Monað modes lust mæla gehƿylce ferð to feran.
we are more similar to some bacteria than some bacteria are to other bacteria.
Who does not wonder what these individuals were to each other, whether they held hands or even talked, and what forgotten errand they shared in a Pliocene dawn?
…once when he was taken out, his hostess accidentally spilled hot tea on him. The little lad first bawled his head off, but when he had calmed he said in answer to his hostess' concern, ‘Thank you Madam, the agony is sensibly abated.’
The demand for clarity [in works aimed at the general public] can expose bad ideas that are obscured by murky academese, and the demand for concrete detail in recounting experiments ("Ernie and Bert puppets" not "stimuli") can uncover flaws in design that would otherwise be overlooked.
This wonderfully strange and hormonal B-movie of a novel has the feel of an uncensored fairy-tale, and I mean that in the best possible way. It's pulsing with onanistic nuns and Satanic alchemists and hirsute dildo-salesmen; and yet the whole thing somehow also works as a dark metaphor for the experience of a girl on the cusp of adolescence, discovering, with the usual mixture of excitement and terror and awe, the mysteries of life, death, puberty, sexuality and religion. It reads something like an Angela Carter rewrite of Diderot's The Nun, and it should have been filmed by 80s-era Pedro Almodóvar.
The girl in question is Charlotte, whom we follow from birth to age 14 or so, sometime towards the end of the nineteenth-century in a rural hamlet in France's Loire Valley (at the time, the author was living in Le Puy-Notre-Dame). There is no great compelling story-arc: the action advances episodically through encounters of almost magisterial weirdness, in which wide-eyed naïf Charlotte grows up and tries to make sense of life as she is buffeted in turn by the various eccentric inhabitants of the village. The scenes and the characters are over-the-top, often ludicrous, but it's all very self-aware and witty, not to mention deliciously dark and extreme – it can be ridiculous but it's so much fun.
Ducornet's prose is a delight: lexically rich but also able to throw out passages of condensed wit – such as this thumbnail description of villagers during a flood:
In the villages of Louerre and Louresse, desperate families huddled together on rooftops and looked on helplessly as their livestock and an occasional arthritic ancestor drowned.
It takes both skill and humour to withhold the verb to the very end of the sentence there, and there are many similarly nimble phrases studded throughout the novel, going off like little depth-charges in your brain. Although you always feel that Ducornet's in control, it isn't what you'd call a restrained prose style: on the contrary, she's pretty much turned all the dials up to eleven throughout. Here's how we're introduced to Sister Malicia, the apotheosis of every nightmarish schoolteacher-nun that you've ever read about or encountered:
…a cadaverous creature as human as a broom handle, her arms knotted across her flat chest to protect the inverted nipples that dented the flesh like the cruel traces of tacks, her pale blue eyes lying loosely in their sockets like faded minerals in sagging boxes […she] carried her lovelessness with majesty.
Subtlety is clearly not the point here: Ducornet is having fun, fun, fun. Like an illustrated mediaeval manuscript, her narrative is booby-trapped with moments of unexpected obscenity or grotesquerie that jump at you out of nowhere.
Returning to his bed, the Devil's insinuations hot in his ears, he sinks his teeth into the palpitating sugar-plum of Dreamland, and straddling the corpulent finger of sleep, thrusting hard, fucks Time.
What's that all about? God knows, but there's a lot of sentences like that in here. I was grinning and scratching my head a lot – appreciatively. You have to admire the audacity of someone who can describe a nun's anus as her ‘rosy cyclopean nether eye’ – and how many other writers, searching for an adjective to describe the Virgin Mary's breasts, would plump for ‘quince-shaped’?! This is deft but this is also bonkers – a combination that I happen to love. Shall we have more quotes? Here's the village Exorcist contemplating his latest ritual:
But first the convent must be cleansed, the floors and walls washed with vinegar. He'll have to grease some snakes, salt the shit, tattoo a pregnant sow, fuck a three-horned cow, burn myrrh…
Although it sometimes seems like craziness for craziness's sake, you never stop feeling for poor Charlotte at the heart of the novel. The book is full of provocative symbolism and apparent magic – but like all proper fairy-tales, that's not what it's ultimately about. It's about learning to navigate the very real dangers and pleasures of reality. Behind the inventive and balls-deep insanity, in the end The Stain invites wiser, more grown-up readers to share one character's ‘intimate conviction that everything that is, is visible. That the universe is knowable, if only you dare look.’
raised the clothes of the same Joan…to her navel, she being clothed in a blue coat and a shift of light cloth and feloniously…with both his hands separated the legs and thighs of this same Joan, and with his right hand took his male organ of such and such a length and size and put it into the secret parts of the same Joan, and bruised her watershed and laid her open so that she was bleeding, and ravished her maidenhead, against the peace of our lord the King.
