Sunday, December 31, 2017

Hats and things read in 2017

Some books and things read in 2017 (a mostly-complete list):

Alexander Pope "The Rape of the Lock"
Boethius The Consolation of Philosophy
Marcel Proust The Guermantes Way
H. E. Bates Elephant's Nest in a Rhubarb Tree and Other Stories
Henry James The Outcry
Anton Chekhov The Horse Stealers and other stories
Thomas a Kempis The Imitation of Christ
John Berger About Looking
Gene Sharp Power and Struggle
Percy Lubbock The Craft of Fiction: Critical Essays
Herman Melville The Confidence-Man
Reinhold Messner Fall of Heaven
Marcel Proust Sodom and Gomorrah
Karl Geiringer Haydn: A Creative Life in Music
Marcel Proust The Captive
Marcel Proust The Prisoner
The Major Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins
Marcel Proust Time Regained
Anton Chekhov The Witch and other stories
Gene Sharp The Methods of Nonviolent Action
Jane Austen Emma
Albert Camus The Fall
The Cambridge Companion to the Violin
Albert Camus Exile and the Kingdom
St John of the Cross Poems
Rebecca West The Judge
Anne Frank Diary of a Young Girl
Beverley Nichols Down the Garden Path
Orhan Pamuk The White Castle
The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry
Virginia Woolf Jacob's Room 
Arthur Conan Doyle A Study in Scarlet
Bela Bartók Letters
Victor Klemperer I Shall Bear Witness, 1933-1941 
Arthur Conan Doyle The Sign of the Four
Arthur Conan Doyle The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Cesar Aira The Hare
Anita Brookner Hotel du Lac
Karolina Pavlova A Double Life
ZZ Packer Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
Thomas Hardy "A Mere Interlude"
Merivale & Sweeney (eds) Detecting Texts
Thomas Hardy "An Imaginative Woman"
Thomas Hardy "A Withered Arm"
Saint John of the Cross The Dark Night of the Soul
Alice Munro Open Secrets
Elizabeth Barrett Browning Sonnets from the Portuguese
Jeff Sypeck The Beallsville Calendar
Jose Eduardo Agualusa A General Theory of Oblivion

In 2017 I finished Proust's Remembrances of Things Past and began to plunder Mighty Reader's large collection of Virago Classics, reading authors to whom I had not been formally introduced. Both of those projects have been pretty satisfying. In 2018 I plan to re-read more Chekhov and Shakespeare, neither of whom are French or women. I'd also like to read Herodotus and that second volume of Euripides. And more poetry. The usual assortment of best-laid plans, I see.

Some writing done in 2017: 

At some point this spring or early summer, I finished the first draft of a novel called Nowhere But North, unless of course I finished it earlier than that. It's all a blur, frankly, and because I don't seem to have noted the completion of the draft here on the blog, I have no record of it. Anyway, that's one more novel drafted. I no longer see this as much of an accomplishment. There are tens of thousands of Americans rabbiting away on novels every day of the year; it's a popular hobby, is writing novels. Nowhere But North is the longest, biggest, grandest thing I've written. When I've revised it a couple of times, I regret to say that it will be even longer, bigger, and grander. It might also be worth reading. We'll see.

I've recently revised (fairly heavily, too) an older novel, something called Go Home Miss America. That's a religious novel, sort of mostly. It occurs to me that the flaws I see in the book result from the internal conflicts of my own theology and moral system. I don't think those conflicts are going to be resolved in time to make the novel a more unified work of art, but I don't think that's necessary. Go Home Miss America is out on submission with a couple of small publishers. I have no expectations regarding those submissions.

Uncharacteristically, I have not immediately jumped into a new project upon completion of Nowhere But North. I think that's okay. I am making occasional notes for a possible new book, a collection of stories about a fictional town on the American prairie, set circa 1977 or so. I do not know if I'll write the stories. We'll see.

Some blogging done in 2017:

The blogging, clearly, has slowed down considerably. And you may have noticed that I deleted and then restored the blog (a short comedy of errors and idiocy), resulting in a loss of many posts and comments, and all the posts from 2008 (or was it 2009? I forget, frankly) to 2011. Anyway, all that's gone as are about half the posts from 2011 to mid-2017. What fun.

I find I have fewer things to say about the books I'm reading, and almost nothing to say about the books I'm writing. As I say, at this moment I'm not working on any new projects. I'm revising finished novels and flogging them to agents and small presses and that is not very interesting to talk about. Most of the time I used to spend writing has been given over to reading or playing violin, both of which activities are quite interesting and satisfying. My vibrato has improved a good deal over the last couple of months. Remedial stuff, yes, but valuable. Though not so helpful in terms of blogging, I realize.

