Hello all! I’m back.
My, that was a difficult couple of weeks. Thanks to Charlie for keeping up the posts; now it’s time to throw myself into work.
Since becoming ‘by far the funniest of the litbloggers’ (Take that Rake! Take that RoR!) I’ve felt a new sense of responsibility. Time to step up and put a smile back on the face on every literato who was heartbroken to find that the nudie shots of Zadie were fake.
I’ve thought up a goody. I think you’ll find it hilarious. It’s called “What do you grab to read on the train immediately after being told your mother has died?”
First up, you’re not really sure that there’s going to be time to read anything – it’s likely to be a busy while, and sitting around with your nose in a book is probably not an appropriate activity. Spare time will probably go into crying, which makes reading difficult, or staring out at nothing lost in dumb horror and/or self-lacerating reflection. Pure rage at the world also limits one’s attention span. However, you’re in shock, and are likely to be effectively an automaton for the next while, so the leaving-house-for-travel program (Do you have keys, phone, wallet, notebook, book?) kicks in. Always carrying a book is a minor security, but that’s all you can get.
I decided to take Journey to the End of the Night by Celine and Don Juan by Byron. Journey is one of my favourite books; it’s a real response to the horrors of this universe, so I thought it might be appropriate. The coldness and clarity of Celine’s stare, all those hard little aphorisms, I thought might offer something. Chart!
My Five Favourite Bits from JTTEOTN
I We waste a large part of our youth in stupid mistakes. It was obvious that my darling was going to leave me, flat and soon. I hadn’t found out yet that mankind consists of two very different races, the rich and the poor. It took me… and plenty of other people… twenty years and the war to learn to stick to my own category and to ask the price of things before touching them, let alone setting my heart on them
II The worst part is wondering how you’ll find the strength tomorrow to go on doing what you did today and have been doing for much too long, where you’ll find the strength for all that stupid running around, those thousand projects that come to nothing, those attempts to escape from crushing necessity, which always founder and serve only to convince you one more time that destiny is implacable, that every night will find you down and out, crushed by the dread of more and more sordid and insecure tomorrows
III As long as we’re young, we manage to find excuses for the stoniest indifference, the most blatant caddishness, we put them down to emotional eccentricity or some sort of romantic inexperience. But later on, when life shows us how much cunning, cruelty, and malice are required just to keep the body at ninety-eight point six, we catch on, we know the score, we begin to understand just how much swinishness it takes to make up a past. Just take a close look at yourself and the degree of rottenness you’ve come to. There’s no mystery about it, no more room for fairy tales; if you’ve lived this long, it’s because you’ve squashed any poetry you had in you. Life is keeping body and soul together.
IV Love thwarted by poverty and distance is like a sailor’s love; no two ways, it’s irrefutable and sure-fire. In the first place, when you’re unable to meet too often, you can’t fight, which is that much gained. Since life consists of madness spiked with lies, the farther you are from each other the more lies you can put into it and the happier you’ll be. Truth is inedible
Nowadays, for instance, it’s easy to talk about Jesus Christ. Did Jesus Christ go to the toilet in front of everybody? It seems to me his racket wouldn’t have lasted very long if he’d taken a shit in public. Very little presence, that’s the whole trick, especially in love.
V One fine day you decide to talk less and less about the things that you care about most, and when you have to say something, it costs you an effort… You’re good and sick of hearing yourself talk… you abridge… You give up… For thirty years you’ve been talking… You don’t care about being right any more. You even lose your desire to keep hold of the small place you’d reserved for yourself among the pleasures of life… You’re fed up… From that time on you’re content to eat a little something, cadge a little warmth, and sleep as much as possible on the road to nowhere. To rekindle your interest, you’d have to think of some new grimaces to put on in the presence of others… But you no longer have the strength to renew your repertory. You stammer. Sure, you still look for excuses for hanging around with the boys, but death is there too, stinking, right beside you, it’s there the whole time, less mysterious than a game of poker. The only thing you continue to value is petty regrets, like not finding time to run out to Bois-Colombes to see your uncle while he was still alive, the one whose little song died forever one afternoon in February. That horrible little regret is all we have left of life, we’ve vomited up the rest along the way, with a good deal of effort and misery. We’re nothing now but an old lamp-post with memories on a street where hardly anyone passes any more.
Terrific. But it wasn’t the one: a jeremiad against this world didn’t seem adequate to the lived experience of its miseries. Viewed retrospectively, it can be true, and show ways of facing or understanding the darkness, but in the moment it was almost a lie or a pose to be thinking about the horror or letting words clutter up a deep, deep feeling. It’s hard to talk about accurately, and it doesn’t diminish my love for the book (I was driven to that quote frenzy by opening it just now), but it wasn’t right for the time. It already knows where it stands.
Don Juan, however, came through. It’s a funny poem, and you get a punchline every stanza; it’s heavy on syntactical tumbles and polysyllabic rhymes, both of which tend to the cerebral rather than the visceral – this pulls you out of the heart-state for moments, the tinsel, or the flash grabbing something of your attention; life is there in the formal vigour. That’s good. It’s pure pose in some ways: the artificiality feels truer than the brute candour of Celine in the moment. It likes life, loves it in fact – the fact that you’re facing death means you want the fight against blackness, and need something that presses the thrill of the moment on you (“the sublime of the that there sort of writing”, Byron calls it.). You’re not really stuck with plot and characters, which aren’t really manageable to a brain near shock. I might just be arguing for escapism here, but it feels like something else. I’ll think about it.
Enough for now. I mean to post about Don Juan and Auden tomorrow. It’ll be closer to normal service: the diary won’t become therapy. Forgive any self-indulgence, and no condolences. Good evening.