Perfect Prose #2: All The Light We Cannot See

Having last week finished ‘The Nightingale’, set in occupied France, it got me thinking about the masterpiece that is Anthony Doer’s Pulitzer Prize winning ‘All The Light We Cannot See’, similarly set during the Second World War in Paris. There were so many exquisite passages from this book that it was hard to pick just one, but this one is so utterly perfect that words fail me. For anyone who’s lost someone, this passage provides solace and hope for the things that endure, long after a life has been extinguished.

*

People walk the paths of the gardens below, and the wind sings anthems in the hedges, and the big old cedars at the entrance to the maze creak. Marie-Laure imagines the electromagnetic waves traveling into and out of Michel’s machine, bending around them, just as Etienne used to describe, except now a thousand times more crisscross the air than when he lived – maybe a million times more. Torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of televisions programs, of e-mails, vast networks of fiber and wire interlaced above and beneath the city, passing through buildings, arcing between transmitters in Metro tunnels, between antennas atop buildings, from lampposts with cellular transmitters in them, commercials for Carrefour and Evian and prebaked toaster pastries flashing into space and back to earth again, I am going to be late and Maybe we should get reservations? and Pick up avocados and What did he say? and ten thousand I miss yous, fifty thousand I love yous, hate mail and appointment reminders and market updates, jewelry ads, coffee ads, furniture ads flying invisibly over the warrens of Paris, over the battlefields and tombs, over the Ardennes, over the Rhine, over Belgium and Denmark, over the scarred and ever-shifting landscape we call nations.

And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths? That her father and Etienne and Madame Manec and the German boy named Werner Pfennig might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings? That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.

*

From ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ by Anthony Doer, published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

‘If I have learnt anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. Today’s young people want to know everything about everyone. They think talking about a problem will solve it. I come from a quieter generation. We understand the value of forgetting, the lure of reinvention.’

It all begins in the summer of 1939, France. Whispers of war are in the air, but in the small town of Carriveau, where Vianne Mauriac and her husband Antoine watch their daughter Sophie play in the afternoon sunshine, it’s the last thing she wants to think about.

But all too soon, the skies darken over Europe, and a generation of men are heading off into the unknown horrors of war – again.

Vianne’s impetuous younger sister, Isabelle, is sent away from Paris to live in Carriveau, to be kept at arm’s reach from danger. But when the German soldiers begin to arrive in the down, seizing property and valuables, demanding residence in local homes, and indulging on meats, cheeses and fine wines in the midst of crying children slowly growing hungrier, Isabelle cannot sit back and watch.

She soon becomes embroiled in a local organisation taking up resistance against the Germans, spreading reports containing the truth – a rare commodity in an occupied town with no access to the news or radio. Before long, bigger and far more dangerous plans arise. She ventures back to Paris, a city which, less than a year after her departure, has been irrevocably changed.

‘Her beloved city was like a once-beautiful courtesan grown old and thin, weary, abandoned by her lovers. In less than a year, this magnificent city had been stripped of its essence by the endless clatter of German jackboots on the streets and disfigured by swastikas that flew from every monument.’

Her new role as ‘The Nightingale’ is a perilous one. Tasked with aiding foreign airmen who have landed in France and desperate to evade capture, she hatches a plan to assist their escape. But the only way to leave the country is by making the treacherous journey over the Pyrenees on foot. Soon, the Nazis catch wind of her success, putting her in ever-greater danger.

Meanwhile in Carriveau, life changes dramatically for Vianne and Sophie. As a teacher at the local school, Vianne is asked to provide the Nazi stationed at their home, Captain Beck, with a list of the Jewish members of staff. Vianne, thoughtlessly, gives the name of Rachel, her best friend. Soon all Jews in town are fired. Then comes the star of David armbands. Then the trucks arrive. A narrative that is all too familiar to us now – but read through the lens of a personal tragedy, the horror is even more acute. Vianne, overcome with guilt, begins to aid the resistance by finding sanctuary for the Jewish children of the town.

I had high expectations of The Nightingale due to its rave reviews – and for the first half of the book, I felt that such high accolades were unmerited. However, in the second half, the energy picks up and I found myself engrossed.

The last book I read about occupied France during World War Two was the much-acclaimed All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer  – a stunning novel with such meticulous prose and well-crafted narrative that reading it was a fully immersive experience.

The Nightingale isn’t as exquisite a book as Doer’s, but it should be valued in its own right. It should be praised for the way in which it brings to light the bravery of the oft-forgotten heroes of the war, the women who risked everything. Here, these women have a voice. Their stories are just as important as those of the soldiers sent off to the battlefield.

The ending is what pushed this novel up to a four-star rating for me; beautifully well-handled, I found myself in tears as it drew to a close. The novels asks; how do we rebuild a life after our world has been so decimated by war? How can we learn to live with what we have seen, what we have done to survive? How do we conceptualise our existence in the wake of such horrors?

‘He thinks that one’s life can be distilled to a narrative that has a beginning and an end. He knows nothing about the kind of sacrifice that, once made, can never be either fully forgotten or fully borne.’

In these uncertain times, I feel it is more important than ever to remember how hatred, fear, and mistrust of ‘the other’ creates a perfect storm for these unimaginable horrors. We all have a part to play in making sure nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again. After all, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

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: Frank O’Hara

‘À la recherche de Gertrude Stein’

When I am feeling depressed and anxious and sullen
all you have to do is take your clothes off
and all is wiped away revealing life’s tenderness
that we are flesh and breathe and are near us
as you are really as you are I become as I
really am alive and knowing vaguely what is
and what is important to me above the intrusions
of incident and accidental relationships
which have nothing to do with my life

when I am in your presence I feel life is strong
and will defeat all its enemies and all of mine
and all of yours and yours in you and mine in me
sick logic and feeble reasoning are cured
by the perfect symmetry of your arms and legs
spread out making an eternal circle together
creating a golden pillar beside the Atlantic
the faint line of hair dividing your torso
gives my mind rest and emotions their release
into the infinite air where since once we are
together we always will be in this life come what may

Poetry Friday: e e cummings

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond

e e cummings, 18941962

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands