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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, January 31, 2012

Some questions about the veracity of The Sense of an Ending

Moving onto the second half of Julian Barnes's "The Sense an Ending," the confusion deepens: first half or so set this up as a 60ish divorcee (Tony) gets a letter for a lawyer and learns that the mother (whom he barely knew) of his college girlfriend (Veronica) has bequeathed him 500 pounds and the diary of one of his prep-school friends (Adrian) who'd killed himself (wrists, bathtub). Veronica, now holding the diary, declines to give it to Tony. They meet in London and she hands him instead a copy of a letter - a really cruel letter he'd written to her and Adrian back in their youth (she took up w/ Adrian after she and Tony and split). OK, first of all, there's no way in creation that Tony would have forgotten that he'd written this very cruel letter. Second, will we get any explanation at all as to why the mother had left Tony the $ and the diary? First half of Sense of an Ending was a little troublesome because, as noted in yesterday's post, it seems like an outline rather than a novel - rushing through plot elements and across time without sufficient detail (though there are detours for lots of meandering thought on the nature of history and how we can know the truth about past events - bright-student ruminations, but also a commentary on the nature of narrative fiction and the fallacy of memory in the absence of documentary evidence) - but now in the 2nd half, as Barnes slows the pace in order to let the plot develop some gravity, I'm not sure what the point of the plot is, after all. I remain curious, however, and will definitely get to "an ending" if not to "the sense."

Monday, January 30, 2012

Sense of an Ending: A novel? Or an outline for a novel?

In part, this is because I've just finished reading Proust's In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, so maybe it was a mistake to go next to this year's Booker-Man winner (and next month's book-club choice), Julian Barnes's "The Sense of an Ending," but - intriguing as parts of this very very short novel may be - doesn't it seem, at least half-way through it, like an outline for a novel? The story is about: Tony, a mature man looks back at his whole life, beginning with his days a young man from a middle- or perhaps working-class London family is part of a gang of three guys in what the English so amusingly still call a "public school" - and 4th guy joins the gang, by far the smartest of the lot. The boys graduate and go their separate ways, the narrator goes to a mid-level university, and he recounts his years of sexual frustration with his girlfriend. They break up. He graduates, travels, comes home to learn that smart friend, who'd gone to Cambridge, has committed suicide (also that he's started dating Tony's ex-girlfriend). Flash-forward many years, Tony now a divorcee living alone, gets a strange inheritance - ex-girlfriend's mother, whom he barely knew, leaves him 500 pounds and dead friend's diary. As you can see, there's a lot of potential plot here - but I don't think it's just that I've just finished Proust, who would have needed all 7 volumes to recount this much material, but it seems that Barnes is rushing through it - I don't believe a book (or a sentence) should be any longer than it needs to be, but this one feels underdeveloped, like a sketch for a screenplay. But we'll see what happens in the 2nd half - Barnes is well known for literary tricks and devices, and his title, with its echo of the great work of criticism by Kermode, hints at surprises in store. Or maybe not.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

We forgive Proust's flaws in the presence of his astonishing genius

Finished Marcel Proust's "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower," which ends, of course, with a series of astonishing and strange insights, as the narrator (M.) tries to kiss Albertine, is rebuffed as she calls for help, which leads him into a long series of speculations and thoughts about how he had initially thought that she was sexually experienced and now he has to reformulate all his thoughts about her, and of course therefore about her friends, and this leads to further examination of the essential theme in this work, which is the difference between our perceptions and reality, how the ideas we form in our mind are more vivid and in a sense more true than what we perceive with our senses - or, put another way, we live with our ideas and ideals but we should (or could) try to live like artists, which would mean seeing the world without any preconceptions at all - to erase our personalities so to speak - yet that way of living would e ultimately disappointing, nothing could measure up to the ideas our desires have formed - yet again that ultimate disappointment is what would prepare us for death. Hm - a rather grim philosophy, but a fitting credo for an artist who devoted his life to recollecting his memories and capturing, or regaining, these memories. On finishing the novel, I read translator James Grieve's introduction, which is a very good introduction to Proust, touching on all his major themes and difficulties (many or all of which I've discussed in this series of posts as well) as well as acknowledging some of his many flaws as a writer (carelessness about detail, inconsistency of tone, idiosyncratic plot development at best) that we forgive in the presence of astonishing genius.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

McDermott and McGarry: The Ruth and Gehrig of Irish-American fiction

Was very pleased to see story in current New Yorker, Someone, by Alice McDermott, for a # of reasons - have admired her work, but haven't really thought of her as a short-story writer (and this piece, though it stands alone well, may be part of her forthcoming novel, who knows?) - and was delighted to see that she is the Richard A. Macksey Professor at JHU - Dr. Macksey was by far my favorite professor when I was a student at Hopkins many years ago; oddly, I had very recently mentioned him in a post on Proust, and then his name comes up again - I am glad to see that he has an endowed chair in his name. As for McDermott, she and my old friend Jean McGarry must be a great team in Hopkins writing - between the two of them they have Irish-American urban families and girlhood pretty much locked up - McGarry a bit more of an avant-garde writer and more focused on shorter forms and McDermott more mainstream and focused on the longer forms. I recommend both authors to anyone! McDermott's story Someone is a great example of her themes and her style: a rather plain woman in Brooklyn (I think) in the 40s or so gets "courted" by a guy whom, we can see (and so can she) from the top is a no-good social climber - he cruelly dumps her - and she falls into deep sadness, and gets somewhat consoled by older brother who's left priesthood and has deep sadness of his own. Like all McDermott's work, it's filled with evocative period detail, with the sorrows of struggling families and ordinary people, and with mysterious intimations of grace. One very nice touch in this story is that, in a single paragraph, she steps way forward and looks back and gives is a tiny glimpse of this woman's life in the future - not as bleak as it may have seemed that terrible day when she faced a tremendous personal cruelty.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Anti-Semitism in Proust

