QUESTIONS IN THE MARGIN

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When I was in college, I once blurted out in a literature seminar class about a Shakespeare tragedy  (Lear, I think):  “But what does it mean for me?”  The professor smiled gently, which meant it was all right for everyone else to laugh, and I never again asked that sort of question.  At least not so nakedly, and certainly not aloud.

Of course, this took place long ago.  Before the beginning of adult life, so to speak. These days, much nearer its ending, I seem to have begun again to make similar queries about my reading. Perhaps the self-centeredness of youth, so long suppressed in the interests of family well-being and societal give-and-take, arises again as obligations and companions become fewer and one finds oneself more and more alone with reading matter and thoughts.  Now I find myself underlining. Occasionally, I even write nearly undecipherable comments in the margin; they are baldly about me in my declining years, irrespective of the thrust of the argument or narrative I am reading, which may be going somewhere else entirely.

***

One:  In a book for the general reader called Stumbling on Happiness, the author — Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard — explains, amusingly, that few people realize psychologists all take a vow that at some point in their professional lives they will publish a book or chapter or article that contains the sentence: “The human being is the only animal that…”  They can finish The Sentence any way they like but also understand that whatever else they may have accomplished professionally, they will be remembered (if at all) for that sentence. He then goes on:

I have never before written The Sentence, but I’d like to do so now, with you as my witness. The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future.  Now let me say up front that I’ve had cats, I’ve had dogs, I’ve had gerbils, mice, goldfish, and crabs (no not that kind), and I do recognize that nonhuman animals often act as though they have the capacity to think about the future. But ….[u]ntil a chimp weeps at the thought of growing old alone, or smiles as it contemplates its summer vacation, or turns down a Fudgsicle because it already looks too fat in shorts, I will stand by my version of The Sentence. We think about the future in a way that no other animal can, does, or ever has, and this simple, ubiquitous, ordinary act, is a defining feature of our humanity.

My question in the margin disregarded the humor.  I demanded of Gilbert: “And what of the human being who can identify no remaining future worth living for? Is weeping all there is?”

***

Two: When Breath Becomes Air is a touching fragment of a book by Paul Kalanithi, a highly promising young neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer just as he was finishing his training and died at the age of 37 while writing his story.  (His wife completed it in an epilogue to the book.)  He describes what confirmed him in his choice of neurosurgery as his specialty in the following passage:

While all doctors treat diseases, neurosurgeons work in the crucible of identity: every operation on the brain is, by necessity, a manipulation of the substance of our selves, and every conversation with a patient undergoing brain surgery cannot help but confront this fact…. At those critical junctures, the question is not simply whether to live or die but what kind of life is worth living. Would you trade your ability — or your mother’s — to talk for a few extra months of mute life? The expansion of your visual blind spot in exchange for eliminating the small possibility of a fatal brain hemorrhage? Your right hand’s function to stop seizures? … Because the brain mediates our experience of the world, any neurosurgical problem forces a patient and family, ideally with a doctor as a guide, to answer this question: What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?

Without having to confront the trauma of brain surgery, Kalanithi’s question nevertheless resonates with me.  As one begins to experience the admittedly much slower but inexorable decline in one’s capacities that accompanies (the trauma of?) aging, it’s difficult sometimes to avoid asking: “What does make life meaningful enough to make one want to get out of bed in the morning if one still can, or at least sit up, and get on with whatever life is left?

***

Three: Somewhat more positive are the views expressed by the late Henning Mankell in a compilation of essays, written while he was dying of cancer, called Quicksand: What It Means to Be a Human Being. (Mankell is best known for his Inspector Wallander mysteries, which have been filmed both in Sweden and by Kenneth Branagh in England; both sets are available on Netflix.)  I haven’t yet read Quicksand, but did read a review of it by Sheena Joughin in The Times Literary Supplement for March 4, 2016. Thinking of life as quicksand is unsettling, but as one grows older seems more and more apt.  The following is from the review:

Quicksand is preoccupied with those who are in life yet set apart from it, as Mankell feels himself to be following his diagnosis.  He visits a church in the town of Slap to gaze at an eighteenth-century family portrait with fifteen children in it.
“What is striking and remarkable about the picture, and perhaps also frightening, is that the artist…painted the children who were already dead.” This is a consolation to Mankell….

He admits that illness has made it hard to read new books, so he returns to those he already loves, most crucially Robinson Crusoe–a story he rewrote as a child and now so important to him because Robinson, despite his isolation, is never really alone: “The reader is always with him, invisible but by his side.”….Writing his way through cancer, Mankell knows he is in an ambiguous place — between life and death, like everyone always — yet still “the same person I had been before….It was possible to live in two worlds at the same time.” Quicksand gives us that rare opportunity too.

