Monthly Archives: August 2007

A few random things

I have a few short things to write about this Friday evening. The first is this article about Percy Shelley from The New Yorker; it’s about a new book called Being Shelley by Ann Wroe. According to the article:

Wroe tries to see as Shelley saw—to inhabit his consciousness and capture its every movement. This is, as she frankly says, ‘an experiment,’ and any reader who opens the book expecting a conventional biography is in for a surprise.

I do love unconventional biographies! And I’ve enjoyed reading Keats and now De Quincey so much that I’m considering reading more of the Romantics and could turn to Shelley at some point. I remember having to read Prometheus Unbound in college, though, and being a bit bewildered by it — I liked it, it was just something … strange. He’s a writer who intimidates me a bit. Perhaps I’ll turn to Coleridge first.

Then I was pleased to see this list of “The 86 Greatest Travel Books of All Time” (link via The Literary Saloon), but saddened to note that I’ve read only 4 of them — Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and Tobias Smollett’s Travels Through France and Italy. Clearly I need to read more travel writing, as I do enjoy the genre. Perhaps I’ll read some Bruce Chatwin next; I’ve been meaning to for ages.

Then I thought insomniacs or people whose thoughts trouble them at night might like this Keats poem, which I thought beautiful, particularly the last six lines:

Sonnet to Sleep

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,
Shutting with careful fingers and benign
Our gloom-pleased eyes, embower’d from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,
In midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes,
Or wait the Amen ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities.
Then save me or the passed day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes;
Save me from curious conscience, that still hoards
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like the mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oiled wards,
And seal the hushed casket of my soul.

Finally, a health update. Muttboy is healing very well, and has his full appetite and energy back. He has to wear a t-shirt much of the time, though, to keep him from scratching or licking his belly where the stitches are, so he looks undignified and undog-like. Poor thing.

I am healing quite well also; when I saw the endocrinologist yesterday and mentioned that I have been riding some, in spite of her orders not to, she said “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that” and then told me to take it easy, which I’m taking as permission to ride as much as I’d like. Yay! When I talked to my mother about this, telling her about the early riding, she said she would have done the same thing. You see why I am the way I am??

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Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

7790332.gif I have just finished the title essay from a collection of Thomas De Quincey’s work, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater; the book has three longish-essays (the title one was 80 pages) and one short one. I’m planning on reading them all, but Confessions was the reason I picked this book up. I’m not sure what attracted me to it, since confessions of drug addicts aren’t my usual thing, but I’ve heard this mentioned as an interesting essay and as an example of walking literature, and I’m fascinated by De Quincey’s time period (1785-1859), so that’s reason enough.

The essay, as you might guess from the title, tells the story of De Quincey’s addiction to opium, but it does so with lots of digressions and philosophical asides and glimpses of life in De Quincey’s time. After a brief introduction justifying his decision to write an essay that exposes his weakness, he tells of his boyhood school days and his decision to run away from school at the age of 17. He wanders through parts of Wales and ends up in London, where, he says, the seeds of his addiction were planted. He runs out of money and comes very close to starving to death, which causes him stomach problems that come back to haunt him — at which point he becomes an addict, taking opium every day to relieve the pain.

But De Quincey takes his time with the Wales and London episodes, and they are some of the most interesting sections. Particularly moving is the story of his friendship with the prostitute Anne; they offer each other companionship and aid — she saves him from starvation at one point. Tragically, De Quincey leaves London briefly to try to find some money, and when he returns he can’t find her. He mourns the loss of their friendship for the rest of his life.

De Quincey took opium regularly before he became addicted; he was careful to let enough days go by between indulgences so that the drug would maintain its potency. And he writes about the pleasures of opium quite beautifully; one of the things I like best about this essay is that De Quincey is fully honest about both the pleasures and the pains. He writes:

And, at that time, I often fell into these reveries upon taking opium; and more than once it has happened to me, on a summer-night, when I have been at an open window, in a room from which I would overlook the sea at a mile below me, and could command a view of the great town of L—-, at about the same distance, that I have sate, from sun-set to sun-rise, motionless, and without wishing to move.

A bit later he goes into raptures over the drug:

Oh! just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for “the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,” bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium!

