Monthly Archives: August 2010

Novel Conversations

First this, from the well-fed man of action:

It doesn’t do to read too much…You get to look at life with a false perspective.  By all means have some familiarity with the standard authors.  I should never raise any objection to that.   But it is no good clogging your mind with a lot of trash from modern novels.

Then this response from the languid aesthete:

But I must say, modern books are very consolatory and congenial to my feelings.  There is, as it were, a delightful northeast wind, an intellectual blight breathing through them; a delicious misanthropy and discontent that demonstrates the nullity of virtue and energy, and puts me in good humor with myself and my sofa.

Literature is sometimes described as a conversation that takes place without regard to time or place among authors not necessarily contemporary with one another or conversant with each other’s works.  Macchiavelli in a nice passage somewhere talks about the reader’s participation in that conversation too.  But perhaps we can describe another level of talk that exists alongside or below this one, carried on between even more ephemeral interlocutors – fictional characters themselves.

It would make a tedious but possibly amusing pastime to arrange quotes like these (respectively from Anthony Powell’s Kenneth Widmerpool and Thomas Love Peacock’s Mr Listless) into the form of long symposia.  The discussion above is specially poignant because the speakers are commenting on the means of their own incarnation: Widmerpool, though it’s tempting to doubt it, only lives by the fact of other people reading him into being; Mr Listless himself is only a gust of the delightful northeast wind that blows through Nightmare Abbey.

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Three Paragraphs of Strolling

There’s a double row of poplars near my office and a paved footpath that runs between them for the eighth part of a mile.  It’s a nice place to walk in the mid-afternoon when work begins to feel unsupportable.  Half the office buildings in the area are empty, an effect of the recession, but I never get the path to myself.  Inevitably, there are two or three others out with the same idea.

Sometimes I close my eyes while I walk and listen to the watery sound of the breeze in the branches.  I imagine that I’m blind or outside on a starless, moonless night.  I count paces with eyes shut, not slowing down.  I dare myself to go twenty steps without looking.  Thirty.  Forty.  I once made fifty steps before stumbling into a patch of ivy.

Walking the poplars this afternoon there was a man ahead of me who went the full distance without setting foot once on the pavement.  He kept to the grassy border on the right instead, as if it weren’t enough simply to be away from his office and his work, to be outside and under the trees, but he had to have earth beneath him too.

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Books and Bombs

Yesterday I finished the third movement of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.  The trilogy of novels contained in this penultimate volume deals with the war years.  Nick Jenkins’ war, however, is not a clash of armies in the field but a war of familial dislocations, obscure provincial postings, and byzantine military bureaucracies.  It reminds me, in that respect, of Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, the Sword of Honour trilogy.  It’s interesting that so much of the best writing about the war was done by this in-between generation, by persons like Waugh and Powell and Malcolm Muggeridge (in his Chronicles of Wasted Time) who were too young for the trenches in ‘14 but too old for most of the real fighting in WWII.

My own favorite passages from the third movement include the chapter in which Jenkins and Colonel Finn take their liaison charges on a tour of liberated Normandy and Belgium, and the long scene near the end of The Military Philosophers when Jenkins attends the victory service at St Paul’s.  Jules Renard once observed that it is when facing the prospect of death that men become most bookish.  This is perhaps borne out in the case of Jenkins who, faced with the mortal toll and the awful knowledge of what was only scarcely avoided by the survivors, can think of nothing but poetry, bits of Elizabethan Biblical phraseology, and snatches of rhyme from half-forgotten children’s books.

How readily you can relate to Jenkins’ instinctual retreat into words must say something about the sort of reader – and the sort of person – you are.  What exactly it says, I don’t know.  But I have myself felt the painful need, in horrible  moments, for a few favorite books.  When worldly circumstances threaten universal barbarism, words have a power to remind us that there is still some consolation in being human, that civilization and culture can still be personal possessions even when collectively renounced.  The sense of the term has shifted a little over the years, but I can’t help think that Dr Johnson’s definition of ‘Humanist’ holds up nicely: ‘A philologer; a grammarian.’

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Marginalia, no.139

…that Ninevite pastry.

~ Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove

Donuts appear in the office kitchen every Monday morning like a flock of naked prostitutes shouting ‘Repent!’

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Sublime Choreography


I do not recommend reading Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time while trying to edit and improve a draft of your own novel.  Or maybe I do recommend it.  There’s something valuable, I suppose, in boldly confronting the depths of one’s own literary inadequacy and comparative lack of talent.  Halfway through the Dance, I am in love.  I see that I have been a very promiscuous reader up till now, content to thoughtlessly set even my favorite authors aside after a book or two and roam about hungrily looking for fresh meat.  At risk of repeating the common but misleading comparison, Proust couldn’t cure me of this; Powell has.  The sixth novel in the series, The Kindly Ones, is among the very finest, funniest, most melancholy books I’ve ever had the pleasure to open.

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Marginalia, no.138

Few places capture your imagination… even fewer capture your soul.

~ Hotel promotional pamphlet

If it weren’t for this little clue printed on the folding map handed to me by the concierge I don’t know how long it might have taken to figure out just where I was.  Hell is nothing like you imagine it.  Dante and Milton would be disappointed.  There’s valet parking, a fitness center and a miniature golf course.  There are also several casinos nearby, which you might have expected.  But the heated pool is not exactly a lake of fire.

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Marginalia, no.137

Cato who doted upon cabbage might find the crude effects thereof in his sleep, wherein the Aegyptians might find some advantage by their superstitious abstinence from onions.

~ Sir Thomas Browne, Notebooks

Within the past week: My wife adopted a pet tiger she insisted could survive on cheese; I discovered a subterranean basement below the bathtub; I saved my daughter from drowning at sea.  Then my home was invaded by birds: long-necked hawks, brightly colored owls, shoe-billed ducks and tiny songbirds that built nests atop the framed pictures hanging on the walls.  If dreams are determined by digestion, then all this seems to have started with a dish of baked fennel and parmesan.

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