What do we make of the casual, or not so casual, anti-Semitism in Proust's Search for Lost Time? Reading volume 2, "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower," it's kind of astonishing how crude and vulgar the so-called beautiful young girls are about the Jews whom they meet on the esplanade at Balbec. What makes this anti-Semitism (barely) tolerable is that, first of all, Proust seems to be including these remarks in order for us to see that the girls are nasty people and confined by the narrow view of their class and their time, and, second, the girls are pretty nasty to anyone and everyone not in their "gang" (we first meet them as the plow through the crowd and one of the girls memorably jumps over an elderly man startling him nearly to death). And yet: the Jewish characters that Proust portrays are pretty much caricatures: boorish, striving, clannish, all the stereotypes - even though Bloch, who is Jewish, is one of the narrator's best friends (though he's not friendly - we wouldn't like him). So is Proust anti-Semitic? And Swann - one of the more sympathetic characters in the novels - is Jewish, though his Jewishness is somethign he seems to have to get beyond - not acknowledge and accept. I've never read a Proust bio, but I seem to remember that he himself was part Jewish (though Jews can be the most anti-Semitic of all) - but that's no excuse. This writer who is more thoughtful and perceptive and introspective about everything in his culture could only be so derisive toward Jews by intent, not by accident or oversight. Proust is no Wagner, obviously, but the nastiness of his attitude toward Jews (toward himself?) is a really disturbing element within his strange and insular world.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Can the narrator of Search for Lost Time lead a happy life?

Even though Proust can sometimes drive you crazy - his narrator (M.) finally, at last - 400 pages in - meets Albertine and her friends in the "gang of girls" whom he'd admired on the beach at Balbec (to be fair, he doesn't get to Balbec till about page 200) - and after much fretting about how the image of the girl is often more satisfying than actually knowing the girl and about how once you know the girl you can no longer recall the perfect image you had of her before you knew her - and so on, and life goes on, and you miss all opportunity - how Proustian, and how true! - so finally, after all that he meets Albertine, and - you know what? - I find, on this reading, his jaunting about with the gang of girls to be one of the most pleasant interludes in the Search for Lost Time. Because: M. at last is having some fun. He's with some kids (albeit, not with some guys) about his age and he's enjoying being on the beach, bicycling, just screwing around. This is what the guy needs - he's 15 years old or so, and the real shadow he has to get away from is not the Young Girls in Flower but his overbearing family, all the nonsense of salons and artists and adults - and just be a kid for a while - he has to get out of the shadow of himself. It won't last, but it's a moment in the Search for Lost Time when you think that perhaps M. can lead a happy life.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The glove turned inside out: Metaphor in Proust

Only Proust: would spend dozens of pages and thousands of words describing the moments before the narrator (M.) meets the girls who will dominate his life (in later volumes of Search for Lost Time), Albertine Simonet - the build-up to the "meet," the anticipation is for Proust more rich with meaning and feeling and even more climactic than than the relationship itself. So strange - it's a feeling that everyone knows, that every high-school student/teenager lives with and endures, the idealization of someone admired from afar, the moments, the hours, the life you imagine the two of you will have together, the conversations and interactions you fantasize and create - the image of the believed that you've created becomes more real than the beloved herself/himself and in fact the image becomes that which you love - and actually meeting the beloved can be only a disappointment - so you build the anticipation and hold on to it as long as possible - yes, everyone knows and understands this, but Proust alone makes art of this feeling - and the strange thing is that the process of idealizing the beloved is something like the process of writing a story or a novel, something created from nothing but memories and feelings, a life built of words. This another one of the Proustian twists, images and ideas falling in upon themselves, reversing like a glove flipped inside out: so often in Proust (as my old mentor Richard Macksey observed to me many years ago) a metaphor reverses: begins as X is like Y but by the end of the journey, is really a description not of Y but of X itself.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The 3 great artistic heroes of the Search for Lost Time, and what they signify

Three artistic heroes in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past): the novelist Bergotte, the painter Elstir, and the composer Vinteuil. Bergotte and Elstir play fairly significant roles in volume 2, "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower," and Vinteuil doesn't emerge until later in the series, though perhaps he (or his work) is the most significant of all. One striking thing about all three of these artists is that each is fictional - though the narrator, M., has many references through the Search to real artists, writers, and composers of the past and contemporary with the setting of the novel (ca 1897-98) - in a weird Proustian twist, the decision to make the three artist heroes (heroes to M., who worships the work of each of them, and then goes through the sometimes bewildering experience of getting to know the artist), the fictional artists become by far the most real. It would have been foolish and disastrous had Proust chosen real contemporary artists to be characters in this novel - we would then have judged the novel based on its veracity, rather than on its truth. With both Bergotte and Elstir, part of M.s experience in knowing them is learning that they may be great artists but not necessarily great personalities, thinkers, conversationalists, or friends. Both share a philosophy - though somewhat different between writing (Bergotte) and painting (Elstir) of the elimination of the personality of the artist: Bergotte talks about the artist reducing himself to a mirror and Elstir about forgetting everything he knew (i.e., giving up all preconceptions about how things ought to look) in order to paint: both of these are descriptions of Proust's art, as well, a negative capability that removes his personality, even though the novel is the story of his interior (and public) life and simply looks as the world as it is, not as a writer might preconceive it to be.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The point where the homoerotic subtext almost breaks through - in The Search for Lost Time

Let's figure this out: the narrator (M.) in Marcel Proust's "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower" (2nd volume of In Search of Lost Time) observes a "gang" of beautiful girls walking on the esplanade, is overwhelmed with desire, wants to meet them, so decides to go to the restaurant where he believes they dine, Rivebelle, with his (older) friend, St.-Loup, and at the restaurant gets very drunk, over-tips, makes eye contact with various women who are alone and whom he believes to be "loose" or at best in between loves/affairs and looking for someone new, but he doesn't act on any of these desires, doesn't meet anyone in fact - so what's this about? Could it be that the real object of his desire is St.-Loup? This may be the point in the 7-volume series when the homoerotic subtext comes closest to breaking through the surface and becoming the guiding principle of the novels. St.-Loup, oddly, has a girlfriend, supposedly, an actress, supposedly, who's off in some other town, and he goes off to visit her regularly - but oddly she never visits him and M. never sees her. Does it sound to you like she may not be a girlfriend at all? Proust is probably the greatest writer of all time in the use of indirection - what he doesn't tell and doesn't describe is as powerful a presence in his work as what he does - and the great unexplored continent of the Search is the homoerotic desires of the narrator, M. - But why did Proust choose to structure the novel as hetero-erotic - a convention of the time?, a requirement for literary publication in that time? the same crushing restriction under which Forster lived and labored, or didn't, for so many years? or an artistic decision - a way of broadening the cast and scope of the Search?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Marcel Proust gets ready for dinner (i.e, 10 pages)

Marcel Proust (or his narrator, M - but whom are we kidding?) getting ready for dinner - wouldn't you expect that to take about five hour? or about 10 densely packed pages? And it does! In "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower," as M. comes in from the esplanade, thinking about the "gang of girls," the unattainable ones he's been admiring on the esplanade, and prepares to go out to dinner with his friend St.-Loup at a restaurant called Rivebelle (?), he first: gets in long discussion with the "lift" (elevator operator) about the Simonet family (he'd heard one of the girls may be Simonet) and asks if they're at the hotel, lies down on his bed and goes through several pages of description of the light coming through the windows of his room - this, actually, one of the most beautiful passages in all of the Search for Lost Time, and a bit unusual in that M. draws no conclusion, analogy, or metaphor from these observations, it's just a chance for him to show us the way he perceives the changing light of and above the sea and how he imagines the differences between looking at nature and the representation of nature in art - then gets dressed for dinner, some speculation about how as the season changes he will no longer be able to step directly in from the porch or front lawn into the dining area (they will close the glass partitions for warmth) - at last arriving at the restaurant where M. is uncharacteristically confident (the presence of the dashing, and older, St.-Loup encourages this) and indulgent - drinking heavily, tipping too much - everything's great, but where are the girls that he's hoping to impress with all his elan? Could it be that it's St.-Loup whom he really wants to impress? Is he even - for all his perspicacity - aware of this?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Metaphors so strange, apt, and Proustian

What adolescent guy, or girl for that matter, or anyone who's passed through adolescence and survived, will fail to identify with the "gang of girls" section of Proust's "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower," during which the narrator, M., on the esplanade at the seaside town of Balbec, observes the gang or band of beautiful young women - aloof and self-centered and unattainable - as he watches them push their way through the crowds, completely unaware of the feelings and sensibilities of anyone else - one of the beautiful girls actually jumping over the chair of an elderly invalid, just for kicks, and M. is stunned by their beauty and yearns for them but knows (or believes) that none will notice him except to laugh at him in scorn - some of Proust's most vivid and incredible similes or metaphors here, for, one M. describes a moment with the girl with mica-chip eyes looks at him and he yearns so deeply for her and imagines a whole life for her and a life together with her, then notes that it's like looking through a telescope at a planet's surface and imagining that you can see people there and imagining that they in turn may be looking at you and thinking about your life - just as hopeless and unlikely. Another great passage in which M. suggests that imagining he understand the girls by looking at them is like one served fish in a restaurant and imagining that that's the whole existence of the fish, without knowing about the person catching the fish and the beautiful creature swimming just out of sight in the azure water - so strange, so apt, and so Proustian.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Bolano's fragmentary story and Donald Hall's great essay in the current New Yorker

