On a Saturday afternoon in 1983, I picked up Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer in the Fountain Bookshop in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I was 15 years old and a Dungeons & Dragons nerd; I spent a lot of time skulking around the Fantasy and Science Fiction sections of the city’s bookstores. I was drawn to The Shadow of the Torturer by Bruce Pennington’s cover art, which depicted a man in a black cloak striding away from a ruined citadel, a huge sword on his back. The image promised something along the lines of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion Cycle, a baroque, heroic tale with melancholy underpinnings. Promising, too, were the blurbs from Ursula K. Le Guin (“The first volume of a masterpiece.”) and Thomas M. Disch (“Dark, daunting, and thoroughly believable.”). I opened the book and started reading. The first chapter was called “Resurrection and Death.” The first sentence included a word I’d never encountered before: “presentiment.” In the opening scene, some kids were up to no good, trying to get past the locked gate of a cemetery. Sold.
The Shadow of the Torturer concerns an orphan named Severian, who is an apprentice in the guild of torturers—known formally as the Order of the Seekers of Truth and Penitence. The setting is a vast city on Earth (now called Urth) so far in the future that the sun is dying, so far in the future, in fact, that at times it feels like the past. In the world of this novel, science is so advanced that it resembles sorcery. It’s hard to know the mystical from the mechanical. For example, the torturers and other guilds occupy “towers” that the attentive reader realizes before long, are rocket ships. On one level, The Shadow of the Torturer is a fairly conventional bildungsroman. Severian advances from adolescence to early manhood, has his first sexual experience, learns about the complexities of adult life, commits a crime and, by the end of the book, is exiled, setting him on his heroic (or, perhaps, anti-heroic) path.
On another level however, the book is a meditation on the ravages of time, memory, and the ceaseless struggle against extinction and obsolescence. Severian has the gift of total recall. He can remember every moment of his life back to early childhood. At times this seems like a curse. Early in the novel, the torturer’s apprentice is dispatched to the city library and archives with a message for the curator, Master Ultan. Delighted to have his solitude interrupted by a visitor, Ultan prattles on about the vast collection he oversees. Wolfe’s pacing is unhurried. A narrator who remembers everything will give you lots of details:
We have books whose papers are matted of plants from which spring curious alkaloids, so that the reader, in turning their pages, is taken unaware by bizarre fantasies and chimeric dreams. Books whose pages are not paper at all, but delicate wafers of white jade, ivory, and shell; books, too, whose leaves are the desiccated leaves of unknown plants…. There is a cube of crystal here—though I can no longer tell you where—no larger than the ball of your thumb that contains more books than the library itself does.
This last item is typically Wolfean. How can the crystal contain more books than the library, when it is part of the library’s collection? Ultan then goes on to describe the method by which apprentice librarians are selected:
From time to time, however, a librarian remarks a solitary child, still of tender years, who wanders from the children’s room…and at last deserts it entirely. Such a child eventually discovers, on some low but obscure shelf, The Book of Gold….
Then the librarians come—like vampires, some say, but others say like the fairy godparents at a christening. They speak to the child and the child joins them. Henceforth, he is in the library wherever he may be, and soon his parents know him no more.
For the right reader at the right time, The Book of Gold is more than an escape. It is a gateway out of childhood into the adult world and a companion for life. The Book of Gold is malleable; it is a different volume for every reader. I didn’t know it at the time, but on that Saturday afternoon in Belfast, I’d found my Book of Gold in The Shadow of the Torturer and its successors—The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, and The Citadel of the Autarch—which together make up a long novel called The Book of the New Sun.
Gene Wolfe died on April 14, Palm Sunday. He was 87. I’m writing this on Easter Sunday, April 21. I was offline most of Holy Week, traveling with my family, and didn’t hear the news of Wolfe’s death until Good Friday. All of this feels uncannily appropriate, a turn of events one might find in a Gene Wolfe novel. As Jeet Heer wrote in The New Republic last week, Wolfe was a writer “with a deeply Catholic imagination.” Born in New York City and raised in Houston, he came to his faith in his mid-20s, after serving as a combat engineer in the Korean War. The experience of the war was traumatizing and left him, in his own words, “a mess.” (In 1991, a small Canadian publisher, U.M. Press, released a volume of Wolfe’s letters to his mother from Korea. They do not make for cheerful reading.) Wolfe converted to Catholicism shortly before his marriage to Rosemary Dietsch, in 1956. He credits her with saving him. As Heer observes, Wolfe, like James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor, wrote analogical fiction that “fused the literal, the metaphoric, and the philosophic into the same narrative.”
Wolfe’s service in Korea was part of the impetus for writing The Book of the New Sun. “I wanted to show a young man approaching war,” Wolfe wrote in the essay “Helioscope.” From his apprentice origins in the citadel, Severian goes on to become an executioner, a soldier, and ultimately a Christ-like savior of the world. Wolfe’s faith informed his decision to make his protagonist a torturer: “It has been remarked thousands of times that Christ died under torture. Many of us have read so often that he was a ‘humble carpenter’ that we feel a little surge of nausea on seeing the words yet again. But no one ever seems to notice that the instruments of torture were wood, nails, and a hammer…. Although Christ was a ‘humble carpenter,’ the only object we are specifically told he made was not a table or a chair but a whip.”
In the autumn of 1984, I sent Wolfe a fan letter. My family had moved from Northern Ireland back to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where, after three years in Belfast, I had a hard time fitting in among the cliques of the public high school. I was miserable and contemplated suicide. Fortunately, there were a lot of Gene Wolfe books available at the local public library. I read as many of them as I could: The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Gene Wolfe’s Book of Days, The Devil in a Forest, Operation Ares, Peace, and The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. The title story of that last volume was a particular favorite. Its adolescent protagonist, Tackman Babcock, lives in a disused resort hotel on a barrier island with his divorced mother and her younger boyfriend, Jason. The atmosphere is Southern Gothic and the setting feels only tenuously connected to reality. (The mother refers to the hotel as the House of 31 February, which tells you everything you need to know.) The reader soon learns that the mother is a drug addict and Jason her supplier. Tackman senses something’s not right, but he’s either unwilling or too young to grapple with it. He copes by reading an adventure story similar to H.G. Wells’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” which features a mad scientist, Dr. Death, and his nemesis, the heroic Captain Ransom. The characters and events from the story begin to bleed into Tackman’s life, supplanting his grim reality. It’s a postmodern genre allegory. His mother overdoses but survives. At the hospital, Tackman is told that he will be going into foster care while she recovers. The boy is afraid to finish the book he’s been reading, telling Dr. Death, “I don’t want it to end. You’ll be killed at the end.” To which Dr. Death replies, “But if you start the book again, we’ll all be back.” During that year, I leaned heavily on this idea of reading not as escapist, but as regenerative and sustaining.
A week before Christmas, a padded envelope arrived in the mail for me. Inside, there was a book-shaped object in wrapping paper, with a label reading: DO NOT OPEN BEFORE CHRISTMAS OR YOU WILL BE CROTTLED BY GREEPS. FIAT! FIAT! FIAT! There could be only one person who would write such a label, but I obeyed the directive and didn’t open it until Christmas Day. Gene Wolfe had sent me a copy of Universe 7, an anthology featuring stories by Fritz Leiber, Brian W. Aldiss, and himself. On the title page of Wolfe’s story, “The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton,” he had written in blue ink, “For Jon Michaud” and signed his name. It was the greatest gift of my short life.
With that, I began a correspondence with Wolfe that lasted about two years. He was kind and generous and patient and encouraging. He answered my questions about his books, and offered reader’s advisory services, directing me to the seminal Harlan Ellison-edited anthologies Dangerous Visions and Again Dangerous Visions as well as the work of an up-and-coming writer named Nancy Kress. I asked him for his 10 desert-island books and his answer was an index of his influences: The Bible, Shakespeare, Remembrance of Things Past, The Pickwick Papers, and The Complete Father Brown. (He also included a practical volume, How to Be a Hermit by Will Cuppy.)
Along the way, Wolfe taught me what it took to be a writer. Here he was, the winner of the Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, and he still worked a full-time job as an editor at the trade journal Plant Engineering. Wolfe did his writing early in the morning, before going to the office. He wrote at least five drafts of his books, a number that was daunting for a teenager who had trouble finishing first drafts. At one point he noted that his latest book was on hold while he did his taxes. Wolfe was a devoted husband and a father of four children. His example was a welcome counter to the romanticized notion of the philandering rebel artist. Regular habits, a strong work ethic, and a love of revision were the secret ingredients to a successful writing career.
When an English teacher at my high school refused to let me write a term paper about Wolfe’s books because he wasn’t “well known” enough, Wolfe sent the man a letter, listing his awards and prizes. “But judging a novelist by his credentials is like judging a racehorse by its bloodlines; performance is what matters,” he wrote. He included paperback copies of The Shadow of the Torturer and Peace for the teacher to read. By that time, though, I’d graduated from high school and was on my way back to Northern Ireland. Wolfe’s books and letters, his kindness, had carried me through a very difficult time in my life.
Wolfe published more than 30 novels and a dozen collections of short stories in his long career. Eventually, he was able to give up his day job and write full time. His oeuvre is uneven. Though I own a signed, limited edition of Free Live Free, the novel he published after The Book of the New Sun, I’ve never been able to finish it. The arch cleverness of some of his other works has, at times, left me cold. But those examples are the minority. Wolfe memorably explored ancient Greece in The Soldier Trilogy, and he returned to the universe of The Book of the New Sun in The Urth of the New Sun and two successive sequel cycles, which are complex and rewarding extensions to his masterpiece. (And it should also be said that Wolfe remains a chronically underappreciated practitioner of the short story.) His influence can be seen widely. Neil Gaiman has been vocal about his admiration for Wolfe, calling him “possibly the finest living American writer.” Perhaps there would have been no Game of Thrones without Wolfe’s Urth as an antecedent. “I learned so much from Gene,” George R.R. Martin wrote last week. To my mind, the Citadel, where Samwell Tarly goes to learn to be a maester, is an homage to Master Ultan’s library in The Shadow of the Torturer.
Remember what Ultan said about the child who discovers The Book of Gold? “Henceforth, he is in the library wherever he may be, and soon his parents know him no more.” That was true for me. I went on to become a librarian. About a decade into my library career, I wound up working in the archives of The New Yorker. One day, going through a card catalog of the magazine’s contributors, I came across Wolfe’s name. He’d published a single story in the magazine, “On the Train,” in April of 1983, which would have been right around the time I picked up The Shadow of the Torturer in the Fountain Bookshop.
I made a photocopy of the card and mailed it to Wolfe. It had been more than a dozen years since we’d corresponded and I allowed in my letter that he might not remember me. A week later came the reply. “Of course I remember you,” he wrote. And then he offered to read and critique whatever I was working on. He was there all along. And now he’s not.
This interview first appeared in Chinese at the Shanghai Review of Books on June 3, 2018.
I spent my first Iowan winter day at home reading Tinkers, the 2010 Pulitzer Fiction Prize winner. Outside, snow began to fall. I poured myself a cup of hot tea, sat next to my window, and opened the book to its stunning opening line:
“George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.”
Perhaps it was the snow, but my world quieted. Slowly I lost myself in the labyrinth of George’s memory. When, finishing the last line, I looked up again—it was four hours later, the street lamps casting their long bluish shadows on a whole white land.
Ever since then I’ve wanted to talk to Paul Harding, to ask him for his writing recipe, his marvelous use of time and lyricism. As a foreigner who grew up exposed to Emerson, Melville, and Faulkner, I was astonished to hear that in America only high school students are still reading them. I want to ask him about the literary tradition in this country, about the relationship between the self, history, and the present, and how art can reach beyond its creator’s self-obsession and connect to a larger world.
So we had this conversation. Paul’s responses are illuminating and yet sometimes counterintuitive. Instead of encouraging young writers to find their own voices, he says he rids markers of his voice during revision and editing. In Paul’s view, writers and their writings are not a cause-and-effect relation; rather, it’s the subject that desires to be rendered in a specific way, and the writer who needs to listen to this hidden message. As far as literary tradition, the Bible to Paul is both the foundational literary text and a spring of democracy and humanism.
(Paul’s forthcoming novel, Island, is coming out with Random House in 2019 or 2020.)
The Millions: Before you switched your career to writing, you were a drummer for the band Cold Water Flat. What’s a musician’s life like? Does your past as a musician influence your writing?
Paul Harding: Well, mine was a sort of “half-time” musician’s life. When we were not touring or recording or playing shows around Boston and New York City, which was often, I temped in all sorts of lousy jobs. I also worked in bookstores, which was lousy work, too, because it was retail, but wonderful because I read all the new fiction that came out.
I loved working on songs with the other band members. We were not very good, but I was fascinated by arranging and finding different parts for different songs. I loved being in the studio, too, watching the engineers and producers use the studio itself, and the mixing boards almost as instruments in themselves.
Touring was a lot of fun at first, but it grew very tiring. Most days are spent driving for many, many hours from show to show, getting to the theater or club, doing a soundcheck, playing the show, breaking down, sleeping in one motel room with five or six people, getting up in the morning, and driving all day again. Very wearying! But not entirely awful, because it’s interesting to show up in towns and cities you might never otherwise see, and find people in the middle of what they consider “normal life,” which is, from the outside, always clearly highly localized and eccentric in one way or another.
Music absolutely influences my writing. I was a drummer—the “time keeper.” And I think of narrative prose as keeping time, too, of rendering characters’ experiences of time, of “being in time” in the philosophical but also, simply, immanent physical senses. I write by ear, by rhythm, intuitively. I can often tell what the tempo, time signature, accentuations are of a sentence or a passage before I discover its literal meaning. I think of Tinkers, especially, as lyrical, like incantation, song.
TM: When was the first time you introduced yourself to others as a writer? How did you feel about it?
PH: I suppose I went through some version of the self-conscious, pretty much coy mannerism of protesting that I was not a writer; I just wrote. Or something like that. I was never self-conscious about wanting to be a writer, or aspiring to be an excellent one, since neither is the same thing as claiming to be an excellent writer. But now, I accept the job title! From my point of view, I do in fact think of writing as a way or manner of being in the world, that in some deep senses, I do write, as a function of my being a person, of exploring, interrogating, describing the experience of personhood, of being an “I,” that utterly mysterious thing. I guess I also feel a bit like I’m not so much “a writer” but a writer of strange, oddly shaped stories and not much else.
TM: The original inspiration for your debut novel, Tinkers, was your maternal grandfather. Why did you want to tell his story? Do you find your writing experience has changed your understanding of him or your family story? In what ways?
PH: I did not feel compelled to tell my grandfather’s story in the general sense. I felt an urge to describe aspects of his life about which I remained curious after his death, which were mysterious to me, yet also formative, normative. It was also a way to remain in conversation with him, by means of aesthetics, of imagination. George, in Tinkers, though, ended up achieving his own kind of aesthetic critical mass, or momentum, and while he is my grandfather, my grandfather was not him, if that makes sense! It also pleases me to think of my own sons, and perhaps someday their children and grandchildren, reading the book and feeling as if it’s their own, highly local book of genesis: an anthology of family myths and legends.
TM: Were some chapters of Tinkers workshopped before its publication? If so, what feedback did you receive?
PH: Tinkers was originally a 15-page short story. It was one of two stories I submitted to apply to the MFA program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was not supposed to workshop it, but I did, because I ran out of material to submit. It was given a life-changing workshop by my teacher and now friend Elizabeth McCracken. Her reading of it was so subtle, attentive, solicitous. She not only taught me a great deal about the story but also how to teach. The feedback, as I remember, mostly had to do with the 15-page version being too elliptical, too obscure. So, when I had the chance, after graduating, to work on it some more, I expanded it from the “inside out,” so to speak. I had the entire plot, such of it as there was (which was and remains not much—plot does not interest me), so I just kept elaborating on the characters’ lives, building up layers of them, slowly, like a river piling up silt or something. In fact, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that if you took the five opening pages, the five closing pages, and the five pages right at the middle of the published book, you’d pretty much have the original story. So strange, art—so lovely.
TM: Almost all readers said they marveled at the unique use of time in Tinkers. Time both constricts and expands, which reminds me of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, but Tinkers is also very different. How did you come up with this idea? Did you doubt it at any point during your writing process?
PH: I doubted it the entire process. Not what I wanted to do with time but whether I was in fact doing that, or whether I was just being clever, fancy, using pyrotechnics. But that was good motivation. Every twist, turn, redoubt, exploded or accelerated moment had to earn its way into the manuscript. Also, since most of the book takes the form of consciousness—and most of that the form of memory—I had built into the structure of the book that what I think of as a “quantum,” almost supraluminary nature of consciousness, where almost without apparent causality, you can be thinking of yourself as an infant next to a river watching your mother catch a fish and instantly next be thinking of yourself as a parent, feeding your son a bite of shrimp. Or whatever. That’s kind of a silly example, but I certainly had writers like Proust in mind, pushing on how prose that must be read diachronically—that is, in order, in lines of words, can be experienced by the reader as something like the synchronous apprehensions of full memories, and full memories shifting and moving and leading into and out of one another, and so forth. William Faulkner was a huge influence thinking about this. Also, the so-called “magical realists,” like Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes. Emily Dickinson, too, whose poems look so small and compact and yet have the transcendental, metaphysical density of collapsed stars.
TM: Tinkers has an associative rather than linear architecture, as you put it. One tricky thing about this structure is that readers may get lost. Many writers embed perches for readers to rest and reorient. I read the countdown of George’s life as serving this purpose. Did you worry that your readers might lose their way? Did you provide guidance for them?
PH: You have perfectly answered your own questions! Yes, I worried. Yes, I absolutely “staged” the book as a countdown to the instant of George’s death—incidentally, the eight days it takes for a traditional American or European wall clock to wind down. I figured that as long as the prose eventually looped back to “8 days before he died; 7 days; 6,” the reader would have a predictable point to which she’d periodically return and be able to clearly, concretely take stock of what was happening. I think that the narrative takes some getting used to, but once the reader knows the, as it were, rules of the thing, those rules are consistent and wholly organic to the deepest meanings in the book. I feel more or less that it’s fine to ask the reader to do some work, to actively participate in the reading of the book, so long as that work is rewarded two, five, tenfold with art that surprises, delights, activates deep human recognition—all that good, artful stuff. Two things I always tell my writing students are: Don’t write your stories for poor readers, and don’t write your stories for people who won’t like them. If you pick up a copy of Tinkers and read the jacket copy and maybe the opening paragraph or two, you’ll continue reading because you like what you read. The book does what it does, consistently, right from the very first sentence.
TM: After Tinkers won the Pulitzer Prize, did you feel any pressure on your second novel? Did you worry whether Enon would replicate the success of Tinkers?
PH: I did feel pressure, and a lot of it. But I also recognized that I was a kind of minor, temporary protagonist in the larger Pulitzer Prize narrative or phenomenon. I certainly worried during my time as a private citizen—that is, for instance, when I lay awake at night, at four in the morning, say—wondering whether I could pull it off. But I either had to write a second book or disappear. Much better, I thought, to get on with it. I did not worry whether Enon would replicate Tinker’s success, although I certainly hoped it would. But being a lifelong avid reader, bookseller, and observer of all (or many) things literary, I knew the usual, very predictable risks. For example, I knew there’d be people who would not like Enon, no matter what, because it was just Tinkers II, and there would be people who would not like it because it was not Tinkers II. No matter. My job was to filter out all the noise best I could and be loyal and attentive to what was coming over the wire from inside the world of that book.
TM: Enon, at least in its first part, reads more like a conventional novel—a lucid point of view with a plot that everyone can relate to. What things were on your mind when you were making writing choices for Enon?
PH: It’s interesting, because you sort of learn things about writing on the fly. At first, because the opening felt more conventional, I tried to make it more, I don’t know what, experimental, or something like that. But that was me inducing meaning, coercing the material. What I found was that much of that book is precisely about this narrator, Charlie, having a more or less common, recognizable, conventional way of looking at and describing his life—a relatable, work-a-day kind of idiom for the love he has, for instance, for his daughter. When his daughter dies tragically and without warning, that idiom, the very language out of and with which his world and place in it has been constructed, is made instantly and totally alien, unrecognizable, insufficient for his experience of the tragedy. Much of the rest of the novel is simply a dramatic presentation of him desperately trying to improvise a new idiom for a universe in which his daughter has died. That improvisation intersects with his romantic, so to speak, imbibing of drugs and alcohol in an effort to give himself just a bit of distance from his own white-hot grief, almost as if the chemicals are like the mirror Perseus must use in order to look at the Medusa and not simply perish. And that combination becomes more and more phantasmagorical, of course, and populated by fairly specific New England ghosts and legends. I also realized that the story was a version of Orpheus and Eurydice, or Persephone and Diana, the narrative of losing someone so dear that you simply cannot accept it and try to go down into the underworld to fetch the lost loved one back. Tons of other stuff in there, too. Hopefully.
But I did find myself with the technically confining structure of a first-person narrative, which I found the hard way is very, very difficult to sustain over a novel-length narrative. And I did find myself in the face of how our culture thinks about drug and alcohol addiction, which made for a very prominent foreground that many readers could not or would not subordinate to the character’s—the true subject of the book—human experience. Certainly, some of that was my shortcoming as an artist. Such is art! Fascinating to learn along the way. Interesting, too, when readers would come up to me and say, Oh, why doesn’t that Charlie guy just pull himself up by his big boy pants and get over it? Well, if he did, there would not have been a book! It’s like asking (on a much, much more sublime level, of course), Oh, why didn’t Hamlet just get on with his revenge? Well, because that’s the play. What would be left of Hamlet if he didn’t agonize? That’s what the whole play is about! If he didn’t agonize, he’d just murder Polonius, assert his right of succession, become a typically vengeful, murderous king, and the play would be two minutes long, and they’d have to bring out the jugglers and dancing bears!
Anyway, Enon was and remains a tough nut to crack. Wholly necessary for me to write (I had close friends who’d lost children, whose experiences were partly why I chose to try to write such a book, and two close friends lost their respective only children while I was writing the book). I am deeply loyal to it. It remains a mystery to me. An occluded vision of something deep and dark and, to me, fascinating.
TM: You teach students to write precisely. What do you mean by “being precise”? How to be both lyrical and precise? Can you give an example?
PH: I guess I have an idealistic, or Platonic, spirit in the use of language; my sense is of a perfect version of, say, Tinkers somewhere out there in or beyond the universe. What I got of it onto paper is the buckled, scorched, dented, imperfect version of it that I managed to fetch from my forays toward that perfect version and bring down through the atmosphere into the English. As it precipitates from that imaginary, perfect state into language, it distorts. But English is a pretty magnificent, flexible, rich, dense language. So I revised. And revised. And revised some more. There’s not a sentence in the book I did not go over 100 times, pushing on the precision of the language to see how close to perfect I could get. That pushing is, of course, aesthetic, too. It is applying aesthetic pressure to the language for precision, largely with the faith that every further degree of precision is a further degree of revelation, of beauty.
When I began to realize this, it took a huge leap of faith, exactly because I thought of myself as a lyrical writer. Even the word itself, “precision,” seemed to contradict the very spirit of lyricism. It seemed surgical or like something from engineering. But again, it is used in this kind of writing to achieve aesthetic sophistication.
The matter was one of learning to trust your subjects. If you sense beauty and lyric essence in your subjects, that means that beauty and lyricism inhere in them. That is, they are already beautiful and lyrical in themselves, before you even stumble by and notice. Which means that it’s not you, the writer, who induces those qualities, with “your” writing. You don’t happen along, sprinkle glitter and fairy dust on the subjects, and they become lyrical. That would be a form in itself of distortion, imprecision. It’s not a cause-and-effect phenomenon, where the writer “causes” subjects to be lyrical or whatever via her writing. The writer pays deep, sustained, considerate, selfless, solicitous attention to subjects she intuits are beautiful and lyrical, and if they indeed are, then the best—really, finally, the only—way to render those things is by precisely describing them as they are. That’s all the difference between poetry and writing that sounds poetic, between beauty and pretty writing.
It seemed counterintuitive to me at the time, so as I said, it was a huge leap of faith. I had to be very deliberate, conscious of writing that way. It took a lot of work to make myself write that way and to keep writing that way. But it was faith well rewarded. It’s a wonderful mystery, but it works every single time.
I should say that this way of thinking is undertaken in the context of writing about character, that is, about experience, so much of the beauty and lyricism also come from refracting, for instance, the description of a striking landscape through a character’s perception of it, experience of it, which in itself is something that, if precisely attended, strikes the reader as true, authentic, thus beautiful. I never write “objectively” about a stand of birch trees in the golden sun near a stream of cold clear water, but of a mind perceiving those things. So the mind and landscape become coextensive and so forth.
TM: Nineteenth-century spirituality is rare to see in contemporary American literature (with the exception of you and your teacher Marilynne Robinson). Based on your reading experience, what do you like most about contemporary American fiction? What don’t you like about it?
PH: The only contemporary American fiction I read is that written by my students! Not because I’m doctrinaire or anything, but because when I teach, I teach a novel-writing workshop in which we read and critique a full-length novel manuscript every week, no upper page limit. That’s a ton of reading, but the students are so good that I get to read a rough draft of a good or great novel every week. The rest of my reading time I devote to nonfiction—tons of theology, lately a lot of history, like John Foxe’s massive Actes and Monuments, which chronicles English history from the dawn of time, practically, through the reign of Queen Mary (I think).
Anyway, what I love about the books I see from my students is a willingness to try new ideas, to write unabashedly big, smart, beautiful books. Generally, I dislike books that complain so much about, say, crass, white, middle-class materialism that they themselves becomes artifacts of the very phenomenon they allegedly lament. That’s like shooting fish in a barrel, as they say. What could be easier that pinching the noses of burghers?
TM: One common critique is that contemporary American fiction is small. But our world is big and chaotic. We need a novel that is about the right size. What do you think of the “size” of contemporary American fiction?
PH: Oh, that’s a tough one! “Size” has to be dictated from inside the work outward. There are a lot of 600-page novels that have about 75 pages of substance to them and the rest is just self-indulgent riffing. “Size” is properly about the seriousness and depth of idea, of subject. There’s nothing I like better than a big book. You get to live with it longer. It becomes like a friend or lover. Moby Dick, by now, is less a book than a place for me, an actual sort of aesthetic ontological dimension I go back to and live in periodically. I can do that with Melville because the book is 600 pages, but more importantly, each page is 100 pages deep in a sense. It’s so rich, dense, gorgeous, big-spirited, generous, genius. Every page is a feast! So if you crank out several hundred pages of received popular opinion about whatever this season’s version of the American dream or nightmare is, you’ve still written a small, sad little book.
TM: Another contemporary writing trend is that, perhaps under the influence of postmodernism, writers are bold in trying experimental forms with their novels—very often by the use of visual art. But I find, quite often, those forms are a way to legitimize a weak plot or string together a collection of slightly related scenes. In your opinion, what’s the ideal relation between form and content? How to make experimental forms organic?
PH: Well, I think you’ve given a great answer to another of your questions! This is very, very much a matter of personal taste. At this point, we’ve crossed over into personal aesthetics, so this is all purely a matter of my own preferences.
But, for me, first, all good writing is experimental. You experiment with the material to see what works and doesn’t and how and why. I spend tons of time collaging passages, juxtaposing them in various ways, improvising and experimenting with them to see what tones, textures, nuances, harmonies, dissonances, revelations, etc., they generate on their own, almost independent of my own intelligence, as it were. But I do not ever induce form prior to writing or insist on form as I write. I mean, sometimes I do, but in the former case only to jump start the writing in a very early stage of a project, to invoke it, for example, but with the full understanding that the formal structure is a prompt or conceit that the material, if it’s good, will inevitably outgrow and shrug off, and in the latter case usually because I’ve unconsciously or stubbornly persisted in some formal conceit past its usefulness or necessity and have been disfiguring the material so that it accommodates the form. That’s an instance of the writing becoming the subject of the writing, if that makes sense. The writing is the predicate of the proper subject—for me, the characters, their experiences, the phenomenology of things. The writing is subordinate to the people whose lives it serves to portray (which goes back to what we were talking about in terms of precision). I often tell my students, never preserve a conceit at the expense of the story.
One way to revise and edit for this kind of thing, I’ve found, is to listen for your own voice. Whenever I can hear my own voice in my work, I know that I have somehow improperly become the subject of the writing. It’s no longer about my characters but about me being clever, showing off, getting revenge or whatever. So to my thinking, form is an organic function of the process in that it is what physicists might call an “emergent property.” I’m probably fudging the proper definition of the concept, but roughly, I understand emergent properties to be ones that arise from the interactions of a system that could not be predicted prior to that system being set into motion (or whatever—I think it must have something to do with thermodynamics). Form emerges from the inside out, then, rather than being something the writer thinks of abstractly, intellectually, rhetorically beforehand and then induces onto a plot or set of characters or whatever.
Of course, some authors can do this brilliantly. But as you suggest, a lot of writers try fancy formal stuff because there’s no necessity to the work. There’s the mortal danger of constructing something that is purely ornamental. Which is in no way to suggest writers should not use such experimentation as a way of getting to things they find true and essential. But there’s also the risk of a shallow level of appeal. Look! The whole novel is written backwards! How clever. Who cares, you know? It’s not strictly the same thing, but the spirit is similar when the American jazz critic Whitney Balliett described musicians who are technically brilliant but have no vision or soul as possessing “mere virtuosity.”
TM: “Tradition” is a word Americans don’t often mention. I was told by workshop friends that only high school students read Faulkner. In your opinion, what’s American literary tradition? What are the greatest things that young writers can learn from reading them?
PH: American literature by now is so vast it’s hard to describe it as a single tradition. Historically, the tradition probably began with people like Jonathan Edwards, the theologian, who was a magnificent writer. I think of the tradition, if somewhat narrowly, as arising from the New England Reformed Protestant tradition that led to Transcendentalism.
I see that vein as being disciplined by the idea of the primacy of personal experience. Not in a romantic sense but in the deepest intellectual, aesthetic, moral, spiritual sense of using your brain as much as possible to ponder experience itself—the experience of being human, of experiencing a self, the experience of being human as a self. That leads to all sorts of pretty lovely democratic, humanist implications, having to do with allowing every person the freedom to experience her own given humanity, free from coercion, having to do with the premise that every person’s experience has the same ultimate value, and so forth. It’s not the same thing as radical relativism, or simple license to do whatever you’d like.
Parts of the literary and philosophical traditions arise from the earlier theology of what was called the “I and thou” of things. A person activates, cultivates, deepens her own self to the extent that she cares for and dignifies other people’s selves, lives. Pondering one’s own experience makes one more sensitive to the experiences of others, or that’s the spirit of it. Empathy, pretty much. Not a naturally occurring impulse, always, perhaps, but through the discipline and the habit of deliberately thinking as deeply and constantly as possible about such things, one can, so the thinking goes, meaningfully participate in the true value and valuing of human beings. That’s a pretty radically abbreviated description of what I think of as humanism.
In America, but also wherever such thinking has any efficacy, I think it’s fair to say people’s lives are enriched materially and spiritually. In America, such thinking and art, broadly, helped to give rise to things like the abolitionist movement, then civil rights, labor rights, women’s suffrage, an overall lessening of discrimination against and disenfranchisement and of various groups of people. Emerson and Thoreau certainly wrote and thought in that tradition. Emily Dickinson. Herman Melville. Later, Faulkner, for sure. One of the problems of keeping the heart and soul of such a tradition intact is that all those writers, regardless of differences of denomination or faith or however you’d like to describe it, wrote from within the literary and cosmological traditions of the Bible.
