Books of our times

I'm excited about Marilynne Robinson's new novel, Lila. It revisits the place and the people from Gilead and Home, but it sounds like an entirely new voice. The first page gave me a shock like a plunge in cold water on a hot day.

I'm excited about Hilary Mantel's new novel, but in this interview she says she's got another year of work to do on it. She also says the Cromwell books might be the thing she could have done that nobody else could have done, which sounds like a wonderful thing to be able to say about one's books.

I enjoyed Toni Morrison's appearance on Colbert, in which she said that she knew her books were good. He asked whether she felt herself worthy of the Nobel and the Pulitzer she holds, and she replied that the books were worthy, which is different. I'm excited about her new novel too, out next year.

In her address last week at the National Book Awards, where she accepted the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Ursula K Le Guin said that hard times were coming and we would need writers who remembered what freedom was.

I've said before that there aren't many living writers I admire. It's thrilling to think that the best living writers might be yet to do their best work; at once unsettling and consoling to think that we will need it.


For Ben

Sometimes, hidden from me in daily custom and in ritual
I live by you unaware, as if by the beating of my heart.
Suddenly you flare again in my sight
A wild rose at the edge of the thicket where yesterday there was only shade
And I am blessed and choose again,
That which I chose before.

    Wendell Berry, “The Wild Rose." (Via Catherine)



Here's one I prepared earlier

Shakespeare has a special line in obsessive, consumptive love; love that feels more like death than life. Even where the love itself is unhealthy, unworthy, or foreshortened by circumstance, his descriptions of that morbid state are magnificent. This is Helena, from All's well that ends well, confessing her love for Bertram. No matter that Bertram is a total jerk who spurns her repeatedly until he is tricked into accepting her. The poetry is beautiful, and in immortalising the feeling, it effaces Bertram's peculiar flaws; it survives his unworthiness.

I am undone: there is no living, none,
If Bertram be away. ’Twere all one
That I should love a bright particular star
And think to wed it, he is so above me:
In his bright radiance and collateral light
Must I be comforted, not in his sphere.
The ambition in my love thus plagues itself:
The hind that would be mated by the lion
Must die for love. ’Twas pretty, though plague,
To see him every hour; to sit and draw
His arched brows, his hawking eye, his curls,
In our heart’s table; heart too capable
Of every line and trick of his sweet favour:
But now he’s gone, and my idolatrous fancy
Must sanctify his reliques.



Belittled Women

Further to my thoughts about books and babies and keeping house, I came across this sortie from an unlikely source: Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women. This is from the less well-known Rose in Bloom, published in 1876. Unlike her better-known counterpart, Jo March, Rose proves you don't have to be a tomboy to seek something other and better than a pretty domesticity. 

“Phebe and I believe that it is as much a right and a duty for women to do something with their lives as for men, and we are not going to be satisfied with such frivolous parts as you give us," cried Rose with kindling eyes. "I mean what I say, and you cannot laugh me down. Would you be contented to be told to enjoy yourself for a little while, then marry and do nothing more till you die?" she added, turning to Archie. 

"Of course not, that is only a part of a man's life," he answered decidedly. 

"A very precious and lovely part, but not all," continued Rose. "Neither should it be for a woman, for we've got minds and souls as well as hearts; ambition and talents as well as beauty and accomplishments; and we want to live and learn as well as love and be loved. I'm sick of being told that is all a woman is fit for! I won't have anything to do with love till I prove that I am something besides a housekeeper and baby-tender!" 

Attagirl, Rose! 


In the springing of the year

Since today's a proper spring day, and I'm sitting in our garden where there's bees in the lavender and in the apple blossom, here's Robert Frost's "A prayer in Spring." It seems strange to have to ask for pleasure in a beautiful spring day, but it's true we often need reminding to take pleasure when it's offered, to find happiness in what's given, and to keep ourselves here.

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away
As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year.

Oh, give us pleasure in the orchard white,
Like nothing else by day, like ghosts by night;
And make us happy in the happy bees,
The swarm dilating round the perfect trees.

And make us happy in the darting bird
That suddenly above the bees is heard,
The meteor that thrusts in with needle bill,
And off a blossom in mid air stands still.

For this is love and nothing else is love,
The which it is reserved for God above
To sanctify to what far ends He will,
But which it only needs that we fulfil.