As a rule, I keep my mornings clear, because that’s the best time for writing. The rule has been hard to keep, and sometimes impossible, in the face of the impending house move. There are often things that have to be taken care of first thing, and once I’ve taken care of them I find my head cluttered with everyday questions that make thinking quite impossible. I wish that I could grasp this problem more intelligently, and claim a better understanding of why some kinds of mental activity make others difficult or impossible, and quite beyond the reach of “will power.”
I’ve become very fond of Hannah Arendt’s homely way of referring to her “trains of thought,” but it has become clear to me that this imagery, while very useful for sorting out different strains of ideas, must never be allowed to suggest that there is anything like track involved. Trains of thoughts are much more like all-terrain vehicles than reliable passenger lines. They make no scheduled stops at specified stations but plunge unpredictably into what, at the risk of exciting terrible groans, I must call terra incognata. The relationship between a developing sentence — a cluster of half-realized clauses that will require certain syntactical resolutions regardless of “intellectual content” — and a new idea is as earthy and intimate and I daresay carnal as a cerebral event can be, and just as difficult to describe. Like other earthy relationships, it doesn’t flourish in bustling, public places. All I can say is that writing in the morning has become as magical, or potentially magical, as making love used to be, a very long time ago, when my head was as green and spongy as a new twig.
Yesterday, I began putting books into boxes. I filled ten of them before running out of steam, and almost out of strapping tape. These are book boxes, sixteen by twelve by twelve, small but heavy when filled. We ordered fifty, and I’m sure that I’ll fill them all.
I was working on the part of a larger bookcase that I had organized quite recently, a process that involved a good deal of culling then. The books on the shelves were keepers, for the most part. I took stern looks at some fattish tomes — a Taschen picture album about Alchemy seemed particularly stinky — and left them behind, at least for the moment, but I did not question, as I might have done, paperbacks with esteemed imprints, such as Penguin and NYRB, that I had shelved together. There are books in these groups that I ought to weed out; I’ll probably never read them, or even re-read the books that led me to them. But I prefer to treat these uniform editions as libraries within my library, possessed of an occult integrity that does reflect, however dimly, overarching editorial outlooks. Unlike many of the books still on my shelves, they are not miscellaneous. So, among many other things, the translation of Hugo Claus’s The Sorrow of Belgium, a novel that I put down twenty years ago and never picked up again, will be following me to the new apartment.
I console myself, at least with regard to my poor score for culling, that other shelves will yield many dispensable volumes. I try not to think about how sound this consolation is likely to prove. At the same time, I wish I had time to re-read certain writers, as a way of judging their continued membership in my collection. What about George Steiner, for example. Have I ever really thought about George Steiner? I’ve accepted him on the strength of his reputation, which was, I can’t help noticing, much brighter when he was still alive. Now he seems pious — if not a pious fraud, exactly, then certainly something of an asserter of the received ideas of the better sort of senior commons room. Like so many intellectuals after World War II, Steiner was mesmerized by the horror of that great old oxymoron, mass culture. He did not see how this insidious growth was going to attack the republic of letters; he thought that jeremiads might be effective. They never have been, not since the time of Jeremiah himself. But I’m making all of this up out of dim recollections; I haven’t read Steiner in years. His books certainly lend an Augustan tone to the line-up of spines, and they scream to any half-literate visitor that I am a Serious Person (if not at all a Theorist), but I’m not sure that there is much connection anymore between Steiner’s essays and my thinking. I wish there were time to revisit the matter. I must make time.
I pulled down Chris Hedges’s The Empire of Illusion the other day. I’ve had it since it came out, but not read it. The book begins with a horrified review of several “reality TV” shows. Hedges is dismayed that so many ordinary Americans seem to share the values implicit in these productions — much as, I suppose, George Steiner would have been. I’ve come round to the view that it is a waste of time to fault uneducated people for their viewing habits. My concern is for the mere existence of educated people. Are there any? Of course there are — but they’re in hiding. It is so not cool to be educated. And there are good reasons for that — as well as bad ones.
What I wouldn’t give to have Nora Webster to read— afresh, that is, as if I hadn’t already read it. Colm Tóibín remarked somewhere that his fiction comes from “a place of silence,” and Nora Webster is a demonstration of this paradox. Nora, a youngish widow whose unguarded moments were devoted entirely to her late husband, finds herself without meaningful contact with the world. She has plenty of responsibilities, and in her world (Ireland in the years around 1970), that is enough for a woman and a mother. But Nora is no more likely to immure herself in her family now than she was when her husband was alive. Her discovery of a new life, however, is necessarily not only accidental but inarticulate. She discusses it with no one, not even herself. From Hemingway, Tóibín learned a literary frugality that is formidable precisely because it never leaves one hungry; and, from Henry James, a corresponding representational frugality that presents wholly plausible characters without ever resorting to the commonplaces of psychology. The existence of Nora Webster is as implacable as that of an ancient Greek deity.
Bon weekend à tous!