Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘reading’

As keeps happening, this blog has been sorely neglected lately. I don’t want to let it go, but I need to find a way to make it work and keep it going. I’ve never wanted my website to be a landing page with links to my publications – I like writing about books too much, and I like the discussions that still crop up. But I feel scattered these days across several social media outlets and many book conversations are reduced to photos and one-liners. I am as guilty of this as everyone else.

Sigh.

In any case, I am thinking very hard how to keep this book blog running. I find when I am not writing about the books I’ve read, that I forget them all too quickly (I’ve had to comb through various messages and posts to even put this list together).

Here is what I’ve been reading this autumn:

  • Day for Night – Frederick Reiken (a reread)
  • The Girls of Slender Means – Muriel Spark
  • The Plains – Gerald Murnane
  • The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje
  • Push – Sapphire (a reread)
  • The End of the Affair – Graham Greene (a reread)
  • The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin
  • The Accidental – Ali Smith
  • Imagine Me Gone – Adam Haslett
  • Over Sea, Under Stone – Susan Cooper (reading the 5book Dark is Rising series with my daughter)
  • The Master of Go – Yasunari Kawabata
  • Kudos – Rachel Cusk

My beloved book group and a novel class I’m teaching this fall have dictated most of these choices, but it’s been a rich reading period nonetheless. I already wrote about a few of these here.

I also read quite a few short stories over the last two months, jumping around between different collections like: David Hayden’s Darker With the Lights On, Shusako Endo’s Stained Glass Elegies, Grace Paley’s Complete Collection, Lispector’s Complete Stories, and What We Do With the Wreckage by Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum.

For some strange reason I did not finish Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, so I’m going back to that right away.  And I know I read something else while traveling through the US in October but I cannot recall what – hence the need to get back to writing, even a little, about each of the books that I read…

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I read several novels in September: Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, Sapphire’s Push, Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, and (am just finishing) Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart. It’s a strange group to read together, really, all of them so wildly different one from the other. But this reminds exactly why I love reading so much; the luck of being able to flit between such different worlds.

Sapphire’s Push is an incredible piece of literature. This was a re-read for me, as I’d first read the book over ten years ago. I found it as excellent as I did the first time. The novel is set in 1980s Harlem and is narrated by a 16-year-old illiterate young woman named Precious who is pregnant with her second child, and who’s been the victim of incest for years. It is a brutal read and there are very difficult scenes to get through. The heart of the book, however, is about Precious learning to read and write, and how this transformation changes everything for her. Over the course of the novel, Sapphire gives Precious the gift of poetry, a community that sees her for the first time in her life, and an increasing sense of agency, and she manages this while revealing the honest and harsh reality of Precious’s situation.

I’m alive inside. A bird is my heart. Mama and Daddy is not win. I’m winning. I’m drinking hot chocolate in the Village wif girls–all kind who love me. How that is so I don’t know. How Mama and Daddy know we sixteen years and hate me, how a stranger meet me and love me. Must be what they already had in they pocket.

Cut to the desert and post-World War II Italy with The English Patient. I think the entire world has already read this (or seen the film, which I haven’t) so it seems nearly superfluous for me to even write about it. It’s a lovely book, and I took my time reading it and admiring much about the writing. At the same time, I felt an incredible distance from this book, and from the characters – maybe because I tend to like my characters more palpably messy? Everyone is broken in the book, but their surfaces remain very smooth. My favorite part was when Kip hears the news of the nuclear bombs in Japan and leaves – his ride on that motorcycle through the night was an exciting bit of fiction.

Heavy tin flew off and shouldered past him. Then he and the bike veered to the left, there was no side to the bridge, and they hurtled out parallel to the water, he and the bike sideways, his arms flung back above his head. The cape released itself away from him, from whatever was machine and mortal, part of the element of air.

Keeping to war, Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means is a slim and viciously funny little book about the choices for poor young women, about WWII, and even about writing and publishing. I devoured it. Spark is just so marvelous. A book that opens with the line – “Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.” – is a book that cannot fail. Spark’s post-war boarding house microcosm is mostly hilarious and sometimes touching, but always incisive. This is for now my favorite Spark.

This was a mistake she continued to make in her relations with men, inferring from her own preference for men of books and literature their preference for women of the same business. And it never really occurred to her that literary men, if they like women at all, do not want literary women but girls.

It’s quite a leap now to Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, and I’m at a loss as to how to describe it. I loved the book, found it delicate and also rich with meaning and aesthetic questions. To discuss this book properly would take a long time and probably a re-read or two. The story is simple: a young filmmaker goes to the inner plains country of Australia to create a film about the landscape and the people. At least this is the thread that Murnane uses to meditate on a strange land. The plains of The Plains are a mythical, unknowable place inhabited by people in their large landowner homes filled with art, books, and naturalist collections. They are a contemplative but self-centered people, focused exclusively on their own lives and histories and traditions. The novel is written in the style of a poetic ethnography, and it’s such a curious narrative – confusing in a way that doesn’t necessarily disturb, and although the writing is careful and measured, there is a very surreal quality to the book. The Plains has often been described as dream-like, and I would agree but I would also call it film-like – I think of it as a novel that is striving to feel like a certain kind of art film, with the narrator providing the voice over.

I want to read those unpublished poems that surely have been written in rooms facing southwards. I want to read those poets who knew that their desires could lead them out of even the widest land. I’m not talking of those few fools who appear every decade or so urging us to set our passions free and to speak frankly before our women. There must have been many a man who knew, without leaving his own narrow district of the plains, that his heart enclosed every land he could have travelled to; that his fantasies of scorching sand and vacant blue water and bare brown skin belonged not to any coast but to some mere region of his own boundless plain.

My final September read is Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, and I’m not finished yet, so I’ll wait to write something about it. But I’ve never read Bowen (1899 – 1973) and until someone described her work to me in early September I had mistakenly assumed she was a writer from a much earlier period. She’s an exact contemporary of three of my favorite writers (Elsa Triolet, Anna Kavan, Clarisse Francillon) and it’s exciting to read her now in that context.

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From The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, Dubravka Ugrešić

On the third day, we, actors in a silent film, got up and went outside. The sun glared like a spotlight, we walked through Marienplatz dragging with us a heavy burden of unspoken words. The air smelled of hot wine, cloves and cinnamon, it was Carnival time, the middle of February. We were like actors in a cheap operetta, again surrounded by the requisite stage set. The white sun, like a magnifying glass, revealed every little line on our faces, and we instinctively sought the protection of the icy shadows.

 

From N’avez vous pas froid, Hélène Bessette

Le même jour. Minuit.

As-tu pensé ?

As-tu pensé que certains gens vivent entre le manger et le dormir. Le travail qui permet le dormir et le manger.

As-tu pensé ?

Que certains gens croient ce qui est admis ?

Vivant de la grammaire habituelle.

Sont satisfaits des mots.

Ne posent pas de question. Sont sans question.

Ne répondent pas.

Ne savent ni rire ni pleurer.

A peine rire.

A peine pleurer.

 

The four books I have been reading leisurely (even lazily) over the last few weeks are talking to each other in marvelous ways. Added to this I have been racing through, and just finished, Madeline Miller’s forthcoming novel CIRCE. A particularly excellent reading week with many interconnections and echoes.

“For our texts interrogate us when we have crossed into the world of the imagination, until we can figure out why we have come, where we have come from, and how we have managed the passage.”

–Grace Dane Mazur, Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination

“Loveliness and stillness clasped hands in the bedroom, and among the shrouded jugs and sheeted chairs even the prying of the wind, and the soft nose of the clammy sea airs, rubbing, snuffling, iterating, and reiterating their questions—“Will you fade? Will you perish?—scarcely disturbed the peace, the indifference, the air of pure integrity, as if the question they asked scarcely needed that they should answer: we remain.”

–Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

“An utterance, a gesture, is clear if it is transparent; if it renders what is on the other side of the glass easier to understand, to accept, respond to, or love; if it facilitates the integrity of our being in the world.

An utterance is clear if it purifies vision.”

–Jan Zwicky, Lyric Philosophy

“Original paintings are silent and still in a sense that information never is. Even a reproduction hung on a wall is not comparable in this respect for in the original the silence and stillness permeate the actual material, the paint, in which one follows the traces of the painter’s immediate gestures. This has the effect of closing the distance in time between the painting of the picture and one’s own act of looking at it.”

–John Berger, Ways of Seeing

 

 

Jane Bowles is a writer I have always been meaning to read – her novel Two Serious Ladies has been on my list for years. But I began my silly advent reading plan yesterday with a short story of hers, “A Day in the Open” which is about two prostitutes taken out for a picnic by a wealthy man, Señor Ramirez, and his friend. The story is set in an unnamed country, either somewhere in South America, or maybe in Spain. One of the prostitutes is Mexican (and suffering from what seems to be a terminal illness), and the other one—the hard, crafty one who drinks heavily—is from the unnamed country.

It’s an odd little story, and it feels somehow unpolished—but I find that nowadays so many older works do when compared to the “heavy polishing” of contemporary writing. In that sense, I like the rough bits of it, the lack of perfectly smooth surfaces and the way the ending just kind of falls off and trickles away.

I’ve embarked on this reading list as a way to take a breather from my focus on politics right now, to let my brain enjoy fiction once again, but the story, ironically, mirrored some of what’s going on. The character of Señor Ramirez speaks in the voice of the United State’s current President-Elect. While driving away from the whorehouse, the car passes a new building and he tells them it will be a museum, saying:

“When it opens we are all going to have a big dinner there together. Everyone there will be an old friend of mine. That’s nothing. I can have dinner with fifty people every night of my life.”

I continued reading with a wry smile, and the comparisons continued as this larger-than-life wealthy man drove the women and his friend to a secluded spot. It was both hilarious, and awful.

“Since it is so sunny out, ladies,” said Señor Ramirez, “I am going to walk around in my underpants. I hope that my friend will do the same if he wants to.”

A reminder that buffoons of this type have always existed, but also how they beg to be caricatured. Ramirez is nothing more than a child, and a cowardly one.

In any case, the foursome start drinking, play a game throwing acorns into a hat (the smart prostitute making sure, when Ramirez keeps missing his throw, to purposefully throw hers far off its mark), they all get naked and at some point, Ramirez takes the prostitute with the illness on a walk into the woods and then carries her into the river. It’s in these few scenes, up until the end, that the story pivots and becomes quite interesting.

I keep reading and re-reading this page and a half—looking at the dialogue, at the positioning of the different characters with respect to the reader and to each other—and trying to work it out, but I can’t. Bowles holds an interpretation of the ending just out of reach. I suppose a reader could grab for an easy one, if necessary, but it felt more interesting to me to keep the possibilities open and wonder what Bowles was working toward.

I’ll definitely read Two Serious Ladies at some point, and will look at more of her short stories – there is an interesting texture to her writing that I’d like to see more of, experience in a more sustained way. This was a great introduction to her work.

Someone tweeted a marvelous idea this morning – an advent reading calendar. I sipped my coffee and let my eyes wander over the slim titles of someone else’s 25-day reading plan, and I knew immediately that I wanted to do the same. My brain has been anchored in politics and final novel edits for a manuscript that is finally in my agent’s capable hands and out of my mind for a while (hooray!), and so a little nudge to get me reading broadly and haphazardly is very welcome. I love reading with a plan and often follow a thread from one book to another, but sometimes it’s nice to cast a wide net and see what that can spark.

The only book I’ve been able to focus on recently is Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker, and it is really lovely, but it’s an escape as well, giving me distance from the planet and very gentle commentary on the human love of height, speed, and flying. It’s a great read but I need more and am not sure where to go.

So here is a list of short stories and essays that I’ve never read, that I have already on my shelves and that I’d like to read over the next 25 days. I’ve deliberately left myself four empty spots* because I’m hoping any of you might give me some suggestions and throw me in wild and varied directions – so what is the best short story or essay you’ve read recently?

* I’ve gotten some wonderful suggestions, but would welcome more…

1 Dec Jane Bowles – A Day in the Open
2 Dec Jane Hirshfield – The World is Large and Full of Noises
3 Dec Phyllis Rose – Tools of Torture: An Essay on Beauty & Pain
4 Dec James Baldwin – Exodus
5 Dec Katherine Anne Porter – St.Augustin and the Bullfight
6 Dec Anne Carson – Kinds of Water
7 Dec Kate Chopin – An Egyptian Cigarette
8 Dec Constance Fenimore Woolson – Miss Grief
9 Dec Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – The Lives of Strangers
10 Dec Ada Leverson – Suggestion
11 Dec Charles Simic – Reading Philosophy at Night
12 Dec Olive Schreiner – Three Dreams in a Desert
13 Dec Jamaica Kincaid – Figures in the Distance
14 Dec James Baldwin – 5th Ave, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem
15 Dec Geoff Dyer – Otherwise Known as the Human Condition
16 Dec Rebecca Solnit – Two Arrowheads
17 Dec Sherman Alexie – The Toughest Indian in the World
18 Dec Michelle Cliff – Transactions
19 Dec Lucia Berlin – A Manual for Cleaning Women
20 Dec Jan Carson – Settling
21 Dec Eudora Welty – A Sweet Devouring
22 Dec  Anna Kavan – The Brother
23 Dec  Alice Walker – The Flowers
24 Dec
25 Dec

