Thursday, April 30, 2009

At the table was Jessie Orcutt, seated before a half-empty dessert plate and an untouched glass of milk and holding in her hand a fork whose tines were tipped red with blood. She had stabbed at him with it. The girl at the sink was telling them this. The other girl had run screaming out of the house, so there was just the one still in the kitchen to recount the story as best she could through her tears. Because Mrs. Orcutt would not eat, the girl said, Mr. Levov had started to feed Mrs. Orcutt the pie himself, a bite at a time. he was explaining to her how much better it was for her to drink milk instead of Scotch whiskey, how much better for herself, how much better for her husband, how much better for children. soon she would be having grandchildren and it would be better for them. With each bite she swallowed he said, "Yes, Jessie good girl, Jessie very good girl," and told her how much better it would be for everybody in the world, even for Mr. levov and his wife, if Jessie gave up drinking. After he had fed her almost all of one whole slice of the strawberry-rhubarb pie, she had siad, "I feed Jessie," and he was so happy, so pleased with her, he laughed and handed over the fork, and she had gone right for his eye.
It turned out she'd missed it by no more than an inch. "Not bad," Marcia said to everyone in the kitchen, "for somebody as drunk as this babe is." Meanwhile Orcutt, appalled by a scene exceeding any previously contrived by his wife to humiliate her civic-minded, adulterous mate, who looked not at all invincible, not at all important to himself or anyone else, who looked just as silly as he had the morning the Swede had dumped him in the midst of their friendly football game--Orcutt tenderly lifted Jessie up from the chair and to her feet. She showed no remorse, none, seemed to have been stripped of all receptors and all transmitters, without a single cell to notitfy her that she had overstepped a boundary fundamental to civilized life.
"One drink less," Marcia was saying to the Swede's father, whose wife was already dabbing at the tiny wounds in his face with a damp napkin, "and you'd be blind, Lou." And then this large, unimpeded social critic in a caftan could not help herself. Marcia sank into Jessie's empty chair, in front of the brimming glass of milk, and with her face in her hands, she began to laugh at their obtuseness to the flimsines of the whole contraption, to laugh and laugh and laugh at them all, pillars of a society that, much to her delight, was going rapidly under--to laugh and to relish, as some people, historically, always seem to do, how far the rampant disorder had spread, enjoying enormously the assailability, the frailty, the enfeeblement of supposedly robust things.
Yes, the breach had been pounded in their fortification, even out here in secure Old Rimrock, and now that it was opened it would not be closed again. They'll never recover. Everything is against them, everyone and everything that does not like their life. All the voices from without, condemning and rejecting their life!
And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the levovs?

--American Pastoral, Philip Roth (1997)


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Situated in the external zone of the Milky Way, the Sun takes about two hundred million years to make a complete revolution of the Galaxy.

Right, that's how long it takes, not a day less,--Qfwfq said,--once, as I went past, I drew a sign at a point in space, just so I could find it again two hundred million years later, when we went by the next time around. What sort of sign? It's hard to explain because if I say sign to you, you immediately think of a something that can be distinguished from a something else, but nothing could be distinguished from anything there; you immediately think of a sign made with some implement or with your hands, and then when you take the implement or your hands away, the sign remains, but in those days there were no implements or even hands, or teeth, or noses, all things that came along afterwards, a long time afterwards. As to the form a sign should have, you say it's no problem because, whatever form it may be given, a sign only has to serve as a sign, that is, be different or else the same as other sings: here again it's easy for you young ones to talk, but in that period I didn't have any examples to follow, I couldn't say I'll make it the same or I'll make it different, there were no things to copy, nobody knew what a line was, straight or curved, or even a dot, or a protuberance or a cavity. I conceived the idea of making a sign, that's true enough, or rather, I conceived the idea of considering a sign a something that I felt like making, so when, at that point in space and not in another, I made something, meaning to make a sign, it turned out that I really had made a sign, after all.
In other words, considering it was the first sign ever made in the universe, or at least in the circuit of the Milky Way, I must admit it came out very well. Visible? What a question! Who had eyes to see with in those days? Nothing had even been seen by anything, the question never even arose. Recognizable, yes, beyond any possibility of error: because all the other points in space were the same, indistinguishable, and instead, this one had the sign on it.

--Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino (1965)


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cynthia had been on friendly terms...

Cynthia had been on friendly terms with an eccentric librarian called Porlock who in the last years of his dusty life had been engaged in examining old books for miraculous misprints such as the substitution of l for the second h in the word "hither." Contrary to Cynthia, he cared nothing for the thrill of obscure predictions; all he sought was the freak itself, the chance that mimics choice, the flaw that looks like a flower; and Cynthia, a much more preverse amateur of misshapen or illicitly connected words, puns, logogriphs, and so on, had helped the poor crank to pursue a quest that in the light of the example she cited struck me as statistically insane. Anyway, she said, on the third day after his death she was reading a magazine and had just come across a quotation from an imperishable poem (that she, with other gullible readers, believed to have been really composed in a dream) when it dawned upon her that "Alph" was a prophetic sequence of the initial letters of Anna Livia Plurabelle (another sacred river running throgh, or rather around, yet another fake dream), while the additional h modestly stood, as a private signpost, for the word that had so hypnotized Mr. Porlock. And I wish I could recollect that novel or short story (by some contemporary writer, I believe) in which, unknown to its author, the first letters of the words in its last paragraph formed, as deciphered by Cynthia, a message from his dead mother. -- "The Vane Sisters" (1951), Vladimir Nabokov


Monday, April 27, 2009

One of the major selling points of that wholly remarkable travel book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, apart from its relative cheapness and the fact that it has the words DON'T PANIC written in large friendly letters on its cover, is its compendious and occasionally accurate glossary. The statistics relating to the geo-social nature of the Universe, for instance, are deftly set out between pages nine hundred and thirty-eight thousand three hundred and twenty-four and nine hundred and thirty-eight thousand three hundred and twenty-six; and the simplistic style in which they are written is partly explained by the fact that the editors, having to meet a publishing deadline, copied the information off the back of a packet of breakfast cereal, hastily embroidering it with a few footnotes in order to avoid prosecution under the incomprehensibly tortuous Galactic Copyright laws.
It is interesting to note that a later and wilier editor sent the book backward in time through a temporal warp, and then successfully sued the breakfast cereal company for infringement of the same laws.
Here is a sample:

The Universe--some information to help you live in it.

1 AREA: Infinite.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy offers this definition of the word "Infinite."
Infinite: Bigger than the biggest thing ever and then some. Much bigger than that in fact, really amazingly immense, a totally stunning size, real "wow, that's big," time. Infinity is just so big that, by comparison, bigness itself looks really titchy. Gigantic multiplied by colossal multiplied by staggeringly huge is the sort of concept we're trying to get across here.

2 IMPORTS: None.

It is impossible to import things into an infiinite area, there being no outside to import things in from.

3 EXPORTS: None.

See Imports.


It is known that there are an infinite number of worlds, simply because there is an infinite amount of space for them to be in. However, not every one of them is inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds. Any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so the average population of all the planets in the Universe can be said to be zero. From this it follows that the population of the whole Universe is also zero, and that any people you may meet from time to time are merely the products of a deranged imagination.

---The Resaurant at the end of the Universe, Douglas Adams (1980)


Sunday, April 26, 2009

The mansion in question...

