He had rowed out on his own to a quiet stretch of Margit Island with a whole boatful of textbooks, leaving no clue as to his whereabouts. It was just him and the mathematics. One on one. Lying in the heat of the elderly summer, Gyuri opened the books to lay himself bare to calculus, to bask in the equations, but while his tan deepened, somehow his erudition didn’t. He felt cheated. Like jumping off a cliff, he had hurled himself at the distant algebra, but instead of plummeting down to impact with those formulae, he just hovered above, aloft, some covert anti-gravity repelling him from the maths.
Relishing the unrationed sunshine, he succumbed to a bout of ant-shepherding. Prior to this, his only dealings with ants had been stepping on them, either by accident or squashing them when they invaded his possessions or edibles. He had partitioned himself at the intersection of a number of formic caravan routes and spent the better part of three hours devising olympianly a series of obstacles and tests for the ants with the aid of twigs, leaves and extracts from his lunch sandwiches. He toyed with the idea of becoming a great entomologist, a world-leading zoologist. As far as he knew, biology was an area unpolluted by Marx though some of his disciples, like Lysenko, had tried to make up for Marx’s silence on the phyla.
The fascination of the ants had run unabated as long as there was no other distraction from the maths. Mathematics had this to recommend it, if nothing else: it made everything else, ants, English, push-ups, ironing, washing-up, beguiling and wonderful. Whole new galaxies of interests had popped open now that the maths exam was drawing close; anything unconnected with maths was irresistible.

pgs. 44-45, Under the Frog

During their post-micturition conversation, the elderly peasant had also told Gyuri: ‘Take the most rotten individual imaginable and there will always be someone, usually very stupid, but not always, who’ll say no, no, he’s simply misunderstood. Misquoted. Even with murderers, when they write about them in the newspapers, they have a wife or a mother who says he’s not bad, he’s a lovely boy when you get to know him. You ask anyone here to say anything in favour of Farago; ask people who’ve known him all their lives to say one thing to his credit, just one courtesy, one thank you, one favour – you’ll find the people of this village as quiet as melons in long grass. His own mother, if Farago was waiting to be executed, would only say things like “Make that noose tighter” or “Is it permissible to tip the hangman?”‘

pg. 75, Under the Frog



They tried to placate him, but in vain. ‘Anyone who assaults the estate of matrimony,’ he cried, ‘anyone who in word and worse in deed undermines that foundation of all moral order has me to deal with; and if I cannot better him I keep out of his way. Marriage is the basis and the pinnacle of culture. It makes the uncultured gentle and in it the most cultured can best demonstrate their gentleness. It must never be dissolved, for it brings so much happiness that in comparison any individual unhappiness is of no significance. And what do people mean when they speak of unhappiness? It is impatience, which comes over them from time to time and then they are pleased to call themselves unhappy. Only let the moment pass and you will think yourselves fortunate that something which has stood so long still stands. There is never a sufficient reason for separation. The human condition is so rich in joy and sorrow that it cannot be calculated what a man and wife owe one another. The debt is infinite, and can only be paid through eternity. It may not always be easy, that I do not doubt, and why should it be? Are we not also married to our consciences, which we should also be glad to be rid of often enough, since they are more difficult than ever a man or woman might be to us?’

pgs. 64-65, Elective Affinities

‘I have heard it asked why we speak so unreservedly well of the dead but of the living always with a certain caution. And the answer was: because from the dead we have nothing to fear, whereas the living may still cross us. Of such impurity is our concern for the memory of others; it is mostly only selfish and unserious. But nothing is more serious than that we keep our dealings with the living always active and alive.’

-pg. 121, Elective Affinities



You see, I had already begun to justify myself – this is the first step when one intends to venture upon something crooked. Strangely enough, no one can simply go ahead and do another person harm. You first have to convince yourself that the other has deserved it. Even a holdup man, about to rob a stranger, will first start a quarrel with him in order to work himself up to real anger.

pg. 25, The Glass Bees

As I said before, we live in times when words have lost or changes their meaning and have become ambiguous. This also holds true for the word “house,” formerly the very essence of stability and permanence. For some time now a house has become a sort of tent, but without giving the freedom enjoyed by nomads. Buildings are pushed up high, and jerry-built structures rise by the thousands. This would not be so bad if, at least for a short while, one could feel safe in one’s own and untouchable home. The opposite is true: today the man who has the courage to build himself a house constructs a meeting place for the people who will descend upon him on foot, by car, or by telephone. Employees of the gas, the electric, and of the water-works will arrive; agents of life and fire insurance companies; building inspectors, collectors of the radio tax; mortgage creditors and rest assessors who tax you for living in your own home.