 

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For two years now, I’ve helped organize a small writers’ retreat in France with two other women. I’m immensely lucky to know the writers Laura McCune-Poplin and Sara Johnson Allen, whom I met when we were all three studying for our MFA in Boston over ten years ago. They are both talented, passionate writers and teachers – not to mention being quite a lot of fun to spend time with.

When Fog Island Mountains came out, the three of us had a mini-celebration over pizza in Mystic, CT of all places and got to talking about lives, schedules, writing, and teaching. We are all busy juggling work and writing and families and… none of this is surprising, this is how everyone in (most of) the world now seems to live. Sigh. Constant juggling, constant striving for balance. In any case, we threw ourselves a challenge that day—to manage a week away, once a year, no kids, no spouses, no cooking, just writing, just book talk, just walks in the country. And we wanted to provide this space for other writers, too, especially those in the same kinds of situations.

We founded L’atelier writers’ retreat and workshop within weeks, found a location and set a date.

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A word on the location because we could not have been more lucky—this is a small, rural bed and breakfast in France run by teachers and booklovers. The staff members have pooled their personal libraries to fill the place with books. And when we arrived last year for the first retreat, we were all delighted with the atmosphere—a mixture of elegantly eccentric and charmingly rustic. Think architectural salvage put to very good use mixed somehow with summer camp and the whole thing works. The sheer number of books in all the buildings and rooms that make up this unique hotel create the best ambiance.

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In any case, I’ve just returned from our second annual retreat and am still feeling inspired. It’s a rare indulgence to take a step back from the all-too-often-horrible, always-busy world and just focus on the things I love the most—reading, writing, talking with other readers and writers. It’s also an immense pleasure to hear how other writers approach their work and see their projects develop through conversations with other writers/readers. I’m not a natural teacher because I can be very nervous speaking in front of large groups, but I absolutely LOVE thinking about and discussing how people work through internal questions (both emotional and aesthetic) through poetry and writing and story. This fascinates me.

Last year we were five, this year we were ten. We brought our books, short stories, and poetry to this rural hideaway, we brought our internal libraries (a source of immense pleasure in discussion), we brought our critical minds and our humor. And we worked really hard.

I’ve come to associate the first stanza of Mark Strand’s poem, “Keeping Things Whole” with l’Atelier and I’ll put it here below. There’s a long story why I associate this stanza with this retreat, which I won’t go into… but here it is, because it’s lovely, because it recreates the feeling I have when I indulge this need of mine to take a step out of the world and be quiet and singularly focused for an entire week:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
I am what is missing.

I read Shirley Hazzard’s The Bay of Noon too quickly, admiring it on a superficial level only, and so what she was doing and how the narrative worked eluded me until I sat down to write about it and began re-reading the first few pages. These lines, which come just at the end of the third paragraph forced me to slow down, begin again and read the entire novel a second time:

…chronological prestige is tenacious (NB: Hazzard means here the right to look back upon an event from a far point in the future): once attained, it can’t be shed; it increases moment by moment, day by day, pressing its honours on you until you are lavishly, overly endowed with them. Until you literally sink under them.

What is more curious about this passage is that the narrator – a woman named Jenny – does something unexpected with it. These sentences sound like a kind of regret, a sad meditation upon memory and old age, how remembered experience will whittle away under its increasingly detailed accumulation. But she immediately tells us that she is looking forward to this, that certain memories she would like to get out from under.

