The Good Soldier – Ford Madox Ford, 1915

This had been on my radar for ages (so much praise for this book!), so I was happy the Second Monday group chose it (and I volunteered to lead the discussion, with questions mostly pulled from BookCompanion). A very interesting book technically, which I admired but didn’t exactly enjoy – as a novel it’s very weird. It’s famous as a showcase for one of the most (and earliest?) unreliable narrators in fiction, who contradicts himself constantly and appears to be unbelievably naïve. Ford repeats certain phrases like “the carefully calculated” or “normal, virtuous, and slightly deceitful” which has a kind of hypnotizing effect. I only have one “in this book I learned”: pococurantism – indifference, nonchalance. Only short quotes, also – which I think is a result of the style of the writing.

  • “the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars”
  • “you, silent listener beyond the hearth-stone” (the reader)
  • “God knows what they wanted with a winter garden in an hotel that is only open from May till October. But there it was.”
  • Doctors who advise that Florence not travel because it “might have effects on Florence’s nerves. That would be enough, that and a conscientious desire to keep our money on the Continent.” (as in The Magic Mountain)
  • “The fellow talked like a cheap novelist. Or like a very good novelist for the matter of that, if it’s the business of a novelist to make you see things clearly.”
  • “In all matrimonial associations there is, I believe, one constant factor—a desire to deceive the person with whom one lives as to some weak spot in one’s character or in one’s career. For it is intolerable to live constantly with one human being who perceives one’s small meannesses.”
  • “Florence was a personality of paper … she represented a real human being with a heart, with feelings, with sympathies and with emotions only as a bank-note represents a certain quantity of gold.”
  • “Here, then, were two noble natures, drifting down life, like fireships afloat on a lagoon and causing miseries, heart-aches, agony of the mind and death. And they themselves steadily deteriorated. And why? For what purpose? To point what lesson? It is all a darkness.”
  • “You see, Leonora and Edward had to talk about something during all these years. You cannot be absolutely dumb when you live with a person unless you are an inhabitant of the North of England or the State of Maine.”
  • “The Hurlbirds were an exceedingly united family—exceedingly united except on one set of points. Each of the three of them had a separate doctor, whom they trusted implicitly—and each had a separate attorney. And each of them distrusted the other’s doctor and the other’s attorney. And, naturally, the doctors and the attorneys warned one all the time—against each other.”
  • “There was upon those people’s faces no expression of any kind whatever. The signal for the train’s departure was a very bright red; that is about as passionate a statement as I can get into that scene.”

Winter – Ali Smith, 2017

Read for Second Monday book group. I loved the Christmas Carol echoes – it starts with “God was dead: to begin with” – but hated the Trumpish end: “You’re going to be saying Merry Christmas again, folks.” And the protagonist Art who writes a column “Art in Nature”… it’s a little on-the-nose. Nonetheless, Smith is always a beautiful writer.

Short quotes

  • “That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again. An exercise in adapting yourself to whatever frozen or molten state it brings you.”
  • “Then his mother stops speaking and starts humming a tune and Art knows the doors of the reminiscence have closed, as surely as if the Reminiscence is a cinema or a theatre and the show is over, the rows of seats empty, the audience gone home.”

Long quotes

Well, imagine it like this, the optician says. Imagine I’m a car mechanic and someone brings me in a car for a service, and it’s a car from the 1940s, and I lift the lid and find the engine still nearly as clean as when it left the factory floor in (the optician checks her form) 1946, just amazing, a triumph.

You’re saying I’m like an old Triumph, Sophia says.

Good as new, the optician (who clearly has no idea that a Triumph has ever been a car) says.

Those green things, white things, polystyrene. You’re wrong, they’re recyclable. They’re free of whatever it is that’s bad for it. It’s not as bad as you’d think. I quite like them. I do! No, it’s interesting, because, because they’re so amazingly light, so that when you pick them up it’s surprising every time. You always expect them to be heavier. Even if you tell yourself, even though you know they’re light, you think you already know, you pick one up and it’s like, wow that’s so light, it’s like holding actual lightness. It’s, like, the weight of your own hand just somehow got lighter. Like a bird’s bones kind of light. If you pick up several, hold several so your hand’s full of them, you look at your hand loaded with things and your eye can’t understand it because although you can see that your hand’s full of something it feels like almost nothing’s in your hand.

None of these things is happening here. They are all happening far away, elsewhere.

But they may as well be, Iris says. What does here mean anyway, I’d like to know. Everywhere’s a here, isn’t it?

In this book I learned

Pachinko – Min Jin Lee, 2017

I read this in September 2019 and again in September 2022. Posting it as a “quote dump” in November 2022 (backdated to September since that’s when I finished it), part of a new push to get my gazillion draft posts up so they are at least searchable. I may or may not ever come back to turn them into a proper “review,” which isn’t even exactly what I do here… more like an impression?

September 2019: Common Read for Amherst College. Min Jin Lee is the new Writer-in-Residence so I got to attend her talk for the incoming freshmen, which I enjoyed tremendously—more than the novel. I did find it engrossing and interesting, but the writing is a little clunky in parts. My favorite aspect was all the Korean food and culture I got to look up:

  • ponytail radishes – omg there are so many kinds of radishes, but not as diverse as the types of Brassica oleraceae
  • mompei – baggy Japanese work pants often dyed with indigo
  • Koreans having to adopt Japanese surnames
  • We use (store-bought) gochujang to make our own version of bibimbap, but I didn’t know about doenjang
  • jesa – ceremonies honoring deceased ancestors
  • tayaki – fish-shaped waffles – in the US there’s a chain that uses them for soft-serve ice cream, and I’d love to try it! I did, summer 2022 in Boston – more fun than delicious, but glad I had it once
  • gimbap – like Korean sushi
  • noonchi – emotional intelligence, literally “eye-measure” – such a useful term!
  • chima – long billowy skirt
  • cha color” – I guess this is brown, based on this amazing list? Some of those remind me of the neural net color names – a comedy classic!
  • unagiya – eel restaurant – I recently read something about a famous eel restaurant, I think M. Manze, and wish I could remember where I saw the article. It was about how most people who ordered eel didn’t really like it.

Yes, life in Osaka would be difficult, but things would change for the better. They’d make a tasty broth from stones and bitterness.

She would not believe that she was no different than her parents, that seeing him as only Korean—good or bad—was the same as seeing him only as a bad Korean. She could not see his humanity, and Noa realized that this was what he wanted most of all: to be seen as human.

However, she didn’t believe her son had come from a bad seed. The Japanese said the Koreans had too much anger and heat in their blood. Seeds, blood, how could you fight such hopeless ideas? Noa had been a sensitive child who had believed that if he followed all the rules and was the best, then somehow the hostile world would change its mind. His death may have been her fault for having allowed him to believe in such cruel ideals.

Re-read for Second Monday in September, 2022. The last quote above is the only one I marked both times!

  • “For a woman, the man you marry will determine the quality of your life completely. A good man is a decent life, and a bad man is a cursed life.”
  • “You want to see a very bad man? Make an ordinary man successful beyond his imagination.”
  • “Now that he was gone, Sunja held on to her father’s warmth and kind words like polished gems.”
  • “Patriotism is just an idea, so is capitalism or communism. But ideas can make men forget their own interests. And the guys in charge will exploit men who believe in ideas too much.”
  • “At lunchtime, Haruki sat at the end of the long table with two seat gaps around him like an invisible parenthesis while the other boys in their dark woolen uniforms stuck together like a tight row of black corn kernels.”
  • “The fools here have pumpkins for heads, and seeds are not brains.”
  • “Her wet, shining eyes blinked, lit up like lanterns. Her young face shone through the old one.”
  • “It had been eleven years since he’d died; the pain didn’t go away, but its sharp edge had dulled and softened like sea glass.”

Detransition, Baby – Torrey Peters, 2021

Read for Second Monday group. I had heard a lot about this book… I did not love it, but it was both interesting and funny (very dark, though). I very much appreciated that it centered the trans viewpoint, but the behavior of the one cis character wasn’t believable at all.

