Tag Archives: literature

Late-autumn reading list

Reading on the shores of the Stockholm archipelago © Erin Zaleski 2012

Fall is almost over, and even back home in the Bay Area the days are short and the fog and rain have settled in. In Stockholm, snow is already blanketing the ground and sunsets at 3 am have become the norm. Bleak, yes. But the last days of autumn are also the perfect time to hunker down with a good book. Here are few I’m currently reading:

The House in France, by Gully Wells                                                       I had lunch with Gully a couple of times back in my post-grad job hunting days and I’ve always enjoyed her pieces in Condé Nast Traveler, so I was excited to check out her first book.  Her writing here is equally frank, funny, and elegant, and her memoir provides a poignant snapshot of the exploits of the intellectual beau monde in Provence and London during the ’60s and ’70s.  Her tale of getting high with Martin Amis at Oxford (during which an old record player meets an unfortunate demise) had me laughing out loud.

Embers, by Sándor Márai                                                                                   I have read this intense, little novel about three times already, and there is something about brooding, autumn days that make me want to pick it up again and lose myself once more in Márai’s powerful prose. Although slender in size, the book covers such weighty themes as friendship, lust, betrayal, and revenge, all set against the backdrop of the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver                            Imagine a world without what-ifs. This book about decisions and consequences does precisely that via parallel story lines. Ensconced in a comfortable, albeit predictable live-in relationship, Irina is tempted to kiss a mutual friend during his birthday dinner. The remainder of the novel presents two divergent narratives based on whether she chooses to yield to passion or to loyalty. A graceful meditation on love, fate, and choice, although I am getting the impression that neither destiny yields happiness.

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Literary Pyrotechnics

“This is the one thing I hope: that she never stopped. I hope when her body couldn’t run any farther she left it behind like everything else that tried to hold her down, she floored the pedal and she went like wildfire, streamed down night freeways with both hands off the wheel and her head back screaming to the sky like a lynx, white lines and green lights whipping away into the dark, her tires inches off the ground and freedom crashing up her spine. I hope every second she could have had came flooding through that cottage like speed wind: ribbons and sea spray, a wedding ring and Chad’s mother crying, sun-wrinkles and gallops through wild red brush, a baby’s first tooth and its shoulder blades like tiny wings in Amsterdam Toronto Dubai; hawthorn flowers spinning through summer air. Daniel’s hair turning gray under high ceilings and the sweet cadences of Abby’s singing. Time works so hard for us, Daniel told me once. I hope those last few minutes worked like hell for her. I hope in that half hour she lived all her million lives.”

~ Tana French, The Likeness (2008)

Literary Pyrotechnics

Long after midnight the towers and spires of Princeton were visible, with here and there a late-burning light – and suddenly out of the clear darkness the sound of bells. As an endless dream it went on; the spirit of the past brooding over a new generation, the chosen youth from the muddled, unchastened world, still fed romantically on the mistakes of half-forgotten dreams of dead statesmen and poets. Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revery of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shakes . . .

Amory, sorry for them, was still not sorry for himself – art politics, religion, whatever his medium should be, he knew he was safe now, free from all hysteria – he could accept what was acceptable, roam, grow, rebel, sleep deep through many nights . . .

There was no God in his heart, he knew; his ideas were still in riot; there was ever the pain of memory; the regret for his lost youth – yet the waters of disillusion had left a deposit on his soul, responsibility and a love of life, the faint stirring of old ambitions and unrealized dreams. But – oh, Rosalind! Rosalind! . . .
“It’s all a poor substitute at best, ” he said sadly.
And he could not tell why the struggle was worth while, why he had determined to use to the utmost himself and his heritage from the personalities he had passed…
He stretched out his arms to the crystalline, radiant sky.
“I know myself,” he cried, “but that is all.”

~ F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (1920)

Literary Pyrotechnics

“There are all kinds of silences and each of them means a different thing. There is the silence that comes with morning in a forest, and this is different from the silence of a sleeping city. There is silence after a rainstorm, and before a rainstorm, and these are not the same. There is the silence of emptiness, the silence of fear, the silence of doubt. There is a certain silence that can emanate from a lifeless object as from a chair lately used, or from a piano with old dust upon its keys, or from anything that has answered to the need of a man, for pleasure or for work. This kind of silence can speak. Its voice may be melancholy, but it is not always so; for the chair may have been left by a laughing child or the last notes of the piano may have been raucous and gay. Whatever the mood or the circumstance, the essence of its quality may linger in the silence that follows. It is a soundless echo.”

~ Beryl Markham, West with the Night (1942)

Literary Pyrotechnics

….The room in the hotel in Amsterdam that night.

It was very clean, with a rose-patterned wallpaper.

