I finished the book in early November, on the subway to my office. The meld early winter sunshine crawling up the buildings and leaking through tree leaves. People walking on Chang’an St. all wrapping themselves up in winter coat, hurrying to east or west. It is not the first time since I came back to the city that myself feeling this surrealistic experience of the shifted time and space. But it is also the first time I feel the contrary solidity of this life.
It is impossible to repress the tremendous sadness and silence falling in this city, though it never truly involved in WWII. Yet all wars are essentially alike. The harm they all do to people who lived through and the trauma they all cause to those who were at the battle field, viewing death and wounds, would vibrate and echo through time, left the long scar others wouldn’t comprehend.
People live at the present are really lucky, for they may never experience a real war. Mom told me there is the invisible war going everywhere, this is not an era of peace. Yet smokes and gunpowder are something different, they cause enduring and irreversible and enduring impact not merely relevant to human history, but individuals’ real life.
I always pictured Doerr a female writer, not until the acknowledgement reveals that he is a gentleman. His detailed and carefully selected scene description knits a world so close to both the war time and the present. The last 5% of the book, time flies across nearly 50 years, no one sees the new century coming. Yet it does. It does, in a way we already knew, in a way we are so familiar with for we are living in this era; yet so strange in a way that the war is still hovering there, in the former several pages, on hearts of those we may know who survived from it long time ago.
I couldn’t help to compare Doerr with Flanagan. I awe the strength and power hidden behind Flanagan’s words; I awe his objectiveness and sanity and masculinity and the specific and complete sense of authority when telling a story of the war. I’ve loved his self control on maintaining the same tone when telling two story lines divided by different themes–a love story and an military story. Doerr did poorly on both, yet when you follow through the plot development, you see his sentimentality, his caress of humanity and those tiniest particles of one’s life. He uses a different lens to focus on feelings and emotions rather than events.
Here are some highlights I did on the book.
“The Goddess of History looked down to earth. Only through the hottest fires can purification be achieved. He sees a forest of dying sunflowers. He sees a flock of a blackbirds explode out of a tree.” -loc 154 [I liked the tension in between the radio content and human thoughts. propaganda v.s. people’s voice]
“Radio: it ties a million ears to a single mouth.”-loc 756. [This is maybe the sentence closest to Doerr’s original inspiration of writing this story.]
“To his surprise, she sits up. They step outside before anyone else is awake. He leads her without speaking. They climb one fence, then another. Jutta’s united shoelaces trail behind her. Thistles bite their knees. The rising sun makes a pinhole on the horizon.”-loc 1607
“He also has two daughters whom he has not seen in nine months. The eldest, Veronika, is deeply earnest. Her letters to him include phrases like sacred resolve, proud accomplishments, and unparalleled in history. “- loc 1730
“‘There are two kinds of death,’ he says, the clouds of his breath plunging out into the cold. ‘You can flight like a lion. Or you can go as easy as lifting a hair from a cup of milk. The nothings, the nobodies-they die easy.’ “-loc 2407
“Here a dead horse, starting to bloat. Here a chair upholstered in striped green velvet. Here the torn shreds of a canopy proclaim a brasserie. Curtains swing idly from broken windows in the strange, flickering light; they unnerve him.”-loc 2596
“Werner’s mind reels: A lift! A Jewess! A maid! Berlin! they retreat into Fredrick’s bedroom, which is populated with tin soldiers and model airplanes and wooden crates full of comic books. They lie on their stomachs and page through comics, feeling the pleasure of being outside of school, glancing at each other now and then as if curious to learn whether their friendship will continue to exist in another place.”-loc 2709
“He hears the voices of the boys in his Kameradschaften back in Zollverein sing, Live faithfully, fight bravely, and die laughing. The bistro is overcrowded; everyone’s mouths move too quickly; the woman talking to Fredrick’s mother is wearing a nauseating quantity of perfume and in the watery light it seems suddenly as if the scarf trailing from the dancing girl’s neck is a noose.”-loc 2751
“Fredrick lasts seven blows before falling. Then six. Then three. He never cries out and never asks to leave, and this in particular seems to make the commandant quake with homicidal frustration. Fredrick’s dreaminess, his otherness–it’s on him like a scent, and everyone can smell it.”-loc 2944
“Madam Manec’s energy, Marie-Laure is learning, is extraordinary; she burgeons, shoots off stalks, wakes early, works late, concocts bisques without a drop of cream, loaves with less than a cup of flour. They clomp together through the narrow streets, Marie-Laure’s hand on the back of Madame’s apron, following the odors of her stews and cakes; in such moments Madame seems like a great moving wall of rosebushes, thorny and fragrant and crackling with bees.”-loc 2988
“Harold rummages in his filthy trousers, breathing hard behind his mask. Where the wall of the ramparts should be, on their left, Marie-Laure hears a lock give way.”-loc 3230
“‘Remember I told you about the gods of the watch? A long time ago, city kennel keepers would keep the mastiffs in here, dogs as big as horses. At night a curfew bell would ring, and the dogs would be let loose onto the beaches to eat any sailor who dared to come ashore. Somewhere beneath those mussels is a stone with the date 1165 scratched into it.’
