The opening two paragraphs from the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Priory School” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
We have had some dramatic entrances and exits upon our small stage at Baker Street, but I cannot recollect anything more sudden and startling than the first appearance of Thorneycroft Huxtable, M.A., Ph.D., etc. His card, which seemed too small to carry the weight of his academic distinctions, preceded him by a few seconds, and then he entered himself–so large, so pompous, and so dignified that he was the very embodiment of self-possession and solidity. And yet his first action, when the door had closed behind him, was to stagger against the table, whence he slipped down upon the floor, and there was that majestic figure prostrate and insensible upon our bearskin hearthrug.
“We had sprung to our feet, and for a few moments we stared in silent amazement at this ponderous piece of wreckage, which told of some sudden and fatal storm far out on the ocean of life. Then Holmes hurried with a cushion for his head, and I with brandy for his lips. The heavy, white face was seamed with lines of trouble, the hanging pouches under the closed eyes were leaden in colour [sic], the loose mouth drooped dolorously at the corners, the rolling chins were unshaven. Collar and shirt bore the grime of a long journey, and the hair bristled unkempt from the well-shaped head. It was a sorely stricken man who lay before us.
So brilliantly descriptive, and so hysterically fun at the same time. I’m not sure if the humor was intentional, or if it’s just a modern interpretation of the Victorian writing sensibilities… perhaps a bit of both… but it’s the best opening to all the Sherlock Holmes stories… in my opinion at least.
(A note about the photo: Jeremy Brett portrayed Sherlock Holmes in the Grenada TV series, shown in the US on PBS; there were 41 episodes, all based on the Conan Doyle stores, filmed between 1984-1994. For many of us Holmes fans, Brett is the definitive Holmes. As much as I’ve enjoyed the BBC Sherlock series, staring Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role (a show I was prepared to hate, but find to be a brilliant new look at the famous detective), I think that no one will ever capture Holmes in the way Brett did. I’m sorry that he died young, and was unable to film more of the Conan Doyle stories.)
I’d be lying if I said I was a longtime fan of Joan Didion. Sure, I knew who she was. I spent five years of my 20s, and five years of my 30s working in a bookstore, so, of course, I could have told you most of the titles of her books. But, I had no first-hand knowledge of her writing until I read The Year Of Magical Thinking, Didion’s memoir of the year after her husband’s sudden death, that happened while their only child, a daughter, lay in a medically induced coma, fighting for her life. I was so impressed with the book that I have since read my way through most of her other work. Joan Didion is a writer’s writer. I can think of no higher compliment.
Her latest book, Blue Nights, is, in a way, a sequel. Didion’s daughter recovered from the illness that resulted in her being induced into a coma, she married, and, just as suddenly as her husband a few years before, her daughter died. Neither book is over-wrought, or over-written. They prose is raw and cool, rather than florid and sentimental, a fact that many readers don’t care for. When dealing with death, people want to read about the all the heart-wrenching grief in great detail. Didion doesn’t write that way. Her prose has always been rational, rather than emotional, her focus always seems to be more about thought than action. In Blue Nights, the prose is stripped bare, edited down to only the necessary words, as simple and stark as poetry. Early in the book, she recounts her family’s years in Brentwood, California. They had a home, with a flowering garden of lawn and trees. When they sold the house in order to move to New York, the new owner had them treat the house for termites with Vikane — which resulted in the flowers and trees dying within a few years. She goes on in this way:
John said we moved “back” to New York.
I never did.
Brentwood Park was then, New York was now.
Brentwood Park before the Vikane had been a time, a period, a decade, during which everything seemed to connect.
Our suburbia house in Brentwood.
It was exactly that. She called it.
There had been care, a swimming pool, a garden.
There had been agapanthus, lilies of the Nile, intensely blue starbursts that floated on long stalks. There had been gaura, clouds of tiny white blossoms that became visible at eye level only as daylight faded.
There had been English chintzes, chinoiserie toile.
There had been a Bouvier des Flandres motionless on the stair landing, one eye open, on guard.
Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.
The last sentence reached out and grabbed me. It says, in twelve words, exactly why I spend time blogging about my mother, and, even, why I tell a few stories about myself. The blog posts about my mom are a way for me to set out for myself, the stories I need to remember. It’s the stories of now, that I need to write down, in order to keep the memory fresh, so when I recall it in some distant time, the memory will be as accurate as I could make it. The stories of the past, I write those down to, even though memories have adjusted, faded, conformed; these stories of the past are important to set down, because, at least, I can capture them before another twenty or forty years pass, distorting and fading the memory even further.
“Time passes”, as Didion says. Memory passes. Ultimately, we are a product of our memories, and, to be authentic, we must be as authentic with our memories as we can.
To those of you who’ve been around awhile — thanks; and, for those of you who are new — thanks to you as well. Thanks for being a part of my attempt to remember for the future, and to reclaim the stories from the past.
For all the hours and hours of “Real Housewives of…” episodes out there, I’ve maybe seen a total of thirty minutes. Maybe 20. But, a brief viewing was more than enough to convince me that these kinds of TV shows are a waste od time. Blogger Andrew Sullivan describes them this way:
If I watched all of the Real Housewives of New Jersey in one sitting, for example, I think I would sink into the oblivion that happens to all those who watch their souls being torn slowly, shred by shred, into nothingness. That show’s emptiness, hollowness, vacuousness, its transformation of children into products for a self-sustaining celebrity industry, its revelling in human manipulation in the midst of wanton greed, its venomous vulgarity and moral cesspit: it’s truly the most appalling, cynical and morally disgusting display of doucherie on the box, which is saying something. And, yes, at its core it is a form of pornography of female spite for gay male misogynists. In this Millennium, some gay men don’t need to invent the dialogue of vicious, hateful networks of women (that would require some creative effort); they dangle celebrity in front of the faces of the desperately needy and then tape their every pettiness to squeals of Bravo delight.
