He needs to be accompanied when addressing the short flight of stairs up to the bedroom or down to the main level, but he manages them without assistance. The ability to do so was one of the criteria for discharge. Sam is home. He is not able to do much yet, but, after more than a month in the hospital, and another full month in rehab, this not much he can now do at home. And there is so much that he wants to do. It is the season of Advent. Waiting.
I had intended to tell you about reading Nadirs. In my last post I shared some of the feeling of amazement I experienced when my friend Viet presented me with an autographed copy of this book. This time I wanted to tell you about the book itself, about Herta Müller’s dark vision put forth in these almost gruesomely denuded – I lack, at the moment, a better term – stories. I even had the following opener all worked out: “Be careful, when you pick up a copy of Nadirs and start to read, that you don’t crack a tooth.” But life at our house has only just scrabbled to the far side of a rather deep nadir of its own, and still strains against a new rhythm relentlessly beaten out by bare physical need: gauze, urinal, cane, medicines, pill crusher, syringe, and learning to fall asleep to the sound of a feeding tube pump – and life rebels, wanting vantage. Müller’s thin, grim first volume, as good as it is, is not for now. Not yet.
While Sam was away, I consoled myself by reorganizing the portion of our personal library that lives in our room. So that yesterday, while getting dressed, my eye fell on… I’m not going to tell you what my eye fell on, at least not yet, except to say that it is one of the great reading experiences I know. And I thought how no one else I know has had it. And it occurred to me that it was just what the times require, and that I haven’t posted a Nobel mystery passage in a very long time.
Those of you who were following this blog last year will remember how this works: First, read the passage below, taken from the novel’s first chapter. Then turn yourself loose. Share your thoughts. What do you hear? How does it strike you? Any guesses what country the author is from? Does it trigger any memories? Does it remind you of anything else you’ve read? Does it make you curious, or does it repel? Do you have a guess as to who the author is? Think you might know the title? Have you, by chance, read the book? Right answers are far less fun than wild speculation and surmises, why you might make a certain guess more interesting than the guess itself. Please ask for clues.
And speaking of clues, here is one: A careful ear will hear that this writing belongs to the first half of the Nobel Prize’s one hundred and twelve year history rather than the second. Best to lose, for the moment, whatever imagined need you might have for post-modernist irony.
In the bed by his mother’s side the child was stirring again. An unknown sorrow had risen from the depths of his being. He stiffened himself against her. He twisted his body, clenched his fists, and knitted his brows. His suffering increased steadily, quietly, certain of its strength. He knew not what it was, nor whence it came. It appeared immense,— infinite, and he began to cry lamentably. His mother caressed him with her gentle hands. Already his suffering was less acute. But he went on weeping, for he felt it near, still inside himself. A man who suffers can lesson his anguish by knowing whence it comes. By thought he can locate it in a certain portion of his body which can be cured, or, if necessary, torn away. He fixes the bounds of it, and separates it from himself. A child has no such illusive resource. His first encounter with suffering is more tragic and more true. Like his own being, it seems infinite. He feels that it is seated in his bosom, housed in his heart, and is mistress of his flesh. And it is so. It will not leave his body until it has eaten it away.
His mother hugs him to her, murmuring: “It is done— it is done! Don’t cry, my little Jesus, my little goldfish….” But his intermittent outcry continues. It is as though this wretched, unformed, and unconscious mass had a presentiment of a whole life of sorrow awaiting him, and nothing can appease him….
The bells of St. Martin rang out in the night. Their voices are solemn and slow. In the damp air they come like footsteps on moss. The child became silent in the middle of a sob. The marvelous music, like a flood of milk, surged sweetly through him. The night was lit up; the air was moist and tender. His sorrow disappeared, his heart began to laugh, and he slid into his dreams with a sigh of abandonment.
I look forward to hearing from you.
In all the flurry last month over Tomas Tranströmer beating out Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize, I didn’t get a mystery passage published. Here it is at last, and I have to say, I am excited to share it with you as it comes from the first page of one of my favorite novels by one of my favorite novelists (I actually have a terrible author-crush on this particular writer. Those of you who know me personally can use this as a clue.)
Reading over this passage in preparation for this post, I was struck by the sentence at the end of the final paragraph: “I’d never thought of it before: I’d been living luminously between two eternities of darkness.” Compare this with the opening sentence of Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” A coincidence? Doubtful, in the colloquy among great writers. Is this author paying homage to Nabokov? If so, why, and why with this line? Or is it a simple case of phrase-napping? Thoughts, anyone?