I find heartening these observations about the power of the pictures we paint and the literature we write to keep us, in a way, not alone while we live — and still alive afterward. Should we not make pictures or write on then, till the end, leaving some aspect of ourselves still here for those who come after?

 

WHERE HAS SHE BEEN? WHAT’S SHE BEEN DOING?

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Reading a Shakespeare play every week in a six-week seminar attended exclusively by “students” well over 55 where everyone but me seems to be an expert. I thought it would end about now, but it’s been such a success the professor agreed to extend it by one more week. So instead of being over last Monday, we’re ending next Monday. With The Tempest.  (There goes much of my weekend.)

Trying to learn the first movement of a Beethoven sonata. A very easy sonata. (No. 20) Not easy for me, though. I can’t play the rest of it as fast as I can do the rolling triplets in the left hand, and when I slow down the triplets to the speed at which I can sort of manage the rest of it, they don’t sound so good.

Adding an “easy” Chopin Prelude (No. 7) to the Beethoven. Chopin’s fingers must have been much longer than mine. I am extremely grateful to YouTube performers of this Prelude, from whom I discovered I could roll the one truly impossible chord and take the top two notes written for the right hand with the left hand by crossing it over. (A maneuver which also looks impressively graceful.) I’m also relearning how to pedal. I never realized one needed to script the pedaling. Well, maybe not everyone does. But I do, marking the score each time the foot comes up and goes down again because teaching an old dog new tricks isn’t easy without visual aids.

Tutoring English conversation again, with a fun post-graduate from Italy. She’s at Princeton collecting a living-expenses stipend to turn her dissertation (written in Milan in Italian) into a book for the general (English-speaking) reader. She’s attached to the Department of Politics; her topic is International Human Rights. At the beginning we talked only about human rights. (And a little fashion.) But then I took her grocery shopping in my car last week and we talked about tomatoes and whether it was better (and cheaper) to buy a package of twelve pieces of frozen Atlantic salmon that were going to be baked piecemeal or twelve pieces of fresh Atlantic salmon, freeze them, and defrost as needed. We also pinched avocados together. She’s a big texter and an old-style shopper – weighing everything and calculating prices minus or plus an apple. So I’m learning almost as much from her as she is from me.

Clothes-shopping for a few nice new things to replace the many not-so-nice, not-so-new things that moths had a picnic with last year when I wasn’t looking and spraying and mothballing because I was thinking about what to write for you. Gone: too-tight narrow skirt, old grey wool out-of-style pants, very old Calvin Klein pant suit that was always too good to wear and thus never got worn much; unloved black sweater set from Brooks Brothers; red cashmere turtleneck sweater. May it all R.I.P. Welcome: terrific “passionflower” merino jersey dress; bluish purple poncho-ish sweater (hides all signs of overeating); new charcoal sweater set with kimono-style long cardigan that looks like an elegant short coat without buttons.

Collecting notes, as class correspondent, for the twice-a-year magazine of the college I attended, and discovering two more classmates, plus a third classmate’s husband, have died since the last issue. This is now getting scary. Of the seven of us who took an off-campus house in our last year (which was 1951-52), leaving three places for foreign students, five are gone, and eight years ago, when last I spoke with her, the sixth was badly crippled with arthritis. I have no way of reconnecting with the foreign students, but as they were our age, it might be just as much a downer if I could.

Also reading two crappy novels for book groups I still belong to because I like the women in them; having personal struggles with the leftover Halloween candy until I bit the bullet and threw it out; making a pot roast that took too many days to finish eating; fearing annual cardiologist and pulmonologist visits because of the increasing risk of bad news each year; watching many economists give talks on YouTube in which they explain what’s wrong with the world and which particular basket it’s going to hell in – because it makes Bill happy to hear these deeply learned experts agree with him.

And wondering what I should do with TGOB going forward (besides getting older while writing it).   I feel it needs a plan, or a mission statement, or something more unifying than just what bubbles out of my head. No answer to that one yet, but at least now you’re all caught up.

And what have you all been doing?

WRITING SHORT: 49/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

This is the forty-ninth piece in the series: My summer of writing short is nearing its close. What did I learn in the seven weeks since the first one? I discovered that I’d been wrong about everything except that I would stick it out. (If there’s one thing I do know about myself, it’s that I don’t give up easy.)

I thought I’d be freeing up time. I found myself bound to an inexorable daily duty of finding something potentially “short” and then cutting it down to size. This double task consumed more of each day than I could have imagined or care to admit even now.

