Do not fear to put novels into the hands of young people as an occasional holiday experiment, but above all, good poetry in all kinds - epic, tragedy, lyric. If we can touch the imagination, we serve them; they will never forget it.
The present era grabs everything that was ever written in order to transform it into films, TV programmes, or cartoons. What is essential in a novel is precisely what can only be expressed in a novel, and so every adaptation contains nothing but the non-essential. If a person is still crazy enough to write novels nowadays and wants to protect them, he has to write them in such a way that they cannot be adapted, in other words, in such a way that they cannot be retold.
For the Age has itself become vulgar, and most people have no idea to what extent they are themselves tainted. The bad manners of all parliaments, the general tendency to connive at a rather shady business transaction if it promises to bring in money without work, jazz and Negro dances as the spiritual outlet in all circles of society, women painted like prostitutes, the efforts of writers to win popularity by ridiculing in their novels and plays the correctness of well-bred people, and the bad taste shown even by the nobility and old princely families in throwing off every kind of social restraint and time-honored custom: all of these go to prove that it is now the vulgar mob that gives the tone.
Not to know the end of the tale filled me with a sense of emptiness, loss. I hungered for the sharp, frightening, breathtaking, almost painful excitement that the story had given me, and I vowed that as soon as I was old enough I would buy all the novels there were and read them to feed that thirst for violence that was in me, for intrigue, for plotting, for secrecy, for bloody murders. So profoundly responsive a chord had the tale struck in me that the threats of my mother and grandmother had no effect whatsoever. They read my insistence as mere obstinacy, as foolishness, something that would quickly pass; and they had no notion how desperately serious the tale had made me. They could not have known that Ella's whispered story of deception and murder had been the first experience in my life that had elicited from me a total emotional response. No words or punishment could have possibly made me doubt. I had tasted what to me was life, and I would have more of it, somehow, someway.
I feel that what is wrong with scores of modern novels which show literary quality, but which are repellent and depressing to the spirit is not that the writers have rejected a morality, but that they have one which is unexamined, trivial, and lopsided. They have a base concept of life; they bring immense gusto to their portrayals of what is perverse, shabby, and sordid, but they have no clear notion of what is Evil; the idea of Good is unattractive to them, and when they have to deal with it, they do so in terms of the sentimental or the merely pathetic. Briefly, some of them write very well, but they write from base minds that have been unimproved by thought or instruction. They feel, but they do not think. And the readers to whom they appeal are the products of our modern universal literacy, whose feeling is confused and muddled by just such reading, and who have been deluded that their mental processes are indeed a kind of thought.
The novels and poems which proceed from writers in the grip of this barren pessimism are of the kind which make narrow moralists fume, and use words like decadence; the writers rejoice, because making narrow moralists (who are usually frightened people) hop with rage is a sign that they have hit a mark, and they do not understand how poor and easy a mark it is.
Double Ballade on the Nothingness of Things - The big teetotum twirls, And epochs wax and wane As chance subsides or swirls; But of the loss and gain The sum is always plain. Read on the mighty pall, The weed of funeral That covers praise and blame, The -isms and the -anities, Magnificence and shame:-- "O Vanity of Vanities!" The Fates are subtle girls! They give us chaff for grain. And Time, the Thunderer, hurls, Like bolted death, disdain At all that heart and brain Conceive, or great or small, Upon this earthly ball. Would you be knight and dame? Or woo the sweet humanities? Or illustrate a name? O Vanity of Vanities! We sound the sea for pearls, Or drown them in a drain; We flute it with the merles, Or tug and sweat and strain; We grovel, or we reign; We saunter, or we brawl; We search the stars for Fame, Or sink her subterranities; The legend's still the same:-- "O Vanity of Vanities!" Here at the wine one birls, There some one clanks a chain. The flag that this man furls That man to float is fain. Pleasure gives place to pain: These in the kennel crawl, While others take the wall. She has a glorious aim, He lives for the inanities. What come of every claim? O Vanity of Vanities! Alike are clods and earls. For sot, and seer, and swain, For emperors and for churls, For antidote and bane, There is but one refrain: But one for king and thrall, For David and for Saul, For fleet of foot and lame, For pieties and profanities, The picture and the frame:-- "O Vanity of Vanities!" Life is a smoke that curls-- Curls in a flickering skein, That winds and whisks and whirls, A figment thin and vain, Into the vast Inane. One end for hut and hall! One end for cell and stall! Burned in one common flame Are wisdoms and insanities. For this alone we came:-- "O Vanity of Vanities!" Envoy Prince, pride must have a fall. What is the worth of all Your state's supreme urbanities? Bad at the best's the game. Well might the Sage exclaim:-- "O Vanity of Vanities!"
I have often noticed that we are inclined to endow our friends with the stability of type that literary characters acquire in the readers mind. No matter how many times we reopen King Lear, never shall we find the good king banging his tankard in high revelry, all woes forgotten, at a jolly reunion with all three daughters and their lapdogs. Never will Emma rally, revived by the sympathetic salts in Flauberts fathers timely tear. Whatever evolution this or that popular character has gone through between the book covers, his fate is fixed in our minds, and, similarly, we expect our friends to follow this or that logical and conventional pattern we have fixed for them. Thus X will never compose the immortal music that would clash with the secondrate symphonies he has accustomed us to. Y will never commit murder. Under no circumstances can Z ever betray us. We have it all arranged in our minds, and the less often we see a particular person, the more satisfying it is to check how obediently he conforms to our notion of him every time we hear of him. Any deviation in the fates we have ordained would strike us as not only anomalous but unethical. We could prefer not to have known at all our neighbor, the retired hotdog stand operator, if it turns out he has just produced the greatest book of poetry his age has seen.
Of all my Russian books, The Defense contains and diffuses the greatest "warmth"Mwhich may seem odd seeing how supremely abstract chess is supposed to be.