Saturday, September 24, 2011

Glimpses through lighted windows

Housekeeping is really an astonishingly good book, one that I can't believe I only just got around to reading. The language is, in Graham Hough's excellent phrase, "like Emily Dickinson in collaboration with Henry James." Just one of the passages that stuck out:

What did Sylvie see when she thought of my mother? A girl with braided hair, a girl with freckled arms, who liked to lie on the rug in the lamplight, flat on her belly with her heels in the air and her chin on her two fists, reading Kipling. Did she tell lies? Could she keep secrets? Did she tickle, or slap, or pinch, or punch, or grimace? If someone had asked me about Lucille I would remember her with her mass of soft, fine, tangly hair concealing ears that cupped a bit and grew painfully cold if she did not cover them. I would remember that her front teeth, the permanent ones, came in, first one and much later the other, immense and raggedly serrated, and that she was fastidious about washing her hands. I would remember that when irked she bit her lip, when shy she scratched her knee, that she smelled dully clean, like chalk, or like a sun-warmed cat.

I do not think Sylvie was merely reticent.  It is, as she said, difficult to describe someone, since memories are by their nature fragmented, isolated, and arbitrary as glimpses one has at night through lighted windows.  Sometimes we used to watch trains passing in the dark afternoon, creeping through the blue snow with their windows all alight, and full of people eating and arguing and reading newspapers.  They could not see us watching, of course, because by five-thirty on a winter day the landscape had disappeared, and they would have seen their own depthless images on the black glass, if they had looked, and not the black trees and the black houses, or the slender black bridge and the dim blue expanse of the lake.  Some of them probably did not know what it was the train approached so cautiously.  Once, Lucille and I walked beside the train to the shore.  There had been a freezing rain that glazed the snow with a crust of ice, and we found that, when the sun went down, the crust was thick enough for us to walk on.  So we followed the train at a distance of twenty feet or so, falling now and then, because the glazed snow swelled and sank in dunes, and the tops of bushes and fence posts rose out of it in places where we did not expect them to be.  But by crawling up, and sliding down, and steadying ourselves against the roof of sheds and rabbit hutches, we managed to stay just abreast of the window of a young woman with a small head and a small hat and a brightly painted face.  She wore pearl-gray gloves that reached almost to her elbows, and hooped bracelets that fell down her arms when she reached up to push a loose wisp of hair underneath her hat.  The woman looked at the window very often, clearly absorbed by what she saw, which was not but merely seemed to be Lucille and me scrambling to stay beside her, too breathless to shout.  When we came to the shore, where the land fell down and the bridge began to rise, we stopped and watched her window sail slowly away, along the abstract arc of the bridge.  "We could walk across the lake," I said.  The thought was terrible.  "It's too cold," Lucille replied.  So she was done.  Yet I remember her neither less nor differently than I remember others I have known better, and indeed I dream of her, and the dream is very like the event itself, except that in the dream the bridge pilings do not tremble so perilously under the weight of the train.
It is almost perfect, if erring very slightly on the side of overabundance; but "dully clean, like chalk" is a perfect and unforgettable bit of description, and the train passage (which I was fortunately able to paste in from Elegant Variation) has virtues that are too obvious to be worth stating.

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