It’s been a bad year of reading: abandoned novels, unfinished story collections, and a Pocket filled with things that might never be read. But there have been a few delights in it, like The God of Small Things, which I finally read after P’s encouragement and will return to before the year runs out.
I also started Flannery O’Connor’s Habit of Being last month, a collection of her correspondence, and the book has made me laugh and feel good in ways I did not expect. Here’s an excerpt from one of the letters:
My first issue of Kenyon Review came yestiddy and I felt very learned sitting down reading it. There was a chapter of a novel by Randall Jarrell [Pictures from an Institution] in it. I suppose you would say it was good Randall Jarrell but it wasn’t good fiction. It was of the school of Mary [McCarthy]. The Kenyon Review sent me a thoouusand bucks the other day, no note, no nothing: just the dough. My kinfolks think I am a commercial writer now and really they are proud of me. My uncle Louis is always bringing a message from somebody at [his company] who has read Wise Bood. The last was: ask her why she dhont write about some nice people. Louis says, I told them you wrote what paid. There was another message from “the brains of [his] company.” He said, yeah it was a good book well written and all that but tell her next time to write about some rich folks, I’m mighty tired of reading about poor folks…
— Flannery O’Connor to Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (1/25/53) From the Habit of Being.
I’ll probably abandon the book too, but seeing Flannery’s thoughts and agitations—though it seemed a little creepy later to be reading her private conversations like so—did wonders for me on a particularly low day.
There’s also this poem by David Whyte that I first heard on On Being.
Everything is waiting for you – David Whyte
After Derek Mahon
Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.
On Being has been chicken soup for my soul for the past few months, and I’m grateful for the work Krista Tippet does, and I’ll forever be indebted to K for leading me to the podcasts.
Finally, this story by Kafka that I saw in Hannah Arendt’s Essays in Understanding and needed her help to fully grasp. I go back to it now and it makes me laugh.
A Common Confusion – Franz Kafka
A common experience resulting in a common confusion. A. has to transact important business with B. in H. He goes to H. for a preliminary interview, accomplishes the journey there in ten minutes, and the journey back in the same time, and in returning boasts to his family of his expedition. The next day he goes again to H., this time to settle his business finally. As that is expected to require several hours, A. leaves very early in the morning. But although all the accessory circumstances, at least in A.’s estimation, are exactly the same as the day before, it takes him ten hours this time to reach H. When he arrives there quite exhausted in the evening he is informed that B. , annoyed at his absence, had left an hour before to go to A.’s village, and they must have passed each other on the road. A. is advised to wait. But in his anxiety about his business he sets off at once and hurries home.
This time he achieves the journey, without paying any particular attention to the fact, exactly in a second. At home he learns that B. had arrived quite early, immediately after A.’s departure, indeed that he had met A. on the threshold and reminded him of his business; but A. had replied that he had no time to spare, he must go at once.
In spite of this incomprehensible behavior of A., however, B. had stayed on to wait for A.’s return. It is true, he had asked several times whether A. was not back yet, but he was still sitting up in A. ‘s room. Overjoyed at the opportunity of seeing B. at once and explaining every thing to him, A. rushes upstairs. He is almost at the door, when he stumbles, twists a sinew, and almost fainting with the pain, incapable even of uttering a cry, only able to moan faintly in the darkness, he hears B. -impossible to tell whether at a great distance or quite near him-stamping down the stairs in a violent rage and vanishing for good.
So, yeah, bad year of reading so far, but nothing still gives me pleasure the way words can. I should add this by Donald Barthelme, from his essay, Not Knowing:
“The combinatorial agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they’re allowed to go to bed together, allows the writer to surprise himself, makes art possible, reveals how much of Being we haven’t yet encountered.”
Word, Donald. Word!