Friday, July 13, 2012

            My mother was in a black mood as she came away from Scilla's flat. It was three o'clock in the afternoon and beginning to get hot, she had no idea what to do with herself and the day stretched emptily before her. She had the impression that Scilla had been in a great hurry to see the back of her and that she had been bodily pushed out of the door. She had the feeling, too, that there had been someone else in the flat apart from herself and Scilla, though she could not have explained why she had this feeling.
            After wandering aimlessly for a while, she went into the cinema. They were showing a film in colour about African safaris, and she sat in the half-empty auditorium watching endless herds of buffalo seen against a boundless, fiery-red horizon; there was no plot, nothing actually happened and one saw nothing except buffalo, bison and elephants. With no plot to engage her interest, she was soon bored; and her thoughts kept returning to the darkened flat and to Scilla wandering around tying up her dressing-gown girdle; and there was no doubt that she had pushed her out of the door, and locked it behind her with a vicious snap. And she had hardly listened to what she had been saying about Barbara's letter, almost as if she wanted to wash her hands of the whole business of her daughter and not worry any more about her. On her way out of the cinema my mother passed a poster advertising next week's programme, a film with Ava Gardner, and she looked at Ava Gardner's behind that had the same measurements as Barbara's and sniffed scornfully.
            She then came to my flat; I was in the middle of a lesson, so she waited, sitting in an armchair and reading the afternoon paper. Every now and then she commented aloud on the political articles; and she kept asking my pupil, a college student with an alarmingly white face and an air of constant perplexity, if she did not agree with her. When the girl had gone, my mother suggested that we go together to the coffee-bar; but I had too much studying to do and refused. She was very put out, and asked me where I thought all this studying would get me: when I graduated I would end up teaching in some drab school facing a whole pack of girls with white, pasty faces and puzzled expressions like this one who had just left. It had not been a good idea at all for me to study literature, she said as she put on her gloves; I should have studied chemistry or law instead. As a child, I had seemed to have a real gift for writing, but I had written nothing at all since then. Or I could have studied medicine: many women nowadays became doctors, and were even more sought-after than the men because so many women refused to be examined by men; and all doctors, besides, made a lot of money - apart from Chaim, of course, who was a disaster. But I was feeling cross too, and to annoy her I asked why she had not set Chaim up in his own practice yet; she retorted that she had not the slightest intention of doing so and, on the contrary, was planning something quite different. And she swept out, slamming the door behind her. But seconds later she came back again, on the pretext that she had left her scarf behind; it was on the chair, and as I handed it to her I said, to pacify her, how pretty it was; and she immediately made me a present of it, saying that she had plenty of scarves, enough and to spare for the parish poor, and she put it round my neck. She embraced me and asked me to forgive her for being cross and said I was her only comfort: she could at least hold a conversation with me, whereas Giulia never opened her mouth; Giulia was capable of going for days without uttering a word, and made no effort even to be pleasant to her husband; she never looked at him or spoke to him and moved away if he so much as touched her knee. Theirs was not a happy marriage. How often, said my mother, it would be better for a woman to stay single rather than marry the wrong man; and she told me to think well before I married and talk it over thoroughly with her, something Giulia had never done. Did I have a boyfriend? I shook my head furiously and turned away with a frown; and she changed the subject at once, fearing to annoy me again. Perhaps, she said, the solution for a woman was to have an occupation. She enquired after my friend, who was now married and on her honeymoon; she wanted to know if my friend was happy with that engineer with the ears; and she wanted to know if I was still determined to stay on alone in the little flat.
            I had put some water on to boil in the kitchen with a stock cube dissolve in it to make some soup; was this all the supper I would have, my mother asked; no egg, no meat? I assured her that I also had some stewed fruit and cheese, but she was not satisfied, she thought this insufficient, that I was stinting myself and said that food was the one thing one should never try to economize on. I assured her that I had all I needed, but she insisted on giving me ten thousand lire so that I could get some little luxury. Then she scrutinized my clothes. I had at last stopped wearing the Russian workman's sweater and had on a check dress: not too bad, said my mother, though it reminded her of an orphanage. She told me about the film she had just seen, with the bison and the buffalo; rather dreary, but the views were beautiful; and she said that maybe sometime in the future, if a certain project was successful, the two of us would be able to travel a bit, maybe even venturing as far as Africa on a summer cruise. If, she said with a little smirk, a certain project turned out successfully. She would love to go abroad. For this cruise, she said, we would get the dressmaker to make us each a white suit. A little man she knew had offered her, at five hundred lire the metre, an absolute bargain, a certain white stuff with a slightly rough finish like fine towelling. She left then, and as I watched her from the window, crossing the square with her confident step and her handbag swinging at her hip, I knew that she was imagining herself lounging on the deck of a cruise-liner in sunglasses and a suit made from a stuff with a slightly rough finish, leafing through magazines and talking to the captain.