Here is your passage:
I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well. Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below. As I fell, my head, which he’d smashed with a stone, broke apart; my face, my forehead and cheeks, were crushed; my bones shattered, and my mouth filled with blood.
For nearly four days I’ve been missing: My wife and children must be searching for me; my daughter, spent from crying, must be staring fretfully at the courtyard gate. Yes, I know they’re all at the window, hoping for my return.
But, are they truly waiting? I can’t even be sure of that. Maybe they’ve gotten used to my absence — how dismal! For here, on the other side, one gets the feeling that one’s former life persists. Before my birth there was infinite time, and after my death, inexhaustible time. I never thought of it before: I’d been living luminously between two eternities of darkness.
Got it? Remember, the object is not so much to guess the author or the work (although, if you know, by all means shout it out), as it is about playing with what you find in the passage. Even if you don’t know the author or the work, or aren’t sure, you can still speculate about what the story may be, what culture it comes from, if it’s modern or from a past era, and a host of other parameters. Questions are welcome. Simple appreciations or criticisms are welcome. Wild guesses are welcome. Enjoy.
With the dissolution of Borders Bookstore, my personal library has expanded by more than a dozen books. A melancholy enterprise, buying those books. I don’t like to think of myself as an anonymous member of a swarm, but there I was, there we all were, picking clean the stacks, like flies on a carcass (Perish the thought that the image from this month’s mystery passage be more apt.)
How badly did I need those books? As it turns out, they were all quite necessary. A careful scan around the house revealed to me a pressing issue: The double-stacked shelves with thinner books jammed horizontally on top of the vertical books looked good, but – how could I have missed it – a couple of corners were still somehow naked of books. Okay, full disclosure: One of those corners did have a small pile, but rising to an insufficient height. I like my books-in-corners to create a kind of faux wainscoting. This had to be solved, and the Borders liquidation sale was just the ticket. Because of Borders’s gross mismanagement, I now have William Trevor’s Selected Stories, Carlos Fuentes’s Destiny and Desire, and the new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Doctor Zhivago working well as three of the heavy lifters, providing a base for some of the smaller books, such as A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, an Everyman edition of Blood Meridian, a couple of Mario Vargas Llosa novels and some Susan Sontag. Plus, thanks to Sam’s efforts, we have added a new peninsula to our cookbook collection. At Elizabeth David’s Table: Classic Recipes and Timeless Kitchen Wisdom and the new Culinaria China are the two stars of this feature. There is still room for expansion, but the effect is satisfying.
Will I actually read all these new books and try all the new recipes? Taking into account my current backlog, adding to that all the books I don’t even know about yet, and assuming medical science can raise the average human life expectancy to about four hundred, I might just make it under the wire. Death cannot be interrupted, Jose Saramago’s fantasy notwithstanding, but we in America can always use rampant acquisition to bolster our illusions.
Among my purchases was a new translation of a famous novel, a book I read years ago and loved. It is always disconcerting how much a novel fades from memory over time, even one greatly enjoyed. But there is one scene from this particular novel that has remained with me, and probably always will. I’ll give you its more salient moments. See what you can make of it:
I turned away from the Swede as the docker rose with some effort. “Well now, let’s just take a little look and see what we got.” This he said to Matzerath, who had no idea what he was talking about but still concurred. Steadily repeating “let’s just take” and “a little look,” the docker kept hauling on the line, but with more effort now, then climbed down the stones alongside the line and thrust — Mama didn’t turn away in time — thrust his whole arm into the blubbering bay between the granite stones, felt around, got hold of something, grabbed tight, pulled, and crying out to us to stand back, swung something upward, something heavy and dripping, a spraying, living clump, into our midst: a horse’s head, a fresh head, a real one, the head of a black horse with a black mane, which only yesterday or the day before may still have been whinnying, for the head was not yet rotten, did not stink, smelled at most of the Mottlau, like everything else on the jetty.
The man with the docker’s cap, which was now pushed far back on his head, was standing over the horseflesh, from which small light green eels were furiously wriggling. The man had a hard time catching them, for eels move quickly and surely over smooth stone, especially when it’s damp. Seagulls and the screech of seagulls were instantly above us. They pecked away, three or four of them easily handling a small to medium-sized eel, nor could they be driven off, for the jetty was their domain. Nevertheless the docker, thrusting his arm forcefully among the gulls and grabbing hold, managed to stuff perhaps two dozen smaller eels into his sack, which Matzerath, helpful as ever, held out for him. He was too busy to see Mama’s face turn the the color of cheese, as she laid first her hand and then her head on Jan’s shoulder and velvet collar.
