Tuesday, September 27, 2016

some astonished condition of soul

...if you address any average modern English company as believing in an Eternal life, and endeavour to draw any conclusions, from this assumed belief, as to their present business, they will forthwith tell you that what you say is very beautiful, but it is not practical. If, on the contrary, you frankly address them as unbelievers in Eternal life, and try to draw any consequences from that unbelief,--they immediately hold you for an accursed person, and shake off the dust from their feet at you. And the more I thought over what I had got to say, the less I found I could say it, without some reference to this intangible or intractable part of the subject. It made all the difference, in asserting any principle of war, whether one assumed that a discharge of artillery would merely knead down a certain quantity of red clay into a level line, as in a brick field; or whether, out of every separately Christian-named portion of the ruinous heap, there went out, into the smoke and dead-fallen air of battle, some astonished condition of soul, unwillingly released.
I have been reading a collection of Ruskin's lectures on political economy (The Crown of Wild Olives) and discover that in it Ruskin covers a great deal of the ground I have been tramping through in my work-in-progress novel Nowhere But North. I find myself wondering why I am writing my novel, unknowingly paraphrasing Ruskin a hundred and twelve years or whatever after his death. Mighty Reader might point out that I'm not exactly writing my novel; I seem to have stalled at 70,000 words, unwilling to go forward.


  1. Interesting final line, where the long, level line of clay is reflected in the unbroken phrasing, and the more difficult emergence is highly broken.

    "There is nothing new under the sun." Nevertheless, there will never be another human being who can make your book. So please do make it.


    1. You can really see the influence Ruskin had on Proust, those long sentences, the care used with the rhythms and flow. I love "into the smoke and dead-fallen air of battle."

      The pursuit of a pub deal is wearing me down, I must admit, but yours is a very encouraging and useful comment. Thank you.
  2. Good on you for diving into Ruskin. He intimidates the heck out of me. Always has. He's a huge figure in European and American medievalism and its connection to literature, the arts and crafts movement, architectural history...and I just can't wrap my little monkey brain around the vastness of his thought.

    ...and yet even if you're unknowingly echoing Ruskin, what you're saying is worth saying again, in your own way.


    1. Ruskin is fabulous. I've read The Seven Lamps of Architecture, the first couple of volumes of Modern Painters, a chunk of The Stones of Venice, random essays and bits of Praeterita and other oddments from him. He was one brainy guy, that's certain. I'm just now getting around to his social commentary (not that his writing on art and architecture isn't social commentary).

      As I said to Marly, I'm just getting exhausted. Also, the more words I write, the less value I see in them, and the less sure I am of what I'm saying. I no longer believe that I'm smart enough to really understand the claims I make through my novels, and that's a problem.
    2. Just tell the story and let go of the claims--they'll either be there clearly anyway because an intrinsic part of the tale or else will cast a useful shadow that will tinge the story. If that makes any sense.... (Rather the way that things that are cut out of a story are still there in some way because they connect to other things that are still there.)

      And ignore the publishing for a while. It's bad for all of us, thinking about those things. Too easy to get discouraged. Lack of a black swan or lead book status at a big house (which is also a black swan) is no right measure of what you do.
    3. Well, yes, I should know all of that. And it's too early to really worry about what the book says and how it says it, as I'm still drafting and I know that, if I manage to finish this behemoth (for me, anyway), I will change many things in the revision process.

      I've been putting a lot of effort into queries and contests this year, and paying too much attention to mainstream publishing. I'm starting to think more about publishing on my own. For now, I should just think again about writing, yes.
    4. Jeff, if the "vastness" seems intimidating, have you tried Praeterita? Memoir and storytelling -- shouldn't be intimidating -- and longing, a sort of self-silliness, and rambunctious pride and defiance: "of my father's ancestors I know nothing, nor of my mother's more than that my maternal grandmother was the landlady of the Old King's Head in Market Street, Croydon; and I wish she were alive again, and I could paint her Simone Memmi's King's Head, for a sign."
    5. Yes, Praeterita, good idea, especially the first part, Ruskin's childhood.