Back in October when I was reading Cesar Aira's novel The Hare, I took a lot of notes and thought I'd write a long bit about that book, but when I finished the novel I realized that I was happy to be shut of it and could not face trawling through my notes and marginalia merely to cobble up an essay pointing out what a piece of stink The Hare turns out to be. "Language and meaning are relative, as is interpretation of the world itself." Well, okay, Mr Aira, that's fine, but you beat that slim idea bloody for 300 pages of poorly-written adolescent adventure. Aira here has the same problems Kafka had in his novels: the comedy and the (fairly unsophisticated) philosophy are the primary concerns, and the writing itself is clumsy and seemingly slapped together, ugly and tripping over itself, but fans will overlook that because the (fairly unsophisticated) philosophical claims of the book strike some readers as being deep and thoughtful and enlightening. But it ain't. Like Kafka's (unfinished) novels, Mr Aira's The Hare has some good passages, but you must slog your way through a lot of dull comedy to get there, and in truth many of these good passages really only stand out when compared to the crawling dullness with which they are surrounded. And it's this very sort of screed I don't want to be writing, so I am blogging a great deal less because my tolerance for shallow thinking and poor craftsmanship has gone way way down. I enjoyed Mr Aira's Ghosts a great deal. The Hare was a disappointment. I'd love a novel to excite me so much I can't contain my excitement and am compelled to tell everyone (well, the five people who read this blog) about it. I find that I become a more difficult audience as I age. I regret this.


When Mighty Reader and I were in Amsterdam, we stumbled into a fine hat shop near the Old Church, past the Red Light District. I bought a fine gray Stetson fedora that I don't wear nearly often enough. On our trip to Banff, I wore my Bailey's of Hollywood lined winter wool fedora, a fine hat for cold weather. Mighty Reader found a whimsical stocking cap topped with an enormous (faux) fur ball at the Hudson Bay Company in Banff. A pretty good year for hats, though we each left a straw hat behind on the island of Texel, forgotten as we rushed from a restaurant in Den Burg to catch our shuttle back to the wee village in which we were staying.

Monday, December 18, 2017

"It is for my health," said Louisa gravely

You ask how I came here. There is no interesting story. My parents are both dead. My father worked for Eaton's in Toronto in the Furniture Department, and after his death my mother worked there too in Linens. And I also worked there for a while in Books. Perhaps you could say Eaton's was our Douds. I graduated from Jarvis Collegiate. I had some sickness which put me in hospital for a long time, but I am quite well now. I had a great deal of time to read and my favorite authors are Thomas Hardy, who is accused of being gloomy but I think is very true to life--and Willa Cather. I just happened to be in this town when I heard the Librarian had died and I thought, perhaps that is the job for me.
I'm nearly finished reading Alice Munro's story collection Open Secrets. It continues to be interesting from a story perspective and impressive from a technical perspective. The strong movement toward what strikes me (possibly because I am by nature a pessimist) as falsely positive brief endings also continues, but I am trying to learn forbearance and also Munro's intent (or at least build a pretense of understanding what she's doing, because Munro is clearly too good a writer to be doing anything in her stories without having thought it through).

Anyway, that's a side issue having to do with my own expectations of lit'rature. What I wanted to say is that it struck me, after reading about the first six of the stories, that they all involve someone disappearing, in one form or another. People walk out of their lives, or are taken forcibly out of their lives, or escape lives into which they were forced. Perhaps it's because I've been reading literary theory about postmodernism and detective literature that I see Munro's tales of individuals being sought out, or identities being revealed or concealed (or both), as a form of detective fiction. Possibly I'm just one of those people whose world view is entirely overwhelmed by whatever it is they've most recently read, like my mind is a canvas that anyone can repaint at whim, and everything will look like detective fiction of one form or another until I read the next literary criticism essay that falls under my fingers. Who can say? Again, another long digression into my self-doubt, of which I have enormous quantities these days.

I appear to be blogging again, despite my infinite depths of doubt and ignorance. Possibly that is a precursor to actually writing fiction again. It could happen. Maybe I'm just warming up. Surprisingly, I find that idea exciting, in a doubtful and ignorant sort of way.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Love dies all the time, or at any rate it becomes distracted, overlaid--it might as well be dead.

“I read stray sentences from the books that I had always meant to read. Often these sentences seemed so satisfying to me, or so elusive and lovely, that I could not help abandoning all the surrounding words and giving myself up to a peculiar state.”

I'm about halfway through Alice Munro's collection Open Secrets, a group of stories that mostly take place in and around the small town of Carstairs, Ontario. This is my first exposure to Munro and I was not sure what to expect. The Cynthia Ozick blurb on the back cover calls Munro a modern-day Chekhov. I didn't read the blurb before I bought the book; I almost never read the cover copy until I'm a hundred pages into something. Don't ask me why that is. I was surprised when I realized that the stories are sort of linked by the shared setting, with names of characters recurring here and there. I am, after all, planning my own book of stories all set in a small town. But I stole the idea from Dylan Thomas' "Under Milk Wood," I tell you. Nothing new under the sun, which is probably a good thing.

Anyway, Munro is not Chekhov (there is no Chekhov but Chekhov), but she's a fine writer. The prose is quite fine indeed, the stories branching and surprising and beautiful, but so far all having the same annoying way of ending abruptly with a sudden fall into the direction of an unnecessary happy ending, as if Munro was contentedly writing away, fully interested and invested in her story, when it occurred to her that she needed to wrap things up and the best way to do that quickly was to steal a couple of pages from the last chapter of a random Jane Austen novel. I confess that my enthusiasm for Open Secrets is starting to wane as I go along. I know, however, that I am a difficult--possibly impossible--audience.

