My favorite excerpts from English literature

I’ve been reading two books on great prose by—yes—author Francine Prose: Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want To Write Them, and What to Read and Why. I am not reading them to learn how to write better, as they’re all about fiction, a genre I don’t dare to essay, but it’s fascinating to see what writing an accomplished writer loves most, and why. (She particularly likes Chekhov’s short stories, which I also love, but now want to read them all.)

I decided to put together my favorite bits of prose—those bits that are especially lovely—and post them here, though the post will be rather long. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some of my favorites, but the excepts below are especially poetic, and some of them I can’t read without tearing up. These are selections only from literature written in English; I’ve left out, for example, my favorite Russian literature, as that has been translated.

I’d invite readers to submit their own selections, but that would make the comments too long. Instead, you might just tell us what work or what passage moves you in the way these pieces move me.  Here we go:

 

As I’ve said repeatedly, what I consider the most beautiful thing ever written in English is Joyce’s short story (or novella) The Dead, the last piece in his collection Dubliners.  It is perfect in every way, but the ending is both perfect and incomparably beautiful. It comes after an evening when the protagonist, Gabriel, has been to a Christmas party at his aunts’ house, and has been his usual self-absorbed and pretentious self. His wife Greta reacts strongly to a song that somebody sings at the party (“The Lass of Aughrim”), and when they go back to their Dublin hotel, Gabriel asks Greta why she reacted to the song that way. She tells him that it was sung to her when she was just a lass by her great love Michael Furey, who died after having come to her house in the rain when he was ill, a visit that caused his death. Gabriel learns at that point that his marriage has always been more or less a sham, for Greta loved Michael in a way that she could never love him. As Greta falls asleep, Gabriel ponders his tepid life and pompous demeanor in this beautiful ending, one of Joyce’s famous “epiphanies”. The last paragraph is pure poetry.

She was fast asleep.

Gabriel, leaning on his elbow, looked for a few moments unresentfully on her tangled hair and half-open mouth, listening to her deep-drawn breath. So she had had that romance in her life: a man had died for her sake. It hardly pained him now to think how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept, as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife. His curious eyes rested long upon her face and on her hair: and, as he thought of what she must have been then, in that time of her first girlish beauty, a strange, friendly pity for her entered his soul. He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death.

Perhaps she had not told him all the story. His eyes moved to the chair over which she had thrown some of her clothes. A petticoat string dangled to the floor. One boot stood upright, its limp upper fallen down: the fellow of it lay upon its side. He wondered at his riot of emotions of an hour before. From what had it proceeded? From his aunt’s supper, from his own foolish speech, from the wine and dancing, the merry-making when saying good-night in the hall, the pleasure of the walk along the river in the snow. Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade with the shade of Patrick Morkan and his horse. He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal. Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died. He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones. Yes, yes: that would happen very soon.

The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

As I posted recently, I much admire Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, but especially love the beginning, which limns the feel of India in just a few words, just as Karen Blixen does for Africa in the excerpt below. This is the beginning of the first of Scott’s four novels, The Jewel in the Crown:

The ending of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is justifiably famous, as Gatsby ponders the necessary but futile ambition that drives people to fulfill their dreams. He compares the green light on the dock belonging to the house of Daisy, his love, with the dreams of the sailors who first came to America:

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Fitzgerald’s writing is also gorgeous in his largely unread book Tender is the Night.  The scene at the dinner party, for instance, when the table seems to rise with the fellow-feeling of the guests, is fantastic.

Although I love the writing of Thomas Wolfe, I must admit that at times it’s long-winded and pompous. Literature professors have repeatedly mocked my affection for his big books, regarding it as puerile. And yet he’s worth reading for the times when he hits his stride, as in his “poem to October” from Of Time and the River. (If you want to read a complete piece of Wolfe that stands on its own as great literature, read The Child by Tiger, a fictionalized account of a lynching that really happened in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina.)

Nobody could evoke the feeling and weathers of America better than Wolfe, as he does here. Every word is essential and adds to the atmosphere.

