Benjamin Markovits’s Childish Loves

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The quotes below are from Benjamin Markovits’s Childish Loves (2011). Some are from the ‘contemporary’ section and some from the 18thC and 19thC pastiche. Can you tell?

  1. (In my day maybe half the English department, and a quarter of the history department, were working on novels; I was just one of a crowd.) -p. 2
  2. … and talked quite childishly about what is after all a rather childish love: I mean, the love of books. -p. 11
  3. Writers get rewarded according to their exaggerations. -p. 12
  4. I followed him into the hallway, suddenly filled with students (the noise of them like the noise of ugly birds). -p. 35
  5. Teaching is like marriage, he once said to me. ‘After thirty years of Shakespeare you got to figure it takes a certain effort of the memory to get it up.’ -p. 36
  6. Certain conversations also involve a form of arousal. -p. 48
  7. There is nothing that makes me more awkward than the duty to be pleasant[.] -p. 68
  8. I felt stupidly dejected returning home. All society disappoints you, until you become accustomed to it. Sympathy is a great illusion; there is only sometimes a coincidence of manner. -p. 69
  9. ‘I’m a mess today,’ she tended to announce when she saw me — as a matter of habit. A kind of apology for being thirty-three instead of thirteen. -p. 124
  10. That the long association with books breeds a certain manner, formal, gentle, curious, hesitant. -p. 138
  11. I liked the way she said scholar, as if it’s one of the old professions, like priest or whore. -p. 167
  12. If you want something done, there’s nothing like doing it yourself. -p. 174
  13. William Bankes likes to say that one needs the shelter of a reputation. -p. 186
  14. They call this place the University, but any other appellation would have suited it much better, for study is the last pursuit of the society. The master eats, drinks and sleeps, the Fellows drink, dispute and pun, and the employments of the undergraduates are more easily conjectured than described. -p. 187
  15. It is a great vice to think about money at all, but without it, one thinks of nothing but money. pp. 194-195
  16. But I write when no one else writes, at two in the morning, or at six; at breakfast or dinner; on sofa or lawn or bed, and in every conceivable position. Even at the mill-cottage, I have fitted up a table and furnished it with quill, ink, paper. -p. 207
  17. But perhaps I have been unfaithful, in my way — my heart always alights on the nearest perch. -p. 209
  18. She was too large to be kept like a cat and too small to be ridden like a horse. -p. 212
  19. We have all become very dull and the worst of it is, we are too dull to mind it much. -p. 230
  20. But then, we are often drawn to what displeases us. -pp. 232-233
  21. No happiness is so perfect that it does not demand more happiness. -p. 242
  22. We think the problem with adulthood is that we betrayed our childhoods to reach it. -p. 250
  23. But we have read the same books and that fact counted for more than the other differences. -p. 259
  24. Outside, across the shadows of the street, a typical college-town figure made his way: either a bum or a professor. -p. 261
  25. […] going naked was the best disguise. -p. 262 
  26. Libraries, like casinos, are designed to make you lose track of time — to forget there’s a world outside. -p. 311
  27. There is always a tax upon kindness, which is paid in further kindness. -p. 353
  28. But I have always maintained that I am the easiest of men to manage, and she had the art of it: which is, to let me do exactly as I please in the few matters on which I have an opinion, and in all other affairs to decide everything for herself. -p. 367
  29. I am not much used to making love where it was not wanted — I don’t have the art. p. 375 [You know this is from the Byron section, don’t you?]

"Stop, stop," she said. "No, go on; go on.["]


W.H. Mallock’s A Human Document (1892).
The quotes below are from the shorter New York version

  • “how deep in the mud must a woman walk before a man considers her progress interesting?” p. iv
  • “you excite expectations, though you have not yet satisfied them[.]” p. 9
  • “What is love like? I cannot even remember. You look as if you didn’t believe me; but I am not talking for effect. I have known the experience–the beginning, the middle, and the end of it, till I am as familiar with it, in one way, as I am with the journey to Brighton; but the impulse that made me undertake the journey is gone. I cannot even recall it.” p. 10
  • “First love is really like a first attempt on the fiddle. The magic and the music only come with experience. To love successfully you must often have loved in vain.” p. 11
  • I believe I am fit to marry, for this precise reason that I can no longer love. For by love, as I use the word now, and as Lady Ashford used it, what do we mean? We mean that despotic emotion which claims to extinguish, and which does extinguish while it lasts, all other emotions as the sun extinguishes a candle; which claims not to complete and crown the other blessings of life, but to supersede them. p. 24
  • … a breath of that faint unfamiliar smell which whispers to a stranger’s nerves the news that he is in a strange city. p. 36
  • “These people–I tell you you’ll be able to see it for yourself–can be charming to those whom they acknowledge their equals, and also to those who acknowledge themselves their inferiors; but to others, their insolence is something that an Englishwoman could hardly believe in.” p. 57
  • “You don’t understand women. Civility with a fine lady is often the grammar of impertinence.” p. 61
  • “But how much more important in mere point of attraction is a certain kind of bearing than beauty of face or form!” p. 65
  • “Do you see the petals?” she said. “They palpitate like the wings of butterflies.” p. 83
  • Her mood seemed to change like an English sky in April. At one moment she would be hidden behind some clouds of shyness; the next she would brighten, and show, with a happy unconscious confidence, herself and her slightest thoughts as the sky shows its blueness. p. 84
  • “I was like a book which he valued for the rarity of its binding, but which he neither could nor cared to read.” p. 130
  • “I only speak for myself. I want, personally, not to act, but to be.” p. 143
  • “I think it is Carlyle, or some German quoted by Carlyle, who says that a thought gains infinitely in value to the thinker, when he finds that another shares it.” pp. 156-157
  • “Bobby–I mean Bobby my brother–described once to me the pleasure he felt in China, at hearing in some strange place, the sound of his own language.” p. 157
  • …but some candles were burning, whose flames were like pale daffodils. p. 171
  • “Perhaps I should teach you what a strange thing a woman’s heart is. Its motto, I think, ought to be, ‘I am nothing if logical.'” p. 177
  • What may I write that shall hint of my love for you?
     ___My pen trembles idly, and doubts as it dips.
    Teach me some name that is tender enough for you:
    ___Or else hold me silent, my love, with your lips. p. 179
  • “Many hieroglyphics are very graceful in form, and so long as they are nothing but forms for us we, no doubt, think them pretty; but as soon as we learn to read them, we forget the prettiness of the letters, in thinking of the sense of the sentences.” p. 182
  • “Stop, stop,” she said. “No, go on; go on.[“] p. 205
  • Of all the troubles of life, the strained suspense of waiting, with every nerve stretched of doubt, of hope, and of hearing, in proportion to its real importance is the hardest for some temperaments to bear. pp. 223-224
  • But thoughts, however, scattered, are things which, in many cases, need only a severe enough summons to gather them together in an instant. Some men often wait idly for their thoughts to inspire their will; whereas what they really need is, that their will should compel their thoughts. p. 230
  • Everything presented the aggressive and painful neatness of a man who can think himself fashionable only when his clothes are new. p. 244 
  • “Trouble is love,” he replied, “what the night is to a star.” p. 251 “Trouble is to love,” he replied, “what the night is to a star.” p. 251 Thank you, Y, for the correction.
  • Everything on which their eyes rested was steeped in a pathetic beauty, which did not come from the sunset, though that indeed was beautiful, but which comes at any hour to things seen for the last time. p. 

Everything is Illuminated

Jonathan Safran Foer wrote his first novel Everything is Illuminated  (2002) when he was only 25.


Some quotes from the book:
1. But first I am burdened to recite my good appearance. p. 3
2. … because unless I do not want to, I do what Father tells me to do. Also, he is a first-rate puncher. p. 6
3. Dead as he was before his parents met. Or deader, maybe, for then he was at least a bullet in his father’s cock and an emptiness in his mother’s belly. p. 10
4. Thank you for the reproduction of the photograph of Augustine with her family. I have thought without end of what you said about falling in love with her. In truth, I never fathomed it when you uttered it in Ukraine. But I am certain that I fathom it now. I examine her once when it is morning, and once before I manufacture Z’s, and on every instance I see something new, some manner in which her hairs produce shadows, or her lips summarise angels. p. 24
5. I am doing something I hate for you. This is what it means to be in love. p. 27
6. In my family, father is the world champion at ending conversations. p. 27
7. “A Jewish word?” “Yiddish. Like schmuck.” “What does it mean schmuck?” ”Someone who does something that you don’t agree with is a schmuck.” “Teach me another.” “Putz.” “What does that mean?” “It’s like schmuck.” “Teach me another.” ”Schmendrink.” “What does that mean?” “It’s also like schmuck.” “Do you know any words that are not like schmuck?” He pondered for a moment. “Shalom,” he said, ”which is actually three words, but that’s Hebrew, not Yiddish. Everything I can think of is basically schmuck. The Eskimos have four hundred words for snow, and the Jews have four hundred for schmuck.” p. 60
8. Is God sad?