Well, if only high schoolers read Faulkner these days, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that no one at all reads the Bible. The book has become so encrusted in ideological nacre that it’s almost impossible for Americans to approach the book and what’s in it as they would, say, Moby Dick, which is not necessarily to say secularly but as literature, which is not to demean religion but to elevate narrative, poetry, song, art to the level of the sacred. Anyway, not knowing the Bible is a certain state of illiteracy. It’s not a value judgement (in my judgement!) but a factual description having to do with the simple, unalterable fact that the Bible is the headwater of so-called “Western art.” You don’t have to like it, but it is the case. To the extent that people are ignorant of that tradition, they are separated from what I’m sketching as a kind of stipulated “American tradition.”
Basically, I love the combination of the most sublime, sacred, essential aspects of human experience with the impulse that those things are available to everyone, no matter how high or low they appear in life. Think, again, of Faulkner’s characters. Think of “unlettered Ishmael” in Moby Dick, all those sailors who sign their names “X,” and to whom Melville gives the language of kings and prophets and angels. I love William Tyndale, who made the first translation of the Bible into modern English, and who almost miraculously, single-handedly invented modern literary English by putting the kind of aesthetic pressure I’ve mentioned on it to raise it to a level where it was fine enough to render the sophistication of Biblical literature. His stated goal was to make a translation so lucid and clear that it could be read by the boy out plowing the field. There’s something essential and recognizable to me in that idea in the best parts of the American tradition of democracy, imperfect, severely compromised, often corrupt, battered and embattled thing it has always been.
TM: What is the thing you wish you knew when you were just beginning to write Tinkers?
PH: Easy: nothing! For me, writing is not engineering, in the sense that I do not care much about efficiency. For me, the inefficiency of writing—improvising, discovering, screwing up, searching, finding, not finding, interrogating, exploring, unveiling, revealing—is what yields art. You can’t think it up first, then type it. The putting of language on the page and seeing what meaning you’ve released into the world and shaping it, revising it, building it up, layering it, scraping it back down, and all that is what I love about making beautiful artifacts out of words. There were plenty of technical things it may have been nice to know ahead of time, but I don’t really think much about them, because once you know them, the problems you consider only get deeper. I mean this as a guarantee, a promise to all writers, when I say that one of the best things about writing fiction is that it only gets harder the more you know, in some ways, and that is, to me, a wonderful thing. Whatever I learned writing Tinkers, when I turned to Enon, it was not as if but in fact that I had to learn to write all over again. Fantastic! What good fortune!
Jaron Lanier wants you to take a break from social media. Not forever—but for a significant period of time. He suggests six months. He understands that this will be hard. And he gets that it could be professionally difficult and personally isolating. But he thinks it will be worth the sacrifice, because it will help make the internet better. It might also make you feel better—more free, happier, calmer.
If you’re intrigued by this challenge, I encourage you to pick up his book-length essay: Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Now. You won’t be scolded or labeled a screen addict; instead, you’ll be asked to take a closer look at the business models behind Facebook, Twitter, and Google, which Lanier labels BUMMER, an acronym for “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into Empires for Rent.” In a recent TED Talk, Lanier explained it this way: “We cannot have a society in which, if two people wish to communicate, the only way that can happen is if it’s financed by a third person who wishes to manipulate them.”
Lanier is a Silicon Valley insider, best known for pioneering virtual reality but also for his books, especially You Are Not A Gadget (2010) and Who Owns the Future? (2013). Both argue (in part) for a more thoughtful, economically fair version of the Internet. Ten Arguments is shorter than his previous books, and it’s more urgent, with frequent references to current events. In his acknowledgments, Lanier explains that he wrote it because his 2017 book, Dawn of the New Everything, a memoir about his work with virtual reality, was so overshadowed by the news that he ended up speaking to interviewers about how “social media was playing a role in making the world newly dark and crazy.”
The Millions: I loved your book and I came to it in kind of a funny way. I read In Search of Lost Time last year, which is a novel that really makes you think about your habits, and when I finished reading it, I looked at my social media use and decided I didn’t want to be on social media anymore. I’ve been trying to convince other people to get off of social media, and when I saw your book of 10 arguments, I thought I could find some good ones.
TM: I felt like that was the main argument at the end of the book. It seems to be oriented toward individual action: Quit social media for a month and see how you feel about it.
JL: We’ve shifted the whole framework of society into this one where corporate algorithms are what know you, but I’m much more interested in the process of people knowing themselves and inventing themselves. It’s almost as if people have forgotten that. It’s very strange to me; people who are very addicted to the system will say, oh, well, I’m letting it know me, but in order for there to be something to know, you have to invent yourself, and in order to invent yourself, you have to spend some time with yourself. There’s a real quality of absurdity to me in the way we’re thinking about it.
TM: I did wonder if you’re also looking for collective action. Do you think a large group of people should do this in order to change the landscape?
JL: I think it would be a tremendously positive thing for the world if there were a massive group of people to delete their accounts all at once; however, I believe that it’s a very unlikely thing to happen. The truth is that companies like Facebook, but Facebook in particular, genuinely have been able to leverage addiction. The very definition of addiction is that it’s hard to quit. And then, on top of that, they have a digital large-scale version of addiction, which is called network effect. There’s something very reasonable that people want—which is what the internet was for—which is, they want to be able to reach each other, and they would like to be able to do things like share family pictures and all that. And as long as there’s a single company that has such a monopoly on that stuff and also actually owns all the data, in order for everyone to get off of it, they’d all actually have to do it at once and then get onto something else, and that coordination problem is impossible. Therefore, even if they weren’t personally addicted, it’s inconceivable that everyone could get off.
I understand that the ideal of everyone just leaving the stuff is hard to the point of near impossibility, but I feel I have to ask for it because you have to be able to ask for the right thing to happen. Even if the ideal is unattainable in a given era, you have to at least be able to articulate it. If you can’t do that, then you’re precluding hope for the future. In the immediate term, the fact that so many people have sympathy with the argument I’m making, combined with the fact that those same people have a hard time acting on it, will reinforce the idea that the current situation is really not democratic, not fair, not sustainable in the longer term.
I think that in, let’s say, the last half century or so, we’ve seen a few cases of massive societal change that were brought about by people who were trying to promote good ideas. For instance, littering used to be completely overwhelming, and now it’s rare; smoking used to be overwhelming, and now it’s rare; driving while drunk is not as rare as it needs to be but is certainly less common than it used to be. Those are three examples of very commonsense ideas getting implemented through effort and good intentions. So on one level, it’s like that. All of those degraded the lives of people in an immediate way; this one kind of hides the damages it’s doing until there’s an election that seems to be counter to what the majority of the people wanted. Or until a rise of horrible ethnic violence in parts of the world, or until waves of bullying, waves of teen suicide—all these kinds of things.
It’s a moral imperative to at least state what everybody should do even though it’s so hard. And then we’ll have to kind of gradually muddle our way toward something better.
TM: Given the situation now, how does an organization cope? For example, the website I write for now is an online magazine, and we use social media to post links to articles. And we need social media because it’s the way people find out about what we’re writing. Considering a site like ours, or even a larger site, like the New York Times, would you argue for them to just quit for six months or a predetermined amount of time, just to see what would happen?
JL: This is a tricky area. If people ask me for advice—and people do, even though I don’t advertise myself as an advice-giver on any personal level!—what I always say is: If you really think that using social media is vital to your career or to whatever you do, then you need to make the decision to make your career or your own efforts successful. It doesn’t do any good for anyone if you ruin your own life process. I feel very strongly about that. But there’s two things that have to be said in addition to that. One is that it’s possible that in some cases, this feeling of the necessity of social media is a bit of an illusion, and until we test it, it’s a little hard to say. I’m told that what I do should be impossible without social media accounts. I’m not the bestselling author in the world, but I have been the bestselling author in different countries at different times, and I have had bestselling books, and I somehow seem to get by without social media. I’m told, well, but you’re an exception in this way or that way. I might be, but why couldn’t there be others?
I think of a social media company, in particular Facebook and to a degree Google, as an existential mafia. They’re saying, you have to work with us or you effectively won’t exist. You’ll become invisible to everybody. Your very corporeality is in our hands, so give us a cut of your being. It’s a very strange moment. Ultimately, the power of a protection racket does rest with their ability to keep a community in fear. If only people could lose the fear, then their power would evaporate, but this gets us back to the problem of cooperation. Can I share one fantasy I’ve had?
JL: The number of websites that would say approximately what you just said—that we’re trying to reach people with this sincere, high-quality work we do, and we feel we need social media just to let the people know—the number of such sites in the world is not gigantic. Let’s say it’s less than 10,000. I’m not sure what it really is, but it’s something like that. There’s not a huge number of places where there’s multiple people working together to consistently put out good material online. If it’s really in the thousands, or even in the low tens of thousands, why can’t all those sites just get together? And come up with their own thing, with really great policies? Genuine privacy policies, no advertising—or at least, no advertising that’s personalized. I don’t object to advertising, I just object to behavior modification, which means there’s a feedback loop to your personal data. No Cambridge Analytica. No Putin. No information warfare. No bizarre, calculated creepy stuff. It would just be a thing to function for what you need, which would be a way to let people know what you have. Give people a way to manage the amount of complexity that exists online so they can find the things they care about. That could be done by a coalition of a relatively small number of people. I’ve heard of people trying that in the past, and usually what happens is Facebook treats that kind of like how Trump treats some person he has an affair with: This massive machine comes into play to try to shut it down. But I don’t know—I think something like that could happen.
TM: I wish it would. Right now, we’re starting to rely on a subscription model in part because it feels too dangerous to rely so much on the giant social media companies. So I like that idea, but it seems like the New York Times or some big site like that would have to get behind it.
JL: I think they might. I haven’t personally ever tried to have a conversation. This is the first time I’ve brought this up with someone in an interview. But I’m just really struck that for every organization that interviews me, whether it’s a really big one like the Times or a smaller one like yours, everyone has the same story: that we feel beholden to this weird company that stands between us and our readers and seems to be able to dictate to us how we can be in the world. And it’s a great shame that this is happening.
TM: How do you see this book fitting in with your other books?
JL: I feel like it’s a little different. The other books I’ve written were perhaps in a way more original. This one has a very different quality—it’s short! The other ones are big. This one is trying to organize some ideas and observations and information that really have been out there quite a bit. It does bring new ideas to the picture. In a lot of cases, it’s trying to create a focused way to think about so much information that’s already been out there, some of it from me, but a lot of it from other people.
One argument in it that is new is the reason that social networks emphasize negativity so much. And there are a few other little things, like the reason cats are more popular than dogs online. In a sense, it’s a more popular book because it’s working within what’s already out there. The other books, when they came out, I think were very different from anything else that was on the same topic.
TM: Did you have a different process for writing this book?
JL: Actually, I did. The other ones were super hard to write. This one was a little different. When I was doing the press interviews for the last one, which was about virtual reality, and my life, people kept asking me questions about what had happened with technology and politics—the Trump election and Brexit. This was before the Cambridge Analytica scandal was known, but there was still a lot of tension about it. It was in responding to journalists that I realized there was a need to pull everything together in one overarching argument. It rose much more conversationally than the previous ones. And so I thank all the journalists who asked me questions in the back of the book, because it really was the prompt from them that got me to pull this thing together.
TM: It seems like you revised it up to the last minute because there are references to #MeToo and other pretty recent events—how did you decide when to stop? Were you driving your editors crazy?
JL: It was kind of a comedy, actually. I turned the thing in around New Year’s, and then something would happen that would be relevant, and I’d call up my poor editor and say wait, wait, wait, I have to add a few more things. And then I’d get this email back saying well, OK, but remember we have to get it to the copy editor. And I’d say, just a few things! And then the next week something else would happen. And I’d say stop, stop, stop, I just have to add a little bit more! And we finally had to have a conversation saying, look, this could go on forever—you have to stop.
The thing is, there’s this tension: I really believe in the book as a media form, because what a book does is almost like an encapsulation of personhood. It has a definite authorship, and you put enough in it so that you present a whole worldview and not just a response, not just a countertweet or something, and you’re committed to it enough that you believe it will be able to stick around for a few years and still mean something. But at the same time, the very thing that makes it so important makes it hard to connect to fast-changing events and a very dynamic situation. You have to find the compromise between them that will work. And so at a certain point, we just had to cut it off. And even after that, Cambridge Analytica! It was at the printer, as I say in the book, and I said, we have to acknowledge it, and so I had to make it fit on the blank space on a page so that nothing would have to be repaginated.
TM: Is there something that’s happening now that you wish you could have gotten in the book?
JL: You know, it’s every day. There’s a new study today on the correlation between smartphone use and suicide. It’s just devastating. I was just reading a report on it in the Guardian; I haven’t read the original research yet. It’s not something new, but it’s more detailed research than there had been. There’s this extraordinary filing today, in San Mateo, between two extremely unattractive companies that are fighting each other. It’s this little company that wanted to sell people’s bikini pictures on an on-demand basis. They sued Facebook for shutting it down. They claim to have uncovered this extraordinary evidence that Facebook may be even more dickish than we knew they’d been. It’s sort of like a lawsuit between Rudy Giuliani and Harvey Weinstein. You can’t really root for either of them. But there they are. It’s just been happening every day—actually, the thing that was extraordinary today was James Clapper saying that the Russian information warfare would be more sophisticated, harder to notice, and perhaps more effective for the midterms than they’d been for the last election, which is not a pleasant thing to read or contemplate. It’s plausible.
TM: Before you go, I want to ask you about your reading habits and what kinds of things you like to read.
JL: Lately, I’ve been kind of feeling retro. I’ve been trying to reread old stuff that meant a lot to me when I was younger to try to understand what it was that got to me—a single sentence of Nabokov. I want to try to understand why that could be so heartbreaking and amazing. And also, I have this 11-year-old who likes to read adult books. She loves the prose of Bukowski, so we have to go through and kind of edit it out, to give her readable versions of Bukowski. I have friends who write wonderfully, and it’s strange to read somebody you know, because you don’t have that distance that is good for literature, but I just gotta say, Zadie Smith continues to amaze me with everything she does, and my buddy Dave Eggers.
I try to go through at least a dozen sites every day, just to keep up, and there’s some amazing writers online, but it just goes by so fast. I don’t really get to know individual writers, and that kind of bothers me. I wish there were some way to make it easier to get to know a single person’s writing when they’re writing in a lot of different places.
TM: It is hard; there’s not a good way. Sometimes you can go to people’s websites, but people don’t update them as much as they used to.
JL: Right. This whole world would be better if it weren’t for the domination of social media companies that are bent on behavior modification. The internet was supposed to be good about this stuff, and it still could be. I think it still will be someday.
I interviewed André Aciman in his Upper West Side apartment on a bright July morning. His book Call Me by Your Name has recently been adapted in a film directed by Luca Guadagnino, which is already a hit. His last novel, Enigma Variations, has been praised by The New York Times as a Proustian tale of conflicted desires.
Aciman is also Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of City University of New York where he teaches the history of literary theory and the works of Marcel Proust.
This interview has been adapted from a documentary, American Journey, directed by Lucia Senesi and produced by Abuelita Film. All Rights Reserved
Lucia Senesi: You said that young people interested in writing should do two things. First, understand that writing is not only a career, sometimes it’s a mission. And second, read the classics.
André Aciman: Yes, you have to absolutely read the classics. Most people nowadays do not read the classics or they don’t consider the classic writers who have written in 1940, 1950, 1960, and which is not the way to go. You should really go back, a long long time, and familiarize yourself with all the great writers and some of them are anonymous, as in The Bible, for example. And you should really read all these. As for the mission, it’s not just a vocation, it’s that you are really trying to capture something that is essential about yourself, and you hope that by getting it about yourself correctly that you’re touching other people, and that is the job. It’s not just to write and publish and publish and publish.
LS: Do you think that there is some difference between the generations, for example is the younger generation more taken with the fashionable aspect of writing?
AA: Well, there’s definitely a sense that one writes a lot, very fast, especially very fast and quite voluminously and the idea that you should work on a sentence for half a day would never occur to any young writer today. And so the price for this is that a lot of young writers, who are talented essentially, are writing the same way each of them, so that you can’t tell them apart. You really have to try, very very hard to tell one from the other.
LS: Do you think that maybe it’s about our society? I mean, today with social media, a lot of people just write on Facebook or Twitter. Before we had to spend time to reflect on what we really wanted to express, now we think something and we can express it immediately.
AA: Not only it is expressed immediately and very fast, but you press the return button and it’s out, whereas even when I send an email normally I will write the email and then I will read it and maybe read it twice or three times just to make sure that the ideas concretize well enough. And then with a lot of hesitation I would press the send button. Most people will immediately text their reply. And it’s because it’s an exchange of information and information is fundamentally cheap. What you want to convey from one e-mail to another is also a whole gamut of emotions, reflections, hesitations, irony, all these sort of superficial things, considered superficial, take time.
LS: When you were young, how did you approach the classics? And when did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
AA: Oh, I always knew I was going to be a writer. When I was, I think, 10 or even 9 years old. I knew that I liked writing poetry and I liked the fact that I was putting on paper my emotions. That was very important. But I didn’t know that I could become a writer. My first published piece came out when I was in my late 30s. So all these years were a process of long incubation. But I read the classics because there was nothing else. My father was also very devoted to the classics, so he told me to read X, Y and Z. There was no censorship. In other words, if it was a bad dirty book or a clean book, it didn’t matter, it had to be well written. And so I was always reading, I was reading classics all the time. And I have written about this, but when I was living in the Alberone district in Rome I hated it so much that all I did was stay home, especially in the summer, with the blinds drawn, because I didn’t like the lighting and I would read all the time and my mother couldn’t understand and nobody could understand. What is this boy doing? Let’s go to the beach. I said the beach is too far. I didn’t want to go to the beach. So I read everything I consumed. I think all the Russians, the French classics, and the English classics as well.
LS: That reminds me Proust because he basically writes that for his parents and his family the time he spent reading was a sort of waste.
AA: I think that he himself considered it. I mean he loved it, but he was not sure that it was the way to be and therefore there was always a touch of dysfunctionality in being a reader. But he loved it and I loved it too. I loved reading, but I was considered that I am hiding from life because my father says you should read, but at the same time you should go and have fun and have friends and do all those things. Except that I couldn’t do those because they were not mutually exclusive. It was just said the reader in me didn’t know what to do with other people. I mean I desired other people but I didn’t know how to how to meet them.
LS: Do you think that for Proust this dysfunctionality was also about being a writer? I mean, in the Recherche he wonders if he actually could be a writer and then says that all the first part of his life was a waste because he spent it in society whereas he should have work.
AA: Work was very important for him and the idea that he had a vocation was also very important. The whole book is the story of this vocation. But I think that the beginning of his life was not wasted. But at the same time he was sheltered, it was so sheltered that you had a feeling that this boy’s reading in order not to go out and live. But I don’t think in my case it was the same thing. I didn’t know how to go out and live. But as soon as I went to graduate school then I began to socialize, aggressively, because I hadn’t done anything before that and I loved social life and I still do.
LS: You said that Proust’s book is one of the few books that changes who you are because when you read him you read things you already know.
AA: I teach Proust to graduate students. In other words, they’re writing the dissertations, so they’re all in their mid to late 20s. I teach Proust to college students and I’ve taught Proust to high school students, in the jail. And what happens is that everybody understands Proust because he is simple, he’s transparent. Once you accept the terms of the reading experience. Everything he says about our behavior, our emotions, the way we think of other people, is totally true and we accept it right away. Now when you read his book, the whole sort of epic, once you’ve been absorbing all this, you cannot be the person you were before.
LS: It’s true.
AA: In other words, if you read Dostoyevsky, which I read when I was very young, you begin to understand that Dostoyevsky thinks that everybody lies. I had never thought of that but it didn’t surprise me that Dostoyevsky said that people lie all the time and that people are guilty. And at the same time all these combinations of contradictions made perfect sense to me. Once you’ve accepted, you’ve been absorbing it by osmosis, it begins to color your way of seeing life. As a writer, once you realize that human beings are not consistent, but they are constantly paradoxical and contradictory, then at that point you begin to reproduce that emotion with your own signature as a degree.
LS: Indeed, even Camus took that way.
AA: He was ambivalent. And I think an entirely intelligent person is always ambivalent. There’s no such thing as having a point of view. You have to be ambivalent because you can always see the two sides of the same thing. And if you see one and you hear somebody seeing one, you necessarily must contradict them out of intellectual spite.
LS: Then we have Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who are a contradiction themselves.
AA: They are contradictory. I think she’s more important. He has become totally obfuscated, there’s nothing really going on there anymore. I never liked him. And now I feel justified. I knew that there was nothing there to begin with, but that’s me.
LS: You know, they are a difficult couple.
AA: He was ugly and he knew it. And that is a very important fact.
LS: I love him as a writer, but for sure I would never have him as a boyfriend!
AA: [Laughs.] I believe you!
LS: But to come back to Proust, you said that present doesn’t exist for Proust. He is always in the past or in the future, right?
AA: This is a new idea. We’ll see if you like this idea.
LS: [Laughs.] Okay.
AA: Time does not exist.
LS: For him or in general?
AA: I think it does not exist at all. There’s no such thing as Time. And Proust is a genius. Precisely, I mean, he believes that there is time and there is wasted time and wasted space. But fundamentally he’s always shuttling. He’s constantly shuttling between one temporal zone to another temporal zone, and he’s very comfortable doing that, from the past to the present, to the anticipated past, because it hasn’t happened yet. It’s in the future, back and forth, and he’s constantly doing this game because he’s really not comfortable in one time zone.
LS: I think it’s time to talk about the style and how he uses the verbs in French.
AA: Everybody knows that he does something that’s totally un-Orthodox when he begins his novel in the “passé compose.”
LS: Indeed the problem with the translation. Last year I read Melville, Moby-Dick. Basically we have this situation: “Call me Ishmael,” in Italian can be “Chiamami Ismaele” or “Chiamatemi Ismaele” [in the first person or in the third person].
AA: Yes! I wrote a lot about translation. Proust is difficult to translate.
LS: I guess especially in English.
AA: It’s very difficult to translate in English. French is extremely supple and extremely forgiving. Just to give you an example of the terrible things that can happen in English is that after the third relative pronoun, the sentence is dead. So you cannot have three relative pronouns, or four, or five, because the reader will loose you, especially modern readers, so you try to work around this. But if you work around this, you’re changing the rhythm of the sentence and therefore the rhythm of meaning, because Proust’s sentences have a meaning that is implicit to the style.
LS: Let’s talk about the style, because again, when I read Moby-Dick and Dracula—
AA: Bram Stoker?
LS: Yes, Bram Stoker. I thought that Proust took something here and there, in term of style.
AA: It’s difficult to say. I don’t think that there is anything similar to Proust and he knew it. I mean, it’s a complicated thing. I teach the style, usually that’s all I teach when I do Proust because the style is in fact semantically constructed in such a way that it means something. I think that, just to give you an example, Proust’s sentences always begin with a yearning, a call. Let’s begin with the beginning: “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.” He’s already in the rhythm, he’s summoning us into emotions. But that was how Proust wrote at the beginning of his career. And then suddenly something happened, I think in his mind, some genius thing happened to Proust and he realized that he had a sense of humor and that he liked humor.
LS: [Laughs.] Of course.
AA: So what happens is the sentence that begins with this kind of summoning this sort of, the Yiddish word is “descry.” It’s like a yell for help for inspiration. It’s like Wordsworth, you begin with this “oh, as a boy, blah blah blah blah blah,” and then suddenly the sense of humor comes and closes the sentence. And both work together beautifully. Now, Melville did not quite have that, and the person who has it even less, and therefore is not really a stylist is Henry James, who is a writer who has a style simply because his sentences are all over the place. But the wit that is so typically French and has been retained from classical times onto Proust is there. The French call it “la pointe.” It’s that moment when suddenly something happens at the very end of the sentence that closes. Now the only other author who did that with some degree of difference, and Proust knew it, is Saint-Simon. Long sentences, investigating, in excavating personality. And at the very end, damning them totally or totally forgiving them. And I think that’s the genius of Proust, there’s nobody can write like Proust. Now it’s a hundred years. And guess what. We still haven’t come up with that yet.
LS: You said something that could be very controversial, but I feel I totally agree with that: “Proust is about possession. He doesn’t know what love is, he doesn’t believe in love. He just wants someone immediately because he needs.”
AA: Yes. I think he does not understand love. I don’t even know what love is in any novel, but in Proust what we have a sense is that what really animates and feeds the emotional life is a desire to have someone else. And I’ve made the point in my own book, Enigma Variations. That is never love or it could be love, but it’s not really love and love is of no interest. What we are interested in Proust especially is that he wants someone. He wants somebody to possess them or he wants to have them in his house. He wants to have a nearby. Whether he loves the person that he wants is irrelevant.
LS: Marcel doesn’t even like Albertine. But he wants her because she’s not available.
AA: Exactly. What he can’t have is what he wants.
LS: You know that I live in Los Angeles. I actually live between Santa Monica and Venice, so I often go to the beach and I read Proust to California surfers. Unfortunately, I have the sensation that they don’t get the point.
AA: [Laughs.] That’s California, isn’t it? Well, [Proust] has no special effects. I mean, the whole sensibility of the young people today is very much guided not by complexity and characters. A lot of it has to be, I want to say special effects. I was exaggerating of course, but Hollywood and the industry of Hollywood has re-sensitized a huge contingent of the population, to the point where the only access they have to what maybe the ideal situation is given to them from television and films.
LS: And we come back to the beginning of our conversation: the new generation.
AA: If you think of Madame Bovary, it’s a very good point. Madame Bovary was herself a stupid woman. Why? Because all she did was look what she had seen, not in movies of course, but in books. She had read cheap romances and she wanted the same things in real life. And of course Flaubert is making fun of her. I think a lot of people in California…I don’t know. I like Santa Monica because it reminds me of other places like Naples and Cannes. And I like it not because of what it is, but of what it can be, in my imagination.
LS: How do you use the sense of humor in your novels?
AA: I think the one where I have most of the fun is when I revisit my family and because they were all regular individuals. But what I realized is that they were old extravagance in every conceivable way, not just money. They were absolute constructions of the imagination. They were monsters. And yet at the same time to be ordinary with ordinary passions. My uncle for example, the one I start the book with [CMBYN], was a man who was essentially a salesman but he didn’t think of himself as the salesman. He thought he was an aristocrat. And so he surrounded himself with all the accoutrements of an aristocrat when in fact he was just the salesman. He was not even a salesman, he was an auctioneer which is even lower than a salesman. But he knew how to make money and he made money. And at the same time, he had certain points of view that suggest that he was aware that human beings needed to be manipulated. And so in examining a character like this you have to realize that he is a salesman, he has a career, he has had a very checkered life. At the same time he is ridiculous. And how do you get this character whom you have to, at the very end, you have to salvage them because it’s easy to make fun of a character. You have to also give them back their dignity after you’ve demolished and made fun of them. And I think the movie was precisely that, to always rehabilitate what you just made fun of. And this you learn from Proust, is that whatever it is that you’re doing to make fun of someone, because you desire them, then you realize they’re stupid and arrogant and flatfooted and at the same time you really have to admit to yourself that you may not like them but that they have a dignity and a life of their own and you have to give them that back and that whole sort of circuit is important.
LS: I consider the incipit of Call Me by Your Name perfect. A lesson on how to write an incipit. In terms of style, rhythm, sound.
AA: I think it came to me later.
LS: [Laughs.] “Later.” I love your incipit. I love the sound. Maybe it’s because I’m Italian. For example, when I read Cesare Pavese—
AA: Oh, Cesare Pavese, great writer!
LS: La Bella Estate.
AA: I love that book! That is a wonderful book! It was given to me by my ex roommate.
LS: “A quei tempi era sempre festa,” a perfect incipit. Pavese is a poet, so he’s interested in sound. And when he writes novels, he pays a lot of attention to it.
AA: He does, and that’s why he’s also a good stylist. My theory has always been that a very good prose writer is always the product of having been a failed poet. Now I think James Joyce was a case and so was Proust. Proust and Joyce started their lives as poets. They were mediocre poets, totally. But of course they realized that they imported the gift for poetry, the love of poetry, into prose whereas I think a lot of writers who come to prose, particularly in this country, come to it from journalism. And so the ear is attuned to the necessities of journalism. And what I call information, as opposed to what poetry does.
It’s the first week of February and I’ve already failed in my resolution to read more books. Between the ever-accelerating news cycle, snow days, weekend road trips, and the three-month-old baby who is smile-drooling by my side as I write this, I’ve started six books and finished exactly…one. I’m probably the last person who should be giving advice on the subject of How to Read More. But, I’m trying to do better, so I’ve compiled this list of tips to help myself—and maybe you, too.
1. Schedule Your Reading Time
For me, this has always been the most effective way to find time to read. Last year, I read for an hour in the morning right after I dropped my son at school. But now I live with a baby, so I’m trying to work with her naps. The point is to make a plan in advance: don’t wait for reading time to magically appear, because it never will. Look at your day and see where you can fit it in, and then stick to the plan, as if your book is a person who you’ve agreed to meet—don’t be late, and don’t flake!
2.Turn off Social Media
You know you’re on social media too much. Cutting back on it is a pretty obvious way to find more reading time, but that’s easier said than done, especially since most of these sites are designed to be addictive. So here’s one simple thing you can do: put your phone in another room when you’re reading. I got this tip from the podcast Hidden Brain, during an interview with Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work. Newport emphasized that it is important to put your phone in another room because even if it’s turned off, as long as it’s nearby your mind will be distracted by its presence.
3. Don’t Overschedule Your Weekends
Weekends often get filled up with activities that aren’t reading-friendly or even very leisurely, e.g. household chores, social events, family obligations, and least fun of all, all the work you didn’t finish during the week. I didn’t even realize this was happening to me until I read Katrina Onstad’s The Weekend Effect, which argues that our culture is slowly turning its weekends over to scheduled activities and paid work. Take a look at your weekend and see if this isn’t happening to you. Then start declining invitations and put off doing the laundry. You deserve a lazy Sunday afternoon.
4. Get Up Earlier
Okay, this has never worked for me, at any stage of my life, but I hear it works well for other people. Set your alarm for a half hour earlier and keep a book on your bedside table. No need to get dressed, just roll over and read.
5. Listen to Books
Audiobooks generally put me to sleep, especially in the car. But my husband loves them and has found they help him to bridge reading sessions; he’ll read at home and then listen on his commute. Sometimes he even speeds up the narrator to 1.25 reading speed, or even 1.5. (I listened to a little bit of The Power Broker at 1.5 speed and it actually felt kind of aesthetically appropriate, given the overwhelming amount of detail in that book.) My son also enjoys audiobooks and this has been great for me, because he’ll play quietly in his room for a good hour if there is a story going—which gives me an hour to read quietly in my room.
6. Set a Goal, but Not a Numerical One
It’s tempting to set a numerical goal when it comes to reading more. You want to be able to look back on the year and say: “I read 50 books!” But when it comes to reading, I’m not convinced that numerical goals are actually very motivating. For me, it’s more satisfying to tackle a difficult book or series of books. It’s something I can remember and look back on fondly; sometimes focusing on a particular author or subject can even give special meaning to a period of your life.
7. Read on Your Smartphone
You know how I told you to put your phone in another room while you read? If you found that advice annoying, you might try reading on your phone. A friend of mine reads all her books on her smart phone, a habit she developed because she’s the mother of two small children and a lot of her reading takes place in darkened rooms near sleeping kids. Her phone is like a book with a nightlight. I’ve tried reading my phone and it doesn’t work for me—though I was almost convinced by this beautiful essay by Sarah Boxer about reading In Search of Lost Time on her android phone, which she describes as “a tiny glass-bottomed boat moving slowly over a vast and glowing ocean of words in the night.”
