The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Archive for the ‘Excerpts’ Category

It was difficult to choose an excerpt to properly display Woolf’s humour although they all carry an irreverence I found particularly appealing. She deals with poets very badly in this novel; I’d love to know which ones in particular ticked her off. Anyway, it’s the sort of humour that, with another writer, could have palled very quickly and earned nothing more than an eye roll. Or maybe that will be your reaction and I’m easy, but I always go for a good clichés jab. Here is our 16 year old Orlando putting his genius to paper.

He was describing, as all young poets are for ever describing, nature, and in order to match the shade of green precisely he looked (and here he showed more audacity than most) at the thing itself, which happened to be a laurel bush growing beneath the window. After that, of course, he could write no more. Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces. The shade of green Orlando now saw spoilt his rhyme and split his metre. Moreover, nature has tricks of her own. Once look out of a window at bees among flowers, at a yawning dog, at the sun setting, once think ‘how many more suns shall I see set’, etc. etc. (the thought is too well known to be worth writing out) and one drops the pen, takes one’s cloak, strides out of the room, and catches one’s foot on a painted chest as one does so. For Orlando was a trifle clumsy.

He was careful to avoid meeting anyone….There is perhaps a kinship among qualities; one draws another along with it; and the biographer should here call attention to the fact that this clumsiness is often mated with a love of solitude. Having stumbled over a chest, Orlando naturally loved solitary places, vast views, and to feel himself for ever and ever and ever alone.

So, after a long silence, ‘I am alone’, he breathed at last, opening his lips for the first time in this record. He had walked very quickly uphill through ferns and hawthorn bushes, startling deer and wild birds, to a place crowned by a single oak tree. It was very high, so high indeed that nineteen English counties could be seen beneath; and on clear days thirty or perhaps forty, if the weather was very fine. Sometimes one could see the English Channel, wave reiterating upon wave. Rivers could be seen and pleasure boats gliding on them; and galleons setting out to sea; and armadas with puffs of smoke from which came the dull thud of cannon firing; and forts on the coast; and castles among the meadows; and here a watch tower; and there a fortress; and again some vast mansion like that of Orlando’s father, massed like a town in the valley circled by walls. To the east there were the spires of London and the smoke of the city; and perhaps on the very sky line, when the wind was in the right quarter, the craggy top and serrated edges of Snowdon herself showed mountainous among the clouds. For a moment Orlando stood counting, gazing, recognizing. That was his father’s house; that his uncle’s. His aunt owned those three great turrets among the trees there. The heath was theirs and the forest; the pheasant and the deer, the fox, the badger, and the butterfly.

He sighed profoundly, and flung himself—there was a passion in his movements which deserves the word—on the earth at the foot of the oak tree.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

INTERVIEWER
Most people know you’re a novelist, but you spend a lot of your time writing nonfiction. What led you to start writing essays?

ROBINSON
To change my own mind. I try to create a new vocabulary or terrain for myself, so that I open out – I always think of the Dutch claiming land from the sea – or open up something that would have been closed to me before. That’s the point and the pleasure of it. I continuously scrutinize my own thinking. I write something and think, How do I know that that’s true? If I wrote what I thought I knew from the outset, then I wouldn’t be learning anything new.

In this culture, essays are often written for the sake of writing the essay. Someone finds a quibble of potential interest and quibbles about it. This doesn’t mean the writer isn’t capable of doing something of greater interest, but we generate a lot of prose that’s not vital. The best essays come from the moment in which people really need to work something out.
[…]

INTERVIEWER
How did you decide to write about Sellafield nuclear plant in Mother Country?

ROBINSON
I didn’t really expect to write Mother Country – heaven knows. I was living in England, and it was all over the newspaper and all over television. I was surprised of course because it’s a terrible thing. Sellafield extracts plutonioum-239 and other salable isotopes of transuranic elements, very sloppily, and sends vast quantities of radioactive waste from the process into the sea. It’s a real disaster. They’ve been doing this since 1956. It’s amazing that people could have been up to this particular kind of mischief for fifty-two years, but they have.

When I came home from England, I didn’t even unpack my bags. I just sat down and wrote the article and sent it to my agent. And I said, You don’t have to deal with this if you don’t want to. But she sent it to Harper’s and they published it almost immediately. Then another publisher called and asked if I would write a book about it.
[…]

[I]f I had not written that book, I would not have been able to live with myself. I would have felt that I was doing what we are all doing, which dooms the world.

INTERVIEWER
Which is what?

