Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Our souls lived in that old world of the faraway times, when Nuremberg was renowned for its lebkuchen and its toy boxes, not for its trials and the subsequent gallows. The times when in such ghastly places as Cologne or Coventry the gingerbread houses crowded in an intricate confusion around the cute dignity of the stepped townhall gables, shadowed by the heavenward soaring of the cathedrals…When the vast countryside was lovely with its silent lakes and ponds reflecting the cloud castles of the minnesingers and the poetic Wittelsbachs on the mountains. The lead-glistening light of storm-brewing, grain-ripening summer afternoons long ago reflecting the heaviness of our hearts; the murmuring of brooks under alders and hazelnut bushes, from which beautiful Melusina peers out…Melusina, mind you, and not the radioactive refuse of the nearest chemical factory…

---the Death of My Brother Abel, Gregor Von Rezzori (1985)


Monday, June 29, 2009

Mignight's Children

The house was opulent but badly lit. Ghani was a widower and the servants clearly took advantage. There were cobwebs in corners and layers of dust on ledges. They walked down a long corridor; one of the doors was ajar and through it Aziz saw a room in a state of violent disorder. This glimpse, connected with a glint of light in Ghani's dark glasses, suddenly informed Aziz that the landowner was blind. This aggravated his sense of unease: a blind man who claimed to appreciate European paintings? He was, also, impressed, because Ghani hadn't bumped into anything. They halted outside a thick teak door. Ghani said, "Wait here two moments," and went into the room behind the door.
In the later years, Doctor Aadam Aziz swore that during those two moments of solitude in the gloomy spidery corridors of the landowner's mansion he was gripped by an almost uncontrollable desire to turn and run away as fast as his legs would carry him. Unnerved by the enigma of the blind art-lover, his insides filled with tiny scrabbling insects as a result of the insidious venom of Tai's mutterings, his nostrils itching to the point of convincing him that he had somehow contracted venereal disease, he felt his feet begin slowly, as though encased in boots of lead, to turn; felt blood pounding in his temples; and was seized by so powerful a sensation of standing upon a point of no return that he very nearly wet his German woollen trousers. He began, without knowing it, to blush furiously; and at this point his mother appeared before him, seated on the floor before a low desk, a rash spreading like a blush across her face as she held a turquoise up to the light. His mother's face had acquired all the scorn of the boatman Tai. "Go, go, run," she told him in Tai's voice, "Don't worry about your poor old mother." Doctor Aziz found himself stammering, "What a useless son you've got, Amma; can't you see there's a hole in the middle of me the size of a melon?" His mother smiled a pained smile. "You always were a heartless boy," she sighed, and then turned into a lizard on the wall of the corridor and stuck her tongue out at him. Doctor Aziz stopped feeling dizzy, became unsure that he'd actually spoken aloud, wondered what he'd meant by that business about the hole, found that his feet were no longer trying to escape, and realized that he was being watched. A woman with the biceps of a wrestler was staring at him, beckoning him to follow her into the room. The state of her sari told him that she was a servant; but she was not servile. "You look green as a fish," she said. "You young doctors. You come into a strange house and your liver turns to jelly. Come, doctor Sahib, they are waiting for you." Clutching his bag a fraction too tightly, he followed her through the dark teak door.
....Into a spacious bedchamber that was as ill-lit as the rest of the house; although here there were shafts of dusty sunlight seeping in through a fanlight high on one wall.

--Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie (1981)


Sunday, June 28, 2009

They drove into Santa Teresa from the south and the city looked to them like an enormous camp of gypsies or refugees ready to pick up and move at the slightest prompting. They took three rooms on the fourth floor of the Hotel Mexico. The three rooms were the same, but they were full of small distinguishing characteristics. In Espinoza’s room there was a giant painting of the desert, with a group of men on horseback to the left, dressed in beige shirts, as if they were in the army or a riding club. In Norton’s room there were two mirrors instead of one. The first mirror was by the door, as it was in the other rooms. The second was on the opposite wall, next to the window overlooking the street, hung in such a way that if one stood in a certain spot, the two mirrors reflected each other. In Pelletier’s bathroom the toilet bowl was missing a chunk. It wasn’t visible at first glance, but when the toilet seat was lifted, the missing piece suddenly leaped into sight, almost like a bark. How the hell did no one notice this? wondered Pelletier. Norton had never seen a toilet in such bad shape. Some eight inches were missing. Under the white porcelain was a red substance, like brick wafers spread with plaster. The missing piece was in the shape of a half-moon. It looked as if someone had ripped it off with a hammer. Or as if someone had picked up another person who was already on the floor and smashed that person’s head against the toilet, thought Norton.

, Roberto Bolano (2004)


Saturday, June 27, 2009

hooflet markings

The malpais. It was a maze. Ye’d run out upon a little promontory and ye’d be balked about by the steep crevasses, you wouldn’t dare to jump them. Sharp black glass the edges and sharp the flinty rocks below. We led the horses with every care and still they were bleedin about their hooves. Our boots was cut to pieces. Clamberin over those old caved and rimpled plates you could see well enough how things had gone in that place, rocks melted and set up all wrinkled like a pudding, the earth stove through to the molten core of her. Where for aught any man knows lies the locality of hell. For the earth is a globe in the void and truth there’s no up nor down to it and there’s men in this company besides myself seen little cloven hoof-prints in the stone clever as a little doe in her going but what little doe ever trod melted rock? I’d not go behind scripture but it may be that there has been sinners so notorious evil that the fires coughed em up again and I could well see in the long ago how it was little devils with their pitchforks had traversed that fiery vomit for to salvage back these souls that had by misadventure been spewed up from their damnation onto the outer shelves of the world. Aye. It’s a notion, no more. But someplace in the scheme of things this world must touch the other. And something put them little hooflet markings in the lava flow for I seen them there myself.

--Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy (1985)


Friday, June 26, 2009

Comparing the translations

From the Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu (11th century)

Arthur Waley's translation:

Genji felt very disconsolate. It had begun to rain; a cold wind blew across the hill, carrying with it the sound of a waterfall--audible till then as a gentle intermittent plashing, but now a mighty roar; and with it, somnolently rising and falling, mingled the monotonous chanting of the scriptures. Even the most unimpressionable nature would have been plunged into melancholy by such surroundings. How much the more so Prince Genji, as he lay sleepless on his bed, continually planning and counter-planning.

Edward Seidensticker's version:

Genji was not feeling well. A shower passed on a chilly mountain wind, and the sound of the waterfall was higher. Intermittently came a rather sleepy voice, solemn and somehow ominous, reading a sacred text. The most insensitive of men would have been aroused by the scene. Genji was unable to sleep.

Royall Tyler's version:

Genji felt quite unwell, and besides, it was now raining a little, a cold mountain wind had set in to blow, and the pool beneath the waterfall had risen until the roar was louder than before. The eerie swelling and dying of somnolent voices chanting the scriptures could hardly fail in such a setting to move the most casual visitor. No wonder Genji, who had so much to ponder, could not sleep.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

It was in this darkness that abruptly, with many loud noises, we stopped. There were shouts from the barge, the dugouts with us, and from many parts of the steamer. Young men with guns had boarded the steamer and had tried to take her over. But they had failed; one young man was bleeding on the bridge above us. The fat man, the captain, remained in charge of his vessel. We learned that later.
At that time what we saw was the steamer searchlight, playing on the riverbank, playing on the passenger barge, which had snapped loose and was drifting at an angle through the water hyacinths at the edge of the river. The searchlight lit up the barge passengers, who, behind bars and wire guards, as yet scarcely seemed to understand that they were adrift. Then there were gunshots. The searchlight was turned off, the barge was no longer to be seen. The steamer started up again and moved without lights down the river, away from the area of battle. The air would have been full of moths and flying insects. The searchlight, while it was on, had shown thousands, white in the white lights.

--A Bend in the River, V.S.Naipaul (1979)


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

from "Sentences"


In the Italian quarter of London I found a group of clerks, waiters and idealistic barbers calling itself The Rosicrucian Mysteries, Soho Chapter, that met to read papers on the fabrication of gold and its metaphysical implications, to elect from its number certain Arch-adepts and magistri hieraticorum, to correspond with the last of the magi, Orzinda-Mazda, on Mr Sinai, and to retell, wide-eyed, their stories of how some workmen near Rome, breaking by chance into the tomb of Cicero’s daughter, Tulliola, discovered an everburning lamp suspended in mid-air, its wick feeding on Perpetual Principle; of how Cleopatra’s son Caesarion was preserved in a translucent liquid, “oil of gold,” and could be still seen in an underground shrine at Vienna; and of how Virgil never died, but was alive still on the island of Patmos, eating the leaves of a peculiar tree.

