind voice: and was immediately deep asleep again.
   In the morning they might easily have thought the whole thing a dream, if John's bed had not been so puzzingly empty.
   Yet, as if by some mute flash of understanding, no one commented on his absence. No one questioned Margaret, and she offered no information. Neither then nor thereafter was his name ever mentioned by anybody: and if you had known the children intimately you would never have guessed from them that he ever existed.

- Richard Hughes
A High Wind in Jamaica
   My bedroom was nearly empty; all the traces of my habitation, the posters and little bits of crap from my travels, my mother had stowed away in carefully labeled boxes in the closets. I reveled in the smallness, the coziness of an upstairs bedroom in a traditional American Cape Cod house, the half-floor that forces you to duck, to feel small and naive again, ready for anything, dying for love, your body a chimney filled with odd, black smoke. These square, squat, awkward rooms are like a fifty-square foot paean to teenage-hood, to ripeness, to the first and last taste of youth. I cannot begin to tell you how much the purchase of this house, of each tiny bedroom, had meant to my family and to me. I still remember the signing at the real-estate lawyer's office, the three of us beaming at one another, mentally forgiving one another a decade and a half worth of sins, the youthful beatings administered by my father, my mother's anxieties and manias, my own teenage sullenness, because the janitor and his wife had done something right at last! And it would be all okay now. There was no turning back from this, from the glorious fortune we had been granted in the middle of Long Island, from the carefully clipped bushes by the mailbox (our bushes, ABRAMOV bushes) to the oft-mentioned Californian possibility of an above-ground swimming pool in the back, a possibility that never came true, because of our poor finances, but which could never be decisively put to bed either. And this, my room, whose privacy my parents had never respected, but where I would still find a summer's hot sanctuary on my glorified army cot, my little teenaged arms doing the only nonmasturbatory thing they were capable of, hoisting aloft a big red volume of Conrad, my soft lips moving along with the dense words, the warped wood-paneled walls absorbing the occasional clicks of my tongue.
   Out in the hallway, I caught sight of another framed memento. An essay my father had written in English for the newsletter of the Long Island scientific laboratory where he worked (it had made it onto the paper's front page, to our family's pride), and which I, as an undergraduate NYU English major, had helped to proofread and refine.

                       THEY JOYS OF PLAYING BASKETBALL

                                   BY BORIS ABRAMOV
   Sometimes life is difficult and one wishes to relieve oneself of the pressures and the worries of life. Some people see a shrink, others jump in a cold lake or travel around the world. But I find nothing more joyful than playing basketball. At the Laboratory we have many men (and women!) who like to play basketball. They come from all over the world, from Europe, Latin America, and everywhere else. I cannot say I am the best player, I am not so young anymore, my knees hurt, and I am also pretty short and this is a handicap. But I take the game very seriously and when a big problem comes up in my life and I feel like I do not want to live, I sometimes like to picture myself on the court, trying to throw a ball from a great distance into the hoop or maneuvering against an agile opponent. I try to play in a smart way. As a result, I find that I am often victorious even against a much taller or faster player, from Africa or Brazil, let's say. But win or lose, what's important is the spirit of this beautiful game. So if you have time on Tuesday or Thursday at lunchtime (12:30), please join me and your colleagues for a good, healthy time in the physical education center. You'll feel better about yourself and the worries of life will "melt away"! Boris Abramov is a custodian in the Buildings and Grounds division.

- Gary Shteyngart
Super Sad True Love Story
Alan Moore on Harvey Pekar:

"We developed a friendship, because of a mutual love--an obsession, really--of old books," says Moore. "Harvey loved looking around the old tomes in my library, and Joyce told me I only enabled Harvey. They hadn't got a spare inch of space, and Joyce would blow a fuse if he brought home a slim volume of poetry. He would smuggle them into the house by stealth. He'd slip them in among the old dusty books, and leave them there for about six weeks, then one day, walk over to the shelf and open them like they were cherished artifacts. The fact that this would take weeks showed his level commitment to great literature. He did everything short of wrapping them in plastic and hiding them in the lavatory."

