We live on the flat, on the level, and yet - and so - we aspire. Groundlings, we can sometimes reach as far as the gods. Some soar with art, others with religion; most with love. But when we soar, we can also crash. There are few soft landings. We may find ourselves bouncing across the ground with leg-fracting force, dragged towards some foreign railway line. Every love story is a potential grief story. If not at first, then later. If not for one, then for the other. Sometimes, for both.
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Life is like invading Russia. A blitz start, massed shakos, plumes dancing like a flustered henhouse; a period of svelte progress recorded in ebullient despatches as the enemy falls back; then the beginning of a long, morale-sapping trudge with rations getting shorter and the first snowflakes upon your face. The enemy burns Moscow and you yield to General January, whose fingernails are very icicles. Bitter retreat. Harrying Cossacks. Eventually you fall beneath a boy-gunner's grapeshot while crossing some Polish river not even marked on your general's map.
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When you're young - when I was young - you want your emotions to be like the ones you read about in books. You want them to overturn your life, create and define a new reality. Later, I think, you want them to do something milder, something more practical: you want them to support your life as it is and has become. You want them to tell you that things are OK. And is there anything wrong with that?
But I've been turning over in my mind the question of nostalgia, and whether I suffer from it. I certainly don't get soggy at the memory of some childhood knickknack; nor do I want to deceive myself sentimentally about something that wasn't even true at the time""love of the old school, and so on. But if nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions""and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives""then I plead guilty.
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Not merely hope, but any burdensome yearning: ambition, hatred, love (especially love) - how rarely do our emotions meet the object they seem to deserve? How hopelessly we signal; how dark the sky; how big the waves. We are all lost at see, washed between hope and despair, hailing something that may never come to rescue us. Catastrophe has become art; but this is no reducing process. It is freeing, enlarging, explaining. Catastrophe has become art: that is, after all, what it is for.
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You put together two people who have not been put together before; and sometimes the world is changed, sometimes not. They may crash and burn, or burn and crash. But sometimes, something new is made, and then the world is changed. Together, in that first exaltation, that first roaring sense of uplift, they are greater than their two separate selves. Together, they see further, and they see more clearly.
I'm interested in such things as the difference between how we perceive the world and what the world turns out to be. The difference is between the stories we tell others and the stories we tell ourselves. There is a wonderful Russian saying, which I use as the epigraph of one of my novels, which goes, He lies like an eyewitness. Which is very sly, clever and true.
You put together two people who have not been put together before. Sometimes it is like that first attempt to harness a hydrogen balloon to a fire balloon: do you prefer crash and burn, or burn and crash? But sometimes it works, and something new is made, and the world is changed. Then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. and what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. this may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.
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Life ... is a bit like reading. ... If all your responses to a book have already been duplicated and expanded upon by a professional critic, then what point is there to your reading? Only that it's yours. Similarly, why live your life? Because it's yours. But what if such an answer becomes less and less convincing?
How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but""mainly""to ourselves.
...life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it; that the thinking person has a philosophical duty to examine both the nature of life and the conditions it comes with; and that if this person decides to renounce the gift no one asks for, it is the moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision.
And what percentage of people take up the option to die off?' She looked at me, her glance telling me to be calm. 'Oh, a hundred per cent, of course. Over many thousands of years, calculated by old time, of course. But yes, everyone takes the option, sooner or later.' 'So it's just like the first time round? You always die in the end?' 'Yes, except don't forget the quality of life here is much better. People die when they decide they've had enough, not before. The second time round it's altogether more satisfying because it's willed.' She paused, then added, 'As I say, we cater for what people want.' I hadn't been blaming her. I'm not that sort. I just wanted to find out how the system worked. 'So ... even people, religious people, who come here to worship God throughout eternity ... they end up throwing in the towel after a few years, hundred years, thousand years?' 'Certainly. As I said, there are still a few Old Heaveners around, but their numbers are diminishing all the time.
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How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but-mainly-to ourselves.
Books say: She did this because. Life says: She did this. Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren't. I'm not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people's lives, never your own.
When you are young, you think that the old lament the deterioration of life because this makes it easier for them to die without regret. When you are old, you become impatient with the way in which the young applaud the most insignificant improvements ... while remaining heedless of the world's barbarism. I don't say things have got worse; I merely say the young wouldn't notice if they had. The old times were good because then we were young, and ignorant of how ignorant the young can be.
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How do we seize the past? Can we ever do so? When I was a medical student some pranksters at the end-of-the-term dance released into the hall a piglet which had been smeared with grease. It squirmed between legs, evaded capture, squealed a lot. People fell over trying to grasp it, and were made to look ridiculous in the process. The past often seems to behave like that piglet.
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Back then, things were plainer: less money, no electronic devices, little fashion tyranny, no girlfriends. There was nothing to distract us from our human and filial duty which was to study, pass exams, use those qualifications to find a job, and then put together a way of life unthreateningly fuller than that of our parents, who would approve, while privately comparing it to their own earlier lives, which had been simpler, and therefore superior.
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The past is a distant, receding coastline, and we are all in the same boat. Along the stern rail there is a line of telescopes; each brings the shore into focus at a given distance. If the boat is becalmed, one of the telescopes will be in continual use; it will seem to tell the whole, the unchanging truth. But this is an illusion; and as the boat sets off again, we return to our normal activity: scurrying from one telescope to another, seeing the sharpness fade in one, waiting for the blur to clear in another. And when the blur does clear, we imagine that we have made it do so all by ourselves.
