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The Heat of the Sun: Ten Quotations

Entries from my notebooks

In writing The Heat of the Sun I kept extensive notebooks. Often I wrote lines or quotations which seemed to me to capture the essence of the book, or, at least, the qualities with which I wished to imbue it. Here are ten quotations I took down. Sometimes I intended to include them in the novel; usually, in the end, I didn’t. But I like to think their spirit remains in what I have written.

The collage of quotations is, to me, an interesting form in itself. The form is deployed brilliantly in the book-length poems of Heathcote Williams, such as Whale Nation (1988) and Autogeddon (1991), in which a long, Whitmanesque poem is accompanied by a scrapbook of quotations illustrating the theme; David Shields in his polemic against the novel, Reality Hunger (2011), also uses this technique interestingly, for all that I, as a novelist, do not agree with his thesis.


“The effects could be called unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous, and terrifying … The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse, and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined. It was that beauty the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately.”
– General Thomas F. Farrell, witness to the first atomic bomb explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico, July 16, 1945, 5.30 a.m.

“Ceaselessly, the river flows, and yet the water is never the same, while in the still pools the shifting foam gathers and is gone, never staying for a moment. Even so is man and his habitation.”
– Kamo no Chomei, Hojoki (13th cent.)

“Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend.
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, t’another due,
Labour to admit you – but oh, to no end!
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I loved you and would be lovèd fain,*
But I am betrothed unto your enemy.
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”
– John Donne, “Holy Sonnet XIV” (the “three-personed God” inspired Opphenheimer to give the name “Trinity” to the first atomic bomb test)
* fain = willingly

“I refer too often, I fancy, to my childhood; I am foolishly fond of it. But it seems to me that then only did I truly experience sensations or impressions; the smallest trifles I then saw or heard were full of deep and hidden meaning, recalling past images out of oblivion, and reawakening memories of prior existences; or else they were presentiments of existences to come, future incarnations in the land of dreams, expectations of wondrous marvels that life and the world held in store for me – for later, no doubt, when I should be grown up. Well, I have grown up, and have found nothing that answered to my undefinable expectations; on the contrary, all has narrowed and darkened around me, my vague recollections of the past have become blurred, the horizons before me have slowly closed in and become full of a grey darkness. Soon will come my time to return to eternal rest, and I shall leave this world without having understood the mysterious wherefore of these mirages of my childhood; I shall bear away with me a lingering regret, of I know not what lost home that I have failed to find, of the unknown beings ardently longed for, whom, alas, I have never embraced.”

Pierre Loti

Pierre Loti

– from Pierre Loti, Madame Chrysanthème (1888), the French novel which introduced Western readers to the theme of “temporary marriage” in Nagasaki, and clearly inspired John Luther Long’s short story “Madame Butterfly” ten years later. Also translated into English as Japan – the London Library has a 1920 US edition under that title – Loti’s novel, itself turned into an opera by André Messager in 1894, is quite different in tone from Long’s story, being wistful rather than tragic (the Japanese girl does not kill herself in the end, but laughs off another ended affair in true “C’est la vie” fashion); as a literary work Madame Chrysanthème is also, it seems fair to say, of much greater merit than the American short story, indeed still worth reading for its own sake. Loti (1850-1923) was a French naval officer who wrote many books set in countries to which he had travelled.

“This perfectly still
Spring day bathed in the soft light
From the spead-out sky,
Why do the cherry blossoms
So restlessly scatter down?”
– Ki No Tsurayuki (868? – 946 AD)

“One fine day we’ll see
A wisp of smoke rising
From the distant horizon of the sea.
And then the ship will appear.
Then the white ship
Will enter the harbour,
Thundering out its signal.
You see? He’s come!
I won’t go down to meet him.
Not I.
I shall go to the top of the hill
And wait,
And wait for a long time, but I won’t mind
This long waiting.
Out of the city crowds
A man is coming, a little speck
Making for the hill.
Who is it? Who is it?
And when he gets here
What will he say? What will he say?
He will call ‘Butterfly’ from the distance.
I without answering
Shall stay hidden
Partly for fun
And partly so as not to die at our first meeting,
And he, rather distressed,
Will call:
‘My tiny little wife,
Sweet-scented flower’ –
The names he used to call me when he came.
All this will happen, I promise you.
Keep your fears to yourself,
I shall await him with unshakeable faith.”
– English translation of the aria from Madame Butterfly, “Un bel di vedremo” (“One fine day”). Butterfly is singing to her servant, Suzuki, who, unlike her deluded mistress, is sceptical of Lieutenant Pinkerton’s promises.

“The university has lost everything. The buildings are totally destroyed. Most of the staff and students have died, and those of us who survived are crippled and useless as you can see. My wife is dead; my property is lost; my house is destroyed. I’ve lost everything. I have nothing. I gave everything I had but I was defeated. Why should I say that it’s a tragedy or a pitiful situation? Why is it pitiful? Our situation now is like that of a man who looks at the moon after the rain. It was a war. We lost. I have no regrets.”
– from Takashi Nagai, The Bells of Nagasaki (1949), one of the classic books about the atomic bombings of Japan. Nagai, a Roman Catholic convert, died in 1951, aged forty-three, from leukemia caused by radiation poisoning.

Image: Hiroshima Nagasaki in 1945

Hiroshima Nagasaki in 1945

“They say that emotionalism is a sign of weakness, but I like to be weak.”
– Giacomo Puccini

“In the sound of the bell of the Gion Temple echoes the impermanence of all things. The pale hue of the flowers of the teak-tree shows that they who prosper must fall. The proud ones do not last long, but vanish like a spring-night’s dream. And the mighty ones too will perish in the end, like dust before the wind.”
– from The Tale of the Heike (13th cent.: opening lines of the chronicle of the Taira ascendancy)

Not really a quotation, but another piece of music, one very different from Puccini, which I listened to often while thinking about the book. “Enola Gay,” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, was a hit in 1980, and it was this song, I think, which first set me thinking – in more than a superficial way – about the atomic bombings of Japan.* Enola Gay was the aircraft that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima (named after the pilot’s mother); “Little Boy” was the nickname given to the bomb. The couplet “It’s eight-fifteen / That’s the time that it’s always been” has always struck me as stunning: 8.15 a.m., Japan time, August 6, 1945, was when the bomb dropped; here it figures as a time out of time, an eternity, ever-present. Enola Gay really did radio back a message saying that conditions – for the crew, one assumes – were “normal” just after the bomb fell. The image of the aircraft “coming home,” having just killed (probably) over a hundred thousand people, is deeply affecting.

Enola Gay–Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark

* It’s maybe worth noting that Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, interviewed many years ago on the public radio station where I once worked, denied that “Enola Gay” was any sort of “protest song” or anti-nuclear rallying call. What fascinated them (they claimed) was the fact that the aircraft is just an object, and yet the focus of such emotion. The song is in fact a good example of “show don’t tell”: where nuclear weapons are concerned, there is little need to do more.