Short quotes

  • “Danny was a good boyfriend to have when I was younger, when we were in college. Like, in the same way that a Saint Bernard would be a good dog to have if you were lost in the mountains. A big amiable body that a girl could shelter behind.”
  • Ugh but I understand what she’s saying: “His controlling behavior confirmed how badly he wanted her. Anyone who needed her so close, who assumed the right to know where she was at all times, whom she saw, what she wore, was someone who wasn’t going away, someone who could be counted upon, not just despite her trans-ness, but for it.”
  • “the guillotine of sadness would slam down upon her, severing her from her pride”
  • “All my white girlfriends just automatically assume that reproductive rights are about the right to not have children, as if the right and naturalness of motherhood is presumptive. But for lots of other women in this country, the opposite is true. Think about black women, poor women, immigrant women. Think about forced sterilization, about the term ‘welfare queens,’ or ‘anchor babies.’ All of that happened to enforce the idea that not all motherhoods are legitimate.”
  • “According to Reese, units of disappointment should be measured in the difference between a good mango and a bad mango.”
  • “Cream is even less forgiving than white; a single stain on cream and the whole skirt looks vaguely dirty, whereas a single stain on white just looks like a single stain.”
  • “Not a windowpane remains unbroken in the facade, already so vandalized and graffitied that to deface it further would only waste effort, the delinquent equivalent of pissing in the ocean.”
  • Beyond dark to pitch black: “Q: What do you call a remake of a nineties romantic comedy where you cast trans women in all the roles? A: Four Funerals and a Funeral.”

Longer quotes

“What’s a dōTERRA?” Reese asked.

“It’s an essential oil company,” Katrina said. “We’ll have to sit through a presentation, but at the end, I think we make face scrubs.”

This information did not illuminate the situation for Reese. Making face scrubs with a real estate agent? Is this cis culture? What’s next week? Nail art with your financial planner?

…[dōTERRA] targets, with its upscale essential oils, the anxiety of those wellness-obsessed women who are just a little too beholden to middle-class propriety to permit themselves to take up crystals and anti-vaxxing screeds.

How is it, Reese wonders, that a bunch of New York men wearing flannel and slamming whiskey in a cabin is seen as a sorely needed release of their barely tamed and authentic manliness, but when she, a trans, delights in dolling up, she’s trying too hard? It’s not that Reese thinks her desire to dress up reflects some authentic self. It’s just that, unlike bros, she’s willing to call dress-up time what it is.

In this book I learned about

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John Le Carre

A Second Monday selection. I had never read this before and loved it – I went on to watch the 2011 movie and also started the BBC miniseries (which clearly inspired the wonderful Fry & Laurie “Control and Tony” sketches).

I looked up just one thing: hibitane, a brand name for the disinfectant chlorhexidine but genericized.

Short quotes

  • “…the late Mr. Maltby, the pianist who had been called from choir practice to help the police with their inquiries, and as far as anyone knew was helping them to this day, for Maltby’s trunk still lay in the cellar awaiting instructions.”
  • Ricky Tarr: “‘To possess another language is to possess another soul.’ A great king wrote that, sir, Charles the Fifth.” (It’s widely attributed to Charlemagne but I’d love to find an authoritative source).
  • Lacon: “I once heard someone say morality was method. Do you hold with that? I suppose you wouldn’t. You would say that morality was vested in the aim, I expect. Difficult to know what one’s aims are, that’s the trouble, specially if you’re British.”
  • Connie Sachs: “Her formless white face took on the grandmother’s glow of enchanted reminiscence. Her memory was as compendious as her body and surely she loved it more, for she had put everything aside to listen to it: her drink, her cigarette, even for a while Smiley’s passive hand. She sat no longer slouched but strictly, her big head to one side as she dreamily plucked the white wool of her hair.”
  • Connie again: “‘Poor loves.’ She was breathing heavily, not perhaps from any one emotion but from a whole mess of them, washed around in her like mixed drinks. ‘Poor loves. Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away. Bye-bye, world.’”
  • The Hotel Islay: “The traffic roared past it all night. But the inside, though it was a fire-bowl of clashing wallpapers and copper lampshades, was a place of extraordinary calm.”
  • Control: “a carcass of a man by then, with his lank grey forelock and his smile as warm as a skull.” 
  • Allwyn: “an effeminate Marine who spoke only of weekends. Till Wednesday or so, he spoke of the weekend past; after that he spoke of the weekend to come.”
  • “‘I’m Joy,’ she said, in a theatrical voice, like ‘I’m Virtue’ or ‘I’m Continence.’ It wasn’t his coat she wanted but a kiss. Yielding to it, Guillam inhaled the joint pleasures of Je Reviens and a high concentration of inexpensive sherry.”
  • Mendel to Guillam: “Cheer up, Peter, old son. Jesus Christ only had twelve, you know, and one of them was a double.”
  • “in the hands of politicians grand designs achieve nothing but new forms of the old misery”
  • “I rather like Karla’s description of committees, don’t you? Is it Chinese? A committee is an animal with four back legs.”
  • Guillam when Hayden’s betrayal has sunk in: “Haydon was more than his model, he was his inspiration, the torch-bearer of a certain kind of antiquated romanticism, a notion of English calling which—for the very reason that it was vague and understated and elusive—had made sense of Guillam’s life till now. In that moment, Guillam felt not merely betrayed but orphaned.”
  • “Bill had loved it, too. Smiley didn’t doubt that for a moment. Standing at the middle of a secret stage, playing world against world, hero and playwright in one: oh, Bill had loved that, all right.”

