Archive for the ‘ Bookshelf ’ Category

Mr Gwyn by Alessandro Baricco

‘ How did Mr. Gwyn write portraits?’

Rebecca has heard that question dozens of times. She began to laugh. But the old man remained serious.

‘I mean, what the devil did he write in those portraits?’

Rebecca had an answer that she has practised using for years, every time someone asked her that question, to cut it off. She as about to utter it when she felt that soft, weary light around her. So she said something else.

‘He wrote stories,’ she said.


‘Yes. He wrote a piece of story, a scene, as if it were a fragment of a book.’

The old man shook his head.

‘Stories aren’t portraits.’

‘Jasper Gwyn thought so. One day, when we were sitting in a park, he explained to me that we all have a certain idea of ourselves, maybe crude, confused, but in the end we are pushed to have a certain idea of ourselves, and the truth is that often we make that idea coincide with some imaginary character in whom we recognise ourselves.’


Rebecca thought for a moment.

‘Like someone who wants to go home but can’t find the way. Or someone who always sees things a moment before others do. Things like that. It’s what we are able to intuit ourselves.’

‘But it’s idiotic.’

‘No. It’s imprecise.’

The old man stared at her. It was clear he wanted to understand.

‘Jasper Gwyn taught me that we aren’t characters, we’re stories,’ said Rebecca. ‘We stop at the idea of being a character engaged in who knows what adventure, even a very simple one, but what we have to understand is that we are the whole story, not just the character. We are the wood where he walks, the bad guy who cheats him, the mess around him, all the people who pass, the colours of things, the sounds. Do you understand?’


‘You make light bulbs, has it ever happened that you saw a light in which you recognised yourself? That was really you?’

The old man recalled a Chinese lantern above the door of a cottage, years before.

‘Once,’ he said.

‘Then you can understand. A light is just a segment of a sotry. If there is a light that is like you, there will also be a sound, a street corner, a man who walks, many men, or a single woman, things like that. Don’t stop at the light, think of all the rest, think of a story. Can you understand that it exists, somewhere, and if you find it, that would be your portrait?’

The old man made one of his gestures. It resembled a vague yes. Rebecca smiled.

‘Jasper Gwyn said that we are all a few pages of a book, but of a book that no one has ever written and that we search for in vain in the bookshelves of our mind. He told me that what he tried to do was write that book for the people that came to him. The right pages. He was sure he could do it.’

The eyes of the old man smiled.

‘And did he?’


‘How did he do it?’

‘He looked at them. For a long time. Until he saw in them the story they were.’

‘He looked at them and that’s all.’

‘Yes. He talked a little, but not much, and only once. More than anything he let time pass over them, carrying off a lot of things, then he found the story.’

‘What kind of stories?’

‘There was everything. A woman who tries to save her son from a death sentence. Five astronomers who live only at night. Things like that. But just a fragment, a scene. It was enough.’

‘And people in the end recognised themselves.’

‘They recognised themselves in the things that happened, in the objects, the colours, the tone, in a certain slowness, in the light, and also in the characters, of course, but in all of them, not one, all of them simultaneously – you know, we are a lot of things, and all at the same time.’

The old man sniggered, but in a nice way, politely.

‘It’s hard to believe you,’ he said.

‘I know. But I assure you it’s so.’

She hesitated a moment. Then she added something that she seemed to understand just at that moment.

‘When he did my portrait, I read it, at the end, and there was a landscape, at one point, four lines of a landscape, and I am that landscape, believe me, I am that whole story. I am the sound of that story, the pace and the atmosphere, and every character of that story, but with a disconcerting precision I am even that landscape, I have always been, and will be forever.’

The old man smiled at her.

‘I’m sure it was a very beautiful landscape.’

‘It was,’ said Rebecca.

The old man, finally, moved toward her, to say goodbye. Rebecca shook his hand and realised she was doing it cautiously, as years before she had been accustomed to do with Jasper Gwyn. (pp. 172-175)


Alessandro Baricco, Mr Gwyn & Three Times at Dawn, 2014, Michigan, McSweeney’s

Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball

  • On a lake, they float, but they do not see the lake. They only see what’s above, and only in the day, and only when the sun is not too bright. (pp.105)
  • Let’s not talk for a while, she said.

    We sat there for awhile. Through the floor, I could hear the sound of the apartment below. The sun set on some other part of the building. In Joo’s apartment it became steadily darker until she was finally forced to turn on the light or leave us sitting together in darkness.