The New Yorker deserves credit for more or less discovering Roberto Bolano and introducing him to English-language readers, though it's too bad they couldn't have discovered him while he was still alive - but his posthumous fame has been remarkable and either heartening or disheartening to other writers, depending on your point of view. I guess we have to assume that most or all of his great works are now in print and in translation, but we will still be getting pieces and fragments, no doubt, over many years, such as the short story in the current New Yorker, which is in the form of an exquisitely detailed picture of 8 French 1970s intellectuals sitting at a table in a crowded sidewalk cafe - Bolano examines each of the writers (some pretty well known, others not) and imagines their lives and inter-relations outside the frame of the photograph - not a great story but a bit of a tightrope walk, a daring experiment, and amusing at times as Bolano thinks about the sexual relations among the couples (and inevitably we keep turning back to the photo and thinking: they did that! with him?) - funny; and also funny that he seems to have introduced a version of himself as a young man (not in the photo) who visited some of these writers at their magazine (tel quel) office and was pretty roundly snubbed - and Bolano, from wherever he is, or his heirs, are now getting the last laugh as he's clearly the greatest writer of the whole nonette. A footnote: the Donald Hall essay, Out the Window, is probably the best piece in the current New Yorker, a beautiful and sad and thoughtful essay on growing old and on the narrowing of one's views and capacities, combined with the deep, reflective sensibility of age - not wisdom so much as perception and acceptance. He describes his world as ever-narrowing circles - but he could also have described it as ever sharper perceptions of a smaller domain.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A note on the translation of the titles of Proust's Search for Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past

Wrapping up the very long first section of "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower," Proust's 2nd volume of In Search of Lost Time - with more strange behavior by the sinister M. de Charlus, who gives the narrator, M., hell over some weird minor infraction and tells him that will be good for him - hes obvious a cruel, even sadistic man, who would ordinarily be shunned by society, by everyone, but because of his great wealth and his many titles, which he says he scorns but which obviously are very important to his self-image and have made him the powerful man that he is, he can get away with about anything - as we see through the ensuing volumes. Oddly, the "young girls in flower" have not yet appeared in this volume - 350 or so pages in; odd, in that my memory from previous reading was that the whole volume was about M. meeting Albertine on the beach at Balbec. Been reconciled to the Grieve translation of this volume, which at the outset I considered a little choppy - translating Proust is a daunting task, and I have found many beautiful passages in this translation. One thing I do admire about this new translation is the fidelity of the volume titles: the Moncrieff translation titles - this volume was Within a Budding Grove - are more mellifluous and "poetic" - but they're not Proust's titles (including Remembrance - if Proust had wanted to evoke Shakespeare or any other writer, he would have done so and Moncrieff should not have done so for him). Oddly, though, the final volume gets translated as Finding Time Again, when the title clearly (I think) should the Time Regained or Time Found or Time Recaptured - not Finding...

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The man who hates himself: Baron de Charlus, in Search of Lost Time

About 2/3rds of the way through "in the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower," the second volume of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, Proust introduces probably the strangest character in the whole work, Baron de Charlus - he may have been mentioned or cited earlier, but this is the narrator's first encounter with the Baron. When introduced, he stares at the narrator (M.) repeatedly as M. walks near the Hotel-Grand in Balbec-Plage, and when they're introduced he pointedly and completely ignores M., then steps over to him and privately invites him and his grandmother to join him (and Mme de Villeparsis, his relative) for tea. When M. later joins the tea gathering, Charlus again ignores him, finally offering him his hand in a weird two-finger handshake, and implies that M. had never been invited - and when M. calls him on this, Charlus ignores M. What to make of this? First, Charlus is one of those self-centered noblemen (so-called) who say that rank and class means nothing to them - and the say it so often that obviously it means everything. Second, he has, M. learns from his friend St. Loup, cultivated a reputation as a "lady's man," and on one occasion had a guy severely beaten for making a pass at him (he's supposedly very handsome). Anyone will pick up that his staring at M. and privately inviting him to tea is a come-on, and we lean later in the work that Charlus is homosexual (or bisexual) - so there's clearly an element here of self-hatred (he becomes more open about his sexuality late in the series) - and also a bit of Proust's self-hatred or fear of his own identity, as his narrator, so closely modeled on Proust, resembles P. in everything except sexual orientation. Charlus is such a hateful person, cruel to everyone, because, first of all, he can get away with it since he's rich and title, and second because he hates himself or at least some aspect of himself.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

In the shadow of young girls, maybe, but Proust's narrator is one of the most isolate characters in literature

If you read no other passage in Marcel Proust's "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower," read the few pages on the "3 trees" that the narrator, M., sees on a carriage ride near Balbec-Plage: he sees these trees and has the odd feeling that they have some kind of deep significance in his life, and then goes on to examine many of the ways in which a visual image can stir us and move us - the best examination I've ever seen of the phenomenon of deja-vu: are the trees something he saw long ago and can no longer recall, something that he saw in a different form now changed, something rising from a dream, he can't quite grasp it - and P. uses some grerat imagery to explain the feeling of a thought lying just beyond our grasp - and has that eerie sensation that these trees are eluding him and then they're past, as the carriage moves on: my one true chance for happiness, he thinks. What a sad character M can be at times. I was actually planning to write a post about how he has essentially no male friends and then - 300 pp in this volume, his one friend from the first volume, Bloch, reappears and a new friend, though a dubious one, St. Loup, is introduced: their presence aside, M, though surrounded by family, by social engagements, and, at least later in the Search for Lost Time, by "young girls," is truly one of the most isolate characters or narrators in literature.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The unwritten subtext of In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past)

Considering how much I've written and posted on social class and literature, it's kind of odd that I'm half-way through Marcel Proust's "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower," 2nd volume of In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past) and I have not yet touched this issue. Why? Proust himself focuses on class quite a bit, but in the narrowest and most circumscribed manner. In the passages I've just read in this volume he has a little exposition on the aristocracy/nobility and its relation with the "lower" classes - how when a nobleman makes conversation with those "below" him he can develop a reputation as such a "great guy," someone you can really relate to (my words, not Proust's obviously) - but as soon as it's time to marry off his daughter he'll choose an absolute dolt so long as he's got a title. Proust has no sympathy whatever for the many marquises and princesses he writes about - but admittedly they're an easy target and he doesn't much care for anyone or any class, for that matter. The great subtext is that the characters throughout the Search are incredibly privileged, they have essentially no serious working lives, they spend huge amounts of time gossiping and angling for status and stabbing one another in the back - the only hero is the narrator himself, because of his extraordinary perception, style, and humor - but isn't his world too circumscribed? Isn't there a vast world beyond the salons and drawing rooms that he's entirely unaware of? Why, with all his perspicacity, does he never examine the society that affords him his prestige and his leisure - obviously at the expense of others? Proust examines life with greater depth and detail than any other novelist, but there are vast areas of human experience that are unexamined in his work as well. I will continue to think about this matter, the unwritten subtext of the Search, and try to determine what it means exactly.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

First 20 pages of Place Names, The Place: In Search of Lost Time in miniature

The second part (Place Names - The Place, how typically odd and Proustian that phrase is) of Marcel Proust's "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower" starts off with some of his greatest, most memorable, most representative writing - this would be an excellent starting point for anyone curious about whether they would like to try reading the whole Search of Lost Time: this section recounts the narrator's (M's) summer visit to the Grand Hotel in the fictive town of Balbec-Plage. Among the great elements of the first 20 or so pages: M. is nervous about leaving his familiar Paris, doctor suggests he drink some beer or liqueur so as not to have an asthma attack, we get some hilarious passage of M. under alcohol euphoria (the beautiful shiny silver buttons on the conductor's jacket - what a fine fellow!), terrific description of the hotel and the officious manager, the elevator/lift - like a captive squirrel - M. nervous first night in hotel room and thinking about familiarity and habit and the terror of thinking that someday those you love will be gone and eventually you won't miss them - the horror of thinking of yourself in the future as not missing someone you love now - who will you be then?; first walk in Balbec and the disgust at the crowds; visit to the church he'd longed to see in Balbec and deep disappointment at seeing the real thing in mundane surroundings rather than pure as in a gallery; the Asperger-like obsession with the names or railroad stations; the confrontation with the nobility snobs who claim their own tables in the dining room - so much, a Search for Lost Time in miniature.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Proust as the foundation for 6 million French films

Toward the end of the first section (at mme Swann's) of "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower," Proust does a hilarious exposition on happiness and misery - the loover always miserable and depressed when the beloved won't return his affections but, once she (or he) does is equally distressed because of, what?, disappointment? abatement of the passion expended in pursuit the beloved? - who knows? - except that it leads Proust to the very weird conclusion that, when you get right down to it: Happiness is impossible. This may be a ridiculous statement, but it become the basis for about 6 million French movies (and novels maybe) and (mostly French) literary criticism through the 20th century and up to today. I can remember endless analysis in grad school of the narcissism of minor differences and the "double" and how love and hate are so entwined and the impossibility of falling in love with the right person: think of Midsummer Night's Dream as the ur-text here. It all comes from Proust and his obsession about his pursuit, as a young man, of Gilberte (and later of Albertine): he loves her so much he changes his entire career to be near her in Paris, he waits for letters, when they don't arrive he vows that he will never see her again, he turns down invitations to meet with her, then he goes to meet her and is horrified to see her walking on the Champs with a young man, then begins another cycle of not seeing her, and so forth. You can't always get what you want = but in Proust it's an endless cycle of rejecting what you want when you can get it.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The tedious passages in Proust - and what they mean

Let's be honest and acknowledge that reading Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past) is a little like a cross-country road trip - some stunningly beautiful scenes - mountains, rivers, prairies, towering cities, great lakes - that you will always remember and in between some long passages of tedium when you're totally road-weary. That's why nobody reads all 7 volumes in sequence, and it's why reading even one - e.g., "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower" - is challenging and unsettling. After some beautiful observations on the nature of art and genius - M.'s meeting with the great novelist Bergotte at Mme Swann's - Proust goes off on some long gossipy sections in which Odette and Mmmes Bontemps and Cottard get catty with one another: Proust is almost absurdly and obsessively interested in the social pecking order of various Parisian salons - of course by the end of the Search his narrator will realize the absurdity himself, as he surveys his fallen society and reflects on his lost youth. But these passages are langeurs, if that's the right word, and though they can be tedious at times they are also part of the journey - of what makes the Search a great novel and of, in fact, what makes up a life.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

New Yorker story with echoes of Hemingway and others

Story in this week's New Yorker, A Brief Encounter with the Enemy, by Said Sayrafezideh (I know I've misspelled his last name - hope I'm close) is a surprise: first of all, be honest, didn't you think this would be a story by a Pakistani or an Arab from the Mideast? And in fact it turns out to be, or at least seems to be, by a young American writer telling a war story: about a mid-20s man who enlists in part to impress girls and because his office-clerk career is going nowhere, finds himself in an unnamed country pretty far from the battlefields (maybe it's Afghanistan, but SS's point is it could be any land at war), where his brigade works for about a year building a bridge to get to a mountain that's supposed to be a redoubt of the enemy, but when they get to the mountain - they don't find anyone. The soldier climbs the mountain on patrol on the day before they're to be flown home and he's shocked to see a man with what he thinks is a goat or a sheep crossing a field. With his very high-tech and sci-fi like weapon (is story set in future?) he shoots the man and his son, from a great distance (the gun doesn't even have to be aimed - it does its job almost robotically) - some very weird scenes in this story, the soldiers waving to a passing fleet of planes and learning later that they're drones, for example - and it will remind us at its best of Hemingway, the start simple language to describe the most horrendous of events - and of O'Brien, the daily tedium and sudden rush of life at war. A very well-told, simple story with both humor and darkness - and a new writer on the scene worth watching.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