The mansion in question--Faustino, Javier called it--was straight out of the antebellum American South, complete with square columns and great tufts of Spanish moss drooping from the roof like a gallery of beards in a costume shop. As we climbed the steps to the veranda, Javier warned me that Dr. Sabacthani had slept badly the previous night, and I must not take her exhaustion for haughtiness. We passed through the front door, its central panel carved with a bas-relief Aztec deity who'd evidently actualized himself for the sole purpose of being unappeasable, then proceeded to a geodesic dome whose hundred hurricane-proof glass triangles served to shield a private jungle from the ravages of Gulf storms. Ferns, vines, and orchids flourished everywhere. Fumes compounded of humus and nectar filled my nostrils. The air felt like hot glue. At the center of all this Darwinian commotion, an immense mangrove tree emerged from a saltwater pond, its naked roots entwined like acrobatic pythons, its coiling limbs bearing small green fruit suggesting organic ping-pong balls. Beneath the tree, dressed in a white lace gown and reading an issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, a woman of perhaps forty sat in a wicker chair, its fan-shaped back spreading behind her like Botticelli's scallop shell giving birth to Venus.--The Philosopher's Apprentice (2008), James Morrow


Saturday, April 25, 2009

What is religion? I have given much thought to it, but in vain.

I pondered it especially that time a few years ago when I was compelled to officiate as a bishop in full canonicals at the carnival and give holy communion to the dwarfs of the Mantua court whom their Prince had brought here for the festival. We met at a miniature sanctuary which had been set up in one of the castle halls, and around us sat all the sniggering guests: knights and nobles and young coxcombs in their absurd apparel. I raised the crucifix and all the dwarfs fell on their knees. "Here is your savior," I declared in a sonorous voice, my eyes flaming with passion. "Here is the savior of all the dwarfs, himself a dwarf, who suffered under the great prince Pontius Pilate, and was nailed to his little toy cross for the joy and ease of all men." I took the chalice and held it up to them. "This is his dwarf's blood, in which all iniquities are cleansed and all dirty souls become white as snow." Then I took the host and showed it to them and ate and drank of both in their sight, as is the custom, while I expounded on the holy mysteries. "I eat his bodh which was deformed like yours. It tastes as bitter as gall, for it is full of hatred. May you all eat of it. I drink his blood, and it burns like a fire which cannot be quenched. It is as though I drink my own.
"Savior of all the dwarfs, may thy fire consume the whole world!"
And I threw the wine out over those who sat there, staring in gloom and amazement at our somber communion feast.

-- The Dwarf (1944), Pär Lagerkvist


Friday, April 24, 2009

... it was like telepathy, our minds linking through the night. Every so often night plays these little tricks. A knot of air pushes quietly though the darkness, and a feeling that has converged in some far-off place tumbles down like a falling star and lands just in front of you, and then you wake up. Two people like the same dream. All this takes place in the space of a single night, and the feeling only lasts until morning. The next morning it gets lost in the light, and you're no longer even sure it happened. But nights like this are long. They continue forever, glittering like a jewel.

-- Goodbye Tsugumi (1989), Banana Yoshimoto (English translation 2002 by Michael Emmerich)


Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Nose

On 25 March an unusually strange event occurred in St. Petersburg. For that morning Barber Ivan Yakovlevitch, a dweller on the Voznesensky Prospekt (his family name is lost now — it no longer figures on a signboard bearing a portrait of a gentleman with a soaped cheek, and the words: “Also, Blood Let Here”) — for that morning Barber Ivan Yakovlevitch awoke early, and caught the smell of newly baked bread. Raising himself a little, he perceived his wife (a most respectable lady, and one especially fond of coffee) to be just in the act of drawing newly baked rolls from the oven.
“Prascovia Osipovna,” he said, “I would rather not have any coffee for breakfast, but, instead, a hot roll and an onion,” — the truth being that he wanted both but knew it to be useless to ask for two things at once, as Prascovia Osipovna did not fancy such tricks.
“Oh, the fool shall have his bread,” the wife thought, “So much the better for me then, as I shall have that much more coffee.”
And she threw one roll on to the table.
Ivan Yakovlevitch donned a jacket over his shirt for politeness' sake, and, seating himself at the table, poured out salt, got a couple of onions ready, took a knife into his hand, assumed an air of importance, and cut the roll open. Then he glanced into the roll's middle. To his intense surprise he saw something glimmering there. He probed it cautiously with the knife — then poked at it with a finger.
“Quite solid it is!” he said to himself. “What in the world is it likely to be?”
He stuck in his fingers, and pulled out — a nose! .. His hands dropped to his sides for a moment. Then he rubbed his eyes hard. Then again he probed the thing. A nose! Sure enough a nose! Yes, and one familiar to him, somehow! Oh, horror spread upon his feature! Yet that horror was a trifle compared with his spouse's overmastering wrath.
“You brute!” she shouted frantically. “Where have you cut off that nose? You villain, you! You drunkard! Why, I'll go and report you to the police myself. You brigand, you! I have already heard from three men that, while shaving them, your pulled their noses to the point that they could hardly stand it.”
But Ivan Yakovlevitch was neither alive nor dead. He realized that the nose was none other than that Collegiate Assessor Kovalev, whom he was shaved every Wednesday and Sunday.
“Stop, Prascovia Osipovna! I'll wrap it in a rag, in some corner: leave it there for awhile, and afterwards I'll take it away.”
“And I won't hear of it! As if I'm going to have a cutoff nose lying around the room! Oh, you old stick! Maybe you can just strop a razor still; but soon you'll be no good at all for the rest of your work. You loafer, you wastrel, you bungler, you blockhead! Aye, I'll tell the police of you. Take it away, then. Take it away. Take it anywhere you like. Oh, that I'd never caught the smell of it!”
Ivan Yakovlevitch was dumbfounded. He thought and thought, but did not know what to think.

