Perfect Prose #1: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I’m currently reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Here I Am’, and it got me remembering some of the beautiful passages from his previous novel ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’. The following is one that has always stayed with me. The first time I read it I was on a train to London and silently weeping.

*

The airport was filled with people coming and going. But it was only your grandfather and me.

I took his daybook and searched its pages. I pointed at, How frustrating, how pathetic, how sad.

He searched through the book and pointed at, The way you just handed me that knife.

I pointed at, If I’d been someone else in a different world I’d’ve done something different.

He pointed at, Sometimes one simply wants to disappear.

I pointed at, There’s nothing wrong with not understanding yourself.

He pointed at, How sad.

I pointed at, And I wouldn’t say no to something sweet.

He pointed at, Cried and cried and cried.

I pointed at, Don’t cry.

He pointed at, Broken and confused.

I pointed at, So sad.

He pointed at, Broken and confused.

I pointed at, Something.

He pointed at, Nothing.

I pointed at, Something.

Nobody pointed at, I love you.

There was no way around it. We could not climb over it, or walk until we found its edge.

I regret that it takes a life to learn how to live, Oskar. Because if I were able to live my life again, I would do things differently.

I would change my life.

I would kiss my piano teacher, even if he laughed at me.

I would jump with Mary on the bed, even if I made a fool of myself.

I would send out ugly photographs, thousands of them.

What are we going to do? he wrote.

It’s up to you, I said.

He wrote, I want to go home.

What is home to you?

Home is the place with the most rules.

I understood him.

And we will have to make more rules, I said.

To make it more of a home.

Yes.

OK.

We went straight to the jewelry store. He left the suitcase in the back room. We sold a pair of emerald earrings that day. And a diamond engagement ring. And a gold bracelet for a little girl. And a watch for someone on his way to Brazil.

That night we held each other in bed. He kissed me all over. I believed him. I was not stupid. I was his wife.

The next morning he went to the airport. I didn’t dare feel his suitcase.

I waited for him to come home.

Hours passed. And minutes.

I didn’t open the store at 11:00.

I waited by the window. I still believed in him.

I didn’t eat lunch.

Seconds passed.

The afternoon left. The evening came.

I didn’t eat dinner.

Years were passing through the spaces between moments.

Your father kicked in my belly.

What was he trying to tell me?

I brought the birdcages to the windows.

I opened the windows, and opened the birdcages.

I poured the fish down the drain.

I took the dogs and cats downstairs and removed their collars.

I released the insects onto the street.

And the reptiles.

And the mice.

I told them, Go.

All of you.

Go.

And they went.

And they didn’t come back.

*

From ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ by Jonathan Safran Foer, published by Penguin. 

Poetry Friday: Philip Larkin

Love, we must part now: do not let it be
Calamitous and bitter. In the past
There has been too much moonlight and self-pity:
Let us have done with it: for now at last
Never has sun more boldly paced the sky,
Never were hearts more eager to be free,
To kick down worlds, lash forests; you and I
No longer hold them; we are husks, that see
The grain going forward to a different use.

There is regret. Always, there is regret.
But it is better that our lives unloose,
As two tall ships, wind-mastered, wet with light,
Break from an estuary with their courses set,
And waving part, and waving drop from sight.

Poetry Friday: Carol Ann Duffy

Words, Wide Night

Somewhere on the other side of this wide night
and the distance between us, I am thinking of you.
The room is turning slowly away from the moon.

This is pleasurable. Or shall I cross that out and say
it is sad? In one of the tenses I singing
an impossible song of desire that you cannot hear.

La lala la. See? I close my eyes and imagine the dark hills I would have to cross
to reach you. For I am in love with you

and this is what it is like or what it is like in words.

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

‘The water was steady and black. An inch below the surface my body disappeared as if it didn’t exist. I swam straight out towards the rising sun, which was under-lighting the clouds with a dramatic orange as if I had been swimming into a Renaissance landscape.’

‘Swimming Lessons’ begins with Gil, an ageing writer of long-forgotten fame, cocooned away in his old house bursting to the seams with books. As he looks out of the window, he sees his dead wife.

By dead, I mean presumed dead. Ingrid hasn’t been seen for years – ever since that one day when she went down to the shore to take a swim. Gil, in a desperate desire to believe that his missing wife has returned, runs after her, down to the sea – then loses his footing and slips on the cliff face.

His doting daughters, Nan (Nanette) and Flora, rush to his bedside. In Flora’s eyes, her father can do no wrong, and she lives in perpetual hope that her mother will return. Nan is older and wiser; she sees their father for who he really is – a flawed man – and knows that their mother is most likely gone for good.

The narrative switches between the “present” in the crumbling house by the sea, and Ingrid’s letters, hidden within the pages of hundreds of books inside the house. Ingrid is only ever real to us through her letters – and it is through her words that we hear what has come to pass over the years, how their little family and their curious lives unfolded.

Ingrid and Gil’s was a passionate love affair; one of those heady, all-too-fast romances that completely obliterates all logic and reason. Ingrid is a final year student, Gil is her professor. It might an all-too-familiar trope, but there is true chemistry here. You can’t help but get the feeling that Gil is a refreshing change from the boys Ingrid is used to – (much) older, somewhat mysterious, quirky, intelligent, a published author… Jonathan, Gil’s best friend, is quick to warn Ingrid off. ‘He’s only looking for two kinds of women,’ he says. Either someone he can fool around with for a couple of weeks and then leave, or a wife.

Ingrid – somewhat accidentally – becomes the latter. She finds herself pregnant, but only has a semester left of her final year – it’ll be grand, she reasons. She can take her finals and then have Gil’s baby and they’ll be blissfully happy for ever more. Unfortunately, that’s not quite how things work out.

Her grand plans of going travelling round the world with her best friend, of being an independent and educated young woman, are gone. Ingrid’s feelings of despair, hopelessness and entrapment – even retrospectively through her letters – is acutely painful. 

‘The smell, the light and the furniture were the same, and a wave of nostalgia washed over me for the other life I could have had. I didn’t let it show.’

The letters that Ingrid has written to her husband were the very best thing about this book. Ingrid is a beautifully drawn character – flawed as she undoubtedly is, we get a deep sense of her sacrifice. All the way through, even later in life when she is a mother of two, I still kept picturing the idealistic twenty year old, full of her own hopes and dreams that would never be fulfilled.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom. There is some lovely prose that captures the headiness of being freshly in love. When contrasted with their marriage in later years, it becomes even more poignant;

‘After the party we were on our own for almost a month, in bed with the windows open and the sound of the sea in our ears, sleeping, talking, eating toast and making love amongst the crumbs. You liked to look at me when we’d finished; you would lie at the end of the bed with your head propped up and watch me while I fell asleep. It was too hot even for sheets, but I wasn’t shy. You said everything was beautiful. Sometimes when I woke you’d drawn parts of me in the margins of your books. (Juvenile marginalia.) Everything was beautiful.’

Swimming Lessons is beautifully told. The characters are so exquisitely drawn – in all their realness and humanity. I only wish that the story had been fleshed out a little more – that we could have read more of Ingrid’s letters, heard more of her story firsthand. When I read her final letter, I felt bereft.

This isn’t a love story – it’s just a story about life – the beautiful and the terrible and the mundane in between.

‘Swimming Lessons’ will be published by Penguin on 26th January 2017.

I received a copy of this novel through Netgalley in return for a review.