Monday, 26 November 2018


I seem to be in a phase of noting down sentences and short passages that catch my eye in the books I'm reading. It's something I used to do a lot more of, in pre-blogging days, turning several small notebooks into 'commonplace-books'. When I lost the bag containing all but one of these (stolen, I think), I more or less gave up the practice, especially as I was often using my blog as a kind of extended commonplace-book. But recently I've been at it again.
  Rereading Shirley Hazzard's wonderful The Bay of Noon (which I remember noting sentences from last time), I noticed a couple of brilliant nutshell characterisations. Writing about her tiresome sister-in-law, a woman who can barely say or write anything without an all too transparent (and hostile) subtext, the narrator says, 'With Nora, the unconscious was always uppermost. You had to dig deep to find the conscious.' We all know people like that, don't we?
 And like the English Colonel the narrator is working for (in postwar Naples): 'As a child he must have been impressed with the merit of looking people in the eye, and had in consequence developed a fixed glare that so revealed him that, out of common decency, one could only look away.' I love that 'out of common decency'.
 I've also been reading some essays by Joseph Epstein, a man who knows how to turn a phrase. In the course of an exhilarating critique of Edmund Wilson (an all but extinguished literary light, I think?) – and in particular his volume of memoirs, The Sixties – Epstein has lots of fun. He quotes a diary entry in which the great man finds himself 'on the can', where 'I read the folders of old reviews of my books, in order to support my morale – though this only makes me realise again how slipshod most reviewing is'. Epstein adds sardonically, 'Nothing quite takes the joy out of life like having standards.'
  Wilson insists on going into minute and deadening detail about his compulsive, joyless sex life: 'In the sack with his dentist's wife, "I invited her to do fellatio."' 'Let us hope,' adds Epstein, 'this was not the best invitation the poor woman had had that week.' Summing up, he adds that, 'sounding in his no-nonsense approach to sex like no one so much as Frank Harris, Wilson's writing on sex would give an alley cat the droops on a warm Saturday night'. The 'warm Saturday night' is a great touch.
  Epstein also has an essay on La Rochefoucauld – 'maximum maximist', as he calls him. And who would argue?
 'We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others.'
 'We are easily consoled for the misfortunes of our friends if they afford us the opportunity of displaying our affections.'
  'However much good we hear of ourselves, we never learn anything new.'
I probably had those in one of my lost notebooks...


  1. I've spent the latter half of this year acquiring Epstein's books of essays, and they do indeed furnish a lot of material for brief blog-ponderings. Some things stand out immediately, and I make a little notation in the text, or copy the passage down. But I find there's another category of his notable quotables, shall we say — subtler lines that don't necessarily strike me as worth highlighting, but which, apropos of nothing, come back to me weeks later. I'll have a phrase or an image in my head, wonder where it came from, and then finally conclude it must have been in one of his essays. Of course, at that point, I have no idea of the original context, let alone where to find it again.

    Reading the books one after another, I also notice he tends to reheat a lot of his old jokes and anecdotes, which makes me feel better about my own lack of originality.

  2. Yes indeed, he's a bit of a magician, I think – and, like many magicians, a bit of a patter artist, a showman. Great reading though.
    Thanks for commenting, Damian – I've bookmarked yr blog, which had somehow escaped me (for some reason, links to Nigeness don't show up).

    1. Thank you, sir, I appreciate it. I will endeavor to be entertaining with my limited resources.

      I spent many years scribbling in cultivated obscurity on Blogspot; I only got my own domain this past summer, when I also decided to be a bit more sociable and contribute some chatter to the blog economy. But yes, it did seem that Blogspot made it difficult to notice links, both incoming and outgoing.


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