8. Read Several Books at Once
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve enjoyed reading several books at once. If I got bored with one, I’d switch to another, and then back again. I thought this was how everyone consumed books until a teacher mentioned offhand that most people read one book at a time. I have no idea if this is true, but among dedicated readers, I suspect that habits are more varied. If you read a lot of books but you’ve never read more than one at once, try reading multiple books.
9. Don’t Force Yourself to Finish Good Books
Sometimes a book is brilliant, but it’s just not the right time for you read it. You can be sitting there, reading a book, thinking to yourself, this book is so good, and yet, you have no appetite for it. What can this mean? Are you stupid? A philistine? Naïve? Unwise? Who knows! Let yourself off the hook and read what you’re hungry for.
10. Force Yourself to Read Good Books
After 15 minutes, you might feel like you’re not “into” a book. Give it a half hour, especially if it’s a classic or comes highly recommended by a trusted source. Sometimes it just takes a while to work up the necessary concentration and your initial impression of boredom was just your brain sloughing off the anxieties of the day.
11. Don’t Substitute Writing for Reading
If you’re a writer at any stage of your career, it’s important to read at least as much as you write. You’ve probably heard this advice before, because every time you attend an author panel and someone asks for advice to aspiring writers, the answer is always: “read more.” This is not just a self-serving directive. Reading may feel like a passive activity, but it will make you a better writer. It’s almost magical. If you don’t believe me, just try it for a week: Let’s say you have put aside an hour every morning to work on your novel before starting your day. Take three of those mornings and spend those hours reading a book instead. I promise you that the writing sessions on the remaining mornings will be more productive and satisfying.
12. Be Realistic
I have to ask: do you actually want to read more? Or are you simply nostalgic for a time in your life when you had more time to do everything, including reading? Like exercise, the benefits of reading are exaggerated and understated in equal measure. If you don’t feel like reading more this year, just pick out a few books to enjoy. In a few years, you might have time for more. The books will be waiting for you.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I started the year by finishing Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which left me, as Anne Carson memorably put it, in “the Desert of After Proust.” I would start other novels, but nothing held my attention. Instead, I read a lot of magazine articles, worked on my own fiction, and developed a mild jigsaw puzzle addiction.
The malaise finally lifted with a streak of memoirs and novels that I later realized were all about being in your 40s, or approaching them. I’m 39, so I guess I come by my interest in this subject honestly. As I read them, I felt a little like a middle school kid reading books set in high school, hoping for some insight into what was immediately ahead.
In no particular order, these Books of Midlife were: All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg; The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy; Hourglass by Dani Shapiro; Between Them by Richard Ford; Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer; Who Is Rich? by Matthew Klam; The Weekend Effect by Katrina Onstad; Vacationland by John Hodgman; The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs; and Still Here by Lara Vapnyar, which includes the memorable piece of dialogue about the perils of age 39:
“That’s a crazy age,” he continued with the hint of a smirk. “Kind of like puberty for adults. When you’re forty, you’re branded as what you really are, no wiggle room after that—you gotta accept the facts. People do a lot of crazy shit right before they turn forty.”
Some may quibble with my list, wondering how Richard Ford’s portrait of his parents or Nina Rigg’s memoir of dying of cancer count as Books of Midlife. Another odd choice is The Weekend Effect, which is borderline self-help about how to reclaim your leisure time. All I can say is that to me, three hallmarks of getting older are 1) coming to a new understanding of your parents; 2) feeling your own mortality; and 3) wanting to make the most of your free time.
After a year of breaking news alerts, I also found myself drawn to nonfiction that helped me to put our political moment into a larger context: How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon; Ain’t I a Woman, by bell hooks; Future Sex by Emily Witt; And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy by Adrian Shirk; We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates; and Somebody With a Little Hammer by Mary Gaitskill.
Most of these books are essay collections, and most of the writing contained within them was completed well before the 2016 election. It was fascinating to see the way that many of these writers anticipated our current political situation. Their blind spots were equally interesting.
I feel bad for the new fiction I read this year, because I was always comparing it to Proust, and nothing could really stand up to that epic reading experience. However, there was one novel that swept me up with its passion, intelligence, and spiritual reach: Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon, which will be published in January 2018. I look forward to reading it again next year.
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Charlotte Mandell lives immersed in words and sound. She translates French to English; she loves music and books; her husband is the poet Robert Kelly; her spiritual practice, Tibetan Buddhism, involves extensive chanting. One of her favorite ways to relax is to feed songbirds, including a cardinal so tame he’ll hop up in her lap for a handout. Paradoxically, a quiet presence envelopes Mandell, perhaps an emanation from the heart of her spiritual practice, meditation that cultivates inner silence. Both an ear for the rhythms and music of language and a receptive quiet interlace with Mandell’s translation work.
Mandell’s facility with the French language took root during childhood summers in the French Alps. Her parents, Marvin and Betty Reid Mandell—both professors, activists, and founding editors of the journal New Politics—brought up their daughters in Boston, where Mandell attended Boston Latin High School. There, a young French teacher, Michèle Lepietrem, fired Mandell’s love of French, and she went on to major in French and film theory at Bard College, translating for her senior project a book of poems by Jean-Paul Auxeméry. She spent her junior year in Paris studying semiotics and film theory at Université de Paris III. Her published translations span French literature, from classic to contemporary, from fiction to poetry to nonfiction.
Years of esteemed obscurity ended with the English edition of Mathias Énard’s Goncourt Prize winning-novel Compass. Mandell’s translation, called “a feat of great beauty” by New York Journal of Books and “resoundingly successful” by The New York Times, put Compass on the short-list for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, co-awarded to author and translator.
The London festivities for MBI included bookstore appearances and a radio interview leading up to the live-streamed awards dinner—a daunting agenda for Mandell: “I like writing as other people,” she says. “I don’t think I have much to say as myself.” As it turned out, London “really was like a fairytale,” she said. Most rewarding, she got to meet Mathias Énard face-to-face after nearly 10 years translating his work.
On her return, we had a chance to talk about her translation process, and about Compass.
Like the narrator of Compass, Mandell carries her past in her surroundings, though with more joy than aching nostalgia. Her office is cluttered with memorabilia: many, many stones and crystals; bird feathers; sea shells; religious paraphernalia and images of Buddhist saints and gurus; family photos; love poems from her husband; souvenirs from her travels. Bookcases are packed with books in French and English, including her translations and her prized complete Le Grand Robert French Dictionary, in six volumes—though for work she uses a digital edition of Harrap’s Professional French-English Dictionary.
The Millions: What is your work rhythm? Do you have any rituals that help get you started or keep you going?
Charlotte Mandell: I work best in the late afternoon to early evening. I’m not a morning person, though I wish I were. No rituals except coffee or tea. Music, classical always, opera usually. Oh, actually, I do burn incense. I work a lot with aromatherapy, and it helps if I can smell something good while I’m working. Usually it’s Japanese cedar or sandalwood, and frankincense and myrrh.
TM: Are those scents in particular conducive to intellectual and creative work? Or is it just personal preference?
CM: I find those scents very calming and conducive to intense concentration. In ancient times, sandalwood was associated with the intellect. I also diffuse lemon oil to wake me up if I’m feeling sleepy.
TM: What are the “nuts and bolts” of your process? Do you write by hand or on computer? Go sentence by sentence? Paragraph by paragraph?
CM: I always work on the computer—it’s faster, and I try to work quickly—and I work sentence by sentence. I try not to think too much as I’m translating. “First thought best thought,” as Chögyam Trungpa said. [Chögyam Trungpa was one of the first Tibetan Buddhist gurus to teach in the West.] If I come across something particularly difficult or challenging, I leave it in bold face and come back to it later. Depending on what I’m working on, I try to translate about 10 pages a day. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but translating is mentally draining, and I can’t do much more than that if I want it to sound like good English. Then I read over what I’ve just translated, change it to sound more fluid. The next day I enter the changes into the text. When I finish the entire book I read over my translation very carefully and enter more changes. Then I read over that. I keep editing until I’m happy with it. Revision is an important process to me.
TM: How do you get a feel for a work as you embark on translating it?
CM: It usually takes me a week or two to really inhabit the voice and to feel it coming organically from within. Since I don’t read ahead, the voice has to sort of come on its own, as I translate. If I stay faithful to the text, and translate it as literally as possible, the voice usually comes on its own. Starting a translation is always the most difficult thing for me. It gets much easier when I’m about 50 pages in.
TM: Translating is a creative process, yet a translator is bound to adapt to each author’s work. For example, your translation of Marcel Proust wouldn’t be like your translation of Mathias Énard. How do you negotiate the unique demands of each work? Each author?
CM: I trust the text to tell me what it wants. I think the sign of a good translator is the lack of a particular “style.” You shouldn’t be able to guess who translated a particular work. Each work should sound unique and different. The less the translator inserts himself or herself into the work, the better it will sound. I try to let the work speak for itself.
TM: You’ve said that you translate as you read. Among ordinary readers, this is a very unusual experience: to translate while reading. Can you describe in some way the effect of it, how the words mix in your mind?
CM: When things are going well, you sometimes forget you’re translating—you feel as if you’re writing and reading at the same time, if that makes any sense. You become completely absorbed in the narrative until you’re inside the words and they’re flowing on their own. It’s a wonderful feeling, mesmerizing and addictive. I very often lose track of time when translating an absorbing book.
TM: How does being married to a poet inform your translation work?
CM: One of Robert’s favorite sayings is “All language is translation,” and I agree with him. Whenever we speak or write anything down, we’re translating our inner thoughts into language; we’re finding the right words to convey our thoughts. Robert’s command of language is extraordinary. He can read a number of languages—his first job was as a translator, actually. He was also raised with Latin and Greek, so we have similar backgrounds. My appreciation of beautifully wrought sentences and complex grammar is due in large part to Robert’s poetic use of language. He’s also my best editor. He reads all my translations and makes excellent suggestions to improve the English.
TM: You use the words “sound” and “voice” and “speak,” terms usually applied to spoken, not written, words. It brings to mind Karl Ove Knausgaard’s praise for Don Bartlett’s translation of My Struggle—that Bartlett captured the “voice” and “rhythm” of the original. For Knausgaard, that seems to be the most essential quality in a translation.
CM: I agree, the narrative voice is the most important aspect of a translation, especially in the cases of Zone and Compass, where the voice is all-pervading. Once you get the voice, everything else—rhythm, syntax, grammatical structure—falls in place and flows naturally.
TM: There’s the sound, the voice of the translation. And there’s the technical side, grammar, vocabulary, and such. But you’re also charged with capturing the meaning of the text, the author’s intentions. Do you ask the author what the work is about before you begin?
CM: I don’t ask the author anything at all! I just start right in, translating. That’s the way that works best for me—the work will tell me what it’s about. I love that feeling of the unknown before I translate a book. It’s what a reader feels when starting to read a book for the first time. You have no idea what’s in store for you, but you’re eager to find out. And invariably you find yourself changed by the time you reach the end.
TM: Some authors don’t get involved at all in the translation process; they just leave it up to the translator. Again, we can cite Knausgaard and Bartlett. Other author-translator pairs are much more enmeshed. Take, for example, Paul Celan and Michael Hamburger. Before their unfortunate falling out, they corresponded extensively. Can you describe your interactions, your process with Mathias Énard?
CM: I prefer to translate the whole book, then send the final draft to the author for comments or revision. Mathias doesn’t interfere during the translation process, and he doesn’t usually change very much. He trusts me, which is gratifying. Since he translates Arabic texts into French, he knows the issues involved in translation. If I have questions, I text him via WhatsApp or send him an e-mail, and he answers right away. Before meeting him, though, I was hesitant to bother him. Now that I’ve seen what a lovely and generous person he is, I won’t worry about disturbing him. I feel more free to ask him questions.
TM: How have other authors inspired your process?
CM: Working with Jonathan Littell was very instructive. He’s completely bilingual, raised speaking both French and English. Often he had a particular phrase in mind that he wanted to use in English, and though it diverged wildly from the literal French, it conveyed the same meaning. He helped me to be freer in my translations and to be unafraid of taking liberties when necessary.
TM: You share the practice of Tibetan Buddism, as it turns out, with Mr. Énard’s wife and with Sarah, a central character in Compass, and with me. In fact—I don’t know if you remember—we were on a retreat when I first learned that you’re a translator; you were working on Mathias Énard’s Zone. Did you advise or discuss Buddhism with Mr. Énard?
CM: I didn’t advise Mathias about Buddhist matters, but I did, with his permission, insert some Tibetan words for ceremonial instruments—radong [also transliterated rag-dung, a long horn somewhat like an alphorn] and gyaling [a double-reeded woodwind somewhat like an oboe]—into one of Sarah’s letters from India. I also added the word bardo after barzakh, since they both point to the same thing, and I thought those were words Sarah would use. [Tibetan bardo means, literally, interval; it usually refers to the phase from death to rebirth. Arabic barzakh means, literally, separation, and refers to a purgatorial phase from death to resurrection.]
TM: How does the practice of Buddhism affect your work?
CM: I find Buddhism very conducive to translation. When you meditate, you empty yourself of a “self,” a sense of ego, just as when you translate, you forget about yourself and become someone else: the narrator, the author’s voice. I think that’s why I enjoy translating so much—I like not being myself for long stretches of time.
TM: Do you identify with any of the characters in Compass or in other works you’ve translated?
CM: I felt very close to Sarah, and to her descriptions of her Buddhist practice—but then, I identify with all the characters I translate! When I translate a book I end up inhabiting the characters in a very intimate way, so that I often dream as them. This was a problem when I was translating The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell. I had recurrent dreams—nightmares, usually—as Max Aue, the Nazi narrator. With Franz Ritter [the narrator of Compass], it was more a case of inhabiting his melancholy state of mind, and identifying with his longing for Sarah, the long-lost beloved.
One of the perks of being a translator is that I get to inhabit a male character and see how his mind works. I think that might be one reason I enjoy translating male authors: it’s a window onto the Other, another way of not being my “self.”
TM: Before you left for London [for the 2017 Man Booker International awards], you were looking forward especially to meeting Mathias Énard for the first time.
CM: It’s such an interesting thing to meet for the first time an author whom you’ve been translating for almost 10 years—like meeting an old friend for the first time.
TM: What did you two talk about?
CM: We talked about lots of things: sailing, which we both grew up doing; the Lebanese restaurant Karakala in Barcelona, which Mathias co-owns; Buddhism, a little bit. Strangely, we didn’t talk about Compass.
TM: What do you think Compass is about?
CM: Compass is not really “about” any one thing. The pleasure in reading it comes from the language itself more than from the plot. For me, the experience was similar to that of reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. You see the workings of the narrator’s mind, how it jumps from one thing to another and back again, how it obsesses with one thing—Sarah—while recalling others—books, scholarly papers, music, faraway places. Mathias described the book once as “a Thousand Nights in One,” and I think that’s as good a description as any.
TM: At the end of the joint radio interview of you and Mathias Énard [BBC World Service, 12 June 2017], he said: “Compass is not a cemetery, you know. It’s not about lost places. I think it’s about the hope that we can have those places again.” For me, the book’s arc didn’t lead that way. I wouldn’t call Compass “dark” by any means, but hope was introduced late—not only in the romance but concerning the narrator’s health. So the book itself left me unconvinced by Mr. Énard’s statement. My take is that the book has an open and ambiguous trajectory, and a bittersweet ending—but let’s start with, “Compass is not a cemetery.”
CM: I think Mathias was saying in the interview that Syria isn’t a cemetery. We see the devastated parts of it, but there are still huge swathes of it rich in culture and alive with people.
TM: Do you agree with the rest of Mr. Énard’s statement? I guess my question is, where’s the hope, in Compass?
CM: There is an ancient saying, by Antisthenes of Greece, which I grew up memorizing: “To the wise nothing is foreign.” The hope in Compass is the hope of openness to the Other, a certainty that there is no “us” and “them,” there is only “we.” The East permeates and influences the West, and vice-versa. The hope lies in the narrator’s curiosity—which should be ours as well, in his thirst for knowledge. Compass is a love letter to the Other.
The problem with finishing Proust is that there’s nothing left to read. I’m sure Swing Time is just as excellent as everyone says, but it felt like a slog to me, and I stopped close to the end, with only 40 pages left to go. It sits on my bookshelf, unfinished. The same went for my book group’s March pick, a classic, Les Liasions Dangereuses. I tried some novels that I’d been meaning to read for months, but they didn’t matter anymore. Nothing seemed interesting. Apparently, this particular form of boredom is common for anyone who has finished In Search of Lost Time. Anne Carson describes it as “the desert of after Proust:”
There’s a kind of glacial expanse that opens where nothing seems worth reading and all you want is for Proust to start over again, but of course he can’t and so you read, in a desultory way, things about Proust or criticism or biography, but it’s not the same and eventually you just give up and realize you’ll be in Proust withdrawal for a while and then life will sort of go on in a grayer level.
Like Carson, I picked up criticism and biographies of Proust, as well as Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. De Botton’s book was especially depressing, like reading the tour guide of a country you’d just visited, and wouldn’t be able to return to for many years.
Knowing I might feel bereft, I stretched out the final volume, Time Regained, for as long as I could. For me, it was the most compelling part of the novel because it spoke so directly to the writing process. After years of frittering away his time at social events, Marcel has a strange and unexpected revelation when he’s on his way to yet another party. While crossing the courtyard outside the Guermantes mansion, he jumps out of the way of a car, nearly tripping on some uneven paving stones. The feeling of disequilibrium brings back a strong memory of Venice—a memory as strong as the one that famously came to him when he dunked a madeleine in a cup of tea and his childhood visits to Combray bloomed in his mind. All at once, Marcel understands the work he must do to write the book he has dreamed of composing.
In a startlingly direct 200-page passage, Marcel describes what writing is, what memory is, and how writing and memory allows us to translate our experience of life—our consciousness—into art. He explains the way that our deepest-held impressions are accessed through our senses, by the sound of a bell, the feeling of paving stones beneath one’s feet, or by the taste of a cookie dipped in tea. In Proust’s philosophy of memory, the majority of our recollections are intellectualized narratives; these are voluntary memories. But involuntary memories are those that come to us when we encounter a physical sensation that seems to put us in two worlds at once: the past and the present. These types of memories dissolve time, and they also, Proust observes, dissolve the ego:
These [memories], on the contrary, instead of giving me a more flattering idea of myself, had almost caused me to doubt the reality, the existence of the self.
To forget oneself is one of the great joys of writing, possibly the greatest joy, but we’re not living in a moment when people are encouraged to forget themselves. Social media, our most popular narrative form, is all about intellectualizing memory, and crafting a narrative of self that gives a particular impression. But these curated memories don’t have much correspondence to what people actually think or feel. Furthermore, most of us aren’t aware of their most deeply buried memories, the ones that shape our experience of life. If you want to find out your true impressions, Proust says, you must push away the distractions of everyday life:
As for the inner book of unknown symbols…if I tried to read them, no one could help me with any rules, for to read them was an act of creation in which no one can do our work for us or even collaborate with us. How many for this reason turn aside from writing! What tasks do men not take upon themselves in order to evade this task! Every public event, be it the Dreyfus case, be it the war, furnishes the writer with a fresh excuse for not attempting to decipher this book.
I read those words on Tuesday in February. I know it was a Tuesday because my son has swimming lessons on Tuesdays, and, having read Time Regained for longer than I’d intended, I was in a rush to pick him up from school and take him to class. Still, I arrived at the YMCA pool in a spaced-out mood.
Usually I bring my smartphone down to the observation deck, so that I can check emails and read the news while my son takes his lesson, but on that day, prodded by what I had read, I left my phone in the locker room. I brought my book group’s February selection—Bluets, by Maggie Nelson—but I didn’t open it. Instead I stared at the pool, occasionally searching for my son’s swim-capped head. The scent of the chlorine was strong and I drifted into memories: my lifeguard training as a teenager, an unhappy time when I swam lap after lap on Saturday mornings in a pool that left my hair greenish. I changed among girls I didn’t know and who didn’t seem to like me particularly. The bathroom smelled strongly of bleach. Later, I found out that I didn’t even enjoy lifeguarding, but I did like the confidence it gave me in the water. I love to swim laps in the ocean and out to the middle of lakes. I want my son to have the same love of swimming when he’s older, but I don’t know if that’s something you can actually pass on.
My son finished his lesson and I dried him off with a white towel worn from industrial washings. We put his suit in the noisy drier that I’m certain is damaging to the fabric of his swimsuit but which he loves to operate. I wondered if he would remember any of it—the noise, the chlorine, the shower stalls—years from now.
That same Tuesday, my husband and I went to a lecture by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. He was promoting his new book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, which addresses the evolution of human consciousness. As we waited to attend the lecture in a very long line outside of a warehouse near Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, I noticed that the majority of the people in line were looking at their smartphones. It was an unremarkable observation, but waiting in a long line had gotten me nostalgic for my 20s, when free lectures were a way of life. Except, back then, no one had smart phones. Instead, you had a book, or a magazine, or you made idle conversation with your friend or the friend of your friend who arrived first. If you called someone on your phone, the people around you were slightly annoyed to be put in the position of eavesdropping on your one-sided conversation. Everything was a little bit awkward, and a little bit boring. But on that night in Gowanus, nothing was awkward. No one was bored. Everyone was on their phones, doing as they pleased: playing games, texting, posting, reading, scrolling, commenting, joking. It was great, maybe? Or it was sad? Were these even the right questions to ask?
It was a mild night, for February. Above the sky was faded New York City black, with the streetlights glowing orange. The sidewalk was cracked and uneven and there were puddles at the curb, reflecting the lights. The gutters were dirty with trash and debris. People waved to approaching friends and companions, removing earpieces in advance of hugs and kisses. They showed each other images, lit by small glowing screens. They checked the time. Many human behaviors remained the same. But a certain lull was gone.
There was also, harder to pinpoint, a disengagement from the physical world. I probably wouldn’t have been aware of it if I hadn’t just read Proust’s theory of involuntary memory, and the role of sensory input in the formation of thoughts and memories. I wondered how many people waiting were absorbing anything about waiting in line with these particular people at this particular moment in time. I wondered if it mattered. I wondered if the online world, that abstract place of arguments and images, comments and shares, likes and links, was becoming, or had already become, larger in people’s imaginations than the world of paving stones and dirty puddles, telephone poles and night skies, elevated trains and guard rails, dropped gloves, car horns, peeling paint, swiftly moving clouds, and strangers standing close enough that you can smell their floral perfume. I wondered if I was a foolish, stubborn person, willfully out of touch with a new social language, a new way of being human.
During his lecture, Dennett discussed his theory that consciousness is a mental process that has evolved over time and exists on a spectrum across many living creatures. He argued that human consciousness is unusually powerful because it allows us to be aware of our capabilities. That is, a spider can make a complex web but as far is we know, a spider is not aware of its web-making skills. From our awareness comes an ability to be intelligent designers; we don’t have to wait on the slow-moving, trial-and-error process of biological evolution to grow our species. We have cultural knowledge, such as language, music, and cooking, to help us survive and thrive.
When describing the transmission of ideas among humans, Dennett refers to memes, a word that originates with Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene. Dennett defines memes as “a kind of way of behaving (roughly) that can be copied, transmitted, remembered, taught, shunned, denounced, brandished, ridiculed, parodied, censored, hallowed.” Words, Dennett writes, “are the best examples of memes.” He likens memes to viruses, looking for a host in a human brain. He sees them as similar to genes in their ability to replicate. He’s deeply interested in artificial intelligence, which he sees as a new stage of human evolution. His ideas are controversial among philosophers, and to be honest, I’m still working my way through his very long, very dense book and don’t completely understand his theory of consciousness, nor the arguments of his detractors. But his book was the one that brought me out of my post-Proust reading drought, I think because he looks closely at human habits, the way that Proust does.
After the lecture, there was a Q&A, and an attendee asked Dennett for his view on religion’s influence on culture. Dennett said religion was a meme, a way of behaving in the world, and like all memes, its chief goal was to spread among humans. He didn’t think there was a point in assessing religion as good or bad for humans. His verdict: “Religion is good for itself.” Hearing that, I couldn’t help applying the same formulation to social media: “Social media is good for itself.” There is really no point in deciding if social media is good or bad. It is now part of our cultural evolution and there’s no going back. Like religion, it is sometimes a means for justice and compassion. And like religion, it is also sometimes destructive and divisive. I thought of all those people, waiting outside, their heads bent over their phones, as if in prayer. I realized that my discomfort with social media is similar to my discomfort with organized religion. I am sympathetic to its allure, and in awe of its power to organize communities and bring about social change, but I am alarmed by the way it creates a new reality for people.
That was February. Now it’s June and I’ve been taking a break from social media for the past few months. For me, that meant quitting Instagram, neglecting my Tumblr feed, and ignoring online comment fields. I also removed email from my phone, which made the biggest difference in my daily routine. I hadn’t realized how much I was checking email. I also wasn’t aware of how often I was taking photos with the thought of posting them to Instagram. It’s a relief to have those small decisions—Should I check email? Should I take a photo? Should I post a photo?—removed from my life. There’s still plenty of distractions on my phone, but I stare into space more than I used to, and I pay closer attention to strangers, and passersby. My life feels quieter and more relaxed, but also lonelier. If I wasn’t living in a place with a busy street life, and where I know a lot of my neighbors, I think I might feel very isolated. I keep noticing how often people refer to things that have “happened” on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Slack, and in the comments section.
But do the things that happen on social media actually happen? Do they have any basis in reality? This is the question I keep returning to. I know that what happens on social media affects reality, and it affects people’s perception of reality, and maybe that’s enough. But I also know that when I meet people in real life after following them on social media, the online version of the person usually becomes irrelevant. A person’s social media profile is kind of like the publisher’s summary on the backs of novels. Maybe it draws you in, or maybe it turns you off, but it likely has very little to say about the actual experience of reading a particular book. It’s better to open the book at random and read a few pages, just as it’s more informative to meet someone in person. Even an extremely self-aware person, who is “good at social media,” has aspects of their personality or physical presence that they would never think to display. It’s also just very difficult to represent yourself on media platforms whose parameters are designed with the intent, above all, to grow and replicate a larger network. (Remember, social media is only good for itself.)
The difficulty of knowing yourself is one of Proust’s central themes, and one I’ve touched on several times throughout my posts. For most of In Search of Lost Time, Proust explores this law of human perception through social life, as he gently exposes the hypocrisies and delusions of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. He’s so good on other people that you barely notice that his narrator, Marcel, is a struggling writer, a person who tries, and fails, repeatedly, to undergo the self-examination necessary to write. It’s only in the final volume that Proust addresses the difficulty of discovering (or rediscovering) a reality that is worth expressing:
The work of the artist, this struggle to discern beneath matter, beneath experience, beneath words, something that is different from them, is a process exactly the reverse of that which, in those everyday lives which we live with our gaze averted from ourselves, is at every moment being accomplished by vanity and passion and the intellect, and habit too, when they smother our true impressions, so as entirely to conceal them from us, beneath a whole heap of verbal concepts and practical goals which we falsely call life.
I underlined that passage with the passion of an undergraduate, feeling as if I’d discovered the secret of writing—of life, possibly. Yes, my true impressions were constantly being smothered. Because what else is social media but a process fueled by vanity, passion, intellect, and above all, habit? What else is so much of Internet content, with its barrage of hashtags, inspo, links, and #goals, but “a whole heap of verbal concepts and practical goals which we falsely call life”?
I feel naïve writing these things, and when I first started thinking about this post, I wanted to title it: How Proust Convinced Me to Give Up My Smartphone. But to write that essay, I’d have to give up my phone, and I don’t want to. My phone makes certain parts of life really easy, and it also makes it easier for other people to be in contact with me—important people like family members, friends, neighbors, and my son’s teachers and caregivers. There’s also the fact that I’m writing this essay on a platform that uses social media and mobile apps to distribute its content. I can be as morose and confused as I want about the proliferation of social media, but the reality is that I have become habituated to its many uses.
This is the struggle of modern life, an irony Proust touches on throughout In Search of Lost Time, as he encounters new technology like telephones, airplanes, and motorcars. He loves the convenience of calling his grandmother, and yet he experiences new strains of melancholy when he hears her voice through the receiver. One can only imagine the new forms of jealousy he would have encountered if his beloved Albertine had been on Instagram. And yet he would have adapted. Habit, “that skillful and unhurrying manager,” would have interceded.
Louis C.K. has a joke about how quickly we adapt to technology, the joke being that the first thing we do after achieving an amazing technological advancement—like flight—is to complain that it could be better. For Louis C.K., this is evidence of our fundamental ingratitude and unhappiness, but Dennett might say that our rapid acclimation to new technology is the special gift of our species, the thing that has allowed for our wild success in reproduction and survival. I think Proust’s observations on the power of habit bridge both views. Reading Proust became a habit for me, and it’s one I still miss, months later. Certain books, Proust writes, can be a lens for your life, a way to see more clearly. His novel certainly did that for me. Years from now, I’ll read it again, when I need to see the world with fresh eyes.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
In the preface of his faux-memoir novel Moonglow, Michael Chabon warns the reader: “I have stuck to facts except where facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” The world he creates in his novel — with a narrator so like the author in age, origin, and mannerism — is so convincingly real that for most of the book I was distracted by my desire to know which parts of the story were true and which were made up. Did Chabon’s grandfather really want to blow up Washington D.C.? And how much is true of the grandmother’s horrifying brush with Nazis?
But this, of course, is not the point of a novel, a book that is specifically marketed as fiction. Authors throughout history have taken this approach, creating fiction memoirs, perhaps to give themselves more freedom to embellish or play down scenes from life — I’m thinking of titles like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and Tobias Wolff’s Old School. In an interview with The Telegraph, Chabon clarified his intent in blending fact and fiction: “I actually feel like fiction, which is open about its deception, is a much more powerful and more revealing tool for getting at truths about what happens in families.” What kind of fiction is better at telling the truth than memoir? And what kind of truth is revealed from such writing?
These questions were at the forefront of my mind when I read Elif Batuman’s debut novel, The Idiot. Like Chabon’s Moonglow, the narrator of The Idiot, Selin Karadağ, bears a strong resemblance to the author. Selin, like Batuman herself, is a New Jersey-born woman of Turkish descent, who goes to Harvard where she flirts with linguistics and the Russian language, falls in love with a senior who has another girlfriend, and follows him to Hungary that summer. Batuman writes about several of these events in her collection of nonfiction essays The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (2010), a thrilling book that I devoured in a matter of a few days.
I’ve long admired Batuman for her nonfiction writing (if you, too, want to fall in love, read Batuman’s essay on the peculiar history of Harvard’s Russian bells). Batuman’s incisive intelligence and blunt humor (for which she won the Terry Southern Humor Prize from The Paris Review in 2011) pervade both her essays — in The Possessed and in The New Yorker, where she has been a staff writer since 2010 — and her novel. Because of the similarities between The Idiot and Batuman’s personal essays, I found myself almost fact-checking the novel, measuring it up both against Batuman’s writing about her Harvard years and my own time as an undergrad there. I, too, took a psycholinguistics class with an attractive (though 15 years older) Italian man who, like Selin’s professor, wore shiny grey suits and taught in a cramped classroom on the 10th floor of the psychology building. And the series of strange events that lead to the character Selin spending a month teaching English in a Hungarian village are strikingly similar to the parade of missteps Batuman the nonfiction writer chronicles in The Possessed. I slipped so completely into Batuman’s fictional world, convinced of its truth, that when I reminded myself that Batuman had written a novel, not a memoir, I felt let down. I so wanted it all to be real. But why?
