Even now, I hear one and I long to leave
without a suitcase or a plan; I want to step
onto the platform and reach for
the porter’s hand and buy a ticket
to some other life; I want to sit
in the big seats and watch fields
turn into rivers or cities. I want to eat
cake on the dining car’s
unsteady tablecloths, to sleep
while whole seasons
slip by. I want to be a passenger
again: a person who hears the name
of a place and stands up, a person
who steps into the steam of arrival.
“The Sound of a Train” by Faith Shearin from Telling the Bees. © Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Today is the birthday of short-story writer Alice Munro (books by this author), born Alice Laidlaw in Wingham, Ontario (1931). She’s the author of many collections of short stories, including Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You (1974), The Moons of Jupiter (1982), and Open Secrets (1994). She studied journalism on scholarship at the University of Western Ontario and then struggled to support herself as a writer, but she finally gave up and became a housewife in the 1950s. She had four children, and stayed home to take care of them, but while they were napping, she began to read widely — many of the most important books of the 20th century. And she began to write, though she found it very difficult. She said: “I went through about a year ... when I couldn’t finish a sentence. It was a time of terrible depression, about what I could do measured against what I wanted to do.” Then, in 1959, her mother died, and Munro suddenly found that she was able to explore her personal life in her fiction in ways she’d never been able to do before. Nine years later she published her first book of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades (1968).
Munro often writes about ordinary people in small-town Ontario, where she grew up. She said, “People’s lives, in [my home town] as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing, unfathomable — deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum.”
Munro’s most recent collection of stories is Dear Life (2012).
It’s the birthday of French novelist Marcel Proust (books by this author), born in Auteuil (1871). He published a collection of short stories called Pleasures and Days in 1896, and then worked for four years on an autobiographical novel that he never published. When his parents both died within a few years of each other, Proust inherited enough money to live securely while he began the work for which he is remembered: his seven-volume work, Remembrance of Things Past, whose title is also sometimes translated as In Search of Lost Time (1913–27).
The most famous scene in the book occurs early on, when the narrator dips a bit of a madeleine in some tea and experiences a profound sense-memory of his childhood. That really happened to Proust, although in his case it was a humble rusk — a dry biscuit — that triggered a childhood memory.
From the “Overture” in Swann’s Way (1913):
“When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”
It’s the birthday of British writer Edmund Clerihew Bentley (books by this author), born in London, England (1875). He first achieved fame for his 1913 mystery novel, Trent’s Last Case, which he wrote as a reaction against the prevailing conventions of detective fiction. Unlike the infallible Sherlock Holmes, Bentley’s detective, Philip Trent, bungles his cases and comes up with ingenious solutions that turn out to be completely wrong. Bentley also became known as the inventor of a new form of verse, the “clerihew,” which he introduced in his 1905 book, Biography for Beginners. A clerihew is made up of two rhyming couplets, the first rhyme provided by the name of a famous person. For example:
George the Third
Ought never to have occurred.
One can only wonder
At so grotesque a blunder.
And it’s the birthday of John Calvin (books by this author), born in Noyon, Picardy, France (1509). He experienced a religious epiphany sometime between 1528 and 1533, in his early 20s, when, he said, “God subdued my soul to docility by a sudden conversion.” Calvin embraced Protestantism at a time when that was a dangerous thing to do; in 1534, two dozen Protestants were burned at as heretics in France. He took up a nomadic lifestyle for the next several years, traveling throughout France, Italy, and Switzerland, finally settling in Geneva.
In 1536, Calvin published Institutes of the Christian Religion; it was intended for a general readership and laid out the foundations which came to be known as Calvinism, or five principles that spell out the word TULIP:
Total depravity: all people are born sinful.
Unconditional election: God has already chosen those people who will be saved.
Limited atonement: Jesus died to atone for the sins of the elect only.
Irresistible grace: If you are among the elect, you will inevitably repent and become Christian.
Perseverance of the saints: You can never lose your salvation.
Word got around, and he made a name for himself among religious reformers; when he passed through Geneva, the pastor of the city prevailed on him to stay around awhile and help with the new church. William Farel, the pastor, wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, and even swore a curse on Calvin if he refused. Calvin stayed for a year and a half, and although Geneva was ripe for religious reform, there was still conflict between Calvin, who wanted to install a theocracy, and those who wanted less drastic reform. Calvin was driven out of the city and went to Strasbourg. He returned three years later, and he spent the rest of his life in Geneva. He wasn’t popular with everyone — some people set their dogs on him, or sent him death threats, or disrupted his sermons — but he persisted in spite of failing health, saying, “What! Would you have the Lord find me idle when He comes?”