Tag Archives: Amanda Curtin

Beyond Narcissism – a better class of blogger?

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Source: Creative Commons

There’s no denying it: we bloggers generally tend to be self-absorbed and self-promoting. I can hardly claim that the thought-bubbles I blow on this website are much of an exception. Although what I post here isn’t always about me and my writings, the topics and opinions reflect shamelessly (or should that be shamefully?) who I am. And there’s something brazen about the notion that anyone out there might have the slightest interest in what another person thinks on the subject of writing or anything else.

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Source: Creative Commons

Yet despite the presumptuous and tendentious nature of all such on-line activity, some of its exponents – a better class of blogger? – manage to be less narrowly narcissistic than others. One literary blog that I admire for its generous hospitality to other writers is Amanda Curtin’s Looking Up, Looking Down. Of course her site is informative about her own work and interests, among other things, but she also makes a point of regularly inviting guests aboard – providing an introductory comment on some author she knows and a simple structure of questions (“2, 2 and 2”) to which the guest responds. So it functions like a set of prompts for a mini-interview, usually focusing on a newly published book.

I’m delighted that her latest post gives me a publicity platform for a few remarks about my novel The Mind’s Own Place. Thank you, Amanda!

Blytonians come out!

Dead for nearly half a century, yet her books still sell eight million copies a year in more than 90 languages! You’d think that such a writer deserves to be hugely admired by literary commentators and educators. On the contrary, her work often encounters stern censure – and even censorship: some public and school libraries refuse to hold copies of any of her books.

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Yes, I’m referring to Enid Blyton. Her stories for children continue to come under fire, and in some respects the target is an easy one. Their language is generally formulaic and they tend to represent gender, class and race stereotypically. One critique describes her writing style as ‘colourless, dead and totally undemanding’ and scorns her main theme as ‘an insistence on conformity.’

Then why is Enid Blyton remembered gratefully (albeit with a touch of embarrassment) by a large number of grown-ups? I’ll come to my own confession soon, but I’m far from alone in acknowledging that her books beguiled me. Six years ago, in a survey of 2000 adults, Blyton was voted Britain’s best-loved writer, ahead of (in descending order), Roald Dahl, J.K. Rowling, Austen, Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolkien, Agatha Christie, Stephen King and Beatrix Potter.

If that surprises you, consider the surge of recent tributes from respected Australian writers. A few weeks ago Robert Drewe began one of his columns in the West Weekend with these words: ‘Like millions of other 20th century kids, I grew up in the literary worlds of Captain W.E. Johns, Richmal Crompton and, most of all, Enid Blyton.’ The main attraction of Blyton’s books, he says, ‘was that the children were much cleverer than the adults, especially the police, at solving crimes (which often involved smugglers), and very much in charge of their lives.’

Robert Dessaix’s latest book, What Days Are For, includes this declaration: ‘Enid Blyton, and Five on Kirrin Island Again in particular, shaped me in a way no other writer or book ever did, with the possible exception of Richmal Crompton and her William stories.’ Why? Dessaix puts his finger on what it was in those stories that moulded his imagination: ‘the subtext: the idea of loyalty to your close friends no matter what, the sharing of secrets with them (an important part of growing up), and also the unusual gendering…’ There was something more, too: ‘Exploration in Blyton’s world is…at the heart of any adventure.’

Is this just a boy thing? Not so. Amanda Curtin mentions in an interview that as a young reader she ‘was always keen on series books, like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven and Malory Towers sets.’ And Kate Forsyth’s voice joins the chorus: ‘For quite a few years, nothing gave me such a thrill as being given a new Famous Five book…I daydreamed about exploring secret passages, thwarting smugglers, discovering buried treasure and having a dog called Timmy. My sister and I used to fight over who would get to be George, the girl-who-was-as-good-as-a-boy.’ She adds: ‘confessing to all this is actually quite hard’ because ‘Blyton has been sneered at for so many years…If one wants to be taken seriously, one does not admit to a childish love of Enid Blyton.’