Batuman speaks directly to my strange urge to read this novel as nonfiction in an interview with The Rumpus in 2012. In response to a question about why publishers are more interested in getting writers to pen memoirs rather than novels, Batuman said: They want it to be true. And it’s actually an odd thing to want. The rationale is that people these days are no longer interested in novels, because we live in a newsy age, we care about facts, we care about the truth.” She ends by mentioning Tolstoy’s War and Peace and points out, “Tolstoy didn’t think he was detracting from the truth-telling power of his book by writing it as a novel.
So, now to Batuman’s novel and the truthiness living in its pages. At first blush, The Idiot is a bildungsroman of the late ’90s; Selin comes of age in a world where e-mail is just emerging and students at Harvard are social slaves to their dorm room phones, hoping that crushes will call on weekend nights. Indeed, Batuman introduces her narrative with a quote from the second volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, perhaps the heftiest tome of the bildungsroman genre. Batuman quotes from Proust, “In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.”
Adolescence is the beginning, middle, and end of The Idiot. Selin the character strikes me as an 18-year-old female version of Professor Timofey Pnin in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin; she is as confused by language and apt to make highly specific observations as the professor, though with a more modern, deadpan humor. Like this: an aerial view of one Hungarian town Selin describes as “spread out like some fantastic salad,” and a patch of overgrown grass in Boston “resembled a comb-over on the head of a bald person who didn’t want to see reality.”
Batuman’s enthusiasm for words comes through in Selin, whose quest to discover the truth about language makes her quite crazed. As Selin immerses herself in linguistics, psycholinguistics, and philosophy of language, she seems to hang her theories of language up, one by one, next to the linguists’ theories, a dizzying parade of Benjamin Whorf, Edward Sapir, Donald Davidson, and Noam Chomsky. Soon, Selin begins to be unraveled by language; she cannot communicate and loses the meaning of narratives and conversations, unable to step back from a close observation of form and structure to identify her own place in the story. She begins to feel anxious about her untethered position, and begs her own novelist to show her the way. “I wanted to know how it was going to turn out, like flipping ahead in a book,” Selin says in one of several metanarrative moments. “I didn’t even know what kind of story it was, or what kind of role I was supposed to be playing.”
Redemption in all this muddled language comes from literature, a nod to the author’s own preference for losing herself in the complex world of Russian fiction. Selin finds her own anxieties about language in a passage in Anton Chekhov’s “The Darling:” “You see a bottle, for example, standing there, or the rain falling, or a peasant going along in his cart, but what the bottle or rain or peasant are for, what sense they make, you can’t say and couldn’t say, even if they offered you a thousand rubles.” Even in her Russian classes, Selin sees more truth in the Russian literature the students are meant to read than in the facts of her own life. The short fiction stories in “Nina in Siberia,” which are only intended to teach the students Russian grammar and vocabulary, eerily mirror events in Selin’s life so that it becomes a challenge for Selin to separate what is happening to Nina from what is happening to her. (To me, this makes perfect sense. While a fanciful college sophomore with too many literature and language classes, I became so confused by my real life and so engrossed in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks that, while writing a paper about the literary significance of mouth pain and tooth aches in the book, I became convinced that I too had a mouth infection. And indeed, a week later I found myself strapped to a dentist chair, sedated and listening to the shrieking drills dig deep into my gums. Once again the truth of the book struck me; I understand that anxious absorption of an early college career. I’ve been there before.) As Nina the character searches for her love, Ivan, Selin begins to search for her own Ivan, the Hungarian senior she falls in love with. As Selin is made to act out Nina’s lines in her beginning Russian class with Ivan (the Hungarian) playing Ivan (Nina’s lover), I heard Elif Batuman’s laughter as she pulled the strings from above, coaxing Selin through a version of Batuman’s own hilarious search for the meaning of language by way of another layer of fiction — poor Nina’s fictional saga.
It was in this part of the book — when Elif seems to become Selin who seems to become Nina — that I came to understand one unique achievement of Batuman’s transformation of memoir into novel. The layered truths and fictions of The Idiot compounded so that everything in the novel became true and real in a deep, shining way that cannot be achieved through essays.
By the end of her novel, Batuman swerves away from the bildungsroman she seemed to have been writing all along. Selin returns to school convinced that her linguistics and philosophy of language classes had led her astray. In an allusion to Proust, whose pronouncement — that adolescence “is the only period in which we learn anything” — begins the book, Batuman concludes, “I hadn’t learned what I had wanted to about how language worked. I hadn’t learned anything at all.”
And that, in fact, might be the real truth of the whole conceit. That if we’re really searching for meaning, trying to dissect the whole novel and nose around for the facts hidden in it, then we risk not learning anything at all.
Several months ago, a commenter asked if reading Marcel Proust had affected my writing, and I’ve been turning the question over in my mind ever since. I thought it would make an interesting subject for a book club entry, and I’ve started this one many times, but I haven’t been able to write anything. One reason is that I’ve been working on a novel, and that’s taking up a lot of my time. A second reason is that my attention (like everyone else’s) has been dragged this way and that by the news cycle. A third reason is that the final volume, Time Regained, is so intelligent, so truthful, and so piercing, that there doesn’t seem to be any point in writing about it. I have nothing to add, nothing to analyze. There is also something incredibly delicate about this last volume. The narrative seems to be crumbling in my hands. The characters are suddenly much older, World War I has arrived, and the voice of the author is, for the first time, a little rushed. You can tell Proust is dying, truly writing on deadline, and it’s as if the book’s most important theme, Time, is taking over.
(I have more to say on Proust’s treatment of death, but I don’t think I can write it until I’ve finished the book.)
With 200-odd pages still left to go, it feels too early to reflect on how this past year of reading has affected my writing, in general. But I can speak to how Proust has aided me in my own fiction. In particular, reading In Search of Lost Time has helped me to refine my approach to characterization.
The novel I’m working on now is almost completely character driven, and the premise is simple: here are three women on the brink of three different life changes; let’s see how they fare over the next five years. When I started making notes for this book, a few years ago, I wasn’t sure what these three women would do or if I even had a book. (To be honest, sometimes I’m still not sure, but that’s a topic for another day.) Small plots have emerged, but most of my technical focus has been on characterization. I want to keep showing different aspects of each woman, while at the same time giving the reader a consistent sense of who each character is and how she will behave. To put it more simply, I want readers to feel as if they know these characters, in a real, complex way.
My first — and now that I think about it — only formal lesson in characterization came from my 10th-grade creative writing teacher. He asked our class to come up with a list of ways that authors convey character without simply describing a person’s personal qualities, e.g. “kind,” “greedy,” “selfish,” “compassionate,” etc. First on the list were physical description, action, and dialogue. From there we moved to the environment that a character inhabits, and their social milieu: their family and friends; their clothing and possessions; their house, room, office, school, etc. Then we got into the more subtle aspects of physical presence: the sound of a voice, a manner of sitting or standing, particular movements or gestures. Finally, we considered a person’s inner, unseen qualities: their thoughts and beliefs, likes and dislikes, loves and hates, and their previous lived experiences, i.e. their “backstory.”
This may seem like a blindingly obvious exercise, and maybe it was (we were 15), but as I recall, we got into a big discussion of personality and some students questioned the premise of the exercise. Why couldn’t you just describe a character as “nice” or “good” and get on with the story? Why did you have to show it? My teacher told us that it’s more memorable for a reader to decide that a person is nice, rather than being informed of their niceness. But he offered the following work-around: another character could say that a character was nice, and that would also be memorable — though of course, character’s B’s testimony of character A’s niceness would be judged based on a variety of factors, including but not limited to: character B’s relationship to character A, character B’s motivations with regard to A, character B’s overall trustworthiness, and to whom character B is describing character A’s niceness.
This is the part of the lesson that really stuck with me, because it made me see, first of all, how plot can arise from character. Even in this highly abstract set-up, you can’t help wondering if character A is really as nice as character B says. At the same time, it made me see how difficult it is to represent the intricacies of human interaction. What is said and what is done isn’t even half of the equation. We have a variety of social selves, and even the most straight-shooting, guileless person speaks differently to a parent than to a best friend. To properly reveal a character, you would need to show them in a variety of situations and moods and how on earth are you supposed to do that with any economy?
One answer is: don’t write a novel. Instead, write something for the stage or screen and let the actors fill in all the subtle dynamics that action and dialogue alone cannot describe. Another answer: write a long novel or a series of novels with the same characters. It’s human nature to feel attached to the people we spend the most time with — this is basically the premise of the American version of The Office — and so even if the characterization is not subtle, you can’t help feeling close to a person you have followed for thousands of pages over the course of several books.
At first blush, it would seem that Proust’s strategy is to write a very long book. The events of In Search of Lost Time take place over four decades. Characters grow up, marry, and bear children. Some become ill and die. This accumulation of events certainly contributes to a feeling of knowledge and intimacy. But the key to Proust’s characterization is, paradoxically, the way he shows that, when it comes to other people, there is no knowledge and no real intimacy. Our experience of other people is subjective, colored by our own fantasies and projections or dulled by habitual contact. As Proust observes in The Fugitive, at the end of his long, tormented affair with Albertine: “It is the tragedy of other people that they are merely showcases for the very perishable collections of one’s own mind.” Our subjective assumptions keep us ignorant of other people’s motives and proclivities, and certainly we know little of the inner changes taking place in other people. In addition, powerful outside forces are constantly shaping people in ways in which they themselves are often unaware: history, society, time — to name a few. Throughout In Search of Lost Time, Proust illustrates this ambiguity by revealing new sides to his characters. The final chapter of The Fugitive is straightforwardly titled: “New Aspect of Robert de Saint-Loup.”
The character twist is a staple of thrillers, but Proust does not use character revelations to advance his plot (the plot of In Search of Lost Time, if there can be said to be one, is: how Proust came to write In Search of Lost Time). Instead he uses them to remind the reader that our observations of other people are subjective and incomplete. Here’s Marcel, in a scene from The Captive, reflecting on the unexpected kindness of an old family friend, a person who had generally been indifferent toward him:
I concluded that it is as difficult to present a fixed image of a character as of societies and passions. For a character alters no less than they do, and if one tries to take a snapshot of what is relatively immutable in it, one finds it presenting a succession of different aspects (implying that it is incapable of keeping still but keeps moving) to the disconcerted lens.
Proust illustrates this “succession of different aspects” in a beautiful passage about Saint-Loup, one of the most well-developed characters in the novel, someone we see throughout the book and feel that we know. But after Saint-Loup’s death, it occurs to Marcel that he really didn’t know his friend very well, and that they rarely saw each another:
And the fact that I had seen him really so little but against such varied backgrounds, in circumstances so diverse and separated by so many intervals — in that hall at Balbec, in the café at Rivebelle, in the cavalry barracks and at the military dinners in Doncieres, at the theatre where he had slapped the face of the journalist, in the house of the Princesse de Guermantes — only had the effect of giving me, of his life, pictures more striking and more sharply defined and of his death a grief more lucid than we are likely to have in the case of people whom we have loved more, but with whom our association has been so nearly continuous that the image we retain of them is no more than a sort of vague average between an infinity of imperceptibly different images and our affection, satiated, has not, as with those whom we have seen only for brief moments, during meetings prematurely ended against their wish and ours, the illusion that there was possible between us a still greater affection of which circumstances alone have defrauded us.
To me, this paragraph is a miniature class on literary characterization. Marcel is saying that even though he does not actually know Saint-Loup very well, he feels that he does; there is an illusion at play. And that illusion is the result of having seen Saint-Loup for brief periods of time in a variety of different circumstances. Anyone who has ever been in a long-distance relationship will certainly recognize this phenomenon. A dear friend recently visited me, or at least someone I consider a dear friend, though I have actually not spent much time with him. We have never lived in the same city and I know very little of his daily life. But we see each other every year or so, and I remember our meetings in greater detail than I do with friends in New York that I see on a regular basis. In some ways, this friend is more real to me than my friends who are “like family” — the ones I text with daily and who wipe my child’s nose. I rely on my local friends for companionship and community but I don’t notice them in quite the same way.
Literary characters are, maybe, like long distance friends. Your perception of them is brief, but intense. Even in a very long book, an author writes with the knowledge that there is a limit to the number of scenes he can write with a particular character, or the number of lines he can devote to physical description or psychological observation. An author is not trying to reconstitute an actual person, but to create an illusion of intimacy. And there are tricks — many of them as described by my teacher, earlier in this entry. But the main trick is to abandon objectivity. That doesn’t mean that a novelist has to employ a subjective narrator. It’s not the mode of narration that matters, it’s the discipline of the author — the precision it takes to leave aspects of a character unresolved and ambiguous.
In order to exert some discipline on this essay, I will not get into Proust’s philosophy of selfhood, which distinguishes between the parade of moods, states of mind, and social performances that constitute our experience, and a deeper, bedrock self. But in terms of literary expression, of trying to create the illusion of character, one thing I’ve learned from reading Proust is that a writer must attempt to show a character’s “succession of selves.” This is different from the classic storytelling advice: that a character must change or grow over the course of the narrative. I’ve never liked that presumed moral arc; it feels constraining and didactic. Also, it’s not necessary, because the passage of time will always reveal character.
The poignancy of the final volume, Time Regained, is in seeing all of Proust’s character’s age. At a party attended by many of the novel’s personages, Marcel observes that he must study the guests with his memory as well as with his eyes. Some are so transformed that he doesn’t recognize them at first. Of his old school friend, Bloch, Marcel cannot even perceive him as middle-aged until someone else points it out:
I heard someone say that he quite looked his age, and I was astonished to observe on his face some of those signs which are indeed characteristic of men who are old. Then I understood that this was because he was in fact old and that adolescents who survive for a sufficient number of years are the material out of which life makes old men.
In Time Regained, the chronology is somewhat confusing as War World I begins and ends, Marcel retreats to a sanatorium for an unspecified number of years, and certain marriages are never fully explained. It’s hard to know if this was intentional, since Proust never had a chance to complete his revisions, but it makes psychological sense, because time doesn’t pass logically for us, especially when it comes to our friends. By embracing the subjectivity of perception, and of the passage of time, Proust created characters that feel as mysterious, fleeting, and precious as life itself.
Progress through Enigma Variations, André Aciman’s fourth novel, is best calculated not by the number of pages read, but by the strength of readerly connection with the narrator. The project is one of recognition and revelation within the reader: the book wants nothing less than the dissolution of your consciousness into its pixellated moments of psychological precision.
The novel opens with Paul, at 22, returning to the small Italian island town San Giustiniano, where he and his family had spent his childhood summers until he was 12 and where, crucially, he first fell in love. The object of his affection was an older man, a carpenter named Giovanni, or “Nanni,” a name that “meant far, far more” to Paul “than it did to anyone else.” During his visit Paul investigates the mysterious burning of his family’s summer home by the locals and in the process uncovers an open family secret, a revelation that resituates his feelings toward his father, Nanni, and himself. “We love only once in our lives,” Paul’s father told him as a boy, “sometimes too early, sometimes too late, the other times are always a touch deliberate.” Through Aciman’s smooth layering of time, we witness both Paul’s pure first love and how it has aged. This initial section also sets the stage for what’s to come: four sections, each centered on a different lover in Paul’s post-San Giustiniano life.
The novel’s title refers, at least in part, to Edward Elgar’s opus 36, Variations on an Original Theme — popularly known as the Enigma Variations — in which the composer sketched a series of variations on a theme, each representing some aspect of a real-life friend from within Elgar’s inner circle. It’s a subtle way of toying with genre, of puncturing the fictional membrane — or suggesting that’s what’s happening — to let in some nonfiction. Maybe the characters are pulled from Aciman’s life, maybe not, but the title invites such speculation, which, if anything, amplifies the novel’s photorealism. Other writers have played with this conceit (one of the most thrilling recent examples I’ve read is Laurent Binet in HHhH), but the literary progenitor here — and not just in this respect — is, of course, Marcel Proust.
Loneliness, fear of shame, unrequited love light these pages. At a dinner party in the third section, beset with desire for Manfred, a man Paul sees at the tennis courts and in the locker room but with whom he’s hardly shared a full sentence, Paul thinks, “what if each of us at this very table is a monsoon-ravaged island trying to look its best, with all of our coconut trees bending to the winds till hopelessness breaks their back and you can hear each one crash,” because, after all, “we’re each waiting for someone’s voice to tear us out of our bleak and battered husk and say, Follow me, Brother, follow me.” Here and throughout, the minute mapping of Paul’s shifting emotions convinces and compels. What Wyatt Mason in The Proust Project, a collection of essays inspired by In Search of Lost Time and edited by Aciman, has said of Proust holds true for Enigma Variations: “[E]ven as we move forward, we grow no closer to the end than we were at the beginning.” Depth, not breadth, is the treasure, and grasping after the ungraspable present along with Paul becomes the point of the quest itself.
That said, the third section, “Manfred,” grows a little tedious. Unlike Aciman’s steamy first novel Call Me by Your Name, most of the skin-to-skin contact in Enigma Variations occurs in the narrator’s head, and in “Manfred,” Paul wallows longwindedly in the agony of delayed avowal. But this section also reveals something at the heart of Paul’s character: he’s happiest in the throes of yearning after new love because he knows that acquisition never leads to contentment. Obsessing over his feelings for Manfred, Paul thinks, “The circuit is always the same: from attraction to tenderness to obsessive longing, and then to surrender, desuetude, apathy, fatigue, and finally scorn.” Familiarity is the come-down; Paul’s drug is feeling itself, the more intense the better.
When Paul finally screws up the courage to come out to Manfred, he pulls out his phone and shows the man a picture of his 12-year-old self and says, “This is who is speaking to you now. Earnest, horny, so scared.” Love, infatuation, desire — these most powerful of feelings, this novel says — reduce and enlarge us in ways that are wonderfully juvenescent, at once simplifying and magnifying the world.
And complicating Paul’s romantic desire is his need, seemingly always, for two others — that is, if character A, the new inamorato, is seen as the destination, and he himself is B, then there seems always to be a need for C, an old lover, as the necessary starting point. What Paul becomes is the span between them. The cuckolded catalysts all seem okay with their status (Manfred in particular moves surprisingly smoothly from A to C), and in this manner the novel defers any overused tension around infidelity. Paul’s focus isn’t on the repercussions from leaving an old lover as much as it is on savoring the possibilities of new love.
Intriguingly, as we witness Paul repeatedly rearrange his life around a new magnetic north, it becomes clear that his bisexuality abets his serial monogamy. “I’d grown to love serving two masters,” he thinks, “perhaps so as never truly to answer to either one.” Yet Paul’s state isn’t a dilemma in search of an answer. We go with him the way we go with Anton Chekhov’s characters, enmeshed in the humanness of the drama. When Chloe, an on-again, off-again lover since college, confronts Paul, asking about his new lover, “Did you tell her you’ll always want something else and something more?”, we see it for the tender inquiry it is.
In the A-B-C equation, Paul is the bisexual bridge between A and C, and this metaphor is mined to profit—subtly in the first section when a San Giustiniano local says that all that happened to Paul’s family is “acqua passata,” water under the bridge, and elegantly in the scene of the New York City dinner party. As the partygoers admire the view of an East River bridge, Paul thinks, “what I really long for this evening is neither to be on this side of the river nor on the other but on the space and transit in between.” Aciman has captured Paul’s bridge life delightfully well.
I am writing this in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, and that has changed my reflections as I look back on what I read this year. I’ve found myself thinking a lot about a book that I read early in January and which I reviewed on this site, Dan Fox’s Pretentiousness: Why It Matters. There was a political aspect to Fox’s book that I did not discuss in my review, but which now seems most important. For those who read my review, you will know that I focused mainly on the imprecise use of the word “pretentious,” especially in literary criticism and in social situations. Fox argued that the word is too often used as a vague, dismissive, insult: “Pretension gets sticky with a mess of unpleasant traits; narcissism, lying, ostentation, presumption, snobbery, selfish individualism. These are not synonyms for each other. The pretentious are those who brave being different.”
Fox’s argument was well received, though I noticed that some critics pushed back against Fox’s whole-hearted embrace of pretentiousness as a kind of open-minded ambition, and felt compelled to point out the ways in which pretentious behavior can be obnoxious, smug, and self-congratulatory. But I think those reviewers missed Fox’s larger point, which is that “pretentious” and its supposed opposite, “authentic,” have become so politicized that they have lost any nuance of meaning. Rereading Fox’s book, I was struck by the prescience of this paragraph, which was written before Brexit and before Donald Trump was the Republican Party nominee:
Politics is a game in which actors assert their authenticity in the face of other actors whom they accuse of bad faith. Think of the embattled conservative candidate who, faced with hard questions about policy or public gaffes, plays the ‘biased liberal media’ card. Appeals are made to a silent majority sitting in the stalls, drowned out by the hecklers positioned up in the Gods; socialists, liberals, gays, women, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, the BBC, ‘the political correctness brigade.’ A phantom ‘cultural elite’ is conjured onstage, working against what ‘real,’ ‘ordinary’ people wish. (As if ‘real,’ ‘ordinary’ people could not possibly be left-wing, or gay, or interested in equality, or hold different religious beliefs.) It’s nothing more than smoke and mirrors, a game of pretense, but the idea of the ‘ordinary’ person is a powerful rhetorical image.
That pretty much sums up Trump’s political strategy, though Fox, a British writer, was likely thinking of his home country. In the wake of Brexit, I read Zadie Smith’s excellent “Fences: A Brexit Diary,” and then I read it again, after our election. I saw some of my New Yorker blindness in her description of her own “Londoncentric solipsism:”
The first instinct of many Remain voters on the left was that this was only about immigration. When the numbers came in and the class and age breakdown became known, a working-class populist revolution came more clearly into view, although of the kind that always perplexes middle-class liberals who tend to be both politically naïve and sentimental about working classes.
One can accuse President-elect Trump of many things, but certainly not political naïveté or sentimentality. His vocabulary was always simple, direct, and emotional. He had no qualms riding ugly currents of thought: bigotry, envy, resentment, self-pity, bitterness, nihilism, and hatred. From his stint as a reality television host, he knew they would provoke action.
I write these words in anger, and that’s the emotion I’ll probably always associate with this election cycle. Beneath my anger is a sadness that I am reluctant to excavate. The one book that forced me to do that this year was Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. I read it in February and it has stayed with me all year. It’s a memoir about the author’s grief over the deaths of five young, black men that she knew in childhood. One of these young men was her brother. Ward grew up in a rural community in southern Mississippi. Her literary talent led her out of state to college and later, to graduate school in creative writing. But her departure was fraught with guilt and longing:
…I wanted to apply, to leave Mississippi, to escape the narrative I encountered in my family, my community, and my school that I was worthless, a sense that was as ever present as the wet, cloying heat. ‘You can’t leave,’ my mother said to me. ‘You have to help me with your siblings.’ When she said that, I felt all the weight of the South pressing down on me, and it was then that I resolved to leave the region for college, but to do it in a way that respected the sacrifices my mother made for me. I studied harder. I read more. How could I know then that this would be my life: yearning to leave the South and doing so again and again, but perpetually called back to home by a love so thick it choked me?
Men We Reaped details Ward’s visits home, the summers and holiday breaks destroyed by death. But this is not a gloomy book. Instead, it’s as full of joy, youth, and love, as it is of grief, mourning, and heartbreak. The amount of life in this book makes the amount of loss all the more tragic.
Finally, regular readers of this site will know that I’ve spent the year reading Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and occasionally writing about it here. Rereading one of my favorite books has not only been a pleasure, it’s also forced me to set aside more time for reading, and that has brought a certain amount of calm and perspective into my life. The day after the election, in an attempt to find some equilibrium, I returned to In Search of Lost Time. The scene I read happened to be one in which Baron de Charlus misreads a social situation and as a result, loses the person he loves most dearly. His error is a familiar one: he doesn’t observe or even suspect the simmering resentment of someone else. I found myself underlining many sentences, including this one: “We picture the future as a reflection of the present projected into an empty space, whereas it is the result, often almost immediate, of causes which for the most part escape our notice.”
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My son was in a good mood, ready to walk to school with his father, and then suddenly, he was crying. He’s four. The ostensible cause of his tears had to do with some last-minute renovations on a Lego house. He made an adjustment to the chimney, I said “Good enough!” and he got mad. “But I’m not finished!” He threw himself on the floor. He’s not given to tantrums and I knew immediately that he was upset because I had slept in, was still in my pajamas, and would not be walking him to school. He had already accused me of not being nice, an hour earlier, when I pulled the covers over my head and told him I was a hibernating bear who would prefer not to be disturbed. And you know, he’s right. That wasn’t nice — especially when I said I was the type of bear who ate little boys. But I was sleeping so well! I felt like a hibernating bear. I was cocooned in sleep, layered in sleep. I couldn’t bear to be unraveled.
On the whole, motherhood has reshaped my life and habits in ways that have made me a lot happier, but the one thing I really miss from my childless life is waking up slowly. I have never been someone who jumps out of bed, eager to get started with my day. Instead, I like to lie in bed for a while to soak in the dream residue and listen to the radio and to the sounds coming from outside of my window. Maybe this is too obvious to say, but there is something uniquely relaxing about sleeping in after the sun has risen. Marcel Proust’s narrator, Marcel, a connoisseur of sleep, claims that morning sleep “is — on an average — four times as refreshing, it seems to the awakened sleeper to have lasted four times as long when it has really been four times as short. A splendid, sixteenfold error in multiplication which gives so much beauty to our awakening and gives life a veritable new dimension…”
That observation is from The Captive, the volume I’m currently making my way through. As you might well expect from an invalid, Proust brings a wealth of personal experience to the subject of sleep. On the experience of awakening slowly, he writes: “Often we have at our disposal, in those first minutes in which we allow ourselves to glide into the waking state, a variety of different realities among which we imagine that we can choose as from a pack of cards.” On dream residue: “I was still enjoying the last shreds of sleep, that is to say of the only source of invention, the only novelty that exists in story-telling, since none of our narrations in the waking state, even when embellished with literary graces, admit those mysterious differences from which beauty derives.” On the elusiveness of sleep: “Sleep is divine but by no means stable; the slightest shock makes it volatile. A friend to habit, it is kept night after night in its appointed place by habit, more steadfast than itself, protected from any possible disturbance; but if it is displaced, if it is no longer subjugated, it melts away like a vapor.”
The slightest shock makes it volatile. I’ve been trying to remind myself of this, lately, as I decide what television show to watch before bedtime, or when I pick up my phone to check the news one last time. The election, especially, has wreaked havoc on my ability to relax at the end of the day. It’s not only that it’s been so dramatic, unpredictable, and vile, it’s also that it calls for so much analysis. I can’t stop listening to podcasts and reading think pieces even though I know they rarely satisfy, and can’t provide a definitive answer to the question of how we got to this ugly place. Certain disgusting phrases and epithets stick in my mind; the week that Donald Trump’s lewd Access Hollywood tapes were released, I kept remembering incidents of sexual harassment and aggression that I’d put up with over the years. From conversations with other women, I wasn’t the only one having these late-night reckonings. Sleep is the perfect balm for these kinds of obsessive thoughts; the catch-22 is that you have to achieve calmness before you can pass into the even calmer regions of sleep.
Sometimes, when I can’t fall asleep, I look in on my son, sleeping peacefully. Often I lie next to him for a few minutes, listening to his breathing, and stroking his soft cheek or holding his hand. I miss the days when he was a baby and he would sleep in his carrier with his head on my chest. When he was around two, my husband and I went through a phase of waking him early from his weekend afternoon naps, when he was still very groggy and tired, because he would snuggle in our laps and fall back asleep. It was the only way we could enjoy the particular peace of mind that comes with holding a sleeping child.
I found myself thinking of my son’s peaceful sleep when I read one of the most famous passages in The Captive, that of Marcel observing Albertine while she is napping. Albertine is Marcel’s frustratingly unknowable mistress, a woman Marcel has fallen out of love with by the end of Volume 4 (Sodom and Gomorrah), but who we find living with Marcel at the beginning of Volume 5 (The Captive). Marcel is too jealous to give her up, and so neurotic that he confesses to installing her “in a bedroom within twenty paces of my own, at the end of the corridor, in my father’s tapestried study.” What’s more, he tries to control her social life, sending her out with his chauffeur, who is instructed to keep tabs on her comings and goings. His biggest fear is that she is in love with another woman, or perhaps, several women. He suspects her of lying, and interrogates her acquaintances about her activities outside of his apartment. When that fails, he finagles invitations and manipulates her plans so that she cannot go anywhere alone.
And yet for all of Marcel’s controlling behavior, Albertine remains elusive, both to the narrator and the reader. You never feel you know her, which is odd, because one of the hallmarks of In Search of Lost Time is how well you feel you know Marcel’s friends and acquaintances. When Swann died, I felt personally bereft. When Robert de Saint-Loup appears, I brighten up at the thought of his charm and good looks. Even Bloch, who appears very little after the first volume, feels like an old friend when he makes an occasional cameo. But Albertine frustrates me. All I really know of her is what she looks like, and what she seems like. Marcel is always comparing her to other people and things, always trying to reconcile his present, complicated, neurotic understanding of her personality with his memories of the athletic, fresh-air girl he fell in love with in Balbec. But her portrait never comes into focus, in part because he knows her better than he used to — that is, she’s more than just an idealized image — but also because he’s too suspicious of her, too busy analyzing her words and behavior for signs of betrayal.
It’s only when Albertine is asleep that Marcel can enjoy her company, a discovery he makes one day when he happens upon her, napping: “stretched out at full length on my bed, in an attitude so natural that no art could have devised it, she reminds me of a long blossoming stem that had been laid there.” A few sentences later, he continues with the botanical analogies:
She was animated now only by the unconscious life of plants, of trees, a life more different from my own, more alien, and yet one that belonged more to me. Her personality was not constantly escaping, as when we talked, by the outlets of her unacknowledged thoughts and of her eyes. She had called back into herself everything of her that lay outside, had withdrawn, enclosed, reabsorbed herself into her body. In keeping her in front of my eyes, in my hands, I had an impression of possessing her entirely which I never had when she was awake. Her life was submitted to me, exhaled toward me its gentle breath.
This passage is unsettling, and becomes more troubling as it continues, and as Marcel fondles and kisses Albertine while she is asleep, without her knowledge or consent. And yet I could relate to it, as a mother. The first sentences, especially, reminded me of the feeling of wonder I get when I watch my sleeping son — that sense of him germinating in a secret, slow, plant-like way that is impossible to witness moment to moment, but which I know will hit me later on, when, scrolling through photos on my phone, I wonder what happened to the chubby-cheeked baby boy who used to fall asleep in my arms.
Is it correct to read this passage in a maternal light? This is what I asked myself as I read and re-read the long and incredibly beautiful descriptions of Albertine’s resting body, the long musical sentences in which Albertine’s breath is compared to sea breezes, her hair to moonlit trees, her movements to that of the tides. One sentence, in particular, struck me as exactly what I feel, late at night, when I check in on my son as a way of curing my own insomnia: “I savored her sleep with a disinterested, soothing love, just as I would remain for hours listening to the unfurling of the waves.”
Of course, it’s easy to love a sleeping child, easy to idealize him as innocent and adorable, easy to forget the whining and the interrupting and the sudden, frustrated tears; easy to believe that he will always be safe, healthy, and above all, close — that he will never do what he is supposed to grow up and do, which is to thrive independently, with thoughts and desires unknown to you and unsatisfied by you. It’s as easy to idealize a sleeping child as it is a sleeping woman, to simplify her personality, to forget that she has multiple and often conflicting desires, social roles, friendships, and responsibilities. It’s easy to believe, when looking upon the closed eyes of a beautiful mistress, that you possess her, and that everything about her is known, or at least possible to know.
