des-ul-to-ry: adj. [from L. leap down from]
1. passing from one thing to another in an aimless way; disconnected; not methodical;
2. lacking direct relevancy; random; incidental
That definition is taken (though modified) from The New World Dictionary of the American Language, Second College Edition, 1974. I looked the word up because I don’t trust myself with a word I never use in conversation, only in writing. It looks like de-SUL-tery, but the dictionary says the strongest stress is on the first syllable, with a minor stress on the third: Dessle-tory. Yet I’ve also heard educated people pronounce it as Dessletry, i.e., as only three syllables and only the first one stressed. I play it safe and keep my mouth shut. But the word did come to mind the other morning.
Recent activities at home have not desultory: packing, organizing, cleaning. I may look aimless, especially in those moments when I pause to wait for my brain to kick back into gear, but everything I’m doing is connected, if not thoroughly methodical, all actions (except for episodes of escape reading) aimed at a single end: departure! Sarah knows something is up but little does she ken what it is. No matter. Sarah is always willing.
What has been desultory of late in my busy life is that reading I mentioned parenthetically above, episodic escapes to rest a fevered brain. It doesn’t matter much what the book is, so the first one on my Books Read 2015 list is a book on grammar. Why? It came to hand, that’s all. Focused on an imminent road trip, I don’t need thrilling bodice-rippers: anything with printed words and pages to turn is an escape from bags and boxes and scribbled lists.
And so, in the search for self-soothing comfort, I skipped ahead to the last episode in the last section of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, those final pages of Time Regained in which the mature Marcel, arriving at a reception given by the Princesse de Guermantes, enters her house in the middle of a musical piece and must wait in the library until the next intermission, which gives him time to reflect on a small but crucial incident that occurred between his carriage and the house.
...I had barely time to get out of the way and, in stepping back, struck my foot against some unevenly cut flagstones leading to a carriage house. In recovering my balance, I put my foot on a stone that was a little lower than the one next to it; immediately all my discouragement vanished before a feeling of happiness which I had experienced at different moments all my life, at the sight of trees I thought I recognized when driving around Balbec, or the church spires of Martinville, or the savour or a madeleine, dipped in herb tea, or from many other sensations I have mentioned....
Examining that sudden feeling of happiness, he realizes that the sensation delivered by the uneven paving stones has carried him back to Venice but brought to him much more than a mere “moment from the past,” and there in the library, reflecting on various similar moments of happiness, the character Marcel conceives the book he will write, the book that Proust has in fact written, the fictionalized memoir in which this last section shows the author before he has begun his great work. It will be a “solid” psychology, not “plane,” and he sees the challenge in all the demands it will make on his powers and remaining life.
To convey an idea of it, one would have to go to the noblest and most varied arts for comparisons; for this writer, who, moreover, would have to shew the most contradictory sides of each of his characters in order to give his volume the effect of a solid, would need to prepare it with minute care, constantly regrouping his forces as if for an attack, endure it like an exhausting task, accept it like a rule of conduct, build it like a church, follow it like a regimen, overcome it like an obstacle, win it like a friendship, feed it intensively like a child, create it like a world, without overlooking those mysteries whose explanation is probably to be found only in other worlds and the presentiment of which is the quality in life and art which moves us most deeply [my emphasis added].
Read again the task as he set himself to it: “build it like a church ... overcome it like an obstacle ... create it like a world....” That string of similes, all those strong verbs with their substantive objects! Doesn’t it make your heart beat faster and shivers run down your spine? Don’t you sit up straighter and want to cheer the author?
-- And yet, stirring and compelling and moving as I always find this section -- I must confess I would read a few pages and then pick up another book, and I have no way to explain my going back and forth, other than the general unsettled atmosphere that fills a house and pervades life itself in days preparatory to a long road trip. Desultory reading.
My other main reading during the same unsettled days (I must hunt up information on this book and author sometime) came to me at random, as had the grammar book, although no doubt the title was a strong attraction. The Lone Winter, by Anne Bosworth Greene, written in journal form, without any prologue, background, or introduction given, is an account, not surprisingly, of one writer’s winter, specifically in this case a winter on a farm in New England following World War I. A reader gathers snippets of the writer’s background as the journal goes along. (Not until over halfway through the book do I realize at last that the farm is in Vermont, a fact she had not mentioned earlier.) She is a single woman, with a grown daughter. The daughter now lives in the city, but before this season lived with her mother. The writer is also an artist, although she seems to be doing little or no drawing or painting this winter. (But what is this ‘frontispiece’ she keeps mentioning, without telling us any more about it?) There are no more chickens – all gone -- but numerous horses and ponies, one cow, and, in the house, one dog (a collie) and one cat. Essentially, hers is a pony farm.
[Oh, how my grandfather would have loved this book! When he retired from the Pennsylvaia Railroad and moved from Ohio to Florida, his dream was to establish a pony farm, a dream I encouraged with all the enthusiasm of the horse-crazy ten-year-old girl I then was. Alas, his second wife was working against me, and she had daily access 365 days a year. Don’t get me wrong: I loved her, too. But oh, how thrilled Grandpa and I would have been with a pony farm! I might even have moved to Florida to help him with it, and then the entire course of my life would have been different --. But there. I cannot regret the life that has brought me to where I am now, so be off with you, pony dreams!]
The author of The Lone Winter rides (horses, of course), skis, and snowshoes, besides regularly milking her cow and pitching hay to her “children,” i.e., the cow, horses, and ponies. When she drives, she is driving a horse, and the horse is pulling a sleigh. There is no plot, only life events -- e.g., her daughter visits, ponies break through their fences, a pipe freezes. Mostly what happens is that the weather changes and changes and changes again.
Again the uncertain thirties have yielded to a solid zero, and the world is a-crack with cold. Even my bed seemed a shivery spot this morning; so by a pale, surreptitious sunrise I was already down, shuddering, and poking at the fire.
Supplies run low, and the resourceful countrywoman attempts a sort of cowboy pan bread, flung into a hot, greased pan, coming out at last “toothsome” and “white as sea-foam under a somewhat charred exterior.” I imagine my far-flung blogger friend, Cherie, out on the Atlantic coast, enjoying this book. But would she chafe at its slow beginning and the many, many pages of chasing and feeding ponies? I think I would urge her to open right away to page 167 and read from there until she lost interest, if she were going to lose interest. If she didn’t, of course, she could go back to the beginning and start there. Cherie, shall I send you the book when I finish it? It’s in the car with me now!
Here at home in the Upper Midwest, while Arctic “clippers” made necessary errands and organizing and packing and everything more difficult– frigid dashes from house to car! – the weather also made sense of our winter change of venue. Not so long ago, back in the mild days of December leading up to the end of the past year, we were asking ourselves, “Why are we going away?” We’re not asking that in what must be nearly the hundredth hour straight of fierce winds with subzero chill coming off nearby Lake Michigan.
It’s really happening. The pony farm was only a dream, but the life of the artist and the bookstore were dreams we turned into reality and have kept afloat year after year. Well, now our winter sabbatical dream is becoming reality, too, so stay tuned for pictures of “elsewhere,” postcards from the road. The scenery will be changing, that I can promise.