Nor did they listen to Oskar, who weighed in against the gulls with his drum and battled their whiteness with a whirl of his sticks on white lacquer. But that didn’t help, at most turned the gulls even whiter. Matzerath, however was not worried in the least about Mama. He laughed and mimicked the docker, showed how strong his nerves were, and when the docker was practically done and with a final flourish pulled a huge eel out through the horse’s ear, causing the white gruel of the horse’s brain to dribble out with it, Matzerath’s face too turned the color of cheese, but he still couldn’t stop showing off, bought two medium-sized and two large eels from the docker for practically nothing, then tried to talk him down even further.
The game is simple: 1. Guess the author. 2. Guess the book.
As before, your speculations and imaginings are far more interesting than a mere correct answer. If you’ve read the book from which comes this slimy scene, please share any thoughts you might have about it or (here’s a clue) its somewhat controversial author.
Following the Nobel Prize for Literature presents the dedicated reader with a remarkable, sometimes peculiar reading list. That you have found your way to this blog indicates one of two things about you: either you are a friend whom I have shamed into visiting my site, or you have, over the course of your reading life, nurtured some affinity for the works of this always quirky, often magnificent group of writers.
My plan is this: Once a month I will give you a chance to take your own knowledge out for a joy ride. I’ll present you with a passage by one of the writers on that redoubtable Scandinavian list. You try to guess who it is. Perhaps you will be familiar with the passage. In that case, share what you know. Perhaps you’ll be at a loss as to just what or who you are reading. This is most to be desired because it will be your chance to run with your hunches, speculate wildly, give an unprejudiced response. A piece of writing may strike you, for whatever reason, as particularly French, or German, or the work of a woman, or modern (or modernist) or a bit archaic. Go with these. I’m much more interested in your mental peregrinations than in correct answers. At the end of the passage I’ll give you a short list of questions. Use them playfully, like queries on a game-show quiz, or as prompts for other kinds of responses. You can also phrase your responses as further questions, for me or other respondents. Ask for hints.
Here, then, is your first passage. It is from a famous work by one of the better known laureates. In the future, I’ll push your knowledge a bit harder, giving you excerpts from some of those early and mid-20th century writers whose reputations have taken a holiday on the back slopes of more famous literary mountains. But for now, I give you this, by a writer I hope you have read. If you haven’t, I extend my love and compassion to you, and urge you to rectify what is in your power to change.
After the first letter that she carried to the telegraph office with an ember of revenge against her own destiny, she had allowed an almost daily exchange of messages in what appeared to be casual encounters on the street, but she did not have the courage to permit a conversation, no matter how banal and fleeting it might be. Still, after three months she realized that her niece was not the victim of a girlish fancy, as it had seemed at first, and that her own life was threatened by the fire of love. The truth was that Escolastica Daza had no other means of support except her brother’s charity, and she knew that his tyrannical nature would never forgive such a betrayal of his confidence. But when it was time for the final decision, she did not have the heart to cause her niece the same irreparable grief that she had been obliged to nurture ever since her youth, and she permitted her to use a strategy that allowed her the illusion of innocence. The method was simple: Fermina Daza would leave her letter in some hiding place along her daily route from the house to the Academy, and in that letter she would indicate to Florentino Ariza where she expected to find his answer. Florentino Ariza did the same. In this way, for the rest of the year, the conflicts in Aunt Escolastica’s conscience were transferred to baptisteries in churches, holes in trees, and crannies in ruined colonial fortresses. Sometimes their letters were soaked by rain, soiled by mud, torn by adversity, and some were lost for a variety of other reasons, but they always found a way to be in touch with each other again.
Here are your questions. Answer any or all of them.
1. Who is this writer?
2. What work is this passage from?
3. Do you know where this writer is from? What cultural elements show up in this passage that might provide a clue about the author’s nationality?
4. Anything else you would like to say about this passage, the writer, or, if you’re confident you’ve read this before, your memories of this work?
Have fun with this. If none of you are able to guess what or who this is, I will consider you all impoverished, cave in and tell you, but with a strong admonishment to get to your reading. I hope you’ll be back in early September for the next Nobel Literature quiz.
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