He would have to exist to be sad, wouldn’t He? I know, she said, giving his shoulder a little slap. That’s why I was asking, so I might finally know if you believed! Well, let me leave it at this: if God does exist, He would have a great deal to be sad about. And if He doesn’t exist, then that too would make Him quite sad, I imagine. So to answer your question, God must be sad. p. 78-79

9. Brod’s life was a slow realization that the world was not for her, and that for whatever reason, she would never be happy and honest at the same time. She felt as if she was brimming, always producing and hoarding more love inside her. But there was no release. p. 79
10. Love me, because love doesn’t exist, and I have tried everything that does. p. 82
11. ...”Deep down, the young are lonelier than the old” I read that in a book somewhere and it’s stuck in my head. Maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s not true. More likely, the young and old are lonely in different ways, in their own ways… p. 87
12. From space, astronauts can see people making love as a tiny speck of light. Not light, exactly, but a glow that could be mistaken for light — a coital radiance that takes generations to pour like honey through the darkness to the astronaut’s eyes. In about one and a half centuries — after the lovers who made the glow will have long since been laid permanently on their backs — metropolises will be seen from space. They will glow all year. Smaller cities will also be seen, but with great difficulty. Shtetls will be virtually impossible to spot. Individual couples, invisible. p. 95
13. Sentences became words became sighs became groans became grunts became light. p. 97
14. “But it’s only 6:30.” “Yes, but it will not be 6:30 forever. Look,” p. 106
15. This is love, she thought, isn’t it? When you notice someone’s absence and hate that absence more than anything? More, even, than you love his presence? p. 121
16. She loved her new vocabulary of simply loving someone more than she loved her love for that thing, and the vulnerability that went along with living in a the primary world. p. 122
17. The Kolker was trapped in his body — like a love note in an unbreakable bottle, whose script never fades or smudges, and is never read by the eyes of the intended lover — forced to hurt the one with whom he wanted most to be gentle. p. 130
18. They had never seen one another from afar. They had never known the deepest intimacy, that closeness attainable only with distance. She went to the hole and looked at him for several silent minutes. Then she backed away from the hole. He went to it and looked at her for several more silent minutes. In the silence they attained another intimacy, that of words without talking. p. 134
19. They lived with the hole The absence that defined it became a presence that defined them. Life was a small negative space cut out of the eternal solidity, and for the first time, it felt precious — not like all of the words that had come to mean nothing, but like the last breath of a drowning victim. p. 135
20. So they strung their minutes like pearls on an hour-string. p. 137
21. With writing, we have second chances. p. 144
22. Everything is the way it is because everything was the way it was. p. 145
23. First, I must describe that Augustine had a very unusual walk, which went from here to there with heaviness. She could not move any faster than slow. p. 146
24. He knew that I love you also means I love you more than anyone loves you, or has loved you, or will love you, and also, I love you in a way that no one loves you, or has loved you, or will love you, and also, I love you in a way that I love no one else, and never have loved anyone else, and never will love anyone else. He knew that it is, by love’s definition, impossible to love two people. p. 170
25. My grandfather was in love with the smell of women. He carried their scents around on his fingers like rings, and on the end of his tongue like words — unfamiliar combinations of familiar odors. In this way, Lista held a special place in his memory — although she was hardly unique in being a virgin, or a one-episode lover — as being the only partner to inspire him to bathe. p. 172
26. Jews Have Six Senses
Tough, taste, sight, smell, hearing … memory. While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer,or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks — when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain — that th Jew is able to know why it hurts.
When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like? p. 198-199
27. Art
Art is that thing having to do only with itself–the product of a successful attempt to make a work of art. Unfortunately, there are no examples of art, nor good reasons to think that it will ever exist. (Everything that has been made has been made with a purpose, everything with an end that exists outside that thing, i.e., I want to sell this or I want this to make me famous and loved, or I want this to make me whole, or worse, I want this to make others whole.) And yet we continue to write, paint, sculpt, and compose. Is this foolish of us? p. 202
28. God loves the plagiarist. And so it is written, “God created humankind in His image, in the image of God He created them.” God is the original plagiarizer. p. 206
29. The end of the world has come often, and continues to come. Unforgiving, unrelenting, bringing darkness upon darkness, the end of the world is something we have become well acquainted with, habitualized, made into a ritual. It is our religion to try to forget it in its absence, make peace with it when it is undeniable, and return its embrace when it finally comes for us, as it always does. p. 210
30. SADNESS OF THE INTELLECT: Sadness of being misunderstood [sic]; Humor sadness; Sadness of love wit[hou]t release; Sadne[ss of be]ing smart; Sadness of not knowing enough words to [express what you mean]; Sadness of having options; Sadness of wanting sadness; Sadness of confusion; Sadness of domes[tic]ated birds; Sadness of fini[shi]ing a book; Sadness of remembering; Sadness of forgetting; Anxiety sadness … p. 211-212
31. Not one of his friends — if it could be said that he had any other friends — knew about the Gypsy girl, and none of his other women knew about the Gypsy Girl, and his parents, of course, didn’t know about the Gypsy girl. She was such a tightly kept secret that sometimes he felt that not even he was privy to his relationship with her. She knew of his efforts to conceal her from the rest of his world, to keep her cloistered in a private chamber reachable only by a secret passage, to put her behind a wall. She knew that even if he thought he loved her, he did not love her. p. 232
32. Do not change. p. 234
33. To feel alone is to be alone. That’s what it is. p. 237
34. (You do not have to be shamed in my closeness. Family are the people who must never make you feel ashamed.)
(You are wrong. Family are the people who must make you feel ashamed when you are deserving of shame.) p. 245
35. The only thing more painful than being an active forgetter is to be an inert rememberer. p. 260

London Assurance

Last May, we went to the National Theatre for a revival of London Assurance, an early Victorian comedy by Dion Boucicault (1841). The play received consistently good notices and we can see why. Although far from a perfect play, the revival was terrifically funny from start to finish.
I am not going to give too many details of the convoluted plot, suffice to say the play has many elements of classic comedy including mistaken identities, elaborate deceptions, vanity, over-the-top characters and a slightly contrived happy ending which manages to tie up all the loose ends. If formulaic, however, the play is also very witty (see some quotes below) and comparing the original to the revival, we can see that the director has made some well judged contemporary updates, which accentuate the humour for modern audience.
Still, it was the cast that brought the jokes to life. The two stars of the show, Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw (the latter we have also watched in Mother Courage and Her Children), were both extremely funny. Beale, playing a vain yet aging London socialite Lord Harcourt Courtly, was captivating (as you can see, the characters’ names mirror their personality). He imbued Courtly with an exaggerated effeminacy, which would fall completely flat with a less skilled actor. Yet, with Beale, Harcourt’s every gesture was hilarious. Shaw was no slouch herself. She brought her characteristic vitality and energy to Lady Gay Spanker. The moments between the two were some of the strongest in the play, especially a scene in which Lord Harcourt proposed to Lady Gay, by comically throwing a pillow onto the ground so he could kneel on it without hurting himself. Some of the other stand-outs included Nick Sampson as Cool, the sardonic valet and Richard Briers as Mr Adolphus Spanker, Lady Gay’s aged husband. Briers was so well-cast as an old man completely under his wife’s thumb that from the second of his first entrance the audience was already laughing (true story!). Finally, there was Paul Ready as Charles Courtly, Lord Courtly’s son. He was strong throughout but really shone in several wonderfully awkward love scenes between him and Grace Harkaway (played by Michelle Terry, whom we watched in All Well’s That Ends Well).
The rest of the cast was less memorable, although I think part of the problem lied with their characters. For example, the meddling lawyer, Mark Meddle (played by Tony Jayawardena), fell flat, probably because it is an overdrawn stereotype of Victorian attitudes towards solicitors. We have heard a million lawyer jokes and they are just not funny anymore. Likewise, we found the scoundrel Richard Dazzle (played by Matt Cross) less than dazzling. By the end of the play, one was left annoyed every time the character appeared.
The set was cleverly put together, switching between the façade and breakfast room of a London house and the exterior and interior of a country estate. The outside of the country estate was particularly convincing, complete with tree tops and misty background. There was also live music in the play, and musicians filled the scene changes and provided the soundtrack to a country dance. During this scene, the audience began clapping in rhythm as the characters danced to the tune. At the end of the curtain call, the musicians reprised an earlier tune, and the audience automatically switched from applause to rhythmic beat-keeping. This instance of community was one of the most enjoyable theatre moments I have had.

Below are quotes from Dion Boucicault’s play London Assurance (1841). 

