Friday, April 20, 2007

Helen DeWitt on London

Most of the London writing I've featured in my week of limited blogging has been from long before our time, so today I jump to the present and draw from Helen DeWitt's rambunctious, captivating novel The Last Samurai (2000), which features more pointless travel on the Tube than any novel I can think of since Iris Murdoch's A Word Child (1975). In this passage, Sibylla, the nearly overwhelmed young single mother of a five-year-old genius tells about her day. Driven out of the house by the cold--which action in itself draws a straight line from her to her drunken interwar forebears and their own eighteenth-century, coffeeshop-frequenting ancestors--she rides the train with her son, Ludo, and has an encounter that, though presented in very different prose, itself could be traced to Dickens's insights about the surprise intimacies of city living:
Another day on the Circle Line, house too cold to stay in. An icy rain sweeps the city, underground it is warm and dry.


Far too young.


Etymology so helpful.


At St. James's Park a woman gets on and sees the tiny head bent over a book, pudgy fingers dragging a blue Schwan Stabilo highlighter across the page. Twinkling eyes share the joke, she longs for adult bonding. He looks up & gives her an enchanting smile, all chubby cheeks and sparkling black eyes & tiny milk teeth. He says: I've almost finished Book 15!

She says: I SEE you have! You must have been working very hard.

Another Shirley Temple special for the nice lady. L: I only started it yesterday!

Isn't He Adorable: Did you REALLY?

Adorable: Today I read this and this and this and this and yesterday I did this and this and this and this and this and this! [tiny fingers flip back through pages covered with fluorescent pink and orange and blue and green.]

Isn't: Isn't that wonderful!

Wonderful: I've read the Iliad and De Amicitia and three stories in Kalilah wa Dimnah & one Arabian Night and Moses & the Bullrushes and Joseph and his Manycoloured Coat and now I have to read the Odyssey and Metamorphoses 1-8 and the whole Kalilah wa Dimnah and 30 Arabian Nights and I Samuel and the Book of Jonah and learn the cantellation, and do 10 chapters in Algebra Made Easy.

Slightly Taken Aback: Why do you have to do that?

All Innocenc: Sibylla says I have to.

Appalled: Isn't he rather young etymology so helpful of course for spelling inflected language so helpful of course for grammar not taught in schools but classics after all part & parcel of old divisive educational system wouldn't he really be better off playing football I think you are making a terrible mistake.

Standard reply.

Don't let them get to you, Ludo: The Arabian Nights and I Samuel are great reading, if you're not too crowded on the Tube.

1 comment:

  1. For a week of allegedly "limited blogging," you've certainly done a lot of blogging this week.