Saskatchewan, 1938. Maurice is a young man from the city, in Ontario, who makes occasional trips to the dustbowl farmland of Saskatchewan to study the weather. His urban charm easily captivates the rural farm-folk, especially the women.

To see someone questioned by Maurice was to watch a window as the curtains opened. He made people more interesting than they were. They rose to meet the interest he had in them, and that was the point, inspired by the quality of his attention.

But when he saw Mrs. Haaring again (it was the following November on his last visit), he didn’t remember her. She mentioned the long, talkative house party at the Hardys. Of course, he said, you taught me that old sea shanty. No, she said gently, that was Miriam Wolfe. He bore his mistake gracefully, without embarrassment or apology. Of course, he said. And she realized how much more he had penetrated her mind than she had penetrated his, which was natural enough, she said to herself, his charm wasn’t his fault. Still, that long night had awakened in her an affection and an interest, and now a disappointment of equal proportion. Apparently he paid less attention than he appeared to, or his attention was no less intense than it appeared to be, but it was short-lived, or his interests were too varied, or his character was not of the same consistency as his manner. In any case, he trailed disappointment behind him and was unaware of it. She was only a vague face in his mind, a farmwife from Belgium, or was it Holland?

From A Student of Weather, by Elizabeth Hay (published 2000).

Published in: on September 9, 2013 at 10:44 am  Leave a Comment  

On the Dewey Decimal System

Jeanette Winterson, in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (which is, in some ways, a retelling of her 1990 novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit) remembers a librarian she was fond of while coming of age in the south of the north of England in the 1970s:

The librarian was explaining the benefits of the Dewey decimal system to her junior – benefits that extended to every area of life. It was orderly, like the universe. It had logic. It was dependable. Using it allowed a kind of moral uplift, as one’s own chaos was also brought under control.

“Whenever I am troubled,” said the librarian, “I think about the Dewey decimal system.”

“Then what happens?” asked the junior, rather overawed.

“Then I understand that trouble is just something that has been filed in the wrong place.”

And later:

“Who was Gertrude Stein?”

“A modernist. She wrote without regard to meaning.”

“Is that why she is under Humour, like Spike Milligan?”

“Within the Dewey decimal system there is a certain amount of discretion.”

From Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (published 2011).

Published in: on April 8, 2013 at 8:51 am  Comments (1)  
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Work is a Curse

Vichy, France, 1942. Lebeau, a painter, has been rounded up by the fascist authorities along with Bayard, an electrician, Marchand, a businessman, and several others, all suspected as Jews. As they wait for their interviews with the army Major and the police Captain, they get to know one another.


You know–you all remind me of my father. Always worshipped the hard-working Germans. And now you hear it all over France–we have to learn how to work like the Germans. Good God, don’t you ever read history? Whenever a people starts to work hard, watch out, they’re going to kill somebody,


That depends on how production is organized. If it’s for private profit, yes, but–


What are you talking about, when did the Russians start getting dangerous? When they learned how to work. Look at the Germans–for a thousand years peaceful, disorganized people–they start working and they’re on everybody’s back. Nobody’s afraid of the Africans, are they? Because they don’t work. Read the Bible–work is a curse, you’re not supposed to worship work.


And how do you propose to produce anything?


Well, that’s the problem.

From Incident at Vichy, by Arthur Miller (published 1964.)

Published in: on January 3, 2013 at 1:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

Not Interested in Global Warming

Michael Beard, aging Nobel laureate and wholesale curmudgeon, was initially not very interested in the issue of global warming. Before he realized there was opportunity at hand, here’s what he thought of it:

There was an Old Testament ring to the forewarnings, an air of plague-of-boils and deluge-0f-frogs, that suggested a deep and constant inclination, enacted over the centuries, to believe that one was always living at the end of days, that one’s own demise was urgently bound up with the end of the world and therefore made more sense, or was just a little less irrelevant. The end of the world was never pitched in the present, where it could be seen for the fantasy it was, but just around the corner, and when it did not happen, a new issue, a new date, would soon emerge. The old world purified by incendiary violence, washed clean by the blood of the unsaved–that was how it had been for Christian millennial sects: death to the unbelievers! And for Soviet Communitist: death to the kulaks! And for Nazis and their thousand-year fantasy: death to the Jews! And then the truly democratic contemporary equivalent, an all-out nuclear war: death to everyone! When that did not happen, and after the Soviet empire had been devoured by its internal contradictions, and in the absence of any other overwhelming concern beyond boring, intransigent global poverty, the apocalyptic tendency had conjured yet another beast.

From Solar, by Ian McEwan (published 2010).

Published in: on November 27, 2012 at 10:54 pm  Comments (1)  

The Charming Details of Edna Pontellier

Edna Pontellier, the protagonist of Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel of a woman’s inner struggle in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, was — like many people — rather ordinary at first glance but quite charming to the discriminating eye.

The charm of Edna Pontellier’s physique stole insensibly upon you. The lines of her body were long, clean and symmetrical; it was a body which occasionally fell into splendid poses; there was no suggestion of the trim, stereotyped fashion-plate about it. A casual and indiscriminating observer, in passing, might not cast a second glance upon the figure. But with more feeling and discernment he would have recognized the noble beauty of its modelling, and the graceful severity of poise and movement, which made Edna Pontellier different from the crowd.

From The Awakening, by Kate Chopin (published 1899).

Published in: on November 18, 2012 at 8:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

On Prole Envy

In pre-war England, a “prole” is a member of the proletariat, sometimes disparagingly referred to as a “navvy” (unskilled manual labourer with no fixed employment). The protagonist of Coming Up for Air is an embittered lower-middle-class salary man living in Ellesemere Road, an inconsequential “inner-outer suburb” populated with people very much like himself. They’re neither working class (prole) nor bourgeoisie; they are stuck, uncomfortably, in the middle.

When you’ve time to look about you, and when you happen to be in the right mood, it’s a thing that makes you laugh inside to walk down these streets in the inner-outer suburbs and to think of the lives that go on there. Because, after all, what is a road like Ellesmere Road? Just a prison with the cells all in a row. A line of semi-detatched torture-chambers where the poor little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and the wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches. There’s a lot of rot talked about the sufferings of the working class. I’m not so sorry for the proles myself. Did you ever know a navvy who lay awake thinking about the sack? The prole suffers physically, but he’s a free man when he isn’t working. But in every one of those little stucco boxes there’s some poor bastard who’s never free except when he’s asleep and dreaming that he’s got the boss down the bottom of a well and is bunging lumps of coal at him.

From Coming up for Air, by George Orwell (published 1950)

Published in: on October 16, 2012 at 6:46 am  Leave a Comment