--the Nose, Nikolay Gogol (1836)


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Rothschild's Fiddle

The town was small, worse than a village, and in it lived almost none but old people, who died so rarely it was even annoying. And in the hospital and jail there was very little demand for coffins. In short, business was bad. If Yakov Ivanov had been a coffin-maker in the provincial capital, he would most likely have had a house of his own and been called Yakov Matveich; but in this wretched little town he was simply called Yakov, his street nickname for some reason was “Bronzy,” and he lived a poor life, like a simple peasant, in a little old cottage with only one room, and that room housed himself, Marfa, the stove, the double bed, the coffins, the workbench, and all his chattels.
Yakov made good, sturdy coffins. For peasants and tradesmen he made them his own size and was never once mistaken, because no one anywhere, not even in the jail, was taller or stronger than he, though he was now seventy years old. For gentlefolk and women he worked to measure, and for that he used an iron ruler. He accepted orders for children’s coffins very reluctantly, and made them straight off without measurements, scornfully, and, taking the money for his work, would say each time:
“I confess, I don’t like messing with trifles.”
Besides his craft, he also earned a little money playing the fiddle.

--Rothschild’s Fiddle, Anton Chekhov (1894)


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What was even more remarkable...

What was even more remarkable is that from that time on the apparition of the dead clerk ceased entirely; apparently the general's overcoat had fitted him perfectly; anyway nothing more was heard of overcoats being snatched from anyone. Many restless and anxious people refused, however, to be pacified, and still maintained that in remote parts of the town the dead clerk went on appearing. One policeman, in Kolomna, for instance, saw with his own eyes an apparition from behind a house; but, being by natural constitution somewhat frail--so much so that on one occasion an ordinary grownup suckling pig, making a sudden dash out of some private building, knocked him off his feet to the great amusement of the cabmen standing around, whom he fined two kopeks each for snuff for such disrespect--he did not dare to stop it, and so followed it in the dark until the apparition suddenly looked around and, stopping, asked him: "What do you want?" displaying a huge fist such as you never see among the living. The policeman said: "Nothing," and turned back on the spot. This apparition, however, was considerably taller and adorned with immense mustaches, and directing its steps apparently toward Obukhov Bridge, vanished into the darkness of the night.--the Overcoat, Nikolai Gogol (1840)


