Sunday, June 20, 2010

DQW: 3

"The Island of Koh-ring, a great, black, upheaved ridge amongst a lot of tiny islets, lying upon the glassy water like a triton amongst minnows, seemed to be the centre of the fatal circle. It seemed impossible to get away from it. Day after day it remained in sight. More than once, in a favourable breeze, I would take its bearing in the fast ebbing twilight, thinking that it was for the last time. Vain hope. A night of fitful airs would undo the gains of temporary favour, and the rising sun would throw out the black relief of Koh-ring, looking more barren, inhospitable, and grim than ever."

—Joseph Conrad, The Shadow-Line


Monday, June 07, 2010

DQW: 2

"It used to be I thought of death as a man something like Grandfather a friend of his a kind of private and particular friend like we used to think of Grandfather's desk not to touch it not even to talk loud in the room where it was I always thought of them as being together somewhere all the time waiting for old Colonel Sartoris to come down and sit with them waiting on a high place beyond cedar trees Colonel Sartoris was on a still higher place looking out across at something and they were waiting for him to get done looking at it and come down Grandfather wore his uniform and we could hear the murmur of their voices from beyond the cedars they were always talking and Grandfather was always right"

—William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

I’ve never read The Sound and the Fury. The book was assigned in one of my college lit courses, and though I neglected to read it then—probably because I was wrestling with a paper that was late, or reading something else for another class—I must have decided to hold onto it. The other night I woke up fitfully, and when I couldn’t get back to sleep I reached for the bookshelf in the dark. I pulled the first spine I touched—I had a feeling it was a Norton Critical Edition, glossy with hard-squared edges—and opened the book. When I turned on the lamp I saw the passage above on page 111.

I have another book of Faulkner’s, a collection of hunting stories, which I started not long ago and put down soon after. The lead story was about a boy on a bear hunt with his father and some other men—a good premise—but the writing felt so ponderous and overwrought to me that I lost interest. Like this excerpt, the story was written in a stream-of-consciousness style, but in the third person, and without the same simple lyricism and beauty. The lack of punctuation in this kind of experimental writing can be jarring at first, at least for me—the prose seems to ramble on without inflection. But once I get past my presumptions about grammar and fall into the author’s rhythms, the effect is less confusing and more impressionistic. Especially in the quote above, where Faulkner lulls the reader into something that is not so much a scene as an atmosphere, one character's gauzy vision of the afterlife. It’s the sort of passage that makes me feel badly for never giving his books a fair chance.

It also got me thinking about my own grandfather. He died a few years back. Last week I was in the house where he lived, and where my grandmother now lives alone. I walked onto the porch where he used to sit during the summer in his olive green recliner, reading the newspaper or the Bible, pens jutting from his shirt pocket. Sometimes there was a tumbler on the side table, his daily martini. I would sit on the swinging sofa and we would have well-meaning conversations about banal things. Sports, the weather, what I was up to at school or work. Now, his absence was palpable. It struck me that losing people we love results in a strange irony, making our lives heavier by a process of subtraction. The longer we live the more people vanish around us and our day-to-day experience becomes weighted, full of memory and longing, or regret, or thoughts of our own impermanence, how nothing we know can stay the way it is. We go on and assume it gets better with time, but it doesn't really.

Maybe one way to help ourselves is to try and coax our minds back to how they were in childhood, when it might have been easier to imagine the dead as the narrator in Faulkner’s story does, talking and moving quietly through the light beyond the cedars.


Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Decontextualized Quote of the Week: 1

A while ago, I had an idea for a weekly blog feature where I would take a random book from my shelf, open it to a random page and select what I thought was the most interesting or resonant quote from that page to post here. I figured it would be a way to reacquaint myself, momentarily, with a book that I own and have (probably) read, while also taking a look at how an author's words lose and gain meaning when removed from their original context. This is something I do on occasion anyway, and I'm usually surprised at what I find simply by cracking a book to an arbitrary spot. The words are sharper and more charged, if less clearly framed, than they might be if embedded in the body of a story or an essay. Divested of their specific meaning, they are free to take on a broader or even more personal one.

Of course, it can be dangerous or unfair to take a writer's words out of context, but as a fleeting, none-too-serious exercise I find it fascinating. I once had a professor who told the class that we should write each sentence of our essays as if it were being carved, hugely, across the face of a monument. As an undergrad this was terrifying to hear from the man grading your papers, but I suppose blindly plucking a sentence or two from any book is one way to measure it against that standard. The quote below is from Keats. If I keep this up, I may post a short response along with whatever quote I've picked on a given day. Or else just leave it hanging there in cyberspace, for anyone to respond to who might happen by and feel compelled.

"I think I did very wrong to leave you to all the trouble of Endymion—but I could not help it then—another time I shall be more bent to all sort of troubles and disagreeables—young Men for some time have an idea that such a thing as happiness is to be had and therefore are extremely impatient under any unpleasant restraining—in time however, of such stuff is the world about them, they know better and instead of striving from Uneasiness greet it as an habitual sensation, a pannier which is to weigh upon them through life."

—John Keats, from a letter to John Taylor, April 1818,The Selected Letters of John Keats