The Dutch House – Ann Patchett, 2019

Read for Second Monday book group. I loved it, not surprisingly as I find Patchett’s writing enchanting (although I threw Bel Canto across the room after reading it because I was so upset by the ending!).

  • “[My sister’s] hair was long and black and as thick as ten horse tails tied together. No amount of brushing ever made it look brushed.”
  • “The linden trees kept us from seeing anything except the linden trees.”
  • “To list the things I didn’t ask my father about would be to list the stars in heaven.”
  • “I thought of them as a single unit: Norma-and-Bright, like an advertising agency consisting of two small girls.”
  • Fluffy, prone to blushing: “This was a woman whose biology betrayed her at every turn. Emotions stormed across her face with a flag.”
  • “Fluffy, who had not stopped talking since I walked in the door, shut down like a mechanical horse in need of another nickel.”
  • “When she walked away, she turned back to look at me so many times she appeared to be going up the sidewalk in a loose series of concentric circles.”
  • “‘You’re picking the woman you like the best from a group of women you don’t like,’ Maeve said. “Your control group is fundamentally flawed.'”
  • “She had so much energy. I had forgotten the way she was in the morning, like each new day came in on a wave she had managed to catch.”
  • “Her wrist looked like ten pencils bundled together.”
  • “Though I had been a doctor for only a short time, I knew the havoc the well could unleash upon the sick.”
  • “Men leave their children all the time and the world celebrates them for it. The Buddha left and Odysseus left and no one gave a shit about their sons. They set out on their noble journeys to do whatever the hell they wanted to do and thousands of years later we’re still singing about it.”

Justine – Lawrence Durrell, 1957

Read for Second Monday book group. I was a huge Gerald Durrell fan as a kid, so I knew that his brother Larry was a writer, and as an adult I suppose the Alexandria Quartet has been on my (very long) TBR list for ages, so I was glad to be pushed to read this, which is the first of the series. But I didn’t much care for it and I will cross the other 3 off my list!

Short quotes

  • “…the graceful curtain breathing softly in that breathless afternoon air like the sail of a ship. How often had we not lain in one another’s arms watching the slow intake and recoil of that transparent piece of bright linen?”
  • “We turned to each other, closing like the two leaves of a door upon the past, shutting out everything”
  • Balthazar says: “when all is said and done, [man is] just a passage for liquids and solids, a pipe of flesh”
  • “Most people lie and let life play upon them like the tepid discharges of a douche-bag.”
  • “a sweetness which a woman can always afford to spend upon the man she does not love”
  • “Father Paul … seemed so profoundly happy a man, folded into his religion like a razor into its case”
  • “the green figs … offer a shade so deep as to be like a wet cloth pressed to the skull”
  • “in the moist gathering darkness the fireflies had begun to snatch fitfully”
  • “Here at least, thought Nessim, building something with my own hands will keep me stable and unreflective — and he studied the horny old hands of the Greek with admiring envy as he thought of the time they had killed for him, of the thinking they had saved him. He read into them years of healthy bodily activity which imprisoned thought, neutralized reflection.”
  • “a thin crust of thunder formed like a scab upon the melodious silence”
  • “carrying her fatigue like a heavy pack”
  • “the pressure of the headlights now peeled off layer after layer of the darkness”

Only long quote is from Nessim’s attack of dreams/illusions:

One afternoon a crumpled sheet began breathing and continued for a space of about half an hour, assuming the shape of the body it covered. One night he woke to the soughing of great wings and saw a bat-like creature with the head of a violin resting upon the bedrail.