Later in The Captive, in a separate passage about Albertine’s sleep, Marcel acknowledges that there is something maternal in his obsessive, neurotic love:
Her sleep was no more than a sort of blotting out of the rest of her life…This calm slumber delighted me, as a mother, reckoning it a virtue, is delighted by her child’s sound sleep. And her sleep was indeed that of a child. Her awakening also, so natural and so loving, before she even knew where she was, that I sometimes asked myself with dread whether she had been in the habit, before coming to live with me, of not sleeping alone but of finding, when she opened her eyes, someone lying by her side. But her childlike grace was more striking. Like a mother again, I marveled that she should always awaken in such good humor.
Reading this passage, 50 pages or so after the first description of Albertine’s sleep, I not only felt assured in the parallels to motherhood that I had previously drawn, but also that Marcel was, like a mother, aware of the futility of his efforts to control another person. The scene that follows is actually quite tender and easygoing, as Albertine, in a reversal, sits with Marcel when he is just waking up. Together, they listen to the sounds of the street vendors passing by Marcel’s open window, and they plan their meal based on the foods advertised. It’s in this scene that Marcel rhapsodizes about the particular, heavy sleep of morning, the sleep that is “four times as refreshing.” He’s also quite honest, for the first time in many pages, about the troubled nature of his love for Albertine, and how he suspects they will both be happier when they have parted. But in the moment, there is only the sensual pleasure of waking slowly, a zone of ambiguity that somehow keeps you from acknowledging the more destabilizing uncertainties of life.
I knew an MFA candidate in grad school who had already written a novel and even had an agent, and who, whenever Ernest Hemingway was mentioned, would instantly come down with a migraine so severe that he had to retire to bed with a cold compress on his forehead for eight hours. It was as though Hemingway were a kind of god whose very name could smite his acolytes. My friend, needless to say, never published and did not become a writer. The weight of his hero was just too much for him.
Writers have their touchstone authors. Marcel Proust is mine, and has been for almost 30 years. I learned French primarily because I wanted to read Proust in the original. I’d made my way through the Scott Moncrieff translation over a period of eight or nine months while living in the usual reduced circumstances of an aspiring writer in Cambridge, England. He was deep-sea diving into themes that I’d begun to introduce into my own work: time, memory, the past. In French his prose is sinewy and supple, much stronger and bolder than he comes off in the Scott Moncrieff translation. But it was how Proust dealt with character that most fascinated me.
By my count, I own some six biographies of Marcel Proust, not including biographical material contained in other volumes, such as his devoted housekeeper and amanuensis Céleste Albaret’s valuable Monsieur Proust, as well as those books dedicated to one aspect or another of his life. For years the most authoritative biography in English was that of George D. Painter, who wrote under the assumption that In Search of Lost Time was a way into the life of its author; an approach Proust utterly disdained. As Proust wrote in what is considered an early version of the Search: “A book is the product of a different self from the one we manifest in our habits, in society, in our vices.” Thus, many assumed that this asthmatic hypochondriac with his fur-lined coat, pale complexion, and drooping mustache could never possibly create anything more substantial than a flowery thank-you note to his hostess. Instead he produced one of the great works of literature.
Also one of the least-completed. Most readers who take the plunge get through Swann’s Way and give up. Yet once you forge ahead in the seven-volume work you see the pace increase, the humor deepen, the obsessions grow even more obsessive. This isn’t a rambling, stream-of-consciousness book of memories lost and found; it’s a novel with a subtle and solid architecture, where in its last volume, Time Regained, the shape of the work comes finally into focus. The man who tells this story, the “I” of the book, known as the Narrator, isn’t the author, per se, though once or twice they share a first name. And the book you’ve just finished reading isn’t quite the book the Narrator now sets out to write: it’s as though the author and his novel were a kind of optical illusion: where is the reality, where is the fiction? And what is this we’ve just read? A book about a man who wants to write a book about what we’ve just read?
The arc of the novel is the Narrator’s search for understanding the nature of time and the meaning of the past, in the end learning that, though the body ages and the mind weakens, the past never dies, it’s as vivid as when it was first experienced: always retrievable, always alive within us. The Narrator is something of an undercover agent. He’s an outsider who yearns to be accepted by the higher circles of le tout Paris, in particular the salons of the Duchess de Guermantes and that of her cousin, the Princesse de Guermantes. Proust himself, never one to shun the salons of le beau monde, had the perfect disguise: mix with high society and French nobility, look and listen and be tolerated, while few would suspect this social butterfly would ever make anything of himself. And yet the entire time he was observing, taking in not just how people spoke but how they looked, how they gestured, how they presented themselves both when in public and in their unguarded moments (something that Pablo Picasso recognized when he and Proust were at the same gathering towards the end of the author’s life: “Look, he’s keeping his eyes out for models,” as Jean Hugo quoted him as saying, though Benjamin Taylor rightly points out that all the models had already been found; some of them in that very room).
There’s a key scene in the novel when the Narrator, still a young man, happens to witness an exchange between the Baron de Charlus and Jupien, a tailor, soon to be Charlus’s secretary and afterwards the owner of a brothel, which the Narrator sees as something like an insect being drawn to pollen. He observes the baron’s little dance of seduction, how he now approaches, now retreats, until the two men have vanished inside Jupien’s waistcoat shop. Now the Narrator knows something that no one would suspect him of knowing. I spy with my very own eye, Proust seems to be saying, and I know everything. In many ways the central character of this long novel, Charlus, so robust and masculine at the start, then becoming an old man, retains something of the decrepit dignity of King Lear. As a creator of character, Proust is something of a Cubist: his people are never seen in only one dimension; they’re constantly changeable, and changing, and all of those faces exist on the same plane.
In Search of Lost Time is, I’ve always felt, aside from being a kind of detective story, something of a spy novel, which may stem from the fact that its author was both Jewish and gay, firmly placed as outside the perceived mainstream. The fact that gay men were ostracized (though in some quarters quietly tolerated) needs no elaboration here. And with the Dreyfus Affair being the story of the day when Proust was a young man — a story that didn’t quite go away for some 12 years — the population was divided, with anti-Dreyfusism becoming to a degree synonymous with anti-Semitism. Proust campaigned on behalf of Alfred Dreyfus. “Was this because he felt Jewish?” his latest biographer, Benjamin Taylor, asks. “Certainly not. Proust saw himself as what he was: the non-Jewish son of a Jewish mother. The Dreyfus Affair was for him, first and last, a clear-cut miscarriage of justice that demanded reversal. In this he was like most of the Jews, half-Jews, and baptized Jews who rallied to the cause in 1897 and 1898; they did so not because Dreyfus was Jewish but because he was innocent.”
The definitive biography in English is by William C. Carter, and in French we have the exhaustive, encyclopedic and equally valuable doorstopper by Jean-Yves Tadié, which has been translated into English. Just released from Yale University Press is Benjamin Taylor’s slim but rich volume, Proust: The Search. By now we know pretty much everything there is to learn about Proust, though the diaries of Reynaldo Hahn, considered by scholars to be, as Taylor calls it, “the holy grail of Proust biographers,” are under embargo until 2036, and will undoubtedly shed a great deal of light on this important relationship. So what does Taylor have to offer that’s new?
One might think that, as Taylor’s biography is part of Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, the author would be focusing on Proust’s life as a Jew. Though Proust’s Jewish mother, Jeanne Weil, never converted, his father, Adrien Proust, wished to have his children baptized into the Catholic church. Taylor, I think wisely, doesn’t make much of this, and turns his attention to the life of a writer, not just a Jewish writer, giving us a slender but rich work of biography that is stylishly written and covers all the bases of Proust’s life and career. Because so many of the highlights and details are well known to those who’ve read the earlier biographies, he succeeds not so much by narrowing the focus but by shedding light on the salient points of the author’s life and by reminding us why Proust is such a touchstone for so many.
However one reads the Search, when you come out at the other end of the experience you have become a different person; not just because something like eight months or a year has passed and you also have changed over that time, perhaps falling in love, or out of love, or becoming a parent, or finding yourself uprooted, but because you now see the world through the eyes of this author, just as, Proust writes in his novel, once Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s paintings were seen, people would say of a woman passing by, “That’s a Renoir woman.” “To succeed thus in gaining recognition,” Proust writes elsewhere in the novel, “the original painter, the original writer proceeds on the lines adopted by oculists. The course of treatment they give us by their painting or by their prose is not always agreeable to us. When it is at an end the operator says to us: ‘Now look!’ And, lo and behold, the world around us (which was not created once and for all, but is created afresh as often as an original artist is born) appears to us entirely different from the old world, but perfectly clear.” And that is what Proust does to you: you begin to define the world around you through the eyes of this artist.
There’s an eerie moment in the fourth volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Sodom and Gomorrah that stopped me dead the first time I came across it. In a meditation on sleeping and waking and memory, the author writes: “…I, the strange human being who, while he waits for death to release him, lives behind closed shutters, knows nothing of the world, sits motionless as an owl, and like that bird can only see things at all clearly in the darkness.” I had the strange sensation that the author, by then dead more than 50 years, was somehow still very much with us as he describes his exact circumstance, both as the voice of the book’s Narrator and as the person writing this book, as though he knew that one day someone would come across this line and sense the living author behind it. For that moment he knows you’re there; in those few words he is still alive. As he wrote upon hearing of the writer John Ruskin’s death to his friend Marie Nordlinger, “I am shown how paltry a thing death is when I see how vigorously this dead man lives.” Thus it is with Proust, and all our touchstones.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
It’s been a while since I’ve written one of these diaries. I have to be honest: I don’t think it’s ever been more difficult for me to find time to read. It’s strange, because I’m reading more than I have in years, and yet I struggle for those hours of solitude. I schedule them, I turn on Freedom, I turn off my phone, I go to bars alone, I give up on critically acclaimed TV shows, I unsubscribe from podcasts, and every afternoon I sit my son down in front of Octonauts so that I can sneak into his room and read novels and magazines. I like to read in my son’s room because he has a single bed like the one I had in college, and it is covered by a quilt that my mother made for me. Sitting on that little bed, surrounded by toys, I feel as if I have permission to read solely for the fun of it — not because I need to, for an assignment, or because it will be beneficial, in some indirect way, for my writing.
When I started reading In Search of Lost Time at the beginning of the year, I planned to read 10 to 20 pages a day, which I thought would be a reasonable and attainable goal. At least one commenter recommended that I throw page numbers out the window, because Marcel Proust’s prose style does not really bend itself to “reasonable.” Those commenters were absolutely right. Counting pages was frustrating; as soon as I found myself sinking into the book, I would reach the end of my daily allotment. It seemed foolish to limit myself just to make the book easier to digest — or, more likely, because I felt guilty cutting into my “work time” for more than 20 minutes. Likewise, if I really only had 20 minutes for reading on a particular day, there was no point in reading Proust. Better to wait until I could block off at least 45 minutes. For a couple of months this summer, when my son was at day camp, I went to a coffee shop after drop-off and read there for an hour or so. It was a wonderful way to start the day, and I liked it so much that I can’t figure out why I don’t make a point of doing it every day. Then again, why don’t I do 10 minutes of yoga every morning or drink two glasses of water with lemon, upon rising? Those things make me feel great, too, and like reading, they are cheap and accessible. The only thing that stops me is my indolence.
There is no one like Proust to force you to examine your habits, and lately I’ve been thinking about how and why I find time to read books — and not only Proust. I actually feel like I’ve got a handle on In Search. I am now about halfway through Sodom and Gomorrah, which means I’ve crossed the border of my previous attempts. I don’t feel any desire to quit, which is not to say that there haven’t been boring parts. There have. But I’ve discovered that I really like having a long-term reading project. It brings a continuity and effort to my reading life that I was missing.
Before this Proust project, my reading was disciplined mainly by my book group’s selections, which I generally read at the last minute, a few days before the group meeting — so it’s fresh in my mind, I tell myself. Really, I’ve fallen into a binge reading habit, in general. Because it is so hard to find time to read, and because we live in an age when reading time must be planned, I gravitate toward books that force me to read them, making me forget my to-do list. Books like volumes one and two of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I read those when my son was two and I remember tipping over the recycling bin and letting him play with the forbidden plastic and glass bottles so that I could eke out 20 more minutes of reading time. But I lost interest halfway through book three, and have left the series alone for the time being. A similar thing happened with the first two Elena Ferrante novels. I lost interest after book three — only to be taken by storm, a few months ago, when the fourth book suddenly seemed to take on a special glow on my bookshelf, and I just had to finish the series.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with abandoning a book or taking a break from a series, but reading Proust all year has reminded me of the particular pleasure of focusing on one author for an extended period of time. I used to do this a lot, when I was a teenager, in part because I didn’t know what to read, so when I found an author I liked, I read everything I could find. But I also did it out of a desire to be close to the writer, to notice obsessions and preoccupations, favored words and phrases, repeated motifs and situations, and of course, to observe the way his or her storytelling changed over the years. For a writer, it’s slightly embarrassing the way a reader can track your development (as both a writer and a human being), but for a reader, it’s intoxicating, and reading In Search of Lost Time has reminded me of that feeling. It’s probably too early to start thinking about what I’m going to read when I’m finished with In Search of…, but I think I’d like to choose an author and read all of his or her works in a systematic way — and then maybe keep doing that, until I’ve exhausted my favorites. For the first time, I see the appeal of being a completist.
Sometimes I think that In Search of… is about reading, more than anything else: reading people, reading art, reading memory. Reading people, especially. The most incredible thing about Proust’s novel is his characterization, which I appreciate even more in this reading, now that I am a little older, and have seen the way people change (or don’t change) over time. It is almost magical, the way you get to know Marcel’s friends and witness their transformation over the years. At least some of this involvement has to do with the book’s length. You’re spending a lot of time with these people. There have been some dull passages, usually party scenes in high society, where I’ve wondered what on earth Proust is up to (and sometimes, he will interrupt a passage to assure the reader that this will all be relevant, later) and then 100 pages later, a character from the party will reappear, someone I hadn’t even realized I’d gotten attached to, and I will feel like I’m seeing an old friend. And as Marcel reports on their lives, and the changes in their behaviors and appearances, I will feel as if I am noticing these changes, because I’ve become so steeped in Marcel’s (and, by extension, Proust’s) sensibility.
To be steeped in sensibility. For me, this is the pleasure of reading. In real life, it would be hazardous to take on another person’s point of view so completely, but in reading, you can be reckless — and this is what I’ve been reminding myself, lately, when I feel I have no time to read. Am I really going to fill up my days with productive activities? Or am I going to leave some space for recklessness?
Since Bill Cunningham’s death last week, I’ve been thinking that he was New York City’s Marcel Proust. He captured the people of this city, and the special, sometimes hard-to-see beauty of its streets, just as Proust immortalized certain stylish Parisian women, and the particular seasons and moods of Paris’s parks and sidewalks.
I’m not the first to make this comparison: the fashion writer Cathy Horn made a connection between the two artists in a lovely remembrance for The Cut. She notes that Proust’s eye was different from Cunningham’s, because he was constructing a fictional world, whereas Cunningham was a journalist who recorded the world. Yet Cunningham and Proust have a similar sensibility when it comes to clothing. Both have a love for eccentrics, and for elegance. They go wild when the two converge. One of my favorite passages in all of In Search of Lost Time has to be when Marcel sees Robert de Saint-Loup for the first time. Saint-Loup, who will soon become his good friend, is wearing a beautiful summer suit:
…along the central gangway leading from the beach to the road I saw approaching, tall, slim, bare-necked, his head held proudly erect, a young man with penetrating eyes whose skin was as fair and his hair as golden as if they had absorbed all the rays of the sun. Dressed in a suit of soft, whitish material such as I could never have believed that any man would have the audacity to wear, the thinness of which suggested no less vividly than the coolness of the dining-room the heat and brightness of the glorious day outside, he was walking fast.
To me, that passage is like one of Bill Cunningham’s photographs in the way it magically captures a season, a moment in time, and a person, all at once. It’s easy to imagine Cunningham taking a photo of Robert de Saint-Loup in his white suit and then enthusing over it during one of his weekly “On The Street” videos. He might even use the word “audacity” to describe Saint-Loup’s style. More likely, he would simply say, “Isn’t it mahvelous?”
One of my favorite Sunday pastimes was to watch Cunningham’s videos, which were both a window to Manhattan and a fashion lesson. In a recent video from this spring, when the weather was still iffy, he extolled fluffy, white fake fox collars:
…you talk about a glamour frame for this face: that’s it! It always has been, and as a matter of fact, in the 1920s, they had what they called “summer fox” — same fox people wore in the winter, but they put a name on it. And people carried it or wore it. It’s hilarious how fashion captures people’s moods…
With that little snippet, you can get a sense of what made Cunningham’s eye special, and Proustian. He had a sense of history, and a sense of humor. Like Proust, he understood how clothing was a reflection of the wearer’s mood, and the season. Other New York novelists have tried to capture specific fashion moments and trends, but too many of them focus solely on status, the way that clothing can express a character’s aspirations and anxieties. Take someone like Tom Wolfe, whose The Bonfire of the Vanities is full of 1980s fashion. Wolfe, in his trademark white suit, obviously cares about clothes and is very good on the subject, especially the perfectly coifed appearance of the “social X-rays” — a wonderfully memorable phrase. And yet Wolfe did not catch the humanity of his female socialites the way that Cunningham, who photographed them, often did.
Cunningham understood that clothing is about more than just personal identity. Fashion is a mirror of the culture, with links to the past and arrows pointing to the unknown future. On its most basic level, fashion is related to the weather, to variations in the color of the sky and the quality of the light. It’s almost too obvious to say, but what people wear has to do with how warm or cold it is outside, how wet or dry the streets are, and for how long people have been stuck in a season, how hungry they are for change. It has to do with collective desires, not always conscious, brought on by the physical environment, as well as emotional factors having to do with the news or the holidays or even something as frivolous as the sudden appearance of daffodils in public parks.
Cunningham had a sort of naturalist’s sense for fashion; he was interested in learning how people adapted clothing to fit their environments. Just as you can see in the evolution of the peppered moth, that textbook example of adaptation, how the color of the moth changed after the Industrial Revolution, Cunningham’s photos showed how women’s fashion changed to accommodate their changing daily lives. For instance, the fact that women began to commute meant that women needed more durable and practical outerwear. Cunningham was very interested in commuters. He paid a lot of attention to coats, utilitarian objects that can be quite beautiful and striking if worn with style. One of his famous early photos was of Greta Garbo, though he didn’t realize he was photographing Garbo. He just noticed a woman in a coat with a beautiful shoulder and he photographed that coat, that stunning shoulder.
More recently, in another one of his weekly videos, Cunningham observed that pale pink coats were making an appearance, noting that a pale pink coat is luxury item that is very difficult to clean. I love him for remarking on this, because he wasn’t saying it to be a killjoy. Instead his comment was to emphasize that women must really want to wear pink, they must need pink in some way, if they are willing to go to the trouble of wearing it. In another recent video about a trend in black and white clothing, he noticed the way that white clothing was giving way to silver, a subtle metamorphosis that seemed to point to an increasing focus on technology.
Cunningham was wonderful on color, in general. Through his photos I learned to see the way certain colors rippled through the city. Meryl Streep taught Anne Hathaway the same lesson in The Devil Wears Prada, with her lecture on “cerulean,” but her speech emphasized the power of the media and the marketplace. Cunningham understood the power of designers, manufacturers, and materials, but he wasn’t as interested in their influence. His great insight as a photographer was that fashion evolves on the streets, because that’s where the people are. It’s such a simple observation, but it became powerful, and then, profound, in the way that he executed it, day after day.
Even before Cunningham’s death, I found myself thinking of him while reading In Search of Lost Time. There’s a moment toward the end of Volume I in which Marcel describes pigeons as group of birds “whose beautiful, iridescent bodies have the shape of a heart and are like the lilacs of the bird kingdom.” I read that and thought, only Proust would see the beauty hidden in something as common — and potentially annoying — as a flock of pigeons. But then I thought: Bill Cunningham probably feels this way about pigeons, too. He could see the sublime in the most everyday aspects of city life. He often said he was looking for beauty, and he believed that it could be found anywhere. Like the great novelists, he taught us how to see other people, and the world.
Image Credit: Flickr/Bicycle Habitat.
Around this time last year, I attended my 15-year college reunion. According to my friend, who organized the reunion, the 15-year reunion is usually the least well attended. This makes sense when you think about life stages. At the 10-year reunion, my classmates were around age 32, and most of us — or, at least, the ones who came to reunion — had not yet had children and were still free to drop everything for a weekend party. But by age 37, many of us had procreated; so many, in fact, that our class sponsored a bouncy castle and pony rides on the quad to entice families. For the first time, my classmates brought their spouses along, partners who were perhaps alluded to at the five- and 10-year reunions but were now sitting on the grass beside them, cradling an infant or chasing after a toddler.
Even though I’d gotten married and had a child of my own, it was strange to see my classmates with their families. I kept noticing tired, balding, and out-of-shape men hanging around the girls I used to know — girls I ran with on the cross-country team, girls I watched Ally McBeal with in the TV lounge, girls I gossiped about boys with, in the library. I couldn’t figure out why everyone had married older men. I thought to myself that I was lucky to have married someone I met in college, someone my own age.
For the first meal of reunion, my husband and I sat with another pair who met in college, as well as two other couples that we see every year or so at someone’s wedding or party. I thought that everyone looked pretty much as they always had. Maybe the men had a little more silver in their hair and maybe the women had a little more dye, but in general, the class of 2000 was looking good — except for those extraneous spouses, at the other tables! Again, I was struck by how old they all looked with their drawn faces. I couldn’t help wondering why so many of my classmates had gravitated toward middle-aged partners. I started to theorize about it; maybe it had to do with technology? We were the last class to grow up without email or cell phones in high school. Maybe that was a significant divide, maybe it was easier to date a person in his or her 40s, rather than a younger person whose personality had been shaped by social media. Yes, I thought. That had to be it. We, the Jimmy Carter babies, had more in common with Gen Xers than Millenials. Of course we would be more attracted to them.
It wasn’t until midway through lunch on the second day, while nursing a bit of a hangover, that I realized that my vision was compromised. I was gazing at one of the unknown spouses, a woman whose lined forehead made me think I shouldn’t be so judgmental about Botox. I tried to guess her age. Her dress was slightly out of style, like she’d bought it years ago and only wore every now and then. Her sandals looked comfortable, a tad Mom-ish. I decided that if she wasn’t at least 40, then she had to be pushing 40. Some rational part of my brain — the part no longer pickled in beer — asked at what age did one begin to push against 40? The immediate answer was 38. I had just turned 37, which meant I was in my 38th year. Goosebumps rose on my arms as I realized that I was probably around the same age as this woman I was so harshly examining. Also, we were wearing basically the same outfit.
I did a very slow double take as a reassessed my classmates. They still looked young to me, in fact remarkably youthful, considering that they were all pushing 40. It hit me that I had no idea what any of them really looked like; that when I saw them, I was seeing the smiles and gestures of kids I’d first met almost two decades earlier, on a sunny September afternoon in 1996. I looked at my husband, whose not-yet-balding hair was nevertheless quite silvered. I’d always thought of it as majority pepper, but maybe it was majority salt? Then he turned and smiled at me and it was the same gap-toothed grin I’d known for years.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Do ever think that you really have no idea what I look like anymore?”
He laughed. “You always get like this when you have a hangover.”
My reunion mistake was a Proustian mistake, and it’s one of the things that spurred me to revisit In Search of Lost Time. There’s a scene in the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, which I have a vague memory of reading in college, when Marcel attends a party in Paris after being away from the city for a long time. At first, he can’t find his friends among all the old people in attendance. Then he realizes: the old people are his friends! It’s a beautiful and poignant moment, but I don’t think I fully appreciated it at age 21. I found myself thinking of that scene during reunion, after I realized my mistake. I thought: now I understand that scene. My next thought was that I’d like to read it again. In the back of my mind, I had always thought I would read all of In Search of Lost Time before I was 40. The reunion forced me to admit that the deadline was closer than I’d realized.
This morning, I read another scene about the way love and time warps our vision; it’s a very celebrated passage in Volume III, in which Marcel gets a brief, unvarnished glimpse of his grandmother. He’s been away from her for several weeks, visiting with his friend Robert de Saint-Loup, and when he returns home, she doesn’t hear him enter the room where she’s sitting. There’s a hair of a second when Marcel is not quite sure he has entered the right room and in that moment, he sees his grandmother as she really is, not the woman whose face and gestures are defined by the love he feels for her:
We never see the people who are dear to us save in the animated system, the perpetual motion of our incessant love for them, which, before allowing the images that their faces present to reach us, seizes them in its vortex and flings them back upon the idea that we have always had of them, makes them adhere to it, coincide with it.
What Marcel sees, instead, is a woman who lives in the “world of Time, that which is inhabited by the strangers of whom we say, ‘He’s begun to age a good deal.’” For that split second, instead of seeing his beloved, morally perfect grandmother, Marcel sees an old woman, “red-faced, heavy and vulgar, sick, day-dreaming, letting her crazed eyes wander over a book, an overburdened old woman whom I did not know.”
It’s the cruelty of the physical description that makes the last line hit so hard. And Marcel is no less cruel, a few pages later, when he meets his friend Robert’s mistress for the first time. Robert has built his mistress up to be a lovely young woman who is sensitive and intelligent in addition to being physically charming. But upon meeting her, Marcel recognizes her as the prostitute he met in a brothel, years before. He can’t believe that this is the woman that Robert goes to such great lengths to please, and marvels at “how much a human imagination can put behind a little scrap of a face, such as this woman’s was, if it is the imagination that has come to know it first.”
Shortly after Robert introduces Marcel to Rachel, two young women walk by and call out to Rachel, asking her to join them. They are noticeably of a lower class, “two poor little tarts with collars of sham otter-skin.” Rachel rebuffs them, but Marcel can see that Robert is shaken by the encounter:
Robert detached himself for a moment from the woman whom out of successive layers of tenderness he had gradually created, and suddenly saw at some distance from himself another Rachel, the double of his but entirely different, who was nothing more nor less than a little whore.
Again, the severity of that last line makes the revelation hit hard; it is akin to my judgment of the extraneous spouses, people who exist in the world of Time, unlike my classmates who I see through the scrim of fond memories. As much as I like the idea that the people we love are created out of “successive layers of tenderness,” like some strange and subconscious artwork, I also find it unsettling. I want to see the world clearly, without layers of fantasy and nostalgia. And I think I want to see the people I love clearly, too — or at the very least, through one of the less intrusive Instagram filters.
Then again, I’m well aware that that layers of tenderness and nostalgia may be what make long-term relationships last. They help us to see the best qualities in our friends, spouses, and colleagues, and to ignore or laugh at weaknesses. They help us to be less cruel in our judgments, and kinder in general. But in writing and in art, layers of tenderness are not as useful or desirable. I think what’s most disconcerting about Marcel Proust’s repeated examples of our inescapable subjectivity is his insistence that we do not know our own habits of mind; and yet our perception and experience of the world is profoundly shaped by them.
For the past six months, I’ve been making radical changes to my diet. I won’t bore you with the nitty-gritty, but it started with a “detox” that I was required to participate in before I could consult with a nutritionist whose waiting list I’d been on for several months. I’d been told that this nutritionist could help me with an autoimmune disease I’ve been struggling with for several years. I’d tried diets before, but this was different because it was very rigorous and because I had to report back to someone about the results. Also, I was paying for it — though not for any food items. Instead I paid $99 to spend hours concocting dairy-free asparagus and leek soups, kale smoothies, and vegetable stews. Every smoothie I made seemed to come out the same weird green. One dish of lentils, eggplant, and onions was such an unappetizing brown puddle of mush that my husband just laughed when I served it. Luckily, it was tasty. Then again, anything is tasty when you haven’t had dairy, gluten, refined sugar, corn, potatoes, processed foods, or alcohol for several weeks.
The miracle of this detox, and the diet that I’ve adapted from it, is that it really did work! Symptoms that plagued me for years have vanished. Most significantly, I’m free of a nagging and sharp hip pain that used to flare up unpredictably, making it difficult to exercise or even walk a few blocks. Some of you may be thinking, I could never give up pizza/pasta/baked goods, but you’d be surprised at the will power you can muster when carbohydrates are pitted against chronic pain. I can’t tell you how dispiriting it was to wake up and realize, as soon as I put my feet on the floor, that it was going to be a limping day. I would start to panic, wondering how bad it would be by the end of the day, and how many days it would last, and how many activities I would have to reschedule or cancel. The only thing I could do for comfort was to pop a Tylenol and tell myself that it really didn’t hurt that much, and that someday it would go away. And then I would wince as I lifted my son out of his crib and he would say, “Oh, Mommy! Your hip hurting?”
What does any of this have to do with Marcel Proust, you’re wondering? Well, I could probably relate anything in my daily life to something I’ve read in these first two volumes of In Search of Lost Time, because it’s such a vast landscape, but today, I want to write about Habit — and I’m going to capitalize it, and personify it, as Proust does. We all know that our diets are influenced by Habit, and we all know that dietary habits are hard to change — in fact, as a culture we are obsessed with dietary habits, and the difficulty of changing them — and yet we do not truly acknowledge the force of Habit. Or at least, I didn’t. I guess I should speak for myself here, with some help from Proust.
The first time Proust mentions Habit is right in the opening pages, when it is described as “that skillful and unhurrying manager.” I read those pages in January, when I was putting my diet back on track after the holidays. I underlined the phrase, nodding in recognition. I felt I knew Habit quite well; I saw her as a quietly efficient administrative assistant, the kind that keeps the boss on schedule by strategic use of Outlook reminders and borderline passive-aggressive sticky notes. I found her annoying but trustworthy.
Now that I am a little further along in what I ironically/unironically refer to as my “health journey,” I don’t have the same impression of Habit. Now I think Habit is more like a stagehand, a woman dressed all in black who tiptoes onto the set between scenes. At first you notice her presence and watch with curiosity, but then you lose interest and begin to look at the program notes or whisper to the person next to you. Before you know it, a new scene is in place, the actors are carrying on with the story, and even if you concentrate, it’s hard to remember how the stage used to look. In this way, Habit is linked to memory. Habit helps us to remember certain periods of our life, e.g., the time when I lived near a pool and swam every morning. But it also blurs perception; once a behavior becomes habitual, we stop paying attention to it. Looking back on those swimming pool years, we remember the pool visits in a generalized way, not each visit in particular. Proust argues that are senses are always dulled: “As a rule it is with our being reduced to a minimum that we live; most of our faculties lie dormant because they can rely upon Habit, which knows what there is to be done and has no need of their services.” Habit, Proust writes, is “analgesic.” It takes away the pain of homesickness, of love lost, and of change in general, by making us forget the visceral reality of previous experience.
It’s been six months since I’ve had a slice of baguette with soft cheese. This used to be one of my favorite things to eat, but the other night I was at a party and there was a beautifully arranged cheese plate next to a basket of bread rounds. I stared at the plate, trying to summon up an appetite. I knew, intellectually, that bread and cheese was something I had once craved, but I couldn’t really remember why. I felt like I should be happy that I wasn’t tempted — wasn’t this the state of zen I’d been promised, if I stuck to the diet? — but instead I felt sad for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate. Luckily, Proust is the bard of vague melancholy, and the next morning I read a passage in Volume II that spoke so directly to my experience that I felt like crying. It was about Habit, of course.