Monday, April 20, 2009


Night. The nanny Varka, a girl of about thirteen, is rocking a cradle in which a baby lies, and murmuring barely audibly:
Hush-a-bye, baby,
I’ll sing you a song…
A green oil lamp is burning before an icon; a rope is stretched across the whole room from corner to corner, with swaddling clothes and large black trouser hanging on it. A big green spot from the icon lamp falls on the ceiling, and the swaddling clothes and trousers cast long shadows on the stove, the cradle, and Varka…When the icon lamp begins to flicker, the spot and the shadows come alive and start moving as if in the wind. It is stuffy. There is a smell of cabbage soup and shoemaker’s supplies.
The baby is crying. He became hoarse and exhausted from crying long ago, but he goes on howling, and no one knows when he will quiet down. And Varka is sleepy. Her eyes close, her head droops down, her neck aches. She cannot move her eyelids or her lips, and it seems to her that her face has become dry and stiff and her head is as small as the head of a pin.
“Hush-a-bye, baby,” she murmurs, “I’ll feed you by and by…”
A cricket chirps from the stove. In the next room, behind the door, the master and his apprentice Afanasy are snoring…The cradle creaks pitifully, Varka herself is murmuring—and all this merges into the lulling night music that is so sweet to hear when you are going to bed. But now this music is only vexing and oppressive, because it makes her drowsy, yet she cannot sleep. God forbid that Varka should fall asleep, or the masters will give her a beating.

--Sleepy, Anton Chekhov (1888)


Sunday, April 19, 2009

In my dreams I've sometimes tried to be the unique and imposing individual that the Romantics envisaged in themselves, and I always end up laughing out loud at the very idea. The ultimate man exists in the dreams of all ordinary men, and Romanticism is merely the turning inside out of the empire we normally carry around inside us. Nearly all men dream, deep down, of their own mighty imperialism: the subjection of all men, the surrender of all women, the adoration of all peoples and—for the noblest dreamers—of all eras. Few men devoted, like me, to dreaming are lucid enough to laugh at the aesthetic possibility of dreaming of themselves in this way.
The gravest accusation against Romanticism has still not been made: that it plays out the inner truth of human nature. Its excesses, its absurdities and its ability to seduce and move hearts all come from its being the outer representation of what’s deepest in the soul—a concrete, visible representation that would even be possible, if human possibility depended on something besides Fate.

--the Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa (1998)


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Perhaps the stockings had descended...

Perhaps the stockings had descended in order to make common cause with the other elaborately intimate garments, wormy with ribbons, carious with lace, redolent of use, that she hurled round the room apparently at random during the course of the many dressings and undressings which her profession demanded. A large pair of frilly drawers, evidently fallen where they had light-heartedly been tossed, draped some object, clock or marble bust or funerary urn, anything was possible since it was obscured completely. A redoubtable corset of the kind called an Iron Maiden poked out of the empty coalscuttle like the pink husk of a giant prawn emerging from its den, trailing long laces like several sets of legs. The room, in all, was a mistresspiece of exquisitely feminine squalor, sufficient, in its homely way, to intimidate a young man who had led a less sheltered life than this one.

-- Nights at the Circus (1984), Angela Carter


Friday, April 17, 2009

Before the law stands a doorkeeper.

BEFORE THE LAW stands a doorkeeper. To this door-keeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. "It is possible," says the doorkeeper, "but not at the moment." Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: "If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the door-keepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him." These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tar-tar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for days and years. He makes many at-tempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper by his importunity. The doorkeeper frequently has little interviews with him, asking him questions about his home and many other things, but the questions are put indifferently, as great lords put them, and always finish with the statement that he cannot be let in yet. The man, who has furnished himself with many things for his journey, sacrifices all he has, however valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts every- thing, but always with the remark: "I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted any- thing." During these many years the man fixes his at-tention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He for- gets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing access to the Law. He curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly, later, as he grows old, he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childish, and since in his yearlong contempla-tion of the doorkeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs the fleas as well to help him and to change the doorkeeper's mind. At length his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware t of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law. Now he has not very long to live. Before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a ques-tion he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low towards him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man's disadvantage. "What do you want to know now?" asks the doorkeeper; "you are insati-able." "Everyone strives to reach the Law," says the man, "so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admit-tance?" The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and to let his failing senses catch the words roars in his ear: "No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.--Before the law, Franz Kafka


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Ta Gueule appeared again...