It was clear that “short” needed a word limit, to keep each piece from metastasizing. I settled on 400 words as the maximum that might qualify, but had to subtract 21 words for the repeated introduction that held all the posts together. What can you say in 379 words that’s moderately interesting to at least a few people? And then how do you pare away what you’ve written, word by word, unessential sentence by unessential sentence, till you’re nearly there – and then rephrase, still more tightly, to come in under the wire? I must have revisited each finished piece three or four times before hitting “publish,” and then went on diddling with some after they’d gone into the world.

I did cheat by including four pieces written before this summer. (The last comes tomorrow.) But the other forty-six taught me that in writing, form doesn’t necessarily follow function. Here it was almost always the reverse. There’s so much you can’t do in 379 words — memoir, detailed narrative, a substantive think piece – that the form begins to dictate what you can say and how you say it. It would be hubris to compare it to sonnet writing (eight lines, six lines, and out – all in iambic pentameter) but except for  experiments with dialogue, a letter and quoting a poem, it was something like that.

These days readers seem to like “short.” Easy on the eye, on the mind, on how you spend your time. This summer I’ve persuaded myself there’s also much to be said for “longer.” It may take longer to read; it stays with you longer.  Isn’t that what we’re writing for?

FACT OR FICTION?

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Readers often wonder how much of a novel, novella or short story comes from the writer’s own life and how much is made up. Some literary critics (and some biographers) have built an entire career on teasing from literary texts published as fiction what may have really happened and what likely didn’t. Other critics — and probably all writers — maintain the fact-or-fiction question doesn’t matter because after the writing leaves the writer, it must stand on its own.

As a would-be writer, and certainly as a nearly life-long reader, I don’t think the question is worth pursuing.  What did or did not happen in “real life” is irrelevant to the merit,  or lack of it, of the completed literary work. Anyone whose reading of what a writer publishes is driven by prurient interest in the details of the writer’s life is not far removed from the reader of fanzines and other sources of celebrity gossip.  Which is not to say that a taste for gossip isn’t a  widespread human failing, shared by me, but should not be confused with the experience of reading literature.

What’s more, even where the published work bears no apparent surface resemblance to what is known of a writer’s life, you can rest assured that every writer who ever lived has in one way or another cannibalized his (or her) own experience of living for material.  Nothing is safe from the writer, not even the writer!  Sometimes, it’s emotional experience — translated, for example, into science-fiction, or fantasy, or “post-modernism” of some kind, or innovative structure.  Sometimes, apparently more realistically, it’s a character or characters modeled either on the writer, or someone the writer knows or has heard of.  But — and this is the important part — something always happens to that lived experience in the process of putting it on the printed or digital fictional page, and what that something is makes all the difference.

(Parenthetically, I would go further yet and assert that even when writers compose allegedly factual memoir or autobiography, or when non-writers explain to themselves in private the important events in their lives, the accounts can never be fully factual accounts of “real life.”  They are how we see things, how we justify to ourselves what happened. They are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves so that we can keep on living. But did they really happen that way?  Who’s to say?)

Now back to writers. When in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” teen-age Alexander Portnoy comes home from school and twice that day has the liver he finds in the refrigerator:  once,  raw, behind a closed door in the bathroom and again, cooked, on his plate for dinner — does it matter to the gestalt of the book whether Philip Roth ever himself jerked off with raw liver when he was a teen-age boy in Newark, New Jersey?

Roth, of course, is our century’s champion creator of what appear to be fictional alter egos.  “Portnoy” was his fourth book, relatively early in his career.  “Deception,” his eighteenth book, is a series of pre- and post-coital conversations over several years between two adulterous lovers (with a few other conversations interspersed). The man is “Philip,” a writer of novels who spends half the year in London (as did Roth for many years while living with Claire Bloom). The woman in “Deception” is English, and  nameless. The conversations, and the coitus, take place in “Philip’s” London writing studio, on a mat where at other times he does back exercises.

At some point between the earlier conversations and the last one in the book, “Philip” has written and published a novel in which the lover, and then wife, of a man named Zuckerman is an Englishwoman. Non-Roth readers should know that Nathan Zuckerman, who has many of Roth’s characteristics, had already appeared in several Roth novels prior to “The CounterLife,” a novel with many of the characteristics of the novel that “Philip” has just published in “Deception.” “The CounterLife” was Roth’s second book before “Deception.”  If it isn’t already too confusing, I might point out that Peter Tarnopol, another Roth fictional alter ego, wrote two stories about Zuckerman in Roth’s “My Life As A Man” before Zuckerman got to be the central figure in novels apparently written by Roth. (With Tarnopol’s help?)

The Englishwoman in “Deception” is upset that “Philip,” she thinks, has written about her in his recently published novel. I will leave you with their conversation, which is obviously much better than anything I could add at this time to the topic under discussion.  (It’s on the second to last page of “Deception.”)  I love the last line.