      Scott, a pro now, will want to try The Queen of the Air.
    6. I suppose what intimidates me about Ruskin is that I'm looking at him in an attempt to understand his influence on British and American medievalism, the arts and crafts aesthetic, and trends in architecture—but what I find is part of such a full and interconnected system of thought that I wonder if I can really "know" Ruskin....especially since his thought developed over time. It's a problem I always have when I approach a big, influential author for the first time, but few others have been quite as prolific, and I'm at a stage in my life where I no longer feel I have infinite time. (Friends of mine inherited a set of his complete works—more than 30 volumes!) But perhaps I'll start with Praeterita. I appreciate the suggestion.
    7. Would it help to know that he's also very fallible, very blind, and very silly? There's a massive, innocent stupidity in Ruskin that his subsequent reputation tends to sideline. It's his willingness to let this stupidity out -- to not protect himself -- that allows him to seem wiser, in the end, than the other people (I've tried reading some of them) that use words like "noble" and "good," as he did -- but they protect themselves; they try to look noble themselves. Ruskin talked about nobility like a man who knew he would never have it. The others assume it's in them before they start.
  3. Something from Samuel Beckett, a man who knew a thing or two about words on pages and beyond:

    You must go on.

    I can't go on.

    You must go on.

    I'll go on. You must say words, as long as there are any - until they find me, until they say me. (Strange pain, strange sin!) You must go on. Perhaps it's done already. Perhaps they have said me already. Perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story. (That would surprise me, if it opens.)

    It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don't know, I'll never know: in the silence you don't know.

    You must go on.


    1. I don't know about that must, though. I begin to think that living morally is more important than writing moral fiction. And "Krapp's Last Tape" is a frightening portrait of an aged writer without readers. Who is Krapp talking to? Nobody but himself. What he has to say is true and beautiful, maybe, but he speaks into a vacuum. So I don't know. I can go on and keep my damn mouth shut. There would be nothing wrong in that.
    2. I know you are not quoting "Krapp," but that play keeps entering my thoughts and I know you're familiar with it, since you performed it in college.

      Also, where is your blog? It seems to have gone missing.
    3. Correction:

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

within a toxi-alimentary dyspnoea grove

As my chokings had persisted long after any congestion remained that could account for them, my parents asked for a consultation with Professor Cottard. It is not enough that a physician who is called in to treat cases of this sort should be learned. Brought face to face with symptoms which may or may not be those of three or four different complaints, it is in the long run his instinct, his eye that must decide with which, despite the more or less similar appearance of them all, he has to deal. This mysterious gift does not imply any superiority in the other departments of the intellect, and a creature of the utmost vulgarity, who admires the worst pictures, the worst music, in whose mind there is nothing out of the common, may perfectly well possess it. In my case, what was physically evident might equally well have been due to nervous spasms, to the first stages of tuberculosis, to asthma, to a toxi-alimentary dyspnoea with renal insufficiency, to chronic bronchitis, or to a complex state into which more than one of these factors entered. Now, nervous spasms required to be treated firmly, and discouraged, tuberculosis with infinite care and with a 'feeding-up' process which would have been bad for an arthritic condition such as asthma, and might indeed have been dangerous in a case of toxi-alimentary dyspnoea, this last calling for a strict diet which, in return, would be fatal to a tuberculous patient. But Cottard's hesitations were brief and his prescriptions imperious. "Purges; violent and drastic purges; milk for some days, nothing but milk. No meat. No alcohol." My mother murmured that I needed, all the same, to be 'built up,' that my nerves were already weak, that drenching me like a horse and restricting my diet would make me worse. I could see in Cottard's eyes, as uneasy as though he were afraid of missing a train, that he was asking himself whether he had not allowed his natural good-humour to appear. He was trying to think whether he had remembered to put on his mask of coldness, as one looks for a mirror to see whether one has not forgotten to tie one's tie. In his uncertainty, and, so as, whatever he had done, to put things right, he replied brutally: "I am not in the habit of repeating my instructions. Give me a pen. Now remember, milk! Later on, when we have got the crises and the agrypnia by the throat, I should like you to take a little clear soup, and then a little broth, but always with milk; au lait! You'll enjoy that, since Spain is all the rage just now; olé, olé!" His pupils knew this joke well, for he made it at the hospital whenever he had to put a heart or liver case on a milk diet. "After that, you will gradually return to your normal life. But whenever there is any coughing or choking—purges, injections, bed, milk!" He listened with icy calm, and without uttering a word, to my mother's final objections, and as he left us without having condescended to explain the reasons for this course of treatment, my parents concluded that it had no bearing on my case, and would weaken me to no purpose, and so they did not make me try it. Naturally they sought to conceal their disobedience from the Professor, and to succeed in this avoided all the houses in which he was likely to be found. Then, as my health became worse, they decided to make me follow out Cottard's prescriptions to the letter; in three days my 'rattle' and cough had ceased, I could breathe freely. Whereupon we realised that Cottard, while finding, as he told us later on, that I was distinctly asthmatic, and still more inclined to 'imagine things,' had seen that what was really the matter with me at the moment was intoxication, and that by loosening my liver and washing out my kidneys he would get rid of the congestion of my bronchial tubes and thus give me back my breath, my sleep and my strength. And we realised that this imbecile was a clinical genius.
from In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower by Marcel Proust, Moncrieff translation.