Ta Gueule [a falcon] appeared again like a lightning bolt, or the abstract idea of a lightning bolt, and stooped on the huge flocks of starlings coming out of the west like swarms of flies, darkening the sky with their erratic fluttering, and after a few minutes the fluttering of the starlings was bloodied, scattered and bloodied, and afternoon on the outskirts of Avignon took on a deep red hue, like the color of sunsets seen from an airplane, or the color of dawns, when the passenger is woken gently by the engines whistling in his ears and lifts up the little blind and sees the horizon marked with a red line, like the planet's femoral artery, or the planet's aorta, gradually swelling, and I saw that swelling blood vessel in the sky over Avignon, the blood-stained flight of the starlings, Ta Guele splashing color like an Abstract Expressionist painter.--By Night in Chile, Roberto Bolano


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Despite certain faults in the telling...

Despite certain faults in the telling of his story, Dickens remains, nevertheless, a great writer. Control over a considerable constellation of characters and themes, the technique of holding people and events bunched together, or of evoking absent characters through dialogue--in other words, the art of not only creating people but keeping created people alive within the reader's mind throughout a long novel--this, of course, is the obvious sign of greatness. When Grandfather Smallweed is carried in his chair into George's shooting gallery in an endeavor to get a sample of Captain Hawdon's handwriting, the driver of the cab and another person act as bearers. "'This person,' [the other bearer, he says] we engaged in the street outside for a pint of beer. Which is twopence...Judy, my child [he goes on, to his daughter], give the person his twopence. It's a great deal for what he has done.'
"The person, who is one of those extraordinary specimens of human fungus that spring up spontaneously in the western streets of London, ready dressed in an old red jacket, with a 'Mission' for holding horses and calling coaches, receives his twopence with anything but transport, tosses the money into the air, catches it over-handed, and retires." This gesture, this one gesture, with its epithet "over-handed"--a trifle--but the man is alive forever in a good reader's mind.
A great writer's world is indeed a magic democracy where even some very minor character, even the most incidental character like the person who tosses the twopence, has the right to live and breed."--Lectures on Literature, [123-124], Vladimir Nabokov (1980)


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A few light taps upon the pane...

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.--the Dead, James Joyce (1914)


Monday, April 13, 2009

During these last decades...

During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished. It used to pay very well to stage such great performances under one's own management, but today that is quite impossible. We live in a different world now. At one time the whole town took a lively interest in the hunger artist; from day to day of his fast the excitement mounted; everybody wanted to see him at least once a day; there were people who bought season tickets for the last few days and sat from morning till night in front of his small barred cage; even in the nighttime there were visiting hours, when the whole effect was heightened by torch flares; on fine days the cage was set out in the open air, and then it was the children's special treat to see the hunger artist; for their elders he was often just a joke that happened to be in fashion, but the children stood openmouthed, holding each other's hands for greater security, marveling at him as he sat there pallid in black tights, with his ribs sticking out so prominently, not even on a seat but down among straw on the ground, sometimes giving a courteous nod, answering questions with a constrained smile, or perhaps stretching an arm through the bars so that one might feel how thin it was, and then again withdrawing deep into himself, paying no attention to anyone or anything, not even to the all-important striking of the clock that was the only piece of furniture in his cage, but merely staring into vacancy with half-shut eyes, now and then taking a sip from a tiny glass of water to moisten his lips....A Hunger Artist, Frank Kafka (1924)


Sunday, April 12, 2009

They rode for days through the rain...

They rode for days through the rain and they rode through rain and hail and rain again. In that gray storm light they crossed a flooded plain with the footed shapes of the horses reflected in the water among clouds and mountains and the riders slumped forward and rightly skeptic of the shimmering cities on the distant shore of that sea whereon they trod miraculous. They climbed up through rolling grasslands where small birds shied away chittering down the wind and a buzzard labored up from among bones with wings that went whoop whoop whoop like a child's toy swung on a string and in the long red sunset the sheets of water on the plain below them lay like tidepools of primal blood--Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy, 1985


Saturday, April 11, 2009

If you choose to believe me, good.

