Saturday, December 11, 2010

the product of this fascination

Twelve months ago I published a list of ten favourite quotes, all of them from books I'd read that year. This week I decided I'd publish a list for 2010. I've left out Proust again, deliberately, along with everything I've already excerpted onto this blog (and I think I've already used my favourite pieces of Ruskin, so no him, and no Ernestine Hill -- and no Anita Brookner either, because I've decided that her intelligence (which nobody can deny) doesn't come across well in quotes. In her books she's thoughtful but in quotes she sounds arch or non sequiturial. You can't tell the quality of an author through their quotes. Henry James quotes badly. Like trying to quote a cloud. His moments need masses behind them).

The moment was gone by; there had been no ecstasy, no gladness even; hardly half an hour had passed, and few words had been spoken, yet with that quickness in weaving new futures which belongs to women whose notions have kept them in habitual fear of consequences, Mrs Transome thought she saw with all the clearness of demonstration that her son's return had not been a good for her, in the sense of making her any happier.

My griefe, quoth I, is called Ignorance,
Which makes me differ little from a brute:
For animals are led by natures lore,
Their seeming science is but customes fruit;
When they are hurt they haue a sense of paine;
But want the sense to cure themselues againe.

And euer since this griefe did me oppresse,
Instinct of nature is my chiefest guide;
I feele disease, yet know not what I ayle,
I finde a sore, but can no salue prouide;
I hungry am, yet cannot seeke for foode;
Because I know not what is bad or good.

Hence the predicament of the poor after self-preservation has been assured is that their lives are without consequence, and that they remain excluded from the light of the public realm where excellence can shine; they stand in darkness wherever they go.

It would be easy to enumerate many important and splendid gifts in which Butler as a novelist was deficient; but his deficiency serves to lay bare one gift in which he excelled, which is his point of view. To have by nature a point of view, to stick to it, to follow it where it leads, is the rarest of possessions and lends value even to trifles.

For human intercourse … is seen to be haunted by a spectre. We cannot understand each other, except in a rough and ready way; we cannot reveal ourselves, even when we want to; what we call intimacy is only a makeshift; perfect knowledge is an illusion. But in the novel we can know people perfectly, we can find here a compensation for their dimness in life. In this direction fiction is truer than history, because it goes beyond the evidence and each of us knows from his own experience that there is something beyond the evidence … [Fictional characters] are people whose secret lives are visible or might be visible: we are people whose secret lives are invisible.

Throughout the seventeenth century we find a deepening fascination with the complexity of the ego, complexities not to be disciplined or even negated in the interest of immediacies of religious encounter, but on the contrary to be mapped and cultivated for their own sake. The prose novel, whose beginnings are so characteristically those of the fantasy journey, or of the epistolary dialogue, is the product of this fascination. And many of its early triumphs … directly embody the techniques and rhetorical conventions developed in previous periods of religious ethical introspection.

The mistress of the Establishment holds no place in our memory; but, rampant on one eternal door-mat, in an eternal entry long and narrow, is a puffy pug-dog, with a personal animosity towards us, who triumphs over Time. The bark of that baleful Pug, a certain radiating way he had of snapping at our undefended legs, the ghastly grinning of his moist black muzzle and white teeth, and the insolence of his crisp tail curled like a pastoral crook, all live and flourish. From an otherwise unaccountable association of him with a fiddle, we conclude that he was of French extraction, and his name FIDELE.

From the Renaissance onward marvels were no longer those from distant lands … curiosities or the relics of saints, but the wonders of the human body and its recesses that had been secret until then.

Magic is the rudimentary form of that causal thinking that ultimately liquidates magic.

For Prospero remains the evergreen
Cell by the margins of the sea and land,
Who many cities, plains, and people saw
Yet by his open door
In sunlight fell asleep
One summer with the Apple in his hand.

George Eliot: Felix Holt, the Radical, Rachel Speight: The Dreame, Hannah Arendt: On Revolution, Virginia Woolf: In a Library, E.M. Forster: Aspects of the Novel, George Steiner: On Difficulty and Other Essays, Charles Dickens: Our School, Umberto Eco: The Infinity of Lists, Theodor Adorno translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor: Aesthetic Theory, Lawrence Durrell: Cities, Plains, and People.


  1. Great reading for the year, PKS, and great quotes. But what I like best is your comment about Anita Brookner's intelligence not being apparent in quotes. I've noticed that with the occasional author but had never quite voiced it clearly. What you say here, though, makes perfect sense.

  2. Thanks, Sue. I had a quote from Brookner that I wanted to include, but the more I looked at it, the more I thought, "But if you read it without the book around it, it sounds as if she's being merely smart -- not intelligent in a sustained way, but just turning out a clever phrase." (It was, "Mrs Weiss had brought with her from Berlin pieces of furniture of incredible magnitude in dark woods which looked as though they had absorbed the blood of horses.") Whereas Woolf's "It would be easy to enumerate many important ..." is obviously a small thoughtful part of a larger thoughtful argument, giving you some idea of her, what she's like, what she was doing, etc, etc, & so on. So Woolf won, and Steiner won, and Brookner got chucked out.