The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys

★★★★☆ (4/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

What a pity to see a mind as great as Napoleon’s devoted to trivial things such as empires, historic events, the thundering of cannons and of men; he believed in glory, in posterity, in Caesar; nations in turmoil and other trifles absorbed all his attention. . . . How could he fail to see that what really mattered was something else entirely?

—PAUL VALÉRY

  • In actual fact, although they did not feel the slightest respect for him, something prevented them from bullying him. Was it his aloofness, his obstinate silence that created a certain distance, or his plump white hands, like a bishop’s, that gave him a mysterious dignity? Perhaps they simply took pity on his physical weakness and his prodigious ineptitude in performing any sort of manual work.
  • He was tall, but a good half century spent bending over stoves in low-ceilinged galleys had broken him up into several angular segments, like a half-folded pocket rule
  • His face was split by a huge gaping mouth; in this grotto, as black and dirty as the maw of his stove, there emerged one or two teeth, like slimy rocks protruding at low tide
  • The strange thing is that, far from discouraging Nigger-Nicholas, this very indifference seemed to increase his solicitude.
  • Between the persona he had shed, and the one he had not yet created, he was no one
  • The sky was divided between night and dawn—blue-black from the west to the zenith, pearl-white in the east—and was completely filled with the most fantastic cloud architecture one could possibly imagine
  • The night breeze had erected huge unfinished palaces, colonnades, towers, and glaciers, and then had abandoned this heavenly chaos in solemn stillness, to be a pedestal for the dawn
  • The flamboyant mysteries of dawn had faded into the banality of plain day
  • He has always had the unshakable conviction that all the setbacks that have happened in his life, even those that seemed the most painful and futile, must in some way or another actively contribute to the working out of his destiny
  • And what of Napoleon? To tell the truth, at that moment his mind was occupied, much against his will, with a thought so futile that he himself was irritated by it: Who on earth was Louis?
  • Her voice, even when she was describing disasters, still had a kind of cheerfulness. In the midst of ruination, this woman radiated a warmth and vitality which could be felt in the old house itself, in spite of its being so bare.
  • It was a long vigil. They wept, talked, drank. That night, a strange intimacy, forged from their common grief, bound together these old children who found themselves all at once orphans of the same dream.
  • In a Europe which could not find a single adversary worthy of opposing him, the dismemberment of states, the carving up of empires, the dethronement of kings were hardly challenges to him . . . But now an obscure noncommissioned officer, simply by dying like a fool on a deserted rock at the other end of the world, had managed to confront him with the most formidable and unexpected rival imaginable: himself!
  • For the first time, he began to see himself as he really was, naked and defenseless at the center of a universal debacle, buffeted this way and that by events, threatened on every side by an all-pervasive decay, sinking slowly into the quicksands of failed resolutions, and finally disappearing into the ultimate morass against which no honor could prevail
  • The doctor kept looking at him; his eyelids were strangely bereft of lashes, giving his eyes an unpleasantly fixed stare
  • Previously, during the long hours they spent alone together in the evenings, silence had wrapped them round in a warm feeling of security, whereas now it became unbearable, loaded with permanent menace.
  • He began to perceive more clearly that greatness should always be on its guard against the snares of happiness. The most brilliant achievements of his past career had been but a dream from which he was awakening at last. It was only now that his genius was coming to maturity. The epic of his past was no more than a confused and aimless burst of youthful energy compared with what he would be able to achieve, now that there would be no emotions, no attachments to stand between his creative intelligence and his will to act. He was reaching a higher plane of existence, and on these heights he breathed deeply of an air so pure that it would have burned the lungs of ordinary men.
Advertisements

Death Comes As the End by Agatha Christie

★★★★☆ (4/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • She was eternally laying down the law, hectoring the servants, finding fault with everything, getting impossible things done by sheer force of vituperation and personality.
  • You couldn’t be grateful to Henet—she drew attention to her own merits so persistently that it chilled any generous response you might have felt.
  • And suddenly Renisenb felt stifled, encircled by this persistent and clamorous femininity. Women—noisy, vociferous women! A houseful of women—never quiet, never peaceful—always talking, exclaiming, saying things—not doing them!
  • Though usually comfortably conscious of his own importance, his mother could always pierce the armour of his self-esteem.
  • And although he knew well that his own estimate of himself was the true one and his mother’s a maternal idiosyncrasy of no importance—yet her attitude never failed to puncture his happy conceit of himself.
  • It may be that there must always be growth—and that if one does not grow kinder and wiser and greater, then the growth must be the other way, fostering the evil things.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

“His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow,” Saunders writes of Lincoln, “toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow, that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because, in this state, he could be of no help to anyone and, given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it.”