Now October has come again which in our land is different from October in the other lands.  The ripe, the golden month has come again, and in Virginia the chinkapins are falling.  Frost sharps the middle music of the seasons, and all things living on the earth turn home again. The country is so big that you cannot say that the country has the same October. In Maine, the frost comes sharp and quick as driven nails, just for a week or so the woods, all of the bright and bitter leaves, flare up; the maples turn a blazing bitter red, and other leaves turn yellow like a living light, falling upon you as you walk the woods, falling about you like small pieces of the sun so that you cannot say where that sunlight shakes and flutters on the ground, and where the leaves. . .

October is the richest of the seasons: the fields are cut, the granaries are full, the bins are loaded to the brim with fatness, and from the cider-press the rich brown oozings of the York Imperials run.  The bee bores to the belly of the yellowed grape, the fly gets old and fat and blue, he buzzes loud, crawls slow, creeps heavily to death on sill and ceiling, the sun goes down in blood and pollen across the bronzed and mown fields of old October.

The corn is shocked: it sticks out in hard yellow rows upon dried ears, fit now for great red barns in Pennsylvania, and the big stained teeth of crunching horses. The indolent hooves kick swiftly at the boards, the barn is sweet with hay and leather, wood and apples—this, and the clean dry crunching of the teeth is all:  the sweat, the labor, and the plow is over. The late pears mellow on a sunny shelf, smoked hams hang to the warped barn rafters; the pantry shelves are loaded with 300 jars of fruit. Meanwhile the leaves are turning, turning up in Maine, the chestnut burrs plop thickly to the earth in gusts of wind, and in Virginia the chinkapins are falling.

Finally we have Karen Blixen, who published under the male name Isak Dinesen, and of course is famous for her autobiographical work Out of Africa. This is the only nonfiction here, but the writing is as good as anything in literature. It’s even more remarkable when you realize that her native language was not English but Danish. (It’s just as remarkable as Conrad’s great writing in English, his second language after Polish).
I have two excerpts from Out of Africa. The first is the opening when she describes her farm and its environs. You will have heard this. Some of it was recited by Meryl Streep at the beginning of the eponymous movie.

I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the north, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up; near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.

The geographical position and the height of the land combined to create a landscape that had not its like in all the world. There was no fat on it and no luxuriance anywhere; it was Africa distilled up through six thousand feet. like the strong and refined essence of a continent. The colours were dry and burnt. like the colours in pottery. The trees had a light delicate foliage, the structure of which was different from that of the trees in Europe; it did not grow in bows or cupolas, but in horizontal layers, and the formation gave to the tall solitary trees a likeness to the palms, or a heroic and romantic air like full-rigged ships with their sails furled, and to the edge of a wood a strange appearance as if the whole wood were faintly vibrating. Upon the grass of the great plains the crooked bare old thorn trees were scattered, and the grass was spiced like thyme and bog-myrtles; in some places the scent was so strong that it smarted in the nostrils. All the flowers that you found or plains, or upon the creepers and liana in the native forest, were diminutive like flowers of the downs – only just in the beginning of the long rains a number of big, massive heavy-scented lilies sprang out on the plains. The views were immensely wide. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequaled nobility.

The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life in it. was the air. Looking back on a sojourn in the African highlands, you are struck by your feeling of having lived for a time up in the air. The sky was rarely more than pale blue or violet, with a profusion of mighty, weightless, ever-changing clouds towering up and sailing on it, but it has a blue vigour in it, and at a short distance it painted the ranges of hills and the woods a fresh deep blue. In the middle of the day the air was alive over the land, like a flame burning; it scintillated, waved and shone like running water, mirrored and doubled all objects, and created great Fata Morgana. Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.

And this piece, like the ending of The Dead, always makes me tear up, no matter how many times I read it. Blixen’s great love, Denys Finch Hatton, died in a plane crash during their romance in Africa. She was shattered, and they buried Finch Hatton in the hills overlooking the plain. Here she describes his grave and how the lions came to sit on it.  The last three sentences are a work of genius.