In Search of Lost Time: A novel (novels) about evocation, not representation

Following up on yesterday's post about Marcel Proust's commentary on the art of fiction through the device of the famous writer Bergotte whom his narrator M. meets at a dinner party in "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower," Bergotte a strange conversationalist who's talk is a porridge of catty gossip, scathing critiques, and nearly opaque observations - and how is it then that he can be one of the great writers of his time? In M.'s terminology, he has reduced his personality to a mirror, to paraphrase, and is therefore a negative personality but retains the capacity to reflect all that is around him, even if what's around him is trivial, coarse, or mundane - that transformative power itself is the art of fiction - Proust probably the only great writer in history to set this as his objective and to achieve it. This pure reflective quality, the capturing of a moment, place, mood, is in most minds much more akin to poetry, especially lyric poetry, which captures and preserves a mood or an insight - a la the Grecian urn - and rarely, till Proust, associated with long fiction, which one would think would need a narrative arc, a plot, characters who grow and change, and though Proust gives all that in his In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past) - his narrator does grow and learn and mature and become old, and the world around him changes as war encroaches - the essential mood of the set of novels is much like that of a poem - the famous madeleine, and also in this 2nd volume the smell from a public lavatory reminding Proust of another childhood memory - a novel entirely about evocation rather than representation.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Proust's description of the art of the novel

Playing with the idea that art "holds the mirror up to nature," Flaubert famously described the novel as like a mirror held up on a highway - reflecting, therefore, not just nature, that is, one scene or person, but an entire society in movement and transition. Marcel Proust takes that simile in a different direction in one of the great sections of "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower," as his narrator, Marcel, describes his meeting with the great novelist whom he deeply admires, Bergotte. There are many powerful and memorable images in this sequence of the novel, and particularly striking if somewhat expected is his disappointment at seeing that Bergotte is a very ordinary-looking, even homely, guy and that in fact his dinner-table conversation is at best enigmatic and perhaps dull. But then Proust uses this encounter as a springboard from which he leaps into a deep and somewhat weird, even for Proust, discussion of what literature is. Bergotte, in his his quizzical fashion, says (or M interprets what he says) that the artist must make a mirror of himself - and the idea that Proust conveys here is, first, that the artist need not be an extraordinary personality but must have almost an invisible or transparent personality along with the ability to reflect what is all around him, and, second, that the surrounding world in itself need not be "interesting" or dramatic or historic - all that is necessary is for the artist to reflect the world, whatever it is, accurately and completely - this very transformation of action into words is the essence of literary art - and perfect description of Proust's art in particular.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Holocaust novel that never mentions the word: Nemesis

OK so not everyone in book group loved Philip Roth's "Nemesis" - in fact some criticized Roth for committing the cardinal sin of fiction writing, telling not showing, and others were on him for weak, stilted dialog. These are egregious faults, but I just don't see Roth as guilty as accused: the so-called stilted dialog accurately captures Bucky's two-dimensional world view and his rigid moral code - we have to see him as a straight-arrow and a square to understand how out of character it is for him to resign his position in Newark and head off to the safety of the country, leaving the boys behind him. Some also were puzzled by the javelin-toss episode with which Roth ends the book - which I think was a brilliant way for him to leave us with the image of Bucky as a hero, even in what's essentially no more than a game (not a war hero, that is); also the device of having one of the boys narrate the story from much later in life gives it more of a verisimilitude than it would have if the story were Roth 3rd-person narration. Most important, we have to see the story as functioning on many levels, not just Bucky as an avatar for Roth, as noted in earlier posts, but also as the novel being the only Holocaust novel that never says the word - that's why Roth set it in 1944 (when apparently there was no polio outbreak in Newark) - to bring forward the distant echo of the extermination of the Jews in Europe. Also the novel is for me one of the greatest depictions of a society turned against itself - the suspicion of everyone as a potential carrier is as creepy as anything in a horror movie - and Roth's depiction of Newark - the neighborhood tensions, the heat, the noise of the sirens - and in contrast the beautiful and seemingly (but not really) countryside of Pennsylvania is one of the great strengths of this book, matching Roth's best writing from anywhere in his career.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Two loathesome creatures in this week's New Yorker fiction offering

