Doug Bruns

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On the Day We Are All Irish

In Creativity, Writers, Writing on March 17, 2013 at 11:06 am
James Joyce

James Joyce

On a day when everyone loves James Joyce, I thought it would be appropriate to share one of my favorite passages in all of literature, from one of my favorite books in all of literature, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. This from the last page of that magnificent book–the young artist has broken ties of home and country and has come to realize the potential of his genius. He is about to set off, an exile, in pursuit of his art:

16 April: Away! Away!

The spell of arms and voices: the white arms of roads, their promise of close embraces and the black arms of tall ships that stand against the moon, their tale of distant nations. They are held out to say: We are alone. Come. And the voices say with them: We are your kinsmen. And the air is thick with their company as they call to me, their kinsman, making ready to go, shaking the wings of their exultant and terrible youth.

26 April: Mother is putting my new secondhand clothes in order. She prays now, she says, that I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels. Amen. So be it. Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

27 April: Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.

Dublin 1904

Trieste 1914

I don’t know how many times I’ve read those paragraphs over the years and they still make my heart race and my eyes misty. O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. Indeed! Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, friends!

Writers on Reading

In Books, Literature, Reading, Writers, Writing on February 25, 2013 at 6:00 am

It strikes me as cheap and lazy to happen across a page of quotes, a quote being the fastest exit on the highway such that you don’t have to drive any longer. Despite my distrust of the quote, I enjoy reading them. And, yes, I plug them in with abandon, being if nothing else, too often cheap and lazy. Montaigne said somewhere that he includes a quote in his work because someone said previously better what he stuggles to say now. Or something like that, I should look up it.

So, given reading as a subject, a worthy subject we often consider here at “…the house…“, I have transcribed below quotes on the subject from those who know it best, writers. I hope you enjoy.

Truman Capote:

I have a passion for newspapers…read all the New York dailies every day, and the Sunday editions of several foreign magazines too. The ones I don’t buy I read standing at the newstands. I average about five books a week…the normal length novel takes me about two hours. I enjoy thrillers and would like someday to write one. Though I prefer first-rate fiction, for the last few years my reading seems to have been concentrated on letters and journals and biographies.

John Barth:

The great guides were the books I discovered in the Johns Hopkins Library, where my student job was to file books away. One was more or less encouraged to take a cart of books and go back into the stacks and not come out for seven or eight hours. So I read what I was filing. My great teachers (the best thing that can happen to a writer) were Schederazade, Homer, Virgil, and Boccaccio; also the great Sanskrit taletellers. I was impressed forever with the width as well as the depth of literature–just what a kid from the sticks, from the swamp, in my case, needed.

John Dos Passos:

[Hemingway] and I used to read the Bible to each other. He began it. We read separate little scenes. From Kings, Chronicles. We didn’t make anything out of it–the reading–but Ernest at that time talked a lot about style. He was crazy about Stephen Crane’s The Blue HotelIt affected him very much. I was very much taken with him. He took me around to Gertrude Stein’s. I wasn’t quite at home there. A Buddha sitting up there, surveying us. Ernest was much less noisy then than he was in later life. He felt such people were instructive.

Gabriel García Márquez:

One night [at college] a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went bck to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed, I was so surprised. The first line reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect….” When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories.

Susan Sontag:

Well, literature does educate us about life. I wouldn’t be the person I am, I wouldn’t understand what I understand, were it not for certain books. I’m thinking of the great question of nineteenth-century Russian literature: how should one live? A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.

Katherine Anne Porter:

All the old houses that I knew when I was a child were full of books, bought generation after generation by members of the family. Everyone was literate as a matter of course. Nobody told you to read this or not to read that. It was there to read, and we read. I grew up in a sort of mélange. I was reading Shakespeare’s sonnets when I was thirteen years old, and I’m perfectly certain that they made the most profound impression upon me of anything I every read….We had a very good library of–well, you might say secular philosophers. I was incredibly influenced by Montaigne when I was very young. And one day when I was about fourteen, my father led me up to a great big line of books and said, “Why don’t you read this? It’ll knock some of the nonsense out of you!” It happened to be the entire set of Voltaire’s philosophical dictionary with notes by Smollett. And I plowed through it; it took me about five years.

E.B. White:

I was never a voracious reader and, in fact, have done little reading in my life. There are too many other things I would rather do than read….It is a matter of some embarrassment to me that I have never read Joyce and a dozen other writers who have changed the face of literature. But there you are. I picked up Ulysses the other evening, when my eye lit on it, and gave it a go. I stayed with it only for about twenty minutes, then was off and away. It takes more than a genius to keep me reading a book.

Don DeLillo:

When I was eighteen, I got a summer job as a play-ground attendant–a parkie. And I was told to wear a white T-shirt and brown pants and brown shoes and a whistle around my neck–which they provided, the whistle. But I never acquired the rest of the outfit. I wrote blue jeans and checkered shirts and kept the whistle in my picket and just sat on a park bench disguised as an ordinary citizen. And this is where I read Faulker, As I Lay Dying and Light in August. And got paid for it. And then James Joyce, and it was through Joyce that I learned to see something in language that carried a radiance, something that made me feel the beauty and fervor of words, the sense that a word has a life and a history. And I’d look at a sentence in Ulysses or in Moby Dick or in Hemingway–maybe I hadn’t gotten to Ulysses at that point, it was Portrait of the Artistbut certainly Hemingway and the water that was clear and swiftly moving and the way the troops went marching down the road and raised dust that powdered the leaves of the trees. All this in a playground in the Bronx.

Thanks for reading.

d

Valentine’s Day

In Writers on February 14, 2013 at 6:00 am
Antique Valentine's Day Card (1909)

,  Antique Valentine’s Day Card (1909)

I am by nature dismissive toward the artifacts of mass consumption, no matter the form. This means, among other things, that I have a low tolerance for holidays, national celebrations, observances, and mass ritual. It is not only the big stuff. I also shun birthdays, anniversaries, and those annoying “holidays” manufactured solely to extract money from one’s wallet. Valentine’s Day is no different, but falling as it does on a day when the micro-essay (read: blog post) is a hard time in coming, I think, with this little preamble (hoping I’ve not cast too dark a shadow on your day of cupidic celebration), I’ll move over and let the big guns do the talking. Have a nice day.

________________________

Compliments of The Writer’s Almanac here are three literary Valentine’s Day missives:

Nathaniel Hawthorn to his wife, Sophia, on the first anniversary of their marriage:

“We were never so happy as now — never such wide capacity for happiness, yet overflowing with all that the day and every moment brings to us. Methinks this birth-day of our married life is like a cape, which we have now doubled and find a more infinite ocean of love stretching out before us.”

And this, especially tender love letter from James Joyce to his beloved Nora:

“You are my only love. You have me completely in your power. I know and feel that if I am to write anything fine or noble in the future I shall do so only by listening to the doors of your heart. … I love you deeply and truly, Nora. … There is not a particle of my love that is not yours. … If you would only let me I would speak to you of everything in my mind but sometimes I fancy from your look that you would only be bored by me. Anyhow, Nora, I love you. I cannot live without you. I would like to give you everything that is mine, any knowledge I have (little as it is) any emotions I myself feel or have felt, any likes or dislikes I have, any hopes I have or remorse. I would like to go through life side by side with you, telling you more and more until we grew to be one being together until the hour should come for us to die. Even now the tears rush to my eyes and sobs choke my throat as I write this. Nora, we have only one short life in which to love. O my darling be only a little kinder to me, bear with me a little even if I am inconsiderate and unmanageable and believe me we will be happy together. Let me love you in my own way. Let me have your heart always close to mine to hear every throb of my life, every sorrow, every joy.”

Here is Zelda Fitzgerald, writing her husband:

“I look down the tracks and see you coming — and out of every haze & mist your darling rumpled trouser are hurrying to me — Without you, dearest dearest, I couldn’t see or hear or feel or think — or live — I love you so and I’m never in all our lives going to let us be apart another night. It’s like begging for mercy of a storm or killing Beauty or growing old, without you.

Lover, Lover, Darling — Your Wife”

Thanks for reading.

d

Would Nabokov think you a “good” reader?