Before I get to that passage, I want to write about some other things. It’s going to be a bit of a ramble, but let me start with an email I received from a friend whose doctor had put her on a diet similar to mine. We traded recipes and then she wrote something that stuck with me: “I’m surprised by how emotional it is.” I knew just what she meant. When I started my diet, I thought the difficulty would be in dealing with the cravings, but since I had such immediate pain relief, fighting temptation has been relatively easy. Socially, it’s been a bit more complicated, especially when I have to turn down delicious homemade food, or when I get to a restaurant and there are only two things I can order. I’ve learned to “pre-eat” before I go out, and to laugh at how vain I sound when I have to ask if there’s anything on the menu that doesn’t have grain, dairy, or refined sugar. Lately, I’m even learning how to end a day without a glass of wine, and how to begin one without a cup of coffee. So, on the surface, it’s all going very well, but as I succumb to Habit, I can’t help feeling as if a way of life, and a way of being in the world has been lost. And that’s the emotional piece.
The last time I remember feeling this sensitive about changing my habits is when I was 20 and I decided give up competitive running. After a summer of intense training, I attended my first week of practice and realized that I didn’t care if I ever ran another race in my life. The feeling took me by surprise. My coach was angry. My parents were mystified, because racing had always made me so happy. I broke the news to them when they called on a Sunday afternoon and I remember I started crying on the phone because they’d asked if I’d just come back from my long Sunday run. I hadn’t, of course. Long Sunday runs were suddenly a thing of the past. And even though I wanted to be free of long Sunday runs so that I would have time to read and write and maybe even take in a matinee, it hit me that in giving up running, I would relinquish dozens of hard-earned habits: the habit of going to bed early, the habit of morning stretching, the habit of afternoon practice, the habit of team dinners, the habit of racing (and all the micro-habits that attend an athlete on race day), the habit of Saturday night’s party, and of course, the habit of Sunday’s long run. I was tired of feeling beholden to these habits, but I also knew that they were the structure of my life. I was burning down the house — why? So I could stay up late and read? So I could write? (Could I write?) What if it wasn’t worth the sacrifice?
In a recent interview, the film director Richard Linklater said that you don’t really grow up until you give up playing sports. He gave up baseball his sophomore year of college and that’s when he started getting into theater and figuring out what he wanted to do with his life. Pretty much the same thing happened to me. I started reading more — I read Proust! — and I took my first creative writing classes. I still ran, but just for fun, without keeping track of mileage or pacing. It was like I couldn’t get serious about my real ambitions until I took running less seriously.
Changing my diet at 37 isn’t exactly the same coming-of-age moment. But it has caused me to take a step back and look at the structure of my days, to find out what habits have crept in over the years. I would evoke the word “mindfulness” if the word had any meaning left it in. Instead I’ll quote Proust, who notes “the selfish, active, practical, mechanical, indolent, centrifugal tendency which is that of the human mind.” Our attention is so easily scattered, and so invested in pleasure-seeking, that we cling to fantasy, especially fantasies of the future: “the mind prefers to imagine it [a particular pleasure] in the future tense, to continue to bring about the circumstances which may make it recur — which, while giving us no clue as the real nature of the thing, saves us the trouble of recreating it without ourselves and allows us hope that we may receive it afresh from without.”
Around this time last year, my husband was interviewing for a job in San Francisco. He got so far in the interview process that we began to seriously contemplate a cross-country move. I was surprised to find that I was excited about the idea — surprised because normally, like Marcel (and Proust himself) I hate moving. But I had a fantasy about my new California lifestyle, which would involve lots of hiking outdoors, fresh vegetables, green juice, surfing, and of course, sunshine. Without even really trying, I’d upend all my terrible NYC habits (caffeine, booze, Internet browsing, stress) and would finally be free of chronic pain! My skin would clear up! My mood would improve! My energy levels would be through the roof! When the California job didn’t come through, I was disappointed for myself as much as for my husband. I realized that I was craving change and, at the same time, I was resisting it. I didn’t want to get bogged down in the banalities of diet. Of stress reduction. I didn’t want to be that person who sets timers and plans meals and ends the day with mint tea — or rather, I didn’t want to be the person who decided to do those things. I just wanted California to force its legendary healthy culture upon me so that I wouldn’t have to think about why I was doing it or what it meant.
There’s a beautiful scene in Volume II in which Marcel observes the sunrise from his train berth. He’s en route to Balbec, a seaside town. Marcel’s parents hope that the fresh ocean air will relieve his asthma; Marcel, meanwhile, is hoping to be cured of his unrequited love for M. Swann’s daughter, Gilberte. The train ride is an exhilarating pleasure with its sunrise views and windows onto village life. He enjoys the novelty of travel, the way it makes him more attentive to beauty. (At his doctor’s advice, he also enjoys a few beers from the bar car, to calm his nerves.) It’s not until Marcel settles into his hotel room that he begins feel homesick. He tells himself that the homesickness will pass as his room becomes familiar and new habits take root. He reasons that in time, he will no longer pine for Gilberte. But he cannot convince himself; in fact, his rational explanations only make him feel worse and vaguely melancholy.
Why is it sad to change habits even when change is desired and hoped for? This is the question Marcel asks and answers in his hotel room — and this is the passage I read the morning after the party with the cheese plate. How ridiculous I feel, typing that! It feels silly to mourn party food. But for Marcel, every change of habit, even a superficial one, represents a death of self:
“it would be in a real sense the death of the self, a death followed, it is true, by resurrection, but in a different self, to the love of which the elements of the old self that are condemned to die cannot bring themselves to aspire. It is they — even the meanest of them, such as our obscure attachment to the dimensions, to the atmosphere of a bedroom — that take fright and refuse, in acts of rebellion which we must recognize to be a secret, partial, tangible and true aspect of our resistance to death, of the long, desperate, daily resistance to the fragmentary and continuous death that insinuates itself throughout the whole course of our life.”
Even the meanest of them. I love that. I stumbled on that clause at first, and even reread the sentence without it, wondering if it was necessary. But then I realized that it was the line that most applied to my situation — because Marcel is talking there, of the attachments we consider unimportant: the party foods of life, the mediocre TV shows, the old sofas, the ill-fitting jeans, the subway tokens, the store we never visited but the shuttering of which fills us with a strange sense of loss. We cling to behaviors, objects, rooms, foods, places, and even people that we don’t care for simply because they have become integrated into our lives, and to bring an end to them would mean bringing an end to a certain period of time. In the bones of our bones, we don’t want to be reminded of time’s passage. We can’t bear to think too deeply about the fact that we’re in a story with an ending.
In our culture, there is a lot of judgment attached to habits. There are good ones and bad ones and people with good habits are thought to be more virtuous. But in Proust, Habit does not vet habits; it simply implements them. And what I love about the above passage about the death and resurrection of self is that there is no talk of self-improvement. It’s not that one version of yourself dies and another, better one takes its place — that would be the American interpretation. I’m so tired of that flattening narrative! Thinking in those terms is a habit in and of itself.
And yet I often give voice to the culture of betterment, smiling when asked about my new diet and emphasizing my improved health. I don’t say that I suddenly feel my age, which is another way of saying that I’ve been aware, for the past few months, of death. Lately, it seems like every cultural figure who passes away is someone who already means something to me, whereas it used to be that a famous death was an education. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Garry Shandling, and Harper Lee were not idols of mine, and obviously not personal friends, but they had a place in my imagination. Mourning them means letting go of a certain vision of the world — certain habits of mind.
The irony is that writing about death, and facing my very natural fear of it, does not bring me down. If anything, it cheers me. Another thing I love about the passage I’ve quoted is that it’s immediately followed by a lively, comic scene in which Marcel awakens in a good mood and heads downstairs to breakfast. His grandmother causes a ruckus when she opens a window to let in the fresh air. The wind sweeps into the room, annoying everyone as it sends menus and newspapers flying about. But Marcel’s grandmother is oblivious. She loves the smell of the sea air, the sun on her skin. She doesn’t notice that her grandson is embarrassed. She has opened the window for him, because he needs the fresh air. She wants, more than anything, for him to outlive her.
A few weeks ago, to prepare myself for my solo book club, I read a biography of Marcel Proust — though not the Jean-Yves Tadié doorstopper that I mentioned in my first entry. Instead I read Benjamin Taylor’s Proust: The Search, a tightly focused biography concerned mainly with one question: how did Marcel Proust, of all writers, manage to author what many consider to be the greatest novel of all time? According to Taylor, it was not by any means preordained. No one in his circle, especially those who knew him in his youth, would have predicted it. His first published efforts were mediocre and forgettable. He lacked discipline, socialized too much, and couldn’t be bothered to show up for his part-time librarian job. He was also very sickly, an asthmatic who was easily exhausted by travel and parties — both of which he could not resist. Yet somehow, Taylor argues, “all this light-minded flitting around would turn out to be essential preparation.”
It took Proust about 13 years to write In Search of Lost Time, an extraordinary pace when you consider that he wrote seven volumes, none of them less than 400 pages and some close to 900. And it’s extraordinary considering the quality of his prose, and how interconnected the books are, with certain themes repeating and developing over the course of the novel, and a cast of characters changing over time, aging and evolving (or not evolving), just as real people do. Proust had the end of the novel in mind when he began, and a vague sense that he had found the structure — or, maybe, the moral sensibility — that could finally contain all the different modes of writing he wished to employ: description, analysis, dialogue, gossip, satire, and of course, his essays and insights about memory and consciousness. He was 38 years old and in poor health when he started writing. He knew he did not have any time left to waste. He believed — as it turned out, accurately — that he was writing on deadline. He died in 1922, shortly after completing his novel.
Reading Taylor’s biography, I kept thinking about the fact that I’m turning 38 this spring. This felt, at first, like a very egotistical thing to dwell upon, a secret hope that I might be on the cusp of writing a novel as grand as Proust’s. But, delusions aside, I think what really interests me about this parallel is that as a reader, I am the same distance from my childhood as Proust was from his when he began his book. Given Proust’s theme of memory lost and found, that similarity in perception has made the early pages of the novel feel very close to my current experience of memory and time.
Even those who have only a passing knowledge of Swann’s Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, will probably know that it begins with a long recollection of the narrator’s childhood trips to the country. This recollection is famously spurred by a happenstance bite of a madeleine cookie dipped in tea. The narrator, Marcel, describes the memories as “involuntary”, and all the more beautiful because he did not even realize he had them; they were bidden by sensory experience, not intellectual recall.
When I first read Proust in college, I certainly knew what it was like to suddenly and surprisingly remember something after encountering a particular smell or taste. But at 21, my memories of childhood were so close that nothing really seemed forgotten. If the smell of someone’s shampoo unexpectedly brought back the pretty smile of a long-lost babysitter, I didn’t believe, as Proust did, that it was a stroke of luck to have remembered that girl, and that I might have forgotten her, entirely, if not for that whiff of Herbal Essences. Now, at 37, I understand how distant memories can become. Lately, I feel like I’m looking at my childhood from a slightly higher vantage point, so that I can finally see the topography. Certain events and people seem to have risen in importance while others have blended together. I was talking to a friend my age about this and she knew what I was talking about, reporting that just recently she seems to have forgotten parts of her teens and 20s. Does this happen to everyone, we wondered — was it some kind of subtle marker of impending middle age? Did it happen to Proust? Was forgetting what allowed him to write his marvelous book of remembrance?
As I write this, I am about three weeks into reading Swann’s Way. I’ve finished the first two sections of the volume, “Combray I” and “Combray II,” which detail the summer hours Marcel spent in the village of Combray as a child, staying at his aunt’s house. I’ve read these pages twice before, so they were familiar, and as always, I reveled in Proust’s overwhelmingly sensual descriptions of the French countryside. It made me wonder if I’ve gravitated toward these books in January because of how evocative they are of warm weather, long walks outdoors, flowers, and sunshine. The funny thing is that Marcel often avoids the outdoors and would prefer to stay inside with a book. As a result, he is just as lavish, if not more so, in his descriptions of domestic space:
The air of those rooms was saturated with the fine bouquet of a silence so nourishing, so succulent that I could not enter them without a sort of greedy enjoyment, particularly on those first mornings, chilly still, of the Easter holidays, when I could taste it more fully, because I had just arrived then at Combray: before I went in to wish my aunt good day I would be kept waiting a little time in the outer room, where the sun, a wintry sun still, had crept in to warm itself before the fire, lighted already between its two brick sides and plastering the room and everything in it with the smell of soot, making the room like one of those great open hearths that one finds in the country, or one of the canopied mantelpieces in old castles under which one sits hoping that outside it is raining or snowing, hoping even for a catastrophic deluge to add the romance of shelter and security to the comfort of a snug retreat…
This sentence goes on to describe the variety of smells in the room, and how they are intensified by the warmth and heat of the fire, baking together “like a pie.” It’s wonderfully childlike, and it brought me back to my grandparents’ houses in West Chester, Penn. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents lived in West Chester (my parents met in high school) but they retired and moved away when I was still in elementary school. Their houses, along with the houses of certain school friends, seemed preserved in a particular part of my memory, at once more specific and dreamlike than the houses and apartments I’ve come to know as an adult. It’s these dream houses — or at least, aspects of them — that I helplessly imagine when a novel prompts me to imagine a house, or when I’m creating a house for a character in a story.
My life is a lot more domestic than it was 10 years ago, when I last read these pages, and that’s probably the main reason I’ve been paying closer attention to descriptions of interior space. I’ve also been watching my son grow up, and it’s dawning on me that his earliest memories will be of the apartment and the neighborhood where we now live. I love our apartment and our neighborhood; they have been the location of many important life events, including my wedding reception. And yet, my experience of my apartment will never be foundational, and as I look around its rooms and out its windows, I’m not at all sure what my son will remember of it.
When I was his age, I lived in a small town in Maine in a gray house that was next door to a fire hall and across the street from the town common. If you were to ask my father about this house, he would probably tell you about the downtrodden state it was in when he and my mother bought it, and the work they did to renovate. He would recall certain quirky details: the phone booth, the clawfoot bathtub, the little library. He would also remember the inconveniences: the fire hall’s alarm that went off every day at noon; the driveway that needed to be shoveled out every time it snowed; the loads of wood that had to be chopped for the furnace.
But I don’t remember any of that. I might even be wrong about some of those details, because I’m simply transcribing what I’ve heard in conversation, as an adult. What I remember from childhood are the narrow back stairs that led from my playroom to the kitchen like a secret passageway; the view of the town common from my bedroom window, how it looked empty and dark at night, like a lake; the cracked, uneven sidewalk that led from our house to the end the block where a maple flamed fuchsia and red every fall; the painted wooden steps where I liked to arrange my tea set, and where bits of gray paint flecked off in my hands; my mother standing on the front porch to call me indoors at 11:57, so I wouldn’t be startled by the alarm; my father shoveling out a hole in snow drift, “a snow house” to contain me while he shoveled the drive…
My childhood memories are dear to me, and indelible. I can only guess what my son’s will be. I can hope for certain things that I consider beautiful to have made an impression: the yellow walls in his room; the wall quilts that my mother made; our framed, antique map of Maine; our tall bookshelves, and our neighborhood walks to Valentino Pier, the bakery, and the cruise ship terminal, where the Queen Mary 2 docks and disembarks every few weeks. I hope — and yet, for all I know, my son’s memories are devoted to the recycling bins, the television remotes, the broken slatted shades, the gum-spotted sidewalks, the dinners in the IKEA cafeteria. I have very little control over what he remembers, and if Proust is to be believed, neither does he — neither do any of us.
Ten years ago, I purchased Jean-Yves Tadié’s definitive 720-page biography of Marcel Proust. I never ended up reading it; Tadié’s book stands on my shelf alongside my six volume set of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which I also never finished reading — although, to be fair, I have read a lot of it, thanks to a college professor who assigned about 75 percent of the book. We didn’t read the entire novel only because our professor wanted to leave time at the end of the semester to read another groundbreaking modernist, Samuel Beckett. I don’t think I’ve ever forgiven Beckett for not being Proust. After spending three months reading Proust’s conversational, musical, allusive, simile-rich prose, Beckett’s spare style struck me as miserly.
While in college, I promised myself that one day I would read the entirety of In Search of Lost Time after graduation. I made this vow, as all 21-year-olds must, knowing very little of the realities of full-time employment, commuting, and Sunday brunch plans. I also made this resolution at a time when my daily Internet activity consisted of checking my email and maybe, if I was really hungry, the dining hall menu. I had no idea that reading would one day become an activity that I would have to plan.
In my late 20s, I finally made good on my promise and read Proust daily for about four months. It was at this time that I purchased the Tadié biography. I bought it out of enthusiasm; when I started rereading In Search of Lost Time, I was enjoying it so much that I wanted to make sure I had more Proust on reserve after I finished. But my enthusiasm must have waned, because I stopped reading somewhere in volume four. I don’t remember when I gave up, or why; I don’t even remember feeling bored with the project. Looking back through my journal entries from that year, it seems that a new iPod shuffle was the culprit. Maybe the weather also played a part. I began my grand rereading project in January, when it was cozy to stay indoors and read during my lunch hour. But then spring and my iPod arrived and I started to use my lunch break to go for walks set to a soundtrack of my own design. I have to wonder what albums could have been better than Proust. And at the same time, I think that Proust, who briefly subscribed to “Théâtrophone,” a service that allowed him to listen to live opera performances via telephone, would have understood the temptation.
And so, here I am, 10 years (!) later, trying again to finish one of the best novels I’ve ever read, possibly the best novel I’ve ever read. (I’ll know for sure when I finish.) The world (i.e. the Internet) has only gotten more distracting and, having become the mother of a three-year-old, my daily responsibilities have increased and become less negotiable. At the same time, one thing I’ve learned over the past decade is that you can accomplish a lot by doing a little of something every day. You can raise a child, write a book, make a life with another person. Almost everyone I know who has completed In Search of Lost Time (and to be clear, most of these “known” people are those who have written about the experience, not anyone I’ve met personally) did it slowly, reading just 10 to 20 pages a day, usually in the morning. At a pace of 10 pages a day, it will take me about a year and two months to finish, a period of time that doesn’t seem as long as it did 10 years ago. If it’s not already obvious, I’ve decided to write about this reading project here on The Millions. It will be a book club of one — though if anyone would like to join me, I’d love the company. I’ll be posting monthly, (perhaps twice monthly, if the mood strikes) and I have no idea what I will write about, only that Proust’s beautiful novel will be my point of departure.
Every new year, my husband and I quit drinking for the month. Sober January is a healthy and smug time, filled with sparkling water and peppermint tea and discussions about what kind of red wine would have gone well with the lamb shanks. This year, we’ve also given up sugar for the month. We joke that we should also take away bread, dairy, meat, salt. Anything with flavor, anything that makes us happy. Next year we will consume only paper towels soaked in water for 31 days.
A more pleasurable new year’s resolution is one that adds to your life rather than subtracts from it. One year, for instance, I vowed to wear more dresses. I did, and it was a fabulous (and feminine) year. Reading resolutions, if they aren’t too onerous, also fall under this category. For example, vowing to read a poem a week isn’t a huge challenge and, wow, how it can render a Saturday morning more ponderous and magical! A couple of years back I devoted a summer to E.M. Forster, and, aside from the splendor of reading Howards End and Maurice, I loved saying, in my best mid-Atlantic, Gore Vidal-inspired accent, “I find myself on a Forster kick lately.”
This year, I resolve to read James Baldwin’s nonfiction, in particular The Fire Next Time. The desire to read Baldwin emerged from discussions, both in-person and online, about Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I own but haven’t yet read. Beyond the obvious similarities between the two books (the letter writing device and race in America as subject matter), I’m interested in other ways these two texts interact, and where and how they diverge.
I also resolve to read David Copperfield. I’d already planned to read it this year after spending 2015 with one contemporary novel or another, and then I read Meaghan O’Connell’s Year in Reading, wherein she not only recommended many of the same books I had read and loved in 2015, but also mentioned that she was waiting for the Charles Dickens to arrive in the mail. This seemed fated. We have agreed to tackle the book together, in a kind of two-lady book club, this February.
In figuring out my own reading resolutions, I realized how much fun it is to hear about what others plan to read this year. In this spirit, I asked some people I admire to share their 2016 bookish resolutions.
David Ulin, former critic for the Los Angeles Times and the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, always writes about books with such perspicacity and grace. He told me he generally doesn’t believe in resolutions since he almost never follows through with them. He went on:
But when it comes to reading in 2016, my main goal is to relax. To step back from the treadmill, and to read in a more integrated way. In part, this will mean as a critic, since I plan to continue writing about books; in part, as a writer, reading books that connect to, or address, various projects; and (perhaps most importantly) in part, as a reader, reading for no agenda other than my own. I’ve long believed that reading as a writer (and certainly as a critic) condemns one never to read for pure pleasure again. What I mean is that we are reading, inevitably, from within our own processes, with an eye toward how the sausage is made. I don’t imagine that will change for me, but I want to read recklessly this year, to put books down in the middle, to start and stop and start again. I want to read old books, new books, books by friends and books by strangers, books from all across the globe. Next to my bed, where I am writing at this moment, there are two piles of books, each about a foot and a half high. I’d like to read down those stacks, which include memoir, poetry, short story collections, detective fiction, books I wasn’t able to get to until now. Will I be able to read all of them, or even most of them, this year? Unlikely. And yet, they perch there like a promise or a dare.
My friend Tess Taylor, who is the poetry critic for NPR’s All Things Considered, and who will publish her second collection Work & Days this April, also plans to follow her bookish desires, wherever they may take her:
My biggest goals in 2016 are to read deeply, to read works as a whole, and to read off the grid. I think in the whole buzzy Facebook news-cycle thing, we get caught in a book-of-the-moment phenomenon. That is totally fine for the engine of selling books but maybe not as great for the part of us that makes us hungry to write them. Wearing my book reviewer hat, I am often reading for deadline or for money. I’m glad I get the to write things, truly, but this can be far from the wayward, unplugged feeling that made me a bookworm as a kid. So this year I want to get lost more. It can be very sustaining to engage one artist deeply, for pleasure, to get the measure of the craft and the life. Right now I’m reading all of Ted Hughes. I admit that this started out of a journalistic assignment, but the poems and the letters and the mind caught my attention and suddenly I’ve been ploughing through them almost obsessively. It’s a big private enterprise, and I mostly do it late at night or first thing in the morning. For now it’s not for sale. It feels really dreamy, like it feeds the writer in me. I want to do more of that.
The Debut Novelist
Would this desire to “get lost more,” as Tess puts it, extend to someone just stepping into the publication game? The year I published my first novel, I bought and read so many other recently released first novels because I was curious about what my colleagues were writing, and because I wanted to feel like I was in solidarity with my fellow debut novelists. (Class of 2014 in the house!) I asked fellow staff writer Hannah Gersen if the impending publication of her first novel, Home Field (out in July, y’all!), was affecting her reading resolutions. Yes, she said, but in a different way. She told me she’s planning to read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:
Or maybe it’s better to say I’m planning to finally read the whole thing from start to finish without skipping sections. I’m not sure how much this impulse is related to being a debut novelist, but Proust is definitely comfort reading for me because I’ve read and reread certain passages at different points in my life. The idea of reading the entire novel, knitting together all those favorite scenes, a little each day, feels very grounding. Maybe I also need a break from thinking about contemporary literature, to have a kind of cork-lined reading experience.
The Book Editor
I envy Hannah’s plan and the break she will get from the now-now-now! of our contemporary book-making machine (even as she gets to be a part of it.) It also made me wonder about those working within the industry. Do you make reading resolutions if you read and edit manuscripts for a living? Turns out, you do — or at least Laura Tisdel, executive editor at Viking, does. Every year, she told me, she attempts such a resolution.
Three years ago I read nonfiction titles to bone up on an area of reading, and general knowledge, I was woefully uneducated about (I tackled mostly history stuff, including Operation Jedburgh by Colin Beavan and The American Revolution by Gordon Wood). Two years ago, I focused on classics I hadn’t read as a student (Middlemarch and Giovanni’s Room? Check and check!). Last year, I had a baby (*crickets*). As a relatively new mother, one with just enough sleep to begin regaining some self-awareness, I’ve found myself missing the conversations I used to have with my friends catching up over a beer or even just disappearing down the rabbit hole of a text message thread. So this year, I’m going to read books that my friends recommend to me. I know darn well I don’t have the time in my schedule or the capacity to be a book club participant, but I’m going to make a sort of book club of one: I’m going to ask the people I care about and respect to recommend a book they loved, and then I’m going to read that book and write to them about it. I’m starting the year with Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object by Laurie Colwin, which a dear friend recommended to me just before the holidays when we grabbed a long overdue coffee date together. I’m thinking of this project as a way to commune with my friends, and to discover stories and writers that might never have surfaced in my nightstand pile otherwise.
(I now have strong motivation to start texting recommendations to her!)
I get the sense that Tisdel, like the others I asked, wants to step back from the machine. Not with a beloved classic, like Gersen, and not by reading “recklessly” as Ulin suggests, or associatively, like Taylor. But by reading a particular book for, and with, and because of, a particular person. It’s reading, and talking about reading, as intimacy.
Mary Williams, the general manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, is another integral member of the book-making machine, and her resolution echoes those of the others:
Free books are one of the perks of being a bookseller. But they are also a curse; there are just so many of them. I have never been able to keep up with all the books coming out each season that I want to read. Cue desperate feelings of inadequacy. Also, the world is full of great books that came out before I became a bookseller and my professional obligation to stay current began. So my resolution is to forgive myself for the new books I can’t get to (wish me luck), and to make some time for the aging heroes lodged in the middles of stacks of unread books in my apartment. Already Dead by Denis Johnson. Stoner by John Williams. More short stories: especially Lorrie Moore and George Saunders and Lydia Davis. Basically, more reading without deadlines.
While Mary is tossing off the shackles of professional obligation to read Stoner in the break room (Oh, how I envy her! I’d love to read that for the first time all over again!), Dana Spiotta’s next book, Innocent and Others, will be released. It comes out in March, which is motivation for me to finish that stupid Dickens as fast as I can — and for Mary to put those shackles back on. While every smart person is reading her novel, what books will Spiotta herself turn to? She told me, “When I was in my teens, I loved to read any kind of novel about growing up. he Bildungsroman(s), the sentimental educations, the coming-of-age/loss-of-innocence stories. It was the job at hand, and I needed help.” She continued:
This year, since I am reaching the milestone of what is optimistically referred to as “middle age,” I want to return to those books that I read so long ago. From The Red and the Black and Jane Eyre to Manchild in the Promised Land and The Basketball Diaries. And many more books that I remember loving. Will I still love them? They are the same of course, but maybe it will be a measure of how much I have changed. What I now think is engaging and moving and beautiful. What I think is funny. What I think is true (with all my experience as a person and a reader). Or maybe not, maybe my connection to these books of my youth will be exactly the same. I wonder if my young self will be in those pages, waiting for me.
Spiotta, too, is stepping away from the publishing hoopla. She will re-read; she will look backward as a way, perhaps, to look forward.
I’m sure that all of us will succumb to diving into the latest hot new book, because it’s fun to join those conversations, and because who doesn’t want to experience what promises to amaze and rearrange us? But I hope we also fulfill our personal reading goals, too, even if it’s to not have a goal: to read for pleasure, for comfort, for connection, for knowledge about the world and ourselves.
What’s your reading resolution for 2016?
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I burst into 2014 all guns blazing, with a new year’s resolution to read all of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time by the end of the year. In part, I was provoked into action by a friend of mine casually informing me, in response to my laments about parenthood sucking up all my reading time, that he’d squared away all seven volumes of Proust in the six months following the birth of his son. I was further emboldened by another friend setting up a Proust reading group, which was going to involve Skype-based participation from her nonagenarian grandfather, a retired Oxford professor of French. For reasons too numerous and banal to recount here, the whole thing never panned out, and I went ahead under my own steam — which limited vapor I predictably and depressingly ran out of somewhere between the end of the first volume and the first third of the second. My reasons are these: I have a child, and a thing called the Internet persists in existing.
What did I actually succeed in reading? Well, let me tell you, I read seven shades of shit out of Peck Peck Peck by Lucy Cousins, a delightfully illustrated picaresque romp about a baby woodpecker who goes around pecking a lot of household items under the tutelage of his father, also a woodpecker, before finally settling down to sleep. I read Yasmeen Ismael’s Time for Bed, Fred! — or “Fred,” as my son calls it in his fondly shrill requests to have it read to him — which is about a dog who wears everyone’s patience extremely thin before finally settling down to sleep. I read Buster’s Farm by Rod Campbell, a pop-up book about a small boy called Buster who goes around pointing at, and sometimes petting, an array of farm animals, before finally finding a haystack in which he settles down to sleep. I also read a lot of other books in which children and animals get up to all sorts of adventures before finally settling down to sleep, none of which were even slightly effective as propaganda, but which I nonetheless think of with real fondness, and which no honest account of my year in reading could leave unmentioned.
I also read quite a lot of books which were more appropriate to my own reading age. I wanted to read Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, but I felt I lacked the fortitude to commit to an 850 page novel at just that juncture, so I instead read The Rehearsal, her debut novel about a sex scandal in a girls’ secondary school; but unfortunately that was so brilliant that it left me wearily resigned to having to read The Luminaries as well. (I haven’t, so far, but I will, I will.) I read Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel’s novel about a world in the aftermath of a devastating epidemic and societal collapse, which somehow managed to be haunting and distressing and urgently entertaining all at once. I re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I only vaguely remembered having read the first time, and was deeply affected by its poetic portrait of perversity and loneliness and its dark ambivalence about the technological ingenuity of Homo Sapiens. And I loved the stories in Donald Antrim’s The Emerald Light in the Air, all of which were appalling funny and lovely in their evocations of loneliness and sadness and middle-aged frustration.
Most of my reading this year — and this is a personal trend that’s been developing for a while now — was non-fiction. One of my favorite new books of 2014 was Leslie Jamison’s collection The Empathy Exams, which I praised intemperately and lengthily in The Slate Book Review earlier in the year. It’s a terrific book about the complexities and confusions of various types of pain; it’s audacious and elegant, ruthless and compassionate, and an exhilarating experience for anyone interested in the creative possibilities of non-fiction. As 2014 wore on, I was starting to worry that people might think I was getting paid off by that book’s publisher, Graywolf, because it seemed like they were putting out a weirdly high proportion of the non-fiction books I most admired (and raved about). I loved On Immunity, Eula Biss’s formally resourceful and intellectually invigorating exploration of the mythologies and anxieties surrounding the practice of vaccination, and had an enjoyably enlightening time of it with Geek Sublime, Vikram Chandra’s book about the history and culture of computer programming.
I also relished every sentence of Objects in This Mirror, Brian Dillon’s new collection of critical and personal essays. The range of topics here is a testament to his versatile curiosity as an observer of culture. Whatever he’s writing about — 19th-century illustrated guides to hand gestures and cravat tying, the aesthetics of ruins, his relationship with the work of Roland Barthes, the Dewey Decimal Classification system, the poetics and politics of slapstick — the casual exactitude of his prose and his formally playful approach to his subjects makes him one of the most consistently interesting and elegant of contemporary essayists.
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Translating is notoriously difficult work, and translating Proust even more so. The Boston Review has published a very thoughtful piece about the history of In Search of Lost Time in English, the trouble with annotations, and the general “tension in translation between the spirit and the letter.” We highly recommend you take the time to read it, even if you don’t have time for Proust just yet.