I often drove out to Denys’s grave. In a bee-line, it was not more than five miles from my house, but round by the road it was fifteen. The grave was a thousand feet higher up than my house, the air was different here, as clear as a glass of water; light sweet winds lifted your hair when you took off your hat; over the peaks of the hills, the clouds came wandering from the East, drew their live shadow over the wide undulating land, and were dissolved and disappeared over the Rift Valley.

I bought at the dhuka a yard of the white cloth which the Natives call Americani, and Farah and I raised three tall poles in the ground behind the grave, and nailed the cloth on to them, then from my house I could distinguish the exact spot of the grave, like a little white point in the green hill.

The long rains had been heavy, and I was afraid that the grass would grow up and cover the grave so that its place would be lost. Therefore one day we took up all the whitewashed stones along my drive, the same that Karomenya had had trouble in pulling up and carrying to the front door; we loaded them into my box-body car and drove them up into the hills. We cut down the grass round the grave, and set the stones in a square to mark it; now the place could always be found.

As I went so often to the grave, and took the children of my household with me, it became a familiar place to them; they could show the way out there to the people who came to see it. They built a small bower in the bush of the hill near it. In the course of the summer, Ali bin Salim, whose friend Denys had been, came from Mombasa to go out and lie on the grave and weep, in the Arab way.

One day I found Hugh Martin by the grave, and we sat in the grass and talked for a long time. Hugh Martin had taken Denys’s death much to heart. If any human being at all had held a place in his queer seclusive existence, it would have been Denys. An ideal is a strange thing, you would never have given Hugh credit for harbouring the idea of one, neither would you have thought that the loss of it would have affected him, like, somehow, the loss of a vital organ. But since Denys’s death he had aged and changed much, his face was blotched and drawn. All the same he preserved his placid, smiling likeness to a Chinese Idol, as if he knew of something exceedingly satisfactory, that was hidden to the general. He told me now that he had, in the night, suddenly struck upon the right epitaph for Denys. I think that he had got it from an ancient Greek author, he quoted it to me in Greek, then translated it in order that I should understand it. It went: “Though in death fire be mixed with my dust yet care I not. For with me now all is well.”

Later on, Denys’s brother, Lord Winchilsea, had an obelisk set on his grave, with an inscription out of “The Ancient Mariner,” which was a poem that Denys had much admired. I myself had never heard it until Denys quoted it to me,—the first time was, I remember, as we were going to Bilea’s wedding. I have not seen the obelisk; it was put up after I had left Africa.

In England there is also a monument to Denys. His old schoolfellows, in memory of him, built a stone bridge over a small stream between two fields at Eton. On one of the balustrades is inscribed his name, and the dates of his stay at Eton, and on the other the words: “Famous in these fields and by his many friends much beloved.”

Between the river in the mellow English landscape and the African mountain ridge, ran the path of his life; it is an optical illusion that it seemed to wind and swerve,—the surroundings swerved. The bow-string was released on the bridge at Eton, the arrow described its orbit, and hit the obelisk in the Ngong Hills.

After I had left Africa, Gustav Mohr wrote to me of a strange thing that had happened by Denys’ grave, the like of which I have never heard. “The Masai,” he wrote, “have reported to the District Commissioner at Ngong, that many times, at sunrise and sunset, they have seen lions on Finch-Hatton’s grave in the Hills. A lion and a lioness have come there, and stood, or lain, on the grave for a long time. Some of the Indians who have passed the place in their lorries on the way to Kajado have also seen them. After you went away, the ground round the grave was levelled out, into a sort of big terrace, I suppose that the level place makes a good site for the lions, from there they can have a view over the plain, and the cattle and game on it.”

It was fit and decorous that the lions should come to Denys’s grave and make him an African monument. “And renowned be thy grave.” Lord Nelson himself, I have reflected, in Trafalgar Square, has his lions made only out of stone.