    I watched her face in the light and tried to see the girl who has visited Sotatsu, who had lived with Kakuzo. After a time, I felt I could see her. She looked at me and said:

    I don’t think anyone has looked at me for that long in many years. This is a thing that regular people don’t understand. Because they live in families or groups, because they do not live alone. Months can go by without anyone looking at you, years, without anyone so much as touching your hand or shoulder. One becomes almost like a deer, impatient to be touched, terrified of it. A momentary contact in a supermarket, or on a train, becomes bewildering. However often such contact comes it is always bewildering, because it isn’t meant. And then there comes the day when no one so much as looks at you, unless it is by accident. (pp. 175-176)

  • …the absurd lengths to which human beings go to prove themselves reasonable. (pp.227)


Jesse Ball, Silence Once Begun, 2014, United States, Pantheon Books, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House Companies

Dracula by Bram Stoker


R.M. Renfield, acetate 59. – Sanguine temperament; great physical strength; morbidly excitable; periods of gloom ending in some fixed idea which I cannot make out. I presume that the sanguine temperament itself and the disturbing influence end in a mentally-accomplished finish; a possibly dangerous man, probably dangerous if unselfish. In selfish men caution is as secure as an armour for their foes as for themselves. What I think of on this point is, when self is the fixed point the centripetal force is balanced with the centrifugal; when duty, a cause, etc. is the fixed point, the latter force is paramount, and only the accident or a series of accidents can balance it.  – pp. 75, Dracula by Bram Stoker

The Sacred Book of the Werewolf by Victor Pelevin

  • I thought I could detect an erotic subtext to these astrophysical models, and my conviction was growing that Stephen Hawking wasn’t writing about physics at all, but about sex – only not about squalid human intercourse, but the grandiose cosmic coitus that gave birth to matter. Surely it’s not accident that this great explosion is referred to as the ‘Big Bang’. All the most sacred mysteries of the universe are concealed in the darkness of black holes, but it’s impossible to look into a singularity because it doesn’t emit any light, like a bedroom when the lamp’s switched off…Basically, I thought, astrophysicists are nothing but voyeurs. Except that voyeurs sometimes manage to glimpse someone else’s act of love through the gap between the curtains, but physicists have been cheated by fate, and they have to imagine absolutely everything as they stare into the ink-black darkness.
  • The cause of error by living beings is that they believe it is possible to cast aside the false and attain unto the truth. But when you attain unto yourself, the false becomes true, and there is no other truth to which one need attain after that.
  • Autocephalic uroborus
  • Beauty does not belong to a woman and it is not her specific quality – it is just that at a certain time of her life her face reflects beauty, as a windowpane reflects the sun that is hidden behind the roof of the houses. And so we cannot say that a woman’s beauty faced with time – it is simply that the sun moves on and the windows of other houses begin to reflect it. But we know the sun is not in the windowpanes that we look at. It is in us.
  • One should not become attached to words. They are only required as fleeting footholds. If you attempt to carry them with you, they will drag you down into the abyss. Therefore, they should be cast off immediately.
  • ‘In this world there is nothing but dust. But when a heavenly being sees the dust, she remembers the light that makes the dust visible. While a tailless monkey only sees the dust on which the light falls. That’s why, when a heavenly being dies, she becomes light. But when a tailless monkey dies, he becomes dust.

    ‘Light, dust,’ he said, ‘so there’s something there after all! There is some kind of individual personality. You’ve definitely got one, Ginger. I’ve felt pretty strongly just recently. Or will you tell me I’m wrong?’

    ‘This personality, with all its quirks and stupidities simply dances like a doll in the clear light of my mind. And the more stupid this doll’s quirks, the clearer the light that I recognise over and over again.’

    ‘Now you’re saying ‘my mind’. But you only just said it’s not yours.’

    ‘That’s the way language works. It’s the root from which infinite human stupidity grows. And we were-creatures suffer from it too, because we’re always talking. It’s not possible to open your mouth without being wrong. So you shouldn’t haggle over words.’


[Despite the bleak overtone of a post-Soviet outlook, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf remains cheerful with a certain Nirvanic lyricism. This beautiful, tragicomical Russian satire is about the deepening loneliness of cynical souls embedded in 21st-century emptiness searching for fulfillment.

I picked up this book on the sole premise that I thoroughly enjoyed Helmet of Horror and it did not fail to please. A modern-day philosophical fairytale threaded through with quantum physics, existential nihilism and literature, this book is a treat and deserves a rereading many times over.]