‘But the water?’
‘Even the highest tides, it doesn’t get more than waist-deep. Back then the tides might have been lower. We used to play in here as boys. Me and your grandfather. Sometimes your great-uncle too.’
The tide flows past their feet. Everywhere mussels click and sigh. She thinks of the wild old seamen who lived in this town, smugglers and pirates, sailing over the dark seas, winding their ships between ten thousand reefs.”-loc 3242
“It seems to Werner as if all the boys around him are intoxicated. As if, at every meal, the cadets fill their tin cups not with the cold mineralized water of Schulpforta but with a spirit that leaves them glazed and dazzled, as if they ward off a vast and inevitable tidal wave of anguish only by staying forever drunk on rigor and exercise and gleaming boot leather. The eyes of the most bullheaded boys radiate a shining determination: every ounce of their attention has been trained to ferret out weakness. They study Werner with suspicion when he returns from Hauptmann’s lab. They do not trust that he’s an orphan, that he’s often alone, that his accent carries a whisper of the French he learned as a child.”-loc 3267
“Werner sits in the lab late at nigh, alone again, and trolls the frequencies on the Grundig tube radio that Walkheimer used to borrow from Hauptmann’s office, searching for music, for echoes, for what, he is not sure. He sees circuits break apart and re-form. He sees Fredrick staring into his book of birds; he sees the furor of the mines at Zollverein, the shunting cars, the banging locks, the trundling conveyors, smokestacks silting the sky day and night; he sees Jutta slashing back and forth with a lit torch as darkness encroaches from all sides.”-loc 3288
“‘Uncle Etienne says heaven is like a blanket babies cling to. He says people have flown airplanes ten kilometers above the earth and found no kingdoms there. No gates, no angels.’
Madame Manec cracks off a ragged chain of coughs that sends tremors of fear through Marie-Laure. ‘You are thinking of your father,’ she finally says. ‘You have to believe your father will return.’
‘Don’t you ever get tired of believing, Madame? Don’t you ever want proof?’
Madame Manec rests a hand on Marie-Laure’s forehead. The thick hand that first reminded her of a gardener’s or a geologist’s. ‘You must never stop believing. That’s the most important thing.'”-loc 3626
“Werner shakes his head. He fiddles with the batteries, reconsiders the antennas, triple-checks fuses. At Schulpforta, with Dr. Hauptmann, it was a game. He could guess Volkheimer’s frequency; he always knew whether Volkheimer’s transmitter was transmitting. Out here he doesn’t know how or when or where or even if transmissions are being broadcast; out here he chases ghosts.”-loc 4015
“Frosts show up at night, throwing a silver sheet across the landscape, and Werner wakes in the back of the truck with his fingers mashed in his armpits and his breath showing and the tubes of the transceiver glowing a faint blue. How deep will the snow be? Six feet, ten? A hundred?
Miles deep, thinks Werner. We will drive over everything that once was.”-loc 4015
“Occupation authorities decree that every house must have a list of its occupants fixed to its door.: M. Etienne LeBlanc, age 62. Mlle Marie-Laure LeBlanc, age 15. Marie-Laure tortures herself with daydreams of feasts laid out on long tables: platters of sliced pork loin, roasted apples, banana flamebe, pineapples with whipped cream.”-loc 4233
“Before midnight he is at his hotel. Two fakes. This is progress. Two found, two left to find, and one of the two must be real. For dinner, he orders wild boar cooked with fresh mushrooms. And a full bottle of Bordeaux. Especially during wartime, such things remain important. They are what separate the civilized man from the barbarian.”-loc 4297
“And it seems he can never make headway into understanding which theory is closer to the truth. Because really, Werner thinks, they are all insurgents, all partisans, every single person they see. Anyone who is not a German wants the Germans dead, even the most sycophantic of them. They shy away from the truck as it rattles into town; they hide their faces, their families; their shops brim with shoes plucked off the dead.”-loc 4332
“The facade of a grand building rises gracefully, pilastered and crenelated. Stately wins soar on either side, somehow both heavy and light. It strikes Werner just then as wondrously futile to build splendid buildings, to make music, to sing songs, to print huge books full of colorful birds in the face of the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world–what pretensions humans have! Why bother to make music when the silence and wind are so much large? Why light lamps when the darkness will inevitably snuff them? When Russian prisoners are chained by threes and fours to fences while German privates tuck live grenades in their pockets and run?”- loc 4438
“That afternoon, long after the stool has been put away and the waltzes have stopped, while Werner sits with his transceiver listening to nothing, a little redheaded girl in a maroon cape emerges from a doorway, maybe six or seven years old, small for her age, with big clear eyes that remind his of Jutta’s. She runs across the street to the park and plays there alone, beneath the budding trees, while her mother stands on the corner and bites the tips of her fingers. The girl climbs into the swing and pendulums back and forth, pumping her legd, and watching her opens some valve in Werner’s soul. This is life, he thinks, this is why we live, to play like this on a day when winter is finally releasing its grip.”-loc 4459
“On the third afternoon of the siege of Saint-Malo, the shelling lulls, as though all the artillerymen abruptly fell asleep at their guns. Trees burn, cars burn, houses burn. German soldiers drink wine in blockhouses,. A priest in the college cellar scatters holy water on the walls. Two horses, gone mad with fear, kick through the door of the garage in which they’ve been shut and gallop between the smoldering houses on the Grand Rue.
Around four o’clock, an American field howitzer, two miles away, lets fly a single improperly ranged shell. It sails over the city walls and bursts against the northern parapet of Fort National, where three hundred and eighty Frenchmen are being held against their will with minimal cover. Nine are killed instantly. One of them still clutching the hand of bridge he was playing when the shell struck.”-loc 4541
“The only sound is the patter of the rain turning Saint-Malo into mud.
It could be a trick. Maybe he heard her open the can of beans, went noisily downstairs, and climbed quietly back up; maybe he stands outside the big wardrobe with his pistol drawn.
Lord Our God Your Grace is a purifying fire.”-loc 4656
“‘Back then,’ Volkheimer says, ‘all of Europe needed masts for their navies. But most of the countries had cut down their big trees. England, Great-Grandfather said, didn’t have a tree worth its wood on the whole island. So the masts for the British and Spanish navies, the Portuguese too, would come from Prussia, from the wood where I grew up. Great-Grandfather knew where all the giants were. Some of those trees would take a crew of five men three days to bring down. First the wedges would go in, like needles, he said, in the hide of an elephant. The biggest trunks coul swallow a hundred wedges before they’d creak.’
The artillery screams; the cellar shudders.
‘Great-Grandfather said he loved to imagine the big trees sledding behind teams of horses across Europe, across rivers, across the sea to Britain, where they’d be stripped and treated and raised up again as masts, where they’d see decades of battle, given a second life, sailing atop the great oceans, until eventually they’d fall and die their second death.'”-loc 4695
“The last days of May 1944 in Saint-Malo feel to Marie-Laure like the days of May 1940 in Paris: huge an swollen and redolent. As if every living thing rushes to establish a foothold before some cataclysm arrive. The air on the way to Madam Ruelle’s bakery smells of myrtle and magnolia and verbena; wisteria vines erupt in blossom; everywhere hand arcades and curtains and pendants of flowers.”- loc 4835
“At the intersection with the rue d’Estrees, she turns not left, toward home, but right. Fifty meters to the ramparts, a hundred or so more along the base of the walls; from her pocket she pulls Harold Bazin’s iron key. The beaches have tbeen closed for several months, studded with mines and walled off with razor wire, but here in the old kennel, out of sight of everyone, Marie-Laure can sit among her snails and dream herself into the mind of the great marine biologist Aronnax, both guest of honor and prisoner on Captain Nemo’s great machine of curiosity, free of nations and politics, cruising through the kaleidoscopic wonders of the sea. Oh, to be free! Ti lie once more in the Jardin des Plantes with Papa. To feel his hands on hers, to hear the petals of the tulips tremble in the wind. He made her the glowing hot center of his life; he made her feel as if every step she took was important.”-loc 4853
“The girl emerges from the bakery, steps neatly off the curbstone, and makes straight for him. The poodle squats to relieve itself on the cobbles, and the girl veers neatly to her left to skirt it. She approaches Werner for a second time, her lips working softly, counting to herself-deux trois quatr-coming so close he can count the freckles on her nose, smell the loaf of brad in her knapsack. A million droplets of fog bead up on the fuzz of her wool dress and along the wrap of her hair, and the light outlines her in silver.
He stands riveted. Her long pale neck seems to him, as it passes, incredibly vulnerable.
She takes no notice of him; she seems to know nothing but the morning. This, he thinks, is the pure they were always lecturing about a Schulpforta.
He presses his back against a wall. The tip of her cane just misses the toe of his boot. Then she’s past, dress swaying lightly, cane roving back and forth, and he watches her continue up the street until the fog swallows her.”-loc 4974
“They huddle in the middle of the street. Somewhere a hammer rings. War, Etienne thinks distantly, is a bazaar where lives are traced like any other commodity: chocolate or bullets or parachute silk.”-loc 5073
“He glances again at his watch, but it’s a sun burning his retinas. A single side of salted bacon twists in the butcher’s otherwise empty window, and three schoolboys stand on a bench watching him, waiting for him to fall, and just as he is certain the morning is about to shatter, Etienne sees in his memory the rusted gate leading to the crumbling kennel beneath the ramparts. A place where he used to play with his brother, Henri, and Harold Bazin. A small dripping cavern where a boy could shout and dream.”-loc 5076
“She reins in her panic. Important not to assume the worst.”-loc 5202
“Out of the window, a truck roars to life. Gulls pass, braying like donkeys, and in the distance the guns thud again, and the rattling of the truck fades, and Marie-Laure tries to concentrate on rereading a chapter earlier in the novel: make the raised dots from letters, the letters words, the words a world.”-loc 5215
“Out past the kitchen window, swifts swoop for insects, and the filaments of a spiderweb catch the light and shine for an instant and are gone.”-loc 5253
“At precisely the same moment, a nineteen-year-old American scout climbing the hillside toward the pillboxes stops and turns and reaches an arm down for the soldier behind him; while, with his cheekbone pressed to a granite paver at Fort Nation, Etienne LeBlanc decides that if he and Marie-Laure live through this, whatever happens, he will let her pick a place on the equator and they will go, book a ticket, ride a ship, fly an airplane, until they stand together in a rain forest surrounded by flowers they’ve never smelled, listening to birds they’ve never heard.”-loc 5564
“and at the Napola school at Schulpforta, one hundred and nineteen twelve and thridteen-year-olds wait in a queue behind a truck to be handed thirty-pound antitank land mines, boys who, in almost exactly one year, marooned amid the Russian advance, the entire school cut off like an island, will be given a box of Reich’s last bitter chocolate and Wehrmacht helmets salvaged from dead soldiers, and then this final harvest of the nation’s youth will rush our with the chocolate melting in their guts and overlarge helmets bobbing on their shorn heads and sixty Panzerfaust rocket launchers in their hands in a last spasm of futility to defend a bridge that no longer requires defending, while T-34 tanks from the White Russian army come clicking and rumbling toward them to destroy them all, every last child;”-loc 5573
“He is a ghost. He is from some other world. He is Papa, Madam Manec, Etienn; he is everyone who has left her finally coming back. Through the panel he calls, ‘I am not killing you. I am hearing you. On radio. Is why I come.’ He pauses, fumbling to translate. ‘The song, light of the moon?’ She almost smiles.
We all come into existence as a single cell, smaller than a speck of dust. Much smaller. Divide. Multiply. Add and subtract. Matter changes hands, atoms flow in and out, molecules pivot, proteins stitch together, mitochondria send out their oxidative dictates; we begin as a microscopic electrical swarm. The lungs the brain the heart. Forty weeks later, six trillion cells get crushed in the vise of our mother’s birth canal and we howl. Then the world starts in on us.
Marie-Laure slides open the wardrobe. Werner takes her hand and helps her out. Her feet find the floor of her grandfather’s room.
‘Mes soulier,’ she says, ‘I have not been able to find my shoes.'”-loc 5582
“Could he, by some miracle, keep this going? Could they hide here until the war ends? Until the armies finish marching back and forth above their heads, until all they have to do is push open the door and shift some stones aside and the house has become a ruin beside the sea? Until he can hold her fingers in his palms and lead her out into the sunshine? He would walk anywhere to make it happen, bear anything; in a year or three years or ten, France and Germany would not mean what they mean now; they could leave the house and walk to a tourists’ restaurant an order a simple meal together and eat it in silence, the comfortable kind of silence lovers are supposed to share.”-loc 5647
“But on most days, especially the warm ones, life exhausts him; the worsening traffic and graffiti and company politics, everyone grousing about bonuses, benefits, overtime. Sometimes, in the slow heat of summer, long before dawn, Volkheimer paces in the harsh dazzle of the billboard lights and feels his loneliness on him like a disease. He sees tall ranks of firs swaying in a storm, hears their heartwood groan. He sees the earthen floor of his childhood home, and the spiderwebbed light of dawn coming through conifers. Other times the eyes of men who are about to die haunt him, and he kills them all over again. Dead man in Lodz. Dead man in Lublin. Dead man in Radom. Dead man in Cracow.”-loc 5918
“Max swims awkwardly,windmilling one arm forward and then the other, periodically looking up to make sure his mother is watching. When he’s done, he wraps himself in a towel and climbs into a chair next to her. Max id compact and small and his ears stick out. Water droplets shine in his eyelashes. Dusk seeps down through the overcast and a slight chill drops into the air and one by one families leave to walk or bike or ride the bus home. Max plucks crackers our of a cardboard box and crunches them loudly. ‘I love Leibniz Zoo crackers, Mutti,’ he says.
‘I know, Max.’
Albert drives them home in their little NSU Prinz 4, the clutch rattling, and Jutta takes a stack.”-loc 5957
“‘The last place I saw him,’ says Volkheimer, ‘was in a town on the northern coast of France called Saint-Malo.’
From the loam of Jutta’s memory rises a sentence: What I want to write about today is the sea.
‘We spent a month there. I think he might have fallen in love.
Jutta sits straighter in her chair. It’s embarrassingly plain how inadequate language is. A town on the northern coast of France? Love? Noting will be healed in this kitchen. Some griefs can never be put right.”-5994
I finished this book about a month ago, surprisingly found out I’ve read several books and a few movies on WWII in the recent two years. I remembered how I was laying in the bed in Nora’s house, sweating dry from the summer’s heat; I remembered how Richard tells the story of a bunch of strong and masculine guys broke the fish restaurant window opening the war window to me.
I thought All the Light We Cannot See is a love story, and I pictured Anthony a young lady just graduated from a writing program.
Only if technology and big data could be used to do human being analytics, I would collect them all claiming this is just an extension of psychoanalysis.
People shouldn’t start wars cuz they are bad things. They shouldn’t start wars cuz wars hurt people. When the present combined with traumatic memories, with lost and not found, with ruined faith and guilt and bone-hard scars, time would stop and watch, hang and torture.
When she steps out of her shell, she asks him “I cannot find my shoes.”
Does he find it for her? I think he does.