Monday, November 22, 2010

`On the Hunt Restlessly Among the Words'

I mistook the first snow of the season for sleep-blurred vision. It was 7 a.m. Sunday, my wife was already at work, the youngest was reading on the couch after eating the breakfast he made for himself (turkey sandwich), and the ten-year-old was still asleep. I was pouring water for coffee when I noticed a gray, vertical fuzziness through the kitchen window. I wake with the alacrity of a glacier. I rubbed my eyes in cartoon disbelief and there it was – the lackadaisical drift of snowflakes, the frozen cognate of a drizzle.

The seven-year-old whooped loud enough to wake his brother, who joined in the whooping. Look at it from a boy’s perspective – snowball fights, money for shoveling sidewalks, the dream deferred of a day off from school. I too like snow but this didn’t stick around long. It upholstered the ivy and the windows of my car, melted and returned briefly through the day. I associate snow and cold feet with reading, though I associate almost everything with reading. A friend in Dallas contemplates his first go through Proust, and even Dallas gets snow every few years. I read Anthony Powell for the first time in winter, a happy convergence lending charm to both.

Of late I’ve been reading a mélange of things – Stalin’s Genocides by Norman Naimark, the Latin epigrams of John Owen as translated by David R. Slavitt, Richard Slotkin’s No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater 1864 and stories by Tolstoy and V.S. Pritchett – hearty winter fare, I suppose, the bookish equivalent of chowders and stews. Here’s a passage from Pritchett’s story “The Liars” (Blind Love, 1969):

“It was a February afternoon. Under her black wig, the old lady upstairs was sitting up in bed reading her father’s Baudelaire. She read greedily; her eyes, enlarged by her glasses, were rampaging over the lines; with her long nose and her long lips sliding back into her cheeks, she looked like a wolf grinning at the smell of the first snow and was on the hunt restlessly among the words.

“`Vous que dans votre enfer mon âme a poursuivies
Pauvres soeurs, je vous aime autant que je vous plains’

“she was murmuring avidly as she read. All over the bed were books, French and English, papers, detective novels that she had picked up and pushed away. On and off, in the long day, she had looked to see what was going on in the street; sleet had emptied it. The only thing that still caught her eye was an old blackbird gripping the branch of the plane tree outside her window; its wings hanging down, alone.”

The French is from the final stanza of Baudelaire’s “Femmes damnées” (translated by William Aggeler):

“You whom my spirit has followed into your hell,
Poor sisters, I love you as much as I pity you.”

1 comment:

Cynthia Haven said...

Stalin's Genocides is impressively short -- a long essay, really. Glad I had a chance to turn you onto it -- my post on it is at

Hope you'll write some more on this topic in the days to come. Your observations a few days ago regarding the general ignorance of the American population about our terrible, very recent history is insightful, as always -- and more than a little frightening.

Thank you.