  • The terror and consternation of the Presidential couple may be imagined by anyone who has ever loved a child, and suffered that dread intimation common to all parents, that Fate may not hold that life in as high a regard, and may dispose of it at will.
  • He was softly sobbing, his sadness aggravated by his mounting frustration at being lost.
  • He was his father over again both in magnetic personality and in all his gifts and tastes.
  • He was the child in whom Lincoln had invested his fondest hopes; a small mirror of himself, as it were, to whom he could speak frankly, openly, and confidingly.
  • From nothingness, there arose great love; now, its source nullified, that love, searching and sick, converts to the most abysmal suffering imaginable.
  • I shall never forget those solemn moments—genius and greatness weeping over love’s lost idol.
  • and the terrible storm without seemed almost in unison with the storm of grief within.
  • He did not seem to see me, but only endeavored to possess me;
  • What seems like abundance is in fact scarcity.
  • Strange that the gentleman had come here in the first place; stranger still that he lingered.
  • When one owns four homes and has fifteen full-time gardeners perfecting one’s seven gardens and eight man-made streams, one will, of necessity, spend a great deal of time racing between homes and from garden to garden, and so it is perhaps not surprising if, one afternoon, rushing to check on the progress of a dinner one’s cook is preparing for the board of one’s favorite charity, one finds oneself compelled to take a little rest, briefly dropping to one knee, then both knees, then pitching forward on to one’s face and, unable to rise, proceeding here for a more prolonged rest, only to find it not restful at all, since, while ostensibly resting, one finds oneself continually fretting about one’s carriages, gardens, furniture, homes, et al., all of which (one hopes) patiently await one’s return, not having (Heaven forfend) fallen into the hands of some (reckless, careless, undeserving) Other.
  • driven mad by the certainty that some sort of satisfaction must be near at hand.
  • He must either be in a happy place, or some null place by now.
  • Because I loved him so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the form of fussing and worry and doing. Only there is nothing left to do.
  • His headstrong nature, a virtue in that previous place, imperils him here, where the natural law, harsh and arbitrary, brooks no rebellion, and must be scrupulously obeyed.
  • Some blows fall too heavy upon those too fragile.
  • I was dead. I felt the urge to go. I went.
  • have been here since and have, as instructed, refrained from speaking of any of this, to anyone. What would be the point? For any of us here, it is too late for any alteration of course. All is done. We are shades, immaterial, and since that judgment pertains to what we did (or did not do) in that previous (material) realm, correction is now forever beyond our means.
  • The saddest eyes of any human being that I have ever seen. In “Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness,” by Joshua Wolf Shenk, account of John Widmer.
  • He never appeared ugly to me, for his face, beaming with boundless kindness and benevolence towards mankind, had the stamp of intellectual beauty.
  • But even when you are a solitary older lady it is no treat to be dumb. Always at a party or so on you are left to sit by the fire, smiling as if happy, knowing none desire to speak with you. – Miss Tamara Doolittle
  • Strange, though: it is the memory of those moments that bothers me most. The thought, specifically, that other men enjoyed whole lifetimes comprised of such moments.
  • He was attempting to formulate a goodbye, in some sort of positive spirit, not wishing to enact that final departure in gloom, in case it might be felt, somehow, by the lad (even as he told himself that the lad was now past all feeling); but all within him was sadness, guilt, and regret, and he could find little else.
  • How hard, in order to save the country, to sustain a man who is incompetent.
  • Well, what of it. No one who has ever done anything worth doing has gone uncriticized.
  • Those of us who knew the Lincoln children personally, and saw them running around the White House like a pair of wild savages, will attest to the fact that this was a household in a state of perpetual bedlam, where indiscriminate permission was confused with filial love.
  • If the party did not hasten the boy’s end it must certainly have exacerbated his suffering.
  • He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness. Only I did not think it would be so soon. Or that he would precede us. Two passing temporarinesses developed feelings for one another. Two puffs of smoke became mutually fond. I mistook him for a solidity, and now must pay. I am.
  • We were as we were! the bass lisper barked. How could we have been otherwise? Or, being that way, have done otherwise? We were that way, at that time, and had been led to that place, not by any innate evil in ourselves, but by the state of our cognition and our experience up until that moment. By Fate, by Destiny, said the Vermonter. By the fact that time runs in only one direction, and we are borne along by it, influenced precisely as we are, to do just the things that we do, the bass lisper said. And then are cruelly punished for it, said the woman.
  • To be grouped with these, accepting one’s sins so passively, even proudly, with no trace of repentance? I could not bear it; must I, even now, be beyond all hope? (Perhaps, I thought, this is faith: to believe our God ever receptive to the smallest good intention.) – The Reverend Everly Thomas
  • At the core of each lay suffering; our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end.
  • He was leaving here broken, awed, humbled, diminished. – Roger Bevins
  • Reduced, ruined, remade. – Roger Bevins
  • Our grief must be defeated; it must not become our master, and make us ineffective, and put us even deeper into the ditch.

