It has extended over space as well as over time, and the sense of space until it terrifies us is exhilarating, and leaves behind it an effect like music. After one has read War and Peace for a bit, great chords begin to sound, and we cannot say exactly what struck them.
- Aspects of the Novel (1927) by E.M. Forster, pg. 39
E.M. Forster was not only an excellent novelist but an astute observer of literary craft. Here he examines how the scope of Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece generates its power, and in doing so produces one of the great literature-music analogies.
A lot of the covers of US editions of Pynchon’s novels seem a bit serious and, well, bland for an author whose fiction is absolutely wild. The latest editions of his work as published by Vintage in the UK (designed by Yuko Kondo) seem much more appropriate to me, capturing the overwhelming multiplicity of people/places/things/interpretations in Pynchon’s novels and, in doing so, a sense of his hilarity.
Dead, your majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.
- Bleak House (1853) by Charles Dickens, Chp. 47
This excerpt announces the death of the abandoned and largely unknown Jo and marks an emotional climax in the novel which is often considered one of Dickens’ best. Dickens was famously concerned with the plight of the poor suffering under the crushing conditions of ‘enlightened’ London. But his often-brutal compassion is extended to those with whom he is simultaneously frustrated with for bringing about oppression of the poor. This is because his goal is not merely the alleviation of poverty but the extension of love to all people. As such, the passage is constructed not only to read as an announcement of a street urchin’s death to unconcerned authorities but a proclamation of the mass spiritual death of those capable of preventing it.
"Your ID cards?" she asked, looking with astonishment at Korovyov’s pince-nez and at Behemoth’s primus stove and his torn elbow.
"I beg a thousand pardons, but what ID cards?" asked a surprised Korovyov.
"Are you writers?" asked the woman in turn.
"Of course we are," replied Korovyov with dignity.
"May I see your ID’s?" repeated the woman. […]
"In order to ascertain that Dostoevsky is a writer, do you really need to ask him for an ID?" […]
"You are not Dostoevsky," said the citizeness, who was becoming addled by Korovyov.
"Well, but how do you know, how do you know?" replied the latter.
"Dostoevsky is dead," said the citizeness, but not very confidently.
"I protest!" exclaimed Behemoth hotly. "Dostoevsky is immortal!"
- The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, pg. 300 (Burgin & O’Connor translation)
In my opinion the funniest exchange from Bulgakov’s thoroughly entertaining magnum opus. In The Master and Margarita, the capital of atheism - Satlin’s Moscow - is made non-consensual host to the devil and his retinue (two of which are featured above), whose existence the city’s populace desperately attempts to deny despite mounting evidence of his devious presence. With a premise like that, hilarity and absurdity are naturally - rather, supernaturally - bound to ensue!
Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining out eyes towards it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share - black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.
Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and the forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere in the prairie.
- My Antonia (1918) by Willa Cather, pg. 183
At the suggestion of her friend and fellow novelist Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather turned her literary attentions towards her Midwestern homeland. Though her earliest fiction had raged against the hardships and restraints of rural and small town life, Cather in reflection came to recognize the beauty of the place, people, and way of life. Yet the power of her works (of which My Antonia is frequently considered foremost) comes from the narrator’s simultaneous romanticism and admittance of its shortcomings. Even though the plough necessarily is recognized in its littleness, however, it still remains the dominant force in Cather’s characters - one to which they will return in both spirit and body.
Here’s an entertaining (and potentially useful!) flow chart to help one decide which Shakespeare play they should read first, or next. Some of the pathways are quite humorous!
Sometimes, a film / television version of a novel perfectly nails the moment as it was originally created. The 2012 BBC adaptation’s portrayal of the famous almost-kiss from Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End (the longing! the restraint!)has got to be one of those times.
"I wish she would let you find out a little about the people for yourself"
- The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) by William Dean Howells, pg. 82
William Dean Howells is best known today as the champion of American realism. Insisting that fiction be about real people facing real scenarios with real emotions, Howells sought both a deeper level of meaning and an American form. If calling his style a success is overly subjective, his project, by influencing generations of American writers, certainly was. This quote, spoken by Tom Corey regarding his frustration with George Eliot’s Middlemarch, serves to highlight the aims of Howells’ own agenda by contrast. Unlike Eliot’s narrator-dominated ‘realism,’ Howells’ purer form attempts to portray for readers the people as themselves - an approach essential to Silas Lapham, in which a man’s character is far more complex than his rise or fall.
"Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher."
Suddenly Sloane seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded. Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?”
"I’m sure," Sloane said softly.
"How can you tell? How can you be sure?"
"It’s love, Mr. Stoner," Sloane said cheerfully. "You are in love. It’s as simple as that."
- Stoner (1965) by John Williams
Williams’ novel about the quiet and by-most-standards insignificant Midwestern professor is, at its heart, about love. At the end of the day, the big things turn out to not so big. Instead, it is the soft, subtle music of the accumulation of small things - which Stoner begins to realize with the discovery that this accumulation is the continuous and ever-uncompleted essential condition of existing - that defines a life. And these ‘small things’? Why, they’re the unforced instantiations of love, of course.
Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.
- Midnight’s Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie, pg. 543
A list of quotes ‘representative’ of Rushdie’s instant success (and topic of heated discussion) would likely include a quarter of the novel. This idea, however, is as essential to the work as any other. Stated more than once and emphasized many more times in ulterior ways, it explains the structure of Midnight’s Children: the first 150 pages are occupied with events preceding the narrator’s, Saleem’s, birth. But it also embodies the central parallel between protagonist and nation, both born at the same strike of midnight, the intimate bond which connects Saleem’s fate to that of 600 million. Historical indebtedness and embeddedness are inherent to existence in the present; what’s more, the forces which shape any one individual’s unfolding present originate in the multitude of often-unknown others.