ROBINSON
Pretend we don’t know what we’re really up to. We know that plastic bags are killing animals in Africa at a terrific rate, but everybody still uses these things as if they just float away. We know that these new lightbulbs cut down on electricity, but where do they come from? China? Hungary? They have to be dealt with as toxic waste because they have mercury in them. So who’s being exposed to these chemicals when they’re manufactured and what are the environmental consequences in China or Hungary? What is the tradeoff in terms of shipping them long distances to save a little bit of electricity?

I’m also partial to the Sellafield book because I think it exposes the ways in which we’re racist. We assume that Europeans are white and therefore more rational than other populations and to find something weird and unaccountable and inhuman we must go to a darker continent.
[…]

INTERVIEWER
Mother Country appeared during the more than twenty-year gap between Housekeeping and Gilead. Why did it take you so long to return to writing fiction?

ROBINSON
It was largely a consequence of the experience of writing Mother Country that I began what amounted to an effort to reeducate myself. After all those years of school, I felt there was little I knew that I could trust, and I did not want my books to be one more tributary to the sea of nonsense that really is what most conventional wisdom amounts to. I am not so naïve as to imagine that I have escaped that fate except in isolated cases and small particulars. But the research and criticism I have done have helped me to be of my own mind in some degree, and that was a feeling I had to achieve before I could enjoy writing fiction.

From “The Art of Fiction” No. 198 interview with Marilynne Robinson in The Paris Review No. 186, Fall 2008.

Here is Rachel Cohen’s review of Robinson’s latest, Home, in the most recent Bookforum.

“Tell me , do you have any coloured blood?”

Mark recognized, with anger and embarrassment, the small halt in his breathing but he answered easily enough, “Of course. Why do you ask?”

“Shouldn’t I? It seems an interesting point about a man like you.”

“I suppose so,” said Mark. “But it’s not usual to hear a European ask it.”

[...]

“It worries you quite a bit, eh?”

Mark grinned…”Does it show so much?” he asked.

“You ought to have seen your face, ” Hancko said, “when I asked you.”

“It’s a queer business,” said Mark. “Being my colour and and my class in my sort of country. All your training…all your influences and most of the education you get encourages you to value one side of what you were born and to despise the other. It becomes a reflex by the time you’re about five years old.”

“What are you going to do?” Hancko asked him then.

[...]

“What [are] you getting at?”

“Everything,” he replied, looking steadily at Mark, and with the accent of his English only discernible by the faint hardness of the vowels. “Everything you want to do, no matter how complex and untidy it looks, has something specific in it that moves the whole thing. An essence that you can get at.” He closed his hand slowly, like a man grasping a sinking stone in the water before it reached the bottom. ” Every question, comes down finally to ‘What’, not ‘Why’. In our case it’s a matter of giving an allegiance to the destiny of the poor. A real allegiance, I mean, that’s almost like religious faith, but not quite. Don’t mind that, though. It’s an allegiance to them as a class, to what they have to offer, to the work you must do with them. In your country one lot of people who are white rule and prosper by using the people like you. They’re able to use you because they allow you a good share in their world, and because they’ve given you a set of values to live by that depend on the approval of that world. And the poor of your world, the blacks, they’re kept poor because you, people like you I mean, get an idea clearly in life that there will always be something irreconcilable between the white world and the black. And only the white world has any value, call it beauty if you like, for you. Is that right?”

“Yes,” Mark said slowly. “I suppose that is the way it works.”

“It’s not a question,” Hancko continued, “of starting a race war: that’s almost more stupid than the other thing. It’s only a question of taking sides. Every time history becomes urgent and a little sick, as it is now, a man has to pick a side. Especially men like you who carry both your worlds within you, in your blood.”

From Voices Under The Window by John Hearne, published by Peepal Tree Press

My life is nowhere near as simple as it may appear. Being me is a job — is labour so time-consuming and expensive that I have to have a second job just to support it. So that I can drink, I have to get drink and that isn’t something people give away and then there’s drink that I need because I have drunk and the other drink I have to keep around because, sooner or later, I will drink it. That’s a full-time occupation: that’s like being a miner, or a nurse. I involve constant work. Robert said that he’d be cross that I would bear, because he didn’t understand my situation and couldn’t know that it was a lie. I already have my cross: we’ve been getting acquainted for years.

The truth of the matter is: yes, you do carry the weight of it, drag it along and heartily wish you were free — especially during mornings, early evenings, periods spent in bank queues, or near banks, or any part of of any Sunday. You believe that you should not, and cannot, go on and, naturally, you are right.

Because in the end, you will always trade places: this is a physical law: that your cross will change to something merciful, will lift your body up and start the task of bearing you.