The New Yorker returns this week to publishing what is obviously an excerpt from a soon-to-be-released novel, this time the xcerpt is called Expectations, by John Lanchester, a British writer - and I think this excerpt serves his cause well, as it's very readable, funny, a skewering of a British currency trader waiting for his annual xmas bonus and figuring out how he can spend the expected money, all the while his wife is plotting to leave him, at least temporarily, to see if he can fend for himself with the two kids. Well, you can certainly hear the echos of Tom Wolfe and, perhaps, of Kramer v. Kramer. What makes this Lanchester piece distinctive, however, is that the two characters are totally despicable and loathsome creatures - selfish, vulgar, entitled. Okay, it's kinds fun to read about them for a few pages - but a whole book? I don't know. He's picked a very easy target and smashed it to smithereens. And who doesn't enjoy the schadenfreude of watching the undeserving super-rich make a total mess of their privileged lives? Of course in a novel (or a movie) characters have the space to change, evolve - Kramer v Kramer, and Bonfire of the Vanities, q.v. - but not in short pieces such as this excerpt, which leads me to think that Lanchester's novel may be better, more palatable, than what we're reading in TNYer, at least it has a chance of turning these two people into characters we might care about, but please don't let it be another one of those male-fantasy stories in which the dad ends up outperforming the mom at parenthood.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

How to make sense of Marcel's obsession with Gilbert in In Search of Lost Time

Is there any way to explain the strangeness of narrator Marcel's obsession with Gilbert Swann, in Marcel Proust's "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower": a peculiar and unique quality of Proust's passionate feelings? A convention of the time and place? a cryptic literary heterosexual enactment of feelings that in fact were homoerotic? One essential strangeness of the relation is that the narrator, though age is undefined, has to be about 12-14 - careful readers will note that when M wrestles with Gilbert over possession of some object (a photo?) he ejaculates. We're told Gilbert is 14. Yet: the social conventions around their relationship would suggest they're much younger: M. looks forward daily to going to the Champs-Elysee to "play" with Gilbert - as if they're little children. In fact, he needs to be accompanied by the maid, Francois. So that all makes no sense. Yet: Proust's description of M's yearning for Gilbert and his fixation of what Gilbert's parents really think of him is the sentiment of a much older child, a teenager or precocious 12-year-old maybe. The only way I can make sense of it is to read the novel on one literal level and then to "read" the unspoken text of the novel - M. is really yearning to see a boy his age with whom he's fallen in love. That would explain why the friendship is encouraged, conventional, within the social boundaries - but also explains why M. is so tortured about this relationship - it's an erotic attraction that he feels he must keep hidden - though we learn over the course of In Search of Lost Time that homo-eroticism is far more prevalent in the highest reaches of Parisian society than the young M. can imagine.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Humor in Proust: One scene from In the Shadow of Young Girls ... and its significance

Marcel Proust's humor can at times be so elusive and subtle as to be nearly invisible - a great example being in the beginning of "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower," as narrator (Marcel) returns from the theater where he had been hugely disappointed to see his idol, La Berma, perform in a way that he thought was totally bland and pedestrian. He joins his father and the retired ambassador M. de Norpois for an extended discussion - de Norpois can go on interminably, even by Proust's standards. Norpois is surprised that Marcel (he's about 14 years old) didn't like Berma, and M asks Norpois to please explain why she's so great - and de Norpois goes off on a long harangue about her incredible taste - in clothing/costumes, in selection of roles, and so on. It's obvious, or ought to be (maybe some miss this point) that de Norpois is a fool, has no ideas of his own about art or beauty (or maybe anything) and just repeats "received ideas." M is quiet and polite, but eventually observes, self-mockingly, of course, why couldn't I see why she was so brilliant to choose the role of Phedre. Not only is it very funny, but it's also a seminal moment in the development of M as a character or actually as the writer and genius from whom he stands - Proust. He is just beginning to understand judgment and criticism and original ideas - in the world of endless gossip and social climbing into which he's born, he begins to understand where his destiny lies and how that will separate him, inevitably, from those to whom he's closest. It's a very unconventional coming-of-age story that goes well beyond the boundaries of young man growing into adulthood - it's one of the greatest and most profound novels ever written - but this is a great example of Proust's subtlety, understatement, and trust in his reader's perspicacity.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Contrasts between opening of Swann's Way and In the Shadow of Young Girls

The 2nd volume of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past), "In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, the Grieve translation - can it be that this translation is not as fluid and beautiful as the Davis translation of Swann's Way? I find myself backtracking and re-reading a surprising number of sentences - is it the Grieve is Australian and his cadences are a little different from Americans'? Or is it that the tone and style of volume 2 is slightly different from volume 1? Clearly, the opening of volume 2 is more pedestrian and matter-of-fact (for Proust) than the famous lyrical opening section of Swann's Way. In the Shadow begins with some of the narrator's observations on two rather different characters - the stuffy doctor Cottard, and the formal retired diplomat de Norpois - and then it gets kind of funny, as the narrator (Marcel, as we much later learn) announces that he wants to pursue a career in literature (mainly, to stay in Paris to be near Giselle on whom he has a crush - he's probably about 12 years old?) - and of course his father is skeptical, but surprisingly Norpois tells M's father that literature is a viable career and he has little faith in the newer crop of diplomats - this opens a whole world of possibilities for M. Section moves along as M wants to go to the theater to see the famous Berma perform - but only in a classic, e.g., Phedre, as it would be a disappointment and unsettling to see her perform something contemporary - he goes with his aunt and is stunned at how mediocre her performance is. This is a seminal moment for M - as he learns not to accept received ideas of greatness, to make independent judgments, to not be influenced by reputation - important and empowering concepts for a young writer or critic to understand and feel.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Philip Roth's avatar