Well, I want to be taken seriously too – and my own experience was much the same. Although there weren’t many books at home during my primary school years, the local shopping precinct included a small commercial lending library, and I went there often with the same query: ‘Any new Enid Blyton or William books?’ (My Biggles phase came a bit later.) There always seemed to be something new from Blyton’s pen; the Famous Five series alone ran to over a score of titles. In those pre-decimal days the price was just fourpence a loan. The library was next door to the barber shop where I’d get a short-back-and-sides haircut for ninepence while staring –‘Keep your head still, lad’ – at the mysterious inscription on the adjustable chair’s metal footrest: REG US PAT OFF. It took me years to decipher that message, despite being trained in code-reading by Blyton’s books.

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I had two Blyton phases. The later one, in my pubescent years, focused predictably on the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, and it generated feeble pastiche stories. (I still have a copy of the exercise book in which I wrote Four Go Off to Camp – not an enduring masterpiece, though probably no worse than the efforts of an average 9-year-old imitator. Ah, if only I’d been alert at that age to the sensational narrative potential of a camp adventure on Shag Island!)

But I think the earlier phase, my kiddy phase, revealed something deeper and more surprising: Blyton’s seldom-noticed capacity to produce unforgettable images that could haunt a young mind. When I was seven years old my parents bought me a subscription to Blyton’s magazine Sunny Stories, and I remember the thrill when issues arrived in our letter-box. (Those were the days when an ‘issue’ was just an instalment of a publication, not a ubiquitous fuzzy euphemism for a big personal problem, as in ‘Yet another AFL footballer has an anger management issue.’)

One scene from one story in one issue of Sunny Stories still lingers behind my eyes. This wasn’t actually a ‘sunny’ story; it disturbed me. A Freudian analyst could probably explain why. It was about a boy who found that when he looked through a magic knothole in the wooden fence in his backyard he could see all the bad things he had done. I don’t remember anything else from the story, but that guilt-laden discovery was enough. No wonder I turned out to be a writer instead of leading a normal well-adjusted life. Looking through that scary knothole, I saw things I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

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In his fascinating memoir of youthful reading, The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford remarks that ‘books did for us on the scale of our childhoods what the propagandists of the Enlightenment promised that all books could do for everyone, everywhere. They freed us from the limitations of having just one life with one point of view; they let us see beyond the horizons of our own circumstances.’

After quoting Hazlitt on the great value of reading in providing ‘a knowledge of things at a distance from us’, Spufford goes on to say:

Adjust for the fact that the book in question will be Blyton’s The Island of Adventure instead of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, and Hazlitt’s manifesto applies. The books you read as a child brought you sights you hadn’t seen yourself, scents you hadn’t smelled, sounds you hadn’t heard. They introduced you to people you hadn’t met, and helped you to sample ways of being that would never have occurred to you.

So let’s crack open a bottle of ginger pop and drink to Enid Blyton!

Authentic language in historical fiction

Any list of contenders for a major literary prize makes me pause to think about what makes some books exceptionally convincing. If the list includes fiction set partly or wholly in the past, it piques my particular interest in the means by which successful historical novels produce an impression of linguistic authenticity.

Here I’ll comment on three examples: Amanda Curtin’s Elemental (shortlisted for the forthcoming WA Premier’s Literary Award), Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake (on the Booker’s current long list), and Jim Crace’s Harvest (shortlisted last year for the Booker, unlucky not to win it).

There’s usually a good deal of historical research behind any novel set in bygone times. Some of this may involve painstaking work on various circumstantial matters, though the writer should beware of clogging the story with intrusive references to ‘a surfeit of period detail’. That phrase is from an essay by Francine Prose in The New York Review of Books, which goes on to say that readers don’t want to be ‘distracted by expository passages that emit the dusty aura of the research library as we encounter an accumulation of costumes and customs.’

In any case, preparatory research undertaken by the best writers of historical fiction goes well beyond any checking of facts and fossicking for bits of local colour. Especially important is the challenge of creating a language that achieves verisimilitude – the semblance of reality. It’s no easy matter to persuade your readers that your narrative medium is rendering accurately how people spoke and wrote in your chosen period and place. The writing must seem to embody their characteristic turns of phrase, their conversational habits, the structure of their sentences – not only to avoid anachronism but also to gain an insight into the way they thought and felt, which would sometimes have been different from what we’re used to today. So meticulous attention to language isn’t pedantic in novels of this kind – it’s vital for credibility. But it needs to be done in a manner that avoids weighing down the story and slowing down the reader. 

