A repository for a personal collection of quotations, scraps, pensées, and poems, this compilation offers keen insight into the influences and inspirations of a writer, namely Elizabeth Smither. There are no platitudes or sententious maxims here; instead, these sometimes pensive sometimes screamingly funny quotations range from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to Elizabeth Bennet, from Charles Simic to Montaigne, and from Monty Python to Henry James. Witty and intriguing, this record also demonstrates the results of the creative process by including Smither's own work.
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The Commonplace Book
A Writer's Journey Through Quotations
By Elizabeth Smither
Auckland University PressCopyright © 2011 Elizabeth Smither
All rights reserved.
The commonplace book of the three fish
'There are only three possible answers to prayer: yes, no, and wait' I read near the end of the fish commonplace book, which I have opened at random. It serves me right, because this quotation, from an unknown or traditional source, pulls me up like a douse of cold water. It applies not just to prayer — if one is prayerful — but to wishes whose longing gives the force of prayer. Yes, No, and Wait. Wait is the hardest. So hard it sometimes seems like a cruelty. No would be preferable since the quotation gives no indication as to how long the waiting for an answer might be. And the answer might still be No as if the facts on which a god-like decision is to be weighed are not yet available, but are assembling. Again, who knows at what speed? And how clever the structure of English is to place this ... and wait at the end, with its extra word, the and.
There are situations, usually containing a wait endured, where a No becomes practically a positive. A diagnosis, for instance, or the resumption of a friendship. I think of the marvellous shifts of filial and fatherly emotion in Marilynne Robinson's Home and remember, as a reader, how I almost longed for a finally slammed door or a footstep retreating along a path. 'And wait' is so seldom considered a virtue in novels, though it forms the underpinning of Proust. Each time your hand plucks a new volume of Remembrance of Things Past the 'wait' seems to rear its head again, held in description after description, given weight.
Keats's negative capability — 'capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason' — is being attempted and the only comfort is that Keats himself was singularly unable to practise it. Fact and reason are the only things that can dispel a situation that is so wearying and wearisome that you doubt your own rationality.
This morning, at the garage, while my red Mazda was placed over a pit and the mechanic descended with his lantern, I thought it best to look as if I were writing in my notebook. Actually I was adding up the amount of money spent on postage for this year's income tax.
I started the fish commonplace book on 14 July 1996. This morning, without looking, I was trying to remember the quotation that begins it: The Masochist's Week. I could recall Moanday and Tearsday (for Monday and Tuesday), Frightday (Friday), Sufferday, Stunday (Saturday, Sunday) but not Wednesday or Thursday. Woundsday and Fearsday. I guess if this was read at the breakfast table at the commencement of each week or at the water cooler on Monday's first break a certain defiant optimism might arise. On Wednesday (Woundsday) for instance there might be only one wound to deal with and not the several that are implied in the name. And if, by some miracle, there were none, that everything — human relations, meetings, work targets — went well, think of the feeling of triumph.
It is important, when dipping into a commonplace book, to go from mood to mood: if the quotation is enervating, look for something as cheering as Mozart's 'Art lies in expressing everything, the sad as well as the gay, the horrible as well as the enchanting, in forms which remain beautiful'. There is an art in using a commonplace book that involves not lingering, some days, on the overly profound quotation but settling for the humorous. Or just enjoying the juxtaposition of Montaigne's recommendation to 'live in a room with a view of a cemetery' with Gilbert and Sullivan's
Though the night may come too soon
We have years and years of afternoon.
— The Mikado
I've been trying to imagine the supposedly dead hours of the afternoon (which some find the most difficult hours to bear) as something to savour as the light begins its slow fade and perhaps a table lamp is switched on. It is the hour when one of Anita Brookner's inveterate walkers goes to stand at the window and gaze out at the street. The morning might have been wasted or triumphantly busy but the thought of whole days of unrelieved afternoon makes the mouth curl in a smile. Imagine if our allotted years were composed of just afternoons? And if they were, how young we should find ourselves, like those born in a leap year.
The three green fish on the cover have something of the resignation suggested by this quote from Rilke:
Wer spricht von Siegen? Überstehn ist alles.
Who speaks of victory? To hold out is all.
I have a picture, drawn from reading, of Rilke, tired and feverish, travelling across a great northern plain. He is going to a warmer climate, to recuperate. A room in Castle Duino awaits him but already on the slow train he is beginning to experience the silence he longs for in which his brain can begin to rest and unfold. I guess 'unfold' cannot be the proper word, 'uncoil' might be better, stretching its labyrinthine coils, like someone waking in the dawn and stretching their toes towards the bed-end. A writer's brain tends to be a whirling thing and a long journey on a cold train could be infinitely preferable to some conversations. Especially those conversations that seem little more than the exchange of planks of information. The planks (or bricks or buckets) are passed along a line, a little brick-dust sticks to the fingers or the water in the buckets sloshes and wets a sleeve but nothing is really added. I often hear conversations like this, particularly between men. What is being conveyed — besides a hearty slap on the shoulder or two palms slapping together — is obviously far below the surface of the words exchanged. But it seems hardly enough and silence, as Rilke thought, is infinitely to be preferred.
I am writing at the dining room table while outside the window the long, high deck of the house is being repaired. A stream of popular music and a hepped-up announcer's voice drift up from the garden where large planks are lying on the rose bed. Occasionally a head appears through the deck or there is a crisp 'Fuck!' as a piece of timber is discovered to be the wrong length. In the background the white Japanese anemones are moving in the grey autumn air.
In a poem, each word has to be right and contribute to the whole; in a story only every sentence. In a novel only every page.
— Alison Lurie, Real People
I would infinitely prefer to be writing propped up on my double bed but that is not a suitable look for an employer of builders. Instead I hover about in the kitchen, planning the next tea-break. But what a comfortable place a bed is to write in. It's like getting inside an envelope. When it gets colder I will take a hot-water bottle and put it, not quite against my hip but close enough for the warmth to be conducted towards me by the warming sheets. (I'm not sure if this is a true instance of conduction, whether Egyptian cotton can replace metal, but it certainly feels similar.) I like Alison Lurie's comment. The strange thing about prose and even the story is that it has the ability (when pages or paragraphs are removed) to join up again. Like those people (idiots) who claim a good hiding did them no harm. A page or more in a novel is excised and something like the structure of the new deck shows through, a new floor. Or in the story (frailer, more percipient) a sentence glides off, leaving its implied meaning with the sentence on either side. The reader can join them together and nothing is lost. But the poem, so bold and ardent in its intentions, can be fatally undone by the smallest flaw, like Achilles slain by the arrow in his heel where his mother's thumb pressed as she dipped him in the River Styx.
The Portuguese talk volubly, listen with difficulty and interrupt without qualm ...
— Marion Kaplan, The Portuguese: the land and its people
This I did, with such stunning Portugueseness, a few nights ago at a dinner with two fellow writers. Occasionally I saw a surprised glance directed at me: I was finishing another's sentence. It was true I asked questions that required long answers: about the building of a house or foreign travel. I came home wondering if I should be ex-communicated. Perhaps they were already doing it in the car as they drove off and I walked up the drive. I've been trying to train myself to be a listener, to listen closely, to not think of something in return, even if it seems smart or encouraging. Listening so often means the ready remark must be jettisoned, even when it is a favourite. I felt like hanging my head or biting a small piece of soap. I half-started an apology by email and then abandoned it. I tried to remember if I had been interrupted and couldn't find any examples. I must do better at the next dinner.
Then a wild idea of a Portuguese dinner party came to me: much volubility, people half-rising from their seats, gestures that send the wine flying across the cloth, halved breadsticks raised to make a point, a chair toppling over, two heads, passionate and red-faced, meeting in the middle of the table as if they are about to exchange a kiss. What fun it would be to go all the way and be truly Portuguese.
Be kind and then be kind and then be kind was Henry James's reply, late in life, to someone who asked him what he had learned from all his experience. I was hardly kind, I feel, interrupting in the restaurant, cutting off a sentence that had entered a Jamesian expansion, relaxing into parentheses that imply (wrong, sadly in this case) that the listener is kind. Kindness, it seems, requires a real rapport; there is nothing passive or half-hearted in its concern which soon leads to an act. Something small and not too obtrusive, requiring modest thanks. Something glancing even, fortuitous; a juxtaposition that means something only to the recipient, in the way a word that is hardly ever met with will be encountered twice on the same day. The appearance of the word has a kindness about it, sympathy, as if someone is observing and sending a sign. A kind person acts as an agent, unobtrusively offering support and a small gift before withdrawing. At its heart is sympathy and patience, the putting aside of one's own concerns and for a short period standing alongside another. Some words from 'Bridge over Troubled Water' came into my head after seeing Simon and Garfunkel being interviewed on TV. Their old quarrel would not be discussed: a pained smile was directed at Garfunkel by the much smaller Simon when this was mentioned. No need when the songs said it all.
Was Henry James kind? Or merely wise about it? I guess he was kind to his brother and sister, as kind to his sister, Alice, as the period allowed. He was a conventional man who loved excursions in Edith Wharton's Panhard-Levassor motor-car the way a child looks forward to a treat. I think he understood — how could he not, with those fine shifting moods translated to pauses and gestures, the turn of a head, movement of a hand or simply a punishing silence — the need for a frugal repayment. Others kept better tables, did not present the same pie at lunch and dinner. I feel he was always longing, after one of these bouncing excursions or a month-long visit, to return to silence, like someone with over-fretted nerves. I don't imagine he was unfailingly kind; he might have instructed his manservant to say he was out, or hid in the garden from an unwanted visitor. Kindness has a lot to do with inner spirit: we pass our equilibriums (physical as well as spiritual) on like conduction from the hot-water bottle pressed against the hip. What James probably meant, after all he had endured, was that it seemed the most human and worth persisting with. Everything fails but kindness, even in a small gesture, remains.
It's now Frightday (Friday) again and I can't say the week has been all masochism. Anyway, surely the terms are not in the right medical order. A fear might come before a wound or a fright before a tear; a moan follow being stunned. Perhaps that is the fault of pervasive emotions: the logic is lost, everything must be blanketed by a single outlook. Tearsday (Tuesday) sounds as if it will blow over and Moanday is just the natural reluctance to go to the office. It reminds me of Alice James and her misery, which her brother used, not unsympathetically, to create the character of the repressed but game female, noble as she succumbs to duty. The real Alice longed, when all other avenues were closed, for a serious illness. Once it arrived she was ready to swoon. Now she had a brave and difficult task in front of her. Whereas Henry, dictating a long sentence in Lamb House, despite a debilitating number of parenthetical clauses, could be assured of finding his way through.
We were talking about Chekhov at a dinner party. His humour was mentioned, a humour that is at once visible to the audience who are in on the joke but not to the handwringing, bewailing actors and actresses whose pathos is exaggerated into an almost religious fervour. But, someone suggested, modern audiences do not see The Cherry Orchard or Uncle Vanya in quite the same way. We are more sentimental and imagine our lives, though far removed, are as sad and hopeless as those on stage. Chekhov was obviously a far more decisive character — this may have made the bumbling dilemmas of his protagonists a pleasure to write — since his response to an interviewer — the question is forgotten, but perhaps something about the state of a writer's mind before beginning his morning's work — was:
When a writer takes a pen into his or her hand they accuse themselves of unanswerable egoism and all they can do with decency after that is to bow.
Instantly I imagine a little icon on the wall and a head making a half bow in acknowledgement. Chekhov also said something very useful about becoming colder and more detached if you want to move the reader. This suggests that, far from weeping with his inept characters, his scrutiny of them becomes more intense. The orchard is sold — and you can metaphorically hear the axe falling at a distance among the rows of trees, like soldiers cut down in a battle — the trunks and portmanteaux are packed and the sad farewells to familiar surroundings made by faces buried in handkerchiefs, but the gaze of the writer is clearer and spreads further. Like a pond edged by ice.
I go to morning mass, stride through the doors, select a mass book, and take a seat in the seventh row. The priest rises and it is the dismissal prayer. No wonder I received such strange looks. So I creep into the private chapel and sit on a brown leather seat, thinking what a fool I am. The priest comes in, passes me the lectionary, tells me, with a smile, to pray the day's prayer, signal when I am ready, and he will open the sanctuary and give me communion. We say the Lord's Prayer together and I look down at his perforated plastic shoes, called Crocs. Then he suggests, since it is the shortest mass on record, that I write a poem about it. There was someone I had come in particularly to pray for — though this may be an instance of the egoism Chekhov mentioned — and I remember to silently say his name when the host is in my palm and then my mouth.
Good Friday and I wonder if there can be anything relevant in the commonplace book which, after all, is compiled haphazardly, neglected for long periods and, since writing tidily is a minor torture, often stuffed with scraps of paper on which future entries are scribbled. Then there comes the day when they are transcribed on to the pages, thick portentous paper that instantly makes my wrist ache. I don't arrange the scraps: whichever is nearest to hand goes in first, so there are some curious juxtapositions.
Man cannot live without images
— St Thomas Aquinas
is followed by
From her place on the chaise longue by the window, she saw lightning flickering now in the western sky, like the feathers of a bird taking a bath.
— Eudora Welty, The Optimist's Daughter
He who has not felt the difficulties of his art does nothing that counts
— Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin
Three things can't be hidden: coughing, poverty and love.
— a Jewish song mentioned by Lily Brett in In Full View
On a more cheering note
It is a pleasant thing to be young and have ten toes
— Robert Louis Stevenson
is an antidote to formidable Emily Dickinson whose every word is a spiked railing or a tombstone
After great pain, a formal feeling comes —
The Nerves sit ceremoniously, like Tombs —
The stiff Heart questions was it He that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
Excerpted from The Commonplace Book by Elizabeth Smither. Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth Smither. Excerpted by permission of Auckland University Press.
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