If you choose to believe me, good. Now I will tell how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made. There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands. Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm's bed.
This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support. All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children's games, cable cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.
Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia's inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cites. They know the net will last only so long.--from Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino (1972)


Friday, April 10, 2009

This was the edge of the Westerhazys' pool.

This was the edge of the Westerhazys' pool. The pool, fed by an artesian well with a high iron content, was a pale shade of green. It was a fine day. In the west there was a massive stand of cumulus cloud so like a city seen from a distance--from the bow of an approaching ship--that it might have had a name. Lisbon. Hackensack. The sun was hot. Neddy Merrill sat by the green water, one hand in it, one around a glass of gin. He was a slender man--he seemed to have the especial slenderness of youth--and while he was far from young he had slid down his banister that morning and given the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack, as he jogged toward the smell of coffee in his dining room. He might have been compared to a summer's day, particularly the last hours of one, and while he lacked a tennis racket or a sail bag the impression was definitely one of youth, sport, and clement weather. He had been swimming and now he was breathing deeply, stertorously as if he could gulp into his lungs the components of that moment, the heat of the sun, the intenseness of his pleasure. It all seemed to flow into his chest. His own house stood in Bullet Park, eight miles to the south, where his four beautiful daughters would have had their lunch and might be playing tennis. Then it occured to him that by taking a dogleg to the southwest he could reach his home by water. -- "The Swimmer" (1964), John Cheever


Thursday, April 9, 2009

Tell me things I won't mind forgetting.

"Tell me things I won't mind forgetting," she said. "Make it useless stuff or skip it."
I begin. I told her insects fly through rain, missing every drop, never getting wet. I told her no one in America owned a tape recorder before Bing Crosby did. I told her the shape of the moon is like a banana--you see it looking full, you're seeing it end-on.
The camera made me self-conscious and I stopped. It was trained on us from a ceiling mount--the kind of camera banks use to photograph robbers. It played us to the nurses down the hall in Intensive Care.
"Go on, girl," she said. "You get used to it."
I had my audience. I went on. Did she know that Tammy Wynette had changed her tune? Really. That now she sings "Stand by Your Friends"? That Paul Anka did it too, I said. Does "You're Having Our Baby." That he got sick of all that feminist bitching.
"What else?" she said. "Have you got something else?"
Oh, yes.
For her I would always have something else.
"Did you know that when they taught the first chimp to talk, it lied? That when they asked her who did it on the desk, she signed back the name of the janitor. And that when they pressed her, she said she was sorry, that it was really the project director. But she was a mother, so I guess she had her reasons."
"Oh, that's good," she said. "A parable."
"There's more about the chimp," I said. "But it will break your heart."
"No, thanks," she says, and scratches at her mask...

-- "In the Cemetery where Al Jolson is buried," Amy Hempel


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The author, in his book, must be like God...

The author, in his book, must be like God in the universe, everywhere present and nowhere visible. Art being a second nature, the creator of this nature must employ analogous procedures. The reader must feel in every atom, on every surface, a concealed and infinite indifference. The effect for the spectator must be a species of amazement. How was all this done? He must wonder, and he must feel overwhelmed without knowing why. Greek art was based on the same principle, and to achieve the effect more quickly, it chose characters whose social conditions were exceptional, kings, gods, demi-gods. The writers did not speak to you about yourself; they aimed for the divine.

-- Gustave Flaubert (1852), from a letter to Louise Colet


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

In my opinion a true description of nature...

In my opinion a true description of nature should be very brief and have a character of relevance. Commonplace such as "the setting sun bathing in the waves of the darkening sea, poured its purple gold, etc"--"the swallows flying over the surface of the water twittered merrily"--such commonplaces one ought to abandon. In descriptions of nature one ought to seize upon the little particulars, grouping them in such a way that, in reading, when you shut your eyes, you get a picture.

For instance, you will get the full effect of a moonlight night if you write that on the mill-dam a little glowing star-point flashed from the neck of a broken bottle, and the round, black shadow of a dog, or a wolf, emerged and ran, etc. Nature becomes animated if you are not squeamish about employing comparisons of her phenomena with ordinary human activities, etc.

