1. I was an undergrad in college when I first tried to read Marcel Proust. It was one of those things I did on my own, which is another way of saying that none of his writing was ever assigned to me; neither do I recall any of his writings even appearing in any of the anthologies I was assigned in high school; neither do I recall any of his writings appearing in any of the anthologies I’ve used as a teacher.
2. My initial interest in Proust, late in high school, when the name alone seemed so damn romantic, was aroused, like most people I’ll bet, by the fact that this guy basically wrote one long book, a book that seemed to have at least three names, not counting the names of the individual books and book-length chapters in those individual books.
3. But, like I said, I didn’t try to read Proust until college when I checked out the first volume from the university library. I think it might have actually been a compendium of two or more books that make up the Recherche. Anyway, I can’t recall much, except that I slugged it out through that interminable first chapter, “Combray,” getting absolutely nothing out of it.
4. Since then I’ve read a lot about Proust and his writing, enough to perhaps understand that my first foray into Swann’s Way was probably not from the best angle. I was into decidedly different stuff then—lots of the American postmodernists, English and Irish modernists, etc.—and Proust’s modernism was totally lost on me.
5. Re: Point 4: Perhaps a better way to put it would be to borrow Harold Bloom’s notion that strong/strange writers so assimilate their readers that the readers can no longer see the strangeness/strength. I was assimilated.
6. Wandering through the used book store I frequent, I spotted Lydia Davis’s translation of Swann’s Way and snapped it up, not because of any real interest in trying Proust again but because of a fannish devotion to Davis, or the idea that Davis would make Proust accessible.
7. (A brief fantasy I had as my hand hovered over the book, before my hand touched the book:
I imagined that Davis had turned Swann’s Way into a series of her own vignettes, that she had parsed and ventriloquized Proust, that her translation would be akin to “Ten Stories from Flaubert.”
This is not the case).
8. (While I’m being parenthetical: This riff started as a “books acquired” post, a post where I take a lousy photograph to document a new book that somehow arrives at Biblioklept World Headquaters. But I read so much of Swann’s Way that the original idea riffed out into this thing. Actually, go ahead and skip Point 8, if you haven’t already. Sorry).
9. The day after buying Davis’s translation I read “Combray” over two short airline trips.
10. Or should it be Combray?—it seems like a self-contained novel.
11. The opening paragraphs of “Combray” are an amazing and strange meditation on sleeping, or rather going to sleep, filled with wonderful little digressions. They are a simultaneously alienating and inviting way to open a book.
Sometimes, as Eve was born from one of Adam’s ribs, a woman was born during my sleep from a cramped position of my thigh. Formed from the pleasure I was on the point of enjoying, she, I imagined, was the one offering it to me. My body, which felt in hers my own warmth, would try to find itself inside her, I would wake up.
Such a lovely set of images.
I marked it and moved on without trying to figure out exactly what it might mean.
12. Other moments are more lucid, penetrating, insightful:
Even the very simple act that we call “seeing a person we know” is in part an intellectual one. We fill the physical appearance of the individual we see with all the notions we have about him, and of the total picture that we form for ourselves, these notions certainly occupy the greater part.
“Combray” is full of these wonderful, subtle moments, and it includes some of the finest passages on reading and the transformative powers and pleasures of reading that I’ve encountered.
13. The phrase “unknown pleasures” pops out early in the book—is this where Joy Division got the album name?
14. Proust seems to hit on the idea of unknown pleasures again and again, speculative pleasures, idealized pleasures.
15. Introduced to the writer Bergotte by Swann and Bloch, the young narrator muses:
One of these passages by Bergotte, the third or fourth that I had isolated from the rest, filled me with a joy that could not be compared to the joy I had discovered in the first one, a joy I felt I was experiencing in a deeper, vaster, more unified region of myself, from which all obstacles and partitions had been removed.
The passage concludes with the narrator deciding that he has accessed the “‘ideal passage’ by Bergotte,” an idealization through which he finds his mind “enlarged.”
16. Cataloging the meditations on unknown pleasures in the book would take forever though, and I’m just riffing here.
17. (Although I do love and will thus bring up a late passage where the narrator longs to walk in the woods with “a peasant girl,” one like a “local plant” (!), through which he will access new and individual and unknown pleasures, “Obscurely awaited, immanent and hidden. . . “).
18. Stray note: Swann is described as having a “Bressant-style” haircut, which the end notes describe as “a crew cut in front and longer in the back.” Is this not known colloquially as a mullet? Am I to understand that Swann sports a Kentucky waterfall?
19. Proust’s greatest strength in “Combray” seems to be his ability to move from the physical to the metaphysical, from object to memory. And then back again.