Then the counter-agency of the powers of good — a message brought by a ladybird which settled on the notebook in which he was writing; the music of Weber’s Pan played every day between three and four on a piano in an adjoining house. He felt that his mind had become a battle-ground for the forces of good and evil and that his task was to strain every nerve to recognize them, but it was not easy. The phenomenal world had begun to play tricks on him so that his senses were beginning to accuse reality itself of inconsistency. He was in peril of a mental overthrow.

Once his waistcoat started ticking as it hung on the back of a chair, as if inhabited by a colony of foreign heartbeats. …

As he walked the length of the Rue Fuad he felt the entire pavement turn to sponge beneath his feet; he was foundering waist-deep in it before the illusion vanished.

In this book I learned

  • banausic: mundane
  • I couldn’t find the meaning of “conklin-coloured yams.” A Harold Conklin wrote an interesting paper about color categories in a Philippine culture – I was happy to stumble on it, but it was published in 1986 so no possible connection. But Jonathan did some research and this is plausible: Conklin Shows, founded in 1916, used a distinctive bright orange for their railcars and logo. This assumes that Durrell is actually describing sweet potatoes (not yams!), which is also very plausible.

The Welsh Girl – Peter Ho Davies, 2007

Second Monday book group selection. I didn’t care for it particularly—pedestrian writing, tired WWII setting, ill-fitting parts, female protagonist who’s entirely wrapped up in the men around her—but others very much did.

Things I looked up: bartender “sets the shaker out for those who want to salt their drinks to melt the foam” (adding salt increases the head on a flat beer, according to what I’m seeing, but there are lots of other interesting reasons for this old tradition); the Ladies of Llangollen (although again, the context seems slightly off, describing them as having popularized hiking, when they just liked walking near their home); the expressions, as quoted in the book, “nargois” and “uckavie,” which are both kinda wrong; raddle, sheep paint to see which ewes have been bred, from the same root (red ochre/rouge) as “raddled.”

The most interesting theme of the book to me is connection to place and thoughts about nationalism, and now I see that almost all the quotes I pulled relate to it. A Welsh word, cynefin, comes up again and again. It’s defined as “the flock’s sense of place, of territory,” but it turns out it’s also now a framework for decision making, covering five “domains” of problems (disorder, obvious, complicated, complex and chaotic)—I’m interested in following that up. First, short quote: “she sees his nationalism for what it is, selfishness, and more than that, a kind of licensed misanthropy.”

It comes to her now that cynefin is the essential nationalism, not her father’s windy brand, but this secret bond between mothers and daughters, described by a word the English have no equivalent for.

And suddenly it felt not only possible but right to not be German or British, to escape all those debts and duties, the shackles of nationalism. That’s what he had glimpsed at the pub, what had sent him into that fit of laughter [he thought he was being treated rudely because he was Jewish, but it was because the Welsh bartender read him as English]. The Jews, he knew, had no homeland, yearned for one, and yet as much as he understood it to be a source of their victimization, it seemed at once such pure freedom to be without a country.

And one more quote I found interesting, but which to me also reveals a trace of sexism or gender essentialism that bothered me throughout:

Their dishonor, men’s dishonor, can always be redeemed, defeat followed by victory, capture by escape, escape by capture. Up hill and down dale. But women are dishonored once and for all. Their only hope is to hide it. To keep it to themselves.

No longer about the book but about my process: this post took about an hour to write, about 3/4 the pleasurable research and transcription and 1/4 the more laborious and active ordering and writing context. The quotes give me the most benefit as the primary reader of my own blog, but the shaping of the post (even though I don’t do it as thoroughly as I could, partially because it’s not really for an audience) is better for me as a writer. I’m dwelling on this because I have such a huge backlog and I’m trying to figure out if catching up is a realistic goal. I think I’ll focus on doing this month’s books quasi real-time first…

Christ Stopped at Eboli – Carlo Levi, 1945

Relatively rare for a Second Monday selection: non-fiction. I’d heard of this book but probably had it confused with The Last Temptation of Christ – it’s actually a memoir, or almost a collection of essays/short stories. And/or I conflated it with Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, which I read as a teenager. The most bizarre anecdote was about a group of men who emigrate to America and get together on Sundays to take a crap together outdoors under a tree, as kind of a bonding ritual and/or way to return to their southern Italian roots.

In this book I learned

  • Lucus a non lucendo” — although Levi is describing bare woodlands, so that’s the exact opposite of what the Latin pun means (a grove where there is no light, which has come to mean a nonsensical explanation)
  • gnomes that can’t live without their red hood – “These gnomes are the spirits or ghosts of children who have died without being baptized; they are numerous in these parts because the peasants often put off the baptism of their offspring for years.” I tried to find more information about the hood but only came up with this not-authoritative-looking site.

Short quotes

  • Bread “spiced occasionally with a carefully crushed raw tomato, or a little garlic and oil, or a Spanish pepper”
  • “Christ never came this far, nor did time, nor the individual soul, nor hope, nor the relation of cause to effect, nor reason nor history.”
  • “an obese, heavy, deaf old man, greedy and grasping like an enormous silk-worm”
  • “A unifying web, not only of family ties (a first cousin was often as close as a brother), but of the acquired and symbolic kinship called comparaggio, ran throughout the village.”
  • “Before the chickens had roosted on it he must have had the library of a cultivated and enlightened priest.”
  • Instead of “how are you?” people ask “What did you have to eat today?”
  • “The only women who could come to work in my house were those in some way exempt from the general rule, who had many children of unidentified fathers, who, although they had not embraced prostitution (no such trade existed in the village), displayed a tendency to be free and easy, and who were concerned with all that pertained to love, above all the means of obtaining it. In a word, witches.”
  • Italian war in Africa: “[The peasants] had no faith in a promised land which had first to be taken away from those to whom it belonged; instinct told them that this was wrong and could only bring ill luck.”
  • “At dusk three angels come down from the sky to every house. One stands at the door, another sits at the table, and the third watches over the bed. They look after the house and protect it. Neither wolves nor evil spirits can enter the whole night long. If I threw the sweepings outside the door they might land on the face of the angel, whom we can’t see; the angel might take offense and never come back.”

Longer quotes

This passive brotherliness, this sympathy in the original sense of the word, this fatalistic, comradely, age-old patience, is the deepest feeling the peasants have in common, a bond made by nature rather than by religion. They do not and can not have what is called political awareness, because they are literally pagani, “pagans,” or countrymen, as distinguished from city-dwellers. The deities of the State and the city can find no worshipers here on the land, where the wolf and the ancient black boar reign supreme, where there is no wall between the world of men and the world of animals and spirits, between the leaves of the trees above and the roots below. They can not have even an awareness of themselves as individuals, here where all things are held together by acting upon one another and each one is a power unto itself, working imperceptibly, where there is no barrier that can not be broken down by magic. They live submerged in a world that rolls on independent of their will, where man is in no way separate from his sun, his beast, his malaria, where there can be neither happiness, as literary devotees of the land conceive it, nor hope, because these two are adjuncts of personality and here there is only the grim passivity of a sorrowful Nature. But they have a lively human feeling for the common fate of mankind and its common acceptance. This is strictly a feeling rather than an act of will; they do not express it in words but they carry it with them at every moment and in every motion of their lives, through all the unbroken days that pass over these wastes.

There are many strange creatures at Gagliano who have a dual nature. A middle-aged peasant woman, married and having children, with nothing out of the ordinary about her appearance, was the daughter of a cow. So the village said, and she herself confirmed it. The older people clearly remembered her cow mother, who followed her everywhere when she was a child, mooing to her and licking her with a rough tongue. This did not alter the fact that she had also had a human mother, who had been dead for many years. No one saw any contradiction in this dual birth, and the woman herself, whom I knew personally, lived quietly and happily, like both her mothers, for all her animal heredity.

To the peasants everything has a double meaning. The cow-woman, the werewolf, the lion-baron, and the goat-devil are only notorious and striking examples. People, trees, animals, even objects and words have a double life. Only reason, religion, and history have clear-cut meanings. But our feeling for life itself, for art, language, and love is complex, infinitely so. And in the peasants’ world there is no room for reason, religion, and history. There is no room for religion, because to them everything participates in divinity, everything is actually, not merely symbolically, divine: Christ and the goat; the heavens above, and the beasts of the field below; everything is bound up in natural magic. Even the ceremonies of the church become pagan rites, celebrating the existence of inanimate things, which the peasants endow with a soul, and the innumerable earthy divinities of the village.

