Shirley Hazzard Ancient Shore

I have always enjoyed the novels and nonfiction works of Shirley
 Hazzard. And I have a bit of familiarity with her experiences
 in Italy, mostly around Naples and on the island of Capri. It was a pleasure, for example, to read her recent work Greene on Capri where she reminiscences about the good times she and her husband Frances Steegmuller had with Graham Greene when he was there. How often do we 
find ourselves in such a lovely place with a charming and knowledgeable person who we seem to get along with so well? 

In their latest book, Ancient Shore, Hazzard and Steegmuller wax 
wistfully about the city of Naples and what has happened to it over 
the centuries and the far from pleasant encounter they had while there 
during a recent visit. The book reminded me, of course, of the many 
summers I have spent in Italy--no less memorable than theirs, although
 they are far more eloquent than I in conveying the remarkable beauty 
and spirit of that country and its people. Here are my favorite 
passages from Ancient Shore.

Life in Italy is seldom simple. One does not go there for simplicity
 but for interest: to make the adventures of existence more vivid, more
 poignant. I have known that country through dire as well as golden
 times and have dwelt in town and country, north and south.
 Whether I wake these mornings in Naples to the Mediterranean lapping
 the seawall or on Capri to the sight of a nobly indifferent mountain,
 it is never without realizing, in surprise and gratitude, that I—like
 Goethe, like Byron—am living in Italy.

It was in reading that one could truly live: in one's mind, in books,
 in the world. A form of pilgrimage.

The variety and interest of existence had struck us, through
 literature, as being more real than our factual origins.

"We change our skies, not our souls." Horace

Literature has prepared us to expect the release of new aspects of ourselves in the presence of the fabled and unfamiliar.

Continuity, the charm and genius of Italy, has taken some nasty
 knocks, at Naples, as elsewhere.

Time is long here, but a town with a volcano is no place to forget

The puritan view that a sense of pleasure cannot be justified amid
 visable affliction is meaningless to Neapolitan—who knows that 
pleasure cannot be deferred for ideal circumstances.

I wonder at the stroke of fortune that first brought me here to live
 in intimacy with this civilized spirit and to share its long adventure.

Italy, which harbors mysteries and arouses imagination, does not
 supply solutions.

…we are encouraged to stop defining life, and to live it. The element
 of chance regains importance; we recover the capacity for
 astonishment, and the gift of taking some things for granted. 


Philip Roth

Philip Roth’s recent books have dealt with death, dying and the “massacre” of growing old. They include The Dying Animal, recently made into the movie Elegy, Everyman and Exit Ghost. His latest, Indignation, is the tale of a young college student. How odd I thought. Why is Philip writing about the experiences of a young man growing up, yes, in Newark who tries to emerge from his, yes, Jewish family, by heading off, yes, against his father’s wishes, to a second rate college far from home? While I bought the book and had read a few reviews, I wasn’t at all certain I would get past page 10. How wrong I was!

As usual Roth writes forcefully, energetically and makes this rather mundane and oft repeated tale, far more than interesting. However, it took me a while to figure out what he was getting at. It was only when I reviewed the passages I made note of that the theme of Indignation made itself known to me.

The majority in my collection revealed that once again Roth is confronting the never ending battle between feelings and conscience, between doing what you’d like and doing what is right, between what in olden times used to be called the id and the superego. These are battles that are not confined to the young. How often have I confronted this conflict! How often everyone has and that surely includes the aging but no less vigorous Philip Roth. Here are a few of the sentences that I copied from this rather slim volume.

That’s what I learned from my father and what I loved learning from him: that you do what you have to do.

I was always working on myself. I was always pursuing a goal.

Is that what eternity is for, to much over a lifetime’s minutiae?

Or is it something long buried that has come to the surface?

…endure what is and make it work.

…a conscience that can be your enemy

…other people’s weakness can destroy you just as much as their strength can. Weak people are not harmless. Their weakness can be their strength.

You be greater than your feelings.

Feelings can be life’s biggest problem. Feelings can play the most terrible tricks.
…who deserts a goddess because his mother tells him to?

…rectitude tyrannizing my life.

The urge to be heard, and nobody to hear me!

To provoke no response no matter how painstaking the attempt to unravel and to be revealed. All minds gone except my own. No response. Profoundly sad.

…the incomprehensible way one’s most banal incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.


Rachel Cusk's Arlington Park

Even though the story is about five women living in a suburb outside London, Rachel Cusk’s novel, Arlington Park, is also the story of my own life, the life of one man who had lived most of his life more than 5,000 miles away in the urban center of Portland, Oregon.

First there was the weather, the weather that matched in every way the mood of the town I had lived in for so long. All you had to do was look outside to glimpse the scene Cusk was describing in Arlington Park, the suburb depicted in her novel.

The clouds came from the west: clouds like dark cathedrals, clouds like machines, clouds like black blossoms flowering in the arid starlit sky.

It was so grey, so grey and unavailing! It was like sorrow: it seemed to preclude every possibility, every other shade of feeling.

In the hall she took their wet coats and bags and umbrellas. They prised their water stained shoes, muddy, perilously garnished with soaked leaves, from their feet. It was messy work, the unending struggle to maintain separation between outside and in.