“….I object greatly to this taking people’s lives and putting them into fiction.  And then being a famous author who resents critics for saying he doesn’t make things up.”

“Because you had a baby doesn’t mean I didn’t make up a baby; because you’re you doesn’t mean I didn’t make you up.”

“I also exist.”

“Also. You also exist and also I made you up.  ‘Also’ is a good word to remember. You also don’t exist as only you.”

“I certainly don’t anymore.”

“You never did. As I made you up, you never existed.”

“Then who was that in your studio with my legs over your shoulders?”

Res ipsa loquitur.  (The thing speaks for itself.)  Which has nothing — and of course everything — to do with the matter.

GOOFING OFF

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Back in the days when I was going to school, it never crossed my mind to not go to school.  I might miss something that could be on a test.  Besides, I liked school, more than being at home.

And when I reached college, the classes were the best part. As it was a college just for women, sex — or what passed for sex in those days — didn’t have to compete. I might slide by on some of the reading, but never on showing up for those weekly round-table seminars where I could shoot off my mouth as much as I liked to male professorial approval. (The only class I can recall taking from a woman was Modern Dance with supportive Bessie Schoenberg, because she was the entire Modern Dance faculty except for Jose Limon, who appeared only for an hour and a half on Fridays, expected you to glide across the studio floor on the diagonal using one foot and the big toenail of the other, and was therefore clearly not for me.)

The work world, however, was another story. At first, when I was typing stencils to be run with purple-stained fingers through a mimeograph machine (don’t ask what that was), I resented every moment I had to waste of my glorious, well-educated youth earning a meager excuse for a living. Once, arriving at the gates of the enterprise that employed me, I simply turned around, went back home again and called in sick. Nothing bad happened.  I wasn’t fired for lying because no one knew I had lied.

It was, as they say, a learning experience. Later, paid work became somewhat more interesting, and certainly better rewarded.  But I never did get over the injustice of having to hand over at least five-sevenths (and later, when I became a lawyer, an even larger percentage) of what was left of my life just in order to survive.

This was, of course, the wrong attitude.  A better one, philosophically speaking, would have been — in the words used by Joe Campbell back in those halcyon college days — to “follow my bliss.” But as I never figured out what my bliss was, other than to lose myself in an unendingly passionate love affair (which it goes without saying never materializes, at least not unendingly), I had to settle for less than blissful modes of employment and, when I couldn’t stand another day of it, play hooky, as I had learned to do when typing stencils.  Take the day off.  Tell a lie.  Keep track of the lies, so as not to repeat one too often, if at all.

Fortunately, I enjoyed excellent health, so fraudulently using up a sick day now and then never rose up to bite me in the ass as it might have done had I ever really been sick.  Oh, those bouts of twenty-four intestinal flu that never were!  The brakes that had imaginary failures on Storrow Drive!  The pipes that supposedly burst in the bathroom of the people upstairs, flooding mine. The non-existent elderly widower next door I once had to take to the hospital!   Not all in one year, you understand.  I dropped out very infrequently, and only when I wasn’t due to file something or appear in court. But I must admit that if, as was sometimes said of me in the office, “Her briefs sing!” — my excuses for a no-show could have earned me an audition at the Met.

So why am I telling you this now, when I am nearly ten years “retired” and every day is hooky day? Well, ahem, hadn’t you noticed I’ve been gone for a while?  About eight days, to be exact.  (The stats going down the toilet are certainly a tipoff, except you don’t get to see them, do you?)  And just when I’d promised to write a second post about my two great triumphs in Hingham District Court in the fall of 1984. How I made mincemeat of a nice lady who looked rather like me but had had the misfortune of driving into a tree on her own property after shopping for Christmas presents all day and then stopping for a glass of wine before coming home. Unfortunately, she’d been nailed by an off-duty cop who’d been shopping in the same mall and followed her because her driving was erratic.  No breathalyzer on him. It was his day off.  His word against hers.  And how, on another occasion, I played David to the Goliath of a Boston defense lawyer hired by the employer of a young man stopped on a state highway for wobbling in and out of his lane.

Certainly when I mentioned it, I must have thought it was a good idea to tell you these two war stories about how, as a middle-aged student, I confronted “crime” and won!  Until I realized I couldn’t now remember the regulations governing blood alcohol levels in Massachusetts, or what happened if a driver refused a breathalyzer test or for some other reason didn’t take one, or whether you could be charged with operating a vehicle under the influence if your blood alcohol concentration didn’t reach the per se level. And suddenly I was doing bloody research again instead of banging out a fun post.

Old habits die hard.  I just didn’t want to.  Maybe some other time I might want to. But not right then, anyway. Forgive me, Victo. Forgive me, Takami.  (If either of you even remember you said you could hardly wait.) In fact, I didn’t want to do anything I was supposed to do.

 What did I do instead?

(1)  I emailed a couple of graceful lies (“Something’s come up”) to the leaders of two groups I belong to, thereby bagging my attendance at this month’s meetings.

(2) I rescheduled teeth cleaning for a couple of weeks down the road.

(3) I “slept in” — way past what you’d believe, not really asleep but daydreaming with the blinds still drawn about matters that have no business being described in a squeaky clean blog like this one and that many might not think still arise in a nearly eighty-four-year-old mind, but they do, and how!  So there.

(4) I wasted the better part of two afternoons on the computer enraptured by what my parents’ generation would have dismissed as “dreck” — namely, worthless garbage.  It was indeed that:  all thirteen episodes of “Grace and Frankie,” a sort of vanity project on Netflix for Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, playing wives of 70 (ha ha, both actresses are past midway to 80) whose husbands (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) — law partners for forty years, secret lovers for twenty — want divorces to marry before it’s too late. I didn’t believe any of it for a minute but was held spellbound by exacting scrutiny of Fonda’s facial bones, over which nearly unlined skin has been pulled so tight as to be skull-like, except there were also masses of gorgeously coiffed hair and meticulous makeup to distract from all that, unless you are watching with the eagle eye of a contemporary-plus-some. (As I was.)  Her clothes were very good, though. Bill came to take a look.  “Too thin,” he pronounced, adding, “Enjoy yourself, sweetheart.” (God only knows what he was watching on his i-Pad; I wouldn’t stoop so low as to check.)

(5)  We ate strange (for us) fattening things that I didn’t have to cook:  pizza one night, lasagna another, leftover cold Chinese food with potato chips (God forgive us) still another.  One night it was just big soup bowls full of goat’s milk ice-cream — chocolate and vanilla — that happened to be in the freezer from a while ago when we had company over and the company didn’t want dessert.

(6)  We also watched “Fifty Shades of Grey” — Bill to “please” me, he said.  What a cop-out.  Not even exciting.  Bill looked up Jamie Dornan and discovered he and Keira Knighley were an item for three years. I’m not sure why he thought I’d care.  I was never one for gym-built muscle.

(7.)  But in recovery we drank copious amounts of fresh organic vegetable juice, and ate green salads, and also watched “Marius,” and “Fanny” — the first two of Daniel Auteil’s remakes of Marcel Pagnol’s Marseilles trilogy — both of which I recommend, even though some may find them too sentimental.

(8) And then I read Barbara Pym’s “Quartet in Autumn.” (200 pages or so; if you’re over 50, by all means check it out; it seems modest but is beautifully written.)  And now I’ve launched myself into what may turn out to be a summer (Philip) Roth orgy: rereading, for the first time since their publication, and probably with much more care:  “The CounterLife,” “Deception,” and “The Facts.”  Possibly more about these four books later, although maybe not.  Apparently making promises is not good for this blog.

Anyway, for whatever it’s worth, I’m back.

A FEW ODD FACTS ABOUT GEOFFREY CHAUCER AND ME

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People who read each other’s blogs sometimes make the mistake of thinking they know each other pretty well.  But blogs are deceiving.  What a blogger omits gets left out of the picture. Here, for instance, are a few oddments you may not have thought of in connection with the author of TGOB.

1.  Geoffrey Chaucer was master of the English language circa 1400. (If you’re wondering what this has to do with me, read on.)

2.  English 715 years ago (aka “Middle” English) wasn’t exactly a foreign language, but some — including me — might call it close to one.

3.  “Middle” English pronunciation was also something else.  It was spoken just before what linguists call “the great vowel shift”  — an oddity occurring with all English speakers in the early 15th century (don’t ask me why) that moved our vowels a notch further forward in our mouths from the point where Europeans sound out the same vowels.  Example:  the color that you get by mixing blue and yellow used to be pronounced “grain” (and spelled “grene”); after the shift, it began being pronounced “green” and still is, except perhaps in Ireland. (In fact, Middle English does have a faint Irish lilt.)

4. Why am I telling you this?

  • First, to take a break from sex, love and death, which I seem to have been writing about quite a bit lately.
  • And second, because starting tomorrow I’m taking a six-week course in Chaucer designed for retired Princetonians.  (Or non-retired ones who have their days free to do as they please.) Just Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  And just the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.  It’s being given by a renowned Professor Emeritus from Princeton University named John Fleming who has no idea I’m blogging about him and his short course.

So many people have signed up for Professor Fleming’s course that it’s being held in the former courtroom of Princeton Boro. (That is, it was a courtroom before the Boro merged with Princeton Township to become just plain Princeton. But you don’t need to know all that local political history to understand this Chaucer thing must be a very popular subject here in Princeton to fill a courtroom, however small by courtroom standards.)

5.  The subject seems to have been so popular there had to be a lottery for seats, and I won one of them!

6.  In 1954 I took a course in Chaucer and everything he wrote, including The Canterbury Tales. I was in graduate school  at USC. (Southern California, not South Carolina.)  I still have the textbook and my notes for the exam but can’t read the notes or any of my marginal commentary anymore.  So I bought the currently recommended text and will bring both to class, like the goody-goody I used to be.

7.  My having had a course in Chaucer sixty-one years ago does give me a leg up on the pronunciation, believe it or not.  I checked myself against an online spoken version of the first twenty-six lines of the Prologue, and I wasn’t bad at it.  I missed the beat fairly often but got most of those retrograde vowels right.  Here it is, if you’d like to try yourself:  http://www.nativlang.com/middle-english/middle-english-canterbury-tales.php

8.  Or, if you’d rather not bother with all those vowels, this is what the beginning looks like:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote |
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, |
And bathed every veyne in swich licour |
Of which vertu engendred is the flour; |
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth |
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth |
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne |
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne, |
And smale foweles maken melodye, |
That slepen al the nyght with open ye |
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages); | (
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, |
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes, |
To ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes; |
And specially from every shires ende |
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende, |
The hooly blisful martir for to seke, |
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke. |
Bifil that in that seson on a day, |
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay |
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage |
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage, |
At nyght was come into that hostelrye |
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye, |
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle |
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle, |
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde,
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we weren esed atte beste.
So hadde I spoken with hem everichon
That I was of hir felaweshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse,
To take oure wey ther as I yow devyse.

9.  What saddens me is that I can’t remember the name or face of the Chaucer professor back in 1954.  I liked him quite a bit, perhaps because he admired a proto-feminist paper I wrote about Criseyde in Troilus and Criseyde, centered on her declaration that she was her own woman. And now he’s gone, gone with the wind — blown clear out of my mind, both the look of him and any way of identifying him.  I didn’t even write his name in the textbook, perhaps because I thought I might sell it again afterwards, although how I could have sold it with all those handwritten illegible notes in it I can’t imagine. I think his last name began with a W, but I’m not sure.

10.  And if all this messing about in the faraway past sounds too odd for you, think of it this way:  Maybe after our seemingly endless freezing winter of Northeastern discontent, I just can’t wait for those soote (sweet) shoures (showers) of Aprille and those smale foweles (birds) to maken melodye.  Reading about it in Chaucer, even in Middle English, speeds it up.  By the time the course is over, the shoures and foweles will really be here.

CAN A REALLY GREAT WRITER MAKE IT ON WORDPRESS?

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[Last fall I registered for an adult education course that failed to attract a sufficient number of registrants and was therefore withdrawn.  It was about “The Long Short Story.”  I had already bought the books containing the six stories to be discussed, and don’t easily give in while there’s still hope. So I put up a post in which I offered to host a reading program with the professor’s curriculum if I had three takers — a foolhardy idea, as hardly anyone in Princeton knows I blog.  But there was one brave soul, in a town just to the north, who raised her virtual hand.  We’ll call her G.  

And so G. and I, in an extremely leisurely way, began.  We decided to meet every other Thursday at 2 p.m. (except for December, because G. has a large extended family for whom holiday preparations are time-consuming).  We eliminated Faulkner and Conrad from the professor’s list and added a few authors of our own. We alternate houses and make tea. (G. is English.)  Occasionally, instead of reading a new story, we watch a DVD movie version of a story we’ve just read, and then talk about what changes were necessary to show the story visually without too many voice-overs and what was lost in translation from print to screen.

But because it’s only two very good long stories a month (one, if it’s a movie month), there’s time to read carefully and read again.  G. is more thorough than I am in the line-by-line stuff. (She comes from a career in science.) I focus on structure, what is suggested by what is said, and what is not said because it’s not necessary to say it. We tell each other we’re learning how to write better memoir, and perhaps we are.  We certainly have a pretty good time, even though we hardly knew each other before this literary adventure.  Because we’re women, sometimes the conversation wanders off point. But we were professional women, so it doesn’t wander too far.  No reminiscences of childbirth yet, or anything like that, although given time we might get there.

So far, we’ve read Chekhov’s “Lady With A Dog,” Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground,” Mann’s “Tonio Kruger,” Carlos Fuentes’ “The Prisoner of Las Lomas” and Henry James’s “The Aspern Papers” (which deserves a post from me all to itself).  Next up are stories by Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro, and after that we’ll see.  But last Thursday, in addition to a celebrated long short story we added a very short one by the same author. In the end, we spent as much time talking about the very short one as the famous long one and decided it was a perfect  little story. 