  • A valet is as difficult a post to fill properly as that of prime minister. (p. 8 )
  • [Max:] I’m a plain man and always speak my mind. What’s in a face or figure? Does a Grecian nose entail a good temper? Does a waspish waist indicate a good heart? Or do oily, perfumed locks necessarily thatch a well-furnished brain? [Sir Harcourt:] It’s an undeniable fact; plain people always praise the beauties of the mind. (p. 14)
  • No; she lived fourteen months with me and then eloped with an intimate friend. Etiquette compelled me to challenge the seducer. So I received satisfaction — and a bullet in my shoulder at the same time. However, I had the consolation of knowing that he was the handsomest man of the age. She did not insult me by running away with a damned ill-looking scoundrel. (p. 14)
  • So, a man must therefore lose his wife and his money with a smile — in fact, everything he possesses but his temper. (p. 15)
  • Oh, a most intimate friend, a friend of years, distantly related to the family, one of my ancestors married one of his. (Aside.) Adam and Eve. (p. 18)
  • The bottle, that lends a lustre to the soul. When the world puts on its nightcap and extinguishes the sun, then comes the bottle. Oh, mighty wine! Don’t ask me to apostrophise. Wine and love are the only two indescribable things in nature; but I prefer the wine, because its consequences are not entailed, and are more easily got rid of. (p. 20)
  • Love is a pleasant scapegoat for a little epidemic madness. (p. 27)
  • [Grace:] Pert, remember, this as a maximum; a woman is always in love with one of two things. [Pert:] What are they, miss? [Grace:] A man, or herself — and I know which is the most profitable. (p. 27)
  • [Pert, speaking to Meddle, a solicitor:] Vulgar! You talk of vulgarity to me; you, whose sole employment is to sneak about like a pig snouting out the dust-hole of society and feeding upon the bad ends of vice; you, who live upon the world’s iniquity; you miserable specimen of a bad six and eightpence. (p. 29)
  • It strikes me, sir, that you are a stray bee from the hive of fashion. If so, reserve your honey for its proper cell. (p. 33)
  • [Courtly:] How can you manage to kill time? [Grace:] I can’t. Men talk of killing time, while time quietly kills them. (p. 34)
  • Love! Why, the very word is a breathing satire upon man’s reason, a mania, indigenous to humanity, nature’s jester, who plays off tricks upon the world and trips up common sense. When I’m in love I’ll write an almanac for very lack of wit, prognosticate the sighing season, when to beware of tears: ‘about this time, expect matrimony to be prevalent!’ Ha! ha! Why should I lay out my life in love’s bonds upon the bare security of a man’s word? (p. 35)
  • Sir, you are very good. The honour is undeserved, but I am only in the habit of receiving compliments from the fair sex. Men’s admiration is so damnably insipid. (p. 40)
  • I love to watch the first tear that glistens in the opening eye of morning, the silent song the flowers breathe, the thrilly choir of the woodland minstrels, to which the modest brook trickles applause; these, swelling out the sweetest chord of sweet creation’s matins, seem to pour some soft and merry tale into the daylight’s ear, as if the waking world had dreamed a happy thing and now smiled o’er the telling of it. (pp. 52-53)
  • I have a husband somewhere, though I can’t find him just now. (p. 55)
  • You shall be king, and I’ll be your prime minister. That is, I will rule and you shall have the honour of taking the consequences. (p. 56)
  • Have your own way. It is the only thing we women ought to be allowed. (p. 56)
  • Ah, my dear, philosophers say that man is the creature of an hour — it is the dinner hour, I suppose. (p. 68)
  • [Lady Gay:] Am I not married? [Sir Harcourt:] What a horrible state of existence! (p. 79)
  • Dictate the oath. May I grow wrinkled, may two inches be added to the circumstances of my waist, may I lose the fall in my back, may I be old and ugly the instant I forego one tithe of adoration! (p. 82)
  • Veni, vidi, vici! Hannibal, Caesar, Napoleon, Alexander never completed so fair a conquest in so short a time. She dropped fascinated. This is an unprecedented example of the irresistible force of personal appearance combined with polish address. (p. 83)
  • No, hesitation destroys the romance of a faux pas and reduces it to the level of a mere mercantile calculation. (p. 88)
  • [W]oman is at best but weak, and weeds become me. (p. 96)
  • Nature made me a gentleman, that is, I live on the best that can be procured for credit. I never spend my own money when I can oblige a friend. (p. 109)
  • The title of gentleman is the only one out of any monarch’s gift, yet within the reach of every peasant. It should be engrossed by Truth, stamped with Honour, sealed with Good feeling, signed Man and enrolled in every true young English heart. (p. 109)


The Line of Beauty

The title of Allan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty (2004) is a reference to William Hogarth’s The Analysis of Beauty (1801):
the wavering line, which is a line more productive of beauty […], as in flowers, and other forms of ornamental kind: for which reason we shall call it the line of beauty.

Nick, the protagonist of Hollinghurt’s book, uses the expression to describe the body of a lover at one point:
The double curve was Hogarth’s ‘line of beauty’, the snakelike flicker of an instinct, of two compulsions held in one unfolding movement. He ran his hand down Wani’s back. He didn’t think Hogarth had illustrated this best example of it, the dip and swell — he had chosen harps and branches, bones rather than flesh. Really it was time for a new Analysis of Beauty. (p. 200)

In the article “Writing the Gay ’80s with Henry James: David Leavitt’s A Place I’ve Never Been and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (2005), published in Henry James Review, Julie Rivkin says some more about ‘the line of beauty’:
The title The Line of Beauty, which refers to William Hogarth’s theory that visual beauty inheres in a particular S-shaped curve, comprehends a narrative line that links aesthetic experience to all that enables it. The term has many referents, from the curves of the beautiful male bodies that arouse Nick’s desire to the architectural turns that fill the spaces he inhabits to the turns of phrase he rather portentously cites from James. (p. 289)

I picked up The Line of Beauty again because its main character, Nick Guest, is a gay PhD student writing a thesis on Henry James (James’s own sexuality is a topic alluded to in Colm Tóibín’s The Master (2004)). As some of you might know, I am interested in the representation of all things Victorian in contemporary fiction.

It turns out that in The Line of Beauty, references to James and his works are plenty, so are descriptions of penises. Different states of arousal. The angles of their jutting out illusively or decisively under the trousers: horizontal, diagonal. A passage I rather admired:
He [Nick] felt deliciously brainwashed by sex, when he closed his eyes phallus chased phallus like a wallpaper across the dark, and at any moment the imagery of anal intercourse, his new triumph and skill, could gallop in surreal montage across the street or classroom or dining table. (p. 155)
The novel is set in the 1980s (to be precise, 1983-1987) when Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister (‘The Lady herself … Mrs T!’) and homosexuality was not normally discussed openly. 
Nick Guest, who lives in his rich friend Toby Fedden’s house in Kensington (Nicholas and Tobias went to Oxford together), reminded me of The Great Gatsby‘s famous ‘unreliable’ narrator Nick Carraway (they even share the same first name), The Secret History‘s Richard Papen and even Special Topics in Calamity Science‘s Blue van Meer. Far from a servant (but like a governess or perhaps, a butler) and not quite a family member, Nick never really belongs and he is conscious and insecure about that. Interestingly, Nick occupies the attic room – a meaningful space in literature. Nick’s surname tellingly describes his status: he is only a ‘guest’. Gerald Fedden, Toby’s father and a Tory MP, sums up Nick’s position at the end of the book:
[I]t’s an old homo trick. You can’t have a real family, so you attach yourself to someone else’s. And I suppose after a while you just couldn’t bear it, you must have been very envious I think of everything we have, and coming from your background too perhaps … and you’ve wreaked some pretty awful revenge on us as a result […] I mean — I ask you again, who are you? What the fuck are you doing here? (pp. 481, 482)
One clarification: Nick does have a ‘real family’ but his humble parents (Don and Dot Guest) are just not as glamorous as the Feddens and he seems to be constantly ashamed of them — Don is an antique dealer in Barwick; one of his areas of expertise is winding clocks. And Gerald’s reproach about ‘awful revenge on us’ is not an exaggeration — Nick snorts coke and of course, engage in sexual activities, in the house.
Gerald’s question is good. What is Nick doing in the house? He is there partly to provide an outsider’s view of the life of the rich, surely. He is the reader’s stand-in. He is us. This is a classic narrative device which I am slightly wary and bored of now. Think of the books I already mentioned, and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-61) and Evelyn Waugh’s Bridehead Revisited (1945), among others. Some of the characters in these books manage to transform others and some are forcefully transformed. The peril of the social other. (Of course one can also argue that all books are about transformation.)
There is one moment in the book which I quite liked. Towards the end, we are told that Nick’s first lover, Leo, dies (of Aids; quite a few characters die of it in the book and it is strongly hinted at that Nick himself is HIV positive), and when Leo’s sister breaks the news to Nick (the lovers have split at this point), she shows him the first letter he wrote to Leo:

He only glanced at what he’d written, on the Feddens’ embossed letter-head — the small size, meant for social thank-yous, because he hadn’t much to say. The writing itself looked quaint and studied, though he remembered Leo had praised it: ‘Hello!’ he’d begun, since of course he hadn’t yet known Leo’s name. The cross-stroke of the H curled back under the uprights like a dog’s tail. He saw he’d mentioned Bruckner, Henry James, all his Interests — very artlessly, but it hadn’t mattered, and indeed they had never been mentioned again, when the two of them were together. At the top there was Leo’s annotations in pencil: Pretty. Rich? Too young? This had been struck through later by a firm red tick. (p. 400)
How romantic. Who write letters these days? Wouldn’t it be nice to have some sort of physical mementos to remember one’s association with another person with? We send emails, facebook messages, text messages today. And tomorrow there’s nothing substantial, tangible that you can touch and hold. And… what an imposter Nick is, using the Feddens’s letterhead.
The drug, the alcohol, the sex and the money of high society reminded me of Katie Rophie’s article “The Allure of Messiness”, which is about a recent season of Mad Men.