33 Comments

  1. Posted March 29, 2020 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    My favorite is from Henry Miller in his Tropic of Capricorn, “To walk in money through the night crowd…”

  2. Robert Bray
    Posted March 29, 2020 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    The artist Lily Briscoe, whose words and thoughts end ‘To the Lighthouse,’ by Virginia Woolf: ‘Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.’

  3. Posted March 29, 2020 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Loved that – back to re-read Dubliners now.

  4. Posted March 29, 2020 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Loved that – back to re-read Dubliners now.

  5. Jon Gallant
    Posted March 29, 2020 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    The Irish seem to have the gift, all right.
    I find many passages in the novels of John Banville which carry a truly hallucinogenic power. One, for example, is the section in “The Untouchable” in which the narrator brings his retarded brother to an institution referred to as The Home to live. It is pp. 242-247 of my Picador paperback edition.

    I also find a few bits of almost equally powerful prose in some of the writing of Graham Swift

  6. Morton Kaplan
    Posted March 29, 2020 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    The last page of Middlemarch

  7. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted March 29, 2020 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    This hit the spot

  8. CR
    Posted March 29, 2020 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Perhaps it’s of function of my declining years, but it seems that the passages which make me tear up reflect on mortality and our memories of life and loved ones. A few come to mind right away.
    I’d mention the last page of “A River Runs Through It” by Norman Maclean (late U. of Chicago Professor Emeritus).
    And towards the end of “Family” by Ian Frazier, there is a passage describing his thoughts while sitting at his mother’s deathbed, and contemplating the near and distant future of his own life and mortality. (It’s copyrighted, but one could find it via the “look inside” on Amazon p 367 of the paperback edition).

  9. sted24
    Posted March 29, 2020 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    “Lord Nelson himself, I have reflected, in Trafalgar Square, has his lions made only out of stone.”

    A pedant reports: Actually, bronze. Does this matter? Yes, I suggest. 1. It’s actually wrong. 2. ‘Stone’ works better, lit crit-wise, with it’s air of finality, which ‘bronze’ lacks.

    As it happens, the first lions commissioned for Trafalgar Square WERE stone. They were sculpted by one Thomas Milnes, and rejected as not monumental enough.

    The commission was handed to Edwin Landseer, a painter not a sculptor, in 1858. “He worked slowly, and four years on…he: ‘was now very accurately studying the habits of lions…in the Zoological Gardens making himself thoroughly acquainted with their attitudes’”.

    He finally delivered (with the help of Carlo Marochetti, who cast them) in 1867.

    Meanwhile the stone lions can still be seen in Saltaire, near Bradford. And very charming they are. Take a look:

    http://www.victorianweb.org/sculpture/milnes/2.html

    • Posted March 29, 2020 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      If it’s pedantic, then why does it matter? I suggest it’s irrelevant: it’s a literary conceit, she may not have even KNOWN they were bronze (did she ever see them?) and for the point she’s making it doesn’t matter anyway.

  10. Posted March 29, 2020 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    One thing I love about Dickens is his ability to get humor even into his most gloomy books. Here’s a passage from Bleak House that is quintessential Dickens humor. [Context: Krook, a rag and bottle merchant who seems to have subsisted on a diet of cheap gin, has died from a case of spontaneous combustion. Mr. Snagsby, the timid proprietor of a law-stationery business, has nothing to do with Krook’s death, but is at the mercy of his “vinegary” wife’s suspicions, which are entirely unfounded. Mr. Snagsby speaks first:]

    “My little woman, why do you look at me in that way? Pray don’t do it.”

    “I can’t help my looks,” says Mrs. Snagsby, “and if I could I wouldn’t.”

    Mr. Snagsby, with his cough of meekness, rejoins, “Wouldn’t you really, my dear?” and meditates. Then coughs his cough of trouble and says, “This is a dreadful mystery, my love!” still fearfully disconcerted by Mrs. Snagsby’s eye.

    “It is,” returns Mrs. Snagsby, shaking her head, “a dreadful mystery.”