20. An empty statement: The writing is beautiful.
21. Still, there’s something irksome about the narrator (Marcel?): I stopped writing “mama’s boy” in the margin after the third such notation.
22. Re: Point 21: Is this why I never stuck it out with Proust? Is this why, despite acknowledging “The writing is beautiful,” I am not particularly inclined to see what happens next? (And next and next and next . . .)
23. Re: Point 22: I think here of Cormac McCarthy’s assertion in a 1992 New York Times interview that Proust is “not literature” because it doesn’t “deal with issues of life and death.” McCarthy’s quote may or may not be out of context (not here; here it’s in perfectly sound context. I’m talking about proper context in the interview, which is to say that he may or may not have been riffing off the cuff).
24. Okay, from the McCarthy interview:
His list of those whom he calls the “good writers” — Melville, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner — precludes anyone who doesn’t “deal with issues of life and death.” Proust and Henry James don’t make the cut. “I don’t understand them,” he says. “To me, that’s not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange.”
25. Maybe I bring it up because I’ve read so much of McCarthy and the heroes on his list above and find them so compelling, find the protagonists and antagonists so compelling, and while Proust’s narrator is hardly repellent, I find myself occasionally wanting to give him a wedgie.
26. (Never having had the desire to give Ishmael a wedgie, or the underground man a wedgie, or Lucas Beauchamp a wedgie, or Cornelius Suttree a wedgie).
27. Okay. The sentiment I’ve just expressed seems cruel.
28. The same sensitivity I find occasionally overbearing in the narrator is exactly what makes so many of the passages and insights in the text so extraordinary.
29. The narrator is some kind of specialized receptive organic instrument, a psyche keenly attuned to the physical world who mediates that world through emotion, memory, psychological projection—language.
30. The narrator is some kind of membrane but also a self, his articulations winding from reader to self through memory to the natural world, to its phenomena, and back through desire, thought, anticipation, idealization, all back through memory again, back to the reader again. And if tracing these articulations is exhausting, the process also undeniably yields unknown pleasures.
Barry McCrea’s In the Company of Strangers: Family and Narrative in Dickens, Conan Doyle, Joyce, and Proust is one of the more engaging works of literary criticism I’ve seen in some time. And while I’m interested in McCrea’s subjects (the weird lines between the Victorian era and modernism, family and marriage plots, Dickens and Joyce, etc.), it’s the clarity of his writing that I find most impressive. Clear, frank writing is too rare in current literary criticism. Here’s McCrea describing his project—
This book argues that the formal innovations of the high-modernist novel are inseparable from a fundamental rethinking of how family ties are formed and sustained. Genealogy was thematically and structurally central to the English nineteenth-century novel. In the Company of Strangers shows how the formal strategies employed by Joyce and Proust grow out of an attempt to build a fully coherent narrative system that is not rooted in the genealogical family. Modernism’s rejection of the familiar and cultivation of the strange, in other words, are inseparable from its abandonment of the family and embrace of the bond with the stranger as an alternative to it.
[In the Company of Strangers] offers a reassessment of the relationship between the modernists and their Victorian predecessors, suggesting that the key precursor to this queer model of narrative can be located, paradoxically, in the genealogical obsession of the English nineteenth-century novel. Far from representing a clean break with the Victorian family novel, the radical narrative formalism of high modernism exploits the potential of an alternative queer plot that was already present as a formal building block in the nineteenth-century novel.
McCrea’s queer theory lens is keenly attuned to the homoerotic content present in the novels he examines, but his critical gaze is ultimately more interested in how “queer time” functions as an organizing principle throughout the structure of these narratives. McCrea argues that this queer model of time is a central and defining characteristic of literary modernism. The agent (or one agent) of queer time is “the stranger,” the character who figuratively threatens (and paradoxically defines) the family. McCrea points out that the typical Victorian marriage plot resolves the problem of the stranger by incorporating him or her into the family as a point of narrative resolution. In contrast, in “the queer modernist narrative strategies of Ulysses and the Recherche, the stranger rivals and ultimately usurps the family plot.”
McCrea sifts through family plots (and the strangers who would challenge or queer them) in Dickens (Oliver Twist, Bleak House, Great Expectations), Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Ulysses (“a queer family epic”), and Proust’s big book. In the Company of Strangers constantly scrutinizes the ways that family organizes narrative (and narrative organizes family). The book also analyzes what “urban literature” might mean, examining what it means to live in proximity to one’s fellows, and the ways in which urban living necessitate ad hoc families.