He goes on like that for a full paragraph. But he is also clear about the horrors of opium addiction:

[The opium-eater] lies under the weight of incubus and night-mare; he lies in sight of all that he would fain perform, just as a man forcibly confined to his bed by the mortal languor of a relaxing disease, who is compelled to witness injury or outrage offered to some object of his tenderest love: — he curses the spells which chain him down from motion: — he would lay down his life if he might but get up and walk; but he is powerless as an infant, and cannot even attempt to rise.

He does, you will be happy to know, overcome his addiction, but he is still haunted by one of the worst effects of addiction — horrible nightmares, some of which he describes in detail.

I am looking forward to seeing what the other essays are like; he’s got a style I enjoy — digressive, allusive, difficult to categorize.

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All In Together Girls

b1.gif I have just finished Kate (of Kate’s Book Blog fame) Sutherland’s collection of short stories All In Together Girls, and enjoyed it very much; the collection has 14 stories, all of them quite short, each one capturing a glimpse into the life of a female protagonist.

Many of the stories are about young girls in their early or late teens who are trying to figure out their relationships with parents and with friends and with boys; these stories describe acts of disobedience and rebellion and often also moments of humiliation and frustration. They are about trying to find one’s identity while negotiating the needs and demands of others. They tell of the desire for freedom and the uncertainty about what to do with it; the first story, for example, is about a group of friends who lie to their parents so they can spend the night hanging out, but things quickly go sour leaving them wanting nothing but to go home. In a later story a girl skips her dance lessons to hang out with friends, and in another the protagonist lies to her parents and spends the night with her friends trying, but failing, to smoke dope. In each of these stories, the promised fun times never quite materialize, and instead the protagonists are left with an air of sadness and worry.

The adult protagonists of some of the other stories seem just as lost; in “Outside the Frame,” the narrator tries to piece together her mother’s story from a photograph, seeking to understand the quality of her mother’s marriage as her own is falling apart. The story alternates between the mother’s experience, as imagined by the narrator, and the narrator’s accounting of why she is leaving her husband. In “Notes for a Documentary,” one of my favorites, the protagonist travels to Scotland to do research and to see family; she visits the places where her parents courted and ponders what to do about her own love affair. She is unsettled, positioned between an unchanging past and an uncertain future.

I enjoyed each and every one of these stories. Many of them are told in the first person, and the voices are clear and appealing, telling their stories straightfowardly, recounting hard times but not asking for pity. The language is simple and direct, drawing attention not to itself, but to the predicaments of the characters — it’s their thoughts about themselves and their lives that matter here.

This is the second collection of short stories I’ve read this year (the first was Jesus’ Son), which fulfills my short story-reading goal; I’m enjoying reading more in the genre, though, and may pick up another. I’ve got Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories on my shelves if I get the urge.

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Muttboy

If you follow Hobgoblin’s blog, you’ll know that our dog Muttboy had surgery today to have a tumor removed from the skin of his chest. Well, he’s still at the vet’s office, but we’ve learned that he came through it very well, and will be coming home in about 1 1/2 hours. Yay!

They did chest x-rays to see if the tumor had spread, which it hadn’t. We still don’t know exactly what type of tumor it is, but so far, everything looks fine.

Today was spent waiting — waiting to take Muttboy to the vet’s, waiting until we could call for news, waiting until we could call for further news, and now waiting to go pick him up. But all that’s okay as long as he’s fine.

By the way, I have a question: did we skip the rest of August and September and move straight to October? I ask because today the temperature hasn’t gotten above 58 and it’s been raining all day. I’m just wondering if I missed something.

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On finishing Proust’s In Search of Lost Time

I want to write just a few words about finishing Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; I don’t feel up to writing a big long summing-up post that tries to say smart things about what it all means, but I do want to say something. I am happy to have finished, but I do miss reading Proust a bit; I’ve been used to a near-daily dose of the narrator’s slow-moving, contemplative voice, and now I don’t have that.

It’s hard to see how a 3,000-page book without all that much plot, relatively speaking, could cohere, but I think it does. I found the ending, say, that last couple hundred pages, really did wrap things up; it provides an answer to the question that has haunted the whole book — will Marcel ever write his masterpiece? This is a question that has lingered from the very first volume when it becomes clear that Marcel has an interest in, and perhaps a talent for, writing. The answer the book provides is satisfying, and realistic, given everything that has happened up until that point.