Elemental_cover_bf19043a-46da-48fe-aa31-e0bd8a12c601_largeIn a previous blog post on highlights of my reading from last year, I commented that Amanda Curtin’s Elemental gains much of its enduring power from the skilful way in which it uses language to bring patterns of history and geography alive, especially ‘from the sustained and marvellously individualised narrating voice of its main character, Meggie Tulloch.’ This novel follows the ups and downs of Meggie’s life from her childhood years in the early 20th century, when she learns to work as a ‘gutting girl’ in small harsh communities of fisherfolk, first in northern Scotland and then in the Shetlands. This setting poses technical problems for the novelist because the idiom of those communities was full of words unfamiliar to most modern readers, but Amanda Curtin’s achievement is to carry the reader along without needing to depend unduly on the dialect glossary at the end of the book. She does this partly through clever use of contextual clues, judicious repetition and a knack of incorporating nuances of meaning into the sentence rhythms themselves.

wake cover_illustrationI haven’t yet read Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake except for a brief excerpt available online as part of the extensive publicity engendered by this innovative novel. You can look at the sample and the author’s accompanying comments here. If you do so, it’s immediately obvious that what Kingsnorth does is to devise a modified form of Anglo-Saxon speech as a vehicle for his narrator – an invented idiom that sits somewhere between our own modern English and the actual language of eleventh-century England. ‘The result’, he says, ‘is a book which is written in a tongue that no one has ever spoken, but which is intended to project a ghost image of the speech patterns of a long-dead land: a place at once alien and familiar.’

It’s an admirably bold experiment, though it carries two risks. Some readers may reject its homemade language as too opaque to be worth the effort of deciphering, while others (especially purist Anglo-Saxon scholars) may regard it as just a travesty of genuine Old English.

Jim-Crace-HarvestIn Harvest Jim Crace has devised something different from historical fiction of the usual kind. Factual precision is plainly not his purpose; rather, the authenticity lies in a truthful adherence to timeless human feelings. Nowhere does the novel specify the period or location in which its action occurs. Some features suggest the midlands in the Elizabethan (Shakespearean) era, but one could imagine it taking place any time during the centuries-long process of enclosing the English countryside, when peasants were forced to relinquish their traditional crop fields and small-scale village life so that sheep farmers could acquire expanses of profitable pasture land. In one sense the historical aspects of the story are as applicable to our own time as to any era, because ‘small farmers all over the world are still being forced from their lands’, as Crace remarks in an interview.

In another sense his story reaches towards elegiac myth, evoking the values of a lost community. It creates an almost hypnotic effect of nostalgia by selectively embedding archaic turns of phrase within highly stylised language that often develops a strong metrical beat. Occasionally this gives passages the regular rhythm of iambic pentameter (te-tum te-tum te-tum te-tum te-tum). In fact Crace’s prose can typically sound like the blank verse of Shakespeare or Milton or Wordsworth. Here are a few examples, mainly of sentence-length ‘lines’:

‘The village is aflame, but not with fire.’  ‘We’re drinking ale from last year’s barley crop.’  ‘We ought to be content. The harvest’s in.’  ‘Tonight there is no moon in view, of course.’  ‘As yet, there’s not the slightest trace of wind / to take the rain away and irrigate / our distant neighbours’ lands instead of ours.’  ‘Already it is bright and hot enough / for us to shelter under rye-straw hats. / We all feel harvest-worn to some degree…’  ‘The village has been freckled by the chaff.’

To my mind the patterning of this novel’s language suggests metaphorically the slow, steady pulse of peasant life – its diurnal and seasonal rhythms, the ploughing of even furrows, the regular recurrence of seeding and harvesting.