Sunday, July 24, 2011

   Nancy and I were married in January 1918 at St James's Church, Picadilly, she being just eighteen, and I twenty-two. George Mallory acted as the best man. Nancy had read the marriage-service for the first time that morning, and been so disgusted that she all but refused to go through with the wedding, though I had arranged for the ceremony to e modified and reduced to the shortest possible form. Another caricature scene to look back on: myself striding up the red carpet, wearing field-boots, spurs and sword; Nancy meeting me in a blue-check silk wedding-dress, utterly furious; packed benches on either side of the church, full of relatives; aunts using handkerchiefs; the choir boys out of tune; Nancy savagely muttering the responses, myself shouting them in a parade-ground voice.
   Then the reception. At this stage of the War, sugar could not be got except by ration cards. There was a three-tiered wedding cake, and the Nicholsons had been saving up their sugar and butter cards for a month to make it taste like a real one; but when George Mallory lifted off the plaster-case of imitation icing, a sigh of disappointment rose from the guests. However, champagne was another scarce commodity, and the guests made a rush for the dozen bottles on the table. Nancy said: 'Well, I'm going to get something out of this wedding, at any rate,' and grabbed a bottle. After three or four glasses, she went off and changed back into her land-girl's costume of breeches and smock. My mother, who had been thoroughly enjoying the proceedings, caught hold of her neighbor, E.V. Lucas, the essayist, and exclaimed: 'Oh, dear, I wish she had not done that!' The embarrassments of our wedding-night (Nancy and I being both virgins) were somewhat eased by an air-raid: Zeppelin bombs dropping not far off set the hotel in an uproar.

- Robert Graves
Good-Bye to All That

Friday, July 15, 2011

   The first distinguished writer I remember meeting after Swinburne was P.G. Wodehouse, a friend of my brother Perceval, whom he later gently caricatured as 'Ukridge'. Wodehouse was then in his early twenties, on the staff of The Globe, and writing school stories for The Captain magazine. He gave me a penny, advising me to get marshmallows with it. Though too shy to express my gratitude at the time, I have never since permitted myself to be critical about his work.

- Robert Graves
Good-Bye to All That
     There is a certain shade of red brick--a dark, almost melodious red, sombre and riddled with blue--that is my childhood in St. Louis. Not the real childhood, but the false one that extends from the dawning of consciousness until the day that one leaves home for college. That one shade of red brick and green foliage is St. Louis in the summer (the winter is just a gray sky and a crowded school bus and the wet footprints on the brown linoleum floor at school), and that brick and a pale sky is spring. It's also loneliness and the queer, self-pitying wonder that children whose families are having catastrophes feel.

- Harold Brodkey
from "The State of Grace"
First Love & Other Sorrows

Sunday, May 1, 2011

   Ballrooms. For Jacob, the BALLROOM is the salle de bal in the château de Fontainebleau, dimly remembered from a day trip during his summer in Paris, when he turned seventeen: the glossy floor stretching away, the sunken octagons in the ceiling, the chandeliers plunging from the great arcades, the tightly clutched copy of the Oeuvres Complètes of Rimbaud purchased at a bookstall on the Seine and carefully cut with his Swiss army knife, the tormenting breasts of a tour guide called Monique. He can still see her coppery braided hair, and the white, loose blouse, suddenly heavy with breasts from a twist of the shoulders. His seventeenth birthday: two years older than David. Jacob is glad to be rid of adolescence; he worries about David, but doesn't know how to protect him. For Marian, the BALLROOM is a nearly forgotten black-and-white movie in which a bride, abandoned by her groom, dances a waltz alone, round and round, one two three one two three, as the members of the hired orchestra exchange nervous glances and continue playing. For David, the BALLROOM is the high school gym, festooned with pink and green crepe paper for the spring dance. He tries to see another, more plausible ballroom, but the images are vague - a British officer with a neat mustache and slicked-back hair gazing across a room at a girl with masses of blond ringlets overflowing with ribbons - and keep turning into the high school gym. For Susan, the BALLROOM remains unimagined: a gray rectangle on a board.