I drink myself higher, it’s all I need to ascend. This is my meditation when the worrying gets bad — in conjunction with this lovely truth: that many others long before me have recognised the nature of my calling and left ingenious clues behind them to that effect. Al-khol, ethanol, ethyl alcohol — we christened drink in the magic of distillation, we baptised it with tokens of its heat, the words we give it kindle, burn, shine. They are made out of alchemy, spirits: coloured with Arabic, Latin, Greek: and they hide within their syllables the names for primordial matter and for the ether that soothes between everything, that permeates all substance and all space. C2H5OH — generations before its components were discovered, we understood th essence of alcohol, its absolutes: that is oxygen and hydrogen and carbon — the earth’s irreplaceable elements, the water of our life.

I work this all out in my kitchen: how it makes sense and is like a poem, in that it also makes no sense whatsoever, but it any case touches you very much.

From Paradise by A.L. Kennedy

The only reason I can give for choosing to excerpt this passage rather than any of the more respectable, representative excerpts is because it makes me laugh for about five minutes.

As a rule T. revealed little in the way of personal information, since Fulton did not seem to require it. For Fulton communication was a one-way street. And when, on occasion, T. chose to contribute to the conversation with a brief disclosure of his own, Fulton became bored and changed the subject.

“So my father,” said T. on the way to the racquet club one Wednesday, reclining in the leather passenger seat of Fulton’s Land Cruiser, “used to be an ad executive in Manhattan, but now he mixes drinks at a transvestite bar in Key West.”

“He turned gay?”

“I guess so.”

“Huh,” said Fulton, hunching down and squinting into the side-view mirror. “Did you see that? Asian woman in the Hyundai almost rear-ended me.”

“No. Didn’t see.”

“Asians can’t drive for shit.”

“Might want to keep that insight to yourself.”

“It’s not exactly a secret, T. Damn you’re a rube. Disoriented Orientals. Ring a bell?”

“If the poor woman had rear-ended this car she would have been killed instantly.”

“You gotta watch out, T.,” said Fulton, shaking his head. “That stuff’s in the genes. You could turn homo too.”

“You think so?”

“Watch out for it. If you feel the urge, rent a copy of Anal Alley and have a jerkoff marathon.”

“That’s very helpful.”

“What am I saying? That’s like offering smack to a  guy on methadone. Better stay around the front side, T. Avoid the ass region completely.”

“Good tip.”

“Janet’s sister’s church has this deal where they deprogram them. I don’t think it works though.”

“No? Doesn’t work?”

“It’s a boot camp. They tell them man-boy love is the work of Satan. They bring in the straight guys to teach them how to act straight. Like you’re not allowed to smoke, it’s faggy. Then they lock them up in small rooms and yell their heads off at them. ‘Repent, sinners! For the sake of Jesus Christ Our Lord, cast out the homo devil from your butt!’ It’s kind of like hardcore bondage and domination. It’s supposed to scare them straight but I think it actually makes them horny. Some Christian faggots actually hook up there. Serious. It’s basically a dating service for Christian homos.”

“What does Janet’s sister think of that?”

“She put her son in it and he came out with a brand-new assfriend. That’s how she found out the real deal. I have a faggot nephew.

“I didn’t know.”

“No blood relation though. Janet’s side of the family only. My genes are pure hetero. I had a great-grandfather who was a rapist.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yeah. The guy raped. Rapists are basically superheteros. A rapist is a hetero on steroids.”

“That’s quite a theory you got there.”

“I forgot to tell you, you gotta use the shit racquet today. The titanium’s being restrung.”

From How the Dead Dream by Lydia Millet, Soft Skull Press.

Here are some vague details on what could possibly, maybe be his new book. At this point in the piece he and the interviewer discuss whether Ishiguro truly has “chameleon-like” story telling skill because he changes setting drastically from book to book. Ishiguro feels that thematically he’s retreading similar territory.

INTERVIEWER

I think that’s very particular to you. It shows a certain chameleon-like ability.

ISHIGURO

I don’t think it is that chameleon-like. What I’m saying is I’ve written the same book three times. I just somehow get away with it.

INTERVIEWER

You think that you have, but everyone who read your first novels and then read The Remains of the Day had a psychedelic moment — they were transported from this convincing Japanese setting to Lord Darlington’s estate.

ISHIGURO

That’s because people see the last thing first. For me, the essence doesn’t lie in the setting. I know that it does in some cases. In Primo Levi, take away the setting and you’ve taken away the book. But I went to a great performance of The Tempest recently, set in the Arctic. Most writers have certain things that they decide quite consciously, and other things they decide less consciously. In my case, the choice of narrator and setting are deliberate. You do have to choose a setting with great care, because with a setting come all kinds of emotional and historical reverberations. But I leave quite a large area for improvisation after that. For example, I’ve arrived at an odd setting for the novel I’m writing at the moment.