“Now, you mustn’t worry about money,” Enno says. “Money’s a stupid thing to worry about. You let me do. I can always get some. When we get to Paris it’ll be all right.

(When – we – get – to – Paris….)

There’s another bottle of champagne on the table by the bed.

“Love,” Enno says, “you mustn’t talk about love. Don’t talk….”

You mustn’t talk, you mustn’t think, you must stop thinking. Of course, it is like that. You must let go of everything else, stop thinking…

Next morning we eat an enormous breakfast of sausages, cold meat, cheese and milk. We walk about Amsterdam. We look at pictures in the Rijksmuseum. “Would you like to see your double?” Enno says.

I am tuned up at top pitch. Everything is smooth, soft and tender. Making love. The colours of the pictures. The sunsets. Tender, north colors when the sun sets — pink, mauve, green and blue. And the wind very fresh and cold and the lights in the canals like gold caterpillars and the seagulls swooping over the water. Tuned up to top pitch. Everything tender and melancholy — as life is sometimes, just for one moment….And when we get to Paris; when – we – get – to – Paris….

“I want very much to go back to Paris,” Enno would say. “It has no reason, no sense. But all the same I want to go back there. Certain houses, certain streets….No sense, no reason. Just this nostalgia….And, mind you, some of my songs have made money….”

Suddenly I am in a fever of anxiety to get there. Let’s be on our way, let’s be on our way….Why shouldn’t we get as far as Brussels? All right, we’ll get as far as Brussels; might be something doing in Brussels.

But the fifteen pounds have gone. We raise every penny we can. We sell most of our clothes.

My beautiful life in front of me, opening out like a fan in my hand….

What happened then?….Well, what happens?

The room in the Brussels hotel — very hot. The bell of the cinema next door ringing. A long, narrow room with a long, narrow window and the bell of the cinema next door, sharp and meaningless.

~ Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight (1938)

Friday Photo: Paris Ambiance

+ by Alex Grazioli
+ a photo by Alex Grazioli on Flickr.

Another jaw-dropping example of the exquisite use of natural light.

Alex Grazioli’s “C’etait un Rendez-Vous” evokes a scene from a Jean Rhys novel- Good Morning Midnight, perhaps?

There is also an undeniably cinematic quality to this shot that makes my inner ex-cinema student turn to mush. Not suprisingly, Alex has a film background.

In his flickr profile Alex says photography has “become the vehicle of his need to do something more personal and direct, the way to remember, narrate and fully experience the past and the present, and at the same time his link with the fascinating world of cinema.”

I am impressed, inspired and looking forward to seeing more of Alex’s work in the future.

Literary Pyrotechnics

“The castle was a closed world, like a great granite mausoleum full of the moldering bones of generations of men and women from earlier times, in their shrouds of slowly disintegrating gray silk or black cloth. It enclosed silence itself as if it were a prisoner persecuted for his beliefs, wasting away numbly, unshaven and in rags on a pile of musty rotting straw in a dungeon. It also enclosed memories as if they were the dead, memories that lurked in damp corners the way mushrooms, bats, rats and beetles lurk in the mildewed cellars of old houses. Door-latches gave off the traces of a once-trembling hand, the excitement of a moment long gone, so that even now another hand hesitated to press down on them. Every house in which passion has loosed itself on people in all its fury exudes such intangible presences.”

~ Sandor Márai, Embers (1942)

Literary Pyrotechnics

“The burst of Chopin under a sky lit up with brilliancies…There wasn’t a breath of wind and the music spread all over the dark boat, like a heavenly injunction whose import was unknown, like an order from God whose meaning was inscrutable…and afterwards, she wept because she thought of the man from Cholon and suddenly she wasn’t sure she hadn’t loved him with a love she hadn’t seen because it had lost itself in the affair like water in sand and she rediscovered it only now, through this moment of music flung across the sea.”

~ Marguerite Duras, “The Lover” (1984)

Thirsty for the marvelous

 

Monday would have been Anaïs Nin’s 108th birthday. I remember reading her diaries as a teenager and yearning for transatlantic crossings, opium masquerades and rollicking affairs (just not with Henry Miller who, literary stature aside, I found rather trollish).

Mostly I remember being awestruck by her remarkable talent, insight and intense passion–for beauty, for creating and for living.

This passion is evident in much of her writing, but particularly so in this excerpt from her diary:

“I am an excitable person who only understands life lyrically, musically, in whom feelings are much stronger as reason. I am so thirsty for the marvelous that only the marvelous has power over me. Anything I can not transform into something marvelous, I let go. Reality doesn’t impress me. I only believe in intoxication, in ecstasy, and when ordinary life shackles me, I escape, one way or another…”

Well put, Madame.