Quotable Phrases

Reading back through these beautiful passages from literature I am moved by the elegance of the written word; its capacity to inspire awe and conjure powerful images. One of the most exquisite joys, for me, is in coming across a passage in a book which transforms my comprehension of the world, or expresses something I have always felt but never possessed the skill to put into words.

“All children become sad in the late afternoon, for they begin to comprehend the passage of time. The light starts to change. Soon they will have to head home, and to behave, and to pretend.”
Stephane Audeguy – The Theory of Clouds

“Men are destroyed, and destroy each other, over basic things – money or hatred. On the other hand a really complicated riddle never pushed anyone to violence; either you found the answer or gave up looking. Clouds were riddles too, but dangerously simple ones. If you zoomed in on one part of a cloud and took a photograph, then enlarged the image, you would find that a cloud’s edges seemed like another cloud, and those edges yet another, and so on. Every part of a cloud, in other words, reiterates the whole. Therefore each cloud might be called infinite, because its very surface is composed of other clouds, and those clouds of still other clouds, and so forth. Some learn to lean over the abyss of these brainteasers; others lose their balance and tumble into its eternal blackness.”
Stephane Audeguy – The Theory of Clouds

“Only the ocean may be more fascinating to watch than clouds, and equally dangerous, for nothing is more useless and more deceptive and generally more stupefying that watching something that is ever changing and ever self-renewing. Yearning to describe or understand, or even control it can cost you everything. What Virginie first perceived as a long and sweetly amorous procession of clouds now contained an element of despair, unrequited love, and dreary solitude.”
Stephane Audeguy – The Theory of Clouds

“Holding this book in your hand, sinking back in your soft armchair, you will say to yourself: perhaps it will amuse me. And after you have read this story of great misfortunes, you will no doubt dine well, blaming the author for your own insensitivity, accusing him of wild exaggeration and flights of fancy. But rest assured: this tragedy is not a fiction. All is true.”
Honore de Balzac - Le Pere Goriot

“He had merely fallen face down across the bed, as though sleep was a weapon that had struck him from behind.”
Truman Capote – In Cold Blood

"Without story, without the ability to step sideways from fact into hypothesis, human life is untenable."
Peter Carey - The Unwritten

“’Yes, the poet will be discontented even in the streets of heaven. The poet is always in revolt.’ 
‘There again,’ said Syme irritably, ‘what is there poetical about being in revolt? You might as well say that it is poetical to be seasick...Revolt in the abstract is — revolting. It's mere vomiting...It is things going right...that is poetical!’”
G.K. Chesterton – The Man Who Was Thursday

“‘When some men suffer unjustly,’ I said to myself, ‘it is the fate of those who witness their suffering to suffer the shame of it.”
J.M. Coetzee – Waiting for the Barbarians

“I believe in peace, perhaps even peace at any price.”
J.M. Coetzee – Waiting for the Barbarians

“He sighs. The young in one another’s arms, heedless, engrossed in the sensual music. No country, this, for old men. He seems to be spending a lot of time sighing. Regret: a regrettable note on which to go out.”
J.M. Coetzee – Disgrace 

"He thought that politics bought out the worst in people. It brought out the worst in people and also brought to the surface the worst types in society. He preferred to have nothing to do with it...'
What would have been Utopian enough for him?
'The closing down of the mines. The ploughing under of the vine-yards. The disbanding of the armed forces. The abolition of the automobile. Universal vegetarianism, Poetry in the streets. That sort of thing...'
'In other words, poetry and the horse-drawn cart and vegetarianism are worth fighting for, but not liberation from apartheid?'
Nothing is worth fighting for...because fighting only prolongs the cycle of aggression and retaliation."
J.M. Coetzee - Summertime

“It had seemed like the beginning of happiness, and Clarissa is still sometimes shocked, more than thirty years later, to realize that it was happiness; that the entire experience lay in a kiss and a walk, the anticipation of dinner and a book…What lives undimmed in Clarissa’s mind more than three decades later is a kiss at dusk on a patch of dead grass, and a walk around a pond as mosquitoes droned in the darkening air. There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other.”
Michael Cunningham - The Hours

“What I wanted to do seemed simple. I wanted to create something live and shocking enough that it could stand beside a morning in somebody’s life. The most ordinary morning. Imagine, trying to do that. What foolishness.”
Michael Cunningham - The Hours

“Yes, Clarissa thinks, it’s time for the day to be over. We throw our parties;…we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep – it’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.”
Michael Cunningham - The Hours

“He said, “It still looks like an accident, the first one. Even from this distance, way outside the thing, how many days later, I’m standing here thinking it’s an accident.”
“Because it has to be.”
“It has to be,” he said.
“The way the camera sort of shows surprise.”
“But only the first one.”
“Only the first,” she said.
“The second plane, by the time the second plane appears,” he said, “we’re all a little older and wiser.”
Don Delillo – Falling Man

“Please look. Can you see us? Can you see us, in our little red car? Picture us from above, as if you were flying above us, in, say, a helicopter, or on the back of a bird, as our car hurtles, low to the ground, straining on the slow upward trajectory but still at sixty, sixty-five, around the relentless, sometimes ridiculous bends of Highway 1. Look at us, goddammit, the two of us slingshotted from the back side of the moon, greedily cartwheeling toward everything we are owed.”
Dave Eggers – A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

“Goodbye my friend,
no hands clasped, no word spoken.
Don't be sad and don't knit your brows in sorrow.
In this life to die is nothing new, but, of course,
there is as little novelty in living.”
Sergey Esenin – Song for a Bitch

“Emotions, in my experience, aren't covered by single words. I don't believe in "sadness," "joy," or "regret." Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I'd like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, "the happiness that attends disaster." Or: "the disappointment of sleeping with one's fantasy." I'd like to show how "intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members" connects with "the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age." I'd like to have a word for "the sadness inspired by failing restaurants" as well as for "the excitement of getting a room with a minibar." I've never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I've entered my story, I need them more than ever.”
Jeffrey Eugenedies - Middlesex

“I know that you asked me not to alter the mistakes because they sound humorous, and humorous is the only truthful way to tell a sad story, but I think I will alter them.”
Jonathan Safran Foer – Everything is Illuminated

“I used to think that humour was the only way to appreciate how wonderful and terrible the world is, to celebrate how big life is…but now I think it’s the opposite. Humour is a way of shrinking from that wonderful world”
Jonathan Safran Foer – Everything is Illuminated

“‘There is time for all of them,’ I told him, because remember where we are in our story, Jonathan. We still thought we possessed time.”
Jonathan Safran Foer – Everything is Illuminated

“It was silent and still and I couldn't see my own hands in the darkness. One hundred planes flew overhead, massive heavy planes, pushing through the night like one hundred whales through water.”
Jonathan Safran Foer – Extemely Loud and Incredibly Close


“So many words get lost. They leave the mouth and lose their courage, wandering aimlessly until they are swept into the gutter like dead leaves. On rainy days you can hear their chorus rushing past:
There was a time when it wasn't uncommon to use a piece of string to guide words that otherwise might falter on the way to their destinations...The physical distance between two people using a string was often small; sometimes the smaller the distance the greater the need for the string.
The practice of attaching cups to the end of the string came much later. Some say it is related to the irrepressible urge to press shells to our ears, to hear the still-surviving echo of the world's first expression. Others say it was started by a man who held the end of a string that was unravelled across the ocean by a girl who left for America.
When the world grew bigger, and there wasn't enough string to keep the things people wanted to say from disappearing into the vastness, the telephone was invented.
Sometimes no length of string is long enough to say the thing that needs to be said. In such cases all the string can do, in whatever its form, is conduct a person's silence.”
Nicole Krauss - The History of Love
“I like for the screen to fill my whole view,” he says, “so that there is nothing to distract me from the moment. And then I want the moment to last forever. I can't tell you how happy it makes me to watch it up there, blown up. I would say larger than life, but I've never understood that expression. What is larger than life?”
Nicole Krauss - The History of Love
“Doesn’t setting out to reject the past guarantee you’ll never be free of it? It’s like being modern means walking with a built-in limp.’”
Michele de Kretser – The Lost Dog


"If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten."
Rudyard Kipling

He considered music a liberating force: it liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the dust of the library; it opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into the world to make friends.”
Milan Kundera – The Unbearable Lightness of Being

“In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.”
Milan Kundera – The Unbearable Lightness of Being

“In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square…Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close to him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head. The propaganda section made hundred of thousands of copies of the photograph…every child knew that photograph from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums. Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.”
Milan Kundera – The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Love in the Time of Cholera


“They break down the door at the end of December and carry the body away.  
The air is cold and vice-like, the sky a scouring steel-eyed blue, the trees bleached bone-white in the frosted light of the sun. We stand in a huddle by the bolted door."
Jon McGregor - Even the Dogs 

"We gather together in the room, sitting, standing, leaning against the wall, and we wait. For the morning. For someone to come back. For something to happen.
Waiting is one thing we’re good at, as it happens.
We’ve had a lot of practice.
We’ve got the time.
We’ve got all the time in the world."
Jon McGregor - Even the Dogs

“You cannot draw lines and compartments, and refuse to budge beyond them. Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping-stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair…Yes, in the end, its all a question of balance.”
Rohinton Mistry - A Fine Balance

"I knelt before him. Hoping for a miracle. He said yes.
It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human. I stayed on my knees. In the dust where my heart will remain each night and every day until you understand what I know and long to tell you: to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is an evil thing.
Oh Florens. My love. Hear a tua mae."
Toni Morrison - A Mercy

“Art is not cosy and it is not mocked. Art tells the only truth that ultimately matters. It is the light by which human things can be mended. And after art there is, let me assure you all, nothing.”
Iris Murdoch - The Black Prince

“When sexual desire is also love it connects us with the whole world and becomes a new mode of experience. Sex then reveals itself as the great connective principle whereby we overcome duality, the force which made separateness as an aspect of oneness at some moment of bliss in the mind of God. I yearned absolutely, yet I had never felt more relaxed in my life.”
Iris Murdoch - The Black Prince

“God does not and cannot exist. But what led us to conceive of him does exist and is constantly experienced and pictured. That is, it is real as an Idea, and is also incarnate in knowledge and work and love. This is the true idea of incarnation, and is not something obscure. We experience both the reality of perfection and its distance away, and this leads us to place our idea of it outside the world of existent being as something of a different unique and special sort. Such experience of the reality of good is not like an arbitrary and assertive resort to our own will; it is a discovery of something independent of us, where that independence is essential. If we read these images aright they are not only enlightening and profound but amount to a statement of a belief which most people unreflectively hold.”
Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals

“I have not much at the bank right now but I propose to borrow – you know, as the Bard said, with that cold in his head, to borrow and to borrow and to borrow.”
Vladimir Nabokov – Lolita

“All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other; hopelessly, I should add, because that frenzy of mutual possession might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each other’s soul and flesh”.
Vladimir Nabokov – Lolita

“But a knife ain’t just a thing, is it? It’s a choice, it’s something you do. A knife says yes or no, cut or not, die or don’t. A knife takes a decision out of your hand and puts it in the world and it never goes back again.”
Patrick Ness - The Knife of Never Letting Go

“They're singing Here. Calling it from one to another in their Noise.
Here I am.
we are.
we go.
is all that matters.
Can I say?
It's like the song of a family where everything's always all right, it's a song of belonging that makes you belong just by hearing it, it's a song that'll always take care of you and never leave you. If you have a heart, it breaks, if you have a heart that’s broken, it fixes.”
Patrick Ness - The Knife of Never Letting Go

“Not everything is black and white, Todd. In fact, almost nothing is.”
Patrick Ness - The Knife of Never Letting Go
“Come!” he says to me. “See what it’s like to be on the winning side.”
And he rides off after the new soldiers.
I ride after him, gun up, but not shooting, just watching and feeling-
Feeling the thrill of it
Cuz that’s it-
That’s the nasty, nasty secret of war-
When yer winning-
When yer winning, it’s ruddy thrilling-"
Patrick Ness - Monsters of Men
“I’d have done the same, Viola,” Todd says, one more time.
And I know he’s saying nothing but the truth.
But as he hugs me again before I leave, I can’t help but think it over and over.
If this is what Todd and I would do for each other, does that make us right?
Or does it make us dangerous?”
Patrick Ness - Monsters of Men

“I’m sorry, Bradley,” I say. “I couldn’t have done any other thing.”
He looks up sharply. “Yes, you could have.” He pulls himself to his feet and says it again, more firmly. “Yes, you could have. Choices may be unbelievably hard but they’re never impossible.”
“What if it’d been Simone down there instead of Todd?” I say.
And Simone is all over his Noise, his deep feelings for her, feelings I don’t think are returned. “You’re right,” He says. “I don’t know. I hope I’d make the right choice, but Viola it is a choice. To say you have no choice is to release yourself from responsibility and that’s not how a person with integrity acts.”
Patrick Ness - Monsters of Men

“Not that long ago, at yet another gathering of familiars, our host, an old friend of Rachel’s named Matt, makes some remarks about Tony Blair and his catastrophic association with George W. Bush, whom Matt describes as the embodiment of a distincly American strain of stupidity and fear. On this side of the Atlantic, this is a commonplace judgement, so commonplace, in fact, as to be of no real interest.”
Joseph O’Neill – Netherland

“A dream can be the highest point in life.”
Ben Okri - The Famished Road

“A Scientist without talent is akin to that poor mullah who cut up the Koran and ate it, thinking thus to be filled with the spirit of Mohammed.”
Pushkin, quoted in Olga Grushin – The Dream Life of Sukhanov

“I was born in the city of
Bombay… once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well them: at night. No, it’s important to be more… On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world. There were gasps. And, outside the window, fireworks and crowds. A few seconds later, my father broke his big toe; but his accident was a mere trifle when set beside what had befallen me in that benighted moment, because thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blindly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country. For the next three decades, there was to be no escape. Soothsayers had prophesied me, newspapers celebrated my arrival, politicos ratified my authenticity. I was left entirely without a say in the matter. I, Saleem Sinai, later variously called Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer, Budha and even Piece-of-the-Moon, had become heavily embroiled in Fate – at the best of times a dangerous sort of involvement. And I couldn’t even wipe my own nose at the time.”
Salman Rushdie - Midnight's Children

“Time passed. No, it did not pass. Time stood still. Beauty passed, love passed, bloody-mindedness and mulishness passed. Time stood still with its hands up. Stubborn bastards faded away.”
Salman Rushdie - Shalimar the Clown

“In the days last light the glowing lake below the palace-city looked like a sea of molten gold. A traveller coming this way at sunset – this traveller, coming this way, now, along the lakeshore road – might believe himself to be approaching the throne of a monarch so fabulously wealthy that he could allow a portion of his treasure to be poured into a giant hollow in the earth to dazzle and awe his guests. And as big as the lake of gold was, it must be only a drop drawn from the sea of a larger fortune – the traveller’s imagination could not begin to grasp the size of that mother-ocean! Nor were there guards at the golden water’s edge; was the king so generous, then, that he allowed all his subjects, and perhaps even strangers and visitors like the traveller himself, without hindrance to draw up liquid bounty from the lake? That would indeed be a prince among men, a veritable Prester John, whose lost kingdom of song and fable contained impossible wonders. Perhaps (the traveller surmised) the fountain of eternal youth lay within the city walls – perhaps even the legendary doorway to paradise on Earth was somewhere close at hand? But then the sun fell below the horizon, the gold sank beneath the water’s surface, and was lost. Mermaids and serpents would guard it until the return of daylight. Until then, water itself would be the only treasure on offer, a gift the thirsty traveller gratefully accepted.”
Salman Rushdie – The Enchantress of Florence