In the sphere of psychology, details are also the thing. God preserve us from commonplaces. Best of all is it to avoid depicting the hero's state of mind; you ought to try to make it clear from the hero's actions. It is not necessary to portray many characters. The center of gravity should be in two persons: him and her.

-- Anton Chekhov (1886), in a letter to Alexander Chekhov


Monday, April 6, 2009

It'll never be known...

It'll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or in the second, using the third person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing. If one might say: I will see the moon rose, or: we hurt me at the back of my eyes, and especially: you the blond woman was the clouds that race before my your his our yours their faces. What the hell.
Seated ready to tell it, if one might go to drink a bock over there, and the typewriter continue by itself (because I use the machine), that would be perfection. And that's not just a manner of speaking. Perfection, yes, because here is the aperture which must be counted also as a machine (of another sort, a Contax 1.1.2) and it is possible that one machine may know more about another machine than I, you, she--the blond--and the clouds. But I have the dumb luck to know that if I go this Remington will sit turned to stone on top of the table with the air of being twice as quiet that mobile things have when they are not moving. So, I have to write.
--Blow-up (1967), Julio Cortazar


Sunday, April 5, 2009

The earthquake that devastated Tokyo and Yokohama...

The earthquake that devastated Tokyo and Yokohama in 1923 was a dramatic turning point in Tanizaki Jun'ichiro's career. For almost a year, he had been living a fast life on the Bluff, the home of most of the Westerners who gave Yokohama its cosmopolitan reputation. The earthquake forced him to evacuate to Osaka, where he settled down to wait for Tokyo and Yokohama to rebuild; but, unlike most of the other refugees, he stayed on in western Japan. Though he visited Tokyo from time to time, he would never again live there.
Thirty-seven years old at the time of the earthquake, Tanizaki had made a name for himself as a writer of audacious, sometimes shocking, stories, plays, and motion picture scenarios.

-Anthony H. Chambers, Introduction, Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki


Saturday, April 4, 2009

When you present a pathetic situation...

When you present a pathetic situation, you have to let it speak entirely for itself. I mean you have to present it and leave it alone. You have to let the things in the story do the talking…The first thing is to see the people at every minute…Ford Madox Ford said you couldn’t have somebody sell an newspaper in a story unless you said what he looked like…show these things and you don’t have to say them."

-- Flannery O'Connor (1955), in a letter to Ben Griffith


Friday, April 3, 2009

He stretched out...

He stretched out on the hard, cold ground and looked up at the moon. It was almost like looking straight at the sun. If he shifted his gaze a little at a time, he could make out a string of weaker moons across the sky. ...he got to his feet and looked over the edge of the precipice. In the moonlight the bottom seemed miles away. And there was nothing to give it scale; not a tree, not a house, not a person...He listened for the flute, and heard only the wind going by his ears.

--"A Distant Episode" (1947), Paul Bowles


Thursday, April 2, 2009

I can remember driving...

I can remember driving with my late father through western Pennsylvania. He was struck by the amount of land without a human figure in it. So much space! After long silence, in a traveler's trance resembling the chessboard trance, he said, "Ah, how many Jews might have been settled here! Room enough for everybody.
At times I feel like a socket that remembers its tooth.

-- "The Bellarosa Connection" (1990), Saul Bellow


Wednesday, April 1, 2009

I am the real Jesse James

It took four men with big heavy hands to hold the horse down. The horse kicked its stomach, collapsed like an ironing board and rolled over, pinning the legs of the men beneath it. One man sat on its neck while the other administered the needle--Bute and Demerol in the night paddock. The horse's eyes were like stop lights in the headlights of the men's trucks parked in a circle around the animal. I have faced this animal in a paddock when it was too late to run. I was young but I was no girl when my hand came down hard on the muzzle of the horse that charged, half a ton of meat and muscle thrown my way.

--from Bandit Letters by Sarah Messer