This then sets the frame for her story, which begins with two encounters while she is working as a translator at a NATO base in Naples sometime in the 1960s. Her first encounter is presented as a non-encounter; she is sent to do a translation off-base for a visiting marine biologist, a Scotsman. She does the job and leaves. But because of this unexpected change in her usual schedule, she ends up with free time to go into Naples for the first time, and here occurs the second encounter, this one described immediately in terms that illustrate its importance. It’s an extended scene in which Jenny meets Gioconda, a scene that covers nearly four pages. Something I loved about this scene is that it involves Jenny describing Gioconda (a woman who will immediately become a very close friend) but it reveals so much more about Jenny.

The novel then goes about its duty of taking the reader through Gioconda and Jenny’s friendship, Jenny’s relationship with the Scotsman, which is wonderfully peculiar and sad, as well as Jenny’s relationship as a third-wheel with Gioconda and her lover, Gianni, which is somehow more ordinary at first but then becomes a central element of the bigger questions the novel raises.

Jenny’s time in Naples is situated beneath an unusual emotional umbrella. She has gone there to escape an unrequited love story – that doesn’t sound unusual, I know. But the person she was in love with (whom I won’t tell you) is what makes it so unique, and so touching.

And the book is about nothing more than this. Jenny and Gioconda, Gioconda and Gianni, Jenny and the Scotsman, and so on and so forth. But it manages—in very few pages—to reveal these four people in great depth, to look at them through personally historical but also culturally historical lenses, to make subtle (but uncommon) pronouncements on human feeling and behavior. For nearly a third of the book their meetings and conversations and comings and goings proceed without much narrative intervention, until almost the point that we forget that Jenny is telling the story from some point in the future, and that her perspective is more melancholy than anything else.

But then we reach the end and the timeline gets jumbled. This jumbling is purposeful (and was hinted at in those first paragraphs on the distance between memories and how it influences understanding). The last twenty or so pages of the novel require a very slow, a very careful reading. Done this way, the experience of what Hazzard is offering stretches long and lovely. Layers of meaning unfold, references back to earlier statements and questions, new insights into several of the characters, careful reflections on memory and friendship.

This is one of those books that sneaks up on you if you let it. I’ve read Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, and enjoyed it (and it lingers in my memory with a similar tone to The Bay of Noon – a little bit haunting with sharp, incisive passages peppered throughout), but it has been some years now and I feel like I should go back and re-read to see what else it may offer.

This past year involved a few wonderful things —I’m speaking strictly of small personal events and a handful of excellent books and not of the series of horrific world events that I find overwhelmingly preoccupying—but, sadly, the last twelve months did not involve nearly enough good reading. I think I actually read less than forty books this past year. This depresses me. I feel the most alive when I am reading and thinking about books and how they work. So I am desperately looking forward to 2015 and a series of reading projects I have planned.

First, however, a short list of the books I read and loved in 2014 (even if they were not published in 2014):

  • To Hell with Cronjé, by Ingrid Winterbach, tr. Elsa Silke
  • Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson, tr. Anne Born
  • August by Christa Wolf, tr. Katy Derbyshire
  • Orkney by Amy Sackville
  • The Wall by Marlen Haushofer, tr. Shaun Whiteside
  • A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Nay, Rather by Anne Carson
  • Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

I’d love to discuss any of these books with you – and recommendations based on them would also be very welcome.

My reading in 2015 is off to a good start, however. I rang in the New Year with a jetlagged midnight re-read of Clarisse Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart. I enjoyed this book when I first read it, but I read it too closely to a read of Agua Viva and The Hour of the Star. This was too much Lispector at once and I did not appreciate it in the way I could have. I was entranced with this re-read a few nights ago – highlighting, taking notes, pausing to re-read paragraphs. Although I find this comparison a little troublesome, Lispector affects me in a similar way to Woolf – she asks me to engage with a complicated and fast-moving interior world, one that feels achingly familiar at times and wholly alien at others. You know that early scene of Joyce’s in A Portrait of the Artist, when he situates Stephen within the vast universe for the first time? That is what Lispector does again and again and again – she situates the mind of her character in relation to the universe, to others, to herself. She is constantly periscoping outward and inward and it can be dizzying but it is always illuminating and provocative.

The second book I’ve started for 2015 is Shirley Hazzard’s 1970 novel The Bay of Noon. This is one of the books that takes some warming up to. But I am about halfway through and looking forward to see how Hazzard pulls it all together. It is a short little book but formal—I mean formal in the way the prose feels, and structurally as well. Here is one of several lines I keep going back to:

That is something one does not foresee in wishing to elude one’s traditions: that the threat, once its fangs are drawn, may become transfigured into intimacy, a frame of reference.

