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I tell you it will be more tolerable for the
Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a
coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I
say, in the day of judgment, then for thee, civilized and
enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest
on their bloated livers in thy paté-de-foie-gras.
--Moby Dick by Herman Melville
[N.B.: How do you spot a classic?
It seems like it was written today. How do you spot ephemera?
It is praised as being timely--as depicting today. How do you
tell the difference? Like fine wine, you must wait many years
for the writer's generation to die off, and, if after that time the
book is still being read, well, there you go. I do believe
that clock is winding down fairly quickly Mr. Mailer, Mr. Updike,
Mr. Irving, Mr. Vidal, etc., etc., etc.]
The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two
stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in
a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel
showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a
tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and
convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet
back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes
that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I
stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner
or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem
to be really trying.
--The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
British people crowd into pubs drinking
Budweiser and smoking Marlboro because of movies; they wear what
they see worn in movies, they aspire to a life, a slang, a
vocabulary and modus vivendi that is shown them in seventy
millimetre Eastmancolor and Dolby stereo. This doesn't make
them weak, pusillanimous or ovine. Many of those who mock this
apparent fashion slavery are themselves living in a style borrowed
from an Evelyn Waugh novel, drinking drinks drunk by John Buchan
protagonists or speaking a language from Trollope and Macaulay.
It is not people who are weak, it is culture that is strong.
That is why tyrants burn books, ban films and imprison artists.
--Thar's Gold in Them Thar Films from
Paperweight by Stephen Fry
Lovers do not dislike. We were not
Never mind what love sees. How should I
I know only what dislike sees clearly through
its absent-hearted eyes. Trivial things, shabby details, the
dust in the balance of our senses. Dislike is nice. It
wears a turned-up nose. Dislike is hard to please. It
can neither forget nor forgive the least speck of dandruff. A
mean thing itself, it makes much out of others' imperfections.
It leaves a sediment in the soul, a small poison which corrupts the
--The Voyage of the Destiny by Robert
"Vengeance on a dumb brute!" cried Starbuck,
"that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness!
To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous."
"Hark ye yet again--the little lower layer.
All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in
each event--in the living act, the undoubted deed--there, some
unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its
features from behind the unreasoning mask If man will strike,
strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside
except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale
is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's
naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps
me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice
sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate;
and be the white whale agent agent, or be the white whale principal,
I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy,
man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. . . ."
--Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Apollonius placed the cadaver on its side,
drawing the arms up above the head. He bent the knees and
slightly spread the legs. The corpse looked as if it was
sleeping in a very uncomfortable position.
Apollonius began to pray a low, thick prayer.
His eyeballs turned dead green; thin, hazy stuff floated out of his
ears. He prayed and prayed and prayed. To the subtle
spirit of life he sent his terrible invocation.
Then all of a sudden, when everyone was most
expecting it, the dead man came to life, sat up, coughed, and rubbed
"Where the devil am I?" he wanted to know.
"You're at the circus," said the doctor.
"Well, lemme outa here," said the man. "I
got business to attend to."
He got to his feet and started off with a
Luther caught his arm as he made for the door.
"Listen, mister," he asked, "was you really dead?"
"Deader than hell, brother," said the man and
hurried on out of the tent.
--The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G.
I probably know more about the conventional
school subjects that most people of my age. I could complain
about the truth of some of the bits of information my father
passed on to me, mind you. Ever since I was able to go into
Porteneil alone and check things up in the library my father has had
to be pretty straight with me, but when I was younger he used to
fool me time after time answering my honest if naive questions with
utter rubbish. For years I believed Pathos was one of
the Three Musketeers, Fellatio was a character in Hamlet,
Vitreous a town in China, and that the Irish peasants had to tread
the peat to make Guinness.
--The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
Unlike Gaul, the pupils attending Mr. Hobson's
school may be divided into two groups: those who shared our
background, and those who did not. We will concern ourselves
with this first group primarily; and chief among them I shall
mention George Apley's friend and contemporary, Winthrop Vassal.
The name itself describes his family--the Loyalist branch of the
Tory Vassals, so many of whom left Boston for Halifax at the time of
the Revolutionary War. Let us hasten to add that distinguished
ancestors did not turn Winthrop's head, then or on any other
occasion. He was a snub-nosed, reddish-haired, freckle-faced
schoolboy who never lost the divine merriment of his youth. "Winty"
Vassal, the life of our class and our Club at Harvard, the
toastmaster and inimitable story teller at our class reunions, has
ever maintained that fresh interest in youth. His imitation of
the Irish conductor in the Brookline car, slightly mellowed by
potations, is as side-splitting to the youngsters to-day as it is to
--The Late George Apley by John P.
As we approach the final weeks of filming
Jeeves and Wooster 3 ('they're back . . . and this time they're
angry') our days are getting longer and longer. This has meant
overnights. Last night I stayed in a hotel which was once a
coaching inn, a proud caravanserai that offered beers, wines,
spirits, freshly aired sheets, shoulders of mutton, stuffed capons
and as able a team of ostlers as ever ostled in the county of
Buckinghamshire. It is now, naturally, part of a chain and
serves as a tragic emblem of this unhappy land. It might as
well be called the Albion Hotel and exist between the covers of an
It is almost impossible to detect in the sad
demeanours of its mostly young employees, under the woundingly foul
polyester liveries in which they are costumed, under the layers of
false and greasy group management training and staff protocols that
cake them like cheap make-up, under the heavy burden of drudgery and
dull adherence to company rules which prescribe their every move,
traces of the features of once cheerful, rude, bouncy and hopeful
school-leavers: the echoes of the playground must still ring in the
ears of these unfortunates who have, like Leonard Bast in Howards
End, 'given up the glory of the animal for a tail-coat and a set
--Heartbreak Hotels from Paperweight
by Stephen Fry
[N.B.: Who sez the purveyors of the
creative long-form sentence, with its bewitching clockwork of
interlocking clauses, are dead and grammatically buried. Just
check out that one-sentence second paragraph and weep, ye writer
manqués, for you'll never produce its like. And now, get down
on your knees and grovel before the great Stephen Fry. Please,
go easy on the spittle, imported shoe leather, you know, not that
cheap polyester stuff worn by imitation ostlers in some campy Ye
Olde England Inn.]
