Some wonderful prose from The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

I can’t resist sharing my delight in the prose of Tom Wolfe. The description of this party goes on for several pages and is so totally and completely entertaining I can’t put the book down. Oh, the X-rays and the Lemon Tarts! I’d be annoyed on behalf of these women only I’m quite sure it’s all true. I hope you enjoy these few excerpts.

“All the men and women in this hall were arranged in clusters, conversational bouquets, so to speak. There were no solitary figures, no strays . . . There were no men under thirty-five and precious few under forty. The women came in two varieties. First there were women in their late thirties and in their forties and older (women ‘of a certain age’), all of them skin and bones (starved to near perfection). To compensate for the concupiscence missing from their juiceless ribs and atrophied backsides, they turned to the dress designers. This season no puffs, flounces, pleats, ruffles, bibs, bows, battings, scallops, laces, darts, or shirs on the bias were too extreme. They were social X-rays, to use the phrase that had bubbled up into Sherman’s own brain. Second there were the so-called Lemon Tarts. These were women in their twenties or early thirties, mostly blondes (the Lemon in the Tarts), who were the second, third, or fourth wives or live-in girlfriends of men over forty or fifty or sixty (or seventy), the sort of women men refer to, quite without thinking, as girls. This season the Tart was able to flaunt the natural advantages of youth by showing her legs from well above the knee and emphasizing her round bottom (something no X-ray had).”

“A blazing bony little woman popped out from amid all the clusters in the entry gallery and came towards them. She was an X-ray with a teased blond pageboy and many tiny grinning teeth. Her emaciated body was inserted into a black-and-red dress with ferocious puffed shoulders, a very narrow waist, and a long skirt. Her face was wide and round – but without an ounce of flesh on it . . . Her clavicle stuck out so far Sherman had the feeling he could reach out and up the two big bones. He could see lamplight through her ribcage.”

“There she was, standing over near the fireplace, laughing so hard – her new party laugh – laughing so hard her hair was bouncing. She was making a new sound, hock hock hock hock hock hock hock. She was listening to a barrel-chested old man with receding gray hair and no neck. The third member of the bouquet, a woman, elegant, slim, and fortyish, was not nearly so amused. She stood like a marble angel. Sherman made his way through the hive, past the knees of some people sitting down on a huge round Oriental hassock, toward the fireplace. He had to push his way through a flotilla of puffed gowns and boiling faces . . . “

What do you think? Have you read this book? Did you enjoy it?

From Minus One | A haiku for Venice

Last night I watched a documentary about the writer Colm Tóibín and a lot of it was set in Venice. His latest book “The Magician” is about the wonderful Thomas Mann who wrote the short story Death in Venice, which I loved. And I loved the movie – Dirk Bogarde leaning against a wall with black hair dye running down his face! And of course the music – from Mahler’s Fifth.

Narrow, stone-walled streets,

palace, church and square resound

with strains of Mahler.

Best hangover description, ever!

From Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe. i enjoyed this book so much, and I think it’s time for me to read it again. I always remembered that the hangover description here couldn’t be improved on. The pain of it was staggering. So here’s a taste of it:

The telephone blasted Peter Fallow awake inside an egg with the shell peeled away and only the membranous sac holding it intact. Ah! The membranous sac was his head, and the right side of his head was on the pillow, and the yolk was as heavy as mercury, and it was pressing down on his right temple and his right eye and his right ear. If he tried to get up to answer the telephone, the yolk, the mercury, the poisoned mass, would shift and roll and rupture the sac, and his brains would fall out . . .

The telephone was on the floor, in the corner, near the window, on the brown carpet. The carpet was disgusting. Synthetic; the Americans manufactured filthy carpet; Metalon, Streptolon, deep, shaggy, with a feel that made his flesh crawl. Another explosion; he was looking straight at it, a white telephone and a slimy white cord lying there in a filthy shaggy brown nest of Streptolon. Behind the Venetian blinds the sun was so bright it hurt his eyes . . .

These days he often woke up like this, poisonously hung over, afraid to move an inch and filled with an abstract feeling of despair and shame. Whatever he had done was submerged like a monster at the bottom of a cold dark lake. His memory had drowned in the night, and he could only feel the icy despair. He had to look for the monster deductively, fathom by fathom. Sometimes he knew that whatever it had been, he couldn’t face it . . .

The telephone exploded again. He opened his eyes and squinted at the sun-drenched modern squalor, and with his eyes open it was even worse . . .

He rolled out of the bed and put his feet on the floor, and the horrible yolk shifted. He was thrown into a violent headache. He wanted to vomit, but he knew it would hurt his head too much for him to possibly allow it to happen. He started towards the telephone. He sank to his knees and then to all fours. He crawled to the telephone, picked up the receiver, and then lay down on the carpet, hoping the yolk would settle again.

“Hello,” he said.

So, there you are. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed typing it out, chuckling as I worked.