The Line of Beauty is divided into three parts: “The love chord”, “To whom do you beautifully belong” and “The end of the street”. The structure made it easy for Andrew Davies to adapt it for a three-part TV series: ‘Andrew found the novel lent itself well to adaptation. Nick’s story fitted neatly into three parts, and the detail with which Alan had drawn his characters meant that there was loads of brilliant dramatic material that Andrew could distil and shape.’ (via.)
“To whom do you beautifully belong” is from a line in James’s play The High Bid (1907). To whom do you beautifully belong? To the highest bidder, of course. But is one still beautiful, if one can be bought?

Leo and Nick from the BBC adaptation of The Line of Beauty, 2006
  • Nick, in his secret innocence, felt a certain respect for her [Catherine Fedden, Toby’s sister] experience with men: to have so many failures required a high rate of preliminary success. p. 8
  • A shared passion for a subject, large or small, could quickly put two strangers into a special state of subdued rapture and rivalry, distantly resembling love; but you had to hit on the subject. p. 27
  • Nick loved the upper-class economy of her talk, her way of saying nothing except by hinted shades of agreement and disagreement; he longed to master it himself. p. 47
  • Sometimes his memory of books he pretended to have read became almost as vivid as that of books he had read and half-forgotten, by some fertile process of auto-suggestion. p. 53
  • He wondered if he could have a crush on this waiter too — it only needed a couple of sightings, the current mood of frustration, and a single half-conscious decision, and then the boy’s shape would be stamped on his mind and make his pulse race whenever he appeared. p. 77
  • He wanted pure compliments, just as he wanted unconditional love. p. 102
  • Don’t say, “Jesus fucking bullocks.” p. 152
  • [Nick:] ‘I’m just doing something on style in the — oh, in the English novel!’ ‘Aaah yes,’ said Mrs Charles [Leo’s mother], with a nod, as if to say that this was something infinitely superior but also of course fairly foolish. pp. 158-159
  • The thing about the cinema was that they seemed to share in the long common history of happy snoggers and gropers, and Nick liked that. p. 167
  • To apologize for what you most wanted to do, to concede that it was obnoxious, boring, ‘vulgar and unsafe’ — that was the worst thing. p. 174
  • [Talking about Harrods] the mother of all bloody food halls in the whole world!
  • And then, god, how would a pretty little poof with an Oxford accent survive in prison? They’d all after his arse. p. 233
  • The pursuit of love seemed to need the cultivation of indifference. p. 240
  • Perhaps being old friends didn’t mean very much, they shared assumptions rather than lives. p. 292
  • I know people take it very personally when they find they’ve been kept out of a secret. But really secrets are sort of impersonal. They’ve simply things that can’t be told, irrespective of who they can’t be told to. p. 469
  • [Last sentence in the book] It wasn’t just this street corner but the fact of a street corner at all that seemed, in the light of the moment, so beautiful. p. 501

Postscript: Howard Jacobson, whose novel The Finkler Question won the Booker Prize 2010, says: ‘I thought I’m two or three years away from my 40th birthday and it [writing a novel] hasn’t happened. And the reason was I was trying to write like Henry James. Novels were about country houses, for fuck’s sake. The only pity was I’d never been in one. It took me a long time to realise my material could be the world that I’d grown up in.’ (via.) (Also see “The Country House and the English Novel”.)

Sensuality in Thomas Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)

“The superiority of intellectual to sensual pleasures consists rather in their filling up more time, in their having a larger range, and in their being less liable to satiety, than in their being more real and essential.”

“Intemperance in every enjoyment defeats its own purpose. A walk in the finest day through the most beautiful country, if pursued too far, ends in pain and fatigue. The most wholesome and invigorating food, eaten with an unrestrained appetite, produces weakness instead of strength. Even intellectual pleasures, though certainly less liable than others to satiety, pursued with too little intermission, debilitate the body, and impair the vigour of the mind. To argue against the reality of these pleasures from their abuse seems to be hardly just. Morality, according to Mr Godwin, is a calculation of consequences, or, as Archdeacon Paley very justly expresses it, the will of God, as collected from general expediency. According to either of these definitions, a sensual pleasure not attended with the probability of unhappy consequences does not offend against the laws of morality, and if it be pursued with such a degree of temperance as to leave the most ample room for intellectual attainments, it must undoubtedly add to the sum of pleasurable sensations in life. Virtuous love, exalted by friendship, seems to be that sort of mixture of sensual and intellectual enjoyment particularly suited to the nature of man, and most powerfully calculated to awaken the sympathies of the soul, and produce the most exquisite gratifications.”

“Urged by the passion of love, men have been driven into acts highly prejudicial to the general interests of society, but probably they would have found no difficulty in resisting the temptation, had it appeared in the form of a woman with no other attractions whatever but her sex. To strip sensual pleasures of all their adjuncts, in order to prove their inferiority, is to deprive a magnet of some of its most essential causes of attraction, and then to say that it is weak and inefficient.”

“In the pursuit of every enjoyment, whether sensual or intellectual, reason, that faculty which enables us to calculate consequences, is the proper corrective and guide. It is probable therefore that improved reason will always tend to prevent the abuse of sensual pleasures, though it by no means follows that it will extinguish them.”

“It is a truth, which history I am afraid makes too clear, that some men of the highest mental powers have been addicted not only to a moderate, but even to an immoderate indulgence in the pleasures of sensual love.”

“All that I can say is, that the wisest and best men in all ages had agreed in giving the preference, very greatly, to the pleasures of intellect; and that my own experience completely confirmed the truth of their decisions; that I had found sensual pleasures vain, transient, and continually attended with tedium and disgust; but that intellectual pleasures appeared to me ever fresh and young, filled up all my hours satisfactorily, gave a new zest to life, and diffused a lasting serenity over my mind. If he believe me, it can only be from respect and veneration for my authority. “

“At some future time perhaps, real satiety of sensual pleasures, or some accidental impressions that awakened the energies of his mind, might effect that, in a month, which the most patient and able expostulations might be incapable of effecting in forty years.”


About parrots – “Him choke from prejudice”


  • See this post about a famous parrot in the literary world.
  • In Paul West’s Lord Byron’s Doctor (1989), J. W. Polidori writes, ‘He [Byron] never actually said Pretty Polly, but it was in his eye, all right, and I suppose I was a bit of a parrot when around him, aping his this and that or pretending that I, like he, could fall upon a chambermaid in some foreign town like a thunderbolt, after having borne the horn to do it with all the way from London, by stagecoach, packet, coach again.’ (p. 3)
  • Jean Rhys gives Antoinette Mason a parrot.
  • ‘If she [Ellen Terry] was shipwrecked abroad and returned to find George remarried, she would dance the sailor’s hornpipe and set up house with a parrot.’ –Lynne Truss’s Tennyson’s Gift (1996)
  • The tragic fate of the parrot in Derek Walcott’s play Pantomime (155-156):
JACKSON
(…JACKSON returns dressed as Crusoe–goatskin hat, open umbrella…. He throws something across the room to HARRY‘s feet. The dead parrot, in a carry-away box. HARRYopens it)
One parrot, to go! Or you eating it here?
HARRY
You son of a bitch.
JACKSON
Sure.
(HARRY picks up the parrot and hurls it into the sea)
First bath in five years.
(JACKSON moves toward the table, very calmly)
HARRY
You’re a bloody savage. Why’d you strangle him?
JACKSON
(As Friday)
Me na strangle him, bwana. Him choke from prejudice.
HARRY
Prejudice? A bloody parrot. The bloody thing can’t reason.
(Pause. They stare at each other. HARRY crouches, titles his head, shifts on his perch, flutters his wings like the parrot, squawks)
Heinegger. Heinegger…. You people create nothing. You imitate everything. It’s all been done before, you see, Jackson. The parrot. Think that’s something? It’s from The Seagull. It’s from Miss Julie. You can’t ever be original, boy. That’s the trouble with shadows, right? They can’t think for themselves…. So you take it out on a parrot. Is that one of your African sacrifices, eh?
  • The parrot in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe:
The map below, published in Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: With his Vision of the Angelick World (London, 1720), depicts “Robinson Crusoe’s Island”. The parrot which takes the central place is speaking the words, “Poor Robinson Cruso”.
Bob W. said: After Monty Python, it is difficult to take one’s dead parrots seriously.
I said: Thank you, Bob, for reminding me of that sketch!


