|What's a footnote?|
My first promised footnote for George Eliot's The Lifted Veil concerns one passage that struck me as beautiful. It's a description of Prague in summer: Latimer's first ever vision of the future. It's useless for me to further sing its praises; just read it. It's longish, but well worth your time, I promise:
My father was called away before he had finished his sentence, and he left my mind resting on the word PRAGUE, with a strange sense that a new and wondrous scene was breaking upon me: a city under the broad sunshine, that seemed to me as if it were the summer sunshine of a long-past century arrested in its course—unrefreshed for ages by dews of night, or the rushing rain-cloud; scorching the dusty, weary, time-eaten grandeur of a people doomed to live on in the stale repetition of memories, like deposed and superannuated kings in their regal gold-inwoven tatters. The city looked so thirsty that the broad river seemed to me a sheet of metal; and the blackened statues, as I passed under their blank gaze, along the unending bridge, with their ancient garments and their saintly crowns, seemed to me the real inhabitants and owners of this place, while the busy, trivial men and women, hurrying to and fro, were a swarm of ephemeral visitants infesting it for a day. It is such grim, stony beings as these, I thought, who are the fathers of ancient faded children, in those tanned time-fretted dwellings that crowd the steep before me; who pay their court in the worn and crumbling pomp of the palace which stretches its monotonous length on the height; who worship wearily in the stifling air of the churches, urged by no fear or hope, but compelled by their doom to be ever old and undying, to live on in the rigidity of habit, as they live on in perpetual midday, without the repose of night or the new birth of morning.
The weird thing about this sequence is that, as I read it, I was convinced that I had read something very similar before. The bad news is that I was wrong. The good news is that I was only partially so, and that I now want to read the story this reminded me of - Death in Venice. Mann's Venice is a little different from Eliot's Prague and the way he depicts it is different too. He makes Venice almost into a character with a life of its own running parallel to the life of his main character, Aschenbach. Consequently, he doesn't exactly describe the city; he lets it interact with the hero. You get the image of Venice not through the comparatively bland descriptive passages, but through the hero's reaction to it, through his increasingly altered state of mind.
So perhaps Mann's Venice and Eliot's Prague are not so similar after all. But still, there is at least this one fragment, where Aschenbach is walking through streets of oppressive heat and time that stood still, that I felt he could have been walking through Eliot's Prague instead. What do you think?
His head was burning, his body sticky with sweat, his neck quivering, and, plagued by an intolerable thirst, he looked round for immediate refreshment of any kind. He bought some fruit at a little greengrocer’s shop—strawberries, soft, overripe goods—and ate as he walked. A small deserted square that seemed under a curse opened up before him, and he recognized it: it was there he had formulated his abortive escape plan a few weeks before. He sank down on the steps of the well in the middle of the square, resting his head against its iron rim. All was quiet. There was grass coming up between the cobblestones and litter lying about. Among the weathered buildings of unequal height ringing the square he noticed one resembling a palazzo and having Gothic arch windows with empty space behind them and balconies adorned by lions. There was an apothecary on the ground floor of another, and the smell of carbolic acid wafted over to him on an occasional gust of warm wind.
Thomas Mann, Death in Venice (translation by Michael Heim)