There has been a resurgence of interest in Robert Walser in the last few decades, but for many years preceding that, his readership was limited to those with a particular interest in early German modernism. Walser is something of a peripheral figure in the prose landscape of the 20th century, especially for English-language readers. I attribute this in part to the unclassifiable nature of his work, and also to the fact that he neglected to leave behind a magnum opus, or meisterwerk. Walser instead left us with an armada of what he called “little prose pieces” — over 1,000 in fact — and poems. Such fragmentary oeuvres are often neglected in favor of easily identifiable “great novels” by the more celebrated writers of last century. This is especially the case when the author eschewed the literary scene of his or her day, as Walser did.
In all senses, Walser’s life was one lived on the margins of society. Born in Switzerland in 1878, Walser grew up in Biel, then a small town of around 15,000 inhabitants that marked the border between the French- and German-speaking regions of Switzerland. Walser left school at the age of 14 and spent the next 40 years in a peripatetic existence across Europe. In 1933 Walser was admitted to a sanatorium where he remained until his death in 1956. While Walser published a considerable volume of work up until his confinement, he was never a member of any literary or artistic milieu and one can only assume that this has contributed to his current lack of renown.
One can think of other foreign-language writers whose scattergun approach and hermetic habits ensure they will keep Walser company in relative obscurity amongst today’s Anglophone readers. Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese author of the fantastically disjointed The Book of Disquiet, comes to mind; as does the hugely underrated American master William Gaddis.
Thankfully for those of us who cannot read Walser in the original German, The New York Review of Books is working to re-introduce the writer to the English-speaking world. NYRB currently has three Walser titles in its “Classics” stable, the most recent of which is A Schoolboy’s Diary. Comprising more than 70 of Walser signature short prose pieces, A Schoolboy’s Diary deserves special attention for the fact that the majority of its contents appear here for the first time in English. Damion Searls does the honors translating and Ben Lerner provides a concise yet crystalline introduction. I must admit that I originally picked the book up on seeing the names of Searls and Lerner rather than the author himself. I have read and thoroughly enjoyed Searls’s translations of Rilke and formed something of a crush on Lerner after reading his first novel and a number of his critical essays on art and poetry. But back to Walser…
The first thing one notices on opening A Schoolboy’s Diary is the extreme brevity of the pieces within it, most running for only a page or two. The book is divided into three parts. The first is titled “Fritz Kocher’s Essays” and consists of an ingenious introduction by Walser himself followed by 20 essays purportedly written by an adolescent schoolboy on topics ranging from friendship to poverty to Christmas. Part II of the book collects a large number of pieces from Walser’s most productive period — 1899 to 1925. The final section is dedicated to a single piece, the longest at 25 pages, titled “Hans.” I will take the Walserian approach of discussing the pieces in reverse order for no other reason than it pleases me to do so, and for the sake of leaving the best until last.
The Part III story, “Hans,” is the longest piece in the book and it opens with a suitably long sentence, of which I will give you only this: “When Hans, somewhat later, after much in his life had changed and he found himself occupied with entirely different things, thought back every now and then…” This sentence, so Proustian in its combination of clauses and its thematic of memory, sets the tone for a story that revolves around the twin tropes of imagination and recollection. Indeed, in this story Walser ploughs much of the same fertile territory as his renowned French contemporary. The eponymous hero of the piece is described luxuriating in a series of recollections about his distant and not-so-distant past. The memories themselves are at times quaint and at times entertaining, but the beauty is in the prose’s celebration of memory itself. The usually coy Walser is at his most unrestrainedly poetic in the following passage:
This and other things came to mind again and again in later years … To see an object again at a later hour purely through mere reflection may perhaps be more beautiful than the moment itself of actual experience and perception…
But Walser departs from Proust in his exploration of the author’s presence in his own fiction. Proust allows himself to use his own name just twice in his million-word epic, A Recherche du Temps Perdu. Walser, on the other hand, is constantly referring to himself as the author of his texts. In fact, Walser even has occasion to chastise himself for such ostentation in “Hans,” saying that as author he “would do best just to stay in the background and keep the most scrupulous silence, rather than pressing forward, which doesn’t look good at all.” A subtler move in this regard is made when Walser digresses from the narrative, saying that he has become distracted from writing by the scent of rösti potatoes. The narrative is soon resumed, but only two pages later the protagonist, Hans, steps into a grocery store redolent of rösti. The astute reader cannot miss Walser’s game here as he masterfully comments on the tendency of the writer to imbue his stories with elements of his life, not least the environment in which he is writing.
The stories in Part II are unlike “Hans,” and more typically Walserian, in that they read like notebook jottings of an eccentric dilettante. They range from memoir to travel writing to fiction, though often they are simply notes towards these things. Indeed there is something refreshingly different about the pared back quality of the pieces. Walser economically inverts the classic axiom of “show rather than tell” and prefers to clearly enumerate the feelings and motivations of his characters rather than leave the reader wondering about them as in the micro-parody of Scandinavian fiction, “A Devil of a Story.”
But like the more fully realized “Hans,” these small pieces are characterised by the same authorial self-consciousness. The writer repeatedly interjects into the narratives and descriptions as if he is embarrassed by having to keep up the charade that there is some omniscient voice dictating the words. After one particularly ornate description of a Swiss lake, Walser inserts a hyphen before addressing the reader directly, almost abashed at how sappy he sounded in the preceding paragraph. At another time, the reader gets a running commentary on how the author believes the story to be progressing, none too well in the light of Walser’s exclamation: “Behold the intricate and involved story I have so rashly embroiled myself in!”
The role of the author in Part I is more complex. The reader of NYRB edition is afforded the same calligraphic frontispiece that would have met the German or Swiss reader opening the original in 1904. Beneath the ornate German text is the translation: “Fritz Kocher’s Essays — Relayed by Robert Walser.” The text opens with an introduction by Walser that begins: “The boy who wrote these essays passed away not long after he left school.” Then follows 20 essays on discrete topics all written in the voice of an adolescent boy, albeit one with an exceptional grasp of language. Despite the disguise and the constant reference to the teacher, it should not take today’s reader long to realise that this is merely Walser in disguise. What a disguise though! This is the kind of chicanery one would expect to see in fiction after the Second World War, but here Walser is deploying it at the start of the century.
There are many other things to like about Walser and this book, not least the beauty he locates in the quotidian and the almost spiritual appreciation he exhibits for nature. But it is Walser’s subtle self-referentiality that I wish to highlight, as I believe it is the quality that marks him out as truly ahead of his time. I was continually surprised at the brazen nature of Walser’s authorial interjections and the familiarity he exhibits with the reader. So much so that at certain times while reading the book I felt as if the sentences could have been the work of a late modernist or postmodernist writer. Take the following: “And so our story has reached a happy conclusion — that’s the main thing, now the weather will be nice tomorrow.” How difficult it is to square such writing with that of Walser’s close neighbors in France, Austria, and Germany. Not in Proust, Kafka, or Hesse will you find such point-blank piercing of the fourth wall of fiction. It comes as no surprise that Walser has long been considered an anomaly in the literature of the 20th century. He is entirely anomalous, but he is a beautiful anomaly and one who anticipated certain trends in avant-garde literature by half a century. Aside from all, this A Schoolboy’s Diary is damn fun to read, it feels like peering into a mind of fantastic imagination. Seldom do authors come along who can do so much with so little. In a world where attention spans are getting shorter by the minute, Walser’s micro-sketches may yet drag him out of obscurity and into the limelight.
I’ve been dipping in Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, for no particular reason, other than that I like thought — I’m sick of the relentless, numbing emotionalism of American culture.
Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks deserves every bit of attention and success it has received, for the way it addresses the ethics of science and race. Also, I am a huge fan of historical characters that would be forgotten if it wasn’t for a talented, curious writer who doesn’t succumb to the pressures of being in this (boring) moment. Thus I loved Monique Brinson Demery’s Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu.
It took me only a couple of days to read Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. One of the things we are good at are the systems of thoughtlessness — witnessing the dissection of one of them was both rewarding and disheartening. I’m a huge fan of Graham Robb’s work, particularly his biography of Rimbaud and his books on Paris and France. But Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century was a revelation in the power of its conviction and erudition.
I loved Laurent Binet’s HHhH, its intelligence and ethical commitment. Gary Shteyngart is one of the funniest people alive, but Super Sad True Love Story is not just very funny, it is also sad and sadly true.
And it is, of course, the centenary of the publication of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which is one of those miraculous books that gets better with every re-reading.
And I’ve gone through dozens of books on soccer in 2013, but I’ll just mention two: Barca: the Making of the Greatest Team in the World by Graham Hunter and Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning by Guillem Balague, both full of great stories, meticulous research, and recollections of great soccer matches. In my entire life, I’ve read only one book about American football, which I despise every day of my life. But Rich Cohen’s Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football is one of the best sports books I’ve ever read and now I have something to talk about with men at Thanksgiving.
Looking into the future, I enjoyed and admired Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman (coming out in February 2014), because it is a book about reading (as translating), and full of love for it. Presently, I’m enjoying Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s Panic in a Suitcase (July 2014) — it is funny and smart, inventive and poetic, makes me want to write down every other sentence. And I shudder to think it is only her first book.
I read a lot, so I’ll stop here.
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In the fall of 2009, I left the United States to spend a school year teaching English in China. There were many things to do before leaving, but one of the more pleasurable was choosing which books would see me through the year. When my friend Ellen suggested taking Anthony Powell’s series A Dance to the Music of Time, I felt a click, the sort you feel when someone suggests a thing and you realize that is exactly what you intended to do all along. I packed the whole series and spent the next nine months living in China but letting a great deal of my imaginative life take place in mid-20th-century England.
For those who haven’t heard about the series or seen its tantalizing spines lined up on some bookstore shelf, Dance is a sequence of 12 novels, generally published as four volumes of three novels each. The series takes its name from a 17th-century painting by the French artist Nicholas Poussin, which depicts the four seasons as nymphs dancing in a circle while a winged Father Time plays for them on the harp. (The American editions of the books, published by the University of Chicago Press, use Poussin’s artwork and put one of the nymphs on the spine of each volume, so that when lined up the four volumes create an eye-catching work of art on one’s shelf.) The books take place in England over the course of nearly 60 years, starting between the World Wars and ending in the 1970s.
Various people have claimed that Dance is the definitive work of the British 20th century. The whole series is one entry on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of the century, which is a bit of a cheat, although there’s no good way to select one novel from the set. Evelyn Waugh called the books “more realistic than A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, to which it is often compared, and much funnier.” (Surely, if Waugh had tried, he could have come up with a more ringing endorsement than “funnier than Proust.”)
In any case, the books were a great success in both Britain and America upon their publication, but heaps of praise from people like Evelyn Waugh do not always secure a devoted, continuing readership once a book is no longer new. And these books deserve a continuing readership. They are masterful, they are deeply artful — and they are also rather fun. They contain a wealth of comedy, closely observed as the best serious work but with an additional twist that makes for a startled laugh when you suddenly realize what’s going on. They deserve to be popular. They deserve to be widely read and loved. These are the first books I can recall reading as an adult that made me want to go join the official society of fans of the author. Those who love these books love them for a lifetime; they are so rich and so pleasurable that they bear revisiting over the years as the reader grows alongside the characters and finds new ways to understand the story. And yet, in point of fact, nobody I know has read them, though I know a couple people who have been meaning to get around to it. And so I am taking to the Internet to make my own case for Powell to anyone out there who is in search of a new reading project as I was, or who simply needs something to read on these winter days.
Without further ado, then, seven reasons why these books deserve to be read:
Reason #1: They are unique.
This series is really a comic epic, and a fictional memoir of a person’s social life. It is a British social novel scaled way, way up.
A quick setup before going further: These books are narrated by Nick Jenkins. He shares a remarkable number of biographical details with one Mr. Anthony Powell, but we’ll take him on his own terms. Nick starts by telling us about his school days (outside sources say the school is Eton, though the text never indicates this) and university life (outside sources, Oxford, ditto) in the late 1910s to early ’20s, and the story continues through marriage, career, military service in the Second World War, and subsequent middle to old age in and around the London literary scene.
Nick is the only person who appears in every novel in the series, but he is not very keen on telling us much about himself. What he recounts are stories about social interactions at school, in the military, and in a roughly defined community of London literati, rather than stories about himself going to school, being an officer, and working as a writer. Nick is more likely to tell us what someone else appeared to be thinking than what he himself was thinking. His own marriage is sketched in the lightest possible lines, his children only hinted at. “It is difficult to talk about one’s wife,” he says, and so he doesn’t do it. He turns his considerable powers of understanding on other people instead — on other people, and on books.
Reason #2: They’re playfully, livably literary.
Nick is the kind of narrator who behaves as if he is actually writing the books; he serves as our author, rather than a conversation partner or a character into whose head we are allowed access. This works particularly well because the character is a writer. He doesn’t tell us the titles of any of his novels, though; the only book of his we’re allowed to know about is a scholarly work on Robert Burton, the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, and that is included because it plays into his pattern of relating life to books. Nick shares what lines or ideas from other writers are playing through his head but not what stories he’s thinking up himself, rather in the way he is much more likely to recount a conversation with someone else than a solitary train of thought.
For the bookish amongst us — a category that surely includes nearly everybody willing to pick up these books — this kind of thought process will look rather endearingly familiar. As such it’s a comforting way in to the bigger stuff in the novels, the Second World War chief among them. Nick has a handful of attempted conversations about literature while in the army, the bulk of which fail so spectacularly that I laughed out loud while reading. There’s a fellow soldier who has a book of Kipling secreted away but is barely able to say anything about it. At the opposite end of the spectrum there’s David Pennistone, who though “capable, even brilliant, at explaining philosophic niceties or the minutiae of official dialectic, was entirely unable to present a clear narrative of his own daily life, past or present.” That’s obviously a problem not shared by our fearless narrator, but Nick and Pennistone are a kind of kindred spirit nevertheless and their conversations, however brief, are a relief from the military absurdity surrounding them.
Nick himself introduces literature into a lot of conversations that have nothing to do with literature, and it seldom works — as he comments after one of these conversations, “I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already.” The last scene of The Military Philosophers (the ninth book) is an end-of-war service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Nick spends the whole time thinking about the poetry and song lyrics used in the service. The older he gets, the more his reading informs what he tells us of his life, especially Burton. The last novel takes place in the late 1960s and early ’70s, but is suffused with concepts and stories from the 17th century.
Reason #3: Do you like England? These books are completely, uniquely, and ineluctably English.
Apart from a trip to France in the first book, some time in Ireland in the third volume, and an interlude in Venice in Temporary Kings (the 11th book), the entire series takes place in England. I think it’s fair to assume our narrator never crosses the Atlantic (though Powell himself traveled rather extensively). The foreigners in the novels, who include French, Polish, Swedish, Norwegian, American, and a prince from a never-named Balkan country are seen through English eyes, and there’s a lot to be perceived about the British characters in the way they think and talk about these foreigners. I suspect Powell understood America somewhat better than his narrator, who comes across as rather naive on the subject — there’s a charming conversation at one point about Americans who are descended from signers of the Declaration of Independence, and it makes American social strata sound as arcane as those of ancient Mesopotamia. As a boy who’s just finished school, Nick spends a short time in France, and he seems a little surprised that the Norwegian and the Swede he meets there don’t get along, being from such similar cultures. The novels are not parochial — Nick is educated and observant — but they come from a very definite cultural perspective.
I should not neglect to mention that Powell, though he spent his life in England, came from a very old Welsh family, whose name he preferred to pronounce in the traditional fashion (rhyming with “noel”). He gave Nick a Welsh name as well, but any influence of Wales in the text is so subtle as to be invisible to this American reader. England pervades every bit of the books, though perhaps most notably the humor:
Reason #4: They are wonderfully funny.
Dance is certainly a comedy, but it can’t afford to be a classical comedy with happy endings for all. In any work covering such a vast period of time, there will inevitably be many deaths to read about. As it happens, that time includes the Second World War, and there are some deaths that occur right out of the blue while the story is occupying itself with social matters. These are sometimes ridiculous, but never ridiculed; sometimes tragic, but never eulogized. There’s no denial of tragedy, in other words, but Nick manages to acknowledge it and then move on to tell us about the next social occasion.
He doesn’t laugh out loud at what he sees going on around him. He doesn’t tend to tell the reader that someone is funny, and no one ever says he’s funny either. But he is, terrifically so. The humor is dry, sidelong, sneaky.
The trick is to notice that Powell doesn’t take the social world he’s describing very seriously. It would be easier to notice this if the books didn’t look like they should themselves be taken very seriously indeed, if they were less hefty and classical — the Poussin nymphs on the American editions are beautiful but a little intimidating. If you can forget about them for a while and get into the small-paperback spirit of reading, you can appreciate the absurdity of this little exchange, where Nick and his former head of house from Eton are conversing in a library and a boy comes by to ask the teacher a question:
We were interrupted at this moment by a very small boy, who had come to stand close by where we were talking. It would be truer to say we were inhibited by his presence, because no direct interruption took place. Dispelling about him an aura of immense, if not wholly convincing goodness, his intention was evidently to accost Le Bas in short course, at the same time ostentatiously to avoid any implication that he could be so lacking in good manners as to break into a conversation or attempt to overhear it. . . .
‘What do you want?’
‘I can wait, sir.’
This assurance that his own hopes were wholly unimportant, that Youth was prepared to waste valuable time indefinitely while Age span out its senile conference, did not in the least impress Le Bas, too conversant with the ways of boys not to be for ever on his guard.
Is that too dry for an introduction? If so, perhaps I should mention that there is also a butler who gets attacked by a monkey.
Powell’s portrayal of servants is quite funny, actually. At the time when these books were being written, P.G. Wodehouse was already making virtuosic use of the comic possibilities of the English serving class, most famously in the form of the hyper-competent Jeeves. Powell cut against the Wodehouse grain by making his servant characters only middling in competence and by having them intrude in the life of the household at the most inconvenient times, highlighting the strangeness of two entirely different categories of person living in a house together. The aforementioned butler works for an upper-class Communist, who doesn’t want a butler or really believe in having butlers, but can’t manage his enormous house without one, and there’s a sadly droll tone to their interactions.
The funniest novels are those in Volume 3, the war volume, possibly from a need to counterbalance the effect of the war on the narrative, possibly because the military is just so rich in comic possibilities:
The General turned savagely on Gwatkin, who had fallen into a kind of trance, but now started agonisingly to life again.
“No porridge, sir.”
General Liddament pondered this assertion for some seconds in resentful silence. He seemed to be considering porridge in all its aspects, bad as well as good. At last he came out with an unequivocal moral judgment.
“There ought to be porridge,” he said.
Reason #5: There is a judicious amount of world history.
By this I mostly mean World War II. Nick is just old enough when the war starts that he’s more of a military bureaucrat than a soldier, so none of these books is a War Novel in the customary mold. That said, it made me feel more powerfully about the London Blitz than anything, fiction or nonfiction, has ever done before.
In the war volumes, the humor is a little broader, with fewer subtle verbal jabs at social gatherings and more caricatures of superior officers (such as the two colonels named Eric and Derrick). And, as one would expect, the bad things that happen are far more serious. Nick, being who and what he is, gives us these things — the party hit by a bomb, the deaths that come out of the blue — without very much comment. There’s a section in The Military Philosophers where he says, “I was briefly in tears,” and I found it the most poignant bit of fiction I’d read for a very long time. Mostly, though, he continues to portray his life by way of the people with whom he surrounds himself, and to cope with uncertainty, discomfort, and death by finding comfort in the literary and intellectual.
Others, of course, respond to the war in very different ways, for instance,
Reason #6: Widmerpool.
Kenneth Widmerpool is one of only two characters besides Nick who appear in both the first novel of the series and the last. When he is first introduced, he’s a boy at the same school as Nick, a little older than our narrator, and his defining attribute is “the wrong kind of overcoat,” which “was only remarkable in itself as a vehicle for the comment it aroused, insomuch that an element in Widmerpool himself had proved indigestible to the community.”
This indigestibility serves Widmerpool surprisingly well. Possessed of no virtues but ambition, he is almost always able to convince his superiors that he’s especially worth promoting, rather than especially repulsive. Throughout the 12 novels, he turns up like a bad apple, and nearly every time he does so, his social or professional or military status has increased. “It was Widmerpool” is the most frequently repeated line in the books. Widmerpool himself may be the most deeply realized shallow person in English writing. His sense of his own importance, and his ability to force others to treat him as important, propel him to stations he does not deserve and cannot capably fulfill, and he is just competent enough to keep rising up in the world. Nick is none too pleased to be thrown together with Widmerpool so often, but he maintains his characteristic detachment on the matter. A different writer might treat the contrast between the two men as a moral one, but in Dance it is almost entirely aesthetic, and it is all the richer for it. The two of them, writer and bureaucrat, meet and part and re-meet over the course of the dance with an inevitability that is somehow both wearying and wonderful.
Reason #7: The books are both discreet and entertainingly frank.
The romantic relationships in this series are an utter mess. Almost everyone who gets married gets divorced, usually sooner rather than later; there’s infidelity all over the place; there is voyeurism and necrophilia and people showing up in the nude at surprising times. But it’s not lurid, simply because of the manner of writing. Nick tells us about a few sexual encounters before his own marriage, and he does so in a way that leaves no real doubt what’s going on but that includes no description whatsoever. The love scenes divert their gaze away from physical details and instead are all about character, behavior, and the degree to which people’s emotions are engaged (and whether they’re engaged equally, which they almost never are).
Homosexuality, incidentally, gets a rather interesting treatment in these novels. Early on — this would be in the 1920s and ’30s — it’s hinted at much more subtly than the hints of what’s happening in those love scenes. As time goes on there are clearer hints, often in the form of rumors that turn out to be true perhaps half the time, though there are also a couple scenes where a walk-on character is casually identified as a lesbian. In the post-WWII novels, the word “queer” is introduced, apparently in the process of taking on its new meaning. (There’s a conversation in Temporary Kings that illustrates this very well, where someone asks Nick if a mutual acquaintance is “queer:” “Is he?” “Homosexual?” “Of course.” “I don’t think so. I don’t think he’s very normal either.”) The word and the concept then move into the mainstream of the narrative until there are, in Hearing Secret Harmonies (the final book), an acknowledged male couple, an occult community where everyone is expected to have sex with everyone else for ritual purposes, and a number of offhand references to off-screen gay characters that don’t seem to surprise anyone.
Overall, the effect is that of a narrator with a strong sense of personal privacy but a very mild sense of shame. Like Melville’s Ishmael, he may choose to look away but he never flinches.
If you are not convinced…
If none of this has persuaded you that you need to read 12 British novels right now, here is what I recommend. Get hold of Volume 2 or a copy of the last novel in it, The Kindly Ones. Read the first chapter. It takes place in 1914, earlier than the rest of the saga, and it is the most self-contained bit of the series. If you don’t have the time or the will to read all 12 novels, this one chapter gives you some of the best they have to offer; I can’t imagine a better account of the start of World War I from a domestic, English point of view. If you think you don’t have the time or the will, this chapter might convince you it’s really not such a daunting task, and that this is a story and a voice worth settling down with for the long haul.
My big project over the last year has been (finally) reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, about which nothing really need be said. I have, however, taken periodic Proust breaks and read novels that don’t require 10,000 hours of uninterrupted attention.
I could list a dozen or more good novels I’ve read, but a particular favorite was Emma Donoghue’s Room, which concerns a young woman and her five-year-old son who are kept captive by a psychopath in a single room. It’s amazing what Donoghue is able to do within that tiny physical space. If we were worried (and I don’t think we should be) about a lack of originality and ambition in contemporary novels, here’s one that conjures an enormous story out of simple, even miniature, circumstances. I also tremendously enjoyed a young adult novel called The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, which imagines a future world in which children are selected to fight to the death, for a vast TV audience. It’s well-written, completely engrossing, and involves a kick-ass girl who never needs to be rescued by the boys. What’s not to like about that?
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When many years ago I first read Proust’s A la Recherche du temps perdu in the Scott-Moncrieff translation published in seven very elegant paperback volumes by the London house of Chatto & Windus—an effort that took just about six months—I was so affected by this work that I was determined to read it all over again in the original.
My French up until then consisted of three years in junior high and high school, and a year of it in college; I retained none of it. As we were living in England at the time my wife and I (and eventually our infant daughter who, at three months, cried so incessantly one night in the Hôtel Aviatic on the Rue de Vaugirard that the poor Frenchman on the floor above us could only pace and pace until suddenly he fell silent, leaving us to imagine in all its vivid detail that he had done himself in, pauvre type, his body fished out of the Seine late the next afternoon, a note stuffed in his watery pocket, Adieu, monde cruel!) occasionally took cheap trips to Paris, which consisted of multiple train journeys to Dover, a hovercraft nightmare to Boulogne, and an interminable railway stop-and-go in ancient rolling stock through World War I battlefields to the Gare du Nord. Once, at Dover, our hovercraft gasbagged into life only to deflate when, as we watched through the porthole, the Queen Mother stood beneath an umbrella in her usual pale blue hat and dress and took bows from the wardens of the Cinque Ports before being driven off for her nightly ration of gin-and-it.
My spoken French was pathetic (my wife’s far better), though having l’enfant along made everyone like us immensely. I may be one of the few Americans who has not actually encountered a rude French person, and I ascribe this to the presence of a babe in arms. One thing we discovered is that the English love children as long as the children in question are grown-up—childhood tolerated only as nostalgia, a memory of the land of lost content, as A.E. Houseman would put it; Americans want to be children forever, and many as they negotiate the minefield of middle-age dress as though they are; while the French go all gooey over them and indulge them with expensive gourmet baby food and clothes that look as if they were actually thought up by someone. This may have changed, but it worked for us from the moment we stepped onto the beachhead at Boulogne-sur-Mer.
I began to learn French with a few grammar books bought at Heffer’s Booksellers in Cambridge, and after several months began to read some simple stories, graduating to Candide and Tartarin de Tarascon by Alphonse Daudet, and then moving on to more contemporary writers. I started with Patrick Modiano’s first novel, La Place de l’étoile. All I knew of Modiano was that he wrote about his past and that of his parents, which was intricately bound up with the years of the German Occupation of France, a topic I was about to introduce into my own fiction. Modiano’s true subject, I discovered, is the nature of identity and memory as it’s distilled through the past—in itself a Proustian conceit—and what I find fascinating about him is that his many novels, which take up a good portion of a bookshelf, in a way are like individual chapters of one book. His theme is unchanging; his style, “la petite musique,” as the French say, is virtually the same from book to book. There is nothing “big” about his work, and readers have grown accustomed to considering each succeeding volume as an added chapter to an ongoing literary project. His twenty-five published novels rarely are longer than 200 pages, and in them his characters, who seem to drift, under different names, into first this novel, then another, wander the streets of Paris looking for a familiar place, a remembered face, some link to their elusive past, some ghost from a half-remembered encounter that might shed some light on one’s history. Phone numbers and addresses are dredged up from the past, only to bring more cryptic clues and, if not dead ends, then the kind of silence that hides a deeper and more painful truth.
You open the latest Modiano and you know exactly where you are. The writer is artistically all of a piece. It’s his obsession with memory and the haunted lives of his protagonists which truly caught my attention, and especially how he returns time and again to mine this subject. As someone with a very broken chronology, with a memory of childhood that is in many ways unreliable (how much has been planted there? How much of it is real? What’s been removed by doubt or by someone else’s will?), I saw in Modiano how the capriciousness of memory can in itself become the subject of a novel. And because back then I found plot a troublesome thing to handle in my fiction, the idea of creating a narrator in search of a story became the basis for my first novel. I sent Modiano a copy of it when it was published and, not surprisingly, heard nothing back.
Though I needed (and still do need) a dictionary beside me, I continued to read in French with a greater fluency and quickly saw how my own work was being both enlarged and influenced by it. Living in Britain had its risks: my writing could begin to adopt some of the market-driven demands to write about being a writer in Hampstead (a subject so effectively cornered by Margaret Drabble and others) or to delve into agitprop (quite common back then in both theatre and television drama) or even historical fiction, but it was reading French that pulled me into doing something different, into introducing characters from other cultures, bridging genres, and bringing in some of my Russian grandparents’ émigré experience, if not in fact then as a kind of mist that lay over the landscape of my fiction.
They had almost moved to Paris in 1911 and only at the last minute decided to come to New York. My grandfather had heard that Frenchmen would stand on the railway platform as Jews from Eastern Europe would step off their trains and scream “Juif! Juif!”, a remnant of the days of the Dreyfus Affair, and one that was mined until 1940 and after. Had my grandfather and namesake moved there with his family, I wouldn’t be writing this today, and the lot of them would be dust in the grounds of a concentration camp in Poland.
Somewhat serendipitously I discovered what’s come to be known as the nouveau roman noir. Nominally detective novels, these took the basic elements of the genre and added to them various elements of postmodernism and of film, and led the genre to a whole new place. Possibly Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes (The Erasers), a recasting of “Oedipus Rex” as a murder mystery, was the first. But having read an article about the more well-known practitioners of the genre, writers of a whole other generation than Robbe-Grillet’s, I was introduced to the Lyon trilogy of René Belletto—Le Revenant, Sur la Terre comme au ciel, l’Enfer—and was immediately impressed both with his dark humor and how he introduced myth, musical structure (Belletto is both an excellent musician and composer, as well as something of an expert on J.S. Bach), and an encyclopedic knowledge of American B-films, into novels that straddle the genres of literary fiction and crime. Though I also read, and still read, Jean Echenoz, Thierry Jonquet, and, beyond the genre, Jean-Patrick Toussaint and Georges Perec, it was Belletto who influenced me perhaps more than the others. I wrote him, as well, and for twenty years we’ve been friends.
When I eventually did make the leap to read Proust in the original I was surprised to discover that he really wasn’t a difficult writer, per se: his vocabulary was hardly erudite, he expressed himself simply (though still in sentences whose length the idea being expressed required), and the writing possessed, as he himself hoped it would, the naturalness of breathing, even that of an asthmatic, which he was. All of a sudden he was a very different kind of writer from that in Scott-Moncrieff’s translation. Where that translator emphasized, or rather extracted and highlighted, the poetic and romantic side of Proust, reading him in French showed just how muscular, how sinewy, Proust’s prose truly is. In reality there is a stylistic and narrative confidence in these more than three thousand pages that, in the first English translation, comes off as tentative and somewhat precious, as though he had bought into the contemporary view of Proust as being not much more than a gossip and a social butterfly. What we miss in Scott-Moncrieff’s version is the edginess of Proust, especially his extraordinary humor—and I contend that Proust was one of the truly great comic novelists—and the dark and, at that time, forbidden sexuality of what has now properly come to be known as In Search of Lost Time.
This is also something of a tale of espionage and detection: the narrator (allusively called Marcel, though this is far from being a reliably autobiographical novel) is a man separate from the world, an outsider cloaked within his own secrets and private memories who comes to perceive the world as something mutable, unreliable, cruel and dismissive, and seeks that elusive knowledge that will allow him to become the creator of the very people we’re reading about—people who also have many things to hide at a time when the cloak was far more useful than the megaphone. Knowing that Proust was homosexual, we can see where this sense of being a fugitive observer comes from and which leads him to become a kind of scientist (Proust’s father and brother were physicians) of human behavior. I know you, he seems to be saying, but you will never entirely know me. Six months, eight months, a year later, and once you’ve finished the entire novel you see the world differently from when you first read the opening sentences. That is but one, to me important, measure of what art can achieve: to make you comprehend things in a whole new way.
Adopting French as a second reading language gave me two worlds through which my own work could be filtered. As a novelist (far less so as a screenwriter), I find that reading in two languages has a way of enriching one’s own work. When reading in French I’m really stepping beyond myself and my world, and it’s this tiptoeing into another culture and another way of viewing things, that allows me to look back over my shoulder and find perhaps a whole new way of telling my own story.