The October Country by Ray Bradbury

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

THE OCTOBER COUNTRY . . . that country where it is always turning late in the year.  That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coalbins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…

The Dwarf

  • Two customers had passed through an hour before. Those two lonely people were now in the roller coaster, screaming murderously as it plummeted down the blazing night, around one emptiness after another.

The Next in Line

  • She did not think it unusual, her choice of the feminine pronoun. Already she had identified herself with that tiny fragment parceled like an unripe variety of fruit. Now, in this moment, she was being carried up the hill within compressing darkness, a stone in a peach, silent and terrified, the touch of the father against the coffin material outside; gentle and noiseless and firm inside.
  • In order for a thing to be horrible it has to suffer a change you can recognize.
  • They looked as if they had leaped, snapped upright in their graves, clutched hands over their shriveled bosoms and screamed, jaws wide, tongues out, nostrils flared. And been frozen that way.
  • The fearful ricochet of vision, growing, growing, taking impetus from swollen breast to raving mouth, wall to wall, wall to wall, again, again, like a ball hurled in a game, caught in the incredible teeth, spat in a scream across the corridor to be caught in claws, lodged between thin teats, the whole standing chorus invisibly chanting the game on, on, the wild game of sight recoiling, rebounding, reshuttling on down the inconceivable procession, through a montage of erected horrors that ended finally and for all time when vision crashed against the corridor ending with one last scream from all present!
  • How talented was death. How many expressions and manipulations of hand, face, body, no two alike.
  • Her mouth opened and closed. The shop had a veil over it, in her eyes. Here she was and here were these small baked adobe people to whom she could say nothing and from whom she could get no words she understood, and she was in a town of people who said no words to her and she said no words to them except in blushing confusion and bewilderment. And the town was circled by desert and time, and home was far away, far away in another life. She whirled and fled.
  • But there was no word and the veins did not rest easy in the wrists and the heart was a bellows forever blowing upon a little coal of fear, forever illumining and making it into a cherry light, again, pulse, and again, an ingrown light which her inner eyes stared upon with unwanting fascination.
  • “If I had a religion,” she said, ignoring him, “I’d have a lever with which to lift myself. But I haven’t a lever now and I don’t know how to lift myself.”

The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse

  • Here lay a typical Garvey silence. Here sat the largest manufacturer and deliverer of silences in the world; name one, he could provide it packaged and tied with throat-clearings and whispers. Embarrassed, pained, calm, serene, indifferent, blessed, golden, or nervous silences; Garvey was in there.
  • They didn’t want opinions on alchemy and symbolism given in a piccolo voice, Garvey’s subconscious warned him. They only wanted Garvey’s good old-fashioned plain white bread and churned country butter, to be chewed on later at a dim bar, exclaiming how priceless!

Skeleton

  • She had a way of dancing into any room, her body doing all sorts of soft, agreeable things to keep her feet from ever quite touching the nap of a rug.
  • Harris stood. His SKELETON held him up! This thing inside, this invader, this horror, was supporting his arms, legs, and head! It was like feeling someone just behind you who shouldn’t be there. With every step, he realized how dependent he was on this other Thing.
  • Well, consider the skeleton; slender, svelte, economical of line and contour. Exquisitely carved oriental ivory! Perfect, thin as a white praying mantis!