… but the black-faced Madonna remained impassive, pitiless and deaf to all appeals, like indifferent Nature. Homage was paid to her in abundance, but it was rather the homage due to power than that offered to charity. The Black Madonna was like the earth; it was in her power to raise up and to destroy, but she was no respecter of persons, and appointed the seasons according to an inscrutable plan of her own. To the peasants the Black Madonna was beyond good and evil. She dried up the crops and let them wither away, but at the same time she dispensed food and protection and demanded worship. In every household, tacked up on the wall above the bed, the image of the Black Madonna of Viggiano looked on with expressionless eyes at all the acts of daily life.

Under the bed slept the animals, and so the room was divided into three layers: animals on the floor, people in the bed, and infants in the air. When I bent over a bed to listen to a patient’s heart or to give an injection to a woman whose teeth were chattering with fever or who was burning up with malaria, my head touched the hanging cradles, while frightened pigs and chickens darted between my legs.
But what never failed to strike me most of all and by now I had been in almost every house were the eyes of the two inseparable guardian angels that looked at me from the wall over the bed. On one side was the black, scowling face, with its large, inhuman eyes, of the Madonna of Viggiano; on the other a colored print of the sparkling eyes, behind gleaming glasses, and the hearty grin of President Roosevelt.

Yes, New York, rather than Rome or Naples, would be the real capital of the peasants of Lucania, If these men without a country could have a capital at all. And it is their capital, in the only way it can be for them, that is as a myth. As a place to work, it is indifferent to them; they live there as they would live anywhere else, like animals harnessed to a wagon, heedless of the street where they must pull it.

The other word that recurs most often among them is “crai” from the Latin cras, tomorrow. Everything that they are waiting for, that is due to come, that should be remedied or attended to is “crai.” But “crai” means never.

In this timeless land the dialect was richer in words with which to measure time than any other language; beyond the motionless and everlasting crai every day in the future had a name of its own. Crai meant tomorrow and forever; the day after tomorrow was prescrai and the day after that pescrille; then came pescruflo, marufto, maruflone; the seventh day was maruflicchio. But these precise terms had an undertone of irony. They were used less often to indicate this or that day than they were said all together in a string, one after the other; their very sound was grotesque and they were like a reflection of the futility of trying to make anything clear out of the cloudiness of crai.

I had indeed become a master of magic and its applications to medicine.

I respected the [abracadabra pyramid] amulets, paying tribute to their ancient origin and mysterious simplicity, and preferring to be their ally rather than their enemy. The peasants were grateful for my respect, and perhaps the abracadabra really did them some good. Anyhow, magic as it was practiced in Gagliano was harmless enough and the peasants considered it in no way in conflict with official medicine. The custom of prescribing some medicine for every illness, even when it is not necessary, is equivalent to magic, anyhow, especially when the prescription is written, as it once was, in Latin or in indecipherable handwriting. Most prescriptions would be just as effective if they were not taken to the druggist, but were simply hung on a string around the patient’s neck like an abracadabra.

I preferred to prescribe newer drugs, more powerful and possessed of greater magic, such as atabrine and plasmochin. These were doubly effective, both because of their chemical composition and the sway they exerted over the imagination.

How To Be Both – Ali Smith, 2014

The Second Monday book group reads a lot of contemporary fiction that I wouldn’t be drawn to on my own, and since I no longer work at a public library, it exposes me to authors I wouldn’t necessarily hear about. A number of the group members had read Ali Smith before. I wish there had been color plates because so much rides on seeing the work of Francesco del Cossa. The novel was published in two versions; I was glad to get the version that started with George as the narrator, because those of us who had Francesco at the beginning found it harder going, and I would have too.

I feel like it makes a lesser work to rely on something external so heavily, and a related annoyance were too-clever-by-half references, like Francesco mentioning George’s “Monica Victims” poster (Monica Vitti); it somehow feels cheap. Which is a shame because it’s otherwise wonderful.

