Saturday, September 7, 2013


The first time I was a grad student, my Karen and I lived in LaGrange, Illinois, and I commuted by train every day to Northwestern University in Evanston. We had a very generous arrangement with our landlord (Karen's uncle) and couldn't begin to match the deal any where near campus. So each morning I go on the Burlington Northern train at Stone Avenue, in LaGrange, rode into Union Station, walked to the nearest el stop with a purple line train bound for Evanston. In the evening I made the return trip, logging three hours of commute, five days a week.

Then, as now, I enjoyed the train. I always had something to read, and then I knew almost no one on either of the legs of my trip, so I could read without being anti-social. At first, I was gobbling up the new-found glories of musicology. Then one day - early on in my first term, thankfully - Karen said to me, she said out of the blue, "Chuck, I've had enough."* Yes, I easily and quickly fell into academic-speak and everything came out sounding like a lecture.

Apt words, fitly spoken. Karen helped me remember that unless fiction is a steady part of my diet, I am hopelessly irrelevant. So today, I am again thankful for that stack of books Karen brought home recently. Again, while she was reading, she said to me, she said out of the blue, "Chuck, I think you'll really like this book." I had just finished the lovely Yoko Ogawa novel, and was reluctant to start in on another novel. But the echo of that long-ago grad school conversation reminded me that all thesis and no literature makes Chuck a dull boy.

Today I wept as I finished The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. (Which, I see just now, looking up a link for the book, was made into a 2011 French film.) I'll spare you the details of the story - just find it and read it, why don't ya? - and say that it blends people watching, European philosophy (post modern and medieval), little vignettes celebrating grammar, and beautiful meditations on art, music, and beauty.

Again, because of my thesis antennae, there was much here to make me feel less guilty about reading a novel when my thesis is not yet completed. The chapter on William of Ockham is brilliant. Reflections on time are mystical. Appreciations of beauty remind me how unaware I am of the many places beauty exists without my ever seeing it.

Just a couple of quotations, and I'm out of here:
"Art is life, playing to other rhythms."
This speaks to an idea I am working with in my thesis.

"For art is emotion without desire."
I think here of C. S. Lewis urging us to receive rather than use art.

In a lovely exchange with the elegant Mr. Ozu, the plain, widowed concierge Mrs. Michel says:
"They didn't recognize me."
"It is because they have never seen you," he says. "I would recognize you anywhere."

The book is a dual narrative told through the journals of two women - Renee. Michel, who keeps her intellectual and cultural interests to herself, and the precocious twelve-year-old Paloma Josse. Paloma has the last word in this blog post. We so seldom have a moment like that described here:
"There's a lot of despair, but also the odd moments of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It's as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never."

* veiled Paul Simon reference. Please don't make too much of it.

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