Loved, and lived in, books

I was looking along the bookshelves recently and noticed how many old books were battered looking, stuck with cellotape, torn edges, etc. So, I asked myself, would I like new copies? No, I would not. These books were all read many times; they have coffee and wine stains; pages had been turned down, passages were underlined; comments were written along margins. These are MY books, loved, and lived in. A lot of them are old Russian classics; I have at least six by Orwell. I have Rebecca and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Every book I have, has been read at least twice, and I wonder which will be the next ones to be held together with tape. Perhaps all of Patrick de Witt’s books, Redhead by the Side of the Road, by Ann Tyler, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

I’m always happy to find brand new books that I can really love. These days, I depend on my children to make suggestions. I stand in bookshops and haven’t a clue what’s good, and what is not. When I was young this was never a problem for me; I knew exactly what I wanted.

Ah well, old age, I suppose.

From Sea and Sardinia by D H Lawrence | an excerpt

Some days, in an idle moment, I stand at my bookcase and run my eyes over the shelves, and very often I take down this book and open it at random. I have posted excerpts from Sea and Sardinia before, but I find the whole book irresistible so I hope you will excuse another one!

The lovely dawn: lovely pure, wide morning in the mid-sea, so golden-aired and delighted, with the sea like sequins shaking, and the sky far, far, far above, unfathomably clear. How glad to be on a ship! What a golden hour for the heart of man! ah if one could sail for ever, on a small quiet, lonely ship, from land to land and isle to isle, and saunter through the spaces of this lovely world,, always through the spaces of this lovely world. Sweet it would be sometimes to come to the opaque earth, to block oneself against the stiff land, to annul the vibration of one’s flight against the inertia of terra firma! but life itself would be in the flight, the tremble of space. Ah the trembling of never-ended space, as one moves in flight! Space, and the frail vibration of space, the glad lonely wringing of the heart. Not to be clogged to the land any more. Not to be any more like a donkey with a log on its leg, fastened to weary earth that has no answer now. But to be off.

To find three masculine, world-lost souls, and world-lost saunter and saunter on along with them, across the dithering space, as long as life lasts! Why come to anchor? There is nothing to anchor for. Land has no answer to the soul any more. It has gone inert. Give me a little ship, kind gods, and three world-lost comrades. Hear me! And let me wander aimless across this vivid outer world, the world empty of man, where space flies happily.

The lovely, celandine-yellow morning of the open sea, paling towards a rare, sweet blue! The sun stood above the horizon, like the great burning stigma of the sacred flower of day.

Reluctantly I must put the book down now to finish this post. I hope some of you enjoy it as much as myself.

Northanger Abbey | A Short Review.

I thought I had read all of Jane Austen’s novels but realised recently that I had missed Northanger Abbey and promptly downloaded it to my kindle. I wish I hadn’t; I can’t think of one good thing to say about this book. Can it possibly have been written by the same hand that gave us Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility etc?

This book was completed in 1803, the first of Austin’s novels to be completed but it wasn’t published until after she died. You might think from this that I dislike classics; nothing could be more wrong. I love the classics, especially the ones I studied at school – contrary to the experience of many people.

So, I began to read with anticipation only to be terribly disappointed. The writing is extremely wordy, vague, intricate and boring.. It’s like reading in a fog:

Compliments on good looks now passed; and, after observing how time had slipped away since they were last together, how little they had thought of meeting in Bath, and what a pleasure it was to see an old friend, they proceeded to make enquiries and give intelligence as to their families, sisters, and cousins, talking both together, far more ready to give than to receive information, and each hearing very little of what the other said. Mrs. Thorpe, however, had one great advantage as a talker, over Mrs. Allen, in a family of children . . . “

A lot of words saying nothing at all, even allowing for the utterly different style of writing in the 19th century.

Northanger Abbey itself doesn’t appear in the book until 66% has been read already (according to kindle), and is a peculiar sort of Abbey. I could get no idea of its shape and size. At this point some gothic nonsense is inserted and lasts for a couple of chapters. Some parts of the house would appear to be out of bounds, and peculiar furniture appears in Catherine’s bedroom with secret doors and drawers which give her an uneasy feeling. However this is all soon forgotten – with no explanation for the strange furniture – and returns to the main love story which is so uninteresting that the reader could not care less whether there was a happy ending or not.

The heroine is young, an idealist, and, sometimes, innocent to the point of imbecility. The hero does nothing heroic; he is just there for Catherine to fall in love with. There are a couple of female characters who could have been developed into interesting people to read about but it never happened. They remained as puppets. As this was Austen’s first book, perhaps she was simply trying out various ideas and never meant for it to be published. It reads like a very long first draft, with a little of this and that. The only thing the book does is give us an idea of society, the mores, the morals, the intricacies of class distinction, the manners and the dress code. An essay would have done that job very well.

Has anyone else read this book recently? I would be very interested to hear someone else’s view.