Other people’s flowers

Here are a few quotations that I copied into my notebooks, in some cases as long as four years ago but in one case as recently as last week:

It is as though an orange tree refused to flower for fear of committing a sin.

—Stendhal, On Love

The traditional British struggle with macaroni brought her down sharply from tragedy to farce.

—Elizabeth Bowen, The Hotel

And even though the tall giraffes were tough,
And even though the tough giraffes were tall . . .

—dream poem of John Chamberlain, cited by Edmund Wilson

"But it was nice while it lasted," Charlie said. "We were a sort of royalty, almost infallible, with a sort of magic around us. . . ."

—Fitzgerald, "Babylon Revisited"

If it's important to be sublime in anything, it's surely in evil.

—Diderot, Rameau's Nephew

"Mais quoi! Toujours le roman! Hélas!"

—La duchesse de Sanseverina, La Chartreuse de Parme

We made no more provision for growing older, than we did for growing younger.

—Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

In that same spirit of improvement, which was so busy everywhere, I could discern something like a shadow, that showed it was not altogether of that pure advantage, which avarice led all so eagerly to believe.

—John Galt, Annals of the Parish

He was not a particular person, but a sample or memento—reminding one of certain "goods" for which there is a steady popular demand.

—Henry James, The Reverberator

Historical-mindedness is so much a preconception of modern thought that we can identify a particular thing only by pointing to the various things it successively was before it became that particular thing which it will presently cease to be.

—Carl Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers

I remember when I was abroad, the trees, and grass, and wet leaves, rustling in the walks of the Thuilleries, seemed to be as much English, to be as much the same trees and grass, that I had always been used to, as the sun shining over my head was the same sun which I saw in England; the faces only were foreign to me.

—William Hazlitt, The Round Table

With bloudy mouth his mother earth did kiss,
Greeting his grave . . .

—Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene

Part of our existence lies in the feelings of those near to us. This is why the existence of someone who has lived for days during which man was merely a thing in the eyes of man is non-human.

—Primo Levi, If This Is a Man

You see Englishmen, here in Italy, to a particularly good advantage. In the midst of these false and beautiful Italians they glow with the light of the great fact, that after all they love a bath-tub and they hate a lie.

—Henry James, Letters

A pleasurable feeling of blind love,
The pleasure which there is in life itself.

—Wordsworth, "Michael"

I could observe, in little pieces, as it were; but as to making a net of a number of these pieces, and catching anybody in it, that was, as yet, beyond me.

—Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Beauty, strength, youth, are flowers but fading seen.

—George Peele

I regard the march of history very much as a man placed astride of a locomotive, without knowledge or help, would regard the progress of that vehicle. To stick on, somehow, and even to enjoy the scenery as we pass, is the sum of my aspirations.

—Henry James, Letters

It is the ongoing—i.e., the "becoming"—of the world that produces its sadness. If the world stood still at a felicitous moment there would be no sadness in it.

—Thomas Hardy, Early Life, qtd. in Aaron Matz, Satire in an Age of Realism

I had already found that it was not good to be alone, and so made companionship with what there was around me, sometimes with the universe and sometimes with my own insignificant self; but my books were always my friends, let fail all else.

—Joshua Slocum, Sailing Alone Around the World

Other, less difficult media

While rummaging through my shelves, I came across a poem from the 1950s that seems strangely apropos to current debates about the future of the book, or its possible lack of one: “To Posterity,” by Louis MacNeice:

When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?

I now also see, thanks to the online equivalent of rummaging, that MacNeice’s letters will be published in a couple of weeks.

Venice in April

Turgenev, Diary of a Superfluous Man A few weeks ago, after a visit to friends in Garrison, New York, I spotted a sign for a bookstore and made Peter get off the highway. We ended up in a shop called Antipodean Books, where I stayed so long that our plans for that evening were ruined, but where the proprietor, in an act of generosity, offered me thirteen out of the seventeen volumes (what dealers poetically call a "broken set") of the Heinemann edition of Turgenev's complete works (Constance Garnett's translation) for just twenty-five dollars. They are still in their original dust jackets, a fetching, hazardous-materials shade of orange! Since I'd already read a few of Turgenev's better-known titles in other translations, the broken set suited me perfectly. Also, aesthetically speaking, I am weak-willed about duodecimo hardcovers, and each of these is just 4.5 by 6 inches—genuinely pocket-sized. And did I mention the highway-worker's-raincoat orange?