--Thornton Wilder (1897-1975)


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

“A much dwindled, starker annotator…”

“A much dwindled, starker annotator…”

A much dwindled, starker annotator sitting in a child’s prison for butterflies. There’s Phoebus. There’s Painted Lady, Dog Face, White Admiral, Zebra, Mourning Cloak, Question Mark, Little Wood Satyr. Their colors are very pretty.
Who told the little kid about sticking pins into us?

--Charles Simic, from the world doesn't end (1989)


Monday, June 22, 2009

Pessoa’s legacy consisted of a large trunk full of poetry, prose, plays, philosophy, criticism, translation, linguistic theory, political writings, horoscopes, and assorted other texts, variously typed, handwritten or illegibly scrawled in Portuguese, English and French. He wrote in notebooks, on loose sheets, on the backs of letters, advertisements and handbills, on stationery from the firms he worked for and from the cafes he frequented, on envelopes, on paper scraps, and in the margins of his own earlier texts. To compound the confusion, he wrote under dozens of names, a practice—or compulsion—that began in his childhood. He called his most important personas ‘heteronyms’, endowing them with their own biographies, physiques, personalities, political views, religious attitudes and literary pursuits. Some of Pessoa’s most memorable work in Portuguese was attributed to the three main poetic heteronyms—Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Alvaro de Campos—and to the ‘semi-heteronym’ called Bernardo Soares, while his vast output of English poetry and prose was in large part credited to heteronyms Alexander Search and Charles Robert Anon, and his writing in French to the lonely Jean Seul. The many other alter egos included translators, short-story writers, an English literary critic, an astrologer, a philosopher and an unhappy nobleman who committed suicide. There was even a female persona: the hunchbacked and helplessly lovesick Maria Jose. At the turn of the century, sixty-five years after Pessoa’s death, his vast written world had still not been completely charted by researchers, and a significant part of his writings was still waiting to be published.

--Introduction to Book of Disquiet, Richard Zenith (2001)


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Before Ognev stood Kuznetsov's daughter Vera, a girl of one-and-twenty, as usual melancholy, carelessly dressed, and attractive. Girls who are dreamy and spend whole days lying down, lazily reading whatever they come across, who are bored and melancholy, are usually careless in their dress. To those of them who have been endowed by nature with taste and an instinct of beauty, the slight carelessness adds a special charm. When Ognev later on remembered her, he could not picture pretty Verotchka except in a full blouse which was crumpled in deep folds at the belt and yet did not touch her waist; without her hair done up high and a curl that had come loose from it on her forehead; without the knitted red shawl with ball fringe at the edge which hung disconsolately on Vera's shoulders in the evenings, like a flag on a windless day, and in the daytime lay about, crushed up, in the hall near the men's hats or on a box in the dining-room, where the old cat did not hesitate to sleep on it. This shawl and the folds of her blouse suggested a feeling of freedom and laziness, of good-nature and sitting at home. Perhaps because Vera attracted Ognev he saw in every frill and button something warm, naive, cosy, something nice and poetical, just what is lacking in cold, insincere women that have no instinct for beauty.
Verotchka had a good figure, a regular profile, and beautiful curly hair. Ognev, who had seen few women in his life, thought her a beauty.

