Monday, December 11, 2006

Cherished extracts-1

Partly inspired by what was said in this interview, about individual passages/paragraphs that can stay with a reader for life, I’m starting an occasional series of posts featuring short extracts from books – passages that have, for one reason or another, meant a lot to my reading life. Will simply post them without elaborating on why I like them so much (in some cases I wouldn’t be able to articulate it anyway). As ever this is largely a self-indulgent exercise, but if it gets anyone interested enough to want to read/reread the books in question that would be a nice side-benefit.

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…

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.
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:
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.


  1. So many firsts.

    You write about 3 books in one post and I. Have. Actually. READ. Them! Jeepers!

    We agree about a book. (Leave it to Psmith)

    BUT I think Psmith's ad just about pips ALL other passages.


  2. thanks , this is the best article i ever read

  3. Psmith. As s42 sed so concisely :). I would have had a similarly cool name with a p as in pshrimp if my mum hadn't raised silly objections.

    The best part of reading books is when you come across something that you thought was special to yourself. Its as if a hand reached out and grasped yours.
    - quoted from memory from the trailer for History Boys

  4. Thanks for all the Psmith. Have always considered him Wodehouse's greatest creation, a sort of amalgam of Bertie and Jeeves into one person.

  5. Oddly enough, Mike and Psmith were the only characters PGW ever admitted drawing from real life.
    Mike was of course, R.E. Foster of "Fostershire" and England. Psmith was a chap called Rupert D'Oyly Carte, a Paulite who did not "care for first class cricket".