    “My little woman,” urges Mr. Snagsby in a piteous manner, “don’t for goodness’ sake speak to me with that bitter expression and look at me in that searching way! I beg and entreat of you not to do it. Good Lord, you don’t suppose that I would go spontaneously combusting any person, my dear?”

    “I can’t say,” returns Mrs. Snagsby.

    On a hasty review of his unfortunate position, Mr. Snagsby “can’t say” either. He is not prepared positively to deny that he may have had something to do with it. He has had something—he don’t know what—to do with so much in this connexion that is mysterious that it is possible he may even be implicated, without knowing it, in the present transaction. He faintly wipes his forehead with his handkerchief and gasps.

    Before night his doubt whether he may not be responsible for some inconceivable part in the catastrophe which is the talk of the whole neighbourhood is almost resolved into certainty by Mrs. Snagsby’s pertinacity in that fixed gaze. His mental sufferings are so great that he entertains wandering ideas of delivering himself up to justice and requiring to be cleared if innocent and punished with the utmost rigour of the law if guilty.

    • Martin Levin
      Posted March 30, 2020 at 12:52 am | Permalink

      Dickens also wrote some beautiful, evocative prose, such as this picture of London that opens this same Bleaqk House:
      ONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln�s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes � gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another�s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
      Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

      Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time � as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

      • Martin Levin
        Posted March 30, 2020 at 12:54 am | Permalink

        Please overlook annoying markings and queries. I transferred this from a Dickens site, and some program has queried his word choices.

      • JohnH
        Posted March 30, 2020 at 6:56 am | Permalink

        You beat me to it. The opening of Bleak House was the first piece of literature that came to my mind. The feeling of the surrounding fog sets the stage perfectly for the rest of the great novel.

  11. Mike Anderson
    Posted March 29, 2020 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    One of my favorite excerpts is the first sentence of James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss:

    When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

    (the genre is “redneck noir”)

  12. Posted March 29, 2020 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    It’s worth noting that Joyce’s soaring, lyrical passage at the end of “The Dead” was so greatly admired by the great film director, John Huston, that when he made the picture, his last, starring his daughter Angelica, he rendered the whole of it in voiceover, not to lose a word.

    • Jon Gallant
      Posted March 29, 2020 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      Slightly off-topic, but the great John Huston also made a good film out of Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano”, which any reader (such as myself) would have judged utterly unfilmable. In Huston’s day, film directors were often actually literate, which is demonstrably a thing of the past.

  13. Posted March 29, 2020 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Great extracts. Tender is the Night is a particular favourite of mine too.

    One ending that jerks a tear for me is Tess of the D’Urbevilles – Angel and Liza Lu looking down on Wintoncester (Winchester) while Tess is executed.

  14. Marilee Lovit
    Posted March 29, 2020 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    For some time I have held that my favorite piece of literature, which I have only read translated into English, is Book 2 of Virgil’s Aeneid. In Book 2 Aeneas, at the request of Dido, tells the story of the fall of Troy.

  15. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 29, 2020 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Hemingway is a writer I’ve long had ambivalent feelings about, but the closing passage of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” I find particularly poignant.

  16. Posted March 29, 2020 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate Hemingway for the simplicity of his prose. I treasure all of his writing including The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 29, 2020 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

      Hemingway made a virtue of short declarative sentences (in part, I think, because he wasn’t particularly adepts at long, rolling, complex sentences with subordinate clauses).

      I think it a mistake, however, to consider his prose simple. Take a story like “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” for example; the writing there is stripped down to the bone, though anything but “simple.”

  17. James A Walker
    Posted March 29, 2020 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    I love Chekhov’s short stories too but how much of the prose depends on the translator? I have a book of his short stories in the original Russian that I one day will try to tackle with my rusty undergraduate Russian …

    One of my favourite passages is the “hamburder stand” chapter in John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”. The first time I read the chapter, I went back and re-read it a second time just for the enjoyment.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 29, 2020 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

      … how much of the prose depends on the translator?