-Natalia Ginzburg

Thursday, July 12, 2012

  A letter exists, written and posted during the horrible days after the wreck and addressed to an associate in the Apennines, wherein he reports having identified new species of fish and plants while swimming away from the doomed ship. It is the first of his strange unnecessary lies. The part about swimming away, that is. He had in fact identified a new fish, but it took place on the pier where the lifeboat docked.
  The easiest way to fathom what all this did to his mind is to observe the change in his appearance. In the portrait that serves as frontispiece to his Analyse de la Nature (1815, the year of the wreck), he is physically shrewlike to a degree that fascinates, with a small nose and a thin, set mouth, his bangs combed forward in oily fronds. He's a French leprechaun with what are remembered as "delicate and refined hands," also "small feet." Women noticed his eyelashes.
  Look at him three years on, when he steps away from the ark. He's in Hendersonville, Kentucky, now, hunting for the artist of birds John James Audubon. In Louisville he'd asked for the great man, but they told him Audubon had gone deeper, into the forest, where he'd opened a general store. Rafinesque longed to see Audubon's new paintings of western species, not yet published but already circulating by reputation among the learned. He knew Audubon liked to incorporate local flora into his pictures and he was sure he'd find new species of plants in the pictures, hidden, as it were, even from Audubon himself.
  Audubon was walking when he noticed the boatmen staring at something by the landing. It's through Audubon's eyes, which so little escaped, that we can see Rafinesque again, almost wearing

    a long loose coat of yellow nankeen, much the worse of the
    many rubs it had got in its time and stained all over with
    the juice of plants...[it] hung loosely about him like a
    sack. A waistcoat of the same, with enormous pockets, and
    buttoned up to the chin, reached below over a pair of tigh
    pantaloons...His beard was as long as I have known my own
    to be during...peregrinations, and his lank black hair hung
    loosely over his shoulder. His forehead...broad and prominent.

  Their meeting was a potentially ghastly slow-motion pileup of awkwardness from which they emerged smiling together in perfect good humor. Rafinesque stooped like a peddler under the bundle of dried plants strapped to his back. He walked up to Audubon "with a rapid step" and asked where one could find Audubon, to which Audubon replied, "I am the man." Rafinesque did a little dance and rubbed his hands. He gave Audubon a letter of introduction from some heavyweight back east, probably John Torrey. Audubon read it and said, "Well, may I see the fish?"
  "What fish?"
  "This says I'm being sent an odd fish."
  "It seems I am the fish!"
  Audubon stammered. Rafinesque only laughed. After that they never quarreled. Indeed, Audubon is the only person on record as ever having actually liked Rafinesque.

-John Jeremiah Sullivan
"LA•HWI•NE•SKI: Career of an Eccentric Naturalist"
from Pulphead

In science fiction, in a giant glass tube the size of a body,
they freeze a body. On Planet X it thaws. He's alive. One hundred
years have passed and he's alive and twenty-two. He remembers
a story: they send a man faster than light. FTL-drive, it's
called in that story. And when he returns, the people who live
by Earth's speeds are his grandchildren. Twenty-two, and he has grandchildren.
He remembers a story: once they had something called photographs,
they froze you in light. The other you went on, dying.

- Albert Goldbarth
  The nurse went back to Petersburg; leaning out of the carriage for a long while she waved her dumpy little arm and the wind worried her wimple. The house was cool, with spreads of sunlight here and there on the floor. Two weeks later he was already riding himself to exhaustion on his bicycle and playing Russian skittles in the evening with the son of the cowman. After another week the event he had been waiting for happened. "And where is it all now?" mused Ganin. "Where is the happiness, the sunshine, where are those thick skittles of wood which crashed and bounced so nicely, where is my bicycle with the low handlebars and the big gear? It seems there's a law which says that nothing ever vanishes, that matter is indestructible; therefore the chips from my skittles and the spokes of my bicycle still exist somewhere to this day. The pity of it is that I'll never find them again - never. I once read about the 'eternal return.' But what if this complicated game of patience never comes out a second time? Let me see - there's something I don't grasp - yes, this: surely it won't all die when I do? Right now I'm alone in a foreign city. Drunk. My head's buzzing from beer laced with cognac. I have tramped my fill. And if my heart bursts, right now, then my whole world bursts with it? Cannot grasp it."


