Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world

“Reading a novel after reading semiotic theory was like jogging empty-handed after jogging with hand weights. Once released from Semiotics 211, Madeleine fled to the Rockefeller Library, down to B Level, where the stacks exuded a vivifying smell of mold, and grabbed something, anything—“The House of Mirth,” “Daniel Deronda”—to restore herself to sanity. How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative! Madeleine felt safe with a nineteenth-century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world.

But then, in Week Five, for reasons that were entirely extracurricular, semiotics began making sense.”

– Jeffrey Eugenides, “Extreme Solitude”

books, fiction, quotes

all this phrase-making

    ” ‘Poor little place,’ he murmured with a sigh.
    She heard him. He said the most melancholy things, but she noticed that directly he had said them he always seemed more cheerful than usual. All this phrase-making was a game, she thought, for if she had said half what he said, she would have blown her brains out by now.
    It annoyed her, this phrase-making, and she said to him, in a matter-of-fact way, that it was a perfectly lovely evening. And what was he groaning about, she asked, half laughing, half complaining, for she guessed what he was thinking–he would have written better books if he had not married.
    He was not complaining, he said. She knew that he did not complain. She knew that he had nothing whatever to complain of. And he seized her hand and raised it to his lips and kissed it with an intensity that brought the tears to her eyes, and quickly he dropped it.”

– Virginia Woolf, TO THE LIGHTHOUSE



TO THE LIGHTHOUSE for workshop in the fall. Whenever I read this the first time–freshman year, I think–I didn’t appreciate it. I was frustrated by how impeded the forward movement of the story was by all the narration of the characters’ interior lives. It’s still impeded, but I suppose that my appetite for frustrating experiences has increased with age.

books, fiction, quotes

breeding living fiction exempt from all the subjugations of the page

“…During the four days away, his answering service had taken no message from either an ominous palooka or an addled Alvin Pepler. Had his landsman spent into Zuckerman’s handkerchief the last of his enraged and hate-filled adoration? Was that the end of this barrage? Or would Zuckerman’s imagination beget still other Peplers conjuring up novels out of his–novels disguising themselves as actuality itself, as nothing less than real? Zuckerman the stupendous sublimator spawning Zuckermaniacs! A book, a piece of fiction bound between two covers, breeding living fiction exempt from all the subjugations of the page, breeding fiction unwritten, unreadable, unaccountable, and uncontainable, instead of doing what Aristotle promised from art in Humanities 2 and offering moral perceptions to supply us with the knowledge of what is good or bad. Oh, if only Alvin had studied Aristotle with him at Chicago! If only he could understand that it is the writers who are supposed to move the readers to pity and fear, not the other way around!”

– Philip Roth, “Look Homeward, Angel,” Zuckerman Unbound, Zuckerman Unbound: A Trilogy and Epilogue 1979-1985, New York: The Library of America (2007): 245.

fiction, Uncategorized

I made my neighbors dislike me from the first

This is from chapter 26, “Blindness,” from Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books Of The Odyssey, his Borgesian re-re-telling-telling of that myth and variations:

“I could have lived among light and ambrosia, bright forever-young things coming and going on each other’s arms and the wine and the night inexhaustible. But that world was flat to me, and for all that my father was great among them I wanted no part of it. Even if she had been true (I am not considered handsome, never have been) I think I would have preferred my island, my farm, my solitude. I have never had the island altogether to myself but I made my neighbors dislike me from the first–from time to time a farm-wife dropped by as in duty bound but I offered no more than politeness required, or a little less, to ensure my privacy. Sometimes in the distance I heard a girl’s singing and I needed no more company.”

I read the book months ago and marked it up with Post-Its to paste here. Getting to some of that now. It reminds me of Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams: the stories are brief, many of them just a page or two long. Each one is a different version of the Odyssey, or some part of it. It’s very good.


The Trailhead Queen was dead.

At first, there was no overt sign that her long life was ending: no fever, no spasms, no farewells. She simply sat on the floor of the royal chamber and died. As in life, her body was prone and immobile, her legs and antennae relaxed. Her stillness alone failed to give warning to her daughters that a catastrophe had occurred for all of them. She lay there, in fact, as though nothing had happened. She had become a perfect statue of herself. While humans and other vertebrates have an internal skeleton surrounded by soft tissue that quickly rots away, ants are encased in an external skeleton; their soft tissues shrivel into dry threads and lumps, but their exoskeletons remain, a knight’s armor fully intact long after the knight is gone. Hence the workers were at first unaware of their mother’s death. Her quietude said nothing, and the odors of her life, still rising from her, signalled, I remain among you. She smelled alive.

Usually I have to skim through a story or poem to find the best line for a teaser, but not this time. This is the first paragraph of E.O. Wilson’s short story “Trailhead” in the New Yorker, taken from his novel, Anthill, which comes out later this year.


in stalling,

A friend gave me WAR AND PEACE in July, and I’m still not finished. Last night, unable to sleep, and cheered by my recent success in plowing through MOBY-DICK, I picked it up again, and found a scrunchie inserted at page 349. Picked up where I left off: just in time for Pierre to join the Masons! This book is so full of events.

books, fiction

I am pleased to report that

I finished reading MOBY-DICK yesterday, after twelve years of trying. Here are my two favorite parts. First, an warning from Ishmael against hiring dreamy young philosophers for lookouts:

And let me in this place movingly admonish you, ye ship-owners of Nantucket! Beware of enlisting in your vigilant fisheries any lad with lean brow and hollow eye; given to unseasonable meditativeness; and who offers to ship with the Phaedon instead of Bowditch in his head. Beware of such an one, I say: your whales must be seen before they can be killed, and this sunken-eyed young Platonist will tow you ten wakes round the world, and never make you one pint of sperm the richer.
(Chapter 35: The Mast-Head)

And, of course, this:

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though there be many who have tried it.
(Chapter 104: The Fossil Whale)

I don’t know how I have survived this long without having the ending spoiled for me. But I’m glad I have. It was a wonderful surprise.


every night of every day it is an emptiness

Yes, thought I, it is evident enough that Bartleby has been making his home here, keeping bachelor’s hall all by himself. Immediately then the thought came sweeping across me, What miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed! His poverty is great; but his solitude, how horrible! Think of it. Of a Sunday, Wall Street is as deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness. This building too, which of weekdays hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy, and all through Sunday is forlorn. And here Bartleby makes his home; sole spectator of a solitude which he has seen all populous — a sort of innocent and transformed Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage!

For the first time in my life a feeling of overpowering stinging melancholy seized me. Before, I had never experienced aught but a not-unpleasing sadness. The bond of a common humanity now drew me irresistibly to gloom. A fraternal melancholy! For both I and Bartleby were sons of Adam.

– Herman Melville, “Bartleby, The Scrivener”

I first read this short story in high school, and have not reread it since then. There are worse things to read on Christmas, if you don’t celebrate Christmas. The myth of Christ is intertwined with the story of Bartleby, and yet the entire thing is pleasantly subsumed in irony and nihilism. It’s a good way to think about what this omnipresent holiday means and has meant to our and other cultures, without actually engaging in it.