Eventually, to be more exact, forty years after I arrived, I left that town that I never felt comfortable calling my home. None of the women in Cusk’s novel leave their home nor, given their age and the age of the children, are they likely to do so in the foreseeable future.

Then there is the tedious, deadly feeling that sweeps over one living day after day in the suburbs. Cusk beautifully describes this mood, a mood that is not uncommon to me or most anyone, I think, regardless of where they live.

How are you, Christine said, and Juliet nearly replied, Actually, I’m dead. I was murdered a few years ago, nearly four years ago to be exact.

…air of empty seclusion was complete.

It was a mysterious place, Arlington Park: it was a suburb, a sort of enormous village really, yet even here the force of life came up strong, dealing out its hard facts, its irrepressible, universal dimension.…It was civilization, and yet to Juliet it seemed uncivilized to the core. It lacked art: worse, it lacked any conception of justice. It was just getting and having—look at them all, backed up in their cars all the way to the park, jostling, fighting get and to have.

Each of the women express their malaise somewhat differently. It was Juliet’s that interested me most, perhaps because of the solace she sometimes found in literature.

Never, never did she feel in life the sense of recognition, the companionship, the great warm fact of solidarity that she found between the covers of a book.

She wondered whether the books she loved consoled her precisely because they were the manifestations of her own isolation.

But even that was not enough:

You realize you’re waiting for something, Juliet said, that’s never going to happen. Half the time you don’t even know what it is. You’re waiting for the next stage. Then in the end you realize that there isn’t a next stage. That is all there is.

Most of the women tried to confront the emptiness of their days with the customary experiences of modern life—home, marriage, children, shopping. Cusk makes it clear that none of these can do the job either.

Her car was her true companion: it was clean and spacious and mechanically discreet, and it did her bidding powerfully, efficiently, and with silent approval of her style of command. When she was in her car she had a feeling of infinite passage.

What an enormous kitchen! cried Sally Gibson, following Christine and Dinky in. In that moment Amanda knew that her kitchen was too large. She would not have thought such a thing was possible, but entering it now she knew that it was true. They had knocked through until they had created not space but emptiness. They had gone too far: nobody had told them to stop.

The room, the house, even Arlington Park itself increasingly wore for her the lineaments of a lived past into which future possibilities were unable to intrude; of a fundamental sadness that was the unalterable relic of experience.

How did Cusk manage to describe so accurately the situation that many people find themselves in today? Did it spring from the conditions of her own life? Who can ever know such things? What does it matter? She has got it just right. I know the weather, the boredom that can just as readily occur in the heart of the city as the suburbs, and the despair that sometimes descends upon one. Each experience comes and goes. There are some days where the weather is bearable, where something brings you alive, and where that elemental melancholy momentarily disappears. And then the winter begins again.



As part of my recent study of Commonplace Books I designed a survey for individuals who responded positively to my request to complete it. I invite you to consider completing it as well. Please send the completed form to me directly at rkatzev@gmail.com.

This survey is designed to learn about your commonplace book, what form it takes, and the role it plays in your reading experiences. Your answers will be of value to me as I try to gauge the nature and extent of commonplacing among contemporary readers. Your response will be kept strictly confidential. Please write me if you have any questions at rkatzev@teleport.com

1. For how many years have you kept a Commonplace Book?

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Richard Bausch's Peace

Richard Bausch's short volume, Peace has nothing to do with peace. Instead, it recounts a tragic tale of a small group of American soldiers struggling to stay alive as they fought their way to the top of Monte Cassino in Italy during World War II.

There is a passage in Peace that describes an experience I seem to be having more often lately. A soldier thinks back on the life he had lived in America:

"His life there now seemed a hundred years ago. Or it was worse than that: sometimes, now in the nights, it felt like something he must have imagined. It no longer carried with it the weight of memory but was marbled with the insubstantial feeling of imagination when the faculty for imagining is sketchy or false. He could not really believe it happened, any of it."

How often have you felt that way? In an essay I recently wrote about my experience teaching, I describe a similar feeling:

"But my days in the classroom and the laboratory seem so very long ago, like something that happened to another person, in another time or world. Maybe I have dreamed it all. I do recall it, of course, but I must confess it is hard to believe any of that ever happened to me. I have that feeling now for many of the things I did when I was a younger person."

Peace is beautifully written. As I was reading it, I made note of a few passages including:

They had lived with confusion for so long. Nobody said anything about it.

That man had been in the other war, the first one, fighting on the other side. Asch talked about going from the Ardennes Forest, shooting at French and English and American soldiers, to a living room in Brockton—with a grandson about to join the army to go fight the Hun. It was ridiculous.

In the lucid water of the sea, in the brightness and calm of the beach, it was difficult to believe in the war.

He kept this all inside and never showed any of it to anyone.

He had again the obliterating sense that everything of his memory, everything of his knowledge and his dreams and the hopes and aspirations of his lived life, was in a kind of gray, lifeless suspension. Even the wish to be generous and to seek the good opinion of others. It was all elsewhere.

Crouched close to the fire, in the woods beyond the snowfield, Corporal Marson thought of the futility of money, and then he was thinking of the futility of everything.