The Secret History by Donna Tartt

  • Thus he died, and all the life struggled out of him;
    And as he died he spattered me with the dark red
    And violence-driven rain of bitter-savored blood
    To make me glad, as gardens stand among the showers
    Of God in glory at the birthtime of the buds.
  • Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to throw off the chains of being for an instant, to shatter the accident of our mortal selves? We want to be devoured by it, to hide ourselves in that fire which refines us.
  • …and I was initially attracted to her because she seemed like an intelligent, brooding malcontent like myself; but after about a month, during which time she’d firmly glued herself to me, I began to realise, with some little horror, that she was nothing more than a lowbrow, pop-psychology version of Sylvia Plath. It lasted forever, like some weepy and endless made-for-TV movie – all the clinging, all the complaints, all the parking lot confessions of ‘inadequacy’ and ‘poor self-image’, all those banal sorrows.


[The Secret History isn’t the kind of narrative that would move or wrench powerful emotions out of you, but once in a while it does bring back the stink of inflated pubescent self-worthiness and might make you recall (if albeit fondly) about the over-glorification of being ‘cool’, ‘popular’, being in ‘love’ or ‘different’, that you and your peers might have strove (secretly, resignedly – knowing you will fail, or outrightly) to achieve.

It might remind you of your unsteady transition from post-adolescence into adulthood, or of the times when reason evaded you on why you were working so hard to complete your dissertation, why you were attending classes in the morning or why you had to show up for group projects. It might also remind you of the shallow fear that grips you unexpectedly when you were unsure if wearing a particular article of clothing might tip the scales ever so slightly away from looking like you have a genuine passion in acquiring knowledge to appearing pretentious and dilettante-like.

This book is fraught with the loss of time and youth. Lost time, wasted time. Blighted youth, smeared by alcohol and drugs, wasted youth. It draws to light the filth in which we emerge from to become adults and makes you ponder – long after you have turned the last page – how many of us actually manage to leave it behind when we journey into the next phase.]

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

  • That passage from To the Lighthouse echoed something of Woolf’s I already knew, her essay about walking that declared, ‘As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self that our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s room…Into each of these lives one could penetrate a little way, far enough to give one the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others.’ For Woolf, getting lost was not a matter of geography so much as identity, a passionate desire, even an urgent need, to become no one and anyone, to shake off the shackles that remind you who you are, who others think you are.
  • …all enquiry and all learning is but recollection.
  • The colour of that distance is the colour of an emotion, the colour of solitude and of desire, the colour of there seen from here, the colour of where you are not.
  • But in this world we actually live in, distance ceases to be distance and to be blue when we arrive in it. The far becomes near, and they are not the same place.
  • Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.
  • ‘Emptiness is the track on which the centered person moves,’ said a Tibetan sage six hundred years ago, and the book where I found this edict followed it was an explanation of the world ‘track’ in Tibetan: shul, ‘a mark that remains after that which made it has passed away – a footprint, for example. In other contexts, shul is used to describe the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood, the channel worn through rock where a river runs in flood, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept last night. All of these are shul: the impression of something that used to be there.
  • The process of transformation consists mostly of decay and then of this crisis when emergence from what came before must be total and abrupt.
  • Instar implies something both celestial and ingrown, something heavenly and disastrous, and perhaps change is commonly like that, a buried star, oscillating between near and far.
  • Writing is the most disembodied art, and reading and writing are largely private and solitary experiences, so music and dance have always enchanted me as arts in which the body of the performer communicates directly to the audience, welding a kind of communion writers rarely experience.
  • She had the nonchalance and style that mean so much to adolescents, who are urgently constructing a persona to meet the world, and this achievement is the antithesis of the openness that might make clear to self and others what one wants and needs. The currents of emotions that buffeted us were still invisible an unnamed.
  • We talked while the full moon mounted in the sky, words filling up the narrow space between us, as much a buffer as a link.
  • I wondered then and wonder now how I could give all this up for what cities and people have to offer, for it ought to be less terrible to be lonely than to have stepped out of this sense of a symbolic order that the world of animals and celestial light offers, but wiring is lonely enough, a confession to which there will be no immediate or commensurate answer, an opening statement in a conversation that falls silent or takes place long afterward without the author. But the best writing appears like those animals, sudden, self-possessed, telling everything and nothing, words approaching wordlessness. Maybe writing is its own desert, its own wilderness.
  • We fly; we dream in darkness; we devour heaven in bites too small to be measured.

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

  • The past was a light that if properly directed could illumine the present more brightly than any contemporary lamp. Greatness was like the sacred flame of Olympus, handed down from the great to the great. Alexander modeled himself on Archilles, Caesar followed in Alexander’s footsteps, and so on. Understanding was another such flame. Knowledge was never simply born in the human mind; it was always reborn. The relaying of wisdom from one age to the next, this cycle of rebirths: this was wisdom. All else was barbarity.
  • ‘Weave a nest for yourself in the depths of my eyes.’ – Ali-Shir Nava’i