Monday, August 29, 2016

26.2 miles with Marcel; I will bring bottled water

In the summer of 2006, I think, I read Marcel Proust's novel Swann's Way. Most of that reading was done in a porch swing during very pleasant weather. I don't remember what edition/translation I read, but when I finished "Place Names," I thought, "Now that was an interesting book. I assume I'll read the other five volumes someday." A decade passed, alarmingly quickly, and I did not read any of the subsequent books of In Search of Lost Time though I read some of Proust's shorter works here and there, now and then. Mostly then. Mighty Reader, in the meanwhile, kept reading and finished In Search of Lost Time as well as, I think, everything else of Proust's that has been translated into English (except for that novel that is apparently a sort of short rough draft of ISoLT). Anyway, this unfinished business has remained a nagging voice in my pre-conscious mind, and last fall, or maybe last winter, Mighty Reader and I declared that we would spend the summer of 2016 performing A Duet in Search of Time to Read, which is to say, a two-person readalong of ISoLT.

Summer of 2016 is, as we can all see, mostly past us, at least in the Northern Hemisphere of Planet Earth. However, the time finally almost seems ripe for this event. As soon as Mighty Reader finishes her Jasper Fforde re-read and I finish that Dinesen book which I can probably put aside until 2017 anyway as it's just not sending me, we will be off and running for our marathon Proust read. I don't know why I am telling you any of this. Do you care if I read Proust? No, you do not, just as I was only vaguely yet politely interested to hear about your own reading of Proust, those of you who have done. But still, here I am, typing away. Where was I?

For the Proust marathon, I will be reading this set, which Mighty Reader so kindly gave me on my recent birthday. Mighty Reader will be employing a variety of translations, just like the last time she read the complete In Search of Lost Time.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

John Williams, "Stoner"

Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.
Despite it's shortcomings, John Williams' 1965 novel Stoner has at its core a great strength: the love of literature, of poetry, of language, the love of engaging in depth with literature and its language, and even a love of the way that the central meaning to humanity of the arts is something that cannot, in the end, be fully expressed. I take it that the disappointments our protagonist William Stoner meets in life are a metaphor for the disappointment one experiences when one discovers that the greatest works of language leave us all essentially incoherent if we attempt to fully interpret and evaluate. We pursue that which we love, we pursue the idea of that which we love, and we never are able to possess or understand it. Or something like that.

I think this is all stated for the reader in a scene early on in the book, where Stoner, who has enrolled in an agronomic science program at the University of Missouri, finds himself entrapped within a survey of English literature, a course required of all students, a course that "troubled and disquieted him in a way nothing had ever done." Stoner has never been challenged before to find actual meaning in poetry: "the words he read were words on pages, and he could not see the use." The man teaching the course, Archer Sloane, reads out Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, which likens a man growing old to an ancient tree in the winter. It is not one of Shakespeare's more difficult sonnets, no, but it's new to Stoner as is, I think, the very idea of metaphor. Sloane calls on several students to say what the sonnet means, getting no response. Sloane calls on Stoner, who says nothing. Sloane recites the sonnet again, from memory, and asks Stoner to tell him what it means. Stoner thinks hard and sees, for the first time, that the sonnet is more than mere words on a page, that there is something beyond the surface of the language. Stoner vaguely connects the ideas of winter weather outside the classroom with the aging man who is a leafless old tree in the sonnet, but he does not know how to describe this connection; he is only aware that he has seen something new, and he can only say of Shakespeare's 73rd sonnet that "It means." Stoner "could not finish what he had to say." The bell rings, Stoner follows his classmates outside, where he again sees the winter weather, sees humanity milling about, and he knows that somehow the world has changed, his perception of life is now different, though he can never express precisely in what way. The next year he declares as an English Literature major.

I have had this moment, this knowing that I'm experiencing something new and powerful and beautiful though I cannot begin to comprehend it, this moment followed by a desire to pursue the experience into real knowledge. I've had this moment with music, with art, with literature. This moment, I believe John Williams would have us believe, is a moment of falling in love.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

they did not know whom to blame

He was in the hospital from the middle of Lent till after Easter. When he was better, he remembered the dreams he had had while he was feverish and delirious. He dreamt that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia. All were to be destroyed except a very few chosen. Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will. Men attacked by them became at once mad and furious. But never had men considered themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible. Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection. All were excited and did not understand one another. Each thought that he alone had the truth and was wretched looking at the others, beat himself on the breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know how to judge and could not agree what to consider evil and what good; they did not know whom to blame, whom to justify. Men killed each other in a sort of senseless spite. They gathered together in armies against one another, but even on the march the armies would begin attacking each other, the ranks would be broken and the soldiers would fall on each other, stabbing and cutting, biting and devouring each other. The alarm bell was ringing all day long in the towns; men rushed together, but why they were summoned and who was summoning them no one knew. The most ordinary trades were abandoned, because everyone proposed his own ideas, his own improvements, and they could not agree. The land too was abandoned. Men met in groups, agreed on something, swore to keep together, but at once began on something quite different from what they had proposed. They accused one another, fought and killed each other. There were conflagrations and famine. All men and all things were involved in destruction. The plague spread and moved further and further. Only a few men could be saved in the whole world. They were a pure chosen people, destined to found a new race and a new life, to renew and purify the earth, but no one had seen these men, no one had heard their words and their voices.
From Epilogue, Chapter 2 in Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by Constance Garnett. 1866.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

throw the bones to any dog

"How to Bone a Text"

The fish of the text (as well as the text of the fish) is consumed, after which the backbone and the bones of the consonants are removed. Note well that with small children the first fish (text) is soft and pouffy (not puffy), composed exclusively from the delicate soulflesh of the vowels. With growth, the bones rooted in this flesh will become hard, harder, always haaaarder.
I submit that the natural softness of the language can still be saved in poetry.

The words are tiny fish
with many consonant bones.
Permit me to clean them for a moment
before I melt in your mouth
- O OU A E E, EA?

This technique can successfully be applied
to prepared classic texts.
The boning process sets the flesh of the text to music
and gives it naturalness.
And so
"Who rides so late through night and wind,
it is the father with his child..."
" o i e o a e ou i a i,
i i e a e i i i ..."
Throw the extracted bones of the consonants
- Wh rds s lt thrgh nght nd wnd-
to any dog.

But listen!
Not a single bone
in a dog's voice.

"Technik zum EntgrÃĪten von Texten" by Georgi Gospodinov, translation from the German mine. No, this is not the La Regenta excerpt post I said I was going to write. I have mislaid my copy of the Alas novel.