My favorite volumes were the first two and the last one; the third and fourth, The Guermantes Way and Sodom and Gomorrah, got a little long, but then the fifth volume, which contains The Prisoner and The Fugitive begins to pick up a bit in preparation for the grand ending. It’s the long party scenes in some of the middle volumes that got tiresome. What I loved about the book are the insights into the mind, art, time, and love, but the novel is also obsessed with society and rank and how people behave at parties, topics that didn’t thrill me quite as much. But even here there are things to interest; Proust captures snobbery and hypocrisy and the deadness that can lie behind the glittering masks of high society beautifully well.

But mostly this novel is worth reading because of what it can teach about observing the world around you and in you. Proust has a meticulous eye for how the mind perceives input from the senses and for how we come to understand our experiences, and, of course, he has a beautiful way with a sentence to capture all that insight. I love how there can be so much wisdom and experience in one of those long sentences — how they can take in so much.

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The perils of cycling

I’m used to bugs hitting and bouncing off my cycling jersey as I ride, and when that happens I’m just grateful they didn’t land on my face or — worse — in my mouth.  I’ve gotten stung in the mouth before, and it was no fun.  But today something else entirely hit my jersey.  I thought it was a bug, but when I checked to see if it had flown off my shoulder where I felt it hit, I noticed what it really was: bird shit.  This is the first time this has happened to me, and now I wonder why it doesn’t happen more often; I ride under trees all the time, after all.  I had another hour to ride before I made it home, and I could see it sitting on my shoulder every time I turned my head to the right.  Ick!

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On finishing Don Quixote

7075756.gif Most of this post will be about the second half of Don Quixote and the ending, so if you don’t want to hear about it, you might want to save this post for later. I loved the way the second part of the novel became a kind of commentary on the first (is this what people are talking about when they say that everything comes together in the second half?), how everyone Don Quixote and Sancho Panza meet have read the novel’s first half and so are in on the story of his peculiar form of madness. Most of them decide to have some fun playing jokes on the two, to see just how far the madness of Don Quixote will go. So, in addition to all the metanarrativity that was already going on in the first part — the multiple authors and the long conversations on storytelling and the frequent mentions of Cide Hamete Benengeli — Cervantes adds his critique of the false sequel to Don Quixote published in between his two volumes and mixes up real life and fiction even more by having Don Quixote confront the results of his literary fame again and again.

It is this playfulness about fiction and authorship that I will remember about the book, long after I’ve forgotten individual episodes — episodes it probably won’t take me all that long to forget, in truth, because some of them dragged on a bit and my attention wandered. But I love that self-interrogation is built into the structure of one of the first novels ever, depending on how one defines “novel,” or, at the very least, one of the earliest and most influential novels. Don Quixote is a novel about madness, friendship, adventure, and love, but it’s also very much a novel about novels, and it starts a very long tradition of novels that reflect on themselves, a traditional so influential that even ostensibly realistic novels usually have some kind of self-reflexive element to them.

About the novel’s ending: it is so sad! I didn’t expect to see Don Quixote regaining his sanity, and even less did I expect that moment of sanity to be rather depressing:

“Señores,” said Don Quixote, “let us go slowly, for there are no birds today in yesterday’s nests. I was mad, and now I am sane; I was Don Quixote of La Mancha, and now I am, as I have said, Alonso Quixano the Good. May my repentance and sincerity return me to the esteem your graces once had for me, and let the scribe continue.”

And he goes on reciting his will. It’s this melancholy at the end that convinces me (even further than I was already convinced) that Cervantes has great affection for his two main characters, in spite of their foolishness. It’s the energy of their madness that carries the story forward, so that as soon as Don Quixote regains his sanity, there is no story anymore, and the novel abruptly ends. Without Don Quixote’s madness, Cervantes has nothing. So, yes, Cervantes mocks Don Quixote’s foolish and naïve way of reading, but I think he glories in the energy and the fun of it too. To me, Don Quixote comes across as admirable in his imagination, his resourcefulness, his persistence, and his liveliness. I realize this is a very contemporary way of looking at the novel, and earlier readers may not have seen anything admirable in Don Quixote whatsoever, but I can’t help reading as a contemporary person, can I?

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