  Amid the hot yellow glare, amid the sounds that took on visible form in the folds of crimson and silvery headscarves, fluttering eyelashes, black shadows on the roof beams shifting whenever there was a puff of the night breeze, amid all this glitter and popular music, among all the heads and shoulders in the large, crowded barn, Ganin saw only one thing: he stared ahead at a brown tress tied with a black bow, slightly frayed at the edges, and his eyes caressed the dark, smooth, girlish sheen of the hair at her temple. Whenever she turned her face sideways to give the girl sitting beside her one of her rapid smiling glances, he could also see the strong color in her cheek, the corner of a flashing, Tartar eye, the delicate curve of her nostril alternately stretching and tightening as she laughed. Later, when the concert was over, the Petersburg bass was driven away in the local mill owner's huge car which cast a mysterious light over the grass and then, with a sweep of its beam, dazzled a sleeping birch tree and the footbridge over a brook; and when the crowd of fair vacationists, in a festive flutter of white frocks, drifted away through the blue darkness across the dew-laden clover, and someone lit a cigarette in the dark, holding the flaring match to his face in cupped hands - Ganin, in a state of lonely excitement, walked home, the spokes of his bicycle clicking faintly as he pushed it by the saddle.

- Vladimir Nabokov

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

   About once a day he'd say, "I may do a little writing yet, myself, if my mind holds." One morning I even heard from downstairs the slap-slap of the typewriter keys. That day, while he napped, I slid into his room and pulled off the slip-cover to see what he'd done, a single sentence of between thirty and forty words. A couple of them were hyphened out, with substitutions written above in ballpoint. The sentence stunned me. I'd come half expecting to find an incoherent mess, and afraid that this would say something ominous about our whole experiment, my education, but the opposite confronted me. The sentence was perfect. In it, he described a memory from his childhood, of a group of people riding in an early automobile, and the driver lost control, and they veered through an open barn door, but by a glory of chance the barn was completely empty, and the doors on the other side stood wide open, too, so that the car passed straight through the barn and back out into the sunlight, by which time the passengers were already laughing and honking and waving their arms at the miracle of their own survival, and Lytle was somehow able, through his prose, to replicate this swift and almost alchemical transformation from horror to joy. I don't know why I didn't copy out the sentence - embarrassment at my own spying, I guess. He never wrote any more. But for me it was the key to the year I lived with him. What he could still do, in his weakness, I couldn't do. I started listening harder, even when he bored me.

- John Jeremiah Sullivan
"Mr. Lytle: An Essay"
from Pulphead
   In the mild end of the afternoon, later, at the waterside in Woods Hole, waiting for the ferry, he looked through the green darkness at the net of bright reflections on the bottom. He loved to think about the power of the sun, about light, about the ocean. The purity of the air moved him. There was no stain in the water, where schools of minnows swam. Herzog sighed and said to himself, "Praise God-praise God." His breathing had become freer. His heart was greatly stirred by the open horizon; the deep colors; the faint iodine pungency of the Atlantic rising from weeds and mollusks; the white, fine, heavy sand; but principally by the green transparency as he looked down to the stony bottom webbed with golden lines. Never still. If his soul could cast a reflection so brilliant, and so intensely sweet, he might beg God to make such use of him. But that would be too simple. But that would be too childish. The actual sphere is not clear like this, but turbulent, angry. A vast human action is going on. Death watches. So if you have some happiness, conceal it. And when your heart is full, keep your mouth shut also.

- Saul Bellow

Friday, July 6, 2012

                        It is not for nothing that a Soviet historian once remarked that the most difficult of a historian's tasks is to predict the past. -Bernard Lewis, History