I particularly liked the various expressions used to refer to the state of the parrot: ‘It’s not pining, it’s passed on. This parrot is no more. It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late parrot. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed it to the perch, it would be pushing up the daisies. It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot.’
Mark said: Mark said: Would that be the South American macaw, or the African grey variety? (The latter are much better talkers.) ;)
-B

Recollection 22 – Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot

Here are some quotes from Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot which I found particularly interesting.
  • Isn’t the most reliable form of pleasure, Flaubert implies, the pleasure of anticipation? Who needs to burst into fulfilment’s desolate attic? p. 4
  • When I was a medical student some pranksters at an end-of-term dance released into the hall a piglet which had been smeared with grease. It squirmed between legs, evaded capture, squealed a lot. People fell over trying to grasp it, and were made to look ridiculous in the process. The past often seems to behave like that piglet. p. 5
  • Is the writer much more than a sophisticated parrot? p. 10
  • You can define a net in one of two ways, depending on your point of view. Normally, you would say that it is a meshed instrument designed to catch fish. But you could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define a net as a jocular lexicographer once did: he called it a collection of holes tied together with string. p. 35
  • ‘Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.’ – Madame Bovary p. 51
  • … he reminds her that we are all caged birds, and that life weighs the heaviest on those with the largest wings. p. 61
  • I’d ban coincidences, if I were a dictator of fiction. p. 71
  • When you’re young you prefer the vulgar months, the fullness of the seasons. As you grow older you learn to like the in-between times, the months that can’t make up their minds. Perhaps it’s a way of admitting that things can’t ever bear the same certainty again. p. 91
  • Books are not life, however much we might prefer it if they were. p. 95
  • You can have your cake and eat it; the only trouble is, you get fat. p. 97
  • How do we seize the past? How do we seize the foreign past? We read, we learn, we ask, we remember, we are humble; and then a casual detail shifts everything. p. 100
  • Do you know what Nabokov said about adultery in his lecture on Madame Bovary? He said it was ‘a most conventional way to rise above the conventional’. p. 102
  • Style does arise from subject-matter. p. 107
  • ‘Don’t look at me, that’s misleading. If you want to know what I’m like, wait until we’re in a tunnel, and then study my reflection in the window.’ p. 108
  • Some Italian once wrote that critic secretly wants to kill the writer. Is that true? Up to a point. We all hate golden eggs. Bloody golden eggs again, you can hear the critics mutter as a good novelist produces yet another good novel; haven’t we had enough omelettes this year? p. 110
  • The past is a distant, receding coastline, and we are all in the same boat. Along the stern rail there is a line of telescopes; each brings the shore into focus at a given distance. If the boat is becalmed, one of the telescopes will be in continual use; it will seem to tell the whole, the unchanging truth. But this is an illusion; and as the boat sets off again, we return to our normal activity: scurrying from one telescope to another, seeing the sharpness fade in one, waiting for the blur to clear in another. And when the blur does clear, we imagine that we have made it do so all by ourselves. p. 114
  • Everything confuses. Directness also confuses. p. 116
  • Soft cheeses collapse, firm cheeses indurate. Both go mouldy. p. 117
  • ‘Superior to everything is — Art. A book of poetry is preferable to a railway’ –Intimate Notebook, 1840. p. 124
  • A pier is a disappointed bridge; yet stare at it for long enough and you can dream it to the other side of the Channel. p. 141
  • But women scheme when they are weak, they lie out of fear. Men scheme when they are strong, they lie out of arrogance. p. 162
  • He didn’t really like travel, of course. He liked the idea of travel, and the memory of travel, but not travel itself. p. 168
  • You do not dismiss love the way you dismiss your hairdresser. p. 169
  • They are scarcely adult, some men: they wish women understand them, and to that end they tell them all their secrets; and then, when they are properly understood, they hate their women for understanding them. p. 175
  • He said that there were three preconditions for happiness – stupidity, selfishness and good health. p. 175
  • True love can survive absence, death and infidelity, he once told me; true lovers can go ten years without meeting. p. 175
  • ‘Pride is one thing: a wild beast which lives in caves and roams the desert; Vanity, on the other hand, is a parrot which hops from branch to branch and chatters away in full view.’ p. 180
  • ‘It is better to waste your old age than to do nothing about it.’ p. 185
  • WHORES
    Necessary in the nineteenth century for the contraction of syphilis, without which no one could claim genius. Wearers of the red badge of courage include Flaubert, Daudet, Maupassant, Jules de Goncourt, Baudelaire, etc. Were there any writers unafflicted by it? If so, they were probably homosexual. p. 188
  • Who needs whom more: the disciple the master, or the master the disciple? p. 189
  • … speed, of course, is always exaggerated by those standing still. p. 193
  • How happy is happy enough? It sounds like a grammatical mistake – happy enough, like rather unique – but it answers the need for a phrase. p. 197
  • Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t. I’m not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people’s lives, never your own. p. 201
  • Lovers are like Siamese twins, two bodies with a single soul; but if one dies before the other, the survivor has a corpse to lug around. p. 202
  • ‘Criticism occupies the lowest rung in the hierarchy of literature: as regards form, almost always, and as regards moral worth, incontestably. It’s lower even than rhyming games and acoustics, which at least demand a modicum of invention.’ — Letter to Louise Colet, June 28th, 1853. p. 207
  • Why are they so keen to turn learning into a game? They love to make it childish, even for adults. Especially for adults. p. 228

==========

JM said: Whoa nelly! That’s a whole whack of quotes. I got about halfway and then had to stop – here – phew! – for a breather. Loved the writer as glorified parrot line. Sophisticated. Whatever. Ditto most all the others, especially the one about anticipation.

Particularly connected to my soul was the notion of how with age we come to love the in-between times. Those fuzzy not quite fall, nearly winter times, in particular for this sweater wearing chicken. I feel the same way about actors these days, finding myself so much more drawn to the “second banana” actors, the character actors in films, the bit part players, the journeymen workers (ie. the British actors in American films) rather than the big name stars.
***
Webmaster said: I found the three preconditions to true happiness dead on. Explains why I am happy at least.
***
Yamabuki said: “When you’re young you prefer the vulgar months, the fullness of the seasons. As you grow older you learn to like the in-between times, the months that can’t make up their minds. Perhaps it’s a way of admitting that things can’t ever bear the same certainty again.” p. 91 Julian Barnes’ “Flaubert’s Parrot”
When I was young
I knew little or nothing
I hardly even knew
That I knew nothing
I did know
That I loved Chocolate
And looking at the Moon
Late at night
Now that I’m older
I know better
How little I really know
And how little it matters
Still
When I look at the Moon
I feel her love
Shining down on me
And that’s
Enough


The Habit of Art

Last December, we went to see Alan Bennett’s new play, The Habit of Art, which is about an imaginary meeting between W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten (this is in a way similar to Adam Fould’s novel The Quickening Maze, which centres on an imagery meeting between John Clare and the young Tennyson). We bought the tickets primarily to see Michael Gambon. Unfortunately he was not well enough to perform and was replaced by the excellent Richard Griffiths (whom we liked from The History Boys). Was the show good? Suffice it to say that at the interval I went to buy a signed copy of the play. And I got to see Gambon in Krapp’s Last Tape, which I wrote about here