      Quite a bit, I think, though not entirely. I recall a passage in A Moveable Feast wherein Hemingway observed that, in English translation, Tolstoy’s prose always soared, while Dostoevsky’s (though his writing brilliant) was sometimes clunky, even in instances where the two writers had had the same translator.

      • Paul Matthews
        Posted March 29, 2020 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

        I’ve read Dostoevsky in both English and French translation and found both a bit “off”, clunky if you will, perhaps more so in English than in French. I read War and Peace in French translation and it also sometimes came across as strange. I remember particularly a chapter where the action was in the countryside somewhere. I imagine one of the local characters probably spoke in very idiomatic Russian with colourful expressions that was very difficult for the translator to render. A tough tough job.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted March 29, 2020 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

          Though I’m unable to read him in the original Russian, so can’t say for sure, I got the impression that sometimes at least Dostoevsky’s prose were intentionally clunky. Those of the narrator of Notes From Underground, for example.

  18. Posted March 29, 2020 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always enjoyed the extravagant writing of Anthony Burgess; famous for A Clockwork Orange and these opening lines of Earthly Powers – “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”

    Carlo Campanati in that book is a great invention

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 30, 2020 at 12:56 am | Permalink

      Clockwork is a book I read several times in the Seventies. It became progressively easier as one became increasingly fluent in Nadsat, with the help of glossary in the back of the book.

      Not along ago I came across this excellent essay in The New Yorker by Burgess about writing the book.

  19. Anselm
    Posted March 30, 2020 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    That last line of The Great Gatsby, even on its own, never mind at the end of that whole wonderful book, strikes a note that never dies.

    If I had to pick the most heart-rending four-note phrase in any English novel, I’d go for one from my beloved Jane Austen. In Sense & Sensibility, when Marianne has been rebuffed by Willoughby, she hands his returned letters to her sister and then, handkerchief to her face, “almost screamed with agony”. What does that mean? Did she utter a loud sound that was almost, but not quite, a scream? Or did she try to scream but couldn’t, so remained silent? It’s ambiguous, and through that interstice between the two possibilities pours a world of gut-wrenching emotion.

  20. Posted March 30, 2020 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    This passage from Walt Whitman’s preface to “Leaves of Grass” has long been a favorite of mine, though it took me years to appreciate Whitman’s poetry:

    “This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

  21. Mark Joseph
    Posted March 30, 2020 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    Hopefully two short excerpts won’t be too long:

    The opening lines of Jack Vance’s The Last Castle:
    Toward the end of a stormy summer afternoon, with the sun finally breaking out under ragged black rain clouds, Castle Janeil was overwhelmed and its population destroyed. Until almost the last moment the factions among the castle clans were squabbling as to how Destiny properly should be met. The gentlemen of most prestige and account elected to ignore the en­tire undignified circumstance and went about their normal pursuits, with neither more nor less punctilio than usual. A few cadets, des­perate to the point of hysteria, took up weapons and prepared to resist the final assault. Others still, perhaps a quarter of the total population, waited passively, ready—almost happy—to expiate the sins of the human race. In the end death came uniformly to all; and all extracted as much satisfaction in their dying as this essentially graceless process could afford.

    The closing lines of Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock:
    The afternoon is too tempting to be denied. It isn’t Paradise here, or even close, but the mimosa is in bloom and the air from the sea is cool and pleasant. On days like this I think of poor old Magnus Stepney’s evolving Green God, harking us all up to Eden. The Green God’s voice is faint enough that few of us hear it clearly, and that’s our tragedy, I suppose, as a species—but I hear it very distinctly just now. It asks me to step into the sunshine, and I mean to do its bidding.

  22. Posted April 26, 2020 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful post. Two of my favorite authors are Erich Maria Remarque and Louis Bromfield (Night in Bombay especially). Zora Neale Hurston also has some beautiful passages from Their Eyes Were Watching God: “ Love is like the sea. It’s a moving thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from the shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.” and “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time”.

  23. Posted May 19, 2020 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    This is a great read. I just finished The Great Gatsby and it is an exquisite book.


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