In the Company of Strangers does a lovely job of tracing the strange currents that run from Victorian lit to modernism and beyond—currents that extend from our conceptions of family itself, and indeed, our conceptions of life and an end to life. McCrea’s writing is precise, supported by a close textual readings, and if I didn’t always agree with his conclusions, he achieved what every critic ought to aim for: he made me want to read the books he was writing about again.
In the Company of Strangers is new from Columbia University Press.
In his introduction to his reader’s guide to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Patrick Alexander observes that “Except for those fortunate enough to spend several years confined to a hospital bed, a federal prison, or to be stranded on a desert island with their preselected library, few modern readers have the time to tackle a novel with more than three thousand pages, a million and a half words, and more than four hundred individual characters.” Alexander goes on to point out that “Proust’s novel is increasingly read only by professional academics,” a trend he describes as a “great pity.” Alexander wants you to be able to access all the philosophical insight and rich humor of Proust, and his book Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time makes a great starting point for doing so.
The first of the three sections that comprise Alexander’s book, “What Happens in Proust,” summarizes the seven novels that form Proust’s great work In Search of Lost Time (sometimes translated as Remembrance of Things Past). This is easily the largest section of the book. Alexander summarizes the novels, and contextualizes their themes against their historical and social milieu. Alexander’s second section, “Who’s Who in Proust,” will likely be most useful for readers trying to keep track of the many (many, many) characters in this opus. The final section, “The World of Proust,” situates Proust’s place in Paris, French history, and modern literature. As Alexander points out himself, the book will appeal to three types of readers: those who want to read Proust but are daunted, those who are currently reading Proust and wish for a guide to keep track of all the places and names, and those who wish to return to Proust.
Alexander’s project is ambitious, and guidebooks are always an iffy business of course. I found Harry Blamires’s The New Bloomsday Book, probably the most famous guide for James Joyce’s Ulysses, to be an interminable bore, whereas Joseph Campbell’s lectures on the same subject are indispensable. There’s really a fine balance to be achieved I suppose. I’m currently making my way through another big book (okay, not as big as Proust’s), William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, and so far,Steven Moore’s A Reader’s Guide to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions has proven to be a valuable resource when I need it. It manages to provide analytical insights and explications of all the many (many, many) allusions in Gaddis’s massive tome without ever being intrusive. Similarly, Alexander understands that a guide should never step on toes. His clean, lucid style is both humorous and realistic, and he’s never overly-reverential of Proust, but respectful at all times toward both his favorite author and his readers. Alexander’s real goal is not to paraphrase Proust, but, like all good critics, to try to get you to read the material. I never got past the first forty pages of Swann’s Way, the first book of Lost Time, but Alexander’s book makes me want to go back and give it another shot.
Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time by Patrick Alexander is available from Vintage books on September 22nd, 2009.
I think I did a similar post two years ago. I teach, I gotta go back to school, the fall, the kids, blah, blah, blah. Anyway. I’ll try to get one proper book review out per week. I’ve got seven or eight really choice looking promo copies and galleys stacked up here, including new trade paperback editions of Marilynne Robinson’s Home and Per Petterson’s To Siberia. Vintage also has a really cool original by Patrick Alexander coming out in September; it’s called Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time and its subtitle, A Reader’s Guide to The Remembrance of Things Past pretty much sums it up. I’ve read the first 100 pages and it’s really great, and let’s face it, unless some kinda windfall happens where I can just read books all day, I’m never gonna get around to Proust, so, yeah, this’ll have to do. Proper reviews forthcoming, blah, blah, blah. (Even though William Gaddis’s The Recognitions ain’t gettin’ no shorter).
While I’m doing lazy reviews, let me just say that Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Inglourious Basterds is a glorious bastard of a mixed-up masterpiece. Christoph Waltz steals the show as SS Col. Hans Landa, but the real star, as usual, is Tarantino’s sense of cinema (whatever that means; c’mon, I was upfront, this is lazy reviewing). Plenty of folks have kinda sorta hated on (or outright hated on) this film, but I loved it. A revenge film about cinema posing as a Western faking as a WWII flick. Great stuff.
The last time I did one of these hacky “Back To School” posts, I brought up William Gibson for some reason–which gives me a good transition to this excellent steampunk photoset. While Gibson’s novel The Difference Engine (with co-author Bruce Sterling) is often cited as a progenitor of steampunk, many of the images in the set correspond to ideas Gibson put forth in his “Bridge Trilogy” — he envisioned a future of “organic” computers that some of these folks have gone out and made. I’d like one. Jeez, this is really bad writing, but, hey, back to school right. Like that Deftone’s song (yeah, I know the Deftones aren’t cool or hip or whatever, and I’ve never heard one of their albums, but M2 used to play that video all the time when I was in college 10 years ago and I thought it was pretty great).Cheers.