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.
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.
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.
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.