A friend and I had coffee this morning and talked about the limitations of language, the need to consider where words come from, what we think they mean, how they may be received by others. The words we use are critical, especially when we try to talk beyond the lines that often divide us. And then I came home and picked up Moon Tiger again. Here’s another sliver of Penelope Lively’s novel:
“We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse; we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. More than that, we speak volumes -- our language is the language of everything we have not read. Shakespeare and the Authorized Version surface in supermarkets, on buses, chatter on radio and television. I find this miraculous. I never cease to wonder at it. That words are more durable than anything, that they blow with the wind, hibernate and reawaken, shelter parasitic on the most unlikely hosts, survive and survive and survive.”
A while back I read a piece on Penelope Lively in the New York Times Book Review and put her novel Moon Tiger on my hold list at the public library. The book’s central character is an old woman, lying in the hospital and composing -- in her mind -- a history of the world. I laughed out loud on page one where the nurse taking care of her asks the doctor, “Was she someone?” Lively had me hooked. And not just me -- Moon Tiger won the Booker Prize in 1987.
Eight pages into it, I find this gem: “In the frozen stone of the cathedrals of Europe, there co-exist the Apostles, Christ and Mary, lambs, fish, gryphons, dragons, sea-serpents and the faces of men with leaves for hair. I approve of that liberality of mind.”
Watering, groceries, the gym, and then I get to come back to this book!
Maybe ten or twelve years ago, my husband and I came home from work to find a handful of young college students sitting on our kitchen counters and slouched on the floor, discussing James Joyce’s Ulysses. It was an impromptu Christmas vacation reading group convened so that one of my son’s friends, Sam, could share what he’d learned reading the novel at school.
It was one of my proudest moments. I remember devoting my Christmas breaks to detective novels and making large quantities of fudge. And I confess that I have never read Ulysses.
All these young men are smart, articulate, funny and still fast friends. Sam has gone on to write. I loved reading this brief piece, his interview with Michael Harris, who has written Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World. Loneliness differs from solitude, Harris says. “Loneliness is a nervous and negative experience of time alone whereas solitude is a productive and contented experience of time alone.”
I need to use solitude to prepare me for the next time loneliness rears its ugly head. Here’s Harris on Proust on reading: “Think of the emotional bonds we form while we’re alone and reading a wonderful novel. We are, at once, experiencing solitude and profound intimacy. Proust called reading, ‘that fruitful miracle of communication in the midst of solitude.’”