“Few mythologies survive close examination, however. And they can become very unpopular indeed if they're rammed down people's throats...In the end you get sick of it, you lose faith in the faith, if not qua faith then certainly as the basis for a state. And then the dictator falls, and it is discovered that he has brought God down with him, that the justifying myth of the nation has been unmade. This leaves only two options: disintegration, or a new dictatorship...no, there is a third, and I shall not be so pessimistic as to deny its possibility. The third option is the substitution of a new myth for the old one. Here are three such myths, all available from stock at short notice: liberty; equality; fraternity.
I recommend them highly.”
Salman Rushdie - Shame

“After class, I wandered downstairs in a dream, my head spinning, but acutely, achingly conscious that I was alive and young on a beautiful day; the sky a deep deep painful blue, wind scattering the red and yellow leaves in a whirlwind of confetti.
Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful we quiver before it
That night I wrote in my journal: ‘Trees are schizophrenic now and beginning to lose control, enraged with the shock of their fiery new colours. Someone – was it van Gogh? – said that orange is the colour of insanity. Beauty is terror. We want to be devoured by it, to hide ourselves in that fire which refines us.’”
Donna Tartt – The Secret History

Hinc illae lacrimae. Hence these tears
Donna Tartt – The Secret History

“In people's eyes, in the wing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jungle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.”

Virginia Woolf – Mrs Dalloway

“To watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now and again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tingling divinely on the grass stalks – all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere.”
Virginia Woolf – Mrs Dalloway

“The compensations of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent's Park, and holding his hat in hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained – at last! - the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence – the power of taking hold of experience, or turning it round, slowly, in the light.
“A terrible confession it was (he put his hat on again), but now, at the age of fifty-three, one scarcely needed people any more. Life itself, every moment of it, every drop of it, here, this instant, now, in the sun in Regent's Park, was enough. Too much, indeed. A whole lifetime was too short to bring out, now that one had acquired the power, the full flavour, to extract every ounce of pleasure, every shade of meaning; which both were so much more solid than they used to be, so much less personal.”
Virginia Woolf – Mrs Dalloway

“Beauty anyhow. Not the crude beauty of the eye. It was not beauty pure and simple – Bedford Place leading into Russell Square. It was straightness and emptiness of course; the symmetry of a corridor; but it was also windows lit up, a piano, a gramophone sounding; a sense of pleasure-making hidden, but now and again emerging when, through the uncurtained window, the window left open, one saw parties sitting over tables, young people slowly circling, conversations between men and women, maids idly looking out (a strange comment theirs, when wok was done), stockings drying on top ledges, a parrot, a few plants. Absorbing mysterious, of infinite richness, this life.”
Virginia Woolf – Mrs Dalloway

“She and Sally fell a little behind. Then came the most exquisite moment of her whole life passing a stone urn with flowers in it Sally stopped; picked a flower; kissed her on the lips. The whole world might have turned upside down! The others disappeared; there she was alone with Sally. And she felt that she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it - a diamond, something infinitely precious, wrapped up, which, as they walked (up and down, up and down), she uncovered, or the radiance burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!”
Virginia Woolf – Mrs Dalloway

“We also first beheld
Unveiled the summit of Mont Blanc, and grieved
To have a soulless image on the eye
That had usurped upon a living thought
That never more could be.”
William Wordsworth – The Prelude (part 6)

“Light’s all very well, brothers, but it’s not easy to live with.”
Mikhail Zoschenko – Electrification