John Irving

irving1“My cousin stared at me, and I feared the worst; but I suddenly realized what small towns are.  They are places where you grow up with all the peculiar- you live next to the strange and the unlikely for so long that everything and everyone become commonplace.”

“I wanted my cousins to like Owen, because I liked him- he was my best friend- but, at the same time, I didn’t want everything to be so enjoyable that I’d have to invite Owen to Sawyer Depot the next time I went.  I was sure that would be disastrous.  And I was nervous that Owen would embarrass me- I am ashamed of feeling that, to this day.”

 

“Anyway, Dan Needham and my grandmother agreed that it would be better for me to spend the night at 80 Front Street, and so- in addition to the disorientation of waking up the next morning, after very little sleep, and gradually realizing that the dream of my mother being killed by a baseball that Owen Meany had hit was not a dream- I faced the further disorientation of not immediately knowing where I was.  It was very much like waking up as a kind of traveler in science fiction, someone who had traveled “back in time”- because I had grown used to waking up in my room in Dan Needham’s apartment.”

 

“In the snow, there is something almost like New England about where I live on Russell Hill Road; granted, Torontonians do not favor white clapboard houses with dark-green or black shutters, but my grandmother’s house, at 80 Front Street, was brick- Torontonians prefer brick and stone.  Inexplicably, Torontonians clutter their brick and stone houses with too much trim, or with windows trim and shutters- and they also carve their shutters with hearts or maple leaves- but the snow conceals these frills; and on some days, like today, when the snow is especially wet and heavy, the snow turns even the brick houses white.  Toronto is sober, but not austere; Gravesend is austere, but also pretty; Toronto is not pretty, but in the snow Toronto can look like Gravesend- both pretty and austere.”

 

“I now believe that Owen remembered everything; a part of knowing everything is remembering everything.”

 

“My mother hated darkness . . . I remember waking up from a nightmare, or waking up and feeling sick, and going down the dark hall from my room to hers- feeling my way to her doorknob.  Once in her room, I sensed I had traveled to another time zone; after the darkness of my room and the black hall, my mother’s room glowed- by comparison to the rest of the house; it was always just before dawn in my mother’s room.”

 

“I tell all this only to demonstrate that Owen was as familiar with that dummy as I was; but he was not familiar with it at night.  He was not accustomed to the semidarkness of my mother’s room when she was sleeping, when the dummy stood over her- that unmistakable body, in profile, in perfect silhouette.  That dummy stood so still, it appeared to be counting my mother’s breaths.”

 

“When Owen woke me up, I had not been asleep for very long; I was in the grips of such deep and recent sleep that I couldn’t make myself move- I felt as if I were lying in an extremely plush coffin and my pallbearers were holding me down, although I was doing my best to rise from the dead.”

 

“When I returned with the water and the aspirin, my mother had fallen asleep with her arm around Owen; with his protrusive ears spread on the pillow, and my mother’s arm across his chest, he looked like a butterfly trapped by a cat.”

 

“This must have inspired her to wake my mother; not only had electricity and water been awasting, but here Grandmother was- soaked to the skin in her efforts to put a stop to all this escaping energy.”

 

“What a phrase that is: “that explains everything!”  I know better than to think that anything “explains everything” today.”

 

“When someone you love dies, and you’re not expecting it, you don’t lose her all at once; you lose her in small pieces over a long time- the way mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers.  Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone.  Just when the day comes- when there’s a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she’s gone, forever- there comes another day, and another specifically missing part.”

 

“The farther we walked from the Meany Granite Company truck, the more the engine noise receded- but it seemed deeper, too, as if it were the motor at the core of the earth, the one that turned the earth and change the day to night.”

 

“And the women’s sex parts were often blurred by pubic hair- some of them had astonishingly more pubic hair than either Owen or I thought was possible- and their nipples were blocked from view by the censor’s black slashes.  At first, we thought the slashes were actual instruments of torture- they struck us as even more menacing than the real nudity.”

 

“Even the pictures of the sports heroes and movie stars were the same, from room to room; and from boy to boy, there was often a similar scrap of something missed from the life at home; a picture of a car, with the boy proudly at the wheel (Gravesend boarders were not allowed to drive, or even ride in, cars); a picture of a perfectly plain backyard, or even a snapshot of such a deeply private moment- an unrecognizable figure shambling away from the camera, back turned to our view- that the substance of the picture was locked in a personal memory.”

 

“The frazzled mother- who is the lesser piece of bread to this family sandwich . . .”

 

“‘ . . . and you’ll be grounded- for the rest of the day.’

‘The whole rest of the day?’ the boy says, incredulous.  The apparent impossibility of sustaining unobnoxious behavior for even part of the day weighs heavily on the lad, and overwhelms him with a claustrophobia as impenetrable as the claustrophobia of church itself.”