The Habit of Art has many memorable quotes; I’ll try to include only those related to writing.
  • So let’s talk about the vanity. This one, the connoisseur of emptiness, is tipped for the Nobel Prize yet still needs to win at Monopoly. That playwright’s skin is so thin he can feel pain on the other side of the world … so why is he deaf to the suffering next door? Proud of his modesty, this one gives frequent, rare interviews in which he aggregates praise and denudes others of credit. Artists celebrated for their humanity, they turn out to be scarcely human at all.
  • Why poets should be interviewed I can’t think. A writer is not a man of action. His private life is or should be of no concern to anyone except himself, his family and his friends. The rest is impertinence.
  • Poetry to me is as much a craft as an art and I have always prided myself on being able to turn my hand to anything — a wedding hymn, a requiem, a loyal toast … No job too small. I would have been happy to have hunt up a shingle in the street: “W. H. Auden. Poet.”
  • Writers in particular perceive biography as a threat, something I had still to learn. Poets are particularly vulnerable to biography because readers naturally assume they are sincere, that their verses are dispatches from the heart, the self at its most honest. When the biographer reveals the self is sometimes quite different, the poet is thought a hypocrite. I’m thinking of Robert Frost.
  • When I was young my poems were often reports from the top of my head. I wrote the first thing that occurred to me and it was poetry. Now when I take more care, and it truly is a dispatch from the heart … it is not poetry at all.
  • Do you mind not doing that? You should not quote a poet’s words back at him. It is a betrayal of trust. A poem is a confidence. Besides which many of my poems embarrass me. they don’t seem — Dr Leavis’s word — authentic. People tell me off for censoring my poems, rewriting them, or cutting some well-loved lines. I tell them it’s because I can no longer endorse those particular sentiments, but it’s also because I’m fed up with hearing them quoted. (Ironically.) ‘We must love one another or we die.’ (Shudders.)
  • This is England all over. Hasn’t even mastered fellatio.
  • The play is not about cocksucking.
  • The genitals are fascinating too, because they’re shape-shifting. Subject to desire obviously, but to fear and cold and the innate propensity of all flesh to creep. The penis has a personal character every bit as much as its owner and very often the two are quite different. Have you found that? Men are incongruously equipped in their very essence ….
  • I have the habit of art. I write poems of a cosy domesticity trying to catch the few charred emotions that scuttle across my lunefied landscape. Still, writing is apparently therapeutic. That’s what they say these days, isn’t it? It is therapeutic. When I was young I envied Hardy’s hawk-like vision… his way of looking at life from a great height. I tried to do that, only now I suppose I have come down to earth. He has taken the words out of my mouth.
  • What I fear is that on Judgement Day one’s punishment will be to hear God reciting by heart the poems I would have written had my life been good.
  • Readers are so literal-minded. If you say you’re fond of somewhere, the question that arises in the ordinary reader’s mind is why, if you like it so much, don’t you go and live there. ‘You talk about Westmoreland but you live in New York. You’re a hypocrite.’
  • We do not contain life. It contains us, holds us sometimes in its jaws. The senile, the demented, life has them in its teeth … in the cracks and holes of its teeth, maybe, but still in its teeth. They cannot let go of it until it lets go of them.
  • There are some writers who set their sights on the Nobel Prize before they even pick up the pen. Elias Canetti is like that. And I’m afraid Thomas Mann. Never underestimate the role of the will in the artistic life. Some writers are all will. Talent you can dispense with, but not will. Will is paramount. Not joy, not delight, but grim application.
  • When I was young I used to leave meaning to chance. If it sounded right I left the meaning take care of itself. It’s why I find some of my early stuff so embarrassing. […] Except that now I’m more scrupulous and make an effort to tell the truth, people say it’s dull and my early stuff was better.
  • This is the nature of style. It imposes itself. […] Style is the sum of one’s imperfections… what one can’t do, as much as what one can…
  • Death isn’t the payment. Death is just the checkout.
  • Dirt is everywhere.
  • Or whatever age it is nowadays that beauty can be legally admired. The boy Thomas Mann actually saw and took a fancy to was eleven. Mann wrote him up as being fourteen. Now you’re suggesting sixteen. At this rate he’ll soon be drawing a pension.
  • Our passport is what we have written.
  • There’s no malice in it. It’s just an entirely human desire for completion… the mild satisfaction of drawing a line under you. Death shapes a life. Dead, you see, you belong to your admirers in your entirety. They own you. They can even quote you to your face — only it will be a dead face — at your memorial service perhaps, or when they unveil the stone in Westminster Abbey. Over and done with: W. H. Auden. Benjamin Britten. Next.
  • I would find it intolerable myself if only because of the degree of self-relegation involved. A biographer is invariably second-rank even when he or she is first-rate.
  • (This is the ‘rent-boy’ speaking) No, not Caliban, whoever he was. And not in the language of Henry James, or any other tosser. No. Me. Us. Here. Now. When do we figure and get to say our say? The great men’s lives are neatly parcelled for posterity, but what about us? When do we take our bow? Not in biography. Not even in diaries.’A boy came around. Picked up on the hill. Didn’t stay.”Your grandfather was sucked off by W. H. Auden.”Benjamin Britten sat naked on the side of my bath.’Because if nothing else, we at least contributed. We were in attendance, we boys of art. And though there’s the odd photograph, nobody remembers who they’re of: uncaptioned or ‘with an unidentified friend’, unnamed girls, unnameable boys, the flings, the tricks. The fodder of art.
  • It cannot be said too often: what matters is the work. That night in Vienna I read from my poem on the death of Yeats.
Earth, receive an honoured guest;
William Yeats is laid to rest:
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde

Peter Ackroyd’s The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983) is a fictional memoir of Wilde, written (supposedly) between 9 August 1900 and his death on 30 November that year. In the book, Wilde writes in a letter to a friend, ‘the world does not care for memoirs from those it has already forgotten. And so I write for myself — at least I am a good audience’ (p. 110).

