It’s fitting how I’ve been putting off writing this review of The Queen’s Necklace, Antal Szerb’s last book; for Szerb, likewise, seemed to have been putting off finishing it. A lifelong Hungarian Catholic whose Jewish ancestry doomed him to underemployment and murder under Nazi occupation, Szerb passed up several opportunities to escape, preferring to share his people’s fate. With the final, fatal crisis approaching in 1943, Szerb sought refuge in the history of eighteenth-century France, dwelling on its most minute details, digressing and diverting along myriad tangents, as though contriving, like Scheherazade, never to reach the end. The Queen’s Necklace is Szerb’s valediction, how he wanted to go: not in bitterness but in erudite frivolity.
Pausing one last time, just before the close, Szerb makes the subtlest of allusions to creeping melancholy:
This age was as beautiful as the most finely worked lace, as a piece of Sèvres porcelain with its timeless charm and fragile delicacy; as the noble oozings of the Tokai grape, full and rich with sweetness; as the autumn air in Hungary, when the reddening leaves are scented with the inexpressible sweetness of death.
Not inexpressible, Antal. You expressed it. Thank you.
The episode with the Mississippi egrets described in my last posting was incorporated into my novel, Southern Rain, now available via Kindle and at selected bookshops in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore; it is also available for pre-order, in advance of the general release of the print version in January.
The appearance of the Mississippi egrets, transposed into Chinese cranes, foreshadows the meeting of the hero, Ouyang Nanyu, and the heroine, Ouyang Daosheng.
Just beyond a tributary called Witch Mountain Spring, Nanyu noticed two white cranes flying upstream and then perching on the embankment. When the boat drew close to them, they took off again, swooping on ahead, before coming to a new resting place at the side of the Canal. Nanyu reckoned that the cranes moved ten times this way over the course of an hour—leading and waiting, leading and waiting—as though luring him ever onward. They didn’t seem to be feeding, and if they were migrating north, Nanyu wondered why they didn’t just get on with it, without waiting for him to catch up. If they wanted to stay on the Canal but were afraid of the boat, then why didn’t they fly to the side, to allow it to pass? For the rest of the day, Nanyu was sometimes invited to share food, sometimes asked for help maneuvering through a lock, and then, he would forget about the cranes; but whenever his activities were finished, he’d look up and there they would be, still scouting out the route.
Nanyu continued to see them after he closed his eyes that night, but in the morning, they were gone.
Last Saturday (September 20, 2008), I went canoeing down the Black Creek River in Mississippi. All day long, there were these two egrets in front of us. They rested in trees along the bank, until we almost caught up to them, and then they would fly a few yards downstream, to wait for us to come up. No matter how swiftly or slowly we paddled, they were always there, leading us. We stopped for an hour to eat and swim, and when we got started again, they got back to guiding us. It was so quiet, you could hear the fluttering of their wings. It was poignantly unreal, like a Chinese or Japanese poem, painting, or film.
Back home, I composed a mediocre English and (with Yuka’s help) a pretty good Japanese haiku.
Autumn, the river,
Egrets constantly guiding,
Leading us downstream
Shirasagi tomo ni
Mid-morn sunny leaves
Fall slowly dreamily down
Spreading circling ripples
Red, yellow, downstream
Neil is only comfortable in space. Only when Earth’s atmosphere falls away is he able to escape his bleak, stressful life. And his bleak, stressful life, of preparation for each escape, thus comes to make sense.
As if to emphasize this paradox, each of Neil’s escapes from Earth, via rocket, is jarring and cacophonous, like being in a clothes dryer with a dozen pairs of shoes. And then the booster engine cuts off, and all becomes silent and still, and the stars become visible against the blackness through the window; and Neil smiles.
And then he leaves behind not only the oppressive Earth but the confining spacecraft, to stand on the surface of the moon, alone and finally free.
He walks to the edge of the crater, the one in which he was nearly buried during the landing, and buries his grief in it instead.
The second movement of the American Quartet commenced, and even as the beautiful arpeggios began carrying me away to Spillville and beyond, the perfectionist in me wondered if it was loud enough. However, my heavy limbs could not be moved to reach for the remote to turn up the volume, and I rationalized my inertness by dismissing my perfectionism: If I gave up trying to create the perfect experience (at the ideal volume) and simply let it come to me, then perhaps it would.
At that moment of surrender, the whirring clothes dryer in the next room shut off, and the Dvorak came through in all its purity. I smiled and thanked God for rewarding my faith.
And then the air conditioner clicked on.
‘Windows down? You’ll catch your death!’
Don’t mind if I do
October bike ride
Saw some boys playing football
With a basketball