“How do you think it would do if I posted it?” I asked.  “There are blog posts just as long.  Blog posts which are short stories by aspiring authors. And it would certainly be a change from what I’ve been blogging about recently.”  (At this G. rolled her eyes roguishly.)  “What if I left off the famous author’s name till the end and sent it out on its own?”

The very short story is about a young protagonist living with his uncle and aunt in a deeply Catholic provincial city around 1900 who meets with defeat and despair so palpable you may feel it too.That’s probably all I should say up front, although feel free to ask questions or comment afterwards.  I cannot advise what clicking “like” might mean in this context.  It could be that you “liked” the story, or that you “liked” the idea of the posting experiment even if you hated the story. If there are no “likes” at all, G. is going to get it next time for not having stopped me. So maybe a “like” could also mean I shouldn’t take it out on her.]

*******

ARABY

North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two stories stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbors in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.

The former tenant of our house, a priest, had died in the back drawing-room. Air, musty from having been long enclosed, hung in all the rooms, and the waste room behind the kitchen was littered with old useless papers. Among these I found a few paper-covered books, the pages of which were curled and damp: The Abbot, by Walter Scott, The Devout Communicant and The Memoirs of Vidocq. I liked the last best because its leaves were yellow. The wild garden behind the house contained a central apple-tree and a few straggling bushes under one of which I found the late tenant’s rusty bicycle-pump. He had been a very charitable priest; in his will he had left all his money to institutions and the furniture of his house to his sister.

When the short days of winter came dusk fell before we had well eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown sombre. The space of sky above us was the color of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed. Our shouts echoed in the silent street. The career of our play brought us through the dark muddy lanes behind the houses where we ran the gauntlet of the rough tribes from the cottages, to the back doors of the dark dripping gardens where odors arose from the ash pits, to the dark odorous stables where a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness. When we returned to the street, light from the kitchen windows had filled the areas. If my uncle was seen turning the corner we hid in the shadow until we had seen him safely housed. Or if Mangan’s sister came out on the doorstep to call her brother in to his tea we watched her from our shadow peer up and down the street. We waited to see whether she would remain or go in and, if she remained, we left our shadow and walked up to Mangan’s steps resignedly. She was waiting for us, her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door. Her brother always teased her before he obeyed and I stood by the railings looking at her. Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.

Every morning I lay on the floor in the front parlor watching her door. The blind was pulled down to within an inch of the sash so that I could not be seen. When she came out on the doorstep my heart leaped. I ran to the hall, seized my books and followed her. I kept her brown figure always in my eye and, when we came near the point at which our ways diverged, I quickened my pace and passed her. This happened morning after morning. I had never spoken to her, except for a few casual words, and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.

Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance. On Saturday evenings when my aunt went marketing I had to go to carry some of the parcels. We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of laborers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street-singers, who sang a come-all-you about O’Donovan Rossa, or a ballad about the troubles in our native land. These noises converged in a single sensation of life for me. I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes. Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand. My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself out into my bosom. I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.

One evening I went into the back drawing-room in which the priest had died. It was a dark rainy evening and there was no sound in the house. Through one of the broken panes I heard the rain impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds. Some distant lamp or lighted window gleamed below me. I was thankful that I could see so little. All my senses seemed to desire to veil themselves and, feeling that I was about to slip from them, I pressed the palms of my hands together until they trembled, murmuring “O love! O love! many times.

At last she spoke to me. When she addressed the first words to me I was so confused that I did not know what to answer. She asked me was I going to Araby. I forgot whether I answered yes or no. It would be a splendid bazaar, she said; she would love to go.

“And why can’t you?” I asked.

While she spoke she turned a silverl bracelet round and round her wrist. She could not go, she said, because there would be a retreat that week in her convent. Her brother and two other boys were fighting for their caps and I was alone at the railings. She held one of the spikes, bowing her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.

“It’s well for you,” she said.

“If I go,” I said, “I will bring you something.”

What innumerable follies laid waste my waking and sleeping thoughts after that evening!  I wished to annihilate the tedious intervening days. I chafed against the work of school. At night in my bedroom and by day in the classroom her image came between me and the page I strove to read. The syllables of the word Araby were called to me through the silence in which my soul luxuriated and cast an Eastern enchantment over me. I asked for leave to go to the bazaar on Saturday night. My aunt was surprised and hoped it was not some Freemason affair. I answered few questions in class. I watched my master’s face pass from amiability to sternness; he hoped I was not beginning to idle. I could not call my wandering thoughts together. I had hardly any patience with the serious work of life which, now that it stood between me and my desire, seemed to me child’s play, ugly monotonous child’s play.

