From Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, a conversation between the narrator and his sister, which comes on the heels of an equally brilliant ramble about how he’d rather be seen as a human being than as a Jew:
But you are a Jew, my sister says. You are a Jewish boy, more than you know, and all you’re doing is making yourself miserable, all you’re doing is hollering into the wind…A very short passage from Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled that might not mean much taken in isolation, but as a huge admirer of the book I find myself returning to it often:
Do you know, she asks me, where you would be now if you had been born in Europe instead of America?
That isn’t the issue, Hannah.
Dead, she says.
That isn’t the issue!
Dead. Gassed, or shot, or incinerated, or butchered, or buried alive. Do you know that? And you could have screamed all you wanted that you were not a Jew, that you were a human being and had nothing whatever to do with their stupid suffering heritage, and still you would have been taken away to be disposed of. You would be dead, and I would be dead, and
But that isn’t what I’m talking about!
And your mother and your father would be dead.
But why are you taking their side!
I’m not taking anybody’s side, she says. I’m only telling you he’s not such an ignorant person as you think.
And she isn’t either, I suppose! I suppose the Nazis make everything she says and does smart and brilliant too! I suppose the Nazis are an excuse for everything that happens in this house!
Oh, I don’t know, says my sister, maybe, maybe they are, and now she begins to cry too, and how monstrous I feel, for she sheds her tears for six million, or so I think, while I shed mine only for myself. Or so I think.
She began to talk again about the house. As she did so, I tried to recall something of the phone conversation to which she had just referred. After a while, I found a faint recollection returning to me of listening to this same voice – or rather a harder, angrier version of it – on the end of a telephone in the not-so-distant past. Eventually I thought I could recall also a certain phrase I had been shouting at her down the mouthpiece: “You live in such a small world!” She had continued to argue and I had gone on repeating contemptuously: “Such a small world! You live in such a small world!” To my frustration, however, I found nothing more of this exchange would come back to me.And this bit from one of the greatest books ever written, P G Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith:
“Mine, Miss Clarkson, is a refined and poetic nature. I like to be surrounded by joy and life, and I know nothing more joyless and deader than dead fish. Multiply that dead fish by a million and you have an environment which only a Dante could contemplate with equanimity. My uncle used to tell me that the way to ascertain whether a fish was fresh was to peer into its eyes. Could I spend the springtime of life staring into the eyes of dead fish? No!” He rose. “Well, I will not detain you any longer. Thank you for the unfailing attention and courtesy with which you have listened to me. You can understand now why my talents are on the market and why I am compelled to state specifically that no employment can be considered which has anything to do with fish. I am convinced that you will shortly have something particularly good to offer me.”
“I don’t know that I can say that, Mr Psmith.”
“The p is silent, as in pshrimp,” he reminded her.