Although the book has many strengths. With each story I begin, I am already ten or twelve pages into it before I know it, the writing so wonderful and the ideas so sharp and surprising that I'm carried quickly along. Very very admirable narrative craft in this book. And endings are hard, sure. I've taken to using the mature Chekhov tactic of simply dropping out of the story once the reader has been presented with the opportunity to understand the action, without any attempt at closure (whatever, man) or sewing up loose ends (whatever, man). Munro makes a different choice, and I think she's attempting to point the reader in a new direction, to open a door into a new possible story that hasn't been written. I understand that choice, but the open possibilities toward which Munro points don't seem as interesting as the story Munro has just told me.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Nikolaius iterandus est

He was an epicurean and a Christian, in that order, a man of faith who believed in gastronomy and God; his wife and his children; and the French and the Americans. In his view, they offered us far better tutelage than those other foreign Svengalis who had hypnotized our northern brethren and some of our southern ones: Karl Marx, V. I. Lenin, and Chairman Mao. Not that he ever read any of those sages! That was my job as his aide-de-camp and junior officer of intelligence, to provide him with cribbed notes on, say, The Communist Manifesto or Mao’s Little Red Book. It was up to him to find occasions to demonstrate his knowledge of the enemy’s thinking, his favorite being Lenin’s question, plagiarized whenever the need arose: Gentlemen, he would say, rapping the relevant table with adamantine knuckles, what is to be done? To tell the General that Nikolay Chernyshevsky actually came up with the question in his novel of the same title seemed irrelevant. How many remember Chernyshevsky now?

--from The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Monday, November 27, 2017

Nikolai, redux

Karolina Pavlova's novel A Double Life was published in 1848 and received a review in the literary journal Sovremennik. It is very tempting to believe that this review was read by 20 year-old Nikolai Chernyshevsky, who joined the Sovremennik staff in 1853 and eventually became the editor of the journal. A Double Life could easily serve as a precursor text, an inspiration alongside Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, for Chernyshevsky's gigantic and awful 1863 novel What is to be Done? I cannot help noticing that the protagonist of What is to be Done? is a woman named Vera Pavlovna, who is rescued by an enlightened medical student from her preordained position in Russian society. I have found no direct evidence, despite literally minutes of internet searching, that Chernyshevsky read the Pavlova novel, but certainly there are ideas and stylistic devices in A Double Life that resurface in What is to be Done? I do not believe this is a coincidence. I think Chernyshevsky had set out to let the hero of Turgenev's novel rescue the heroine of Pavlova's novel, by writing his own revolutionary science fiction wish fulfillment epic tale. Wait: do I have any doubts at all about this? No, I do not.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Alberta, sans vampires

We were four days, more or less, in Alberta last week, flying out from Seattle on Wednesday morning. It was a new--and therefore smaller--model airplane and passengers were warned that they might have to check some of their carry-on items at the door if it wouldn't fit in the new--and therefore smaller--overhead luggage racks. Why do people insist on bringing full-size backpacks with sleeping bags into the passenger compartment, as well as suitcases and bags and God knows what else? Don't get me started. It was a smooth enough flight though worries (unfounded, it turned out) of turbulence meant no coffee or other hot beverages. Somehow we managed to survive, being very brave.

The Calgary airport seems to be mostly empty space, as if it were built during more hopeful economic times, for a boom that hasn't happened. Although the prairie around Calgary continues to be eaten away by ugly urban sprawl in the form of identical subdivisions of identical brown split-level houses, a cancer of development. But the Calgary airport is quite clean and I like the friendly folks in the red vests and white cowboy hats offering free rides on the carts.

Calgary was only a way station, where we transferred from plane to bus for a two-hour drive into Banff, within Banff National Park, in the shadows of Mt. Rundle and Mt. Cascade. We were attending the annual Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. The grand prize of the book half of the festival went to Jim Herrington's The Climbers, a book into which Mighty Reader poured countless hours. Be sure to read the opening essay by Greg Child (author of Over the Edge among other books). Banff is grand and it's always nice when every presentation ends with an exhortation for attendees to buy some books to support small publishers and book sellers.

The view from our hotel window, facing west.

The full moon setting, around 6:30 AM.

Banff National Park, detail.

The Alberta prairie, lovely in its emptiness.

À bientôt, Calgary! You see in the near distance one of those new identical unsightly subdivisions, and spaces being scraped flat for more of the same. They go on for mile after mile. From the highway the roofs of these houses seem to crest over hills like horrific brown waves, an advancing flood of I-don't-know-what. Ruskin pointed out the importance to human dignity of beautiful homes for the working class. In Calgary, they are erecting hectares of mud-brown mazes, sheds for bodies rather than houses for immortal spirits.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Like bodiless water passing in a sigh

Duwamish waterway, 7:45 AM, as viewed from freeway

Cold this morning, cold enough to see one's breath. Humid as well, the damp working its way into my clothes on my walk to the bus stop. Soon I'll be wearing a winter coat in the mornings and carrying it in the evenings as the weather goes through the usual indecisiveness of autumn as it makes way for the rainy Seattle winter. The world transformed, the grape vine turning yellow and brown, the oak-leaf hydrangea rusting, the magnolia dropping stiff brown leaves all over the garden even as the new blooms are budding out at the tips of branches, a simultaneous play of death and rebirth in our back yard. Miraculous, really. We planted something like 200 bulbs on Sunday afternoon, mostly tulips but some daffodils, in the hope that we'll be around to see them next spring. Fingers crossed.

