My Jerkless Knee
Since the knee surgery of two weeks ago, I have been living in a fog of discomfort and confusion through which, occasionally, a dim light shines with enough brightness to permit me to revise a few pages or post something I have rewritten. I on't feel terribly guilty about my sloth, but I have decided to share my tedium with others,
I have been monitoring everything on the website, though I failed yesterday to post Mr. Navrozov's column. Other than complaining about aches and pains, I have been reading fiction, history, and biography. Early on I finished a life of Swift and I am now slogging and skimming through Maynard Mack's biography of Pope. Mack has many good things to say, but, for the life of me I cannot imagine why anyone would waste his time writing such a detailed account that never seems quite to pull anything together into coherence, and that failure, it seems to me, is the mark of the true academic biographer in modern and postmodern times.
I have reread many classic mysteries of Cecil Street, Ngaio Marsh, Freeman Wills Croft, et al, and last night, unable to sleep even after a dose of opioid, I started Little Dorrit, a book I may have started some some fifty years ago, bu never finished. As years go by, whatever pleasure I found in Dickens has faded away. I quite enjoyed the opening in Marseilles, but I knew, as soon as I met the gloomy Englishman on his way home, that I was in for it, and his arrival at his macabre family home seems better suited to The Mysteries of Udolpho than to a novel set in Victorian London.
I'll give Little Dorrit another day, but I have put the author on notice. Either he permits the readers to escape from a "home" that makes the Marseilles dungeon where the story begins a paradise of comfort and good cheer, or I am deleting the Complete Dickens from my Kindle. I am reading at night mostly on Kindle because this way I do not need spectacles or a light. The trick is to fall asleep in mid-sentence without causing the device to hit the floor in a thud, which requires the insomniac to start the process all over.
As I enter the strange country inhabited my old men and women, my mind plays tricks. A year and a half ago, it started cobbling together specters out of a bathrobe hangin on a hook or a pile of books and payers next to an illuminated clock. There was nothing frightening about the visions, and I knew they were the product of an ill-digested piece of beef or perhaps poor circulation of blood to the brain. Although they were not terrifying, they were disturbing, though, nonetheless, I was comforted to be back in my early childhood when, as I tried to describe in a not very successful poem, I could conjure Indians in a canoe out of a streak of red grain in the moulding.
This visions mostly departed in the aftermath of last year's surgery--appearing once, instead of 25 times a month--but since they cut open my knee, a tendency, which has always plagued me, has grown stronger. If I nod off as I am reading, my sleeping mind continues the account--whether fictional or historical--in new directions, sometimes to the point that, upon awakening, I cannot distinguish what the author has written from my own hallucinations. This is not an occasional but an inevitable occurrence I look forward to, since it is telling me something about the imagination. "Ah, this fellow has read Proust," you may be saying, but this is a different story.
I may have mentioned in one or another place that one of my plans is to reread Proust in French. During the days, I devote a little time to Plato's Phaedo, whose Greek, when I am in a brief fit of mental clarity, seems transparent, though usually in ten minutes or so I am checking dictionary and commentary to figure out the plain sense of a lucid sentence. When I give up on Plato, I either nap or turn to French tapes--too easy to distract, much less discipline a disordered mind. I do have a pretty good review grammar with lists of idioms--the bane of every French student. Perhaps today, I shall try some Simenon before moving on to some intermediate step before taking the leap into Proust.
When I decided to return to Proust, I had no idea of how relevant it would be. Everyone, I hope, recalls the opening. I shall close on this note, since I cannot hope to write, in my current state of lethargic confusion, anything so good as Scott Moncrieff's translation
"For a long time I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even time to say "I'm going to sleep." And half an hour later the thought that it was time to go to sleep would awaken me; I would try to put away the book which, I imagined, was still in my hands, and to blow out the light; I had been thinking all the time, while I was asleep, of what I had just been reading, but my thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book: a church, a quartet, the rivalry between François I and Charles V. This impression would persist for some moments after I was awake; it did not disturb my mind, but it lay like scales upon my eyes and prevented them from registering the fact that the candle was no longer burning. Then it would begin to seem unintelligible, as the thoughts of a former existence must be to a reincarnate spirit; the subject of my book would separate itself from me, leaving me free to choose whether I would form part of it or no; and at the same time my sight would return and I would be astonished to find myself in a state of darkness, pleasant and restful enough for the eyes, and even more, perhaps, for my mind, to which it appeared incomprehensible, without a cause, a matter dark indeed.
I would ask myself what o'clock it could be; I could hear the whistling of trains, which, now nearer and now farther off, punctuating the distance like the note of a bird in a forest, shewed me in perspective the deserted countryside through which a traveller would be hurrying towards the nearest station: the path that he followed being fixed for ever in his memory by the general excitement due to being in a strange place, to doing unusual things, to the last words of conversation, to farewells exchanged beneath an unfamiliar lamp which echoed still in his ears amid the silence of the night; and to the delightful prospect of being once again at home.
I would lay my cheeks gently against the comfortable cheeks of my pillow, as plump and blooming as the cheeks of babyhood. Or I would strike a match to look at my watch. Nearly midnight. The hour when an invalid, who has been obliged to start on a journey and to sleep in a strange hotel, awakens in a moment of illness and sees with glad relief a streak of daylight shewing under his bedroom door. Oh, joy of joys! it is morning. The servants will be about in a minute: he can ring, and some one will come to look after him. The thought of being made comfortable gives him strength to endure his pain. He is certain he heard footsteps: they come nearer, and then die away. The ray of light beneath his door is extinguished. It is midnight; some one has turned out the gas; the last servant has gone to bed, and he must lie all night in agony with no one to bring him any help.
I would fall asleep, and often I would be awake again for short snatches only, just long enough to hear the regular creaking of the wainscot, or to open my eyes to settle the shifting kaleidoscope of the darkness, to savour, in an instantaneous flash of perception, the sleep which lay heavy upon the furniture, the room, the whole surroundings of which I formed but an insignificant part and whose unconsciousness I should very soon return to share. Or, perhaps, while I was asleep I had returned without the least effort to an earlier stage in my life, now for ever outgrown; and had come under the thrall of one of my childish terrors, such as that old terror of my great-uncle's pulling my curls, which was effectually dispelled on the day—the dawn of a new era to me—on which they were finally cropped from my head. I had forgotten that event during my sleep; I remembered it again immediately I had succeeded in making myself wake up to escape my great-uncle's fingers; still, as a measure of precaution, I would bury the whole of my head in the pillow before returning to the world of dreams."