Monday, September 12, 2016

"I am greedier than any of you"

    Meanwhile M. Verdurin, after first asking Swann's permission to light his pipe ("No ceremony here, you understand; we're all pals!"), went and begged the young musician to sit down at the piano.
    "Leave him alone; don't bother him; he hasn't come here to be tormented," cried Mme. Verdurin. "I won't have him tormented."
    "But why on earth should it bother him?" rejoined M. Verdurin. "I'm sure M. Swann has never heard the sonata in F sharp which we discovered; he is going to play us the pianoforte arrangement."
    "No, no, no, not my sonata!" she screamed, "I don't want to be made to cry until I get a cold in the head, and neuralgia all down my face, like last time; thanks very much, I don't intend to repeat that performance; you are all very kind and considerate; it is easy to see that none of you will have to stay in bed, for a week."
    This little scene, which was re-enacted as often as the young pianist sat down to play, never failed to delight the audience, as though each of them were witnessing it for the first time, as a proof of the seductive originality of the 'Mistress' as she was styled, and of the acute sensitiveness of her musical 'ear.' Those nearest to her would attract the attention of the rest, who were smoking or playing cards at the other end of the room, by their cries of 'Hear, hear!' which, as in Parliamentary debates, shewed that something worth listening to was being said. And next day they would commiserate with those who had been prevented from coming that evening, and would assure them that the 'little scene' had never been so amusingly done.
    "Well, all right, then," said M. Verdurin, "he can play just the andante."
    "Just the andante! How you do go on," cried his wife. "As if it weren't 'just the andante' that breaks every bone in my body. The 'Master' is really too priceless! Just as though, 'in the Ninth,' he said 'we need only have the finale,' or 'just the overture' of the Meistersinger."
    The Doctor, however, urged Mme. Verdurin to let the pianist play, not because he supposed her to be malingering when she spoke of the distressing effects that music always had upon her, for he recognised the existence of certain neurasthenic states—but from his habit, common to many doctors, of at once relaxing the strict letter of a prescription as soon as it appeared to jeopardise, what seemed to him far more important, the success of some social gathering at which he was present, and of which the patient whom he had urged for once to forget her dyspepsia or headache formed an essential factor.
    "You won't be ill this time, you'll find," he told her, seeking at the same time to subdue her mind by the magnetism of his gaze. "And, if you are ill, we will cure you."
    "Will you, really?" Mme. Verdurin spoke as though, with so great a favour in store for her, there was nothing for it but to capitulate. Perhaps, too, by dint of saying that she was going to be ill, she had worked herself into a state in which she forgot, occasionally, that it was all only a 'little scene,' and regarded things, quite sincerely, from an invalid's point of view. For it may often be remarked that invalids grow weary of having the frequency of their attacks depend always on their own prudence in avoiding them, and like to let themselves think that they are free to do everything that they most enjoy doing, although they are always ill after doing it, provided only that they place themselves in the hands of a higher authority which, without putting them to the least inconvenience, can and will, by uttering a word or by administering a tabloid, set them once again upon their feet.
    Odette had gone to sit on a tapestry-covered sofa near the piano, saying to Mme. Verdurin, "I have my own little corner, haven't I?"
