Another busy weekend has come and gone.
It was a nice weekend, which combined the right balance of housework, reading, talking to family members and socializing with friends. We visited the tiny babies who have actually doubled in size (but are still tiny)
and the boy and daughter #3 came over for tacos on Sunday night.
I started reading The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard who died last December. Reading her obituary at the time, I realized I was completely unacquainted with her. Then, when I was perusing my bookshelves recently looking, as always, for something to read, I found The Transit of Venus. So I started reading.
At first I was put off by her somewhat pretentious style:
As he went up he was ashamed by a sense of adventure that delineated the reduced scale of his adventures. After the impetuous beginning, he would puzzle them by turning out staid and cautious. In a gilt mirror near the door he surprised himself, still young.
And her overuse of clever simile:
Where they got down, wrought-iron gates were folded back like written pages.
But as I persevered, I became more and more impressed. I saw that she is the real deal and pretty terrific. The Transit of Venus, which won the 1980 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, is “stuffed with description so intellectually active as to be sometimes exhausting,” Thomas Mallon wrote in The Atlantic (NYT obit). This is true, but her observations are brilliant. I will keep going.
I also read the Paris Review interview with Hazzard in 2005 and I was further impressed. She made the interviewer look like a moron.
The jar of Marmite that Rex Ivory held on to through his imprisonment in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp seems like a symbol of the primitive human need to hold onto something, to make some sort of meaning. Has art been like that for you?
There was an actual jar of Marmite, recounted to me long, long ago by a British survivor of Changi Camp near Singapore and of the camp called Outram Road. Don’t forget that it has a real and immediate significance. Men died of malnutrition in those camps, and of diseases from lack of any coherent diet. Marmite would have been a treasure, and a lifesaver. Keeping it unopened was not only symbolic; it was a possible element for a day or two’s survival in the case of escape. In the Japanese camps, British and Australian prisoners hid tiny rice cakes saved from their starvation rations for just such motives. Immediate factual truth comes before symbolic cogitations. But yes, I suppose art is a Marmite, and the conserved shred of civilized life must seem intensely so to isolated and persecuted people. I remember a heart-shaking description by Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago about prisoners exchanging whispered remembrances of poetry, or a phrase from a Mozart opera, precious passwords of sanity and civilized life, and of the ineffable power of art; Marmite.
Here’s the whole Paris Review interview.
Have a good Monday and a good week!
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
–Micah 6:8, from the OT lesson on Sunday.