Saturday, May 02, 2009

"The Pleasure of Doing" -- from The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I'm enjoying Alison Anderson's translation from the French of Muriel Barbery's charming bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog. In Chapter 18, the book's cranky yet vulnerable main character, a widowed concierge, is remembering a scene in Anna Karenina when an aged Levin is scything, at first awkwardly and then, as he works up a sweat and moves through his exhaustion, "his painful gestures become more fluid." Here's the lovely passage that follows:

A welcome breeze suddenly caresses his back. A summer rain. Gradually, his movements are freed from the shackles of his will, and he goes into a light trance which gives his gestures the perfection of conscious, automatic motion without thought or calculation, and the scythe seems to move of its own accord. Levin delights in the forgetfulness that movement brings, where the pleasure of doing is marvelously foreign to the striving of the will.

This is eminently true of many happy moments in life. Freed from the demands of decision and intention, adrift on some inner sea, we observe our various movements as if they belonged to someone else, and yet we admire their involuntary excellence. What other reason might I have for writing this -- ridiculous journal of an aging concierge -- if the writing did not have something of the art of scything about it? The lines gradually become their own demiurges and, like some witless yet miraculous participant, I witness the birth on paper of sentences that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know. This painless birth, like an unsolicited proof, gives me untold pleasure, and with neither toil nor certainty but the joy of frank astonishment I follow the pen that is guiding and supporting me.

Here's to scything and writing -- the pleasure of doing.


greg rappleye said...

Lovely piece of writing, that.

Verification word was "pillized."

That ought to be a REAL word.

robyn said...

i super enjoyed the elegance of the hedgehog. the ending really touched me.