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When we're young, everyone over the age of thirty looks middle-aged, everyone over fifty antique. And time, as it goes by, confirms that we weren't that wrong. Those little age differentials, so crucial and so gross when we are young erode. We end up all belonging to the same category, that of the non-young. I've never much minded this myself.
Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does:otherwise there wouldn't be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that's something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that the character peaks a little later ;between twenty and thirty, say. And after that we're just stuck with what we've got. We're on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn't it? And also if this isn't too grand a word-our tragedy.
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In those years before mobile phones, email and Skype, travelers depended on the rudimentary communications system known as the postcard. Other methods-the long-distance phone call, the telegram-were marked "For Emergency Use Only." So my parents waved me off into the unknown, and their news bulletins about me would have been restricted to "Yes, he's arrived safely, "and "Last time we heard he was in Oregon, " and "We expect him back in a few weeks." I'm not saying this was necessarily better, let alone more character-forming; just that in my case it probably helped not to have my parents a button's touch away, spilling out anxieties and long-range weather forecasts, warning me against floods, epidemics and psychos who preyed on backpackers.
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I am more optimistic, both about reading and about books. There will always be non-readers, bad readers, lazy readers - there always were. Reading is a majority skill but a minority art. Yet nothing can replace the exact, complicated, subtle communion between absent author and entranced, present reader.
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I feel sorry for novelists when they have to mention women's eyes: there's so little choice, and whatever colouring is decided upon inevitably carries banal implications. Her eyes are blue: innocence and honesty. Her eyes are black: passion and depth. Her eyes are green: wildness and jealousy. Her eyes are violet: the novel is by Raymond Chandler.
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My brother distrusts the essential truth of memories; I distrust the way we colour them in. We each have our own cheap-mail-order paintbox, and our favourite hues. Thus, I remembered Grandma a few pages ago as "petite and unopinionated". My brother, when consulted, takes out his paintbrush and counterproposes "short and bossy.
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We live with such easy assumptions, don't we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it's all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we'd forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn't act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it's not convenient- it's not useful- to believe this; it doesn't help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.
What is history? Any thoughts, Webster?' 'History is the lies of the victors, ' I replied, a little too quickly. 'Yes, I was rather afraid you'd say that. Well, as long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated... 'Finn?' '"History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation." (quoting Patrick Lagrange)
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If a memory wasn't a thing but a memory of a memory of a memory, mirrors set in parallel, then what the brain told you now about what it claimed had happened then would be coloured by what had happened in between. It was like a country remembering its history: the past was never just the past, it was what made the present able to live with itself.
5.4 The question of accumulation. If life is a wager, what form does it take? At the racetrack, an accumulator is a bet which rolls on profits from the success of one of the horse to engross the stake on the next one. 5.5 So a) To what extent might human relationships be expressed in a mathematical or logical formula? And b) If so, what signs might be placed between the integers?Plus and minus, self-evidently; sometimes multiplication, and yes, division. But these sings are limited. Thus an entirely failed relationship might be expressed in terms of both loss/minus and division/ reduction, showing a total of zero; whereas an entirely successful one can be represented by both addition and multiplication. But what of most relationships? Do they not require to be expressed in notations which are logically improbable and mathematically insoluble? 5.6 Thus how might you express an accumulation containing the integers b, b, a (to the first), a (to the second), s, v? B = s - v (/+) a (to the first) Or a (to the second) + v + a (to the first) x s = b 5.7 Or is that the wrong way to put the question and express the accumulation? Is the application of logic to the human condition in and of itself self-defeating? What becomes of a chain of argument when the links are made of different metals, each with a separate frangibility? 5.8 Or is "link" a false metaphor? 5.9 But allowing that is not, if a link breaks, wherein lies the responsibility for such breaking? On the links immediately on the other side, or on the whole chain? But what do you mean by "the whole chain"? How far do the limits of responsibility extend? 6.0 Or we might try to draw the responsibility more narrowly and apportion it more exactly. And not use equations and integers but instead express matters in the traditional narrative terminology. So, for instance, if... " - Adrian Finn
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You can take Lucas to watch football when he's older, ' she once told me. Ah, the rheumy-eyed grandpa on the terraces inducting the lad into the mysteries of soccer: how to loathe people wearing different coloured shirts, how to feign injury, how to blow your snot on to the pitch - See, son, you press hard on one nostril to close it, and explode the green stuff out of the other. How to be vain and overpaid and have your best years behind you before you've even understood what life's about. Oh yes, I look forward to taking Lucas to the football.
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You can define a net two ways, depending on your point of view. Normally you would say it is a meshed instrument designed to catch fish. But you could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define the net as a jocular lexicographer once did: he called it a collection of holes tied together with string.
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He feared me as many men fear women: because their mistresses (or their wives) understand them. They are scarcely adult, some men: they wish women to understand them, and to that end they tell them all their secrets; and then, when they are properly understood, they hate their women for understanding them.
(on grief) And you do come out of it, that's true. After a year, after five. But you don't come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting through the downs into sunshine and that swift, rattling descent to the Channel; you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil-slick. You are tarred and feathered for life.