Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Hearth and the Salamander

He saw himself in her eyes, suspended in two shining drops of bright water, himself dark and tiny, in fine detail, the lines about his mouth, everything there, as if her eyes were two miraculous bits of violet amber that might capture and hold him intact. Her face, turned to him now, was fragile milk crystal with a soft and constant light in it. It was not the hysterical light of electricity but--what? But the strangely comfortable and rare and gently flattering light of the candle. One time, as a child, in a power failure, his mother had found and lit a last candle and there had been a brief hour of rediscovery, of such illumination that space lost its vast dimensions and drew comfortably around them, and they, mother and son, alone, transformed, hoping that the power might not come on again too soon...

and this

The Mechanical Hound slept but did not sleep, lived but did not live in its gently humming, gently vibrating, softly illuminated kennel back in a dark corner of the firehouse. The dim light of one in the morning, the moonlight from the open sky framed through the great window, touched here and there on the brass and copper and steel of the faintly trembling beast.

and also this

Montag said nothing but stood looking at the women's faces as he had once looked at the faces of saints in a strange church he had entered when he was a child. The faces of those enameled creatures meant nothing to him, though he talked to them and stood in that church for a long time, trying to be of that religion, trying to know what the religion was, trying to get enough of the raw incense and special dust of the place into his lungs and thus into his blood to feel touched and concerned by the meaning of the colorful men and women with the porcelain eyes and the blood-ruby lips. But there was nothing, nothing; it was a stroll through another store, and his currency strange and unusable there, and his passion cold, even when he touched the wood and plaster and clay.

All of this is from Ray Bradbury's 1952 novella Fahrenheit 451, a 50th anniversary copy of which Mighty Reader gifted me this last Christmas, bless her. I read this book when I was 15 or 16--which is to say thirty-some years ago. I was on a Bradbury kick, reading everything of his that my school library held. The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Illustrated Man and probably more. I read them, I think, for their sheer weirdness, their unlikeness to anything I'd ever encountered. I read all I could over the course of a couple of months and when the library's stock of Bradbury was exhausted, I moved on to some other author and thought no more of Mr Bradbury.

And yet, thirty-odd years later, when I read his prose I see things of which I was unaware during those adolescent readings. I see how active and unsettled the writing is, how the words fight against each other on the page and refuse to let the reader's imagination rest. I see how like Hemingway it is, how like DH Lawrence, too. Fahrenheit 451 has its moments of heavy-handed preaching, surely, but by God, Ray Bradbury could write. And all these decades later, I see in my own prose the possible traces, the faded fingerprints perhaps, of his influence. I'm going to read The Martian Chronicles again, too.

But for now I'm reading The Coxon Fund, a comic novella by good old Henry James. It's hysterical, and I'm glad Melville House is reissuing such fine old novellas as this. When I'm done with James, I'm going after Nabokov.


  1. 451 is on my list of to-read this year. :)

  2. Have you started the Bernheimer collection of fairy tales yet? I'm really interested to see what you think of it.

    My to-read list is longer than the year has days, darn it.