Monthly Archives: March 2015

Beauty in the ordinary

You have to have a certain detachment in order to see beauty for yourself rather than something that has been put in quotation marks to be understood as “beauty.” Think about Dutch painting, where sunlight is falling on a basin of water and a woman is standing there in the clothes that she would wear when she wakes up in the morning—that beauty is a casual glimpse of something very ordinary. Or a painting like Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef, where a simple piece of meat caught his eye because there was something mysterious about it. You also get that in Edward Hopper: Look at the sunlight! or Look at the human being! These are instances of genius. Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.

At the same time, there has always been a basic human tendency toward a dubious notion of beauty. Think about cultures that rarify themselves into courts in which people paint themselves with lead paint and get dumber by the day, or women have ribs removed to have their waists cinched tighter. There’s no question that we have our versions of that now. The most destructive thing we can do is act as though this is some sign of cultural, spiritual decay rather than humans just acting human, which is what we’re doing most of the time.

Marilynne Robinson, The Art of Fiction No. 198 Interviewed by Sarah Fay for The Paris Review 


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The writing problem

The crude cliché is that the writer is solving the problem of his life in his books. Not at all. What he’s doing is taking something that interests him in life and then solving the problem of the book—which is, How do you write about this?

Phillip Roth

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Literary truth

Question (Paris Review interviewer) : How do you define sincerity in literature?

Elena Ferrante: As far as I’m concerned, it’s the torment and, at the same time, the engine of every literary project. The most urgent question for a writer may seem to be, ‘ What experiences do I have as my material, what experiences do I feel able to narrate? But that’s not right. The more pressing question is, What is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what tone best suits the things I know? Without the right word, without a long practice in putting them together, nothing comes out alive and true. It’s not enough to say, as we increasingly do, These events truly happened, it’s my real life, the names are the real ones, I’m describing the real places where the events occurred. If the writing is inadequate it can falsify the most honest biographical truths. Literary truth is not the truth of the biographer or the reporter, it’s not a police report or a sentence handed down by a court. It’s not even the plausibility of a well-constructed narrative. Literary truth is entirely a matter of wording and is directly proportional to the energy that one is able to impress on the sentence. And when it works, there is no stereotype or cliché of popular literature that resists it reanimates, revives, subjects everything to its needs.

Elena Ferrante, interview in The Paris Review, Spring 2015

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Dream poem- a great unsolved love


I inherited a dark wood where I seldom go. But a day will come when the dead and the living trade places. The wood will be set in motion. We are not without hope. The most serious crimes will remain unsolved in spite of the efforts of many policemen. In the same way there is somewhere in our lives a great unsolved love. I inherited a dark wood, but today I’m walking in the other wood, the light one. All the living creatures that sing, wriggle, wag, and crawl! It’s spring and the air is very strong. I have graduated from the university of oblivion and am as empty-handed as the shirt on the clothesline.

Tomas Tranströmer

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Truth and fiction

All writers know that the truth is in the fiction. That’s where the spiritual barometer gives its reading.

Martin Amis, Experience (2000)

People think because a novel’s invented, it isn’t true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Because a novel’s invented, it is true. Biography and memoirs can never be wholly true, since they can’t include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. The novel can do that. The novelist himself lays it down. His decision is binding. The biographer, even at his highest and best, can be only tentative, empirical. The autobiographer, for his part, is imprisoned in his own egotism. He must be suspect. In contrast with the other two, the novelist is a god, creating his man, making him breathe and walk. The man, created in his own image, provides information about the god. In a sense  you know more about Balzac and Dickens from their novels, than Rousseau and Casanova from their Confessions. Anthony Powell, Hearing Secret Harmonies (1975), ch. 3.


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The story of Eurydice has been misunderstood. What the story is about is the solitariness of death. Eurydice is in hell in her graveclothes. She believes that Orpheus loves her enough to come and save her. And indeed Orpheus comes. But in the end the love Orpheus feels is not strong enough. Orpheus leaves his beloved behind and returns to his own life.

The story of Eurydice reminds us that as of the moment of death we lose all power to elect our companions. We are whirled away to our allotted fate; by whose side we get to pass eternity is not for us to decide.

J. M. Coetzee The Diary of A Bad Year

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Clothed in Grief

So their mother appeared to ignore them. Although she wore the rather frowsy dressing gown which bacon fat had spotted, and spilt porridge hardened on, she was clothed essentially in grief. Patrick White The Solid Mandala

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not knowing

 The author who benefits you most is not the one who tells you something you did not know before, but the one who gives expression to the truth that has been dumbly struggling in you for utterance.

Oswald Chambers (from here)

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A mother and her daughter

My daughter has a habit now of rifling through our drawers to see if anything inside might be of use to her. One day she unearthed the bride and groom that stood atop our wedding cake. The groom was discarded but the bride has been placed on a shelf in her room among the plastic pink horses with girlishly long manes. This is a high compliment, I discern, though my daughter does not say so explicitly.

p 57 Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill

“What about me?” Her daughter likes to ask this when the conversation veers out of her comprhension.”What about me?” A chip off the old block, the wife thinks.

p122 Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill

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There are many secrets. The world is full of secrets. There is the secret about which I know nothing, so secret and secreted away that I have no trace of it, except maybe in the form of dreams. There is a secret that is something known and hidden, impossible to reveal because the revelation would bring about the destruction of the secret thing, and also of life. The unknown of this secret is buried in night and silence: we will never know the face it would have if it could appear. The thing AboutwhichIknownothing [dontjenesaisrien] remains secret, this gift[ don] which makes me who I am. One writes like a rescue effort to oneself in the dark: an act of despair because we know there is a treasure to which we will never have access. How ignorant we are about ourselves!

Hélène Cixous

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