CategoryQuotations

Starting Mrs Dalloway

I’ve just started reading Mrs Dalloway, my introduction to Virginia Woolf, and clearly I left it far too long to start reading her. I will have a review on here in due course; but there’s a time for reflecting, and a time for more immediate reactions. I started reading Mrs Dallloway, and was… well, engulfed by it.

I mean, just listen to this, from the second page:

For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment, afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.

I found the tumble of words electrifying, intoxicating… and then came this:

For it was the middle of June. The War was over, except for some one like Mrs Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin; or Lady Bexborough who opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John, her favourite, killed; but it was over, thank Heaven – over.

Clarissa Dalloway’s perception envelops you; you’re carried along by the brio of her viewpoint… then comes the sting of lives cut short by the War, the knowledge that there are stories which (presumably) don’t get to be told. This sort of experience is why I read fiction… and the novel has only just begun.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf, Vintage Classics paperback

The hand and the pickaxe

Everything is endless but nothing remains as it is. That’s a lesson your hand has learned, right down to the bones and the nerves; the hand that no longer shakes the air like a fist of bronze, but hovers uncertainly — with bulging veins — over the table, the hand that has to reassess dimensions and sizes, heaviness and lightness. Have you noticed how unsteady it is when you shake hands with people, give directions or touch things? Perhaps not, because against the background noise of flesh and blood, you cannot hear that mysterious and perfidious pickaxe chipping away, as the stones of the fortress start to work loose from the inside. But the rasping noise of that pickaxe comes straight from the lungs. It cannot always be muffled with the palm of a hand or a pocket handkerchief.

— Amjad Nasser, Land of No Rain (translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright)

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Land of No Rain (2011) by Amjad Nasser, tr. Jonathan Wright (2014), Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing paperback

This moment

When life stands still here and we face the endless, shifting, indifferent grey-brown sea, when we hold ourselves open and out into that indifference tenderly, without pining, self-pitying, complaining or expecting some reward or glittering prize, then we might have become, just for that moment, something that has endured and will endure, someone who can find some sort of sufficiency: right here, right now.

This moment, one out of a million, out of a million millions, towards 4.30 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon in late November, on this East Anglian beach, grey cloud, gulls, gusts of wind, vast darkness descending. Here is delight. Here one can help oneself out of one’s solitude, shift that wedge-shaped core of darkness that is the self, and reach out and up towards another… in love.

Ecstasy bursts into our eyes. It is enough.

— Simon Critchley, Notes on Suicide, p. 76

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

Notes on Suicide (2015) by Simon Critchley, Fitzcarraldo Editions paperback

A glimpse of the lake

From the book I’ve just read: a quotation on how reading can open doors to new worlds – and then close them again all too quickly:

Knock, and the door will be opened unto you. Maybe not quite opened, but something will definitely change—if that makes you happy. Maybe new wallpaper. Moving to a new apartment. A new perfume. A new perspective. And a new picture. If an irrational hope sparks in your veins now and again, it could even be the moment when you’re on the train reading a book translated into Latvian, and in a brief flash you realize that you understand the author, the main character, and the life of the translator. For a second, all three of these personas unite in you, not in a linear sense, but in a  predestined, glowing arc. You go inside and can suddenly see through to the bottom of a frozen lake, to the stillness of the undercurrent between motionless water lilies. Then you turn the page and it all disappears. You’re back in your own body, you have to buy milk for the kid, and a heart to cook up for the dog—a giant, red, cow  heart—and bring it all home, you have to be a hunter because all around you are nothing but frozen, wintery fields that destroy everything warm and alive.

Book details (publisher link)

High Tide (2008) by Inga Ābele, tr. kaija Straumanis (2013), Open Letter paperback

A reader's talent

I am currently reading Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas (translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean). I’ve been struck by a passage in which the protagonist, publisher Samuel Riba, reflects on the kind of reader he values:

He believes that if a talent is demanded of a literary publisher or a writer, it must also be demanded of a reader. Because we mustn’t deceive ourselves; on the journey of reading we often travel through difficult terrains that demand a capacity for intelligent emotion, a desire to understand the other, and to approach a language distinct from the one of our daily tyrannies. As Vilém Vok says, it’s not so simple to feel the world as Kafka felt it, a world in which movement is denied and it becomes impossible even to go from one village to the next. The same skills needed for writing are needed for reading. Writers fail readers, but it also happens the other way around and readers fail writers when all they ask of them is confirmation that the world is how they see it…

This is the kind of reader I hope that I can be; certainly I feel more rewarded – more alive, even – when I’m reading in the kind of engaged, thoughtful way that Vila-Matas describes. Judiciously selecting books, and sharing my thoughts about them on this blog and elsewhere, continue to help me develop  as a reader.

Over-exposed

I have a print – you can buy them at the Victoria and Albert Museum – of a photograph of the village street of Thetford, taken in 1868, in which William Smith is not. The street is empty. There is a grocer’s shop and a blacksmith’s and a stationary cart and a great spreading tree, but not a single human figure. In fact William Smith – or someone, or several people, dogs too, geese, a man on a horse – passed beneath the tree, went into the grocer’s shop, loitered for a moment talking to a friend while the photograph was taken but he is invisible, all of them are invisible. The exposure of the photograph – sixty minutes – was so long that William Smith and everyone else passed through it and away leaving no trace. Not even so much of a mark as those primordial worms that passed through the Cambrian mud of northern Scotland and left the empty tube of their passage in the rock.

I like that. I like that very much. A neat image for the relation of man to the physical world. Gone, passed through and away. Suppose though that William Smith – or whoever did walk down that street that morning – had in his progress moved the cart from point A to point B. What would we see then? A smudge? Two carts? Or suppose he had cut down the tree? Tampering with the physical world is what we do supremely well – in the end, perhaps, we shall achieve it definitively. Finis. And history will indeed come to an end.

– Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger (1987), p. 13

We're all drying up

For a while there were no cars to show my thumb to, but I kept standing there, not even having an appropriate curiosity about this new country (a boring little mountain, a plain blue lake, a gas station, the same as ours only slightly not). The skin on my lips was drying and I thought about how all the cells on every body are on their way to a total lack of moisture and everyone alive has that thought all the time but almost no one says it and no one says it because they don’t really think that thought, they just have it, like they have toes, like most people have toes; and the knowledge that we’re all drying up is what presses the gas pedal in all the cars people drive away from where they are, which reminded me that I wasn’t going anywhere, and I noticed that many cars had passed but none had stopped or even slowed, and I began to wonder about what would happen if no one took me, if the first woman had been a fluke and hitchhiking had been left in the seventies with other now-dangerous things—lead paint, certain plastics, free love—and I was going to be stuck here forever, watching no cars drive by, thinking about my cells all helpless to their drying.

– Catherine Lacey, Nobody Is Ever Missing (2014), p. 8

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