I’m particularly conscious of the challenges of creating seemingly authentic language in historical fiction because my own next novel, scheduled for release next year, tries to incorporate into its passages of dialogue and interior monologue a credible impression of mid-19th century phrasing. In its early chapters, before the action moves to Australia, it also draws on some regional English dialects, inflected by working-class usage. Doing this in a way that avoids a heavy-handed display of linguistic markers takes a fair bit of care, so I hope the outcome will carry conviction for readers.

 

Residues of a year’s reading: instalment 2

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This is the second and final instalment of a retrospect on books I read last year that continue to impress me months afterwards. The previous post discussed several works of non-fiction, but most of my reading in 2013 was fiction – mainly Australian. A few novels from other parts of the world still stir my imagination, most notably Herman Koch’s The Dinner with its unforgettably creepy narrator; Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder with its strong narrative momentum and troubling theme that comes much closer to home than the exotic setting led me to expect; Susan Abulhawa’s heartbreaking evocation of Palestinian suffering, Mornings in Jenin; Pat Barker’s Regeneration, a powerful psychological study of World War 1 experiences; and Julian Barnes’s witty and cunning The Sense of an Ending. Nevertheless it was Australian fiction that attracted most of my attention, and several novels (plus some short story collections) have kept a tight grip on me.

It would be hard to forget the narrator of Toni Jordan’s lovely story Addition: hilariously and sadly compulsive, intelligently self-aware, Grace almost manages to wreck her chance of happiness – but despite the shadows of mental instability this is a comic romance, after all. Comparable in its affiliation with true romance, though focused on a less quirky protagonist, Deborah Burrows’s A Stranger in My Street blends the love interest with a murder mystery and an historical setting (Perth in the WW2 years) that is convincingly rendered. Lynne Leonhardt’s Finding Jasper is similarly set in Western Australia and partly in the same period, but its narrative structure is more complicated than in A Stranger in My Street, and what has imprinted itself most distinctly on my memory is the nostalgic elaboration of its descriptive detail.

The genre of Kathryn Heyman’s Floodline seemed at first a satirical blend of a Hollywood disaster movie with a Deep Southern evangelical morality play – except that the muddle-headed self-thwarting characters and the emotional troubles generated by their poignantly dysfunctional family relationships soon compelled me not only to believe in them but also to want the best for them. Convincing characterisation is also the main thing that sticks in my mind from Jesse Blackadder’s Chasing the Light, a well-researched story of Norwegian whaling and Antarctic exploration in the 1930s: all three women at the story’s centre are distinctive and entirely credible.

The fine achievement of M.K Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans stems largely from its devising of an outlandish situation that is fraught with moral conflict and insoluble dilemmas, so that everything that unfolds from the brilliant narrative premise carries a sense of almost inevitable doom. ‘Brilliant’ is also an apt descriptor for Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel, in which sentence after polished sentence sparkles with a mordant wit that often reminds me of Patrick White – though in retrospect that bright hard surface is more memorable than the interactions between characters.

During 2013 I read a number of short story collections, which by their nature are difficult to summarise although I still have a precise recall of several individual stories. Some of them were first published long ago: Katherine Mansfield’s New Zealand stories (which I re-read every two or three years, and which I’ve discussed in a chapter of Narrative Exchanges) belong to the early 20th century, and Shirley Hazzard’s Cliffs of Fall goes back half a century. Mansfield’s are full of startling imagery, Hazzard’s are full of subtle perceptions, and both writers remind me that even the most economical form of narration can be capacious in its implications. The best pieces in two short-story volumes by Perth-based writers also made an impact on me last year and won’t be forgotten for a long while: Susan Midalia’s An Unknown Sky and Amanda Curtin’s Inherited. I’ve commented on both, along with Alice Munro’s Dear Life, in a previous post titled Brevity with Scope.

Amanda Curtin’s latest book is the outstanding novel Elemental, which for me (and many others, I’m sure) provided one of the most memorable reading experiences of 2013. Much of its enduring power comes from the sustained and marvellously individualised narrating voice of its main character, Meggie Tulloch, but there is a great deal more to admire in the language of the text as a whole – every word counts, every sentence is perfectly balanced – as well as in the clever structure and in the vivid rendering of historical detail. Last year I also read Amanda’s previous novel, The Sinkings, which had been on my shelf since it appeared five years ago. (I’d delayed my reading of it when I became aware that its subject matter appeared to have something in common with a novel of my own that I was working on, and I didn’t want to be distracted or influenced by seeing how she had handled her story. As soon as I finished mine I read hers, and it turns out that I needn’t have worried: despite some similar ingredients, our novels are quite different from each other.) The Sinkings is a haunting tale; it depicts hardship, cruelty and loneliness unforgettably; and in my mind its most remarkable quality is the way it combines its unblinking realism with a deep compassion.

The main thing that sticks in my mind from Iris Lavell’s novel Elsewhere in Success is its insight into what can lie beneath the seemingly banal surface of suburban Perth. Most of the story’s foreground action is unspectacular and the characters are (as one of them says) ‘just ordinary people’ – which poses a considerable narrative challenge. But as deep currents swirl under them they thresh around, gasp for breath, and struggle towards something close to redemption.

I read a couple of novels by another Western Australian writer in 2013, and both have continued to give me plenty of food for thought. Nicholas Hasluck’s Our Man K and Dismissal are fine examples of political fiction grounded in historical fact – a genre that few novelists in this country have successfully grappled with. The central figure in Our Man K is Egon Kisch, a real-life Czech journalist who came to Australia in 1934 and caused a considerable commotion in legal and political circles. Hasluck’s portrayal of Kisch emphasises his connections with middle-European literary figures, especially Franz Kafka (with whose own character ‘K’ Kisch becomes associated), and with machinations leading to the fall of the Habsburg Empire. Dismissal is an absorbing tale of espionage, ethical dilemmas and personal disloyalties in Australia during the period from the 1930s to the fall of the Whitlam government. I can’t think of any other novelist so well equipped to write this kind of work.

So there it is – a mere glance back over my shoulder at residues of a year’s reading. The retrospect doesn’t extend to every publication I consumed last year but takes in about 30 books of various kinds (including those mentioned in the previous post) that for different reasons have lodged in my consciousness more than other things read during the same period. Two-thirds of them were written by women.

I wonder whether I’ll still recall the same aspects of the same books a year or two from now.

 

Brevity with scope: reading short stories

Over the summer holiday period I’ve been reading a fair number of short stories: some volumes by individual authors along with an assortment of contributions by different hands, and various pieces in newspapers and literary magazines. I’ve also been writing a few,  encouraged by the appearance of one of my stories in the North American journal Antipodes (December 2013 issue).

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So the strengths and weaknesses of the short story form have been on my mind again. I say ‘again’, because many years ago I wrote a little book about this genre and tried to ponder its inherent possibilities and limitations.

To some readers, short stories often seem very slight, sketching a situation cursorily before arriving in haste at an inconsequential or contrived ending. Howard Nemerov expresses that view trenchantly:

Short stories amount for the most part to parlour tricks, party favours with built-in snappers, gadgets for inducing recognitions and reversals: a small pump serves to build up the pressure, a tiny trigger releases it, there follows a puff and a flash as freedom and necessity combine; finally a celluloid doll drops from the muzzle and descends by parachute to the floor. These things happen, but they happen to no-one in particular.

The formulaic artifice of two or three pieces in Best Australian Stories 2002, edited by Peter Craven (on my shelf for years, picked up again last week) may deserve that kind of dismissal. But most of them don’t. Sometimes our hurried habits of reading are at fault; skimming over the surface, we can miss latent implications. The story that moved me most in Craven’s anthology is Joan London’s ‘The New Dark Age’, and only on re-reading it did I see how much of its Chekhovian pathos comes from understated echoes in phrase and image. Its central character, George, is wearily trying to rediscover normality after emerging from the ‘long winter’ of a serious illness. But he is dogged by fatigue, deeper than physical, which prevents him from responding adequately to his unhappy wife Kristina or treating his faithful employee Ulla with the generosity she deserves. There are things he cannot express to them. The kind of music that has been central in his life seems now to take him through ‘a strange harsh landscape.’ Falling asleep as he listens to it, he dreams of snowy Russian streets; and afterwards he feels unable to tell Kristina or Ulla ‘that what he remembered most was the pull he felt, strong as love or nostalgia, to give up, lie down in the snow, and close his eyes.’

Small-scale prose fiction requires us to be carefully attentive to every phrase, every nuance. At its best it can have the subtlety and sustained intensity of a lyrical poem, suggesting much more than it makes explicit.

There are other fine examples of this in three books I’ve read recently:  Dear Life, by the Canadian Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, and two by Western Australian writers, Amanda Curtin’s Inherited (UWAP) and Susan Midalia’s An Unknown Sky (also UWAP). Each collection assembles 15 or more pieces, with some thematic interlinkages but considerable stylistic and structural diversity.

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In Midalia’s wry and sometimes poignant stories, the historical and the geographical often come together uneasily with the personal to disconcert her characters. The first piece in the book, ‘Underground’, typifies this conjunction. Petra, the focal character, is a middle-aged Australian tourist whose experience of visiting Russia disappoints her romantic expectations. She’d wanted to feel ‘the grandeur of history’ but the reality of modern Russia strikes her as tawdry. The story’s title, which initially refers to Moscow’s famous metro railway with its ornate stations, comes instead to signify the subterranean chamber displaying Lenin’s embalmed corpse. Despite finding Red Square distasteful, Petra goes to see this mausoleum because she had promised her teenage nephew that she’d do so. Joining a sluggish queue, descending the black marble steps, she gazes at the waxy face and strange hands of the long-dead leader with a fleeting sense that Lenin himself looks perplexed, as if ‘lost to some dream of history.’ The ensuing conclusion doesn’t overreach. There’s no forcing of an epiphany – just the hint of a faintly modified apprehension of the world as Petra emerges from the tomb into daylight.

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The genre of the short story form can lend itself well to the kind of narration where much of the action takes place inside someone’s head as an interior monologue. One of the most powerful stories in Amanda Curtin’s Inherited is ‘Cradle of Shadows’, in which the narrative foreground seems at first to comprise merely a woman’s reminiscences about her maternal predecessors, especially her great-grandmother. But folded into her rumination is a startling episode from World War 1, a tale of violence, pain, infanticide and guilt. Reflecting on the opacities of this episode and anticipating the consequences of a decision she herself has just made about her own pregnancy, the narrator recognises that in families the ‘burdens laid down by one generation must be shouldered by another.’

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The distinctive qualities of Alice Munro’s short fiction are well described by Susan Sheridan in her review of Dear Life for the Sydney Review of Books. As Susan remarks, the characters seem ‘ordinary’ and ‘the situations they enter into are banal – marriage and adultery, conflicts between parents and children, ageing and its discontents, loneliness in many forms.’ But the artfulness that animates the stories is particularly subtle in Munro’s ‘use of point of view and her manipulation of narrative time.’ Their action often moves ‘backwards and forwards, apparently at random’ in such a way that meanings emerge bit by bit and behaviour is explained ‘only obliquely.’ A striking example is the story ‘In Sight of the Lake’, in which the final paragraph causes a reader to reframe the significance of everything that has gone before: the focal character’s meanderings turn out not to be quite what they seemed.

Oblique revelations, indirect disclosures, ambiguous insights – short fiction frequently has those features. We get only glimpses of what is going on in the minds of many of the characters who pass like shadows through the pages of Munro, Midalia, Curtin and other skilled exponents of this genre. And it’s precisely the lack of full access to whatever depths of emotion they may experience that can grip the reader’s imagination – because it evokes the ‘baffled curiosity’ we frequently feel in our dealings with people around us. The phrase ‘baffled curiosity’ comes from William James, the 19th-century philosopher who also coined the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’ and whose brother was the great storyteller Henry James. William remarked that Henry’s stories give to us…

an impression like that we often get of people in life: their orbits come out of space and lay themselves for a short time along ours, and then off  they whirl again into the unknown, leaving us with little more than an impression of their reality and a feeling of baffled curiosity as to the mystery of the beginning and end of our being.