Joseph Roth on dying, and living

A reflection from Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March on how life – and death – has changed since 1914:

In the years before the Great War, at the time the events chronicled in these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a man lived or died. When someone was expunged from the lists of the living, someone else did not immediately step up to take his place, but a gap was left to show where he had been, and those who knew the man who had died or disappeared, well or even less well, fell silent whenever they saw the gap. When a fire happened to consume a particular dwelling in a row of dwellings, the site of the conflagration remained for a long time afterwards. For masons and bricklayers worked slowly and thoughtfully, and when they walked past the ruins, neighbours and passers-by alike recalled the form and the walls of the house that had once stood there. That’s how it was then! Everything that grew took long to grow; and everything that ended took a long time to be forgotten. Everything that existed left behind traces of itself, and people then lived by their memories, just as we nowadays live by our capacity to forget, quickly and comprehensively.

Self-absorption v. curiosity

Good advice from C.K. Stead on having an appetite for life:

Self-absorption is slow death by interior corrosion, and what protects us against it is curiosity, an appetite for the world in all its forms. If you enjoy the world enough to look hard at it, it will save you – but only from yourself, not from disease, war, man-eating tigers or other people, all of which are part of what you must love (or at least love to look out at) in order to live well.


This made me laugh, from Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Wife:

All of them, the novelists, the story writers, the poets, desperately long to win. If there is a prize, then there is someone somewhere on earth who desires it. Grown men pace their homes and scheme about ways to win things, and small children hyperventilate over the prospect of gold-plated trophies for penmanship, for swimming, for just being cheerful. Maybe other life-forms give out awards too, and we just don’t know it: Best All-Round Flatworm; Most Helpful Crow.

Thomas Cromwell’s lack of xenophobia

We could perhaps do with a Thomas Cromwell in UK politics today. This is from Tracy Borman’s biography:

Cromwell’s love of all things Italian was highly unusual for a Londoner. Andreas Franciscius had been aghast to discover on his visit to the capital that its inhabitants ‘not only despise the way in which Italians live, but actually curse them with uncontrolled hatred’. This was corroborated by another Italian visitor of the period: ‘The English are great lovers of themselves, and of everything belonging to them; they think that there are no other men than themselves, and no other world than England; and whenever they see a handsome foreigner they say that “he looks like an Englishman” … They have a great antipathy to foreigners, and imagine that they never come into their island, but to make themselves master of it, and to usurp their goods.’

David Grossman on consumer society

The values and horizons of our world, the atmosphere that prevails in it and the language that dominates it, are dictated to a great extent by what is known as mass media, or mass communication. The term ‘mass media’ was coined in the 1920s, when sociologists began to refer to ‘mass society’. But are we truly aware of the significance of this term today, and of the process it has gone through? Do we consider the fact not only that, to a large extent, the ‘mass media’ today are media designed for the masses, but that in many ways they also turn their consumers into the masses? They do so with the belligerence and the cynicism that emanate from all their manifestations; with their shallow, vulgar language; with the oversimplification and self-righteousness with which they handle complex political and moral problems; with the kitsch in which they douse everything they touch – the kitsch of war and death, the kitsch of love, the kitsch of intimacy.


Fred Vargas, and the importance of coffee

Last night, Charles had felt her face with his fingers. It had been rather nice, she had to admit, those long hands scrupulously exploring all the contours of her face, as if she were printed out in Braille. She had sensed that he might have liked to go further, but she had not given him any encouragement. On the contrary, she had made some coffee. Very good coffee, in fact. That was no substitute for a caress, of course. But in a way a caress is no substitute for a good cup of coffee, either.


Michael Novak on the Judaeo-Christian roots of modern progress

From Aquinas and the heretics:

Apart from the guardianship of the Church over many centuries, it is hard to see whence would have derived the resources that later gave rise to modern science, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. The fundamental conceptions of progress, truth, compassion, the dignity of the individual, and the centrality of personal liberty on which modern progress rests are rooted in Jewish and Christian beliefs about human nature and destiny.

Isaac Bashevis Singer on literature that lasts

Herman, left alone, sat with his head bowed. He had noticed a copy of the Bible on the shelf near his chair and he leaned over and took it out. He leafed through the pages and found Psalms: ‘Be gracious unto me, O Lord, for I am in distress. Mine eye wasteth away with vexation, yea, my soul and my body. For my life is spent in sorrow, and my years in sighing. My strength faileth because of mine iniquity and my bones are wasted away. Because of mine adversaries, I am become a reproach, yea, unto my neighbours exceedingly, and a dread to mine acquaintances.’

Herman read the words. How was it that these sentences fitted all circumstances, all ages, all moods, while secular literature, no matter how well written, in time lost its pertinence.


Christ and the smell of fish

The Mistress of Novices in Kathryn Hulme’s The Nun’s Story capturing some of the difficulties of life in community:

‘Once, long ago, I too found the community life a pure agony.  I suffered, knowing that my forced participation could never be pleasing to God.  I struggled to overcome this.  I thought about the Christ who took to Himself the very humblest of companions.  I told myself that quite possibly He could not abide the smell of fish or the frequently childish talk of those simple disciples.  Yet… He lived with them and spoke with them in the picturesque parables they could understand, He who had confounded the scholars of the temple when only twelve years old.’