A man who had sex with a pig knew that he was being less offensive to God than he would be if he had anal intercourse with his wife, and women in some regions knew they could draw a longer period of penance for performing fellatio on a man than killing him outright.
He took a scribe, his boss, and a priest to a brothel, where he hired two women. Soon after he started in with one of the women, he called the priest over. The priest testified that Nicolò had placed the clergyman's hand on his erect penis, bragging: ‘Look here, I am a man, even though some say I cannot get it up.’ Nicolò then had intercourse with the prostitute on a bench while the witnesses watched, after which he smeared his ejaculate on the hands of the scribe.
Far from barring homosexuality in the military, as the United States famously did in 1942, or embracing a ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell’ policy as it did fifty-one years later, Greek societies saw no incompatibility between male-male love and military discipline.
The Loneliness of Women
Are you frightened? Here you are, alone with the silence…
No breath…no footstep…no words to recite….
Alone like a flower without the wind's guidance,
Alone with your scent and your dreams of the night.
Are you frightened? Here you are, alone in the gloom…
Everything heavy and lightless and bland.
Alone like a corpse at the back of its tomb—
Although love and contentment are so near at hand.
Are you frightened? Here you are, alone in the dark…
Alone like a star when the morning comes—
Like a gold butterfly in a shadowy park,
Dying and pulsing for its distant sun…
Here you are, alone with your savage heart
That beats and rebeats in its human cell,
Alone with that vagabond torment, that hurt,
That tempest that howls round your rational shell.
Here you are, alone, love, forever alone,
Despite all your youth and your confident eyes;
As alone already as some withered old crone
Whose children have grown up and said their goodbyes.
Alone, though so loving and fertile and live.
For that thirst for eternity you feel will not pall—
And your most desperate cry of sensual strife,
However profound, is still just a call.
Man does not understand your strange distress;
In vain you will ache through your sparkling decline.
Within you there suffers some mighty goddess—
And you dream of the dawn when you'll rise up divine.
As-tu peur ? Te voici seule avec le silence...
Aucun souffle... aucun pas... nulle voix et nul bruit...
Seule comme une fleur que nul vent ne balance,
Seule avec ton parfum et ton rêve et la nuit.
As-tu peur ? Te voici seule avec la ténèbre,
Seule comme une morte au fond de son tombeau ;
Tout est pesant et noir, taciturne et funèbre
Malgré l’amour si proche et le bonheur si beau.
As-tu peur ? Te voici toute seule avec l’ombre,
Seule comme une étoile au moment du matin ;
Comme un papillon d’or au fond d’un jardin sombre
Se meurt en palpitant pour son soleil lointain...
Te voici toute seule avec ton cœur sauvage
Qui se débat et bat son humane prison,
Seule avec ce tourment qui rôde et te ravage,
Perpétuel orage autour de ta raison.
Te voici seule, ô belle, ô douce, à jamais seule ;
Et malgré ta jeunesse et tes yeux triomphants,
Oui, déjà seule ainsi qu’une très vieille aïeule
Qui aurait vu partir tous ses petits-enfants
Seule, ô force d’amour, ô vivante, ô féconde,
Car rien n’apaisera ta soif de l’éternel,
Car ton plus rauque cri de volupté profonde,
Ce cri désespéré, n’est encore qu’un appel.
L’homme ne comprend pas ton étrange détresse ;
L’élan de ta douleur toujours se brise en vain...
Et, femelle en qui souffre une grande déesse,
Tu rêves au réveil qui te sera divin.
They walked, following the first pavement they came to. A little pink cloud came down from the sky and approached them.
‘May I?’ it suggested.
‘Go ahead!’ said Colin; and the cloud surrounded them.
Inside, it was warm and it smelled of cinnamon sugar.
‘No one can see us any more!’ said Colin. ‘But we can see them.’
‘Be careful,’ said Chloé, ‘it's a little transparent.’
Ils marchaient, suivant le premier trottoir venu. Un petit nuage rose descendait de l'air et s'approcha d'eux.
— J'y vais? proposa-t-il.
— Vas-y ! dit Colin, et le nuage les enveloppa.
À l'intérieur, il faisait chaud at çs sentait le sucre à cannelle.
— On ne nous voit plus ! dit Colin... Mais nous, on les voit.