  • So it is that the English treat me as a criminal, while my friends continue to regard me as martyr. I do not mind: in that combination I have become the perfect representative of the artist. p. 2
  • I have lied to so many people — but I have committed the unforgivable sin. I have lied to myself. p. 3
  • There are some artists who ask questions, and others who provide answers. I will give the answer and, in the next world, wait impatiently for the question to be asked. p. 5
  • What captivity has been to the Jews, exile has been to the Irish. For us, the romance of our native land begins only after we have left home; it is really only with other people that we become Irishmen. I once said to William Yeats that we were a nation of brilliant failures: but I have since discovered that in failure there is a great strength to be earned. The Irish nation has sought its bread in sorrow; like Christ it knows how weary the way has been and, like Dante, how salt the bread when it has been found — and yet out of these sufferings has sprung a race of incomparable poets and talkers. p. 7
  • I believe that poverty is responsible for my remarkable gift of passive contemplation. p. 8
  • When Bellerophon was thrown from Pegasus by Zeus, who envied his transports, he was suddenly forced to contemplate the details of a thorn bush: I may have to become reconciled to my wallpaper. p. 9
  • English, for example, is remarkable for the number of colour words with which it can express gloom — they are quite unknown in French. Baudelaire was responsible for adding despair to the French tongue, but he succeeded only in being euphonious. pp. 9-10
  • … to lose one’s powers as an artist — that is the unendurable punishment. p. 12
  • Perhaps I might begin a new career touring the schools of England and lecturing the young on the influence of architecture upon manners — prison taught me a great deal on that particular subject. p. 12
  • Society passed sentence on the artist; the coming generation will pass its own sentence on the society which did so. In them my work may live. p. 12
  • I go to fashionable places only when accompanied by rich friends — the English will always bow to wealth. p. 12
  • ‘The Englishman,’ he said, ‘will do anything whatever in the name of principle.’ It is a perfect remark, and Shaw forgot only to add that the name of that principle is self-interest. pp. 12-13
  • …the art of life is the art of defiance. p. 13
  • And, if anyone were foolish enough to write my biography, then the fatefulness of my life would touch him, also. There will, in any event, be no royalties. p. 15
  • I learned, too late, that the English can laugh and at the same time strike you down, without the least compunction. It is the secret of their success as a nation. p. 25
  • … it takes a steady course of biblical study in childhood to remove any taint of Christianity from the adult. p. 25
  • I cannot exist without cigarettes: the first, and I think the most awful, experience of prison life came when I was denied them. The secret of my identity disappeared at once: like God, my face should always been seen behind clouds. p. 27
  • I have always been my own chorus. p. 29
  • I was, I believe, seventeen but already I felt like an eagle who has been forced to find rest among sparrows. p. 31
  • ‘And what do you want to do, Oscar?’ one of them might say. ‘To do? I don’t want to do anything. I want to be everything.’ p. 32
  • I felt a secret pleasure in renouncing my own sins — especially those which I had not committed. p. 33
  • I intensely dislike the telephone. It is suitable only for really intimate conversations. p. 34
  • There is something both magnificent and terrible about one’s first book — it goes out into the world unwilling because it takes so much of its creator with it also, and the creator always wishes to call it home. p. 37
  • I essayed several personalities, in order to find one which was closest to my own. p. 39
  • We sought fame and, in our innocence, found notoriety instead. p. 43
  • In those days women controlled society, as they have done in all the really civilised periods. The men were too busy, or too dull, to play a major part in the social life which we entered then for the first time. p. 43
  • I knew from the beginning, of course, that I would never posses the absurd gravitas of the English gentleman, who employs scorn when he has nothing to say and adopts an air of preoccupation when he has nothing whatever to think about. p. 44
  • And indeed it is possible that I was not impressed by the great and the distinguished because they were not impressed by me. p. 45
  • Whistler lived opposite us in Chelsea; he was a frequent visitor, but he came only so that he could talk about himself in different company. p. 46
  • I write only in the mornings — the early light flatters the imagination, just as the evening light flatters the complexion. p. 47
  • You can do two things with the English — you can shock them, or you can amuse them. You can never reason with them[.] p. 48
  • Now, in my ruin, there seems to me to be something of melancholy about those who wish to stand above others. It is both offensive and yet pitiable, ironic but also touching: it is the cry of the child for attention and the roar of the beast in pain. p. 48
  • Two young Americans joined us. They insisted that they had been thrown out of Harvard for immoral conduct. I told them that it was immoral to go there in the first place. p. 51
  • But I became aware also of a peculiar but now to me familiar phenomenon: as soon as I had expressed my philosophy, I ceased to adhere to it. p. 53
  • Imitation changes, not the impersonator, but the impersonated. p. 55
  • When I met Whitman, therefore, I came to him not as a disciple but as an equal — the only situation in which true artists can ever meet. p. 55
  • I suppose that I have always eaten that which is dear to me. p. 57
  • There is a mirror in my room here, but I never look into it: the mirror itself would be quite safe, of course, but I might crack. p. 57
  • Of course I have no objection myself to being photographed: I owe so little to realism now that I am the perfect subject and, fortunately, I rarely move. p. 58
  • The young never understand youth in others: that is their tragedy. The old do, always: that is theirs. p. 58
  • I am walking evidence that oral literature did not perish with Homer, for I carry my verses in my mouth and in my heart. p. 60
  • Once I dreamt that I seemed to be a mask lying on the counter of a shop in Piccadilly. Many people came in and tried me upon their faces: I saw myself reflected in the mirrors, a strange white thing, but then they laughed and flung me back upon the counter. p. 73
  • She [Constance—his wife] looked at me with pity in that dreadful place but it was I who pitied her — I had descended into Hell through my own vanity and weakness but she, unknowing, had been taken there. p. 75
  • Tite Street is hideous, of course. All streets in London are hideous. p. 76
  • When she [Constance] bore our first son, the sight of her with child repelled me somewhat: it is charming in religious art, but not elsewhere. p. 78
  • I do not suppose that anyone had experienced marital discord until Meredith invented it. pp. 78-79
  • Modern English writing is not of great importance: bad work is always over-rated and good work is never understood. p. 80
  • Life is a very complex thing. There are those who, like Medusa, long for death and are granted eternal life; and there are those who, like Endymion, desire life and are frozen in endless sleep. p. 80
  • …women could write more interestingly than men on the really important topics of civilisation: dress, food and furniture. p. 81
  • It is a drab little thoroughfare — an Oxford Street which is all street and no Oxford[.] p. 81
  • Office life was strangely interesting: it was as if I had become part of a large family consisting almost entirely of mad aunts, and nephews who did not know how to spell. p. 81
  • ‘And she [Constance] found Arthur removing three empty bottles of champagne from your bedroom —’ ‘What else does one do with empty bottles?’ p. 91
  • Did I tell you about my new story? I have called it “The Double Beheading”. I have no theme as yet, but the title is delightful don’t you think? p. 91
  • Outcasts, since they dwell in the shadows, learn to recognise each other by small signs and movements. p. 98
  • But the poor are truly the outcasts of the world. […] The unseen host of the poor bear the marks of our civilisation like scars; that is why the middle class never look at them. It would be to examine the wounds which they themselves have inflicted. The deed is done, but the consequences must be shunned. p. 98
  • I have always been convinced that our civilisation has the transparency and evanescence of a bubble floating, in that charming manner which bubbles have, before being blown away in the wind. p. 99
  • It is a mysterious truth, but then sorrow is always mysterious; the paper which I write on now, the clothes I am wearing, the bed upon which I sleep: they have all been by the toil of others, created out of the indigence and the suffering of the poor. I am lying on the poor. I am writing with them. They are my food and my drink. I see their pain everywhere, like paint. p. 99
  • It is fitting that I, who sought youth and the pleasures of youth, now have no friends of my own age. p. 100
  • But shame is a curious thing: it is quite helpless in the face of more powerful emotions. p. 108
  • The great mystery of Faust lies not in the separation between the intellect and the senses, but rather that sensation was for him an actual refinement of the intelligence. p. 108
  • I shall tell you a secret which, like all secrets, I expect you to forget. p. 110
  • I threw away the letter; confessions on hotel notepaper are always dreary. p. 110
  • It was male love which inspired Michaelangelo in his perfect sonnets; it inspired Shakespeare to immortalise a young man in words of fire just as it guided the hands of Plato and of Marlowe. pp. 112-113
  • When in the Symposium Socrates quite refutes the argument of Aristophanes — that man and woman are but two torn natures striving to be reunited — he proclaimed a great truth which modern civilisation, with the possible exception of Ibsen, seems to have forgotten: men and women are not complementary, they are antagonistic. The great romances have always been between men. p. 113
  • He [Alfred Taylor] understood that although reality cannot be imagined — it is too awful for that — it can be made imaginary. p. 114
  • …like Jesus, I have always performed my better miracles for those who have believed. p. 116
  • I like to be seen with the boys — some of my friends thought it scandalous that I should do so, but the greater scandal is to be ashamed of one’s companions. p. 116
  • My first really impressive work was The Picture of Dorian Gray. It was not a début but it was the next best thing, a scandal. It could not have been otherwise: I wanted to rub the faces of my generation in their own century, at the same time as I wished to create a novel which would defy canons of conventional English fiction. p. 121
  • I have always asserted that out of joy only can creative work spring, but it is possible that out of fear and pain, also, joyous words can come. p. 124
  • When Christ said, ‘Your sins will be forgiven you because you have loved,’ the English public says, ‘Your crimes will be punished because you have dared to love.’ p. 125
  • Much has been written about the love of an older man for a younger man, but very little has been said about the passions which the younger man can conceive for the older. That love is far more dangerous for it breeds pride in him who is loved. p. 127
  • … one kills the thing one loves[.] p. 130
  • I had always asserted that an interpretation is more interesting than a fact: I was proved unfortunately to be right. p. 138
  • ‘And you have stolen lines from other writers. Listen to this one —’ ‘I did not steal them. I rescued them.’ p. 161
  • The proprietor of the hotel, I cannot remember his name, asked me if this was the first year of the twentieth century of the last year of the nineteenth: I advised him to ask his children. Only they know. p. 179

Montaigne

Who doesn’t like Montaigne (1533-1592), the very man who invented the essay genre? His writings are fun, wise, philosophical, sometimes provocative. He says these things:
  • “If ordinary people complain that I speak too much of myself, I complain that they do not even think of themselves.”
  • “In true education, anything that comes to our hand is as good as a book: the prank of a page-boy, the blunder of a servant, a bit of table talk — they are all part of the curriculum.”
  • “Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.”
  • “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.”
  • “Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.”
  • “One may be humble out of pride.”
  • “The ceaseless labour of your life is to build the house of your death.”
  • “The soul which has no fixed purpose in life is lost; to be everywhere, is to be nowhere.”
  • “The world is all a carcass and vanity, the shadow of a shadow, a play and in one word, just nothing.”
  • “When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is not amusing herself with me more than I with her.”

…. and many more.
One of the passages that I return to again and again is his contemplation of his friendship with Estienne de la Boetie, from “Of Friendship” in The Essays of Montaigne (Vol. 6, Chapter XXVII):

[W]hat we commonly call friends and friendships, are nothing but acquaintance and familiarities, either occasionally contracted, or upon some design, by means of which there happens some little intercourse betwixt our souls. But in the friendship I speak of, they mix and work themselves into one piece, with so universal a mixture, that there is no more sign of the seam by which they were first conjoined. If a man should importune me to give a reason why I loved him, I find it could no otherwise be expressed, than by making answer: because it was he, because it was I. There is, beyond all that I am able to say, I know not what inexplicable and fated power that brought on this union. We sought one another long before we met, and by the characters we heard of one another, which wrought upon our affections more than, in reason, mere reports should do; I think ’twas by some secret appointment of heaven.

— Emphasis mine. Read the full text of Volume 6.
Is it possible to find such a friend? Is it possible? (Why I ask ‘Is it possible’ twice is beyond my reasoning. But I’ll let the repetition stand.) Have you found yours yet?

The Penelopiad

In Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus (2005), Penelope,1 Odysseus’s oh-so-loyal and virtuous wife, is dead. Hell is her current domicile. That does not stop her from telling the readers, who live in the modern age of light bulbs and museums displaying ancient treasures, her story.
If you are a born misandrist or if you suffer from that kind of phobia which makes it impossible for you to comprehend and accept the fact that someone in this pea world is bound to be prettier than you are, then you will find the book fun to read.

