Crocodiles optional?

… the only hammer in the house belongs to Tony, and for anything other than simple nail-pounding she looks in the Yellow Pages. Why risk your life? … She has never seen the point of lawns. Given the choice she’d prefer a moat, with a drawbridge, and crocodiles optional.

No deep wisdom here perhaps, but I can relate to these lines from Margaret Atwood’s novel The Robber Bride. There are days though when crocodiles are a must!

The Great Chain of Being à la Auntie Muriel

Some lines from Margaret Atwood’s novel Life before Man:

Auntie Muriel is unambiguous about most things. Her few moments of hesitation have to do with members of her own family. She isn’t sure where they fit into the Great Chain of Being She’s quite certain of her own place, however. First comes God. Then comes Auntie Muriel and the Queen, with Auntie Muriel having a slight edge. Then come about five members of the Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, which Auntie Muriel attends. After this there is a large gap. Then white, non-Jewish Canadians, Englishmen, and white, non-Jewish Americans, in that order. Then there’s another large gap, followed by all other human beings on a descending scale, graded according to skin color and religion. Then cockroaches, clothes moths, silverfish and germs, which are about the only forms of animal life with which Auntie Muriel has ever had any contact. Then all sexual organs, except those of flowers.

[…]

There are no shades of grey for Auntie Muriel. Her only visible moral dilemma is that she thinks she ought to rank her family with the Timothy Eaton Church members, because of their relation to her; but she feels compelled to place them instead with the cockroaches and silverfish, because of their deplorable behavior.

No one would take him for a clergyman

Two thoughts from E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View

… one a profound comment by the narrrator:

The armour of falsehood is subtly wrought out of darkness, and hides a man not only from others, but from his own soul.

… and one, spoken by Lucy, a little disturbing:

He seems to see the good in everyone. No one would take him for a clergyman.

.

Where to put one’s gratitude

Zadie Smith’s On Beauty did never quite engage me in the way that I had expected, but here are what for me were the book’s three highlights:

… poetry is the first mark of the truly civilized.

And so it happened again, the daily miracle whereby interiority opens out and brings to bloom the million-petalled flower of being here, in the world, with other people.

It’s like he knows he’s blessed, but he doesn’t know where to put his gratitude because that makes him uncomfortable, because that would be dealing in transcendence – and we all know how he hates to do that. So by denying there are any gifts in the world, any essentially valuable things – that’s how he shortcircuits the gratitude question. If there are no gifts, then he doesn’t have to think about a God who might have given them. But that’s where joy is. I’m on my knees to God every day.

In the last quote it is the book’s male hero’s teenage son speaking and displaying far more wisdom than his father ever manages. There is such profound truth in the equation of gratitude and joy. Being grateful to God – that indeed is where true joy is.

Cynicism and trust

While cynicism is no less reasonable than trust, the latter is much more enjoyable and life affirming.

Thus Jo Carruthers in a review of Javier Marías’s novel The Infatuations. While it seems obvious to me that trust is always the better option and is indeed more life-affirming than fear or cynicism, I love the idea that it is also more enjoyable. I had never looked at it from that angle, I suppose, but it’s true.

The review, which appeared in Third Way, June 2013, has also whetted my appetite for the novel, which is said to explore existential questions of life, death, love and morality. It looks a fascinating read.

The story held you together

Some random thoughts from Mark Haddon’s The Red House. They spoke to me for a variety of reasons, I suppose.

The beauty kept slipping through her fingers. The world was so far away and the mind kept saying, Me, me, me. … But the valley … wasn’t this amazing? Look, you had to say to yourself, Look.

A failure to engage properly with the world. … Nothing mattered enough.

He occupies, still, a little circle of attention, no more than eight metres in diameter at most. If stuff happens beyond this perimeter he simply doesn’t notice unless it involves explosions or his name being yelled angrily. At home, in school, on the streets between and around the two, the world is constantly catching him by surprise, teachers, older boys, drunk people on the street all suddenly appearing in front of him so that his most-used facial expression is one of puzzled shock.

He had always seen his self-sufficiency as an admirable quality, a way of not imposing upon other people, but he could see now that it was an insult to those close to you.

It was the story that mattered, the story that held you together …. Saying, This happenedThen that happened … Saying This is me. But what is her story? Losing the plot. The deep truths hidden in the throw-away phrase.

Er-Down-Under, Er-Up-Atop and other great characters

Before I put it back on the shelf, I have to pass on a few more quotes from Laurie Lee’s memoir Cider with Rosie, which is set in the early years of the twentieth century in the small Cotswold village of Slad. Lee’s book features many wonderful passages and some outstanding examples of characterisation.

My first passage has the little Laurie reflecting on the time when he was banned from his mother’s bed due to the arrival of a younger sibling. Having been led to believe that the exile would only be of a temporary nature, he complains:

I was never recalled to my Mother’s bed again. It was my first betrayal, my first dose of ageing hardness, my first lesson in the gentle, merciless rejection of women. … I grew a little tougher, a little colder, and turned my attention more towards the outside world …

‘The gentle, merciless rejection of women’ – which man hasn’t experienced it at some stage in his life?

In another, less traumatic scene, Laurie, having grown up a bit by now, is playing the violin, primarily, as we find out, for his mother:

… old and tired though she was, her eyes were a girl’s, and it was for looks such as these that I played.

Here is Lee writing about trivial old rain:

Water was the most active thing in the valley, arriving in the long rains from Wales. It would drip all day from clouds and trees, from roofs and eaves and noses.

But it’s the brilliant characterisation, which, more than anything else, makes Lee’s memoir such an enjoyable and entertaining read.

Cabbage-Stump Charlie was our local bruiser – a violent, gaitered, gaunt-faced pigman, who lived only for his sows and for fighting. He was a nourisher of quarrels, as some men are of plants, growing them from nothing by the heat of belligerence and watering them daily with blood. He would set out each evening, armed with his cabbage-stalk, ready to strike down the first man he saw.

And then there is the Prospect Smiler, ‘a manic farmer’:

Few men I think can have been as unfortunate as he; for on the one hand he was a melancholic with a loathing for mankind, on the other, some paralysis had twisted his mouth into a permanent and radiant smile. So everyone he met, being warmed by his smile, would shout him a happy greeting. And beaming upon them with his sunny face he would curse them all to hell.

We also meet the Grannies Trill and Wallon, strong characters both of them and the bitterest of enemies, who only ‘refer to each other as “Er-Down-Under” and “Er-Up-Atop, the Varmint”’.

Granny Wallon ‘made wine as though demented, out of anything at all’, wine that was readily imbibed by the Lee family to dramatic effect. For, having drunk from it, ‘a curious rocking would seize the head; tides rose from our feet like a fever, the kitchen walls began to shudder and shift, and we all fell in love with each other’.

About Granny Trill, on the other hand, we learn that her ‘time was for God, or the birds, [for] although she had a clock she kept it simply for the tick, its hands having dropped off years ago’.

On a less quirky note, we encounter the lovely old couple Joseph and Hannah Brown, who

did nothing more than was necessary to live, but did it fondly, with skill – then sat together in their clock-ticking kitchen enjoying their half-century of silence.

You don’t often meet characters as brilliantly drawn as these, but then this is a memoir, not a novel. Perhaps it is true that life itself writes the best stories.