Last but not least, a haphazard (because still in the planning stages) list of the reading projects I plan to move ahead on in 2015:

I have started reading Beckett finally, an author I have been meaning to read for some time. Anthony of Time’s Flow has piqued my curiosity with his many discussions of Beckett’s work and journals. I have begun with Molloy.

In 2014, I discovered Muriel Spark and plan to read as many of her novels as I can find this year. Her humor is very welcome, as is her biting social commentary.

I am about halfway through my start-to-finish Virginia Woolf read. I hope to finish this year.

Several authors I plan to read as much as possible of this year – Anne Carson, Nabokov, Coetzee and Clarisse Francillon. All extremely different writers, much to look forward to.

More poetry! More poetry!

One of the things I’d like to work on this year is non-fiction/philosophy/essay reading. I am still compiling a list of writers and books and will write more about this later.

Finally, some friends of mine and I recently engaged in a recommendations game. We are all serious readers but with quite different tastes. We gave each other a list of our “perfect books” and the reasons why. Based on these lists we then gave each other a single book recommendation. It was a great bit of fun, and I received the following three books to read: Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing.  So those are now added to my list.

And last but not least, I have a rather random pile of fiction waiting for me. I’ve collected these titles from reviews and recommendations from readers I trust:

  • A Life with Mary Shelley – Barbara Johnson
  • The Hum of Concrete – Anna Solding
  • A Town of Empty Rooms – Aimee Bender
  • Project for a Fainting – Brenda Shaughnessy
  • The Fountains of Neptune – Rikki Ducornet
  • My Mother: Demonology – Kathy Acker
  • Nightwood – Djuna Barnes
  • The House of Breath – William Goyen
  • All the Birds Singing – Evie Wyld
  • We are the Birds of the Coming Storm – Lola Lafon

So that’s it – anyone have a burning recommendation for me? The very best book you read in 2014 and would love to pass on to my ever-growing list? Please don’t hesitate!

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I read the following few paragraphs today, from Annie Dillard’s essay « Death of the Moth” which was published in 1976 in Harper’s. It is now one of those things I can never unread, and now I am different for having read it. That is the very best kind of reading. This essay was published with a new title, “Transfiguration” in her book Holy the Firm:

Two summers ago, I was camping alone in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I had hauled myself and gear up there to read, among other things, James Ullman’s The Day on Fire, a novel about Rimbaud that had made me want to be a writer when I was sixteen; I was hoping it would do it again. So I read, lost, every day sitting by my tent, while warblers swung in the leaves overhead and bristle worms trailed their inches over the twiggy dirt at my feet; and I read every night by candlelight, while barred owls called in the forest and pale moths massed round massed round my head in the clearing, where my light made a ring.

Moths kept flying into the candle. They would hiss and recoil, lost upside down in the shadows among my cook pans.  Or they would singe their wings and fall, and their hot wings, as if melted, would stick to the first thing they touched — a pan, a lid, a spoon — so that the snagged moths could flutter only in tiny arcs, unable to struggle free. These I could realize by a quick flip with a stick; in the morning I would find my cooking stuff gilded with torn flecks of moth wings, triangles of shiny dust here and there on the aluminum. So I read, and boiled water, and replenished candles, and read on.

One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burnt dry, and held. I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when the shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all. A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspread, flapped into the fire, dropped abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled, and fried in a second.  Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing and creating out of darkness the sudden blue sleeves of my sweater, the green leaves of jewelweed by my side, the ragged red trunk of pine.  At once the light contracted again and the moth’s wings vanished in a fine, foul smoke. At the same time, her six legs clawed, curled, blackened, and ceased, disappearing utterly. And her head jerked in spasms, making a spattering noise; her antennae crisped and burnt away and her heaving mouthparts cracked like pistol fire. When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs. Had she been new, or old?  Had she mated and laid her eggs, had she done her work? All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax — a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle’s round pool.

And then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. She kept burning. The wax rose in the moth’s body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jagged hole where her head should be, and widened into a flame, a saffron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like an immolating monk. That candle had two wicks, two flames of identical light, side by side. The moth’s head was fire. She burned for two hours, until I blew her out.

There is an interesting essay here on the entire piece and how Dillard came to write it.

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