In this new interpretation of Penelope’s story, all men fall into at least one of the following categories: cold-blooded father, disobedient son, deceiver, obsessive fucker, beggar, robber, sordid warrior and unwelcome suitor. And Helen, the supreme goddess of beauty, is mentioned more than thirty times. ‘I suspect she used to flirt with her dog, with her mirror, with her comb, with her bedpost. She needed to keep in practice’ (p. 33), the sour Penelope informs us from Hades, as if someone’s habit of winking is really her business. Living amongst unbearable men and having to put up with the constant presence of a gorgeous cousin (even in hell Helen boasts her beauty and the number of men who sacrificed their lives for her. She also advertises her bath, saying that ‘I do prefer to bathe without my robes’ (p. 154)), no wonder Penelope remains a dissatisfied soul.
But bear in mind this is also Margaret Atwood‘s story. You know her usual themes and accusations already. So, no one is surprised.
  • Where shall I begin? There are only two choices: at the beginning or not at the beginning. The real beginning would be the beginning of the world, after which one thing has led to another; but since there are differences of opinion about that, I’ll begin with my own birth. p. 7
  • It’s always an advantage to have something to do with your hands. That way, if someone makes an inappropriate remark, you can pretend you haven’t heard it. Then you don’t have to answer. p. 8
  • It’s dark here, as many have remarked. ‘Dark Death’, they used to say. ‘The gloomy halls of Hades’, and so forth. Well, yes, it is dark, but there are advantages – for instance, if you see someone you’d rather not speak to you can always pretend you haven’t recognised them. p. 15
  • Nothing helps gluttony along so well as eating food you don’t have to pay for yourself, as I learnt from later experience. p. 40
  • Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone.2 Remember that, my child, Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does. p. 43
  • I think this is what he valued most in me: my ability to appreciate his stories. It’s an underrated talent in women. p. 45
  • Odysseus was the guest of a goddess on an enchanted isle, said some; she’s turned his men into pigs — not a hard job in my view. p. 83
  • There is indeed something delightful about being able to combine obedience and disobedience in the same act. p. 117
  • It’s hard to lose an argument to one’s teenaged son. Once they’re taller than you are, you have only your moral authority: a weak weapon at best. p. 131
  • Who is to say that prayers have any effect? On the other hand, who is to say they don’t? p. 135
  • Also, if a man takes pride in his disguise skills,3 it would be a foolish wife who would claim to recognise him: it’s always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness. p. 137
  • While he was pleasuring every nymph and beauty,4 Did he think I’d do nothing but my duty? While every girl and goddess he was praising, Did he assume I’d dry up like a raisin?5 p. 149
  • Boys with their first beards can be a thorough pain in the neck. p. 170
  • Such is the theory; but, like all theories, it’s only a theory. p. 186
1My favourite Penelope-related passage in the literary canon begins and ends with a Yes.
2“Dripping water can eat through a stone.” is a famous Chinese proverb.
3Note: In Jane Eyre, Rochester disguises as a gypsy woman who insists on reading the young ladies’ fortune at Thornfield. But we know that Jane recognises him because of his signet ring.
4You may also be interested in the article “The Return of Odysseus: The Problem of Marital Infidelity for the Repartriate” [pdf]. Just a thought.
5‘What happens to a dream deferred? // Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?’ are the first three lines from Langston Hughes’s “A Dream Deferred”.

“Odysseus was the guest of a goddess on an enchanted isle, said some; she’s turned his men into pigs — not a hard job in my view.” — in response to this, Jeremy draw my attention this song:

And Ching sent me this:


J

Empires of the Word

Nicholas Ostler has a new book out: The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel (2010). In it, he argues that English, today’s global lingua franca, will die out, following the pattern of former great languages Sanskrit and Latin. He comments in an Observer article: ‘At the moment, English-speaking groups are very much in their ascendancy, but there is only one way to go from an ascendancy.’ The book synopsis also cautions: “the last competitive advantage of native English-speakers will soon be consigned to history.”

I thought this is a good time to revisit Ostler’s brilliant book, Empires of the Word, published in 2005. For obvious reasons, I was particularly interested in his discussion of the Chinese language. Below is a brief blog post written on 15th September, 2009.


Chinese, the only existing language that still uses its original writing system. Chinese, the language now spoken by one fifth of mankind. Be proud if you speak it; be jealous if you don’t.

But how long will Chinese last? Will it share the sorry fate of the Egyptian language? It is all about ‘political conquest’ now. Do you think this is scary?
Some quotes from Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World (2005):
“All the languages whose careers we shall consider have written histories that extended back over a thousand years, and sometimes two or three times this long. In almost every case, literacy is a skill that was learnt from visitors or neighbours, and then became part of a language’s own tradition. As it happens, with the exception of Chinese, even the languages that originated writing, and so made the earliest use of it, have dropped their original system, and borrowed another.” — p. 11

“By ancient standards, then, the density of population in Egypt and China was something truly exceptional. This too must have supported the long-term stability of their languages. The sheer numbers of speakers in their populated regions gave them immunity against swamping by incomers speaking foreign languages, even when they could not deny them entry. Strength in numbers reinforced languages already buttressed by their cultural prestige, and the robust institution of a monarchy endorsed by heaven.

The self-sufficient, resilient character of Egyptian and Chinese is revealed in many situations where they, or their speakers, had to interact with foreigners and their linguistic traditions. These dense, centralised societies were not always impervious to foreigner influence, even in the representation and use of their own languages. But for millennia they had sufficient equipoise, or sufficient inertia, to keep the outsiders under their own cultural control.

In the reminder of this chapter, we shall consider three aspects of their cultures where foreigners were bound to have an impact: the history of writing, their knowledge of and attitudes to foreign powers, and their responses to invasion. In every case, the languages’ steady continuity depended on a resolute refusal to see themselves, or conduct themselves, on others’ terms.” — p. 153
“Gradually losing aspects of its historic centre, in the form first of its monarchy, then of its political independence, then of its own national religion, and finally of its national form of Christianity, Egyptian weakened steadily over the ages, and has now, as a language simply recited in formal liturgy, come close to disappearing altogether. If the analogy is valid, Chinese, despite its billion speakers, might consider that it too has now entered on a perilous path. To accomodate the challenge from the modern, European-inspired, world, it has already given up the link with its own monarchy, an ideal with which it had identified for over two millennia. It has not given up its political independence, but it has, at least officially, resigned its own religion: since the fall of the monarchy, it has no longer actively sustained the value of Confucian, much less Taoist, ideas.

China’s political independence may yet save its language from the downward side of Egyptian. And even under foreign rule, Chinese has shown itself much more resilient, and indeed absorbent, than Egyptian ever was in its last two millennia. It has the advantage, which Egyptian never had, not just of high density but also of vast absolute population size. In its written mode, there is nothing yet in the history of Chinese to compare with Egyptian’s loss of its indigenous writing system and adoption of the Greek script, though romanisation may yet come.

In sum, the cultural retreats that we identified as leading to Egyptian’s demise all have their analogues in the recent history of China, except for political conquest. The writing may already be on the wall for the language now spoken by one fifth of mankind.” — p. 172-173
4 Responses “Quotes of the day” →
Diana
September 16, 2009
Hi Tammy
Thanks for the quotes, this looks like an interesting book. Chinese is a great language and I’m definitely jealous of those who can speak it.
I’m so pleased that my kids are in a Chinese school, though I get told all the time by foreigners (and even by some Chinese) that it’s a waste of time. I want them to embrace their heritage and be proud of it.
Shadowy figure
September 16, 2009
Romanization is inevitable, but sheer inertia of tradition will keep the Chinese writing system alive for hundreds of years. And after that, it’ll not be forgotten like the ancient Egyptian script.
(I once found an interesting reason why Japanese and Chinese students tend to perform so well in academic endeavours: if they can learn their writing system, everything else is a breeze.)
Kevin
September 16, 2009
The Chinese language has survived for so long because, for much of the past millennia, China never encountered an equally or more advanced culture, unlike the Egyptians who faced the Greeks and Romans. Indeed China was conquered many times in history (Mongols, Manchus etc) but its cultural leadership in East Asia was unchallenged. Conquerors were “sinicized” and many of them adopted the Chinese writing system (some of them never had their own writing system in the first place). And China, geographically isolated from the west, had believed itself to be the world’s dominant culture for thousands of years until its contact with, and military defeat in the hands of, the Europeans in the 19th century.
It is China’s loss of cultural leadership that causes its writing system to come under threat.
Paul
September 16, 2009
Probably the worst battering that the script took during that time occurred when the Communists simplified the characters into ungainly representations of the earlier pictographs.