Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Some great scenes from 2014 - Will you look at this! - that is all I am trying to say

Although respecting ancient tradition I made a list of best books, the fact is that I only read books incidentally.  I actually read words and lines and so on, arranged in ways that suggest scenes or characters or ideas.  I wish I were better at remembering lines and words.  What I remember are scenes.

Here are some good ones from books I read this year.  From books not mentioned yesterday, to add an arbitrary rule.

1.  Émile Zola worked in a way I understand: write big scenes and minimally fill in the connective matter.  Chapter 3 of L’Assommoir (1877) is one long working class wedding scene.  The guests gather at a bar, because of the rain they mill around, drinking, finally they wander off to the wedding dinner, where they spend many pages eating, and drinking, and eating some more.  In the middle of the chapter the guests spend four pages lost in the Louvre, baffled by the art, or laughing at it.  Not a kind scene – not a kind novel – but a good one.  “’Will you look at this!’ Boche kept saying.”  Exactly.

2.  Another party, Midsummer’s Eve, from Chapter 18 of Martin Andersen Nexø’s Pelle the Conqueror (1906).  Pure joy in a grim novel. “It had been an incomparable day for Lasse and for Pelle – making up for many years of neglect.  Too bad that it was over instead of just beginning.”

3.  Mary Delany for the first time looks at a flower and realizes that she could make an image of it out of colored paper.  She is 72.  In the next decade, she follows that one with 984 more flower portraits.  Molly Peacock, describing the scene in The Paper Garden (2010), can place Delany’s tools around her – ink, glue, scissors, paper – and can describe the flower, but not the mystery of inspiration.  

When the Duchess came in to check on her friend, shocked that she had taken apart her new scarlet geranium, then delighted that what Mary had composed were the petals in paper replication, the first of the great work had begun.

“I have invented a new way of imitating flowers.”

Right then Mary Delany’s friend of more that forty years supplied exactly what was necessary: applause.  (p. 309)

4.  Goethe’s Roman girlfriend, a waitress, “accidentally” spills wine on the table.  From Roman Elegies (1795).

5.  Moomintroll glimpses the spirit of winter, the Lady of the Cold, one of the strangest of many strange scenes in Trollvinter by Tove Jansson (1957).  A horse made of snow comes to life.  One of Jansson’s rare gifts was a mythic imagination.

6.  Not all memorable scenes are even scenes.  A paragraph in Johann Peter Hebel’s “Unexpected Reunion” that shows the passage of time by listing historical events has an uncanny, sublime effect that is hard to describe.

7.  Similarly: the part where Sebald visits Rousseau’s Swiss house.  Or where Eduard Mörike can’t stop writing, or where Gottfried Keller can’t stop writing, or where Robert Walser can’t stop writing.  This is all from W. G. Sebald’s A Place in the Country (1998).  The chapter on Walser ends with the writer floating away in a balloon (pp. 162-4).  Literary criticism conducted by means of scenes.

I could keep going.  I guess that is what I mostly do here.  But now it’s vacation time.  I’ll return in January to goof around with Italian literature.

Have a good holiday!


  1. Happy Holiday!!!! I loved these scenes. Mary Delany's will be my inspiration for 2015!

  2. The scene in the Delany book is genuinely inspirational.

  3. I love Moomintroll! And Zola's not bad himself. ;-) Of course, the rest are unfamiliar to me .... I'm still trying to get through the mainstream classics. I must mine your blog for titles for my second Classics Club list!

    Merry Christmas!

  4. You are right. Other than Goethe, the mainest of the mainstream, my more conventional choices are mostly in yesterday's list.

    Please, mine away. Take whatever you find. After this many years there is starting to be quite a lot. A lot of what, I will not say.

    One rich vein for you could be José Maria Eça de Queirós (e.g., the Zola connection). Cousin Basilio in particular.

  5. You are right about Tove Jansson and her Moomin books. Her children's books make worthwhile reading for adults as well.

  6. Tom, I'm already getting the withdrawal pangs from WE's break in publishing. Hope you enjoy your vacation and all, but please don't get carried away with the time off thing! Anyway, it was a great pleasure keeping company with your blog again this year--I thank you for all your hard work and in particular for maintaining such a high quality of writing at such a furious pace.

  7. Hi Tom

    Sharing about specific scenes is a great idea.

    I wish you and your wife a Joyeux Noël.

    Looking forward to that reading year in Italy!


  8. The Zola wedding party and the Louvre visit were just totally hilarious.

  9. So many great scenes pointed out by you throughout the year…thanks for sharing all of them and enjoy your break. I can't wait to see what your Italian explorations uncover. Cheers!

    P.S. - Kicking myself still for having acted too slowly to arrange to see Delany's flower pieces at the British Museum last year. If there's a next time, please, I'll plan months in advance.

  10. Thanks for the holiday wishes. I have been catching up on everyone's writing. Some of you wrote a lot in the last ten days. I, by contrast, did nothing but eat.

    I'll start messing around with Italian books on Monday, I hope.