Friday, October 13, 2017

a vibrant hash of sex, violence, foul language and blood

Certainly I'm willing to engage with myths, fantasy, folklore, and even science fiction. Certainly I'm willing to give a storyteller time to gather threads and ideas together, to take a couple of deep breaths, clear her throat, set some scenes, take a slow road to wherever she's going. But I am not a man of infinite patience, either, which is likely a personal shortcoming I should overcome. Still, I have my limits.

I wonder if those limits are going to be tested by the television adaptation of Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I admit right off that it's a novel I was unable to finish; I abandoned it around a hundred pages in, making it one of only two novels I've abandoned in the last twenty years (or even longer, maybe). The other novel, in case you wonder, is Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. I like what Gaiman does with ideas of the superimposition of the supernatural with the natural, and he has some attractive cliches involving sympathetic underdogs that he leans on quite often, but I think Mr Gaiman's prose rather stinks, so I can't read him. I've been willing to watch adaptations of his work, because I expect far less from television and the cinema than I expect from a novel. I'm a prig that way. I'm not ashamed of it.

Despite my low standards for televised fare, I worry. Mighty Reader and I have only watched the first episode of American Gods and so far, I must say that the show has attempted to substitute spectacle for storytelling. It's been a vibrant hash of sex, violence, foul language and blood (no human body contains as much blood as goes spurting out in this show). The makers of this version of American Gods seem to be trying too hard to catch our attention by shifting the rules of reality every two minutes and shocking us with violence. The problem is, of course, that so much violence really just benumbs the viewer, and questions about why all of the violence are not asked. Shadow Moon, the protagonist, never asks why the five faceless robot guys are beating the crap out of him. Shadow Moon, the protagonist, has so far been a confused puppet who seems alternately bored and cranky, but essentially unreactive to his own life as it happens. Maybe that's deliberate, although my intuition tells me that his character is simply being ignored by the producers while they focus on displaying high-contrast violence and sex to the viewer. Sort of trapping the viewer into both the ugliness of the real world and the ugliness of a Game of Thrones world at the same time. All, so far, to no real purpose.

But we'll keep watching, with the hopes that something will happen in the way of story and character. Gaiman has a sort of Dickens-in-miniature way with character, if he's allowed. If the makers of the show can get beyond the idea of a circus of set-pieces, American Gods might be worth watching. We'll see.

Meanwhile, I am working on the storytelling in one of my own novels, Go Home, Miss America, as I prepare it for submission to a scrappy little publisher in a couple of weeks. I am thinking of ways to bring the inner life of one main character more to the fore in the second half of the book. It's enjoyable work, this storytelling stuff. Far more enjoyable than the month-plus I recently spent hammering the prose around.

Monday, October 9, 2017

on the loneliness of the private detective

We've been watching the David Suchet "Poirot" series lately, and have just finished up the final six seasons. Who believes the plot in "Curtain," anyway? Nobody, that's who. But who can blame Christie for killing off the character and making him a murderer in the process, so that for practical purposes he's best off dead? Well done, Agatha.

I am not writing about Agatha Christie's "Curtain," however. I'm writing because it occurred to me last night, during "Elephants Can Remember," that I have a particular way of reading detective fiction. I've said before (because it's true) that I don't look at a mystery novel as a puzzle to be solved. I don't care whodunit, and if you look critically at Golden-age mysteries, the narratives are not logical chains leading from the committal of the crime to the solution. No, they are not, and the discussion of the arbitrariness of the mystery plot's resolution has been going on for at least a century by now. I don't even pay attention to the clues, I'll have you know, because I don't care a fig about that.

As we sat discussing "Elephants" before making tea, I told Mighty Reader that I read/watch detective fiction as a story that happens to the detective character. What do I think when I read a Poirot novel? "Oh, Poirot is interested. Oh, now Poirot is angry because he's been lied to. Now Poirot is feeling triumphant. Now he's kicking himself, poor Poirot." I never think, "Oh, it's the lady of the house, because she's secretly the mother of the neighbors' chambermaid" or whatever. Because I don't care about the mystery.

Frankly, I don't think most readers of mysteries (Golden-age mysteries, that is) care about the crime and the solution. If they did, they'd be awfully frustrated. See above denial of logical chain in mystery novels. I think most readers care about the observations regarding society, and about the personality of the detective. We want to see the detective at work in the world, and we don't so much care about what he's doing, so much as we care about how he responds to the world, to the actions of evil and good, of guilt and innocence. The mystery is just a bit of sweet fluff we pretend to be solving along with the detective (who always has knowledge that is withheld from the reader, because if the reader actually does get all of the clues, he solves the crime a hundred pages before the detective solves it because, as is also well-documented, the brilliance of the detective is a weak fiction that the writer and the reader contract into in order to get on with the story about the detective; it's not something that's actually borne out by the detective character on the page).