--Verotchka, Anton Chekhov, 1887


Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Odradek

At first glance it looks like a flat star-shaped spool for thread, and indeed it does seem to have thread wound upon it; to be sure, they are only old, broken-off bits of thread, knotted and tangled together, of the most varied sorts and colors. But it is not only a spool, for a small wooden crossbar sticks out of the middle of the star, and another small rod is joined to that at a right angle. By means of this latter rod on one side and one of the points of the star on the other, the whole thing can stand upright as if on two legs.
One is tempted to believe that the creature once had some sort of intelligible shape and is now only a broken-down remnant. Yet this does not seem to be the case; at least there is no sign of it; nowhere is there an unfinished or unbroken surface to suggest anything of the kind; the whole thing looks senseless enough, but in its own way perfectly finished. In any case, closer scrutiny is impossible, since Odradek is extraordinary nimble and can never be laid hold of.
He lurks by turns in the garret, the stairway, the lobbies, the entrance hall. Often for months on end he is not to be seen; then he has presumably moved into other houses; but he always comes faithfully back to our house again. Many a time when you go out of the door and he happens just to be leaning directly beneath you against the banisters you feel inclines to speak to him. Of course, you put no difficult questions to him, you treat him--he is so diminutive that you cannot help it--rather like a child. "well, what's your name?" you ask him. "Odradek," he says. "And where do you live?" "No fixed abode," he says and laughs; but it is only the kind of laughter that has no lungs behind it. It sounds rather like the rustling of fallen leaves. And that is usually the end of the conversation. Even these answers are not always forthcoming; often he stays mute for a long time, as wooden as his appearance.
I ask myself, to no purpose, what is likely to happen to him? Can he possibly die? Anything that dies has had some kind of aim in life, some kind of activity, which has worn out; but that does not apply to Odradek. Am I to suppose, then, that he will always be rolling down the stairs, with ends of thread trailing after him, right before the feet of my children, and my children's children? He does no harm to anyone that one can see; but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful.

--the Cares of a Family Man, Franz Kafka


Friday, June 19, 2009

Nabokov on Gogol

[at the party] The black tailcoats flickered and fluttered, separately and in clusters, this way and that, just as flies flutter over dazzling white chunks of sugar on a hot July day when the old housekeeper hacks and divides it into sparkling lumps in front of the open window: all the children look on as they gather about her, watching with curiosity the movements of her rough hands while the airy squadrons of flies that the light air has raised, fly boldly in, complete mistresses of the premises and, taking advantage of the old woman's purblindness and of the sun troubling her eyes, spread all over the dainty morsels, here separately, there in dense clusters."

--Dead Souls, Nikolay Gogol (1842)

The peripheral characters of his novel are engendered by the subordinate clauses of its various metaphors, comparisons and lyrical outbursts. We are faced by the remarkable phenomenon of mere forms of speech directly giving rise to live creatures.

--Lectures on Russian Literature, Vladimir Nabokov (1981)


Thursday, June 18, 2009

It was an utterly changed form of life. Everything about it was shifted out of the focus of ordinary attention and had lost its sharp outlines. Seen in this way, it was all a little scattered and blurred, and yet manifestly there were still other centers filling it again with delicate certainty and clarity. For all life’s problems and events took on an incomparable mildness, softness, and serenity, and at the same time an utterly transformed meaning. If, for instance, a beetle, there, ran past the hand of the man sunk in thought, it was not a coming nearer, a passing by and a disappearing, and it was not beetle and man; it was a happening ineffably touching the heart, and yet not even a happening but, although it happened, a state. And, aided by such tranquil experiences, everything that generally goes to make up ordinary life was imbued with transforming significance, wherever Ulrich met with it.

--The Man without Qualities, Robert Musil (1943)


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

My father had been born two months after his own father’s death. At each stage of his life, he was to be forlornly fatherless. He was a deep boy brought up entirely by a mild widowed mother and an intense widowed grandmother. When he was fourteen and a half, he became a deep young midshipman. By the time he graduated from Annapolis, he had a high sense of abstract form, which he beclouded with his humor. He had a reached, perhaps, his final mental possibilities. He was deep—not with profundity, but with the dumb depth of one who trusted in statistics and was dubious of personal experience. In his forties, Father’s soul went underground: as a civilian he kept his high sense of form, his humor, his accuracy, but this accuracy was henceforth unimportant, recreational, hors de combat. His debunking grew myopic; his shyness grew evasive; he argued with a fumbling languor. In the twenty-two years Father lived after he resigned from the Navy, he never again deserted Boston and never became Bostonian. He survived to drift from job to job, to be displaced, to be grimly and literally that old cliché, a fish out of water. He gasped and wheezed with impotent optimism, took on new ideals with each new job, never ingeniously enjoyed his leisure, never even hid his head in the sand.

--Life Studies, Robert Lowell (1959)


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

For Bloomsday

the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leapyear like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharans and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down Jo me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914-1921

--Ulysses (1921), James Joyce


Monday, June 15, 2009

Of all the doctrines of Tlon, none has caused more uproar than materialism. Some thinkers have formulated this philosophy (generally with less clarity than zeal) as though putting forth a paradox. In order to make this inconceivable thesis more easily understood, an eleventh-century heresiarch conceived the sophism of the nine copper coins, a paradox as scandalously famous on Tlon as the Eleatic aporiae to ourselves. There are many versions of that “specious argument,” with varying numbers of coins and discoveries; the following is the most common:

On Tuesday, X is walking along a deserted road and loses nine copper coins. On Thursday, Y finds four coins in the road, their luster somewhat dimmed by Wednesday’s rain. On Friday, Z discovers three coins in the road. Friday morning X finds two coins on the veranda of his house.

From this story the heresiarch wished to deduce the reality—i.e., the continuity in time—of those nine recovered coins. “It is absurd,” he said, “to imagine that four of the coins did not exist from Tuesday to Thursday, three from Tuesday to Friday afternoon, two from Tuesday to Friday morning. It is logical to think that they in fact did exist—albeit in some secret way that we are forbidden to understand—at every moment of those three periods of time.”
The language of Tlon resisted formulating this paradox; most people did not understand it. The “common sense” school at first simply denied the anecdote’s veracity. They claimed it was a verbal fallacy based on the reckless employment of two neologisms, words unauthorized by standard usage and foreign to all rigorous thought: the two verbs “find” and “lose,” which, since they presuppose the identity of the nine first coins and the nine latter ones, entail a petitio principii. These critics reminded their listeners that all nouns (man, coin, Thursday, Wednesday, rain) have only metaphoric value.

-Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Jorge Luis Borges (1941).


Sunday, June 14, 2009

In a very witty essay written in 1935, Cyril Connolly demanded that a whole family of conventions should be butchered—“all novels dealing with more than one generation or with any period before 1918 or with brilliant impoverished children in rectories,” all novels set in Hampshire, Sussex, Oxford, Cambridge, the Essex coast, Wiltshire, Cornwall, Kensington, Chelsea, Hampstead, Hyde Park, and Hammersmith.

“Many situations should be forbidden, all getting and losing of jobs, proposals of marriage, reception of love-letters by either sex…all allusion to illness or suicide (except insanity), all quotations, all mentions of genius, promise, writing, painting, sculpting, art, poetry, and the phrases “I like your stuff,” “what’s his stuff like?” “Damned good,” “Let me make you some coffee,” all young men with ambition or young women with emotion, all remarks like “Darling, I’ve found the most wonderful cottage” (flat, castle), “Ask me any other time, dearest, only please—just this once—not now,” “Love you—of course I love you” (don’t love you)—and “It’s not that, it’s only that I feel so terribly tired.”
Forbidden names: Hugo, Peter, Sebastian, Adrian, Ivor, Julian, Pamela, Chloe, Enid, Inez, Miranda, Joanna, Jill, Felicity, Phyllis.
Forbidden faces: all young men with curly hair or remarkable eyes, all gaunt haggard thinkers’ faces, all faunlike characters, anybody over six feet, or with any distinction whatever, and all women with a nape to their neck (he loved the way her hair curled in the little hollow at the nape of her neck).”

--How Fiction Works, James Wood (2008)


Saturday, June 13, 2009

The only way to speak of a cliché is with a cliché. So even the best writers against clichés are awkwardly placed. When Eric Partridge amassed his Dictionary of Cliches in 1940 (1978 saw its fifth edition), his introduction had no choice but to use the usual clichés for clichés. Yet what, as a metaphor, could be more hackneyed than hackneyed, more outworn than outworn, more tattered than tattered? Is there any point left to—or in or on—saying of a cliché that its ‘original point has been blunted’? Hasn’t this too become blunted? A cliché is ‘a phrase “on tap” as it were’—but, as it is, is Patridge’s ‘as it were’ anything more than a cool pretence that when, for his purposes, he uses the cliché on tap it’s oh so different from the usual bad habit of having those two words on tap? His indictment of ‘fly-blown phrases’ has no buzz of insect wings, no weight of carrion.
Even George Orwell (whom William Empson, with an audacious compacting of clichés, called the eagle eye with the flat feet)—even Orwell had to use the cliché-cliches (hackneyed, outworn), and could say, ‘There is a long list of fly-blown metaphors which could similarly be got rid of if enough people would interest themselves in the job,’ without apparently being interested himself in whether fly-blown wasn’t itself one of those very metaphors which could be got rid of. That was in 1946, in his famous piece ‘Politics and the English language.’

