The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The immediate before the symbolic

Posted on: April 18, 2007

INTERVIEWER

Early on in The Transit of Venus, a character says of James Cook’s 1769 observation about the planet Venus crossing the face of the sun that “the calculations were hopelessly out….Calculations about Venus often are.” The remark goes to the heart of the transitory nature of love in this novel.

HAZZARD

Incidentally, the remark is genuine–scientific calculations about the planet Venus have been notoriously inaccurate, even in recent year of advanced astronomy.

The power of passion is incalculable too. As to the “transitory nature” of love–yes, unpredictable, despite all the pronouncements made by “experts” in retrospect. The accidental nature of such matters is inscrutable. However, please note, as to the transitory aspect, that Tice reflects, on the theme of love, that “the tragedy is not that love doesn’t last. The tragedy is that love lasts.” Henry James, in The Portrait of a Lady, has Caspar Goodwood reflect that “there are disappointments that last as long as life.”

Yes, of course my title was figurative, emblematic, symbolic, whatever one wants, and also has a factual historical significance. As Professor Thrale points out to Caro in the opening pages of the book, she wouldn’t exist if it had not been for Captain Cook’s journey to the Pacific to observe the transit of Venus. Again, a reminder of the dominance of the accidental factor in human affairs.

INTERVIEWER

The jar of Marmite that Rex Ivory held on to through his imprisonment in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp seems like a symbol of the primitive human need to hold onto something, to make some sort of meaning. Has art been like that for you?

HAZZARD

There was an actual jar of Marmite, recounted to me long, long ago by a British survivor of Changi Camp near Singapore and of the camp called Outram Road. Don’t foret that it has a real and immediate significance. Men died of malnutrition in those camps, and of diseases from lack of any coherent diet. Marmite would have been a treasure, a lifesaver. Keeping it unopened was not only symbolic; it was a possible element for a day or two’s survival in the case of escape. In the Japanese camps, British and Australian prisoners hid tiny rice cakes saved from their starvation rations for just such motives. Immediate factual truth comes before symbolic cogitations. But yes, I suppose art is a Marmite, and the conserved shred of civilised life must seem intensely so to isolated and persecuted people. I remember a heart-shaking description by Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago about prisoners exchanging whispered remembrances of poetry, or a phrase from a Mozart opera, precious passwords of sanity and civilised life, and of the ineffable power of art: Marmite.

From  “The Art of Fiction” No. 185 with Shirley Hazzard, Paris Review, Spring 2005

Advertisements

3 Responses to "The immediate before the symbolic"

“I remember a heart-shaking description by Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago about prisoners exchanging whispered remembrances of poetry, or a phrase from a Mozart opera, precious passwords of sanity and civilised life…” I find it interesting that people in captivation or deprivation always seem to chose poetry or some other form of high art to give them hope and keep them going. I’m no expert on the habits of prisoners or anything, but this does seem to be a recurring theme from what I’ve read.

Spinning off the Marmite/Art & imprisonment train of thought:

I was reading Emma Larkin’s “Finding George Orwell in Burma” (UK title: “Secret Histories”) a while back – it’s an account of journalist Emma Larkin’s travels in Burma — a country ruled by a despotic military government. What struck me was the voracious reading habits of a lot of the Burmese people Larkin met. Not just the books of George Orwell — some Burmese in fact felt “Animal Farm” and “1984” were the stories of Burma — people kept large chests of forbidden books in secret places of their homes, risking their lives for literature.

Books, and perhaps freedom of thought — if not of speech — was a life-line these real Burmese cling to in the oppression of their daily lives.

I also recall Stefan Zweig’s “Chess” — where the mysterious passenger, Dr B, who beat a world chess champion, reveals the story of how he was subjected to mental and physical torture in the concentration camps. The real escape arrived one day in the form of a book, which he stole from his Gestapo jailer.

It turned out to be a chess manual, and soon the prisoner began to play against himself, White versus Black — developing an artificial schizophrenia, and playing entire games in his mind — which perhaps helped him survived the insanity of his long periods of solitary confinement.

A long time ago, (I think it was during the 1993 World Chess Champion, Gary Kasparov versus Nigel Short) I was watching the matches on TV and they interviewed some chess grandmasters in between the matches.

One of these grandmasters was a former political prisoner of the Soviet Union. He told a story of how food was scarce in prison, but they were alloted a small portion of cheese each week. They would save these previous cheese and their metal foil and shape them into chess pieces. The chess playing was part of what made life in Soviet prison bearable.

Just seems to me chess was their Marmite.

[…] the same theme an interview with Paris Review in 2005 excerpted here in The Books of My Numberless Dreams. INTERVIEWER Early on in The Transit of Venus, a character says of James Cook’s 1769 observation […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Archives

%d bloggers like this: