Beauty Often Seduces Us on the Way to Truth… and Triteness Kicks Us in the Nuts

Song of the moment: Maenam Jami Sieber

When I’m reading, I have a tendency to share quotes and tidbits with the people I know. There’s a part of me that enjoys this because it feels like, by sharing these things with them as I read, they are reading along with me. It makes a solitary activity feel… like a connection.

Silly, no?

I don’t… I don’t really talk a lot with people these days. I feel awkward starting conversations, and nobody goes to the effort to start them with me. The lump sum of my communication with people outside my family are a few short Facebook messages and the occasional stilted AIM chat.

It’s hard. How can a friendship survive when they don’t need you anymore, when all you have to offer them are words? Even if that’s all you want in return…

And that’s why I’m going to share some quotes from the book (and my thoughts on them) with you, galleons. Because we’re not friends. We’re something else.

And words are enough for us.

***

Quotes on Love:

~That almost made the tears start up behind my eyes, but his next words dried them before they had time to form. “At least we’ll have time for lunch before we have to catch our next train. The Gare du Nord has the most delicious sandwiches and we can use up my francs.” It was the choice of pronoun that warmed my heart.

I love this one for the last line, for the power and simplicity of that little statement. I gave you the lead-up for context and to really convey the emotion in that short sentence.

~Today I will go out to wait for her again, because I cannot help it, because my whole being seems now to be bound up in the being of one so different from myself and yet so exquisitely familiar that I can scarcely understand what has happened.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the concept of being “bound” to a person. Mostly because I just watched Of Human Bondage. But you find it to be true. At least, I know I have. Sometimes you find yourself tied to a person, whether you want to be or not. It’s maddening, but it can be beautiful, too.

~Oh my love, I wanted to tell you how I have thought about you. My memory belongs entirely to you, because it reverts constantly these days to our first moments alone together. I have asked myself many times why other affections can’t replace your presence, and I always return to the illusion that we are still together, and then- unwillingly- to the knowledge that you have made a hostage of my memory. When I least expect it, I am overwhelmed by your words in recollection.

Lovely. Simply lovely. Despite my initial deep reservations about Kostova adding a love plot to her story, she handles it with exquisite gentleness and poise. It’s never overpowering, but often extremely touching, as with this letter.

It doesn’t hurt that this little missive really hits home for me. Doesn’t hurt at all.

Quotes on Life:

~I reflected, as we went out into the golden evening of the Byzantine streets, that even in the weirdest circumstances, the most troubling episodes of one’s life, the greatest divides from home and familiarity, there were these moments of undeniable joy.

I know I’m a cynic by nature, but even I have moments of happiness and optimism. Is this little passage revelatory in any way? No. But then, I think some of the things that resonate with me longest aren’t new ideas, but old and familiar ideas finally put into words.

~There is a Hungarian proverb that says, ‘The Magyar takes his pleasures sadly.’

No real description here. I just really like the proverb.

~I saw on the older woman’s face the gleam of a single tear. I’ve read that there is no such thing as a single tear, that old poetic trope. And perhaps there isn’t, as hers was simply companion to my own.

As a person who spends much of her time immersed in poetry (either in my own head or between the pages of numerous books and literary magazines) and poetic prose, the concept of the “single tear” is one of those horrible tropes that surface time and time again. It’s lazy to use such an overused idea, but Kostova gives it a nice twist. She acknowledges the inanity of the idea while breathing fresh life into it at the same time. Amusing and effective.

Quotes on Language:

~He pointed to a page of beautiful Arabic, and I thought for the hundredth time how terrible it was that human languages and even alphabets were separated from one another by this frustrating Babel of differences, so that when I glanced at a page of Ottoman printing, my comprehension was immediately caught in a bramble of symbols as impenetrable to me as a hedge of magic briars.

As you may or may not know, I am abysmal at languages. I know snippets of Latin, some German, and a mere handful of words in Russian, French, Spanish, and Italian. And I absolutely hate it, because I want to learn these beautiful languages (except Spanish- I hate that damn language), but they never seem to stick in my head. My mother used to joke that I only had room for English in my head simply because I knew it so well. Which is bullshit, but it is the only language I know. Sadly. Anyway, this passage sums up my frustration pretty well.

~We took an express train south through stations whose names were posted in both Latin and Cyrillic letters, then through stations whose names were posted in Cyrillic only. My father taught me the new alphabet, and I amused myself trying to sound out the station signs, each of which looked to me like code words that could open a secret door.

I like this because, like the above passage, it captures the magic and beauty I see when I look at other alphabets… along with the confusion.

~”Nu va suparati…” I learned this delightful phrase, with which one interrupts strangers with a request for information, from the concierge at my hotel in Bucarest. It means, literally, “Don’t be angry”- can you imagine an everyday utterance more redolent of history? “Don’t pull out your dagger, friend- I’m simply lost in this wood and need directions out of it.”

I mostly just find this one amusing and pointed.

~Tomorrow is the day of Kiril and Methodii, creators of the great Slavonic alphabet. In English you would say Cyril and Methodius- you call it Cyrillic, do you not? We say kirilitsa, for Kiril, the monk who invented it.

This one goes with the next passage. Both deal with the feast day celebration of the creators of Cyrillic. I liked the little history lesson on the origins of the Cyrillic alphabet (seeing as so many people I know use it and it has become a maddening part of my life), but I really enjoyed the next passage, where we hear about the focus of the celebration being on language and literature, not just the saints.

~You know, this is my favorite holiday. We have many saints’ days in the church calendar, but this one is dear to all those who teach and learn, because it is when we honor the Slavonic heritage of alphabet and literature, and the teaching and learning of many centuries that have grown from Kiril and Methodii and their great invention.

It would be my favorite holiday, too.

Quotes About the Study of History:

~As a historian, I have learned that, in fact, not everyone who reaches back into history can survive it.

This line has haunted me since I started the book. It’s at the end of the first paragraph of the text, and I think it really sets the tone for the whole story. Like in House of Leaves, the author has done a great job of immediately getting the reader into the proper mindset.

~For all his attention to my historical education, my father had neglected to tell me this: history’s terrible moments were real. I understand now, decades later, that he never could have told me. Only history itself can convince you of such a truth. And once you’ve seen that truth- really seen it- you can’t look away.

Too true.

~It is a fact that we historians are interested in what is partly a reflection of ourselves, perhaps a part of ourselves we would rather not examine except through the medium of scholarship; it is also true that as we steep ourselves in our interests, they become more and more a part of us.

This isn’t just true for historians. It holds true for people who dedicate themselves to literature or science or math or film. I think it’s the universality of the statement, and the quiet warning hidden within the seemingly innocuous words, that make this one of my favorite passages in the novel.

~I’ve always been interested in foreign relations. It’s my belief that the study of history should be our preparation for understanding the present, rather than an escape from it.

Again, too true.

Quotes on Communism/Communist States:

~She stared. “Oh, the West is such an innocent place,” she said finally. “Do you think she has a telephone? Do you think my letters are not open and read every time?”

I’m including these quotes in here because I think that Kostova setting her story (well… part of it) during the days of Communist Eastern Europe is particularly fascinating. Not only do we have the stark comparison of the modern totalitarian government to Vlad’s brutal reign and the conquering forces of the Ottomans, but we instantly add an element of danger and suspense to the story. We’re drawn further and further into these worlds where you have to watch your every word, where you can’t move freely. Strangely, this is an echo of the restrictions on traditional vampires, and it makes the supernatural feel all the more intertwined among the real in this story. Extremely effective.

Or, as they’d say in the land of Pokémon: THAT WAS SUPER EFFECTIVE!

~”Oh, we will find a way to put in some labor issues. That is the beauty of the solid Marxist education you did not have the privilege of receiving. Believe me, you can find labor issues in any topic if you look hard enough.”

Mmm, Marxism.

~At the city’s center, we toured a grim mausoleum that held the embalmed body of the Stalinist dictator Georgi Dimitrov, who’d died five years before. The dictator’s face was waxen, with a heavy dark mustache. I thought of Stalin, whose body had reportedly joined Lenin’s the year before, in a similar shrine on Red Square. These atheist cultures were certainly diligent in preserving the relics of their saints.

Again, I’m a big fan of the final line. The rest is just context for it.

***

On a completely unrelated note, I find dying my hair red to be extremely fun. Because when I go to rinse the dye out, I get my hands coated in this viscous crimson liquid. And then I make a ton of Lady Macbeth jokes.

One time, when I was a freshman in high school and at the University of Wyoming for a summer program (where a boy named Kevin outlined the holes in my fishnets and my roommate spent the entire three weeks singing Yeroushalaim Chel Zahav), Sabrina and I dyed our friend Bird’s hair a bright red. And so I was wearing these latex gloves covered in red dye and looking for all the world like a serial killer… and Sabrina and I decided to have some fun.

First, we went down to the lobby, which had a decent amount of people milling about in it. And I proceeded to chase Sabrina all around the lobby, with the two of us screaming and carrying on and genuinely terrifying everyone around us. Then, we both stopped and calmly waited for the elevator. When it arrived, I chased her onto it. We calmly rode it up to the 11th floor (our floor), got off calmly, and went to Sabrina’s room. We blasted really goth music, stuffed a pillowcase with some old sheets, then Sabrina donned the dye covered gloves and carried the pillowcase to the trash down the hall. To the gaggle of girls who stared at her as she passed, she calmly explained, “Dead cat.”

How we didn’t get in trouble remains a mystery.

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