This story begins in bed, in one of those sleepy troughs between the crests of sex. I stroke the crests of you. The night is a gray permissive color.
            "Who do you think you were- do you think you were anyone, in an earlier life?"
            In an earlier life, I think, though chance and bombs and the salt-grain teeth in ocean air have destroyed all documents, I farmed black bent-backed turnips in the hardpan of a shtetl compound of equally black-garbed bent-backed grandmama and rabbinic Jews.
            My best friend there shoed horses. He had ribs like barrel staves, his sweat was miniature glass pears. (I'm enjoying this now.) On Saturday nights, when the Sabbath was folded back with its pristine linens into drawers for another week, this Yitzl played accordion at the schnapps-house. He was in love with a woman, a counter girl, there. She kept to herself. She folded paper roses in between serving; she never looked up. But Yitzl could tell: she tapped her foot. One day the cousin from Milano, who sent the accordion, sent new music to play- a little sheaf with American writing on it. Hot polka. Yitzl took a break with me in the corner- I was sipping sweet wine as dark as my turnips and trying to write a poem- and when he returned to his little grocer's crate of a stand, there was an open paper rose on his accordion. So he knew, then.
            In this story-in-my-story they say, "I love you," and now I say it in the external story, too: I stroke you slightly rougher as I say it, as if underlining the words, or reaffirming you're here, and I'm here, since the gray in the air is darker, and sight insufficient. You murmur it back. We say it like anyone else- in part because our death is bonded into us meiotically, from before there was marrow or myelin, and we know it, even as infants our scream is for more than the teat. We understand the wood smoke in a tree is aching to rise from the tree in its shape, its green and nutritive damps are readying always for joining the ether around it- any affirming clench of the roots in soil, physical and deeper, is preventive for its partial inch of a while.
            So: genealogy. The family tree. Its roots. Its urgent suckings among the cemeterial layers. The backsweep of teat under teat. The way, once known, it orders the Present. A chief on the island of Nios, off Sumatra, could stand in the kerosene light of his plank hut and (this is on tape) recite- in a chant, the names sung out between his betel-reddened teeth like ghosts still shackled by hazy responsibility to the living- his ancestral linkup, seventy generations deep; it took over an hour. The genealogical record banks of the Mormon Church contain the names and relationship data of 1 1/2 to 2 billion of the planet's dead, "in a climate-controlled and nuclear-bomb-proof repository" called Granite Mountain Vault, and these have been processed through the Church's IBM computer system, the Genealogical Information and Names Tabulation, acronymed GIANT.
            Where we come from. How we need to know.
            If necessary, we'll steal it- those dinosaur tracks two men removed from the bed of Cub Creek in Hays County, using a masonry saw, a jackhammer, and a truck disguised as an ice-cream vendor's.
            If necessary (two years after Yitzl died, I married his schnapps-house sweetie: it was mourning him that initially drew us together; and later, the intimacy of hiding from the Secret Police in the burlap-draped back corner of a fishmonger's van. The guts were heaped to our ankles and our first true sex in there, as we rattled like bagged bones over the countryside, was lubricated- for fear kept her dry- with fishes' slime: and after. . .but that's another story) we'll make it up.

- Albert Goldbarth
"After Yitzl"
Many Circles

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

My bookshelves were more successful with Veronica than my record collection. In those days, paperbacks came in their traditional liveries: orange Penguins for fiction, blue Pelicans for nonfiction. To have more blue than orange on your shelf was proof of seriousness. And overall, I had enough of the right titles: Richard Hoggart, Steven Runciman, Huizinga, Eysenck, Bishop John Robinson's Honest to God next to my Larry cartoon books. Veronica paid me the compliment of assuming I'd read them all, and didn't suspect that the most worn titles had been bought secondhand.
   Her own shelves held a lot of poetry, in volume and pamphlet form: Eliot, Auden, MacNeice, Stevie Smith, Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes. There were Left Book Club editions of Orwell and Koestler, some calf-bound nineteenth-century novels, a couple of childhood Arthur Rackhams, and her comfort book, I Capture the Castle. I didn't for a moment doubt that she had read them all, or that they were the right books to own. Further, they seemed to be an organic continuation of her mind and personality, whereas mine struck me as functionally separate, straining to describe a character I hoped to grow into. This disparity threw me into a slight panic, and as I looked along her poetry shelf I fell back on a line of Phil Dixon's.
   "Of course, everyone's wondering what Ted Hughes will do when he runs out of animals."
   "Are they?"
   "So I've been told," I said feebly. In Dixon's mouth, the line had seemed witty and sophisticated; in mine, merely facetious.
   "Poets don't run out of material the way novelists do," she instructed me. "Because they don't depend on material in the same way. And you're treating him like a sort of zoologist, aren't you? But even zoologists don't tire of animals, do they?"
   She was looking at me with one eyebrow raised above the frame of her glasses. She was five months older than me and sometimes made it feel like five years.
   "It was just something my English master said."
   "Well, now you're at university we must get you to think for yourself, musn't we?"

- Julian Barnes
The Sense of an Ending
   "I am so afraid you are not happy at Xanadu," remarked Miss Hare-it was at breakfast, over the crispies, in the kitchen.
   "It is not that I am not happy," answered Mrs Jolley. "I am always happy, of course, more or less. It is that a lady does expect something different."
   Miss Hare mashed her crispies.
   "Oh, you know," said Mrs Jolley, "a home, and a Hoover, and kiddies' voices."
   "I do not know," replied Miss Hare. "This is my life. This is my home."
   And she munched the crispies.
   "You are that hard at times," Mrs Jolley protested, "and unwilling to understand."
   Miss Hare munched her crispies.

- Patrick White
Riders in the Chariot