Where am I going with this? Nowhere, really, except that I continue to be fascinated by my own attraction to detective fiction, despite its flaws and essential intellectual dishonesty. Do writers of detective fiction actually convince themselves that the mystery puzzle is a) interesting, and b) solved through the collection of clues performed by the detective? I hope not, because that's a pretty large delusion. The flip side of this, however, is that all of the detective fiction I've read that abandons the silly conventions of mystery-as-puzzle, are failures as novels. I'm looking very hard at Paul Auster, but he's not the only culprit. The detective outside of the machinery of detective action is a non-entity. That might be an interesting subject for a novel, perhaps one that's actually been successfully written. I don't know what that novel is, though. Most of the contemporary metafictional detective stories I've read have been pretty frustrating (which is to say boring). I recall that Borges made something interesting, though I can't recall it in any detail.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

where I'm calling from

So the blog, you might be wondering about that. What happened to it and where are all the comments? I had thought that I could archive the entire blog history, delete the old blog, make a new one with a new title and layout, and then restore the old posts and comments. It seemed, you know, pretty straightforward. Apparently I did not manage the archive step properly, and managed only to delete everything. Through the magic of the internet, I have managed to salvage maybe half of the posts, at least back to about 2011, but everything prior to that, and all of the comments, are gone. So that's that. But one begins, every day, just where one is, and this new/old broken blog is where I'm calling from.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

some sustaining moral soup

She examined him carefully out of the corner of her eye to estimate the chances of his being brought into the fold of reform by properly selected oratory. That at least was the character of contemplation she intended, but though she was so young that she believed the enjoyment of any sensory impression sheer waste unless it was popped into the mental stockpot and made the basis of some sustaining moral soup, she found herself just looking at him. His black hair lay in streaks and rings on his rain-wet forehead and gave him an abandoned and magical air, like the ghost of a drowned man risen for revelry; his dark gold skin told a traveller's tale of far-off pleasurable weather; and the bare hand that lay on his knee was patterned like a snake's belly with brown marks, doubtless the stains of his occupation; and his face was marked with an expression that it vexed her she could not put a name to, for if at her age she could not read human nature like a book she never would.
That's from Rebecca West's 1922 novel The Judge. So few of today's writers approach that level of excellence in prose. People in publishing want "voice." I want craftsmanship, and daring generosity, and vision.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.

The last chapter of The Fall redeems the irritating monologue that precedes it, in fact is only possible because of that monologue, only has meaning because of that annoying narration. The weakly-argued theology, the self-centered philosophy, are all the point, a representation of an egotist's misreading of the Gospel. The narrator wants to believe he is a modern-day prophet, a John the Baptist crying in the desert, passing judgment on all mankind, standing above civilization. But when he says, "Open the window a little, please; it’s frightfully hot. Not too much, for I am cold also" we know that his deeds are known and he is lukewarm, so he is spat from Christ's mouth, alone in his cell with the ironic evidence of his crimes, not quite always convinced of his superiority. He is in hell, a hell of his own making.

"I am happy, I tell you, I won’t let you think I’m not happy, I am happy unto death!"

A pretty good book. I'd forgotten how it ends.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


Yes, so it is; and that went farther and farther with all sorts of variations. My God! when I remember all my cowardly acts and bad deeds, I am frightened. And I remember that 'me' who, during that period, was still the butt of his comrades’ ridicule on account of his innocence.

And when I hear people talk of the gilded youth, of the officers, of the Parisians, and all these gentlemen, and myself, living wild lives at the age of thirty, and who have on our consciences hundreds of crimes toward women, terrible and varied, when we enter a parlor or a ball-room, washed, shaven, and perfumed, with very white linen, in dress coats or in uniform, as emblems of purity, oh, the disgust! There will surely come a time, an epoch, when all these lives and all this cowardice will be unveiled!

So, nevertheless, I lived, until the age of thirty, without abandoning for a minute my intention of marrying, and building an elevated conjugal life; and with this in view I watched all young girls who might suit me. I was buried in rottenness, and at the same time I looked for virgins, whose purity was worthy of me!
Lev Tolstoy, "The Kreutzer Sonata," Chapter VI
But these are all golden dreams. Oh, tell me, who was it first announced, who was it first proclaimed, that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else, and we all know that not one man can, consciously, act against his own interests, consequently, so to say, through necessity, he would begin doing good? Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure, innocent child! Why, in the first place, when in all these thousands of years has there been a time when man has acted only from his own interest? What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men, CONSCIOUSLY, that is fully understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger, compelled to this course by nobody and by nothing, but, as it were, simply disliking the beaten track, and have obstinately, wilfully, struck out another difficult, absurd way, seeking it almost in the darkness. So, I suppose, this obstinacy and perversity were pleasanter to them than any advantage.... Advantage! What is advantage? And will you take it upon yourself to define with perfect accuracy in what the advantage of man consists? And what if it so happens that a man's advantage, SOMETIMES, not only may, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases what is harmful to himself and not advantageous. And if so, if there can be such a case, the whole principle falls into dust.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes From Underground, Chapter VII
We are all exceptional cases. We all want to appeal against something! Each of us insists on being innocent at all cost, even if he has to accuse the whole human race and heaven itself. You won’t delight a man by complimenting him on the efforts by which he has become intelligent or generous. On the other hand, he will beam if you admire his natural generosity. Inversely, if you tell a criminal that his crime is not due to his nature or his character but to unfortunate circumstances, he will be extravagantly grateful to you. During the counsel’s speech, this is the moment he will choose to weep. Yet there is no credit in being honest or intelligent by birth. Just as one is surely no more responsible for being a criminal by nature than for being a criminal by circumstance. But those rascals want grace, that is, irresponsibility, and they shamelessly allege the justifications of nature or the excuses of circumstances, even if they are contradictory. The essential thing is that they should be innocent, that their virtues, by grace of birth, should not be questioned and that their misdeeds, born of a momentary misfortune, should never be more than provisional. As I told you, it’s a matter of dodging judgment. Since it is hard to dodge it, tricky to get one’s nature simultaneously admired and excused, they all strive to be rich. Why? Did you ever ask yourself? For power, of course. But especially because wealth shields from immediate judgment, takes you out of the subway crowd to enclose you in a chromium-plated automobile, isolates you in huge protected lawns, Pullmans, first-class cabins. Wealth, cher ami, is not quite acquittal, but reprieve, and that’s always worth taking.
Albert Camus, The Fall

