Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Habit of Criticism

Do you keep a diary? They’re tremendously useful, to keep thoughts rolling, to keep what’s important in focus. Mine is a mixture, of the things you’re supposed to write in diaries, and quotations from books. The accumulation of the latter is what forms the basis of the book reviews here — which have stopped lately, I know, but I’ll get back to them. My diary, too, is pretty thin for the last six months or so. To adapt Flannery O’Connor’s phrase about art, I seem to have fallen out of the habit of criticism. Ebooks might be something to do with it: they make it too easy to flit about, and — worse — you can take notes just by highlighting, so there’s no need to write down any quotations, and the temptation is to not bother with any accompanying reflections either. There are some, and I thought I’d use this post to catch up with what’s been missing from La Terrasse since last June (when this diary volume starts). From September:
Friction is what slows a physical object, so the whole business of ‘friction free’ online communications and shopping should be viewed with suspicion precisely because of what it is trying to achieve. Writing takes longer than typing, so it is hard not to put more contemplation into it.
A strand of reading I meant to get into in the wake of Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader was essays, that’s something I want to return to this year. How’s this for a sentence:
All passions that allow themselves to be savoured and digested are only mediocre. (Montaigne, from ‘Of Sadness’, Complete Works pp 8-9)
Some more miscellaneous moments:
I have no interest in anything that is not real. And you know what I mean by real. (Bill Drummond, 100)
The region is so empty and deserted that, if one were abandoned there, one could scarcely say whether one was on the North Sea coast or perhaps by the Caspian Sea or the Gulf of Lian-tung. (W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, p. 154)
Montaigne again, on his bad memory:
My speech is the briefer for it. For the magazine of memory is apt to be better furnished than that of invention. (from ‘Of Liars’, Complete Works, p. 26)
Lord, how he speaks! The feeling can only be compared with that of someone picking through your hair or gently passing a finger over your heel. You listen and listen — and your head lolls. Pleasant! Extremely pleasant! like a nap after swimming. (Gogol, from ‘The Story of how Ivan Ivanovich quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich’, Collected Tales, p. 197)
A learnt language is just a mask, a form of borrowed identity; it should be approached with appropriate aloofness, and its speaker should never yield to the lure of mimicry, renouncing the sounds of his own language to imitate those of another. Anyone who gives in to this temptation is in danger of losing their memory, their past, without receiving another in exchange. (Diego Marini, New Finnish Grammar, p. 52)
That one is all about friction, come to think of it.

More Gogol, from 29th August:
p. 270 — a ‘no nose’ moment in ‘Nevsky Prospect’, in which Schiller, the ‘tinsmith of Meshchanskaya Street’, begs Hoffmann, ‘a rather good cobbler from Ofitserskaya Street’, to cut off his nose because it costs him 20 roubles and 40 kopecks a year in snuff.
Then there was Parade’s End, which I did write about, before returning to Gogol’s tales in October. The context here isn’t quite clear, but anyway — more no noses still!
He used tarred rope and a quantity of cheap olive oil, and that’s why there’s a terrible stench all over the earth so that you have to hold your nose. And that’s why the moon itself is such a delicate sphere that people can’t live on it, and now only noses live there. And for the same reason, we can’t see our own noses, for they’re all in the moon. (from ‘Diary of a Madman’, Collected Tales, pp 297-8)
From 14th October, to finish:
Finished the Gogol tales, I think ‘The Portrait’ might be my favourite ever short story (not having read any Richard Yates lately). It does so much, recalling The Portrait of Dorian Gray for the malign influence both of a supernatural painting, and of having it too easy. Just as Dorian is corrupted by his eternal good looks — to debauchery and murder — the artist Chartkhov loses his talent through incessant, unimaginative, flattering society portraiture. This is funded in the first instance by 1000 roubles he finds concealed about the portrait’s frame when verging on destitution. At first he plans to spend the windfall sensibly, frugally, nurturing his talent in seclusion — but he blows it on fine clothes and a grand apartment, and sets himself up to paint portraits.
I’m a bit disappointed it cuts off there, because there is so much more to this amazing story.

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