pg. 51, The Glass Bees

They were hired to do piecework, which was beneath a man’s dignity. It could have been done just as well by a woman or child, or even by a part of the machinery at which they worked.
What they had done in their youth, and what for milleniums had been man’s vocation, joy, and pleasure – to ride a horse, to plow in the morning the steaming field, to walk behind the oxen, to mow the yellow grain in the blazing summer heat while streams of sweat poured down the tanned body and the women who bound the sheaves could hardly keep in step with the mowers, to rest at noon for a meal in the shade of green trees – all this, praised by the poets since time immemorial, was now past and gone. Joy in labor had disappeared.

pg. 72, The Glass Bees



“Sgraffito” is man’s most ancient way of drawing. One day a man was lying on a river-bank scratching the sand with his finger and admiring the result. And the result was a line, a dot, another line, another dot and then they were no longer just lines and dots but a drawing. Then someone, perhaps the same man, perhaps another, transferred these lines and dots onto the neck of a pot and put it into the embers to be fired. Thus decorative art began, although nothing particular had happened and nobody had noticed anything. Only the old woman who spent all her time by the fire shook her head, and the children squealed, danced about and asked to be allowed to hold the new pot in their hands. And that is probably all that happened that day beside the fire. But decoration had begun. It began to live and develop, to change its outline, to grow more complex, to acquire greater detail and become heavier. Soon it covered not only the neck of the pot but the whole vessel; it crawled down, strained upwards, twisted like a snake, curled into spirals, burst out now in one place, now in another and acquired the comb-like look of parallel hatching. It was as if men’s eyes had been opened and they saw something that they could not even have seen in dreams – pure geometrical shapes. Not a leaf curled into a circle, not a triangular stone but a circle and a triangle, then infinitely varied combinations of lines and dots. Not only simple lines but double lines, zig-zags, lines broken at varying angles – even squares, ovals and pyramids. The line itself changed out of recognition. It might be incised in the wet clay in clumps of finely divided lines, or in patterns like Christmas trees or crosses just like the design on this big-bellied pot, for instance – how many hundreds of thousands of years have passed since then? Thus there arose in the hands of a master this beautiful, almost magical piece of abstract ornamentation which we now take so much for granted that we do not even notice it.

pgs. 29-30, The Keeper of Antiquities



Like everything else that took place in the Soviet Union, this upsurge of spontaneous fury had been conceived and planned well in advance.
Elections to the Supreme Soviet were planned by Stalin in exactly the same way; information was collected, deputies were chosen – and from then on the spontaneous nomination of these deputies went ahead as planned, as did their election campaigns and eventual victory in national elections. Stormy protest meetings were planned in exactly the same way – as were outbursts of popular fury and emotional expressions of brotherly friendship. …
– and it was in this way, after long and complex interrogations, that accountants, engineers, and lawyers who until recently had not for one moment suspected themselves of counterrevolutionary activity came to sign statements confessing to all kinds of acts of espionage and terrorism.

pgs. 24-25, Everything Flows

The most important principle of the State he constructed is that it is a State without freedom.
In this country, huge factories, artificial seas, canals, and hydroelectric power stations do not serve people; they serve a State without freedom.
In this State a man cannot sow what he wants to sow. A man is not the master of the field on which he works; he is not the owner of the apple trees he grows or of the milk he produces. What the earth bears, it bears according to the instructions of the State without freedom.
In this State not only are the national minorities deprived of their freedom but so is the Russian nation itself. Where there is no individual freedom, there can be no national freedom – since national freedom is, above all, the freedom of the individual human being.
In this State there is no such thing as society. Society is founded on people’s free intimacy and free antagonism – and in a State without freedom, free intimacy and free hostility are unthinkable.

And it is truly astonishing that Stalin, after so totally destroying freedom, continued to be afraid of it.

pg. 192, Everything Flows



Nikita Ivanich started putting signposts all over town. Next to his own house he carved one that said “Nikita’s Gates.” As if we didn’t know. No gates there, but still. They rotted. Well, all right. In another place he carved “Balchug St.” Then: “Polyanka Rd.” “Strastnoi Blvd.” “Kuznetsky Bridge.” “Volkhonka St.” You ask him: Nikita Ivanich, what’s going on? And he says: I want to keep memory alive. As long as I’m breathing, he says, and I’m planning on living forever, as you can see, I want to make my contribution to the restoration and rebirth of culture. Just wait, he says, in a millennium or so, you people will finally set foot upon the path of civilized development, curse your bloody souls. The light of knowledge will finally dispel the impenetrable darkness of your ignorance, O obstinate people, and the balm of enlightenment will flow down over your coarse manners, mores, and customs. Above and beyond everything, he says, I hope for spiritual runnysauce. For without one, all the fruits of technological civilization will turn to murderous boomerangs in your callused hands, which, for that matter, has already happened. So, he says, don’t stare at me from under your eyebrows likes a loutish goat; when you listen to someone, keep your mouth closed. And don’t shuffle.