 

“I remember a brilliant September afternoon when the maples on Front Street were starting to turn yellow and red; above the crisp, white clapboards and the slate rooflines of the houses, the redder maples appeared to be drawing blood form the ground.”

 

“Among the contemptuous women [the servants], poor Germaine had the disadvantage of being young- and almost pretty, in a shy, mousy way.  She possessed the nonspecific clumsiness of someone who makes such a good constant effort to be inconspicuous that she is creatively awkward- without meaning to, Germaine hoarded attention to herself; her almost electric nervousness, disturbed the atmosphere surrounding her.”

 

“I was sure that was how Owen would have handled it.  I thought he was excessively proud of himself- and that he treated his parents harshly.  We all go through a phase- it lasts a lifetime, for some of us- when we’re embarrassed by our parents; we don’t want them hanging around us because we’re afraid they’ll do or say something that will make us feel ashamed of them.”

 

“Dan became the best of those faculty found at a prep school: he was not only a spirited, good teacher, but he believed that it was a hardship to be young, that it was more difficult to be a teenager than a grown-up- an opinion not widely held among grown-ups, and rarely held among the faculty members at a private school (who more frequently look upon their charges as the privileged louts of the luxury class- spoiled brats in need of discipline).”

 

“Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.” -Julius Caesar

 

“Yet he [Owen] appeared content to watch Ben-Hur, and Hester throwing up; maybe that’s what faith is- exactly that contentment, even facing the future.”

 

“Have you ever seen dogs choke on their food?  Dogs inhale their food- they’re quite dramatic chokers.  I never saw anyone stop laughing as quickly as Mrs. Lish and her son- they stopped cold.”

 

“Newspapers are bad habits, the reading equivalent of junk food.  What happens to me is that I seize upon an issue in the news- the issue is the moral/philosophical, political/intellectual equivalent of a cheeseburger with everything on it; but for the duration of my interest in it, all of my interests are consumed by it, and whatever appetites and capabilities I may have had for detachment and reflection are suddenly subordinate to this cheeseburger in my life!  I offer this as self-criticism; but what it means to be ‘political’ is that you have to welcome these obsessions with cheeseburgers- at great cost to the rest of your life.”

 

“IT DOESN’T MATTER WHERE YOU LEARNED IT [reading]- IT’S A GIFT.  IF YOU CARE ABOUT SOMETHING, YOU HAVE TO PROTECT IT- IF YOU’RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO FIND A WAY OF LIFE YOU LOVE, YOU HAVE TO FIND THE COURAGE TO LIVE IT.”

 

“‘You’re always telling me I don’t have any faith,’ I wrote to Owen. ‘Well- don’t you see?- that’s a part of what makes me so indecisive.  I wait to see what will happen next- because I don’t believe that anything I might decide to do would matter.”

 

“‘PLUNGE IN- JUST BEGIN.  I’D BEGIN WITH HIS NOTES [Hardy’s], HIS EARLY DIARIES- HE NEVER MINCED WORDS THERE, EVEN EARLY- WHEN HE WAS TRAVELING IN FRANCE, IN 1882- HE WROTE: ‘SINCE I DISCOVERED SEVERAL YEARS AGO, THAT I WAS LIVING IN A WORLD WHERE NOTHING BEARS OUT IN PRACTICE WHAT IT PROMISES INCIPIENTLY, I HAVE TROUBLED MYSELF VERY LITTLE ABOUT THEORIES.  I AM CONTENT WITH TENTATIVENESS FROM DAY TO DAY.’ YOU COULD APPLY THAT OBSERVATION TO EACH OF HIS NOVELS! THAT’S WHY I SAY HE WAS ‘ALMOST RELIGIOUS’- BECAUSE HE WASN’T A GREAT THINKER, HE WAS A GREAT FEELER!’”

 

“The night she [Grandmother] died, Dan found her propped up in her hospital bed; she appeared to have fallen asleep with the TV on and with the remote-control device held in her hand in such a way that the channels kept changing.  But she was dead, not asleep, and her cold thumb had simply attached itself to the button that restlessly roamed the channels- looking for something good.”

 

“These men looked like granite itself- its great strength can withstand pressure of twenty thousand pounds per square inch.  Granite, like lava, was once melted rock; but it did not rise to the earth’s surface- it hardened deep underground; and because it hardened slowly, it formed fairly large crystals.”

 

“There was still alot of snow on the ground that spring- old, dead-gray snow . . .”

 

“If I was thinking anything- if I was thinking at all- I was considering that my life had become a kind of doorstep-sitting, watching parades pass by.”

 

“‘That looks like sperm [a firework],’ Hester says sullenly.  I was not an expert enough on sperm to challenge Hester’s imagery; fireworks that ‘looked like sperm’ seemed highly unlikely if not farfetched to me- but what did I know?”

 

“A Prayer for Owen Meany”

-[]-

“But suddenly it was very quiet in that energetic kitchen; only the bouillabaisse was speaking.”

 

“There was a woman who could have been forty-nine or sixty-two; she wore a blowzy off-the-shoulder dress which was gathered and belted and slit in a way Edith couldn’t fathom- as if it had been hastily made from an Art Nouveau bedsheet . . . that Edith could evaluate in terms of what Frau Reiner had to model; her body was lost in the art of her dress.

Then came the two almsot twin men whose names were as baffling as their appearance.  Their names were something on a menu you wouldn’t dare to order without advice.”

 

“When it rains, things get wet.”

 

“I don’t think I agree with Edith that he was unselfconscious- whether he really was, or whether he might have been so self-conscious that you assumed no one could be that self-conscious and decided he was completely natural.”

 

“I think, when we meet people, we can like them right away if we see how much their friends like them. . .

‘But I’d have loved him anyway,’ Edith told me, ‘because he was the first man that treated me lightly.  I mean, he was comic.  He wasn’t the sort of awful comic who tries to make everything funny, either.  He was pure comic.  He simply found the comic ingredient in most things- even in me, and I took myself very seriously, of course.’”

 

“Inside the building they were holding a demonstration of a generation gap- the gap being the generation that was missing.  There were grandparents galore, giving children away; it was the parents’ generation that was lost (and been lost in) the war.”

 

“‘Don’t try and tell me it’s not sex.’

‘Edith and I mean it’s not just sex,’ I said, ‘At least not for us.’  But I think that such distinctions- like self-pity and dying for freedom- were dubious to Utch [his wife].  She had been brought up, better than any of us, to know the difference between what you are willing to do for someone else and what you do for yourself.”

 

“‘And what do you like?’ Edith asked.

‘Languages,’ he said.  ‘I wish everyone spoke two or three languages and used them- all together.  There are only so many ways to say things in one language.  If we could only talk even more, make more description, add more confusion- but it wouldn’t be confusion, finally; it would just be wonderfully complicated.  I love complexity,’ he said. ‘Take food for example.  I’d like to be a great cook.  I want to learn how to cook things better and better- subtle things, overpowering things, delicate and rich things, all things!  I love to eat.’”

 

“‘Anyway,’ he said, ‘how I live matters more than what I do.  I have ambitions for the quality of how I live; I have no ambitions for making money.  Ideally I’d marry a rich woman and cook for her!  I’d exercise every day- for the bebefit of both of us, of course- and I’d have time to read enough to be a constant source of information, ideas and languages.  Ah, Sprache!  I’d be free to devote myself to the basics.  I would prefer to have my income provided, and in turn I would provide quality talk, food and quality sex!  Oh, forgive me . . .’”

 

“He rode her closer than a coat.  He was opposite of rough; he made her feel that she had two bodies which moved in time with each other.  There was no strain, but his weight wore her down.  Her arms grew heavy lifting his arms; her back dipped under the weight of his chest.  She let her head droop and felt his mouth on her neck.  She sank back into the mat [they are at a wrestling gym].  Their bodies glistened- even seemed phosphorescent- in th emoonlight.  The mat gave off heat.  Their bodies slid.  Bending was never easier.  Slickness was everywhere, but her heels found a way to grip the mat.  over his snug shoulder she saw the moon sailing through the maze of vines.  Either the pigeons were talking excitedly or she was failing to recognize her own voice; she swore she felt their wingbeat lifting her lightly off the mat.  She was coming, she came, she was waiting for him; when he came; she expected the hand of an invisible referee to smack the mat hard and flat, indicating a fall.  Instead there was a crushing weight, a foreign silence; the great fans for the blow-heaters whirred on, a sound too constant to be called a noise.”

 

“Over a line-up of gleaming sinks, we three shaved each morning in the Herrenzimmer.  Willy had a goatee which he avoided like his jugular; Heinrich had a mustache no thicker than the artery at his wrist.”

 

“There is nothing so confusing as finding out that you don’t know someone you thought you knew.”

 

“‘I think when a private person tells you everything, you’re bound to each other in a way no one really planned,’ he said.”

 

“Ah, the lies we fall asleep to.”

 

“That night I tried to take up sleeping again.  I found an old slip of Utch’s in the laundry basket and dressed a pillow in it and slept against it, smelling her smell.  But after a few nights it smelled more like me- more like the while bed and the whole house- and after I washed it, it simply smelled of soap.”

 

“The 158-pound Marriage”

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