In Books, Creativity, Literature, Writers, Writing on January 25, 2013 at 6:00 am

“A hundred years ago,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov, “Gustave Flaubert in a letter to his mistress made the following remark: ‘What a scholar one might be if one knew well only some half dozen books.'”

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov

My sophomore year in college found me in a comparative literature class. I didn’t know what comparative literature was, but it sounded up my alley. My introduction to the discipline was ill-fated, learning quickly that the serious student was the one reading the texts in the original language. That makes sense. I was fated with the knowledge that with my genetic indifference to languages not womb-embedded, I would be better served building on my tenuous hold of the known, and forsake aspirations foreign. The course, however, instilled in me a keen interest in world literature that continues to this day. For that I am grateful.

The comp-lit class was taught by an associate professor. He was young and enthusiastic and brimming with energy. It did not take him long to introduce us to Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), the reclusive writer, whom our young professor had once interviewed in Montreux, Switzerland, where the master was spending his autumnal days. I did not know of this Nabokov, but my curiosity was aroused. I soon consumed all things Nabokovian.

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A half-dozen years later Nabokov published his Lectures on Literature. The writer had, for nearly twenty years, flexed his substantial literary muscle in the classroom, first at Wellesley then Cornell–and here were his lectures. According to Lectures, this is how “the course” opens:

“With a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual, we shall watch the artist build the castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.”

With that, Nabokov launches into his lectures. One former student of the course, Ross Wetzsteon, recalls Nabokov the teacher advising, “‘Caress the details,’ Nabokov would utter, rolling the r, his voice the rough caress of a cat’s tongue, ‘the divine details.'”

Here is the syllabus:

I’ve read several of these books with Nabokov’s notes at my elbow. It is not unlike, I bet, sitting in a masterclass with Yo-Yo Ma.

Let me share with you an extended passage by the master from the introduction, Good Readers and Good Writers:

“One evening at a remote provincial college through which I happened to be jogging on a protracted lecture tour, I suggested a little quiz–ten definitions of a reader, and from these ten the students had to choose four definitions that would combine to make a good reader. I have mislaid the list, but as far as I remember the definitions went something like this. Select four answers to the question what should a reader be to be a good reader:

  1. The reader should belong to a book club.
  2. The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.
  3. The reader should concentrate on the social-economic angle.
  4. The reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none.
  5. The reader should have seen the book in a movie.
  6. The reader should be a budding author.
  7. The reader should have imagination.
  8. The reader should have memory.
  9. The reader should have a dictionary.
  10. The reader should have some artistic sense.

The students leaned heavily on emotional identification, action, and the social-economic or historical angle. Of course, as you have guessed, the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense–which sense I propose to develop in myself and in others whenever I have the chance.”

Nabokov’s approach was sailing against the winds of the popular literary criticism movement of the time, deconstructionism. We won’t wade into that pool here, but suffice it to

Nabokov's notes on Kafka, with bug.

Nabokov’s notes on Kafka, with bug.

say, his approach to literature was not de jour–but it was lasting, thankfully. A quick perusal of Lectures on Literature reveals one major tenant of Nabokov’s appreciation and understanding of literature: the visual. He teaches to sketch major ideas. Draw Kafka’s bug, or map Leopold Bloom‘s perambulations through Dublin.

Nabokov's copy of Madam Bovary

Nabokov’s copy of Madam Bovary

Also, read with a writing instrument. And use it:

I’ll leave you with this thought, also from the introduction:

“Incidentally, I used the word ‘reader’ very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot ‘read’ a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why…”

I think, with that, I will be obnoxious and make you seek out the master’s answer as to why a good reader is a rereader.

I only wish he had taught Moby Dick. Class dismissed.

Thanks for reading,

d

“Inspiration is for amateurs…”

In Creativity, Writers, Writing on April 2, 2012 at 6:20 am

“Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” That’s the artist Chuck Close. I remembered this as I sat down to my computer, lifted my fingers over the keyboard and stared at the screen. After a bit I went over to Facebook, then scanned my RSS reader, came back to the blank screen, stood up, walked around some, looked out the window a while, sat back down and typed the Close quote.

I’m a creature of habit. I get up with the sun, drink my coffee, have breakfast, walk my dog, workout, read, have lunch, then I sit down for an afternoon of writing. I am usually at my desk by one o’clock and leave around four or five. Sometimes I get something of value, sometimes not. Regardless, I work. Mr. Close is a creative genius–and he works. I’m far from a creative genius so I must work that much the harder. After time, I’ve found, the work adds up and pays off. Put in the time and you will be rewarded. Wait for inspiration and you…wait. One hundred-fifty years before Chuck Close, Émile Zola said, “The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.”

I am fascinated by lives slouching toward the creative. I want to know who did the work and how it was done. I turn to biography, autobiography and memoir when in this mood.

I’ve pulled a few books off my shelves, books that represent some of the creative lives I most admire. I thought you might enjoy some of the titles. For fun, I’ve included the first sentence to each. Here goes, in no specific order.

One Writer’s Beginnings, by Eudora Welty. “In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.”

Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov. “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”

Genius, The Life and Science of Richard Feyman, by James Gleick. “Nothing is certain.”

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Gertrude Stein. “I was born in San Francisco, California.” (Not an autobiography, nor a biography. That’s Gertrude Stein for you. Yet a wonderful look at the creative life.)

James Joyce, by Richard Ellmann, “Stephen Dedalus said the family was a net which he would fly past, but James Joyce chose rather to entangle himself and his works in it. (This is the definitive biography–and perhaps the best example–next to Boswell, of course–of the art of the genre.)

Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, by Ray Monk. “The figure of Ludwig Wittgenstein exerts a very special fascination that is not wholly explained by the enormous influence he has had on the development of philosophy this century.”

A Movable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway. “When we came back to Paris it was clear and cold and lovely.” (A memoir by which to measure all memoir. This is my favorite Hemingway.)

Diane Arbus, by Patricia Bosworth. “As a teenager Diane Arbus used to stand on the window ledge of her parents’ apartment at the San Remo, eleven stores above Central Park West.” (This biography depicts the most unsettling and frenetic portrait of creative genius I can recall reading.)

Off to the Side, by Jim Harrison. “Norma Olivia Walgren met Winfield Sprague Harrion in 1933 at the River Gardens, a dance hall just north of Big Rapids, Michigan, on the banks of the Muskeon River.” (Harrison, my favorite living American writer.)

Self-Consciousness, memoirs by John Updike. “Had not my twenty-five-year-old daughter undertipped the airline porter in Boston, our luggage might have shown up on the carrousel in Allentown that April afternoon in 1980, and I would not have spent an evening walking the sidewalks of Shillington, Pennsylavnia, searching for the meaning of my existence as once I had scanned those same sidewalks for pennies.” (That’s such a lovely first sentence, maybe a perfect sentence.)

Bruce Chatwin, a biography by Nicholas Shakespeare. “On February 1984, an Englishman with a rucksack and walking-boots strides into a bungalow in the Irene district of Pretoria.” (Chatwin casts a huge influence over me. I’ll write about him at a later date.)

Friedrich Nietzsche, a Philosophical Biography by Julian Young. “Nietzsche’s greatest inspiration, he believed, was the idea that if one is in a state of perfect mental health one should be able to survey one’s entire life and then, rising ecstatically to one’s feet, shout ‘Da capo!’–Once more! Once more! Back to the beginning!’–to ‘the whole play and performance’.”

I’m not sure this constitutes “work” as Mr. Close meant it. But it must suffice for now.

First Sentences – II

In Books, Writers on July 31, 2010 at 11:05 am

“The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” ~ Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison

“Suppose evil scientists removed your brain from your body while you slept, and set it up in a life-support system in a vat.” Consciousness Explained, Daniel C. Dennett

“Then there was the bad weather.” ~ A Movable Feast, Ernest Heminway

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” ~ Ulysses, James Joyce

“On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world.” ~ The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton

“The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” ~ Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov

“The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door.” ~ All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy

“Seeing that before long I must confront humanity with the most difficult demand ever made of it, it seems indespensable to me to say who I am.” ~ Ecco Homo, Friedrich Nietzsche