Tag Archives: Literature

The Man Who Walked

‘I’m deaf,’ he continued. ‘That’s the awful truth. That’s why I’m leaning towards you in this rather eerie fashion.’

The quote is from William Dalrymple’s interview with Patrick Leigh Fermor, conducted at the latter’s home in the Peloponnese.  It’s encouraging to see that Fermor has acuity and humor enough to make such remarks at 93 years old; encouraging, too, to catch Dalrymple’s reported sighting of the “8in-high pile of manuscript, some of it ring-bound, and some in folders, on which was scribbled in red felt-tip: Vol 3.”  It would be a double loss were Fermor himself to end before finishing his planned three-volume travel memoir – the second installment of which arrived over twenty years ago.

Reading A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water is an education in print, just as the 1933-35 trek recounted in the books served as an alternative university for Fermor, who had a knack for getting kicked out of school.  Without too much posturing -I think- on his own behalf, Fermor becomes in these pages a sort of everyman on pilgrimage to Byzantium, his life a bildungsroman even Childe Harold might envy.  In every wintry starving solitude he is the object of unexpected charity; in every metropolis, the consummate flâneur; under every gothic arch, the questioning, curious student; at the door of every fire-warmed baronial schloss, the adopted cousin of infinite fascination.

That particular Europe is gone.  It was on its way out even then in ’33, the year Hitler was made Chancellor.  The Rhine Valley, the Vienna, Hungary and Transylvania that Fermor describes, from the dual perspective of enthusiastic youth and world-wise soldier turned writer, is a heavy lesson in the cultural and personal costs of war: buried under a merciless weight of history, stamped out by the boots of the two great twentieth-century totalitarianisms.  But Fermor’s prose is an amber preservative, full of golden glimpses of a world-that-was.

About that prose: On first introduction you may experience the briefest hesitation, like a bather stepping into a swift, cold stream.  But then you give yourself to the current and are carried effortlessly, joyfully along.  Fermor’s is not the kind of writing that makes for the convenient collection of aphorisms or that encourages consumption in fits and starts.  It is seductive and intelligent, full of vigor and keen observation (I’m still haunted by his description of a Sunday morning in Germany, when the bells for mass pealed through the liquid atmosphere of a downpour: “We might have been in a submarine among sunk cathredrals,” he says).  Fermor’s is the kind of writing that makes for the slow, warm digestion that assures you that, yes, you’ve dined very well indeed.

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Marginalia, no.18

The plants, said Aristotle, live in a perpetual sleep; because they have only a vegetative soul, all their aim is in the flower. They have their mouth in the earth, and it is their hermaphroditic corolla that they expose to the birds of heaven, without the least repression. Literature, today, would be that plant…

~ Jacques Maritain, Art and Poetry (1943)

“Repression” being a bad word nowadays and people generally overfond of exposing their corollas in public, a reader might imagine Maritain intended a compliment; but no, it’s a critique of mindless sensualism.  As one half of a Josephite marriage, Maritain knew a thing or two about repression, I suppose.  Of course, it’s ungenerous to discount a man’s philosophy based on the incomprehensibility of his personal life, so we’ll thank him for the botanically suggestive reminder that -moving heaven downward- the head and heart take anatomical precedence over other symbolic organs.

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Marginalia, no.14

…for what is a squirrel but an airy pig, or a filbert but a sort of archangelical acorn?

~ John Keats, from a letter to J.H. Reynolds, 1818

It’s comforting to see that those whose early genius will outstrip your most mature accomplishments were nonetheless capable of spouting the same kinds of absurdities you did at age twenty-two.

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Marginalia, no.10

It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance.  To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look!  I am alive.

~ John Williams, Stoner

Can love of persons and love of art really be construed as expressions of the same basic force?  Is philanthropy (in the literal Greek sense) a subset of aesthetics – or vice versa?  Elsewhere Williams writes that love is “not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”  In Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, George Steiner writes that “literary criticism should arise out of a debt of love.”  Can we speak of a basic ecstatic impulse, to know and be known, encompassing all these things?

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Ink and Bones: Thoreau

There is an old Everyman Library edition of Thoreau that has long held a lease on my bookshelf. I bought the book when I was seventeen. I’ve hardly cracked it open in the intervening years, but thumbing through Walden recently I was surprised to see how many different passages I’d underlined.

Frankly, I’m unsure whether all this underlining is proof of adolescent precocity or pretension. At seventeen I probably imagined that marking up books was evidence of my own cleverness, or that it would help me retain and absorb into my own perspective any bits of wisdom a book had to offer. But it turns out that one’s skill with a highlighter and one’s intellectual penetration are entirely unrelated, and we hardly ever get to choose for ourselves what guides and influences our philosophic vision of life. (If I could write that down on a slip of paper and send it back in time for my seventeen-year-old self to discover tucked between the pages of Walden, I might have saved myself an awful lot of trouble.)

Still, it’s a curious exercise to skim through old books like this and see what one considered potent or arresting so many years ago. Clearly, what is memorable for a seventeen-year-old boy isn’t always memorable for a man in his thirties. As I glanced through the pages, I was mildly surprised to realize I had no memory whatsoever of any of the passages I’d once marked in that thick blue ink. I felt like I was reading the book again for the first time: all the sharp judgments Thoreau metes out on his fellow citizens, all that heady introspection, all those dreamy flourishes. One especially dreamy passage still stands out:

A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself. It may be translated into every language, and not only be read but breathed from all human lips; -not to be represented on canvas or marble only, but to be carved out of the breath of life itself.

“Choicest of relics” – The religious resonance of the term calls to mind lines of worshipers huddled outside stone cathedrals waiting to kiss the bones of saints and beg their aid. For the believer, relics communicate power, an irreducible personhood, and a special relationship to the divine. But whereas a saint’s famous book might be considered a relic in autograph, that status does not extend to the printed and disseminated word. Reprints and translations don’t count.

They count for Thoreau. No doubt it’s a function of his crypto-Protestantism, his iconoclasm, his essential American-ness. Thoreau finds in the written word a relic democratic and universal, capable, like a splinter of the True Cross, of infinite multiplication – and yet conformable to every heart, the simultaneous and legitimate possession of a million persons uniquely.

Thoreau’s own book, then, becomes a little reliquary; the words inside are his bones, persisting long after the rest of him has rotted away. Is it worth the little acts of veneration my ink marks represent? As a good Transcendentalist, Thoreau probably wouldn’t claim any special status for his own relics; by his own rules every word must have an equal relationship to the divine.

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Marginalia, no.6

You see, you are allowed to read the newspapers now.  I hope you will not attach too much importance to them.  They give you a picture of an ordinary world that does not exist.  You must always believe that life is as extraordinary as music says it is.

~ Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows

Thankfully, my own children are too young to read the papers with any understanding.  Of course, the indecipherability of something never discouraged anyone from believing in its authority.  With something similar in mind, Kurt Vonnegut wrote his own epitaph: “The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.”

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Marginalia, no.3

A facility for quotation covers the absence of original thought.

~ Dorothy Sayers, Gaudy Night

How self-incriminating is it for me to quote that? But I like to think a habit is different than a facility, and I’m much better at scribbling them down than reproducing them from memory, at least on appropriate occasions.

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