— C'est un peu transparent, dit Chloé, méfiez-vous.
An old man in a white shirt with bushy hair was reading a manual behind a desk....
‘Good morning sir,’ said Colin.
‘Good morning sir,’ said the man.
His voice was cracked and thickened with age.
‘I've come about the job,’ said Colin.
‘Oh?’ said the man. ‘We've been looking for someone for a month without any luck. It's quite hard work, you know.’
‘Yes,’ said Colin. ‘But it's well paid.’
‘Good Lord,’ said the man, ‘it wears you out, you know, and it might not be worth the money – but it's not for me to denigrate the administration. At any rate, you can see I'm still alive.’
‘Have you been working here long?’ said Colin.
‘A year,’ said the man. ‘I'm 29.’
He ran a trembling, wrinkled hand across the folds of his face.
I don't have a particularly good relationship with post-apocalyptic fiction, tending to find it either too far-fetched or, if not far-fetched, too depressing to want to immerse myself in for very long. I was spoiled early by having to read Robert Swindells's relentlessly bleak postnuclear misery-fest Brother in the Land for a school English class, after which I spent much of the next few years lying awake at night worrying that the noise of jumbo jets coming over Gatwick's flight path might in fact be the noise of a nuclear wind rushing towards our house. Thanks Miss Cutler.
Of course it's useful (necessary, even) to be scared by these ideas once or twice – but once you've got to grips with the basic principles, I'm not always sure the lessons learned are worth the emotional trauma involved. Which is what these books try and put you through, because despite the tone of some of my reviews I'm actually not a very critical reader – I tend to be pretty wide-eyed and immersive when it comes to fiction.
More generally, though, I think the genre suffers disproportionately from the prevailing fallacy that tragedy is somehow ‘truer’ than comedy. (Which some critics genuinely believe, not without reason, but which I don't.) This is why for example I am in no great hurry to read The Road, because although I often love Cormac McCarthy's writing style, I think his general philosophy depends on wilfully ignoring huge vistas of human experience and interaction – which is creatively interesting, but when it comes right down to it, no less selective a vision than that of someone like Terry Pratchett.
All of this is my way of saying that I liked Things We Didn't See Coming a lot more than I expected to when a cute sales assistant in a Melbourne branch of Readers flirted me into buying it ‘because the author's a local’. Actually Steven Amsterdam is originally from New York, but Melbourne has been his home for years now: the landscape of this book feels vaguely American, but the language includes some telltale non-US elements (like ‘Mum’). It begins on the eve of the millennium, and disappears off into an alternative present / near-future where society and the environment have broken down.
The book is constructed as a novel-in-short-stories, a format I like anyway and one which works especially well here. In nine standalone chapters, we see our unnamed narrator at different stages in his life, from a ten-year-old boy to a semi-invalid, prematurely-aged wasteland survivor. There is a lot of enjoyable speculation to be had over what must have happened in the long years between chapters, as secondary characters come and go, and as the world around us changes: we see at various times endless rain, urban looting, rural survivalism, drought, plague, even momentary periods of political stability with a decadent ruling class. The prose is sparse, uncomplicated and effective, and a lot of the key developments are unexplained and off-stage.
I like that the geopolitical/environmental speculation is not the main point here. What Amsterdam is really interested in is how interpersonal relationships work, how trust breaks down and whether it can ever be properly built up under extreme circumstances, and how to work out what really matters and strip down your life to just that. There is a nice strain of dark humour running through the book, and although it takes a steady look at the worst aspects of human nature, it doesn't forget the other aspects.
Only one of the stories felt underdeveloped to me; all of them completely held my attention and left me with lots to think about. Recommended for late-night reading under Gatwick flight path.
She saw mice, rats, insects, snakes – her imagination seemed to select the clasically loathsome creatures. One of her most persistent hallucinations was a small brightly patterned snake moving across the floor in the periphery of her vision. Her zoöpsia was accompanied by a terror of real animals. The mere touch of fur, even in a coat, caused her nausea. Her pet miniature dog, which formerly she had fawned over, now revolted her and she had killed it with a walking stick in a fit of terror.
With each wet season, the house had fallen deeper into decay. Mosses crept around the window frames, tree ferns sprouted from the outside walls, and when leaves and overhanging branches fell onto the roof they rotted there and provided a rich compost base for the next generation of parasitical growth. A small softwood tree with shiny oval-shaped leaves grew out of the veranda and the roots hung down through the holes in the rusted iron roof, where they tickled the face of anyone foolish enough to walk along that veranda in the dark. It was from one of these twisted clumps of roots one afternoon as Julia sat alone in an old wicker chair reading her Golden Treasury and listening to the groans of her father and a woman making love inside the darkened house, that a green tree snake began to unwind itself.