    And Mme. Verdurin, seeing Swann by himself upon a chair, made him get up. "You're not at all comfortable there; go along and sit by Odette; you can make room for M. Swann there, can't you, Odette?"
    "What charming Beauvais!" said Swann, stopping to admire the sofa before he sat down on it, and wishing to be polite.
    "I am glad you appreciate my sofa," replied Mme. Verdurin, "and I warn you that if you expect ever to see another like it you may as well abandon the idea at once. They never made any more like it. And these little chairs, too, are perfect marvels. You can look at them in a moment. The emblems in each of the bronze mouldings correspond to the subject of the tapestry on the chair; you know, you combine amusement with instruction when you look at them;—I can promise you a delightful time, I assure you. Just look at the little border around the edges; here, look, the little vine on a red background in this one, the Bear and the Grapes. Isn't it well drawn? What do you say? I think they knew a thing or two about design! Doesn't it make your mouth water, this vine? My husband makes out that I am not fond of fruit, because I eat less than he does. But not a bit of it, I am greedier than any of you, but I have no need to fill my mouth with them when I can feed on them with my eyes. What are you all laughing at now, pray? Ask the Doctor; he will tell you that those grapes act on me like a regular purge. Some people go to Fontainebleau for cures; I take my own little Beauvais cure here. But, M. Swann, you mustn't run away without feeling the little bronze mouldings on the backs. Isn't it an exquisite surface? No, no, not with your whole hand like that; feel them properly!"
    "If Mme. Verdurin is going to start playing about with her bronzes," said the painter, "we shan't get any music to-night."
From Swann in Love. When I read these scenes, I think that I've seen this party before, and then I remember the gatherings with the Veneers and the Podsnaps in Our Mutual Friend, though the Podsnaps are more like Marcel's family than they are like the Verderins, so bound by custom. They are all judgmental, though, in their own ways. Swann in Love is a funny book, hysterically so in places, even if Proust can be as mean spirited as the characters he lampoons.

I have also just noticed the theme of invalids who construct and maintain their own infirmities, a recurring motif of Swann's Way. Everyone in Proust's world is an invalid, suffering under imaginary disabilities.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Action and flowers and pink sugar

She makes an obscene gesture at him; he mistakes the color of her eyes. That's young Marcel's first encounter with Gilberte Swann, a brief scene that nicely encapsulates not only Marcel and Gilberte's entire later relationship, but also the relationship of Gilberte's parents. It is also, I might say, a rendering in miniature of the entire six-volume In Search of Lost Time. One thing I didn't notice upon my first reading of Swann's Way a decade ago is the way Proust keeps working in foreshadowing, the way the layers of early memory are indeed overlapped and in some respects interchangeable with later events, the way certain character types appear and reappear to interact with Marcel in similar ways. It's almost as if the idea of past is meaningless, as if Proust was not only writing In Search of Lost Time but also Finnegans Wake, which circles around and neither begins nor ends, every event becoming every other event in history, if you look at it from the correct angle. Really a remarkable book. Full of action, too. Action and flowers and pink sugar. And Proust's comic characters are excellently drawn (and I pause to realize that all of his characters are comic, even the tragic ones, which is the way I like my clowns to be written).