I am forty today. The shock is not too
great because during the past year I have been telling people that I
was forty, in anticipation. But I am rather less good-looking
and very bald now. My figure is as slender as ever. Only
occasionally does my stomach swell, owing to the bard bread, but it
soon flattens itself. I have lately found that the skin of my
jaw and chest is slacker than formerly. I am less stirred by
desire than I used to be. It is the forms of physical
falling-off that I most resent: the fact that the life-line only
reaches an angle of 89.9 rather than 90 degrees.
by James Lees-Milne (abridged and introduced by Michael Bloch),
entry for Friday, 6th August 1948
Jealousy is perhaps the most involuntary of all
strong emotions. It steals consciousness, it lies deeper than
thought. It is always there, like a blackness in the eye, it
discolours the world.
--The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch
You got it all, except the pride, in Joe's
where they looked up from their bare tables and let him run the
place through, the extra aces back in the sleeve, the watered spirit
out of sight, facing him each with his individual mark of cruelty
and egotism. Even pride was perhaps there in a corner, bent
over a sheet of paper, playing an endless game of double noughts and
crossed against himself because there was no one else in that club
he deigned to play with.
--A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene
[N.B.: Oh my goodness, did Graham Greened
just end that sentence with a preposition? What a lousy
writer. Why haven't the grammarians burned him in effigy yet?
Perhaps they're busy stitching together a frayed expanse of split
infinitives or propping up a bulging overhang of dangling
Luckily my father grew tired of this grand
scheme and contented himself with firing the odd surprise question
at me concerning the capacity of the umbrella-stand in pints or the
total area in fractions of an acre of all the curtains in the house
actually hung up at the time.
'I'm not answering these questions any more,' I
said to him as I took my plate to the sink. 'We should have
gone metric years ago.'
My father snorted into his glass as he drained
it. 'Hectares and that sort of rubbish. Certainly not.
It's all based on the measurement of the globe, you know. I
don't have to tell you what nonsense that is.
--The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
[N.B.: Of course, the British have been
metric for some time now. Although I might rant about the
British way of life vis-à-vis the desiccated facsimile thereof
practiced in the States, you won't hear a peep out of me about our
so-called antiquated measurement system (inherited from the Brits,
naturally). Our system is based on the human body, a measuring
stick that we carry about with us all of the time (it's not called a
"foot" just because you walk on it). As pointed out in the
quote above, the French metric system is based on an idealized
measurement of the globe--and an inaccurate one at that. And
that, boys and girls, sums up the difference between the British and
the French, or the humanities and the intellectuals, if you will (if
I can mix my bicycles with my fish).]
I was summoned to the bedside in the evening.
Granda Godkin wished to say goodbye to me. For a long time he
said nothing. The others, at my back, began to fidget.
He gazed through me, into his private pale blue eternity, and it was
as if he were already dead, a mere memory, he was so thin and faded.
At last his eyes came back and focused on me. He took me for
my father, and said very clearly,
'Joe, you'll never be anything but a waster!'
That was his farewell. I knew that those
attendant silences behind me expected something of me, but what it
was I did not know. I tried to take his hand but he would not
let me lift it, and turned his face to the wall, so I caught hold of
one of his brown-paper fingers and shook it solemnly and then made
my escape. Did I mourn him? I suppose I did, in my way.
But I felt, as I have felt at every death, that something intangible
had slipped through my fingers before I discovered its nature.
All deaths are scandalously mistimed. People do not live long
enough. They come and go, briefly, shadows dwindling toward an
empty blue noon.
--Birchwood by John Banville
But were the coming narrative to reveal in any
instance, the complete abasement of poor Starbuck's fortitude,
scarce might I have the heart to write it; but it is a thing most
sorrowful, nay shocking, to expose the fall of valor in the soul.
Men may seem detestable as joint-stock companies and nations;
knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and
meagre faces; but, man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling,
such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish
in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes.
That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within
us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone;
bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a
valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful
sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting
stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity
of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed
investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields
a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all
hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God
absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy!
His omnipresence, our divine equality!
If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades
and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though
dark; weave around them tragic graces; if even the most mournful,
perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times lift
himself to the exalted mounts; if I shall touch that workman's arm
with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his
disastrous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out
in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal
mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou
great democratic God! who didst not refuse to the swart convict,
Bunyan, the pale, poetic pearl; Thou who didst clothe with doubly
hammered leaves of finest gold, the stumped and paupered arm of old
Cervantes; Thou who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles;
who didst hurl him upon a war-horse; who didst thunder him higher
than a throne! Thou who, in all Thy mighty, earthly marchings,
ever cullest Thy selectest champions from the kingly commoners; bear
me out in it, O God!
--Moby Dick by Herman Melville
The poster of an evening paper caught her eye
and as she ran down the train, looking back as often as she was
able, she couldn't help remembering that war might be declared
before they met again. He would go to it; he always did what
other people did, she told herself with irritation, although she
knew it was his reliability she loved. She wouldn't have loved
him if he'd been eccentric, had his own opinions about things; she
lived too closely to thwarted genius, to second touring company
actresses who thought they ought to be Cochran stars, to admire
difference. She wanted her man to be ordinary, she wanted to
be able to know what he'd say next.
--A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene