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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Wake me when it's over: Unreadable literary classics

Are there unreadable literary classics? Yes, of course. I doubt that anyone has read Finnegans Wake start to finish outside of a graduate seminar. Has anyone read the complete Canterbury Tales? Even the Parson's? Has anyone read Paradise Lost straight through? And more recently, I guess Infinite Jest is a cult classic but who's actually read it? And what about Gravity's Rainbow from a generation or two back - everyone started it, at least I did. I was blown away by its scope and grandeur of design, but ultimately felt that, to understand it at all, I would have to give it far more attention and devotion than it was worth - or than I could manage. These are some of the obvious ones - and some other classics of great magnitude I would say may be challenging but are totally readable: Magic Mountain, Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, War and Peace, and Moby-Dick, to name just a few. Adding another to the unreadable classics: Robert Musil's "A Man without Qualities." I started it several years ago, when the beautiful 2-volume Vintage pb came out, and read about 400 pages (out of about 1,500), and just grew totally weary. Yes, the thoughts are weird and profound, a portrait of 1920s (?) Austria, told with surreal humor and with the odd precision of a dream in which nothing quite matches up. Many long descriptions of the attempt to celebrate the state of Kakania through the Parallel Campaign honoring the emporer, and the rise to power of the title character, Ulrich - but through the hundreds and hundreds of pages there is no plot whatever and you're just sucked into the vortex of Musil's strange view of the world. Tried reading again recently and just could not get my way through it - a monumental work that is entirely off-putting.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Pardon my French: translations of Proust

Finished the Lydia Davis translation of "Swann's Way" and last night read a little "chapbook" I have containing three of her short essays on translation - I read her essay on problems in translating Proust, made me wonder how anyone, let alone 3 people, have succeeded in translating Proust into English. I did not in any way, while reading Davis's translation, attempt to compare her work with Moncrieff's, which I'd read about 10-15 years ago, but I definitely felt her translation was fluent and beautiful and (relatively) easy to read - perhaps helped, too, in that I'd already read the novel and had a sense of which characters and events were vital and which were more peripheral - though we obviously do not read Proust for the events. But seeing her notes on her own translation makes it clear to me that her work has more fidelity - Moncrieff's is beautiful but more ornate than Proust, and for some reason he felt he had the liberty or the right to embellish. Proust did not embellish, despite his extremely long and complex sentences - part of the beauty is the simplicity and clarity of the language in conveying some extremely complex and unusual thought processes. Need we go any further than in comparing the very titles of the work under Moncrieff and under Davis et al. (others translate the next 6 volumees)?: A la recherche des temps perdus (pardon my French misspellings if any) under Moncrieff becomes the well-known Remembrance of Things Past - a beautiful phrase, it's from a Shakespeare sonnet - but Proust is not quoting Shakespeare and his narrator is not sitting passively simply remembering and Proust specified the word "perdus," i.e., lost, not just past, and "temps," i.e., time, not things. Davis et al. get the title accurately as : In Search of Lost Time, conveying the action of the narrator/writer and the sorrow of "lost."

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Can men read women's lit?

I really don't like thinking in terms of men's writers and women's writers, in that I believe one of the great pleasures of reading (and writing) fiction is that novels and stories allow us to experience "the consciousness of the consciousness of another," and I know that this form of mediated experience expands our view of the world and of humanity and makes us more complete and true as humans and as residents of a complicated, global society. Having said all that, some writers do by choice seem to write primarily for one gender or the other - or, more accurately I guess, they write of one gender not the other (and I'm not even getting into the nuances of gender-definition and identity here - just talking in the broadest terms). Kate Walbert, with current story in the New Yorker, has emerged as one of he preeminent contemporary "women's writers," in the best sense of the term - I don't mean this as a delimiting term at all, but just to say that she has been using fiction to explore various aspects of women's consciousness, history, and sensibility. Can men read and learn from her fiction? Yes, I guess so, but I do feel like a bit of an interloper when I do so. I appreciated her novel A Short History of Women but was annoyed by the jumping back and forth in time and the difficult of assembling the pieces into a coherent narrative. Her NYer story also uses this mosaic technique but here with just two narrative strands and she jumps back and forth between current - mom and daughters spend a day in Manhattan - and past, woman breaks up with husband and ponders how to tell the kids. Works reasonably well, but the present is much more fully articulated and dramatically interesting. The dad is a cipher and probably meant to be. Story left me a little cold - but I will tip my hat to the NYer for - for a few weeks in a row now - publishing true short stories rather that snippets from about-to-be published novels. Let the publishers do their own publicity!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Far behind their rightful times: Proust and publishing

Finished "Swann's Way" and read Lydia Davis's smart intro and notes and am not surprised, sadly, that Proust had trouble finding a publisher for what was to become one of the great novels of the century - several publishers flat-out turned him down, complete with snide comments like who would read 60 pages about a guy turning over in bed? Right - who would? Until they read Proust. Like all of the greatest writers, Proust changed the way we read and in that sense changed the way we look at and experience the world. And of course like all great writers he gave us access to the consciousness of another - more so than any of today's pallid memoirists could ever dream of (though could any have written their stories had not Proust shown the way?). The rejections are obvious - and at least one writer, Gide, later noted that the decision, in which he played a role, to reject Swann's Way was the worst decision his house (NRF) ever made - like the Red Sox selling Ruth or passing on Mays (or was it Robinson?). Proust ultimately had to basically self-publish, a true commercial house but he took on all the costs - hope he earned out! But just imagine Proust circulating Swann's Way in manuscript today. Can you honestly imagine any commercial house taking on this project? Or any agent? Not unless Proust were a celebrity or the story could be cut to 200 pages and focus on childhood abuse, addiction, and sadomasochism. How many other great writers are out there, today, never to be published: artists far behind their rightful time.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The end of Swann's Way: Types of memory in Proust

At the end of "Swann's Way" Proust establishes a very different mood, which is almost the opposite and certainly a counterpoint to the mood he established in the opening section, Combray: In Combray, he begins with a richly embued, nostalgic recollection of the past, of his childhood, recalled from much later in life, a time when he had shut everything aside and sought only quiet and memory - he does not really describe himself as an old man, but just lets the childhood memories stream forward, and you could almost think you're beginning to read a conventional novel in which the narrator/protagonist tells his life story from childhood onward - Tom Jones, Pip, Augie March - except that the prose is so strange and the memories so vivid and complex and you gradually realize you're not reading a novel at all but more of an examination of the nature and power of memory and of language itself. At the end, we get another kind of literary trope, also conventional to a degree, but also unique to Proust because of his treatment of the material - in the short final section the young Marcel (narrator) walks with his governess, Francoise, in the Bois (Paris park) and encounters the beautiful older woman Odette (we now know she has married Swann - I'd forgotten that - and that Gilberte is her daughter). Marcel bows to her, an awkward and comic moment. Then, he walks through the Bois many years later, an old man (not really so old) and the park of course appears to him as a completely different environment, strange and "unnatural," very human-made (like most French parks or gardens, in my opinion), and he reflects once again on memory and loss - but this time not a memory that comes upon him unbidden, like a wave crashing, but a summoned memory, an attempt to recapture the past, painful as it may be - which will inspire him as he continues with these volumes.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Proust's obsession with place names

Not everyone will "get" the weirdness of the first few pages of the Place-Names: The Name section of Proust's "Swann's Way," in which the narrator (Marcel - though he's excruciatingly careful never to name the narrator, at least till much later in the series) reflects on how the name of a place can color and contain its entire character for us, how we can form an complete and complex impression of a place (and perhaps a person) by assimilating the name alone. I suspect some people read this and think he's nuts, and others will understand it immediately - I being among the latter; daughter J. will certainly know this phenomenon. Not totally clear where Proust meant to go with this extended observation - quite a break from the much more conventional novella-like middle section, Swann in Love, and, after further Proustian fixation on railroad schedules (the names of the towns on the line; the 1:22 departure time as a highlight of the day - of every day, as he ponders the trains leaving for the coastal resorts), we learn about Marcel's second encounter with the love and obsession of his life, Gilberte (Swann's daughter - is it ever made clear who Swann's wife might be? The woman that nobody else will see socially? Can't be Odette - but is she some other "courtesan"?) - at this point, back in Paris, wintry scenes at which Marcel meets Gilberte in the Champs-Elysee (then, obviously, much more of a park, perhaps something like Comm Ave in Boston?) when he they are still quite young, perhaps 10?, playing some version of hide-and-seek, but of course Marcel with the feelings and perceptions of an adult - and some beautiful passages about the nature of love and obsession.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The worthlessness and egoism of Swann in Proust's Swann's Way

The Swann in Love section of Proust's "Swann's Way" ends with Swann's obscure realization that he has devoted years of his life to the pursuit of a woman (Odette) who was not "his type." What an odd way to end this very long segment of In Search of Lost Time, one of the few sections of the 7-volume work that can, and sometimes does, stand alone as a novel (it's the only section that is not devoted to the narrator, Marcel, and is memories and observations - the events in Swann in Love occur before Marcel knew Swann, so it's never clear how he possesses all this information about Swann's interior life) - the Swann in Love section is a story about an obsession, how Swann begins by being very elusive and enticing Odette to seek him out, then a brief period when they spent all their time together, then she tires of Swann and he becomes suspicious, then jealous, finally repulsed by her when he suspects she may have engaged in several lesbian relationships - and at last, cruelly indifferent. What egoism to be so dismissive of her after she has dominated his life for years: he's not attracted to her and she's not his type. As if he is a customer in a store shopping for the right tie - I like this one, not that one - and she is just an object to be procured, then discarded. An unspoken aspect of the text here is not only Swann's egoism but the worthlessness of the life he and others in his class lead - holding no job or profession, doing nothing with their time but entertain at soirees and salons - Swann talks about writing a book on Vermeer but never seems to write word, he and his cohort are complete leeches, contributing nothing to society and perfectly confident in the eminence that they believe they have earned as a birthright. Proust will have his way with these people over the course of the next 6 volumes!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Happy 70th Birthday, Bob Dylan - the world's greatest living artist!

Read the Rolling Stone Bob Dylan 70th Birthday tribute, which is really just a list of what RS considers to be the top 70 Dylan songs of all time - I posted my own list 2 days ago here. Unsurprisingly, there's general agreement about the greatest of the songs from the early period and universal agreement that the shot span of 4 years, from Another Side through Blond on Blond was the highlight of his career - most of the songs I mentioned were in the RS to 15, with one major exception, and the rest of the early songs I mentioned were at least in the top 70, though I'm surprised they overlooked the beautiful Love Minus Zero. About the mid-career and later Dylan - much less agreement. I have to say that for me, though I like his recent albums/concerts, no single song has changed my life the way so many earlier ones did. My picks from mid career were very different from those RS selected - though they did cite many that would have been on any longer list from me, notably the haunting Isis (thanks to Rivera's violin), ditto One More Cup of Coffee, and the wistful If You See Her, Say Hello. RS doesn't quite get why there are so few great Dylan covers. I have always felt that it has to do with the change he brought about in popular music: before him, songs were written for everyone, they had to be tuneful and catchy (Pareles gets this in his intro essay); Dylan's songs are personal and unique to him, while speaking to universal themes. To sing a Dylan song is like knowing/reciting a Keats sonnet: extremely beautiful and moving, but you're singing someone else's words, not yours.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Why Swann is obsessed with Odette's lesbian relationships in Proust's Swann's Way

Not only does Swann become obsessively and irrationally jealous about and suspicious of Odette, in Proust's "Swann's Way," but toward the end of the Swann in Love part, a novel unto itself, he becomes tormented by the idea that Odette is bisexual, or at the least that she has had several affairs or relationships with women. In fact, he begins hounding her with questions about her attraction to women, and she lets slip a sort-of admission - but why does this point disturb Swann so much? Why does he keep picking at this particular wound to his ego? In some ways, you'd think he would be indifferent to her relations with women - the real threat to his ego would be if she threw him over for other men (he of course has no sense of remorse about his own ongoing relations with other women while he was pursuing Odette). I think this has something to do with the relations between Swann and the narrator, Marcel, as well as with Proust's own homosexuality. Part of the significance of the Swann in Love section is the way in which his obsessive possiveness then sense of loss and betrayal foreshadows Marcel's jealousy and tortured relationship with Gilbert (Swann's daughter) in the later volumes - but as is widely known, Proust was homosexual and Gilbert is a stand-in for the male lovers of his life. There's a lot of homoeroticism in Search of Lost Time, but always (I think) portrayed a shameful perversion. In a way, by confining homoeroticism to the minor characters and by allowing Swann to obsess about it and to express his disgust is a way by which Proust protects his own identity and builds a protective shield between Marcel the narrator and Proust the author.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Best Bob Dylan songs of all time

Yesterday bought the Bob Dylan 70th birthday issue of Rolling Stone, containing RS ranking of top 70 Dylan songs, and bookstore owner asked if I knew which was their # 1. That's obvious, I said, but the question is: Which is your #1? Haven't read the RS list yet, but here is/are mine:
Favorite Bob Dylan song of all time: Visions of Johanna, a complete meditation on love, loss, longing, with wit and beauty and pathos. Live versions especially good.
Best Bob Dylan song: Love Minus Zero/No Limit. Original, memorable, beautiful - If he had written only this song, he would still be famous.
Best lyrics: probably It's All Right Ma. One of the many that you could read as a poem.
Prettiest: To Ramona. One of several in waltz time. He used to open concerts with it.
My walk-on song: Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat. He sometimes opens concerts with this one now.
My walk-off songs (3 to play at my funeral - not for a long time, let's hope): Emotionally Yours, I'll Remember You, Shooting Star
Most influential: Like a Rolling Stone. Established once and for all that rock could be personal and visceral.
Most inventive: Subterranean Homesick Blues. The first rap song, decades ahead of its time.
Most unappreciated: I and I. Where Teardrops Fall. Two beauties that occurred during realative lulls in Dylan's great career.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Railroads and buses and travel and Proust : Aspects of the early modern age

Continuing thoughts on railroads in Proust - and the unusual idea that railroads convey a kind of "authority," in his (or translator Davis's) word for the narrator or protagonist - the at that time in history gave an unprecedented control or mastery of the landscape, even for or especially for the bourgeoisie, which did not "own" land in the same way that the nobility did, railroads in "Swann's Way" and later volumes of In Search of Lost Time therefore serving as an equalizer, but only up to a point, and only for a period of time. Today, cheap airfare is an "equalizer," in that people travel to more places and far more casually than ever before, but our resources are far from equal or equitable. A better analogy, for me, is with an earlier time in my life - thinking back to when I was about 13, old enough to move about on my own but not old enough to drive, and at that time train timetables and even more so bus schedules had for me a weird fascination: buses, roaming about kind of oddly, appearing here and there with the cryptic numerals and destinations - 30 Orange, 44 Gregory, Special! - seemed to be moving about randomly like pinballs but actually were on charted courses that a sage could discern, like the stars coursing through the heavens. And if you could master the code these buses could take you anywhere, they all connected. This time in my life somewhat analogous to the time of which Proust wrote and in which he lived - before autos, before air travel, early youth of the modern age.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Why trains and railroads play a big role in Proust's Search of Lost Time

Wondering why trains play such a big role in Proust's In Search of Lost Time, from the lonely sounds of trains in the distance at the start of "Swann's Way" through the numerous complex train journeys the various characters take, especially in the Balbec sections, and numerous discussions of railroad timetables - and the part I'm reading now in the Swann in Love section of Swann's Way, in which Swann tries to figure out what trains to take so as to "accidentally" run into Odette while she's away from Paris: it's possible (probable?) that Proust had some degree of Asperger's syndrome, in which timetables sometimes become an obsession, but I think railroads are also a symbol of the the time - of the half-century, roughly coincident with Proust's lifetime (1870-1920, give or take) when railroads were developed for personal use (not just freight and military) but before motor vehicles were prominent - railroads gave people in Proust's time a unique sense of possession of and access to the landscape - you could actually get around, pretty easily. Think of the huge difference between railroads in Proust and the interminable and difficult coach voyages in, say, Madame Bovary or Great Expectations. Proust has a strange way of describing what railroads mean to Swann: he refects not that they give him access but that they give him "authority," a very unusual choice of words but there is the sense that the railroad gives the traveler the right to the landscape, possession over it - just as the nobility was truly becoming marginal, a whole new bourgeoisie was rising with a sense of entitlement to a land far beyond what that could see or walk to: the contrast between the "ways" (walkways) in Proust and the railroad journeys. More on this topic in future posts.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Jealousy in Proust and elsewhere in literature : Love is a torment

Though Shakespeare wrote the ultimate literary work about jealousy (Othello) and even had a few things to say about jealousy in his comedies and romances (Winter's Tale), for some reason I think of jealousy as part of the literary turf of the French - et pourquoi non? Jealousy is definitely one of the driving influences and themes of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, and first rears up in the Swann in Love part of "Swann's Way" (Davis tr.). With Proust, jealousy isn't an emotion so much as a perversion - he goes to great lengths describing Swann's love affair with Odette de Crecy, making it clear that Swann is at first and for quite a while not really attracted to her, finds her kind of dull and uneducated, doesn't really care for her friends (the Verdurin little clan), takes a really long time to approach her sexually, and in fact right from the start two-times her with a working-class girl (whom, like Odette, we never see) and who is more his "type." And then Swann falls for Odette and of course once that happens he makes a fool of himself through jealousy - one weirdly comic scene in which he goes to her house in the evening, thinks he sees lights on and silhouettes in her window, knocks on the window, he's at the wrong house! With Proust, jealousy easily expands into near-paranoia, and I'm not sure what to make of all this - except that Proust has a very odd and distorted, extreme, view of love: love never actually happens, the characters, or Swann, at least, move from disdain to possessive and paranoid without an period in which the two are happy with each other. Love, in Proust, is forever a torment - like memory.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Proust and Powell and the insular qualities of vast narratives

Thinking about the insular world of Proust's In Search of Lost Time (reading "Swann's Way," Davis tr.), how in this really vast, 7-volume novel there are ultimately very few characters, and their worlds keep intersecting - they go to the same few salons and dinner parties, vacation at the same resorts, cross paths all the time, over 20 years or so, in Paris. In a way, every life is like this - we live in a world where we see literally thousands of people every week, maybe every day, but the narratives of our lives really only crosses a few dozen people, maybe? The insularity therefore doesn't feel odd or strange in Proust, but he does create the feeling that these people, for all their wealth and their "nobility," lead a life that is painfully narrow in scope - their interst in the world of art, politics, world affairs is limited and trivial - they're interested in fashion (in art), not in great art (Swann may be an exception, and of course so is Marcel, which is why he breaks from his milieu and becomes a chronicler). The narrowness is part of the emotional and political theme and climate of Recherche. I compare this with the 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time, by Powell, English novelist, work often compared with Proust, and though I have enjoyed Powell's books (have read the first 7), they really pale compared with Proust, in large part because the extent to which the same dozen or so characters cross paths over many years - in school, in business, in politics, in society, ultimately in the Great War - is ludicrous, almost comic, clearly a novelist's device to manage his broad canvas and not an intrinsic quality of the society he is portraying.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Why Marx would have loved Proust

If the Marxist Liberation Front or New Communist Party of Europe ever needs a recruiting manual, may I recommend Proust's In Search of Lost Time? Or, as a second choice, any novel by Henry James? These works are among the greatest accomplishments in the history of literature (not all of James, but definitely all of Proust) and they have the unique qualities of making you love the author while leading you - or at least me - to hate the main characters. Let's take Proust, which I'm reading now in the Davis translation of "Swann's Way," and in this or even in the old Moncrieff translation (I wouldn't even try it in French - hard enough in English!) contains the most beautiful and thoughtful writing, the most astute exploration of character and class, and the most complex and nuanced self-analysis of any novel I've ever read. And yet: I understand these characters, I know them as if I've lived with them (and if you've read all 7 volumes you will have lived with them) but I have little or no sympathy for (most of) them: has Swann ever worked a day in his life? Have any of them? There are references to professions, e.g., the foolish Dr. Cottard, but essentially their lives consist of drawing rooms and being rich. And their wealth comes entirely from their social position - nobility, generally. This is a society that ought to be overthrown! What keeps the novel from being corrupt of course is the central character, the writer/narrator, Marcel, who we understand ultimately breaks free of this society, realizes he has wasted his life as a dilettante and a fool, and devotes himself to silence and art - in other words, Marcel becomes Proust.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Art and sex and love in Swann in Love

The important theme - about art and sex - that Proust establishes in the second part, Swann in Love, of "Swann's Way" (Davis tr.) is the nature of mediated love - this section is about Swann's affair with the "courtesan" Odette de Crecy, and as the section begins it's clear that Swann is not particularly attracted to her - she's not his "type," as he notes at the end of the Swann in Love, if I remember correctly - and he finds her kind of dull even stupid and her friends insipid (they are), yet he goes every night to see her at the Verdurins' salon and takes her home every night yet, strangely, they never have sex, he never even touches her (strange) and he spends a lot of time with some shopgirl - we never see her, but Swann goes out wit her almost every night before arriving at the Verdurins'. Then something strange happens: Swann and Odette hear the pianist at the Verdurins' salon play a piece that Swann later identifies as the Venteuil sonata, and this melody - which Proust spends pages and pages describing, some of the best writing ever about a piece of music, especially one that exists only in the author's imagination, and whic nobody else in the salon can really understand - becomes for Proust a theme, "our song," to put it crassly, and leads him to begin to adore Odette; second, he comes to a realization that she looks exactly like a figure in a Boticelli fresco in the Sistine Chapel - and then he has real passion for her. He cannot, it seems, appreciate her beauty or anything about her until she is mediated for him by art - he has to "see" her through the lens of the artistic vision of another. The real woman is not nearly as sexually attractive as the image of that woman. For Swann, and maybe for Proust as well, art is the only gateway to perception.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The most accessible part of In Search of Lost Time (Proust)

The second Part of Marcel Proust's "Swann's Way" (Lydia Davis translation), the section called Swann in Love, is in man ways a radical departure and break from the much more highly stylized, elusive opening Part, Combray, in which the narrator Marcel unfolds all the themes of the seven-book novel, trying to recover all of the memories of his childhood, a much more interior, first-person account - today, perhaps it would be a memoir (unfortunately) - whereas Swann in Love begins at least as a more conventional novel - Marcel describing another set of characters and himself playing no role other than narrator (these events occurring around the time of Marcel's birth), all of which make it the most accessible part of the entire Recherche, and explain why Swann in Love was published as a separate work, by Modern Library, many years ago (and why I tried to read it in high school and couldn't understand a thing) and why it was made into a movie, a horrible movie actually, which I remember reviewing for the Journal and beginning: The only people who could possibly like this movie are those who love Proust, and they will hate it. Swann in Love is the account of Swann's affair (and later marriage to) Odette de Crecy, a "courtesan," as Marcel delicately calls her, and how Odette brought Swann to the little, pretentious salon at the Verdurins' - much of the opening pages devoted to hilarious descriptions of some of the habituees, notably the foolish Dr. Cottard unsure what opinion to take on anything and waiting to catch clues and signals before smiling or frowning, poised with a weak, ambiguous smile, and Mme Verdurin who wants to be seen as gay and affable and affects a pose that allows her to seem to be laughing (face buried in her hands) while not having to laugh at all - she's afraid of dislocating her jaw.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The idiotic fascination with nobility is difficult for American readers to understand : Proust

As we finish the Combray section of Marcel Proust's "Swann's Way" (Lydia Davis, tr.) Marcel takes his first excursion on the Geurmantes Way - and we immediately sense the difference between Geurmantes and Swann's (or the Meseglise) Way - G is longer, more meandering, along the banks of the Vivonne (is that the real name of the river?) and most important has evocations of the nobility and the aristocratic heritage of the Geurmantes family - leading Marcel to reflect on the first time he actually saw the Duchess de Geurmantes, staring at her in church - she does not seem to be very attractive, at least not in M's description, red-faced etc. - but he sees in her the connection to her aristocratic ancestors - this a classic example of how we "read into" faces what we know or think we know of their history - no doubt if she had not been pointed out to him as a Geurmantes she would look just like anyone else in town and could just as easily have been the aunt of the family servant, Francoise. This fascination with noble blood and heritage is a European vestige that is very hard for American readers to understand, much less identify with or sympathize with. Kind of idiotic, really, that her lineage should be so important and defining as to who she is today - but this is a theme that Proust will explore further throughout In Search of Lost Time (I will go with Davis's more accurate translation of the title) - as he ultimately has Marcel see the utter corruption of the so-called nobility and become increasingly disillusioned.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The 2 "ways" in Swann's Way and what they meant to Proust

I think every one of us can identify with the "ways" (cotes) in Proust - established in "Swann's Way" as the Meseglise Ways (or Swann's Way) and the Geurmantes way, the first being, if I can capture this, faster, more aggressive, brighter, a shorter route, but, paradoxically, because it's the shorter it's the one the family generally took during threatening weather so it's associated with rain and downpours; the G way longer, more meandering, more serious and mature and aristocratic - and these two ways obviously represent for the narrator, Marcel, two course in life, one the more artistic and unconventional and the other more traditional - and through the course of the entire A la Recherche he has a choice between the two "ways," the life of an artist or the life of a boulevardier - and we see that as he alternates between his passions and the social conventions, the witticisms of social gatherings. Obviously, in Proust's life and art he drew on both, the G way is as much his materials as Swann's Way. We see through the narrative of Swann's way that this "way" is full of sexuality and eroticism - long passage in which he thinks about meeting a girl along the way, who this would be is entirely uncertain, some peasant girl maybe?, and then the very strange passage in which he sits unobserved and spies through a window on Vinteul's daughter and her "sadism," as Proust calls it - but really it seems much more of a homoeroticism and a strange a violent disrespect for her recently dead father - one of the weirdest scenes in all of Proust in that it's absolutely impossible that Marcel could have sat outside and observed this entire episode through a window.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Python, Proust, and why it helps to read Remembrance for the 2nd time

It really helps that this is my second time through Proust's Remembrance/Recherche, as I read the Lydia Davis tr. of "Swann's Way" - Proust introduces so many people and places, and often does so in an oblique manner, with just an offhand reference mid-paragraph, so the first time you read Proust it's hard to know which characters to pay attention to and keep in your mind and which may be peripheral, like any number of the astonishing descriptions of such oddities as stalks of asparagus that make the novel the great work that it is but need not be tracked if you're hoping to discern at least the lineaments of a narrative. For example, about midway through the Combray section Marcel encounters, during walk, Swann's daughter, Gabrielle - who re-readers will know will become a major presence throughout the 7-volume series. Another example, Legrandin, the somewhat strange and threatening character we meet during another one of the Proust-family walks, will play no significant role (I think), but he does take part on a seemingly pointless discussion about whether he has family in Balbec - and re-readers will know that this seaside resort, mentioned so off-handedly, will become (in volume 2) one of the three major settings for the entire series. Reading Proust is not about following narrative lines exactly - Monty Python famously made hilarious work of the attempt to "summarize Proust" - but reading Proust can also be a challenge requiring a great deal of concentration just to parse your way through the complex sentences (where was the verb in this one?) that it does help to have a few markers to lead us along the way. More on "ways" in tomorrow's post I think.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Homosexuality in Proust, and one of the strangest moments in Swann's Way

Part of the strangeness and beauty of Proust's Remembrance/Recherche is way in which homosexual and homoerotic themes hover at the edges of the novel and sometimes step into the foreground - sometimes the homoeroticism is overt, sometimes covert, which of course had much to do with the standards and conventions of the day - conventions that kept Forster from writing about homosexuality in his lifetime, essentially, kept Baldwin's writing on the theme to a minimum, and I would guess compelled Proust to make Marcel's various passionate love interests always women and girls - but as we read we can easily substitute, read it as though reflected in a convex mirror, and imagine his passion for men. In "Swann's Way" (Davis tr.) Legrandin emerges as the first significant covert homoerotic encounter - this odd mournful man who wanders alone, stares into the distance, quotes obscure poetry to the young Marcel, takes care to be in the company of a married woman to provide just the hint that they may be having an affair, invites the young (early teen? younger?) Marcel over for private dinners to discuss literature and art - not sure how this would have been interpreted (or tolerated) in the early 20th century, but today we would see the young Marcel as a potential or likely victim of abuse. Proust's very odd description of Legrandin in front of the church, bowing and then standing oddly straight, with the description focused on his "bottom," is one of the most peculiar moments in the novel. Proust's boldness in taking on homoerotic themes is commendable and it's too bad it he was born so far ahead of his time that he - who explored every nuance and feeling and perception and memory - could not explore his own sexuality in a more open fashion.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Is there humor in Proust? Mais, oui!

The laughs keep coming in Marcel Proust's "Swann's Way" (Davis tr.), only half-kidding, Proust's humor not for everyone but there's a kind of nuttiness in his writing that at times approaches the Pythonesque, for example the cure (priest) who stops by to visit the hypochondriac Aunt Leonie - she's upset because the visit comes at the same time as visit of her gossipy friend, Eulalie, and she wants to spread out these visits to make the most of each, maid Francoise doesn't get this and thinks Leonie is thrilled to hav the priest stop by - Proust notes dryly that the priest has useful information about etymologies, and then the priest goes on literally for pages about basically nothing but every once in a while diverts to explain the Latin origin of various place names - ridiculous and funny! Or: Marcel's (I will call the narrator that, though he doesn't cop to the name till the 7th volume) family has lunch an hour earlier than usual on Saturdays, giving Francoise time to get to the market (nice of them, huh?), which lead to family jokes about Saturday: when from time to time someone would check his watch and say it's 90 minutes till lunchtime, we would laugh and say: Oh, no - it's Saturday! Those cut-ups! It really is funny in a stupid, goofball way - and especially so because the style is so elevated and elegant, the weird humor takes us unaware - is this novel just goofy? - and then we come on an extraordinary passage, such as Proust's beautiful description, in just a paragraph or so, short for him, of the onset of a rainstorm. Leaves you gasping.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Peasants as victims, peasants as heroes : They Burn the Thistles

A relatively short but thoughtful discussion at book group last night of Kemal's "They Burn the Thistles," with pretty much all of us agreeing the book was unusual, difficult to get into at first (largely because of the unfamiliarity of the background, history, places, and especially the names, many of which are ridiculously similar), but ultimately worth reading. I was probably at the lowest end of the enthusiasm spectrum, as I found the pacing of the whole novel rather strange - a fast-action story of a superhero or a Western lone gunslinger type slowed down by much topical description and lots of repetition - I wasn't surprised it (or at least its predecessor in 4-book series) was a movie and as a novel it could have been half the length. M noted that the setting is almost like a character in the book, and I would agree but found the topical descriptions poorly integrated into the narrative - they stand out and apart. (I've been reading Proust, which is all about description, but at least it's of a piece.) Some discussion of the politics of the novel: clearly Kemal's sympathies are entirely with the peasants, and LR reported the Kemal is a progressive leftist, a brave stance in Turkey, especially during the 60s-70s, but I did raise the question whether he's off base in imagining that the peasants ever really had it so great before arrival of the new government and in fact whether it isn't a bit reactionary for him to depict the peasants as helpless victims waiting for a savior (Memed). We greatly enjoyed the comic names Kemal gives to many of the characters (Bald Hamza, Lame Ali, et al.) - much like today's mobsters.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Proust uses humor to develop character : Swann's Way

Continuing think about humor in Proust as I read along in the Davis translation of "Swann's Way," noticing a very wry passage in which he discusses St. Hilaire church in Combray, particularly the tower or spire, and how it is visible in different ways from different locations in the town or countryside, each vision of the spire creating its own view and mood, a particularly beautiful passage in which his mother points out to him that the spire is the only human-made element visible from a certain vantage in the countryside, the far point at their longest walk from Combray, and it is all the more beautiful and mysterious for that, Proust then describing how the tower helps him orient himself and then notes that sometimes in Paris if he asks for directions and is told to proceed toward some tower or spire or dome, a landmark, he may just stand in place staring at the tower for hours, going nowhere on the street but taking a long journey "in my heart" - very true, very believable, very funny and a self-effacing way. Proust always uses humor toward the development and delineation of character - another great moment when his lifelong friend Bloch, an aesthete, is introduced, Bloch unable to tell Proust's father whether it is raining because he takes no note of material and physical things; Proust's father later notes "your friend is an idiot," he can't even report on the weather: "Nothing is more interesting!" This perfectly captures, in a passage, Bloch's foolish and comical pretentions and the father's eccentricity and bluntness and stupid self-assurance.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

What to make of Proust's wit

Pausing in reading Proust's "Swann's Way" (Davis tr.) thanks to Red Sox tix last night, I've been thinking about Proust's wit - many may be surprised that Recherche is at times a very funny book, but it's not so because of broad comic situations or extreme and eccentric characters and behavior a la so many other comic novels, from Cervantes through Joyce and Svevo through John Kennedy Toole - it's a highly polished verbal wit that's so subtle that at times the characters themselves don't get it - as when, early in Swann's Way the great-aunts are trying to thank Swann for a gift of a case of wine but they don't want to be gauche so they thank him in such awkward and indirect ways - Some people have nice neighbors! - that nobody's sure if Swann heard or understood, yet the sisters are delighted with (and competitive with) each other's bon mots. Or, as I recall, late in the novel, one old guy goes on for pages about the railroad schedule (a big theme in Proust, for some reason) and later another old guy says to P. something like, Oh, did you get him to talk about railroads? Proust is willing to put us through pages of intentional tedium to get the payoff of a small quip. These are throughout the novel, and characters become identified by the sharpness of their wit and their type of wit - is it P's grandfather who says early on something like: Often, but only a little bit at a time? - and this becomes a bit of a family joke. Like so much else in Proust, the wit is slightly elusive, just beyond our mental grasp, but colors the whole tone of the novel(s).

Friday, May 6, 2011

Class relations in Proust: treatment and mistreatment of "servants"

After Proust eats the madeleine, or more accrately after he sips the tea (in which he's dipped the madeleine) his memories of Combray unfurl, cascade over him (and us) - as he memorably puts it, they unfold and become palpable like a Japanese paper game in which the paper when soaked opens up as birds, trees, etc. - kind of like today's pop-up sponges or sillystring bracelets ? - and then we enter Combray (sp?) - long descriptions of he aunt Leonie's house where the P. family would arrive at Easter and stay for some indeterminate time - Leonie an well-known invalid and hypochondriac who kept to two rooms, obviously a foreshadowing of Proust's own famous retreat to the corklined room where he writes the very words we are reading - and we begin to see the relation between Leonie and her maid/servant/slave I'd practically say, Francoise, who later becomes the servant in the P. household in Paris. Proust's sense of class relations is a major theme throughout the Recherche, and we seen an important set of interactions here: the young P. given the task, by his mother, of extending his hand to Francoise and giving her a five-franc tip - one of the many actions by the bourgeoisie or aristocracy that they see as kind and generous but in fact is incredibly demeaning and condescending. Leonie's treatment or mistreatment of Francoise is horrible, at least by today's standards, but it's all just expected: bring me this, do this, do that, and the P. family at least has the virtue of feeling love and affection for Francoise - but perhaps that makes their treatment of her even worse? Leonie, for all her mistreatment, engages in hilarious dialog with Francoise in order to elicit from her all the Combray gossip about who's visiting, who's new in town. Answer: nobody.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Is your remembrance of Remembrance accurate?

If your remembrance of Remembrance of Things Past is the same as mine you will incorrectly remember that "Swann's Way" begins with the (unnamed) narrator eating a madeleine cake and recalling his childhood, but in fact it does not - the madeleine cake, crumbled and consumed while sipping tea, does not make its appearance on stage till the end of the first section of the Combray part of the the novel - about 50 pages in. Who knew? The novel begins with narrator - let's call him Proust and be done with it - recalling how in his childhood in Combray he would sometimes lie in bed and wait for his mother to come upstairs and give him a goodnight kiss, and from that Proust builds the most evocative and elusive narrative and psychological and epistemological lacework ever composed - almost impossible to recapture in summary - meditations on pleasure delayed and anticipated, what each sounds and nuance would mean about whether his mother would come upstairs or not or how long she would stay, a long section on a small dinner at which neighbor M. Swann joins the family and father peremptorily suggests Proust go to be early (echo of first line of masterpiece novel) and he awaits his mother - when she comes upstairs he runs to her, father surprisingly suggests mother attend to Proust, Proust bursts into sobs, everyone notes how sad he seems, leads to extraordinary passage (p.37 in Davis translation) about the many sorrows of his life that now are becoming clear to him, as the convent bells in the distance are unheard during the bustle of the day but then emerge as the town grows quiet in the evening and at night. Also a lovely and funny passage about gifts from his grandmother: I could not give the boy anything that was not well written.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Remembrance (and re-reading) of Proust

How good is your remembrance of Proust? Last night started re-reading "Swann's Way," this time the new Lydia Davis translation - I am not by any means looking at the translations side by side but hers seems more comfortable and fluent than the Moncrieff, though both are great - mainly, Proust is great and a pleasure to return to at any time but especially after reading a string of rather ordinary novels that made me wonder for a while why is it that we read? As I've noted frequently in this blog, one reason we do so is to gain access to the consciousness of another - and Proust is the most pure, extreme, and complete example of that. His work is entirely about consciousness. People sometimes (mistakenly) think of his work, of much literary work, as about description - beautifual passages, imagery, and so on - but description does not capture or convey what Proust does: he articulates perceptions and observations that either you've never had or that you have always had but had never even attempted to formulate into words. He uses language to give us access not only to his consciousness but to our own. It's difficult to blog about Proust without using a text alongside of me, which I have never done for this blog and do not intend to - this is not about research and scholarship but about my thoughts on my reading - but I will give one small example: M. recalls that as Swann visits the family home at Combray the family would note the sound of the bell, not the "ferrugenous" sound of the bell that rang if someone walked through the door on his own but the softer sound of the bell a visitor would ring - and somehow this sound becomes associated with everything about Swann, his arrival, his personality, his meaning for the family and for M.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

European avant-garde fiction at its worst

Maybe I've just read too many of these kinds of novels recently but it strikes me that Ismael Kadare's newest novel, "The Accident," is an example of European avantgardism at its worst - the ur-type being the Renoir film Hiroshima Mon Amour, and a thousand similar works to follow, basically two hours or 200 pages of two lovers talking endlessly and elliptically about their relationship, with occasional obscure allusions to world politics and occasional grandiose statement about life and the cosmos but with nothing moving anywhere. Yes, I'm being unfair to Kadare. Yes he has written some very strong books. Yes he bravely wrote subversive fiction while living under the incredibly oppressive Albanian regime. And yes The Accident starts off really well - that's why I gave it 100 or so pages before packing it in. The inevitable two lovers die in a taxi crash on their way from hotel to airport. Why? What happened? Were they assassinated. The driver, who survives, claims to have seen in his mirror that they tried to kiss just before the crash - what is the meaning of that? I have to say, nearly half-way through the book, I still have no idea. It's not that I expect Kadare to write a conventional novel, nor did I expect this to be a novel of international espionage. But, please, something about the characters that will interest me in either of them. Instead, they're vacant, absences on the page. I don't know what makes them live much less what made them die.

Monday, May 2, 2011

More on what novels will be read in the 22nd century

Book group got derailed last night because of illness of one but the remainder met anyway socially and I posed question I raised in yesterday's post: what novels published in our lifetime (roughly since 1950) will people still be reading (in whatever form that may be!) a hundred years from now? Some of those I suggested yesterday came up, and there was general agreement that that farther back in time the easier it is to project the enduring qualities: that's why I can say pretty confidently that Catcher in the Rye will be read in the 22nd century but who really knows about Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace? Will they be classics, curiosities, or obscurities? Other suggestions from the group: LR immediately suggested Naked and the Dead (1948, I think), and I suppose at least one WWII novel will be still read, but not sure it's that one (does anyone even read it now?), maybe Catch22? Several then suggested the Pat Barker Ghost Road trilogy re World War I. Several also thought a few of the novels that have been made into reasonably good movies would endure: English Patient, Namesake, Remains of the Day, and especially Atonement. I'm not sure I agree about any of these - interesting how each of them, however, is contemporary but written about the past and (3 of them) in a "classic" style - they at least seem like classic books. There are a # of great novels of the past 20 years whose chances of enduring are hurt, I'm afraid, by the limited output of the writer: God of Small Things and, perhaps, The Known World, are two of the best novels of recent years, but they're not talked about much any more because the writers haven't really followed up. TP suggested Naipaul, probably A Bend in the River(hm, maybe), and RR suggested Baldwin's Another Country (seems less likely to me). I added Lolita as a possibility. MR added AS Byatt (again, a writer who writes as if she's writing classics), TP suggested Oe, though no particular book, and LR suggested Pahmuk's Snow and possibly something by Yehoshua. RR added The Old Man and the Sea, and M had what I think is the most likely suggestion of all: On the Road. Not the best book on the list by a long shot, but one that will probably find a readership as long as there are books - and roads.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

What books of the past 60 years will people still read a century from now?

500th consecutive daily post on this blog! Thought I'd celebrate by sharing some or thoughts on what novels published in my lifetime (lets say roughly past 60 years, since 1950) will be read a century from now? Not as easy a question as you might think: what books from 100-150 years ago do we still read? Very few of the ones that were popular in their day I think. I'm excluding from my thinking the genre fiction - I have no sense of which crime, scifi, fantasy, or YA fiction will still be on sale a century from now, in whatever forms books as we know them might actually be on sale, let alone read. But here are some thoughts:
First, yes, following from recent posts, which got me thinking about this, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a true classic that will endure.
Second, though the verge on YA fiction these days, the three most-assigned high-school novels of the 20th century will probably still be around in the 22nd: Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies.
What else? I would say Camus's The Stranger and, though not one of my personal faves, Toni Morrison's Beloved. Possibly, because of its unique stature, Things Fall Apart.
I wish I could say that something by Roth or Updike will be read, but I'm not so certain: No single book by either author seems to me to be the landmark, but I would hope readers for all time will turn to their works, particularly to the Rabbit novels and to Updike's stories.
Many other novels, so important to understanding life as we live it today, will probably someday be curiosities or fodder for scholars. Can you imagine what 22nd-century readers would make of Lolita, Gravity's Rainbow, Midnight's Children, Infinite Jest? They may study these books, but I doubt many outside of the academy will read them.