Monthly Archives: August 2008

Reading the newspaper

‘That abominable and sensual act called reading the newspaper,’ wrote Proust, ‘thanks to which all the misfortunes and cataclysms in the universe over the last twenty-four hours, the battles which cost the lives of fifty thousand men, the murders, the strikes, the bankruptcies, the fires, the poisonings, the suicides, the divorces, the cruel emotions of statesmen and actors, are transformed for us, who don’t even care, into a morning treat, blending in wonderfully, in a particularly exciting and tonic way, with the recommended ingestion of a few sips of cafe au lait.’

– extract from How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton

Now if only everything he wrote was as succinctly insightful and humorous as this little blurb, I might muster up enough courage to dip my toes into In Search of Lost Time. Sylvia Townsend blames Proust’s translator on the lengthy tome but I’m not so sure myself.


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I see myself now, coolly imagined, a cat coiled in a corner with waving tail and wary eyes- all ready to spring at the mailman when he comes round- WHERE IS MY EX LIBRIS!!!! I wants it. My precious!

Oooh sorry about the mixed metaphors one can’t help it in such a state of anxiety.

I am both excited and afraid to read it. Excited because I know I will love it, afraid because once I do, it will be over all too soon and my life, so elevated in that breathless time, will sink again into the quotidian.

Which is worse- to know you are going to love a book and turn its pages, faint with reverence and delight, then nearly sick with the knowledge that each page is one page closer to the end; or to not have known and read with amazement and then the guilt at the illicitness of finding something so intensely pleasurable.

I think I shoot myself in the foot really. But how can I prevent the pain from marring the pleasure? How can I not read and at the back of my head, worry- it is almost masochistic. Then when it is over, after the acknowledgements (which I read as well, every word), after I reluctantly close the cover and hold it, swimming with regret, how I envy all those whose souls are still oblivious to the pleasure that may be theirs for the taking! To have drunk from the cup of ecstasy and then be denied it- torture- yet we do it time and again without end.

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Back in my pinafored days, my primary school teachers decided that allowing each class a small gardening trough outside our classrooms might cultivate in us, through the tending of plants, nurturing natures of our own. Shy, curious and rather prone to obsessions and personal projects even back then, I took to caring for the small trough with considerable elan. It suited me perfectly- I could carry out my mild agricultural experiments without any protest from my obliging subjects. These were mostly done during recess period after the clamour of students had subsided down the stairwells; in companionable silence, my fledgling lady’s finger plants watched as I mixed this and that into an old plastic container- crushed eggshells were a particular favourite due to the delightful crunchiness they lent to the mulch whilst their membraneous interiors looked appropriately nutritious.

Soon, those moments of calm would become one of the highlights of my young student life. Sometimes, one of my classmates would join me and we would pick happily at pestilent weeds, strip off dead leaves and bandage broken limbs with ice-cream sticks and raffia. Under the unrelenting tide of our attentions, what could our poor plants do but dutifully bear fruit and flower? These we steamed and ate with light soya sauce- I don’t believe I’d ever felt so ecstatic about slimy vegetables- and thus, my love affair with the plant was finally consummated.

Those nascent green longings have recently surfaced again- I find myself dragging mother and forbearing boyfriend on a crazy tree-hunting expedition in Singapore’s rural country; I find myself staring forlornly at pictures of beautiful golden raintrees on the web, abject in the knowledge that I may not tame nor contain their majesty in my modest garden. I now know, through the kind and learned instruction of online tutorials, how to prune trees with gentleness and minimal invasiveness- remove waterspouts, cross-branching and competing leads, cut after the branch collar or small potential side branches, angling away from the bud- always ensure that the natural shape of the tree is preserved, taking care that the tree has sufficient photosynthetic cover to produce food to support its growth.

This morning, in a burst of self-realisation, it dawned on me (on the MRT to work- inspiring place!) that my housekeeping style might be likened to that of gardening, or more accurately, pruning. My attitude towards mess can be quite adequately depicted as indulgent. However, when the mess starts assuming a life of its own (by this I don’t mean literally crawling with things– untidyness is not the same as dirtiness, may I caveat, and I cannot tolerate the latter), something within me unsheaths a gleaming pair of pruning shears and in a fevered spate of hyperproductivity and flashing metal, the hedges are renewed.

Who knew that gardening was such an instinctive trait? The hunt for a perfect tree continues. But in the meantime, it looks like the only pruning I’ll be doing will be inside my bedroom.

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The Element of Lavishness

I’m afraid that the words here of late have not been my own. However, eager victims of the sweet, sharp blade of perfect syntax rejoice! For more perfect prose has been discovered! This time in the form of a compilation of letters, from Sylvia Townsend Warner to William Maxwell, a volume called “The Element of Lavishness”. They write beautifully, eloquently and admiringly to each other, their letters often interlaced with sly wit and the most wonderfully expressed humour. Here, an exerpt from the Brit to the American on politics:

Personally, I cannot endure Eisenhower; the man is perpetually in tears; even for a military man, he cries too easily. Whichever way the election goes, I suppose he will cry on Stevenson’s bosom, and that must be a disagreeable thought for Stevenson. I think I am giving way to national prejudice, though. Public characters in this country are not supposed to weep in public, except about cricket.

On reading in the bath:

The other day I said to a clergyman I met that though I always read in my bath, as all sensible people do, I disliked the moment when one has to decide whether to wash one’s hands or go on reading and respecting the binding. He said that if I were to content myself with the burial and baptismal service, this problem would be overcome, as both of them are issued by some Church of England publishing house with waterproof bindings. Did you know this?

Lately, I think I read less for plot than for observations and sentence structure and these two styles of prose: letters and essays – hitherto untraversed – have yielded such a rich literary harvest that I am rather overcome with the discovery of it. But in this gluttony there is plenty glee.

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