- Steven Millhauser
A Game of Clue

You don't play pinball with just your hands, you play it with the groin too. The pinball problem is not to stop the ball before it's swallowed by the mouth at the bottom, or to kick it back to midfield like a halfback. The problem is to make it stay up where the lighted targets are more numerous and have it bounce from one to another, wandering, confused, delirious, but still a free agent. And you achieve this not by jolting the ball but by transmitting vibrations to the case, the frame, but gently, so the machine won't catch on and say Tilt. You can only do it with the groin, or with a play of the hips that makes the groin not so much bump, as slither, keeping you on this side of an orgasm. And if the hips move according to nature, it's the buttocks that supply the forward thrust, but gracefully, so that when the thrust reaches the pelvic area, it is softened, as in homeopathy, where the more you shake a solution and the more the drug dissolves in the water added gradually, until the drug has almost entirely disappeared, the more medically effective and potent it is. Thus from the groin an infinitesimal pulse is transmitted to the case, and the machine obeys, the ball moves against nature, against inertia, against gravity, against the laws of dynamics, and against the cleverness of its constructor, who wanted it disobedient. The ball is intoxicated with vis movendi, remaining in play for memorable and immemorial lengths of time. But a female groin is required, one that interposes no spongy body between the ileum and the machine, and there must be no erectile matter in between, only skin, nerves, padded bone sheathed in a pair of jeans, and a sublimated erotic fury, a sly frigidity, a disinterested adaptability to the partner's response, a taste for arousing desire without suffering the excess of one's own: the Amazon must drive the pinball crazy and savor the thought that she will then abandon it.

- Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
    'I read,' I say. 'I study and read. I bet I've read everything you've read. Don't think I haven't. I consume libraries. I wear out spines and ROM-drives. I do things like get in a taxi and say, "The library, and step on it." My instincts concerning syntax and mechanics are better than your own, I can tell, with due respect.

- David Foster Wallace
Infinite Jest

Thursday, March 10, 2011

    "As for that," the Captain put in, "what matter if a man lives seven years or seventy? His years are not an eyeblink to eternity, and de'il the way he spends 'em - whether steering ships or scribbling verse, or building towns or burning 'em - he dies like a May fly when his day is done, and the stars go round their courses just the same. Where's the profit and loss o' his labors? He'd as well have stayed abed, or sat his bum on a bench."
    Although Ebenezer stirred uneasily at these words, remembering his state of mind at Magdalene College and in his room in Pudding Lane, he nevertheless reaffirmed his belief in the value of human time, arguing from the analogy of precious stones and metals that the value of commodities increases inversely with their supply where demand is constant, and with demand where supply is constant, so that mortal time, being infinitesimal in supply and virtually infinite in demand, was therefore infinitely precious to mortal men.
    "Marry come up!" McEvoy cried impatiently. "Ye twain remind me of children I saw once at St. Bartholomew's Fair, queued up to ride a little red pony cart..."
    He did not bother to explain his figure, but Ebenezer understood it immediately, or thought he understood it, for he said, "Thou'rt right, McEvoy; there is no argument 'twixt the Captain and myself. I recall the day my sister and I turned five and were allowed an extra hour 'twixt bath and bed. Mrs. Twigg would set her hourglass running there in the nursery; we could do whate'er we wished with the time, but when the sand had run 'twas off to bed and no lingering. I'faith, what a treasure that hour seemed: time for any of a hundred pleasures! We fetched out the cards, to play some game or other - but what silly game was worth such a wondrous hour? I vowed I'd build a castle out of blocks, and Anna set to drawing three soldiers upon a paper - but neither of us could pursue his sport for long, for thinking the other had chosen more wisely, so that anon we made exchange and were no more pleased. We cast about more desperately among our toys and games - whereof any one had sufficed for an hour's diversion earlier in the day - but none would do, and still the glass ran on! Any hour save this most prime and measured we had been pleased enough to do no more than talk, or watch the world at work outside our nursery window, but when I cried 'Heavy, heavy hangs over thy head,' to commence a guessing game, Anna fell straightway to weeping, and I soon joined her. yet e'en our tears did naught to ease our desperation; indeed, they but heightened it the more, for all the while we wept, our hour was slipping by. Now bedtime, mind, we'd ne'er before looked on as evil, but that sand was like our lifeblood draining from some wound; we sat and wept, and watched it flow, and the upshot of't was, we both fell ill and took to heaving, and Mrs. Twigg fetched us off to bed with our last quarter hour still in the glass."

- John Barth
The Sot-Weed Factor

Sunday, March 6, 2011

     Doctor Reefy was a tall man who had worn one suit of clothes for ten years. It was frayed at the sleeves and little holes had appeared at the knees and elbows. In the office he wore also a linen duster with huge pockets into which he continually stuffed scraps of paper. After some weeks the scraps of paper became little hard round balls, and when the pockets were filled he dumped them out upon the floor. For ten years he had but one friend, another old man named John Spaniard who owned a tree nursery. Sometimes, in a playful mood, old Doctor Reefy took from his pockets a handful of the paper balls and threw them at the nursery man. "That is to confound you, you blithering old sentimentalist," he cried, shaking with laughter.
     The story of Doctor Reefy and his courtship of the tall dark girl who became his wife and left her money to him is a very curious story. It is delicious, like the twisted little apples that grow in the orchards of Winesburg. In the fall one walks in the orchards and the ground is hard with frost underfoot. The apples have been taken from the trees by the pickers. They have been put in barrels and shipped to the cities where they will be eaten in apartments that are filled with books, magazines, furniture, and people. On the trees are only a few gnarled apples that the pickers have rejected. They look like the knuckles of Doctor Reefy's hands. One nibbles at them and they are delicious. Into a little round place at the side of the apple has been gathered all of its sweetness. One runs from tree to tree over the frosted ground picking the gnarled, twisted apples and filling his pockets with them. Only the few know the sweetness of the twisted apples.

- Sherwood Anderson
from "Paper Pills"
Winesburg, Ohio

Saturday, March 5, 2011

    He stopped on the threshold of the main lounge, but hardly had he begun to scan the distribution of its scattered human contents, than an abrupt flurry occurred in a distant group. Ada, spurning decorum, was hurrying toward him. Her solitary and precipitate advance consumed in reverse all the years of their separation as she changed from a dark-glittering stranger with the high hair-do in fashion to the pale-armed girl in black who had always belonged to him. At that particular twist of time they happened to be the only people conspicuously erect and active in the huge room, and heads turned and eyes peered when the two met in the middle of it as on a stage; but what should have been, in culmination of her headlong motion, of the ecstasy in her eyes and fiery jewels, a great explosion of voluble love, was marked by incongruous silence; he raised to his unbending lips and kissed her cygneous hand, and then they stood still, staring at each other, he playing with coins in his trouser pockets under his "humped" jacket, she fingering her necklace, each reflecting, as it were, the uncertain light to which all that radiance of mutual welcome had catastrophically decreased. She was more Ada than ever, but a dash of new elegancy had been added to her shy, wild charm. Her still blacker hair was drawn back and up into a glossy chignon, and the Lucette line of her exposed neck, slender and straight, came as a heartrending surprise. He was trying to form a succinct sentence (to warn her about the device he planned for securing a rendevous), but she interrupted his throat clearing with a muttered injunction: Sbrit' usi! (that mustache must go) and turned away to lead him to the far corner from which she had taken so many years to reach him.

- Vladimir Nabokov
Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle

Thursday, March 3, 2011

    Ebenezer had of course observed her for some years as she and his companions came and went in their harlotry, and from the talk in the coffee-house had got to know about her in great detail at second hand a number of things that his personal disorganization precluded learning at first. When in manly moments he thought of her at all it was merely as a tart whom, should he one day find himself single-minded enough, it might be sweet to hire to initiate him at long last into the mysteries. For it happened that, though near thirty, Ebenezer was yet a virgin, and this for the reason explained in the previous chapters, that he was no person at all: he could picture any kind of man taking a woman - the bold as well as the bashful, the clean green boy and the dottering gray lecher - and work out in his mind the speeches appropriate to each under any of several sorts of circumstances. But because he felt himself no more one of these than another and admired all, when a situation presented itself he could never choose one role to play over all the rest he knew, and so always ended up either turning down the chance or, what was more usually the case, retreating gracelessly and in confusion, if not always embarrassment. Generally, therefore, women did not give him a second glance, not because he was uncomely - he had marked well that some of the greatest seducers have the faces of goats and the manner of lizards - but because, a woman having taken in his ungainly physique, there remained no other thing for her to notice.

- John Barth
The Sot-Weed Factor

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

   A child's hand, undoubtedly Emmie's, had drawn a set of pictures, forming (as it had seemed to Cincinnatus yesterday) a coherent narrative, a promise, a sample of phantasy. First there was a horizontal line - that is, this stone floor; on it was a rudimentary chair somewhat like an insect, and above was a grating made of six squares. Then came the same picture but with the addition of a full moon, the corners of its mouth drooping sourly beyond the grating. Next, a stool composed of three strokes with an eyeless (hence, sleeping) jailer on it and, on the floor, a ring with six keys. Then the same key ring, only a little larger, with a hand, extremely pentadactyl and in a short sleeve, reaching for it. here it begins to get interesting. The door is ajar in the next drawing, and beyond it something looking like a bird's spur-all that is visible of the fleeing prisoner. Then he himself, with commas on his head instead of hair, in a dark little robe, represented to the best of the artist's ability by an isosceles triangle; he is being led by a little girl: prong-like legs, wavy skirt, parallel lines of hair. Then the same again, only in the form of a plan: a square for the cell, an angled line for the corridor, with a dotted line indicating the route and an accordionlike staircase at the end. And finally the epilogue: the dark tower, above it a pleased moon, with the corners of its mouth curling upward.
   No - this was only self-deception, nonsense. The child had doodled aimlessly...Let us copy out the titles and lay the catalogue aside. Yes, the child...With the tip of her tongue showing at the right corner of her mouth, tightly holding the stubby pencil, pressing down upon it with a finger white with effort...And then, after connecting a particularly successful line, leaning back, rolling her head this way and that, wriggling her shoulders, and, going back to work on the paper, shifting her tongue to the left painstakingly...Nonsense, let's not dwell on it any more...

- Vladimir Nabokov
Invitation to a Beheading

Thursday, January 20, 2011

One weary, melancholy, and oppressive morning, when the sky was gray but dully luminous, and the world was nothing but a long brown corridor, I hung up my coat, took out a book, banged my locker shut, and stepped into homeroom, where glancing first at the blackboard, and next at the teacher's desk, and then at the row beside the windows, I uttered a faint gasp, raised my hand to my chest, and instantly lowered my eyes. With fierce, feverish calm I walked to my desk in the middle of the second row from the door. For a few moments I sat without stirring before slowly raising my eyes and turning my head. She was sitting motionless at her desk with her face turned toward the window. Her ankles were crossed and her hands rested lightly in her lap: the back of one hand in the palm of the other. Darkly her shoulders fell forward, giving her back a curve. The windowsill was at the level of her eyes, and her pale, mournful face was lifted slightly but already she was fading, already there was nothing but an empty brown desk . . . She was always absent. Or rather she was so often absent that absence seemed her element, from which she would emerge suddenly with dreamlike vividness--only to fade away again. I seemed to see her fixed in a pose: sitting motionless at her desk with her face turned toward the window. Her ankles were crossed and her hands rested lightly in her lap: the back of one hand in the palm of the other. Darkly her shoulders fell forward, giving her back a curve. The windowsill was at the level of her eyes, and her pale, mournful face was lifted slightly as she looked out at the gloomy sky with eyes narrowed against the light. She wore a black skirt, a white blouse, and a dark green sweater buttoned at the throat but hanging loosely over her shoulders like a cape. Her black, wavy hair was parted on the side and came rippling down over her ear and a little below her shoulder. Through her dark sweater pressed the faint outlines of her shoulderblades, and on her white leg, below the knee, but again she was fading, again there was nothing but an empty brown desk . . . Often when she appeared she would seem deeply weary, drained of energy as her cheeks were drained of color. At such times her pallor, intensified by the blackness of her hair, had about it a touch of the ghastly. And indeed there was something of the phantom about her; and secretly I called her The Phantom Eleanor. I would see her sitting very quietly at her desk before her open German book, staring fixedly at the page, but there was something too rigid about her pose, as if her attention were absent, and sometimes, when she was called on she would give a sudden start, and with a crimson blush on her white, too-white cheek she would say: "Oh, I was . . . I'm sorry, what did you . . ."
    Through her dark sweater pressed the faint outlines of her shoulderblades, and on her white leg, below the knee, was a small purple-yellow bruise.

- Steven Millhauser
Portrait of a Romantic