Which is to say, I'm reading Camus now (re-reading, I guess, since I first read The Fall back in the 80s) and yesterday late afternoon I realized that I've encountered this sort of narrative before--this tone of voice and this direct engagement of the protagonist with the reader--in Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy (both of which writers Camus had read). My experience this time around with The Fall is less happy than I think it was when I first read it, and I admit that I think less of this book than I do of The Stranger or The Plague. That latter book may well be Camus' real masterpiece, a restrained and beautiful novel.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Friday, June 9, 2017

thoughts on having finished Proust's "In Search of Lost Time"

Some Observations:

It often seems that In Search of Lost Time is less a novel than it is a multi-volume personal essay about memory and the failure of our intellect to grasp reality in the present. Leaping from Volume VI back to Volume I, I see that Proust has been making the same points about memory and experiential knowledge the entire time, but I didn't grasp what he meant in his exposition; it was only much later that I was able to share his understanding of how life can truly only be known in retrospect, through the working of memory outside of the stream of experience. The novel demonstrates the author's proposition through it's very structure. In Search of Lost Time is then, among other things, a 4,300-page expansion of Kierkegaard's well-known comment that "Life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards." But everyone knows that already.

Possibly Proust's theme of memory hides an even greater theme in Lost Time, a quite moral theme having to do with human relationships. The Narrator claims more than once that friendship is for him essentially an empty thing: at best a utilitarian mechanism for getting something he wants (sex, generally) through social connections, and at worst a complete waste of time. The Narrator of course has many character flaws and isn't ashamed to claim them as virtues (this is the primary source of Proust's comic irony throughout the many books of the novel). We are shown repeatedly how one person will (often willfully) misunderstand the motives and actions of another and will treat that other person thoughtlessly or with deliberately harmful intent, often just for the pleasure of spite and the wicked amusement of others. We are shown repeatedly (and, in the case of the Albertine-as-prisoner story, at great length) how a person can be blind to everything except a mistaken idea he clings to in his ignorance, refusing to abandon that idea even as he destroys another person. This ethical theme of Proust's is the same as that of Chekhov: we are all living badly, and we should stop it. We are half-blind monsters, mauling each other in a fog while shouting about love, unable (or unwilling) to accept the reality of each other*. This monstrousness is presented by Proust as a tragedy, as he can see no remedy for it. The best we can do is recognize our mistreatment of our loved ones in retrospect. In Search of Lost Time is a melancholy novel.

The plot doesn't matter. None of the events matter. One person's life is much like another's, and even a great hero of the Great War has spent most of his life off the battlefield, wasting time and looking past his friends at nothing, at his own prejudices, at his unfulfilled desires. The truth of our lives can be found just as much by gazing through a shop window at a new pair of kid gloves as it can be found in the struggle for existence. After all, one mourns the loss of a favorite pair of gloves much more than one mourns the loss of a sister, cousin, husband or wife. One was, it must be admitted, better acquainted with the gloves.

Again, this is a sad book. Marcel dissects and dismisses everyone, from poor fishermen to princesses and all comers in between, including himself. We are distant and unkind because we never see each other, not really, and one cannot be expected to love a person one has never met. Each of us is transitory, unnecessary, interchangeable and there is an endless supply of new humanity swarming to take up our places, our causes, our thoughts and mannerisms. Witness the section in Volume VI about "the Princess de Guermantes", a royal title that endures in the world for century upon century as the title is held by a succession of women, the most recent being a selfish and small-minded narcissist who has managed to marry and inherit her way upward from the shops to the nobility, but even she will die and there will be a new Princess de Guermantes, an empty tiara atop an expendable head. Witness also the changing of social places between Madame Verdurin (who has become that most recent Princess de Guermantes) and Oriane, the Duchess de Guermantes (who is originally introduced to us as a magical creature, the apex of elegance and style); Oriane in Volume VI finally comes to possess the mocking laughter and appalling humor exhibited by Mme Verdurin in volumes I-V.

Some Complaints:

This is a long book. We all know that, right? Every reader seems to find something he must drag himself through, some resistant narration to overcome, some seemingly-endless swamp to cross. I don't understand the readers who find the party scenes dull; they all struck me as vibrant, living scenes full of action and humor and irony. In fact, any time three or more people gather together, there are bound to be hijinks. But what was it that made me pray for either death or sudden speed-reading abilities? Oh, yes: The Captive and Marcel's endless suspicions that Albertine might be having lesbian affairs, and his examination of every detail of Albertine's life in search of evidence by which to condemn her. I can't tell you how happy I was when Francoise announced to Marcel that Albertine had packed her bags and fled the house. The scenes which follow--the opening of The Fugitive, that is--are fairly packed with comedy as Marcel reaches increasingly great heights of nervous fluttering about as he plots to get Albertine back or, if he can't have her, he plans to kill himself on the front steps of Albertine's mother's house. That'll show her.

