Thursday, September 27, 2007

V.S. Naipaul on Experiencing Wilderness

I've never seen anyone talk so eloquently -- and so precisely -- about what it's like to visit the mountains.

The Himalayan summer was short, its weather treacherous. Every exploration, like every pilgrimage even today, had to be swift ... Beyond the Amarnath Cave was the mountain of Kailas and beyond that the lake of Manasarovar. And legends attached to every stage of the Amarnath pilgrimage. These rocks were what remained of defeated demons; out of that lake Lord Vishnu arose on the back of a thousand-headed serpent; on this plain Lord Shiva once did the cosmic dance of destruction and his locks, becoming undone, created these five streams: wonders revealed only for a few months each year before disappearing again below the other, encompassing mystery of snow. And these mountains, lakes and streams were indeed apt for legend. Even while they were about you they had only a qualified reality. They could never become familiar; what was seen was not their truth; they were only temporarily unveiled. They might be subject to minute man-made disturbances -- a stone dislodged into a stream, a path churned to dust, skirting snow -- but as soon as, on that hurried return journey, they had been left behind they became remote again.
--From p. 165 of V. S. Naipaul's An Area of Darkness: A Discovery of India.

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Wodehouse Updated via Kyril Bonfiglioli, circa 1972

I don't trust a book review that compares an author to P.G. Wodehouse: it's never apt. For example, Paul Murray's An Evening of Long Goodbyes. Sure, the narrator's British and he's featherheaded and feckless, but that book is so freighted with sadness that it's a ridiculous comparison. But recently I stumbled on a book that was described by a reader as "Like Wodehouse on acid," and for once, the comparison is dead-on.


He greeted me with his usual surliness: dealers in illegal firearms almost never smile, you must have noticed that. [p. 47]
(I yield to none when it comes to eyebrow-raising; I was taught by my father himself, who could have eyebrow-raised for Great Britain had he not been so haughty.) [p. 105]
Item - our narrator is speaking figuratively of a verbal skirmish he has just lost:
'Thank you, yes,' he replied. My attack was wiped out. I felt just like an infantry subaltern who has thrown away a platoon against a machine-gun emplacement he forgot to mark on his map. (Listening to the Colonel's remarks afterwards is not nearly so unpleasant as sitting down to write twenty letters to next-of-kin while the people in the Orderly Room pretend you're not there. The worst bit is when your batman brings you your dinner to the foxhole or bivvy-tent, saying 'Thought you might be too tired to dine in the Mess tonight. Sir.' But I reminisce.) [p. 131]
The clerk droned legally for a while; Jaggard put on a joke-policeman voice while he read bits from his notebook about how he had proceeded from here to there on information received ... but I must not trouble you with such minutiae: I am sure you have been in magistrates' courts yourselves. [p. 165]
Item (in which our hero is on the losing end of a shoot-out in a factory that butchers pigs):
Had I been a religious man I should probably have offered up a brisk prayer or two, but I am proud, you see: I mean, I never praised Him when I was knee-deep in gravy so it would have seemed shabby to apply for help from a bacon-factory. [p. 178]
From Kyril Bonfiglioli's1972 After You with the Pistol.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Rebecca West on War

Rebecca West: ... I think the Second World War was much more comfortable because in the First World War the position of women was so terrible, because there you were, not in danger. Men were going out and getting killed for you and you'd much prefer they weren't ... It was very curious, you see. There I sat on my balcony in Leigh-on-Sea and heard guns going in France. It was a most peculiar war. It was really better, in the Second World War, when the people at home got bombed. I found it a relief. You were taking your chance and you might be killed and you weren't in that pampered sort of unnatural state ...

Interviewer: And yet a [conscripted] army, as fought in Vietnam -- you laugh?

Rebecca West: Well, I can't help thinking that the whole of the Vietnam War was the blackest comedy that ever was, because it showed the way you can't teach humanity anything. We'd all learned in the rest of the world that you can't now go round and put out your hand and, across seas, exercise power; but the poor Americans had not learned that and they tried to do it.
--From p. 242 of The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1.(Philip Gourevitch, ed.)

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Rebecca West Does Ian McEwan Justice

I've never understood why people revere Ian McEwan's novels. How gratifying, then, to come across this 1981 interview with Rebecca West, in which she skewers his novel, The Cement Garden:

Rebecca West: ... I do think modern novels are boring on the whole. Somebody told me I ought to read a wonderful thing about how a family of children buried Mum in a cellar under concrete and she began to smell. But that's the sole point of the story. Mum just smells. That's all that happens. It's not enough.

Interviewer: This is a new Ian McEwan, isn't it?
--From pp. 261-2 of The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1.(Philip Gourevitch, ed.)

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