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The Quotable Beryl

Aug. 30th, 2010 | 01:07 am

This book doesn't live up to Hemingway's great praise of it. Beryl led an amazing life to be sure, but she spends so much time aggrandizing all the people and animals she encountered that large chunks come off as bluster and vanity. The writing gets a bit too ornate, but like many writers of purple prose, she has her moments. Here are the best of them:

There are all kinds of silence and each of them means a different thing. There is the silence that comes with morning in a forest, and this is different from the silence of a sleeping city. There is silence after a rainstorm, and before a rainstorm, and these are not the same. There is the silence of emptiness, the silence of fear, the silence of doubt. There is a certain silence that can emanate from a lifeless object as from a chair lately used, or from a piano with old dust upon its keys, or from anything that has answered to the need of a man, for pleasure or for work. This kind of silence can speak. Its voice may be melancholy, but it is not always so; for the chair may have been left by a laughing child or the last notes of the piano may have been raucous and gay. Whatever the mood or the circumstance, the essence of its quality may linger in the silence that follows. It is a soundless echo.

...or later:

I had never realized before how quickly men deteriorate without razors and clean shirts. They are like potted plants that go to weed unless they are pruned and tended daily. A single day's growth of beard makes a man look careless; two day's, derelict; and four day's, polluted.

The emotional life of objects recurs throughout the book. It's what Robert Bly calls the "twofold universe", the ability of the poet to animate the inanimate with imagination.

The walls of my house are without memories, or secrets, or laughter. Not enough of life has been breathed into them – their warmth is artificial; too few hands have turned the window latches, too few feet have trod the thresholds. The boards of the floor, self-conscious as youth or falsely proud as the newly rich, have not yet unlimbered enough to utter a single cordial creak.

Here's another bit that works the same poetic method, this time about a hurricane lamp.

It is an ancient lamp, not of my own things. Its base is cheap metal, nicked in places, its chimney is smudged with soot. How has it lighted the hours of how many men? How many men have scribbled under it, eaten under it, got drunk under it? Has it ever seen success?

I think not. It is crumpled and slatternly, enured to failure, as if no man with hope in his fingers had ever trimmed its wick. It gives a joyless light; it is a dissolute eye. Watching it burn I am at last depressed. I make it a symbol of despair, only because it is not brighter, perhaps because it can not talk.

Much of her life was spent on solitary adventures, so it isn't surprising that she waxes poetic on the nature of loneliness:

You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself. You learn to watch other people, but you never watch yourself because you strive against loneliness. If you read a book, or shuffle a deck of cards, or care for a dog, you are avoiding yourself. The abhorrence of loneliness is as natural as wanting to live at all. If it were otherwise, men would never have bothered to make an alphabet, nor to have crossed continents – each man to see what the other looked like.

That's it! The rest romanticizes the colonial conquest of Africa, and Africa itself. Skip it. Hemingway was wrong about this book, as he was about most things.

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