This is by way of bloggy-autobiographical prelude to my point, which is just to present a couple of quotes that I like. The two novels I've read in the set so far are about revolutionaries, but for some reason the passages that have most pleased me in them were about spring.

In Virgin Soil, when the hero Nezhdanov wanders in the garden of his employer one May afternoon, Turgenev writes:

Nezhdanov sat with his back to a thick hedge of young birches, in the dense, soft shade. He thought of nothing; he gave himself up utterly to that peculiar sensation of the spring in which, for young and old alike, there is always an element of pain . . . the restless pain of expectation in the young . . . the settled pain of regret in the old. . . .

I don't have anything to say about the quote, other than that I like the precision and the poignancy of it. (The ellipses are Turgenev's, by the way, not mine.)

The other passage that particularly struck me comes toward the end of On the Eve, a novella about a Bulgarian revolutionary and the Russian woman who falls in love with him, when the hero and heroine find themselves staying in Venice much longer than they intended to and somewhat against their wishes. The Venice chapters come as something as a surprise, a surge of sentiment in a book that has seemed up to that point to be concerned mostly with conflict, and if the book offered no more, they would make it worth the price of admission. The passage seems uncannily to prefigure Thomas Mann, but the bittersweetness is Turgenev's own. Reading it, I discover that my few visits to Italian cities have all taken place in the wrong months, but that's the least of the regrets evoked.

No one who has not seen Venice in April knows all the unutterable fascinations of that magic town. The softness and mildness of spring harmonise with Venice, just as the glaring sun of summer suits the magnificence of Genoa, and as the gold and purple of autumn suits the grand antiquity of Rome. The beauty of Venice, like the spring, touches the soul and moves it to desire; it frets and tortures the inexperienced heart like the promise of a coming bliss, mysterious but not elusive. Everything in it is bright, and everything is wrapt in a drowsy, tangible mist, as it were, of the hush of love; everything in it is so silent and everything in it is kindly; everything in it is feminine, from its name upwards. It has well been given the name of 'the fair city.' Its masses of palaces and churches stand out light and wonderful like the graceful dream of a young god; there is something magical, something strange and bewitching in the greenish-grey light and silken shimmer of the silent water of the canals, in the noiseless gliding of the gondolas, in the absence of the coarse din of a town, the coarse rattling, and crashing, and uproar. 'Venice is dead, Venice is deserted,' her citizens will tell you, but perhaps this last charm—the charm of decay—was not vouchsafed her in the very heyday of the flower and majesty of her beauty. He who has not seen her, knows her not; neither Canaletto nor Guardi (to say nothing of later painters) has been able to convey the silvery tenderness of the atmosphere, the horizon so close, yet so elusive, the divine harmony of exquisite lines and melting colours. One who has outlived his life, who has been crushed by it, should not visit Venice; she will be cruel to him as the memory of unfulfilled dreams of early days; but sweet to one whose strength is at its full, who is conscious of happiness; let him bring his bliss under her enchanted skies; and however bright it may be, Venice will make it more golden with her unfading splendour.

Rameau’s nephew on the ethics of snark

In his dialogue Rameau's Nephew, first published in 1798, Diderot can't quite believe that the younger Rameau is willing to badmouth the people he sponges on. Explaining himself, Rameau anticipates the modern apologists of snark.

HIM: . . . Mademoiselle is starting to become tiresome; the stories they're telling about her are not to be missed.

ME: You're not one of those people?

HIM: Why not?

ME: Because to put it mildly it's indecent to make fun of one's patrons.

HIM: But isn't it even worse to make patronage a justification for degrading one's protégé?

ME: But if the protégé wasn't in himself degraded, nothing would give the patron that power.

HIM: But if the patrons were not in themselves ridiculous, one wouldn't be able to tell such good stories about them. And is it my fault if they socialize with trash? Is it my fault if, having socialized with trash, they are betrayed and mocked? When one chooses to live with people like us, and one has a little common sense, there are I don't know how many blacknesses one ought to expect. When one takes us up, doesn't one know us for what we are, for venal, degraded, and treacherous souls? If one knows us, it's all right. There is a tacit pact that one will do us good, and that sooner or later, we will return evil for the good that has been done us. Doesn't the same pact link a man and his monkey, or his parrot? . . . If one brings a young provincial to the zoo at Versailles, and he takes it into his stupid head to put a hand through the bars of the tiger's or the panther's cage; if the young man leaves his arm in the maw of the wild animal; who's in the wrong? It's all written in the tacit pact. Too bad for anyone who doesn't know about it or has forgotten it.