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from Gravity's Rainbow / Thomas Pynchon

GR is, of course, not a poem. It's a 900-page novel. Fifty years old this year. But I was so bruised, amused, amazed by it that I wanted to feature it here. Because, beyond all the zany slapstick, eschatological paranoia and postmodern vastness, Pynchon is a gorgeous writer with a poet's eye for tiny details. This scene, some 500 pages in, describes the hero Slothrop stumbling out into a Berlin night. It's the summer of 1945 and the city is in ruins. But what ruins!



The rain lets up at midnight. Russian troops are singing in their billets. The salt ache of accordion music cries on in back of them. Drunks materialize, merry and pissing in the center grooves of cobbled alleys. Mud occupies some streets like flesh.

Shell craters brim with rainwater, gleaming in the lights of midwatch work crews clearing debris. Shattered Biedermeier chair, mateless boot, steel eyeglass frame, dog collar (eyes at the edges of the twisting trail watching for sign, for blazing), wine cork, splintered broom, bicycle with one wheel missing, discarded copies of Tägliche Rundschau, chalcedony doorknob dyed blue long ago with ferrous ferrocyanide, scattered piano keys (all white, an octave on B to be exact - or H, in the German nomenclature - the notes of the rejected Locrian mode), the black and amber eye from some stuffed animal... The strewn night. Dogs, spooked and shivering, run behind walls whose tops are broken like fever charts. Somewhere a gas leak warps for a minute into the death and after-rain smells. Ranks of blackened window-sockets run high up the sides of gutted apartment buildings. Chunks of concrete are held aloft by iron reinforcing rod that curls like black spaghetti, whole enormous heaps wiggling ominously overhead at your least passing brush by ... The smooth-faced Custodian of the Night hovers behind neutral eyes and smile, coiled and pale over the city, humming its hoarse lullabies.

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Kindness / Naomi Shihab Nye

Naomi Shihab Nye is an American-Palestinian poet who lives in San Antonio. Her poetry is much garlanded and she has been Young People’s poet laureate. I was sent this poem by my friend Alice Eldridge

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What a beautiful wordsmith, I have ordered a copy to read fully, thank you for the recommendation Alistair :)

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Ah, I hope you enjoy it Helen. It's quite a mammoth tome and pretty wild and wacky in places. Nonetheless an amazing book.

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There is a section of Proust that I love, about memory and how deep a place it comes from. In this case not as stark as Pynchon but quite striking. A few years ago in October on a sunny day I had the new translation of Proust from the library and stopped on my way home to get a couple of little delicacies. I appeared at my mother's house and took her outside into the afternoon sunshine this little snack while I read two or three pages of Proust. She was recovering from hip surgery and getting around was difficult. I had begun to think of what we could do together to be sure to have our own important memo…

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This is part of what I read to my mother from Lydia Davis' translation of Swann's Way:


“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. ... Whence did it come? What…

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The name "Thomas Pynchon" always takes me back to my undergraduate "Contemporary American Fiction" class when I was an impressionable girl. I remember feeling at the time that there was something very distant, dire, chilly and untouchable about Pynchon and his world. He made me despair. Yet later on in life, I came across this quote in Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49", and it shocked me with its urgency, its intensity, as if he was shouting at humanity: "For fuck's sake, people, wake up and live!" This is the quote:


I came," she said, "hoping you could talk me out of a fantasy." Cherish it!" cried Hilarious, fiercely. "What else do any of you have? Hold it tightly by…


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How splendid! Werner Herzog says something similar when he rails against psychoanalysis shining an ugly floodlight into the delicate nooks and crannies of the unconscious. (Personally, I don't think analysis or any therapy has such strong lighting, but anyway). He says that we are made by the creative darkness - perhaps Pynchon's Hilarious is saying something similar:

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Trev
Trev
Feb 21

I don't usually leave much in the way of comments preferring to work a more lurking aesthetic, but this has lured me out.


I hadn’t heard of Gravity’s Rainbow before. Or Pynchon either for that matter. (Another one on order. World of Books says thank you.)


Long story short: Cor! It’s bloody lovely, like the first page of a really gritty Under Milk Wood.


Long story slightly longer: one of my all-time favourite novels, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor, opens with a similarly sleeping city captured in such exquisite lyrical detail – an ode to the beauty of the ugly and mundane – that it makes my brain burble with pleasure.


I was going to pull some quotes…


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m
m
Feb 22
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If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things is an incredible book. Might need to revisit it, as I’ve not read it for a long time, but this quote always lives in my head… “The whole city stopped - And this is a pause worth savouring, because the world will soon be complicated again.”


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