INTERVIEWER

What’s it about?

ISHIGURO

I won’t talk too much about it, but let me use its early stages as an example. I’d wanted for some time to write a novel about how societies remember and forget. I’d written about how individuals come to terms with uncomfortable memories. It occurred to me that the way an individual remembers and forgets is quite different to the way a society does. When is it better to just forget? This comes up over and over again. France after the Second World War is an interesting case. You could argue that De Gaulle was right to say, We need to get the country working again. Let’s not worry too much about who collaborated and who didn’t. Let’s leave all this soul-searching to another time. But some would say that justice was ill served by that, that it leads eventually to bigger problems. It’s what an analyst might say about an individual who’s repressing. If I were to write about France, though, it becomes a book about France. I imagined myself having to face all these experts on Vichy France asking me, So what are you saying about France? What are you accusing us of? And I’d have to say, Actually, it was just supposed to stand for this bigger theme. Another option was the Star Wars strategy: “in a galaxy far, far away.” Never Let Me Go went in that direction, and that has its own challenges. So for a long time, I had this problem.

INTERVIEWER

What did you decide?

ISHIGURO

A possible solution was to set the novel in Britain in 450 A.D. when the Romans left and the Anglo-Saxons took over, which led to the annihilation of the Celts. Nobody knows what the hell happened to the Celts. They just disappeared. It was either genocide or assimilation. I figured that the further you go back in time, the more likely the story would be read metaphorically. People see Gladiator and interpret it as a modern parable.

From “The Art of Fiction” No. 196 interview with Kazuo Ishiguro in The Paris Review No. 184, Spring 2008.

I just left Dan Green’s blog where Augustine complained about blogs being “Bookworm MySpace” which makes me feel rather guilty about this post. (Sort of. Mildly.) But I’m still pissed about being duped by this Rothfuss fellow’s hype machine, at myself more than anyone else. So, before I take a long trek to the bookstore in order to purge all my negative feelings before I get my $7.99 + tax back, I’d like to poke more fun at what is basically a writer among legions ‘doing’ other people, doing Tolkien. They [are] faint photocopies. You get these great big books which are set in a medieval kingdom that is basically somebody’s impression of what they liked about Tolkien, combined with what they enjoyed about playing Dungeons and Dragons as a high schooler. Thank you, Neil Gaiman. Maybe I’ll try one of your books after all.

In this scene our wearied hero walks home with his drunken friends after the beaaauuutiful girl of his dreams turns out to be dating one of his school colleagues.

In the fullness of time*, and with considerable help from Deoch and Wilem, I became drunk.

Thus it was that three students made their slightly erratic way back to the University. See them as they go, weaving only slightly. It is quiet, and when the belling tower strikes the late hour, it doesn’t break the silence so much as it underpins it**. The crickets, too, respect the silence. Their calls are like careful stitches in its fabric, almost too small to be seen***.

The night is like warm velvet around them. The stars, burning diamonds in the cloudless sky, turn the road beneath their feet a silver grey****. The University and Imre are the hearts of understanding and art, the strongest of the four corners of civilization. Here on the road between the two there is nothing but old trees and long grass bending to the wind. The night is perfect in a wild way, almost terrifying beautiful.

The three boys, one dark, one light, and one– for lack of a better word — fiery*****, do not notice the night. Perhaps some part of them does, but they are young, and drunk, and busy knowing deep in their hearts that they will never grow old or die. They also know that they are friends, and they share a certain love that will never leave them. The boys know many other things, but none of them seem as important as this. Perhaps they are right.*******

*Ugh! I don’t care if he’s even trying for a but of humour here. Unless you are at a writing level no lower than A.S. Byatt do not use this phrase. Not even ironically.

**Wtf does that mean?

***No. I would have liked to accept this, it makes marginally more sense than what came before, but is this all flowing from the boys “weaving” before? That makes it a “no”.

****I’m getting nitpicky now but can stars give off that much light, really? I’ll give it a pass on the assumption that I could be wrong, so accustomed I am to city living, and that in Faux Medieval Europe all things are possible.

***** You never have any better words. Never. Ever.

******This entire paragraph was maudlin sap and the chapter should have been nixed because it adds absolutely nothing to the story and there are no great ideas or show of style here that justifies its existence. Nothing in this book justifies its existence.

Well. I feel a little better now. Slightly.


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