Somehow I don't think I captured what I was trying to get at in yesterday's post on Philip Roth's short novel "Nemesis": the relation between the protagonist, Bucky Cantor, and Roth himself. There are so many levels at which to read this excellent novel: literally, as a great and sad story about a young man who faces an ethical dilemma and makes a decision he will regret for the rest of his life; existentially, about the nature of good and evil and faith and chance in a troubled world allegorically, as a story in which the polio epidemic can also represent other forms of contagion and ostracism: the Holocaust most obviously but also the human need to find scapegoats and to assign blame when confronted with fate, evil, or mischance. And another level as well - Bucky as an avatar for the author, who leaves his insular and inbred Jewish Newark community for a place in the wider world, but then finds himself inevitably drawn back to the world he'd left behind, in fact builds his whole career by repeated exorcism of the ghosts of the world of his childhood, and who as a result is blamed, scapegoated, or ostracized as a traitor to his race and as a hater of the Jews. Bucky in personality is entirely unlike Roth - in fact of all Roth's protagonists the least likely to ever write a comic (or seriocomic, or serious) novel - yet in another way the arc of his life story seems to foretell, or perhaps reenact, Roth's journey as an artist.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Bucky Cantor as a version of Roth in Nemesis

Has anyone who's read "Nemesis" wondered to what extent the lead character, Bucky Cantor, is a version of the author, Philip Roth? I'm not one who likes to reduce every story or novel to an autobiographical document and I understand that a novel is a "text" that has an existence independent, to some degree, of its authorship and its historical particulars and that we can understand a novel by deconstructing it rather than by obeisance before it as a holy scripture - and yet, Roth is an author who is constantly playing with his own presence within his fiction, has written several novels that include the character Philip Roth, not exactly the same thing as the writer Philip Roth, and others with clearly Rothian characteristics. But Bucky? At first, he seems very unlike Roth - small, very athletic, severe, humorless, wracked by guilt and torn by ethical quandaries, though devoted to family ashamed of his ignoble parentage (on father's line) and feels he has to make good for his father's failings. On deeper examination, though, aren't there Roth qualities to Bucky: we learn through the novel that he feels he has to escape from the venomous climate of Newark, he leaves for isolation in the countryside, at first that seems healthy, but he's drawn inevitably back to the miseries of his native city, and ultimately is blamed, and blames himself, for spreading a pestilential disease (polio) among the Jews of Newark. Isn't this in some way a version of Roth's difficult relations with the Jewish readership? The author may see himself as a hero, but to others he may be the one who spreads disease. At the end, Bucky is alone, childless, living in narrow confines while life goes on all around him - that's a crude exaggeration of Roth's life - by all accounts he has a rich and vibrant social life - but there's something about the isolation and self-imposed exile that they may share.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Is Nemesis really about the polio epidemic - or something else?

Re-reading Philip Roth's most-recent novel, "Nemesis," which is our book-group selection for this month, and find it just as great or even better second time through - also makes an interesting contrast with his first novel, Letting Go (1962), which I just finished: where LG was long and somewhat unfocused, Nemesis is very tightly constructed, focuses on one summer (1944) and the life of one young man, Bucky Cantor, a gym teacher and playground director, during a polio epidemic in Newark (was there really an epidemic that summer?), as one after another youngsters in Newark catch the contagious disease and die, Bucky, tormented by guild because he was rejected for military service and his two best friends are fighting in Europe, has to decide whether to stay on as summer playground director or take a job in a summer camp and get to be with his fiancee. He's a really complex Rothian character: he wonders about the cruelty of a god that would allow a disease like polio, he is clearly driven to be noble and heroic to compensate for his family background (his dad was a thief, who abandoned him at childbirth), he is drawn to his fiancee and her family because of their much higher social stature - clearly looking for a father figure in her dad - and he ultimately makes the choice to go to the camp - and as he enters it is clear to him, and to us of course, that the camp in the Poconos is another world, clean and cool and privileged, not the tough streets of Newark, sweltering and infectious, sounds of sirens in the night. But is he safe? Can you escape the disease? And most important - is it really polio that Roth is writing about, or something else? Notably, there's not a word in the novel (at least first half) about the Holocaust and the murder of the Jews in Europe.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Roth's Heroes: The Many Guises of the Protagonist in Roth's novels

At the conclusion of Philip Roth's debut novel, "Letting Go," the protagonist is completely isolated - living alone in London, estranged from his father (apparently remarried - Roth, probably sensing that this novel could go on forever, wisely decided to forgo some of the dramatic scenes he was building toward: the re-marriage of Dr. Wallach, the confrontation between the Herzes and the Bigonesses when the Herzes show up - if they ever actually do? - to claim their adopted baby, Rachel), cut off from the Herzes, now presumably happy as young parents (though their loveless, sexless marriage seems deeply troubled), cut off from former girlfriend Martha, who presumably is married or about to be to lawyer Jaffe - none of the characters ends up truly happy, even though the ending is traditionally "comic": marriages, things born and reborn. Roth also leaves one thing strangely ambiguous: our last scene with Wallach has him collapsed on the floor, victim of some kind of stroke or seizure, and I'm not sure how to interpret that. Does he fully recover? Why in the end is he in London and not in Greece or Turkey (he was applying for jobs in those locales)? It's not clear what became of Gabe Wallach, but we do know what will become of him: he will go on to be, in many guises, the protagonist-hero-victim in dozens of other Roth novels, the many other versions of the Jewish-American intellectual hero in crisis and agony (Portnoy, Kepesch, Zuckerman, Roth himself, et al.).