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"...reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself..."

In Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), oppressed-but-emerging wife Edna Pontellier has just learned to swim, in the Gulf of Mexico in southern Louisiana, during a midnight outing from a resort.

"How easy it is!" she thought. "It is nothing," she said aloud; "why did I not discover before that it was nothing. Think of the time I have lost splashing about like a baby!" She would not join the groups in their sports and bouts, but intoxicated with her newly conquered power, she swam out alone.

She turned her face seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitude, which the vast expanse of water, meeting and melting with the moonlit sky, conveyed to her excited fancy. As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself.

Once she turned and looked toward the shore, toward the people she had left there. She had not gone any great distance—that is, what would have been a great distance for an experienced swimmer. But to her unaccustomed vision the stretch of water behind her assumed the aspect of a barrier which her unaided strength would never be able to overcome.

A quick vision of death smote her soul, and for a second of time appalled and enfeebled her senses. But by an effort she rallied her staggering faculties and managed to regain the land.

She made no mention of her encounter with death and her flash of terror, except to say to her husband, "I thought I should have perished out there alone."

"You were not so very far, my dear; I was watching you," he told her.

That exchange at the end is so quietly devastating, especially the husband's relative indifference to his wife's distress. I also find it interesting that the author glosses over Edna's later struggles in the water; given the florid, verbose prose so typical of the 19th Century, I would have expected that passage to go on for several more, overwritten paragraphs. I admire Chopin's restraint.

November 30, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Quote

“In the realm of human consciousness the highest and most sophisticated form of self-regulation is based on our ability to see ahead. It requires a knowledge of self and the cosmos and of self in the cosmos. The evolutionary need is to increase our breadth of consciousness as human beings, to expand our range of choice for the wisest alternatives. The human capacity to anticipate and select will be the means whereby the future of human evolution will be determined.” - Dr. Jonas Salk

November 23, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

"...happier, or less unhappy..."

I'm reading Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, and enjoying it more than I expected. It tells the story of newlyweds Florence and Edward, both virgins, on their wedding night. Here, they are lingering over dinner in their hotel rooms, anxious (him) and dreading (her) to finally have sex. As they dawdle, they listen to the faint strains of the BBC broadcast that the hotel's other patrons are listening to in the bar room below.

"We could go downstairs and listen properly."

He hoped he was being humorous, directing his sarcasm against them both, but his words emerged with surprising ferocity, and Florence blushed. She thought he was criticizing her for preferring the wireless to him, and before he could soften or lighten his remark she said hurriedly, "Or we could go and lie on the bed," and nervously swiped an invisible hair from her forehead. To demonstrate how wrong he was, she was proposing what she knew he most wanted and she dreaded. She really would have been happier, or less unhappy, to go down to the lounge and pass the time in quiet conversation with the matrons on the floral-patterned sofas while their men leaned heavily into the news, into the gale of history. Anything but this.

McEwan really manages well the difficult trick of shifting the narrative perspective back and forth between Florence and Edward, often in the same paragraph, as in the passage above. I love her imagined image of the them being the bar room (I can't help picturing Fawlty Towers), her with the matrons, him with the men, anywhere but alone together.

November 16, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

What I'm reading

I just finished Shalom Auslander's Hope: A Tragedy (meh) and only at the last moment settled on my next book: Leonard Michaels' The Men's Club. I've had the book for several years and was mentally saving it for a "Bitter White Guys" segment of my periodic Structured Reading project, along with Richard Yates and John Cheever. But after reading Auslander's novel, I decided that reading Michaels next might be the logical progression. Auslander is a great admirer of Michaels, and from what I've heard about the latter I sense the two are kindred spirits. I just hope The Men's Club is better than Auslander's novel. (That Bitter White Guys segment still might come about eventually, once I find a third writer, preferably someone as Wasp-ish as Yates and Cheever. Maybe Updike?)

After Michaels, I might continue the Jewish writer theme, going back even further to Isaac Bashevis Singer's story collection The Spinoza of Market Street. Or I might change course completely. Who even knows.

November 9, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

"...they were fragments of a colossal dream..."

I’m slowly working my way through Hamlin Garland’s memoir, A Daughter of the Middle Border, reading just five or ten pages each night before bed. Here he describes taking his aged father (a Civil War veteran) to the annual convention of the Grand Army of the Republic, where they watch the veterans’ parade from the grandstand.

We were in our place hours before the start (he was like a boy on Circus Day - afraid of missing something), but that he was enjoying in high degree his comfortable outlook, made me almost equally content.

At last with blare of bugle and throb of drum, that grand and melancholy procession of time-scarred veterans came to view, and their tattered flags and faded guidons brought quick tears to my father’s eyes. Few of them stepped out with a swing, many of them limped pitifully - all were white-haired - an army on its downward slope, marching toward its final, silent bivouac.

None of them were gay yet each took a poignant pleasure in sharing the rhythm of the column, and my father voiced this emotion when he murmured, “I ought to be down there with my company.”

To touch elbows just once more, to be part of the file would have been at once profoundly sad and sadly sweet, and he wiped the tears from his cheeks in a silence which was more expressive than any words could have been.

To me each passing phalanx was composed of piteous old men - to my sire they were fragments of a colossal dream - an epic of song and steel. “In ten years he and they will all be at rest in ‘fame’s eternal camping ground,’” I thought with a benumbing realization of the swift, inexorable rush of time - a tragedy which no fluttering of bright flags, no flare of brave bugles could lighten or conceal. It was not an army in review, it was an epoch passing to its grave.

Garland being Garland, sometimes the prose gets dangerously overwrought, as in that last paragraph. Still, it’s enjoyable in small doses.

November 1, 2014 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)