How many had he known…shabby lieutenants on a few pounds a week fighting for their lives all their lives in the war and on the waves in rotten ships…ambassadors to the foreigner and the cannibal, trading for wheat, gold, pearls, pepper, territory…diplomats, chancellors and high financiers to the feathered savage, walking encyclopaedias of world-wide knowledge, vegetable, animal and mineral […] homeless men, nameless men, their wave-washed journals the first pages in the chronicles of empire, their future at worst a watery grave, at best an old age of cards, prating to their families on Navy half-pay…and here he was aspiring to be one of them. Why? ‘I gave my heart to know wisdom.’
Scarred and tattooed sailors of the Seven Seas, with evil, mottled faces thronged the taverns to fight by day and lust by night where harlots writhed their polished bodies, whirling in veils of flame, to the obscene screaming of the Congo pipes and fandango of tambourines. The West Indies were a painted veil of cruelty and greed. Here faith was blasphemy, the sea polluted with filth, and God and man defiled.
Midwinter, n. The seasons being reversed in Australia, Christmas occurs in the middle of summer…
Humpy, n. (1) a native hut. The aboriginal word is Oompi; the initial h is a Cockney addition, and the word had been given an English look, the appearance of the huts suggesting the English word hump. (The forms himbing and yamba occur along the East coast of Australia. Probably it is kindred with koombar, bark, in Kabi dialect, Mary River, Queensland.) The old convict settlement of Moreton Bay, now broken up, was called Humpy Bong (see Bung), sc. Oompi Bong, a dead or deserted settlement. The aboriginal names for hut may be thus tabulated:
Gunyah / Goondie……New South Wales.
Mia-mia……Victoria and Western Australia.
Wurley (Oorla)……South Australia.
1846. C. P. Hodgson, ‘Reminiscences of Australia,’ p. 228:
“A ‘gunyah’ or ‘umpee.’”
1876. J. Brunton Stephens, ‘Black Gin,’ p. 16:
“Lo, by the ‘humpy’ door, a smockless Venus.”
(2) Applied to a settler's house, very small and primitive.
1881. A. C. Grant, ‘Bush Life in Queensland,’ vol. i. p. 133:
“To dwell in the familiar old bark ‘humpy,’ so full of happy memories. The roof was covered with sheets of bark held down by large wooden riders pegged in the form of a square to one another.”
1885. R. M. Praed, ‘Australian Life,’, p. 57:
“A lonely hut…and a kitchen – a smaller humpey – at the back.”
1890. Rolf Boldrewood, ‘Squatter's Dream,’ p. 247:
“He's in bed in the humpy.”
1893. Gilbert Parker, ‘Pierre and his People,’ p. 135:
“Shon McGann was lying on a pile of buffalo robes in a mountain hut – an Australian would call it a humpey.”
‘Hullo, Jackson! Have you heard the news?’ was the greeting Jackson received when, having left his luggage at the bustling, confused station, in the hope that some one would deliver it some time, he sauntered in at the gate of St. Olaf's on the first day after the Easter holidays.
‘Yes, of course I have. Queen Anne's dead!’ answered Jackson with a grin.
‘Rot!’ answered Perkins, his bosom friend. ‘It's something much more exciting. Old Bumble's gone.’
‘Oh, Perkins!’ he cried, ‘I have forgotten to send in my essay. Will you be a brick, and go up to the house, and send it off for me?’
‘You are an ass!’ grumbled Perkins.
‘Er, Perkins, I've um…forgotten my essay. Any chance you could…be a brick, or whatever, and get it for me?’
‘Fuck off you spanner.’
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In the early modern period, when the West was developing a wholly rational way of thinking about God and the world, philosophers and scientists were appalled by the irrationality of the Trinity. But for the Cappadocian fathers – Basil, Gregory and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus (329-90) – the whole point of the doctrine was to stop Christians thinking about God in rational terms. If you did that, you could only think about God as a being, because that was all our minds were capable of. The Trinity was not a ‘mystery’ that had to be believed but an image that Christians were supposed to contemplate in a particular way.
one day the Gestapo hanged a child with the face of a ‘sad-eyed angel’, who was silent and almost calm as he climbed the gallows. It took the child nearly an hour to die in front of the thousands of spectators who were forced to watch. Behind Wiesel, one of the prisoners muttered: ‘Where is God? Where is He?’ And Wiesel heard a voice within him saying in response, ‘Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.’