The Jar

  • It was getting late. The merry-go-round drowsed down to a lazy mechanical tinkle.
  • It seemed to Charlie that Tom Carmody was forever installed under porches in shadow, or under trees in shadow, or if in a room, then in the farthest niche shining his eyes out at you from the dark. You never knew what his face was doing, and his eyes were always funning you. And every time they looked at you they laughed a different way.
  • After a period of proper silence, someone, maybe old Gramps Medknowe from Crick Road, would clear the phlegm from a deep cave somewhere inside himself, lean forward, blinking, wet his lips, maybe, and there’d be a curious tremble in his calloused fingers. This would cue everyone to get ready for the talking to come. Ears were primed. People settled like sows in the warm mud after a rain.
  • Juke nodded his head now, eyes bright, young, seeing into the past, making it new, shaping it with words, smoothing it with his tongue.
  • For too many years her hips had been the pendulum by which he reckoned the time of his living. But other men, Tom Carmody, for one, were reckoning time from the same source.

The Lake

  • A train has a poor memory; it soon puts all behind
  • Like a memory, a train works both ways. A train can bring rushing back all those things you left behind so many years before.

Touched with Fire

  • With luck, a potential victim might not happen to cross the tracks of a potential murderer for fifty years. Then–one afternoon–fate! These people, these death-prones, touch all the wrong nerves in passing strangers; they brush the murder in all our breasts.

The Small Assassin

  • Then, far away, wailing like some small meteor dying in the vast inky gulf of space, the baby began to cry in his nursery.
  • “What is more at peace, more dreamfully content, at ease, at rest, fed, comforted, unbothered, than an unborn child? Nothing. It floats in a sleepy, timeless wonder of nourishment and silence. Then, suddenly, it is asked to give up its berth, is forced to vacate, rushed out into a noisy, uncaring, selfish world where it is asked to shift for itself, to hunt, to feed from the hunting, to seek after a vanishing love that once was its unquestionable right, to meet confusion instead of inner silence and conservative slumber! And the child resents it! Resents the cold air, the huge spaces, the sudden departure from familiar things. And in the tiny filament of brain the only thing the child knows is selfishness and hatred because the spell has been rudely shattered.

Jack-in-the-Box

  • He looked through the cold morning windows with the Jack-in-the-Box in his hands, prying the rusted lid. But no matter how he struggled, the Jack would not jump to the light with a cry, or slap its velvet mittens on the air, or bob in a dozen directions with a wild and painted smile. Crushed under the lid, in its jail, it stayed crammed tight coil on coil. With your ear to the box, you felt pressure beneath, the fear and panic of the trapped toy.
  • In the hail, on her way downstairs, Mother dropped a champagne bottle. Edwin heard and was cold, for the thought that jumped through his head was, that’s how Mother’d sound. If she fell, if she broke, you’d find a million fragments in the morning.

The Man Upstairs

  • Douglas felt a pure white flame of hatred burn inside himself with a steady, unflickering beauty. Now that room was Koberman Land. Once it had been flowery bright when Miss Sadlowe lived there. Now it was stark, bare, cold, clean, everything in its place, alien and brittle.

The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone

  • “But John Oatis said quite seriously: ‘I’m going to kill you, Mr. Stone.'” “What did you do?” “Do? I sat there, stunned, riven; I heard a terrible slam! the coffin lid in my face! I heard coal down a black chute; dirt on my buried door. They say all your past hurtles by at such times. Nonsense. The future does.”
  • “Writing was always so much mustard and gallweed to me; fidgeting words on paper, experiencing vast depressions of heart and soul. Watching the greedy critics graph me up, chart me down, slice me like sausage, eat me at midnight breakfasts. Work of the worst sort. I was ready to fling the pack. My trigger was set. Boom! There was John Oatis! Look here.”
  • I had been writing about living. Now I wanted to live. Do things instead of tell about things. I ran for the board of education. I won. I ran for alderman. I won. I ran for Mayor. I won! Sheriff! Town librarian! Sewage disposal official. I shook a lot of hands, saw a lot of life, did a lot of things. We’ve lived every way there is to live, with our eyes and noses and mouths, with our ears and hands.