Brief quotes

  • George’s mother’s phone: “All her mother’s playlists were on her phone. .. She never even looked at the playlists. It was her mother’s music. It was bound to have been rubbish. Now she has no idea and will never know what song her mother listened to every day to do the dance thing, or on the train, or walking along the street.”
  • “Imagine if you made something and then you always had to be seen through what you’d made, as if the thing you’d made became you.”
  • “there’s a very pure pleasure in a curve like the curve of a buttock: the only other thing as good to draw is the curve of a horse and like a horse a curved line is a warm thing, good-natured, will serve you well if not mistreated”
  • Mother’s saying “when you’ve nothing at least you have all of it”
  • Francesco is confused by everyone holding up their “votive tablets” (phones): “Is it possible then that all the people of this place are painters going about their world with the painting tools of their time? Perhaps I have been placed in a specific painters’ purgatorium.”
  • Going to a brothel: “So I learned plenty of dark things too, learned plenty of things that were the opposite of pleasure, at the pleasure house.”
  • “Barto and I were soon friends again : no time at all : many things get forgiven in the course of a life : nothing is finished or unchangeable except death and even death will bend a little if what you tell of it is told right”
  • “We go out anonymous into the insect air and all we are is the dust of colour, brief engineering or wings towards a glint of light on a blade of grass or a leaf in a summer dark.”

Longer quotes

Interesting insight – mourning with porn:

And you’ll drive yourself mad if you keep watching stuff like that, her father said. You’ll do damage to yourself.
Damage has already happened, George said.
George, her father said.
This really happened, George said. To this girl. And anyone can just watch it just, like, happening, any time he or she likes. And it happens for the first time, over and over again, every time someone who hasn’t seen it before clicks on it and watches it. So I want to watch it for a completely different reason. Because my completely different watching of it goes some way to acknowledging all of that to this girl.

When love is starting with H, they flirt by text of song titles in Latin (“Quingenta milia passuum ambulem”):

It is … like H is trying to find a language that will make personal sense to  George’s ears. No one has ever done this before for George. She has spent her whole life speaking other people’s languages. It is new to her. The newness of it has a sort of power that can make the old things—as old as those old songs, even as ancient as Latin itself—a kind of new…
… she sensed, like something blurred and moving glimpsed through a partition whose glass is clouded, both that love was coming for her and the nothing she could do about it. [sic]

As a child Francesco sees a seed fall into a puddle and wonders where the ring went:

It went, I said. It’s gone.

Ah, she said. Is that why you’re crying? But it hasn’t gone at all. And that’s why it’s better than gold. It hasn’t gone, it’s just that we can’t see it any more. In fact, it’s still going, still growing. It’ll never stop going, or growing wider and wider, the ring you saw. You were lucky to see it at all. Cause when it got to the edge of the puddle it left the puddle and entered the air instead, it went invisible. A marvel. Didn’t you feel it go through you? No? But it did, you’re inside it now. I am too. We both are. And the yard. And the brickpiles. And the sandpiles. And the firing shed. And the houses. And the horses, and your father, your uncle, and your brothers, and the workmen, and the street. And the other houses. And the walls, and the gardens and houses, the churches, the palace tower, the top of the cathedral, the river, the fields behind us, the fields way over there, see? See how far your eye can go. See the tower and the houses in the distance? It’s passing through them and nothing and nobody will feel a thing but there it is doing it nonetheless. And imagine it circling the fields and the farms we can’t see from here. And the towns beyond those fields and farms all the way to the sea. And across the sea. The ring you saw in the water’ll never stop travelling till the edge of the world and then when it reaches the edge it’ll go beyond that too. Nothing can stop it.

The great Alberti says that when we paint the dead, the dead man should be dead in every part of him all the way to the toe and finger nails, which are both living and dead at once : he says that when we paint the alive the alive must be alive to the very smallest part, each hair on the head or the arm of an alive person being itself alive : painting, Alberti says, is a kind of opposite to death : and though he knows that when we are bared back to nothing but our bones ourselves only God can remake us into humans, put faces back on our skulls on the final day and so on &c, which means there is no blasphemy in what I’m about to say –

cause Alberti said it and it is true –

all the same it’s many a person who can go to a painting and see someone in it as if that person is as alive as daylight though in reality that person has not lived or breathed for hundreds of years.

Alberti it is who teaches, too, how to build a body from nothing but bones : so that the process of drawing and painting outwits death and you draw, as he says, any animal by isolating each bone of the animal, and on to this adding muscle, and then clothing it all with its flesh : and this giving of muscle and flesh to bones is what in its essence the act of painting anything is.