Yes, yes, Albertine, the love of Marcel's life until he forgets all about her, is barely sketched in; we learn nothing about her mind or personality except those impressions had by Marcel, who knows less about the interior world of Albertine than I know about the interior world of my cat. Some readers see this as a weakness in Proust's writing. I recognize it as a central pillar of Proust's characterization of the Narrator. Marcel the narrator is not Marcel Proust the author of the book. Imagine if Anthony Burgess had only written A Clockwork Orange, and readers assumed Burgess was essentially the same person as young Alex. Proust sees the moral and intellectual weaknesses of Marcel.

Still, Proust himself seems to have been something of a weirdo. But really, get to know anyone well enough, and you see their eccentricities. Write enough prose and your own eccentricities will rise to the surface of the work. I claim to know something about this. But what was I saying? Oh, the dull parts. I'm in the camp of readers who grew exhausted reading many sections in which a single idea was examined and rephrased again and again and again as Proust (or Marcel; hard to say here) sought the perfect analogy and failed to find it. Sometimes there is less deep and probing meditation than there is waffling about in the hope that inspiration will eventually strike. In Search of Lost Time employs techniques of comparison, showing us for example different sets of people engaged in essentially the same activities but believing themselves inhabitants of foreign worlds, and these comparisons continue across the length of the novel and successfully expose the Verdurin set and the Guermantes set to be the same people in different hats. The technique of comparision lends itself less well to abstract ideas, and this is I think a weakness of In Search of Lost Time. Some of Proust's pet ideas are unhappily static and despite the author's best efforts, these ideas do not get up and dance no matter how insistent the tune Proust plays. Happily, for me at least, these static sections always end and there's another party, or Charlus comes prancing up the sidewalk. The inserted essays about art and writing, on the other hand, are worth their weight in gold. Really good stuff in every volume.

Some Other Things:

The ending, so I have read many times, is where we learn that In Search of Lost Time is a Künstlerroman, the story of a writer named Marcel becoming a writer, as if his discovery that he has a work of art in him is the primary point toward which the novel has built, the thematic and dramatic climax of the work. I think people who say this are mistaking structure for content. Volume VI is the author instructing the reader on how to read In Search of Lost Time. Marcel becoming a writer, as a sick old man, is plot, not subject matter. The novel is not an adventure unfolding over time. The Odyssey is more than the story of an old king who tries to go home and then finally goes home. Just because Odysseus sits in his great hall with Penelope at the end of the story does not mean that the story is about him getting to that point. See above about the moral theme of the novel. My complaints, I begin to realize, are mostly concerned with things I've read about Proust, not so much with Mr Proust's work itself. Huh. I am a cranky old reader trying to go home, maybe. This post is the story of me getting to the end of this post, realizing that I could write a post about this post. This is not that post I realized I could write. In Search of Lost Time is not the novel Marcel realized he could write. That novel is on the shelf of Borges' imaginary library.

Speaking of Marcel as a sick old man, Proust died before he finished revising the final volume, and I think that's evident; in many places there is a rough work-in-progress quality, of unstitched hems and sleeves tacked into place awaiting a final fitting. You can tell that the last paragraph of the book, with it's lovely image (of a man walking on ever-lengthening legs which raise him daily farther above his birth so as to lengthen his physical body as his existence in time grows progressively longer until one day his legs are so long that they can no longer support him and he topples over, falling to his death), has been polished and worked at by Proust, so perfect is it in tone and rhythm. But the fifty pages before this gem are quite uneven and I am sure that Proust would've done a lot of work on them had he lived longer. Even the final long party scene (how pleased I was when Proust gave me another party in the Faubourg Saint Germain), where Proust drags nearly every character who's appeared in the book back onto the stage for a final bow, has events out of order and odd repetitions and contradictions. I can't say what Proust would've done with Volume VI had he lived except that surely he'd have resolved the narrative contradictions, smoothed out the sketchy ideas of the last fifty pages, and gosh we can all predict that it would've been a hundred or two hundred pages longer. Which would've been fine. I'd have read another two hundred pages, especially of party scenes.