If you’ve been conscious and aware of what’s been going on around you, especially during the past few decades, you’ll have heard, on more than one occasion that our lives are drastically changed, that life today is much different than the lives of our parents, or our parent’s parents. Phones no longer need to remain at home, TVs have more than 5 or 6 channels, one no longer has to leave the house to buy
porn groceries, as one can buy most things on the internet and have them delivered. Yet, in the midst of all this change, it’s refreshing to find that some things haven’t changed much.
I am currently reading the book “The Best American Essays of the Century“, edited by Robert Atwan and Joyce Carol Oates, a collection of the essays written in the twentieth century. I’ve just finished reading “Insert Flap ‘A’ and Throw Away” by S. J. Perleman, first published in 1944, and, though it’s 68 years old, it feels remarkably familiar and contemporary. Here’s the opening paragraph:
One stifling summer afternoon last August, in the attic of a tiny stone house in Pennsylvania, I made a most interesting discovery: the shortest, cheapest method of inducing a nervous breakdown ever perfected. In this technique (eventually adopted by the psychology department of Duke University, which will adopt anything), the subject is placed in a sharply sloping attic heated to 340° F. and given a mothproof closet known as the Jiffy-Cloz to assemble. The Jiffy-Cloz, procurable at any department store or neighborhood insane asylum, consists of half a dozen gigantic sheets of red cardboard, two plywood doors, a clothes rack, and a packet of staples. With these is included a set of instructions mimeographed in pale-violet ink, fruity with phrases like “Pass Section F through Slot AA, taking care not to fold tabs behind washers (see Fig. 9).” The cardboard is so processed that as the subject struggles convulsively to force the staple through, it suddenly buckles, plunging the staple deep into his thumb. He thereupon springs up with a dolorous cry and smites his knob (Section K) on the rafters (RR). As a final demonic touch, the Jiffy-Cloz people cunningly omit four of the staples necessary to finish the job, so that after indescribable purgatory, the best the subject can possibly achieve is a sleazy, capricious structure which would reduce any self-respecting moth to helpless laughter. The cumulative frustration, the tropical heat, and the soft, ghostly chuckling of the moths are calculated to unseat the strongest mentality.
I, thankfully, have no permanent scars from anything I’ve had to assemble over the years. Though, I do cringe whenever I think of shelves that I ended up throwing away because, after more than two hours of trying to figure the poorly-written instructions out, I became so maniacally frustrated that I was unable to completely screw-in a screw (is there a better way to say that?) that I got out the hammer, to try and drive it the rest of the way in, and, in my mentally unstable state, I smashed the screw so hard that I split the panel, resulting in a large chuck of fake wood to fall to the ground. The shelves went into the garbage *only* because I lived in the city, and couldn’t burn the damn thing!
So, in a rather odd way, I find a sense of All’s-Well-With-The-World, knowing that, even in 1944, products that needed assembly won’t show up in stories about The Good Old Days.
Have you ever had a meltdown while trying to assemble a product?
Quoth the Raven is a semi-regular series that I started long ago, on a former blog (back in the days when Live Journal was where all us Cool Folk hung out). For many people, a quote is made up of one or two sentences of sage wisdom, pithy advice, or scathing wit.
“A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the word you first thought of.” – Burt Bacharach
“To follow by faith alone is to follow blindly.” — Benjamin Franklin
“The secret to life is meaningless unless you discover it yourself.” — W. Somerset Maugham
I appreciate the brief conciseness of the quotes above, but, I look at quotes as something much more. Quotes don’t always have to be inspirational, motivational, provocative, or funny. Quotes can simply be a passage of writing that brings great pleasure. A great quotation is that passage, brief or long, in a novel, an essay, a movie or television script that makes you stop and take notice. The words sing to you, call out to you to reread them again, and again, or to play the scene in the movie over and over. Sometimes the words move you because they remind you of something in your life, and other times the words grab you because they create such a vivid image in your mind.
My goal, with this series of quotes is not to provide you with pithy sentences, but, rather, to share words that bring me pleasure. One of the greatest things in life is being able to share good things, in hope that others will find as much enjoyment as we do.
I’ve been reading the anthology The Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan. I ran across this passage, by Edmund Wilson, from his 1933 essay “The Old Stone House”:
Only one of them was left in the house at the time when I first remember Talcottville: my great-aunt Rosalind, a more or less professional invalid and a figure of romantic melancholy, whose fiancé had been lost at sea. When I knew her, she was very old. It was impressive and rather frightening to call on her–you did it only by special arrangement, since she had to prepare herself to be seen. She would be beautifully dressed in a lace cap, a lavender dress and a white crocheted shawl, but she had become so bloodless and shrunken as dreadfully to resemble a mummy and remind one uncomfortably of Miss Havisham in Dicken’s Great Expectations. She had a certain high and formal coquetry and was the only person I ever knew who really talked like the characters in old novels. When she had been able to get about, she had habitually treated the townspeople with a condescension almost baronial.
They just don’t make ‘em like Great-Aunt Rosalind anymore.
“Through recent experiences with both birth and death, I have discovered that we enter and leave life as, among other things, words. Though we might later become daughters and sons, many of us start out as whispers or rumors before ending up with our names scrawled next to our parents’ on birth certificates. We also struggle to find, both throughout our lives and at the end, words to pin down how we see and talk about ourselves.” — Edwidge Danticat