--the Force of Poetry, Christopher Ricks (1984)


Friday, June 12, 2009

On the airport bus, he opened his father’s copy of the Psalms. The black Hebrew letters only gaped at him like open mouths with tongues hanging down, pointing upward, flaming but dumb. He tried—forcing. It did no good. The tunnel, the swamps, the auto skeletons, machine entrails, dumps, gulls, sketchy Newark trembling in fiery summer, held his attention minutely…Then in the jet running with concentrated fury to take off—the power to pull away from the magnetic earth; and more: When he saw the ground tilt backward, the machine rising from the runway, he said to himself in clear internal words, “Shema Yisraeil,” Hear, O Israel, God alone is God! On the right, New York leaned gigantically seaward, and the plane with a jolt of retracted wheels turned toward the river. The Hudson green within green, and rough with tide and wind. Isaac released the breath he had been holding, but sat belted tight. Above the marvelous bridges, over clouds, sailing in atmosphere, you know better than ever that you are no angel.

--The Old System, Saul Bellow (1968)


Thursday, June 11, 2009

“Do you like Schubert?”
“Not particularly,” I tell him.
“When I drive I like to listen to Schubert’s piano sonatas with the volume turned up. Do you know why?
“I have no idea.”
“Because playing Schubert’s piano sonatas well is one of the hardest things in the world. Especially this, the Sonata in D Major. It’s a tough piece to master. Some pianists can play one or maybe two of the movements perfectly, but if you listen to all four movements as a unified whole, no one has ever nailed it. A lot of famous pianists have tried to rise to the challenge, but it’s like there’s always something missing. There’s never one where you can say, Yes! He’s got it! Do you know why?”
“No,” I reply.
“Because the sonata itself is imperfect. Robert Schumann understood Schubert’s sonatas well, and he labeled this one ‘Heavenly Tedious.’”
“If the composition’s imperfect, why would so many pianists try to master it?”
“Good question,” Oshima says, and pauses as music fills in the silence. “I have no great explanation for it, but one thing I can say. Works that have a certain imperfection to them have an appeal for that very reason—or at least they appeal to certain types of people…If you play Schubert’s sonatas, especially this one straight through, it’s not art. Like Schumann pointed out, it’s too long and too pastoral, and technically too simplistic. Play it through the way it is and it’s flat and tasteless, some dusty antique. Which is why every pianist who attempts it adds something of his own, something extra. Like this—hear how he articulates it there? Adding rubato. Adjusting the pace, modulation, whatever. Otherwise they can’t hold it all together. They have to be careful, though, or else all those extra devices destroy the dignity of the piece. Then it’s not Schubert’s music anymore. Every single pianist who’s played this sonata struggles with the same paradox.”
He listens to the music, humming the melody, then continues.
“That’s why I like to listen to Schubert while I’m driving. Like I said, it’s because all the performances are imperfect. A dense, artistic kind of imperfection stimulates your consciousness, keeps you alert. If I listen to some utterly perfect performance of an utterly perfect piece while I’m driving, I might want to close my eyes and die right then and there. But listening to the D major, I can feel the limits of what humans are capable of—that a certain type of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect. And personally, I find that encouraging.”

--Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami (2002)


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

On this particular evening the woman told the waiter about her husband's hair: parted always on his right and combed finely so that each strand shone like amber from the shower he took prior to meeting her for their evening walks. "There was a time," the woman said, "when he bathed for me and me alone." She knew his hair — its length, smell, and color — long before she knew the rest of him. Before he left for the Pacific. Before his return and their marriage and their years together. When she opened the door it was what she noticed first. And in the heat of the remaining sun, she swore you could see a curtain of mist rising from the peak of his thin head...

--Once the Shore, Paul Yoon (2009)


Tuesday, June 9, 2009

And once I had recognized the taste...

And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on color and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

--Du côté de chez Swann (1913), Marcel Proust


Monday, June 8, 2009

And in a mighty chair beside this table was King Gorice XII., robed in his conjuring robe of black and gold, resting his cheek on his hand that was lean as an eagle's claw. The low light, mother of shade and secrecy, that hovered in that chamber moved about the still figure of the King, his nose hooked as the eagle's beak, his cropped hair, his thick close-cut beard and shaven upper lip, his high cheek-bones and cruel heavy jaw, and the dark eaves of his brows whence the glint of green eyes showed as no friendly lamp to them without.

--The Worm Ouroboros (1922), Eric Rücker Eddison


Sunday, June 7, 2009

"The Caliph Harun-al-Rashid...one night, in the grip of insomnia, disguises himself as a merchant and goes out into the streets of Baghdad. A boat carries him along the waters of the Tigris to the gate of a garden. At the edge of a pool a maiden beautiful as the moon is singing, accompanying herself on the lute. A slave girl admits Harun to the palace and makes him put on a saffron-colored cloak. The maiden who was singing in the garden is seated on a silver chair. On cushions around her are seated seven men wrapped in saffron-colored cloaks. 'Only you were missing,' the maiden says, 'you are late'; and she invites him to sit on a cushion at her side. 'Noble sirs, you have sworn to obey me blindly, and now the moment has come to put you to the test.' And from around her throat the maiden takes a pearl necklace. 'This necklace has seven white pearls and one black pearl. Now I will break its string and drop the pearls into an onyx cup. He who draws, by lot, the black pearl must kill the Caliph Harun-al-Rashid and bring me his head. As a reward I will give myself to him. But if he should refuse to kill the Caliph, he will be killed by the other seven, who will repeat the drawing of lots for the black pearl.' With a shudder Harun-al-Rashid opens his hand, sees the black pearl, and speaks to the maiden. 'I will obey the command of fate and yours, on condition that you will tell me what offense of the Caliph has provoked your hatred,' he asks, anxious to hear the story."

This relic of some childish reading should also be included in your list of interrupted books. But what title does it have?
"If it had a title I have forgotten that, too. Give it one yourself."
The words with which the story breaks off seem to you to express well the spirit of the Arabian Nights. You write, then, He asks, anxious to hear the story in the list of titles you have asked for in vain at the library.

If on a winter's night a traveler, Italo Calvino (1979)


Saturday, June 6, 2009

And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks' windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the forms of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

--Du côté de chez Swann, Marcel Proust (1913)


Friday, June 5, 2009

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called 'petites madeleines,' which look as though they had been molded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim's shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory--this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?

--Du côté de chez Swann, Marcel Proust (1913)


Thursday, June 4, 2009

At one time, according to Sir George H. Darwin, the Moon was very close to the Earth. Then the tides gradually pushed her far away: the tides that the Moon herself causes in the Earth's waters, where the Earth slowly loses energy.

How well I know!--old Qfwfq cried,--the rest of you can't remember, but I can. We had her on top of us all the time, that enormous Moon: when she was full--nights as bright as day, but with a butter-colored light--it looked as if she were going to crush us; when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind; and when she was waxing, she came forward with her horns so low she seemed about to stick into the peak of a promontory and get caught there...
...The spot where the Moon was lowest, as she went by, was off the Zine Cliffs. We used to go out with those little rowboats they had in those days, round and flat, made of cork. They held quite a few of us: me, Captain Vhd Vhd, his wife, my deaf cousin, and sometimes little Xlthlx--she was twelve or so at that time...
...This is how we did the job: in the boat we had a ladder: one of us held it, another climbed to the top, and a third, at the oars, rowed until we were right under the Moon; that's why there had to be so many of us (I only mentioned the main ones). The man at the top of the ladder, as the boat approached the Moon, would become scared and start shouting: "Stop! Stop! I'm going to bang my head!" That was the impression you had, seeing her on top of you, immense, and all rough with sharp spikes and jagged, saw-tooth edges. It may be different now, but then the Moon, or rather the bottom, the underbelly of the Moon, the part that passed closest to the Earth and almost scraped it, was covered with a crust of sharp scales. It had come to resemble the belly of a fish, and the smell too, as I recall, if not downright fishy, was faintly similar, like smoked salmon.

--Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino ((1965)


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

While we worked in the kitchen, Alfrida talked to me about celebrities--actors, even minor movie stars, who had made stage appearances in the city where she lived. In a lowered voice broken by wildly disrespectful laughter, she told me rumors about their bad behavior, the private scandals that had never made it into the magazines. She mentioned queers, artificial bosoms, household triangles--all things I had found hints of in my reading but felt giddy to hear about, even at third or fourth hand, in real life.
Alfrida's teeth always got my attention, so that, even during these confidential recitals, I sometimes lost track of what was being said. Her front teeth were all of a slightly different color, no two alike. Some tended toward shades of dark ivory; others were opalescent, shadowed with lilac, and gave out fish-flashes of silver rims, occasionally a gleam of gold. People's teeth then seldom made such a solid, handsome show as they do now--unless they were false--but Alfrida's were unusual in their individuality, clear separation, and size. When Alfrida let out some jibe that was especially, knowingly outrageous, they seemed to leap to the fore like jolly spear fighters.
"She always did have trouble with her teeth," the aunts said. "She had that abscess, remember--the poison went all through her body."
How like them, I thought, to pick on any weakness in a superior person, to zoom in on any physical distress.
"Why doesn't she just have them all out and be done with it?" they said.
"Likely she couldn't afford it," my grandmother said, surprising everybody, as she sometimes did, by showing that she had been keeping up with a conversation all along.
And surprising me with the new, everyday sort of light this shone on Alfrida's life. I had believed that Alfrida was rich, at least in comparison with the rest of the family. She lived in an apartment--I had never seen it, but to me that fact conveyed at least the idea of a very civilized life--and she wore clothes that were not homemade, and her shoes were not Oxfords like the shoes of practically all the other grownup women I knew; they were sandals made of bright strips of plastic. It was hard to know whether my grandmother was simply living in the past, when getting your teeth done was the solemn, crowning expense of a lifetime, or whether she really knew things about Alfrida's life that I would not have guesseed.

--Family Furnishings, Alice Munro (2001)


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

In spite of what the Portuguese traders told their Brazilian sailors under their breath as they emptied their ship holds of Moluccan feathers, & contrary to what the barefoot convicts grunted to each other during their cruel, unending ardour of hauling huge Huon pine logs through trackless rainforest to the frozen river's edge, not all his trade was complete madness.

For the pine, the oil of which he claimed could be used as an aphrodisiac & a cure for the clap, making it a doubly virtuous wonder that both promoted & protected its adherents in the torrents of love, he extracted the finest silk cloth from India. For a horde of sulphur-crested cockatoos he had painted to resemble baby macaws & trained to recite melancholic verse in the manner of Pope & several songs of passion in the earthier argot of their convict trainers, he gained fourteen Brazilian caravels & seven cannons, which he promptly exchanged for a principality in Sarawak that a Levantine merchant had won in a game of tarok on his way south to the fabled kingdom of Sarah Island, the subsequent sale of which financed his palace & the new wharf.

--Gould's Book of Fish, Richard Flanagan (2001)

Monday, June 1, 2009

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point. Every year during the month of March a family of ragged gypsies would set up their tents near the village, and with a great uproar of pipes and kettledrums they would display new inventions. First they brought the magnet. A heavy gypsy with an untamed beard and sparrow hands, who introduced himself as Melquiades, put on a bold public demonstration of what he himself called the eighth wonder of the learned alchemists of Macedonia. He went from house to house dragging two metal ingots and everybody was amazed to see pots, pans, tongs, and braziers tumble down from their places and beams creak from the desperation of nails and screws trying to emerge, and even objects that had been lost for a long time appeared from where they had been searched for most and went dragging along in turbulent confusion behind Melquiades' magical irons. "Things have a life of their own," the gypsy proclaimed with a harsh accent. "It's simply a matter of waking up their souls." Jose Arcadio Buendia, whose unbridled imagination always went beyond the genius of nature and even beyond miracle and magic, thought that it would be possible to make use of that useless invention to extract gold from the bowels of the earth. Melquiades, who was an honest man, warned him: "It won't work for that." But Jose Arcadio Buendia at that time did not believe in the honesty of gypsies, so he traded his mule and a pair of goats for the two magnetized ingots. Ursula Iguaran, his wife, who relied on those animals to increase their poor domestic holdings, was unable to dissuade him. "Very soon we'll have gold enough and more to pave the floors of the house," her husand replied. For several months he worked hard to demonstrate the truth of his idea. He explored every inch of the region, even the riverbed, dragging the two iron ingots along and reciting Melquides' incantation aloud. The only thing he succeeded in doing was to unearth a suit of fifteenth-century armor which had all of its pieces soldered together with rust and inside of which there was the hollow resonance of an enormous stone-filled gourd. When Jose Arcadio Buendia and the four men of his expedition managed to take the armor apart, they found inside a calcified skeleton with a copper locket containing a woman's hair around its neck.

---100 Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Gacia Marquez (1967)