I claim the unfinished state of the novel for my uncertainty as to what Proust was getting at in some places in Volume VI. The idea of characters taking on the habits and ideas of other characters, of each of us being not one person but many people who are born and die in succession without realizing it (the new identities visible only to outside observers who have been out of contact with us long enough for our internal changes to have come to the surface), is a good one and Proust makes good use of it. I assume that's what he's doing when he has Marcel state that he plans to withdraw from society in order to concentrate on his writing, the only contact he'll desire being that of young girls whom he might shower with gifts and someday maybe be kissed on the cheek, and Gilberte introducing Marcel to her own sixteen year-old daughter for this very purpose. That is an odd episode, and the best I can make of it is that Marcel is taking the place of the late M. Bergotte, whose behavior in this vein is described early in The Captive:
For years past Bergotte had ceased to go out of doors. [...] He was generous above all towards women — girls, one ought rather to say — who were ashamed to receive so much in return for so little. He excused himself in his own eyes because he knew that he could never produce such good work as in an atmosphere of amorous feelings. Love is too strong a word, pleasure that is at all deeply rooted in the flesh is helpful to literary work because it cancels all other pleasures, for instance the pleasures of society, those which are the same for everyone. And even if this love leads to disillusionment, it does at least stir, even by so doing, the surface of the soul which otherwise would be in danger of becoming stagnant. Desire is therefore not without its value to the writer in detaching him first of all from his fellow men and from conforming to their standards, and afterwards in restoring some degree of movement to a spiritual machine which, after a certain age, tends to become paralysed. We do not succeed in being happy but we make observation of the reasons which prevent us from being happy and which would have remained invisible to us but for these loopholes opened by disappointment. Dreams are not to be converted into reality, that we know; we would not form any, perhaps, were it not for desire, and it is useful to us to form them in order to see them fail and to be instructed by their failure. And so Bergotte said to himself: "I am spending more than a multimillionaire would spend upon girls, but the pleasures or disappointments that they give me make me write a book which brings me money." Economically, this argument was absurd, but no doubt he found some charm in thus transmuting gold into caresses and caresses into gold.
I was pleased with the way, about four pages from the end, Marcel loops back around to the night when Swann visited his parents at Combray and Marcel's mother did not come upstairs to kiss Marcel goodnight, choosing instead to remain in the parlor until Swann had left. Swann's coming between Marcel and his mother that evening was the beginning of the end of Marcel's childhood and innocence, Swann's life casting a shadow all through Marcel's days, from one end of time to the other.

* Witness the "air raid" scene early in Volume VI, in which Parisians rush to the Metro--its tunnels in complete darkness--where they hope to find a willing partner for anonymous sex, to engage with others at a purely physical level, simultaneously intimate and absent, simultaneously vulnerable and invulnerable, simultaneously naked and fully-armored, as all the while the City of Lights above their heads is being bombed into rubble. 


  1. I don't think the last 50 pages are all that unfinished. Much of Time Regained was written right after Proust wrote Swann's Way. It had been ready to go back when he was writing a three-volume novel. But of course it had to be revised to incorporate the novel's endless expansions, including the entirety of the Albertine novels - the second volume of which is thought to be the most unfinished piece - and the passage of actual time.

    Such is my understanding.

    It drives me crazy when people say Marcel, in the end, writes this novel. No, no, he writes a different novel, quite possibly one in which the narrator, Proust, is gay and half-Jewish and has a brother named Robert and so on, and who at the end of that novel learns to write this novel.
  2. I'm not sure that knowing when something was first drafted tells us much about the amount of work an author was able to put into it before publication, if you see what I mean. Aside from the last page, the work doesn't exactly go out with a bang on that final section. Possibly some of that is because Montcrieff didn't translate the last volume.
  3. Right, but I think it's an error to assume too much the other way.

    The "bang" is the series of sensory impressions evoking specific unrelated memories. I don't remember exactly where that is.


    1. Marcel's epiphanies come as he's on the steps of the Duke de Guermantes' house, right before the final big party scene. That's about halfway through Volume VI. That's a swell scene, with Marcel deliberately stumbling on the uneven pavements to hang onto the memory, while the footmen laugh at him. Such an electric scene that I missed my stop on the train.
  4. I like this post very much and perhaps some day I will appreciate it even more because I will have read, not bits and scraps but the whole long multi-volume extravaganza with its parties and boredom and transformations.


    1. A gigantic, messy masterpiece. It wasn't really what I thought it would be, but the best books never are!
  5. I am in awe. This comic account by Russell Baker of his attempt to read Proust very much reflects my own failure with the books:


    1. I suffered through something like Baker's experience when I tried to read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. I had to call in an emergency rescue team to carry me down from about page 350, when I could go on no longer.
    2. Have you written about why on the blog? Just curious. Have not made the attempt.
    3. Never mind! I found it...
  6. Thank you for this. This is fascinating. I did read through the whole thing many, many years ago, hoping with each new volume that all the various pieces will fall into place. But they never quite did. And I was sure there was something very important that I was missing. Reading your post, I think what was missing was sufficient experience of life. I was very young when I read it (mid 20s) and I simply had not lived enough. But, having read your post, I feel like diving into it again. I'll still fail, I'm sure, but maybe this time I'll fail better.

    The older I get the more I wonder just how much of what I've read I've actually managed to take in. With Proust, especially, I don't think I even scrape pass marks.


    1. I think Proust would've left me mostly baffled and bored when I was in my 20s; I'd surely have thought that I was better than it, that it failed to meet my standards, whatever snotty self-centered standards those would've been. Yes, experience is the key to successfully reading Lost Time, I agree. Until a reader can look back himself on his own life, he's not really going to understand Proust's project, is he? I wonder how the book will look to me in ten or fifteen years when (I hope) I read it again.

      I've been returning to some of the books I read in my 20s, and seeing how completely I misunderstood the works then. My head was full of rubbish and self-regard and cheap ideas of cleverness. Also, I think, I was probably blind to all but the most overt irony. Most forms of narrative subtlety were lost on me.