pg. 24, The Slynx



Mrs. Vesey looked the personification of human composure and female amiability. A calm enjoyment of a calm existence beamed in drowsy smiles on her plump, placid face. Some of us rush through life, and some of us saunter through life. Mrs. Vesey sat through life. Sat in the house, early and late; sat in the garden; sat in unexpected widow-seats in passages; sat (on a camp-stool) when her friends tried to take her out walking; sat before she looked at anything, before she talked of anything, before she answered Yes, or No, to the commonest question – always with the same serene smile on her lips, the same vacantly-attentive turn of the heads, the same snugly-comfortable position of her hands and arms, under every possible change of domestic circumstances. A mild, a compliant, an unutterably tranquil and harmless old lady, who never by any chance suggested the idea that she had been actually alive since the hour of her birth. Nature has so much to do in this world, and is engaged in generating such a vase variety of co-existent productions, that she must surely be now and then too flurried and confused to distinguish between the different processes that she is carrying on at the same time. Starting from this point of view, it will always remain my private persuasion that Nature was absorbed in making cabbages when Mrs. Vesey was born, and that the good lady suffered the consequences of a vegetable preoccupation in the mind of the Mother of us all.

pg. 42, The Woman in White

The woman who first gives life, light, and form to our shadowy conceptions of beauty, fills a void in our spiritual nature that has remain unknown to us till she appeared. Sympathies that lie too deep for words, too deep almost for thoughts, are touched, at such times, by other charms than those which the senses feel and which the resources of expression can realize. The mystery which underlies the beauty of women is never raised above the reach of all expression until it has claimed kindred with the deeper mystery in our own souls. Then, and then only, has it passed beyond the narrow region on which light falls, in this world, from the pencil and the pen.

pgs. 45-46, The Woman in White



The chief inspector, flanked by two officers of the Coast Guard in Argyll, is a short and lumpy man, with grey hair. His dark-blue uniform with its gold loops seems to have been draped around him. He is overweight. Age has found him. He has had to climb to the site of the drill, and now he stops speaking to let his wind restore itself. There is something very likable about him. He doesn’t seem to mind that he stand on lower ground than the men he speaks to. There is noticeable discomfort, however, in the manner of his subordinates, who keep inching toward higher group after the chief inspector resumes speaking.

pg. 83, The Crofter and the Laird

I have today killed Calum McAllister’s chicken, which used to peck around in the environs of the cattle grid where the road crosses the line between Machrins and Kilchattan. Calum McAllister is a cotter – that is, a general hand who is neither crofter nor farmer but makes his living doing jobs where he can find them – and he lives in Machrins, a few yards from the Kilchattan fence line. His chicken made the mistake of jumping up onto the cattle grid a second or two before my car passed over it. News of the death of this chicken apparently reached every ear on the island before the pinfeathers had settled to the ground. It is not a scandal. No one seems to hold it against me. It just is news, and I am already becoming known as the one who killed Calum McAllister’s chicken – a description that probably translates into a single word in Gaelic. Looking around, I saw no one coming from Calum McAllister’s house, so the first thing I did was go to the croft to ask Donal Gibbie what the chicken might have been worth. ‘I don’t know what the legalities are, but we should keep up the good will,’ Donald Gibbie said. ‘I suggest you give Calum twelve bob.’ I returned to the cattle grid. The chicken was gone. I knocked on McAllister’s door. He opened it – a tall, gaunt, unshaven man, a widower. I said that I had killed his chicken, and he said, ‘I know. I know that.’

I said I was very sorry, and he said, ‘It’s not your fault. It’s the chicken’s fault. The chicken should not have been in the road.’

‘I’d like to give you twelve shillings for the chicken.’

‘That is unnecessary.’

‘But I think I should pay for it, and I will feel better if you let me do that.’

‘You can pay if you like, but the chicken should not have been in the road.’

pgs. 91-92, The Crofter and the Laird

a new year


Sometimes everything worth saying resides in the silence. The last sunset of the year provided a brilliant show.

The entire year has been full of color, leaving me thinking that nothing can best this one sky, only to be proven incorrect day after day.