Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Blue river of truth

And in our own reading lives, every day, we come across that blue river of truth, curling somewhere; we encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction and poetry, in film and drama, which strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which shake habit's house to its foundations: King Lear asking forgiveness of Cordelia; Lady Macbeth hissing at her husband during the banquet: Pierre almost executed by French soldiers in War and Peace; the tattered band of survivors wandering the city streets in Saramago's Blindness; Dorothea Brooke in Rome, realizing that she has married a man whose sould is dead; Gregor Samsa, being pushed back into his room by his own, horrified father; Kirilov, in The Possessed, writing his suicide note, with the awful Peter Verkhovensky by his side, suddenly and ridiculously bursting out: "Wait! I want to draw a face with the tongue out on the top. . . I want to tell them off!" Or the beautiful litle scene in Persuasion when Anne Elliot, kneeling on the floor, and keen to get a heavy two-year-old boy off her back, is suddenly relieved of the burden by the man she secretly loves, Captain Wentworth:

Someone was taking him from her, though he had bent down her head so much,
that his little sturdy hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was
resolutely borne away, before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it.

Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could
not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles, with most
disordered feelings.

Or the last chapter of Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, some of the most exquisite pages ever written in American fiction. Father Latour has returned to die in Santa Fe, near his cathedral: "In New Mexico he always awoke a young man; not until he rose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older. His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one's body feel light and one's heart cry 'To-day, to'day,' like a child's." Lying in his bed he thinks about his old life in France, about his new life in the New World, about the architect, Molny, who built his Romanesque cathedral in Sante Fe, and about death. He is lucid and calm:

He observed also that there was no longer any perspective in his memories.
He remembered his winters with his cousins on the Mediterranean when he was a
little boy, his student days in the Holy City, as clearly as he remembered the
arrival of M. Molny and the building of his Cathedral. He was soon to have done
with calendared time, and it had already ceased to count for him. He sat in the
middle of his own consciousness; none of his former states of mind were lost or
outgrown. They were all within reach of his hand, and all comprehensible.

Sometimes, when Magdalena or Bernard came in and asked him a question, it
took him several seconds to bring himself back to the present. He could see they
thought his mind was failing; but it was only extraordinarily active in some
other part of the great picture of his life--some part of which they knew

--James Wood, How Fiction Works


  1. Anonymous10:18 AM

    I knew I wanted to read "How Fiction Works" - I knew it. Thanks for this. Though if that selection is any indication, I do think that book is likely to increase my TBR list tenfold.

  2. He has a bibliography at the back. I really ought to photocopy the list before I turn it back in at the library.

  3. Anonymous7:06 AM

    I've just re-read Persuasion, and that particular extract struck me at the time. Interesting post.


A bang, not a whimper

  Two months into L.'s retirement, and I'm finished with the stockpiling of books. No more book purchases! Or at least, no purcha...