On Saturday morning I reminded my uncle that I wished to go to the bazaar in the evening He was fussing at the hall stand, looking for the hat-brush, and answered me curtly:

“Yes, boy, I know.”

As he was in the hall I could not go into the front parlor and lie at the window. I left the house in bad humour and walked slowly towards the school. The air was pitilessly raw and already my heart misgave me.

When I came home to dinner my uncle had not yet been home. Still it was early. I sat staring at the clock for some time and, when its ticking began to irritate me, I left the room. I mounted the staircase and gained the upper part of the house. The high cold empty gloomy rooms liberated me and I went from room to room singing. From the front window I saw my companions playing below in the street. Their cries reached me weakened and indistinct and, leaning my forehead against the cool glass, I looked over at the dark house where she lived. I may have stood there for an hour, seeing nothing but the brown-clad figure cast by my imagination, touched discreetly by the lamplight at the curved neck, at the hand upon the railings and at the border below the dress.

When I came downstairs again I found Mrs. Mercer sitting at the fire. She was an old garrulous woman, a pawnbroker’s widow, who collected used stamps for some pious purpose. I had to endure the gossip of the tea-table. The meal was prolonged beyond an hour and still my uncle did not come. Mrs. Mercer stood up to go: she was sorry she couldn’t wait any longer, but it was after eight o’clock and she did not like to be out late as the night air was bad for her. When she had gone I began to walk up and down the room, clenching my fists. My aunt said:

“I’m afraid you may put off your bazaar for this night of Our Lord.”

At nine o’clock I heard my uncle’s latchkey in the hall door. I heard him talking to himself and heard the hall stand rocking when it had received the weight of his overcoat. I could interpret these signs. When he was midway through his dinner I asked him to give me the money to go to the bazaar. He had forgotten.

“The people are in bed and after their first sleep now,” he said.

I did not smile. My aunt said to him energetically:

“Can’t you give him the money and let him go? You’ve kept him late enough as it is.”

My uncle said he was very sorry he had forgotten. He said he believed in the old saying: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” He asked me where I was going and, when I had told him a second time he asked me did I know The Arab’s Farewell to his Steed. When I left the kitchen he was about to recite the opening lines of the piece to my aunt.

I held a florin tightly in my hand as I strode down Buckingham Street towards the station. The sight of the streets thronged with buyers and glaring with gas recalled to me the purpose of my journey. I took my seat in a third-class carriage of a deserted train. After an intolerable delay the train moved out of the station slowly. It crept onward among ruinous houses and over the twinkling river. At Westland Row Station a crowd of people pressed to the carriage doors; but the porters moved them back, saying that it was a special train for the bazaar. I remained alone in the bare carriage. In a few minutes the train drew up beside an improvised wooden platform. I passed out on to the road and saw by the lighted dial of a clock that it was ten minutes to ten. In front of me was a large building which displayed the magical name.

I could not find any sixpenny entrance and, fearing that the bazaar would be closed, I passed in quickly through a turnstile, handing a shilling to a weary-looking man. I found myself in a big hall girdled at half its height by a gallery. Nearly all the stalls were closed and the greater part of the hall was in darkness. I recognized a silence like that which pervades a church after a service. I walked into the centre of the bazaar timidly. A few people were gathered about the stalls which were still open. Before a curtain, over which the words Cafe Chantant were written in colored lamps, two men were counting money on a salver. I listened to the fall of the coins.

Remembering with difficulty why I had come I went over to one of stalls and examined porcelain vases and flowered tea-sets. At the door of the stall a young lady was talking and laughing with two young gentlemen. I remarked their English accents and listened vaguely to their conversation.

“O, I never said such a thing!”

“O, but you did!”

“O but I didn’t!”

“Didn’t she say that?”

“Yes. I heard her.”

“O, there’s a … fib!”

Observing me the young lady came over and asked me did I wish to buy anything. The tone of her voice was not encouraging; she seemed to have spoken to me out of a sense of duty. I looked humbly at the great jars that stood like eastern guards at either side of the dark entrance to the stall and murmured:

“No, thank you.”

The young lady changed the position of one of the vases and went back to the two young men. They began to talk of the same subject. Once or twice the young lady glanced at me over her shoulder.

I lingered before her stall, though I knew my stay was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real. Then I turned away slowly and walked down the middle of the bazaar. I allowed the two pennies to fall against the sixpence in my pocket. I heard a voice call from one end of the gallery that the light was out. The upper part of the hall was now completely dark.

Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

by James Joyce.

[“Araby” is the third story in Dubliners. The long short story G. and I also read last Thursday, which ends the book, was “The Dead.”]