There once was a little girl named Jenny, who lived in Chicago and went to nursery school with a little girl named Sally. Sally’s family moved into the apartment below Jenny’s family, and Jenny’s mother and Sally’s mother were pregnant with the girls’ little brothers at the same time. Sally’s little brother was named Paul, but Jenny always thought of him as “Sally’s little brother,” even after she moved to San Francisco, and grew up, and moved to New York, and became a writer. One evening in the not-so-distant past, Jenny, now the author of many well-regarded books of fiction, turned on the television, and who did she see on the screen but Sally’s little brother! He was an actor, and he was on a television show, and this television show had brought him to Jenny’s living room. Just like that.
Meanwhile, a girl grew up in Los Angeles, reading a lot of books, wanting to be a writer. Okay, okay, it’s me. After graduate school, I moved back to Los Angeles and kept writing. I went to Ohio for a semester to teach, and as the snow fell (and kept falling), I discovered and fell in love with the work of Jennifer Egan. I even wrote Ms. Egan a fan email, something I’d never done before. She actually wrote back. She signed her name “Jenny” and I felt a geeky thrill. Jenny!
On a recent Saturday, back in Los Angeles, I held a writing class, and one of the students looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t place him–had I seen him at Skylight? On my coffee table was an advance copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad. “Is this out yet?” the student asked, and I explained it wasn’t yet, not until June. “But I’m interviewing her,” I said–bragged, probably. “I am so excited!” I said. “Jennifer Egan is one of my favorite writers.” The student smiled and just then I realized, Hey, he’s on that TV show. “Jenny’s my sister’s oldest friend,” he said. This was Paul, of course, Sally’s little brother. Just like that, Paul, Jenny and I were connected, and it felt like a tiny miracle.
It also felt like a page from A Visit from the Goon Squad, where characters move in and out of one another’s lives, and where a minor character in one chapter becomes the protagonist in the next. When I met Egan for our aforementioned interview, she told me the story of how she knew Paul, saying that seeing him on TV was “the kind of odd surprise that I was trying to capture here,”–she pointed to her book–“the completely unexpected ways that people encounter and see each other over many years.” We were sitting at a round picnic table outside Diesel Bookstore in Brentwood, where she would be reading that afternoon. I was born and raised in L.A., but I’d never been here before.
A Visit from the Goon Squad has been called a novel-in-stories by many critics, including our very own Sonya Chung, whose perspicacious review describes the book as being “populated by has-beens, suicidals, idealists, divorcees (aka serial monogamists), romantics, and ex-prisoners, many of whom have been chewed up and spit out by the soul-less music and film industries, or the PR machine that fuels them.” It’s the best description of the book’s content one might come by, but I’m not sure about the novel-in-stories label. Although each chapter can stand on its own, and though each differs in tone and form, the book still coalesced whole in my mind, its world burrowing into my imagination, as only novels can do. It was also readable like a novel, even with all of its formal shifts. It’s a novel-of-the-future, maybe, and not just because one chapter is written in PowerPoint.
When I asked Egan about the book’s genre, she said, “It’s so decentralized that it doesn’t quite fit what I think we think of as novels being right now. And I don’t really care about the term. It doesn’t fit into a category comfortably…I didn’t really worry about an arc, because again, that feels more like traditional fiction.” She wanted to put together a book whose principal was diversity, as opposed to unity. “I wanted to see how many tones and moods and technical choices I could get away with.” (For instance: though ultimately unsuccessful, she tried to write a chapter in epic poetry.) Egan’s goal, she said, was to make the book “a big cornucopia of craziness, and yet, have it all fit together into one story. I asked myself: Since the principal was one of surprise and revelation, and intimacy versus distance, my basic question was, Who is the person we see from a distance that we want to have revealed to us?”
This decision to follow various characters at different points was inspired in part by Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and, also, The Sopranos. Of the HBO show, she said, “I loved the way there were all these different narratives that intertwined over a long period, and different characters were the main characters at different times. I wanted to play with that, and I felt like I hadn’t seen that very much in novels. I didn’t want the centrality of a conventional novel.” She continued:
Also, one thing that is particular to The Sopranos, is that it’s so much about the chasm between public and private life…there’s a cliché about mob shows, and Tony Soprano is totally a clichéd character in certain ways. And yet, the fun of the show is being thrust into his private life and feeling the weird contrast between those two. That was a lot of what I wanted to do with this book: take people who seem to be clichéd from a distance and break them open, and show all of their nuances and secrets.
Bennie Salazar is definitely one such character: a teenage punk rocker in San Francisco who becomes a successful–and thus jaded–music executive, nursing past humiliations as he sprinkles flakes of pure gold into his coffee. As a consumer of culture, I’ve seen his type before, and yet, drawn by Egan, his history, pain and desires become specific and complex.
I asked her how the Sopranos-approach to storytelling echoed or contrasted with Proust’s, and she told me they were more alike than I might realize, partially because both are such long narratives. There’s a similar “braiding of lives,” she said.
Everyone called The Sopranos novelistic and I really do understand why, because with Proust, similarly, there are people you see at a distance and then suddenly know closely, but then you just see in passing years later, and there’s something very surprising about them that you weren’t expecting. Proust plays with the way in which time itself creates and reveals surprise. That change is surprising, even though it’s so steady, so constant.
If narrative itself is a depiction of time passing (“and then this happened; and then this happened”), one would assume that a narrative about the passage of time would consider the subject through the very mechanism its existence depends upon. Egan does just that. For instance, in “Safari” (and in the final passages of “Goodbye, My Love”), she employs an omniscient third-person point of view that pulls out of the present story to compress time and speed forward. This narrator can tell us about a character’s future–an entire marriage, for instance, or the long term effects of someone’s death on a family–in just a few sentences. The compression of time is heartbreaking in its efficiency, and it’s a formal reflection of the thematic motif of the book. Wow, one thinks, life does pass in a blink of an eye. Egan said she’d always felt “tremendous excitement” when other authors used this point of view. She was also inspired to try it after one afternoon at the library, where she was doing research for another book, about the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the 1940s. She was reading letters by a woman who had worked there, written to her new husband. “Reading someone’s letters you’re just deeply inside someone’s mind,” she told me.
I thought, “Gosh, I wonder if she’s still alive?” So I went over to the computer…and I sat down and Googled her, and within a second I was reading her obituary. It was so eerie to be sitting there, reading these letters by a woman who didn’t even have children yet, didn’t know what her life would be, full of hopes and plans, and then to read the end, in this kind of cool, news-writing voice. And then I went on, reading her letters, but I had this terrible sense of knowing the end when she didn’t know it. And I think that also interested me. I was interested in how the present feels when you keep pulling someone out of it.
This notion of being pulled out of the present reminded me immediately of internet culture, and the ways in which we require constant connection with the world, even as it yanks from us direct, unmediated experience. (Nowadays, for instance, you can’t go to a concert without someone in front of you taking photos of the band, probably to post on Facebook later that night–maybe you are that someone?) Like Don DeLillo before her, Egan explores the role and power of technology in our lives, but from a more humanistic, character-driven perspective. In Look At Me, fashion model Charlotte, whose face and career are ruined after a car accident, becomes a character-of-herself on a website called Ordinary People, a fictional progenitor of Facebook and Twitter. In The Keep, Danny drags a satellite dish to a Eastern European castle because he must be able to call everyone he knows back in New York City; otherwise, he might be forgotten. In her latest book, Egan imagines a future world where the young tell stories in a narrative genre more befitting their era (“Great Rock and Roll Pauses”–the aforementioned PowerPoint chapter), and where toddlers use hand-held devices with such dexterity that they become the most important and sought-after consumers.
In his review of A Visit from the Goon Squad in the Washington Post, Ron Charles wrote that the this world was “corroded by technology.” I asked Egan if that was the description she would use. “I don’t think so,” she said. “I have concerns about technology—I think we all do—but I’m mostly just interested in it. As a user, I’m less interested in it as I am as a writer. The fetishization of connection itself is something that really fascinates me. Connection in itself essentially means you’re opening yourself up to whatever people want from you. All the time.”
She doesn’t see her vision of the future as a dystopian one, and despite the warnings and concerns in the book, the humanity of her characters persists. It’s telling that these chapters set in the future are so poignant. People can still feel, even if those feelings must be texted: if thr r childrn, thr mst b a fUtr, rt?
This is where Egan’s genius lies. She engages with philosophical questions and is formally daring, and yet, and yet!, her work is emotionally moving, the stories and characters always compelling. In his review of The Keep, Madison Smartt Bell said that Egan, “deploys most of the arsenal developed by the metafiction writers of the 1960’s and refined by more recent authors like William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace — but she can’t exactly be counted as one of them.” His reason? Her “…unusually vivid and convincing realism. Egan sustains an awareness that the text is being manipulated by its author, while at the same time delivering character and story with perfect and passionate conviction.” Perhaps this is what makes Egan a darling among critics and a bestseller.
I asked Egan about her approach to storytelling. How important, I wondered, was emotional engagement?
Without the emotional resonance and some sense of an interesting story, you got nothin’. Really. All the formal experimentation in the world will get you nowhere without that…Ideally, the formal experimentation should not be something you’re imposing on the material but it should grow out of the story you’re telling. And if it doesn’t, the question is, why are you doing it?
The people and what they do and how it feels to the reader are the beginning and the end. I really feel that. Unfortunately, there seems to be an idea that you have to choose one or the other [experimentation or readability]. I don’t quite understand where that came from. If you look at the history of literature, it doesn’t bear out that dichotomy at all.
As time has gone on, I have become interested in telling stories that are more complicated and less streamlined, and so I’m looking for more ways to do that as efficiently and powerfully as I can.
Egan is currently reading 19th-century novels like David Copperfield. She recently read Middlemarch and was “electrified” by the narrative voice. She’s excited by how unconventional these older novels are. “I feel like everyone has amnesia,” she said. “Or maybe we read these books too young and all we remember are the stories and not how they’re told.” She grinned. “But I just love these intervening, busy body, first person-third person 19th century narrators. I feel like I need to think about that for my next book.”
Did she just say, next book? omg. woot.
I can’t wait to read it, Jenny.
Once upon a time, I would not even consider quitting a book mid-read. Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you.
Over the years, this has changed. Recently it struck me that the list of books I’ve started and not finished has grown quite formidable. I ask myself what this “means,” if it reflects some kind of moral devolution. It’s interesting how there does seem to be a kind of morality of reading, and people express their reading values quite passionately.
One of my favorite Millions Quizzes was “The Glaring Gap,” a post in which regular contributors confessed which Great Books / Great Authors they’ve never read. One contributor shared that she consciously chose not to read a certain category of male writers, and the comments came a-flying: oh, but you “should” read those! Should should should. Even the word “confess” implies sheepishness, shame and guilt. I know, I know, I should read (and love) Proust! And Dickens! And Virginia Woolf! And (these days) Bolaño!
My commitment to finishing books in the past was probably related to the above – fear of ensuing guilt and shame. Failure, too, I suppose. And perhaps at this point in my reading life, I’ve finished (and more than that, really ingested into my mind and emotions) enough books so that I feel a little freer in exercising the right to choose how to invest my reading time and energy; to veer from the Canonical Path – if such a thing actually exists anymore – and forge my own highly specific map of literary experience and influence. I’m not getting any younger, after all. Fifteen hours – the average it takes to read a book (and I tend to be on the slow side of this average) – is an increasingly precious chunk of time. Professional book reviewers, you have my sympathies.
My list of Unfinished Books breaks down into a few categories.
Perusing my list – from the last 3 or 4 years – reminds me that the convergence between book and reader is so specific; of-the-moment; contextual. For me, abandoning a book often has little to do with the book’s “objective quality,” and much more to do with the nature of my reading appetite at that moment. As a writer, there are books that you need during certain seasons of your own work, and others that must be held at bay, for the time being, or perhaps, but hopefully not, forever (oh, how the Bitch Goddess Time precludes so many returns to books we’d like to try again):
Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (out of reverence for Susan Sontag)
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Essential Kierkegaard
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Eugene Onegin by Pushkin
Then there are the books that you feel you “should” like — you’ve adored this writer’s other books, your most trusted reader-friend recommended it, etc. – and you can’t figure out what the disconnect is. You’ve tried and tried again, 50 pages, 75 pages, 120 pages, but for whatever reason… it’s like the blind date that looks perfect “on paper,” but the chemistry never happens:
Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The Book of Daniel and City of God by E.L. Doctorow (I am a Doctorow acolyte, these were particularly painful to abandon)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (I loved Women in Love so much)
It’s not that often that I really toss a book away and wipe my hands of it. And I know the following books are critically acclaimed and/or beloved by many. What can I say…
Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit
The following category speaks for itself:
Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake
I won’t be listing these, for obvious reasons. There aren’t many, but it’s an awkward thing for all of us; and I never imagine that a person who knows and supports me will necessarily like my fiction.
Now, onto books that I’ve nearly abandoned or considered abandoning, but actually finished.
“Should” is generally a battle between instinct and logic, id and superego. An allegory of sorts: when I was in high school, I was moderately athletic, but in a limited way; I ended up as a quintessential starting JV player on all my teams, never quite attaining to Varsity level. But one year, my senior year, I thought that I really “should” push myself, to get to that next level, to pursue some kind of fullness of achievement; even though I was enjoying perfectly all the playing time I was getting and never considered athleticism a central part of my identity. So I went out for Varsity, just barely made the team, and spent the rest of the season miserably subjecting myself to the coach’s masochistic training drills and sitting on the bench during games. I had thought that if I pushed myself, it would be “worth it” in some spiritual-existential way. It absolutely was not. I think about that experience often, and the metaphor pertains to the following list:
Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End
The Accidental by Ali Smith
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner
Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
Run by Ann Patchett
This final list is perhaps most significant, in terms of our moral quandary. This list keeps me from indulging appetite exclusively, from missing out on the pleasures of a difficult, not-immediately-or-obviously-gratifying read. I can’t imagine not having read these books; abandoning any one of them permanently really would have been a crying shame.
In particular, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods was an odd, and revelatory experience. I found the first 40 pages brilliant and alive and ground-shifting in that all-cylinders-firing way; then I found the next almost-150 pages tedious, repetitive, gimmicky; almost unbearable. Book, I’m going to quit you, I remember consciously thinking. But something made me pick it up again – all the acclaim, the voices of smart reader-friends in my head, my long-standing admiration of The Things They Carried; and also, I like to think, something more mysterious, my personal book fairy, who nudges me from category 3 above to this one, guiding and protecting me from tragically missed literary connections. So then, my God, those last 75 pages or so of In the Lake of the Woods – how it all comes together and wrecks you, shows you all the work that the previous 150 pages was doing. This is the novel that always pokes into my consciousness when I am considering quitting a book; but maybe this one will be another O’Brien miracle.
Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Names by Don Delillo
A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewksi
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
I can imagine a day when the proportions of these lists begin to shift. If you’re like me – neither young nor old – you feel a pressure, like every reading minute counts, in a way that you don’t feel as much when you’re younger, and perhaps I won’t feel in quite the same way when I am older. I have no way of knowing, really, if category 3 (or even category 4), past, present or future, actually contains The One That Got Away, the book that may have changed my life. To the books and writers that I’ve broken up with, I truly am sorry it didn’t work out; it is always at least a little bit true that it’s not you, it’s me.
Elizabeth wrote in with this question:
This upcoming semester I will be teaching a literature class at an East Coast college. The reading list includes several poems, stories, and essays as well as two plays, and just one novel. The English chair explained that because the school is heavy on business majors, for many students the novel they read in this course may the only novel they read for the rest of their college experience, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives. To be charged with selecting the “one novel of a person’s life” seems like both an impossible burden and a precious gift. I don’t know if I should choose something relatively accessible that might induce a love of reading (Lolita, The Remains of the Day, White Teeth) or a classic that might give them a greater perspective on the history and traditions of storytelling (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse.) My question, then, is really this: if you could read just one novel, what would it be?
Several of us pitched in on this one. Some of us took Elizabeth’s question literally, wondering what “one novel” we would choose in the (terrifying) event that we would be allowed just one for the rest of our lives. While others put themselves in Elizabeth’s shoes, trying to figure out how to wield the awesome responsibility of determining the entirety of another person’s reading experience. Here are our answers:
Garth: The hypothetical here – if you could read just one novel – strikes fear into my heart. Certainly, the book should be long, if there’s only going to be one. I’m tempted to say A Remembrance of Things Past on those grounds alone. On the other hand, the Marcel-Albertine romance never stoked my fires as much as the other relationships in the book, and I’ve got the feeling that this one, singular book should be a love story. In the same way that, if you only had one great narrative of your own life, you’d want it to be a love story. So: how about Anna Karenina? Writing about happiness is the hardest thing to do, and, in a book which most people remember for the sad parts, Tolstoy does it better than anyone.
Edan: My suggestion – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – may be an obvious one, but it makes sense as a syllabus pick for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s highly readable. It’s important that the assigned book be entertaining, since someone who doesn’t read much won’t tolerate a slow or dense novel (just as someone who isn’t a movie buff (read: me) won’t sit through a John Cassavetes film). Secondly, there’s a lot in the book to discuss as a class. I read it two years ago, and found it to be structurally fascinating, as well as funny, playful, and damn moving. For instance, I was interested in how the phrase “So it goes” repeated throughout the novel, changing with each use: first the casualness jarred me, and then I was surprised to see it, and then I expected to see it, and then I was exhausted by it, and the cycle went round and round again, a little different each time. I’d love to talk about this process as a group, and I think others – book worms or not – would, too. And, lastly, Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer to like, as he has so many other books, and his influence in American literature is just enormous. If you love his books, there are others to discover. Get someone hooked on Vonnegut, and he or she will be a reader for life.
Andrew: If I could only pick one novel, I’d pick one that will magically smash through curriculum limits and lead the reader head-first to others – a gateway novel, if you will. I have a hierarchy of favorites – modern and classic – but strategically I’ll pick the one that, looking back, opened up the world to me. I first read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was about nineteen years old. I was discovering Kurt Vonnegut and was drawn to his darkly comic way of writing – playful, with big chunks of sci-fi thrown in to satisfy the geek in me. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the Vonnegut tropes, but digs deep. Billy Pilgrim, our mid-century, middle-aged, middle-class hero, has become “unstuck in time” and we follow him forward to the planet Tralfamadore, and backwards to 1945 where Billy and his fellow soldiers – kids, really – are POWs in Dresden. Though Vonnegut’s playful, ironic fatalism gives the story its rhythm, and the time-shifting gives it its structure, the horrific firebombing of Dresden gives the novel its depth. This is a war story like no other.
Emily: In the words of Gabriel Betteredge, taken from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: “You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years–generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco–and I have found it my friend in need on all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad–Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice–Robinson Crusoe. In times past when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too many–Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady’s last birthday she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again. Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain.” And if you object to Crusoe, then The Moonstone, the finest (and first, some would say) detective novel ever written.
Noah: Are we in a primordial state, untouched by letters save for one sacred tome (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, perhaps)? Or simply naming our favorite book (A Fan’s Notes). This exercise is like picking a “desert island book,” the book you’d want to have to read by the yellow flickering of a driftwood fire while the palm fronds sway in the moonlight and the ocean crashes below. In this situation I might opt for something long and beloved, an Infinite Jest or Underworld, say. Maybe a classic that I haven’t read would be better (even on a deserted island it’s important to be well-read). The Count of Monte Cristo could work well. I’ve heard good things. But no, we are talking about choosing a book to teach. A book to teach to business majors who may not read another word the rest of their lives. I think The Great Gatsby fits the bill.
Lydia: This question has made my week a little less enjoyable, because every time I sat down to lounge, I remembered that I had to pick the only book that a group of people will read, maybe ever. Their lives were in my hands. I thought about it a lot, and I have decided that I would assign David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. It is intensely readable, so they will actually read it. Some things I had to read in college English classes, like the wretched Pamela, were so unfun to read that I did not, in fact, read them. Never underestimate a college student’s unwillingness to do his or her homework, especially if it is boring. Also, Cloud Atlas centers around a neat narrative trick, so you can talk about novels and the different ways people make them. Since it adopts a series of voices, you can tell the students that if they liked the Frobisher part, they can try Isherwood, and Martin Amis if they liked the Cavendish part, and so on. Ideally this will trick them into reading more novels. Finally, Cloud Atlas even has A Message, slightly simplistic though it may be, and will provide gentle moral instruction to your flock (I think it’s “Make love not war, save the planet”).
Max: It was fascinating to me that both Edan and Andrew picked Slaughterhouse-Five (and for the same reasons!) It’s true that this novel (or, in a somewhat similar vein Catch-22) will serve to entertainingly blow up any preconceived notion that an intelligent non-reader may have had about the boring old novel. I also found interesting Noah’s and Garth’s idea (reading the question as looking for a “desert island book”) that length is critical. With that as my consideration, I would choose Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, an adventure novel that could be plumbed again and again, or East of Eden, the best of the multi-generational epics of the last 100 years. Or better yet, if you read just one novel, why not read the “first” and, in the sense that all novels since are just repeating its tricks again and again, the only novel, Don Quixote. But thinking again about this as a novel to be read in this unique and specific circumstance, and thinking again that something contemporary might best fit the bill, why not – bear with me here – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen? Even though the characters might seem like typical boring novel characters, Franzen does things with them that you wouldn’t expect, the book is incredibly readable, and you can get into the whole meta-argument surrounding the book and Oprah and whether good literature must be in opposition to popular culture or should be a part of it.
Thanks for your great question, Elizabeth. Millions readers, help us inaugurate the first Book Question on the new site by sharing your answers to Elizabeth’s question on your own site or in the comments below.
Stephen Dodson is a freelance editor in Hadley, Mass.; he is coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, a collection of international curses and insults, and sole proprietor of the blog languagehat.com.As usual, my reading this year has focused on language and Russian history and culture, and I have books to recommend in each area.The best language book I read during the year is Mikael Parkvall’s brand-new Limits of Language: Almost Everything You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Language and Languages. Parkvall is a Swedish linguist, so this is not one of the usual pop language books full of “fun facts” that aren’t actually facts. He says in the foreword, “I hope that Limits of Language can show the uninitiated some of the incredible aspects that linguistics and human languages have to offer, teach beginners some of the basics of linguistics, but also to serve as a reference book for experienced linguists – here, the linguist can identify the extremes, and thereby judge to what extent his or her own language is ‘normal’.” Opening it at random, I find a section on using linguistics to catch the Unabomber, one on odd phrase-book examples (“I was stabbed with a spear”; “At what time were these branches eaten by the rhinoceros?”), and one on linguistics in films (“Ball of Fire, Howard Hawks, 1941: A lexicographer [Gary Cooper], realizing that the slang section of his dictionary is outdated, visits a nightclub in order to update it…”); there are also, of course, basics like “Language change,” “Consonants,” and “Language myths.” It’s the best combination of fun and education I’ve seen in a long time.Other language books I can recommend are Nicholas Ostler’s “biography of Latin,” Ad Infinitum (I’m now reading his earlier history of language, Empires of the Word, and enjoying it greatly), and George R. Stewart’s Names on the Land, a classic history of American place names recently reprinted by New York Review Books (if the author’s name sounds familiar to you, it may be because he also wrote the science fiction novel Earth Abides, for which he won the first International Fantasy Award in 1951).On the Russian front, I loved Julie A. Buckler’s Mapping St. Petersburg: Imperial Text and Cityshape. In her introduction, she says: “this study poses two central questions: What kinds of writing correspond to specific places in Petersburg or to particular aspects of imperial-era Petersburg life? How does writing constitute imperial Petersburg, both before and after the imperial period? … My project aims at an archeological reconstruction of a complex discursive formation – the full textual articulation of imperial St. Petersburg as a cultural object.” Yes, I know, that sounds off-puttingly academical, but she mostly confines the jargon to the introduction, and the book is full of fascinating tidbits about the city and the writers who have tried to describe and interpret it, and not only the famous ones; she seems to have worked her way through every memoir, travel guide, and long-forgotten novella that ever described the imperial capital. To give an example of the kind of thing you’re unlikely to find anywhere else, in Chapter Four she investigates “a story about dancing chairs that circulated in Petersburg during the 1830s,” quoting Pushkin’s diary (“In one of the buildings belonging to the chancellery of the court equerry, the furniture was so bold as to move and jump about”) and a letter from Petr Viazemskii (“in one of the clerk’s rooms, the chairs and tables danced and turned somersaults; glasses filled with wine hurled themselves at the ceiling…”), ending with the casual mention in Gogol’s famous story “The Nose”: “And the story of the dancing chairs on Koniushennaia (Stables) Street was still fresh.” Who knew that wasn’t just another wild invention of Gogol’s? If that kind of thing interests you, you’ll enjoy the book.I was also bowled over by Entertaining Tsarist Russia: Tales, Songs, Plays, Movies, Jokes, Ads, and Images from Russian Urban Life 1779-1917, edited by James Von Geldern and Louise McReynolds. Sure, it’s important to read the Great Works, but you can’t really understand a country and its culture unless you’ve spent some time with the less exalted material most people devour. There’s an eighteenth-century knightly tale that begins: “Prince Zilagon, ruler of the Princedom of Florida, was a great and glorious man who who greatly expanded his territory and struck fear into the hearts of neighboring peoples.” (Zilagon conquers Canada and marries the daughter of the king of Mexico.) There are (among many other things) half-admiring accounts of famous criminals, bedroom farces, examples of war correspondence, prison songs, and a bizarre “novel of the occult” by V. I. Kryzhanovskaia (“The following excerpt picks up in the year 2284, with characters introduced in the first books: Supramati, who began life as British Dr. Ralph Morgan but was enticed by the original Prince Supramati, born in Egypt around 300 B.C., to exchange drops of blood so that the doctor would now live for eternity…”) that displays, as the editors point out, good old-fashioned Russian nationalism projected into the far future (“As for Tsargrad [i.e., Constantinople], it’s now the capital of the Russian Empire, one of the most powerful states in the world, standing at the head of the great All-Slavic Union”). This stuff entertained tsarist Russia and it will entertain you!Finally, for bragging rights I must mention that I finally finished Proust this year (in English, I’m afraid), and am now reading War and Peace in Russian. Let me tell you, this guy Tolstoy is a good writer!More from A Year in Reading 2008
Arthur Phillips is the bestselling author of The Egyptologist and Prague, which was a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. His most recent novel, Angelica, comes out in paperback in February.I admit to having bought a book for its cover. For years I had seen the four spines of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time lined up on bookstore shelves and admired them, wished the spines – which together form a Poussin painting – were up on my own. And so I bought the first book, dove in for no reason except coveting the covering, without having any idea what I was about to read.I emerged from the fourth volume six months later, having read nothing but Powell in the intervening time, and having completed one of the great reading experiences of my life, truly distraught that it was over.Pretentious claim, for which I apologize, but here it is: a few years earlier, I read the whole damn In Search of Lost Time (or whatever you want to call it), and the payoff at its end, after all the toil and pleasure, is no more powerful than a similar payoff at the end of Powell. You finish both with the sensation of having spent a long lifetime at the side of the narrator. You have the same feeling of nostalgia, profundity, passing years, lives led and finished, the power of a master of letters guiding you to the illusion of lived experience.That said, Powell is also funny, really funny, which is a claim I do not think can be made for Proust without straining something – credulity or a groin muscle.More from A Year in Reading 2007
9/24: Welcome Kottke.org readers. Thanks for stopping by. Once you’re done reading about The World’s Longest Novel, check out some of our more recent articles or have a look at our Notable Posts, listed in the right sidebar. If you like what you see, subscribe to our RSS feed. –The Millions
Over the years, there has been some controversy over what constitutes the world’s longest novel. The Guinness Book of World Records gives the honor to Marcel Proust’s elephantine Remembrance of Things Past, weighing in at 9,609,000 characters (including spaces). Other commentators cite Henry Darger’s In the Realms of the Unreal, a 15,000 page, handwritten tome that has yet to see print. (Darger is said to have commented: “This is what you can do when you have no radio or television.”) Why write something so long? Armen Shekoyan, an Armenian writer committed to producing the world’s longest novel, says:
If you write a book according to the usual criteria, one person may like it, the other may dislike it, but when you write ten volumes, no one will say that the book is in eight.
Shekoyan, however, doesn’t comprehend the magnitude of the task he has set for himself. After all, what’s ten volumes compared to the 106 volumes of the Hakkenden, a Japanese epic running to 38 million words.
So, whose book is the biggest? The controversy will soon be put to rest, possibly for all time, when writer Richard Grossman installs his 3 million-page novel Breeze Avenue on a remote mountain in Kaha, Hawaii. Although it is unclear how many words Breeze Avenue comprises, an educated guess puts the count at over 1 billion.
Breeze Avenue is part of Grossman’s American Letters Trilogy, the first two volumes of which, The Alphabet Man and The Book of Lazarus, were published by FC2. Grossman, and a cast of hundreds, have been working on the book for over thirty-five years, and it remains in a constant state of revision. Grossman tentatively plans to print just six copies of the book, each of which will comprise 4,000 volumes of 750 pages. One copy will be installed in a Hawaiian reading room, built for the project, and the other five will be sold in pieces online to approved buyers as objets d’art. There are also plans to make the entire work available online through a virtual reading room.
The book, much like Grossman’s first two novels, is radically experimental. Thousands of pages of poetry are translated into other languages – among them, Hebrew, Chinese, American Sign Language and various programming languages – and then back translated to create interchangeable sub-elements of which Grossman claims there are 1,000,000. Pictures of buyers, who must apply to purchase the book, will be incorporated into the text itself. Much of the writing is, in Grossman’s words, “differentiated and obfuscated. Like a labyrinth in which you can be lost to be found.” Despite all of the post-modern shenanigans, however, Grossman insists the book, which is loosely modeled on Dante’s Divine Comedy, has a definite narrative thread. The story involves a California retiree’s struggle to deal with the aftermath of a young, autistic woman’s death and prominently features Hasbro’s popular board game Scrabble.
Accompanying the book’s release, Grossman plans for a series of “performance readings.” One of these projects, a symphony played on an instrument of Grossman’s own design, has already taken place. The instrument, which Grossman refers to as the Car-iolon, is composed of thirteen cars (one of which he calls the harpsicar), which drive in tandem while playing music. The instrument plays a role in the book, and its first performance was held last Fall, with music specially composed for the event by Philip Glass. Other “readings” are planned to follow the book’s (tentative) release in 2008-2009.
Did Grossman set out to write the world’s longest book? “Not really,” he said. “It just kept coming together.”
I.The year is young yet, but I’d like to direct your attention to what will no doubt be recognized as one of the finest short stories published in it. It is called “Walter Benjamin,” and it appears in the Australian journalist Clive James’ experimental omnibus, Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. I use the term “experimental” advisedly; like the revelatory works of W.G. Sebald, Cultural Amnesia weaves history, fiction, and memoir so tightly together that it may be hard for the casual reader to tell the imaginary from the real… particularly as Cultural Amnesia purports to be a work of criticism. Compound this postmodern pliability with a classic unreliable narrator – James himself – and vertigo quickly sets in.So how does an artist hold together such an ambitious edifice? “Style,” James tells us, in one of his not infrequent moments of insight. And if some of James’ critical pronouncements lead us to suspect him of a tin ear, his writing confirms that he has learned a great deal from Proust, from Gibbon, from Waugh. Cultural Amnesia, which at 850 pages looks like intellectual heavy lifting, turns out to be a lively read: clear, colloquial, provocative, and often funny. James the stylist prizes clean rhythms, practical diction, an air of erudition, and above all the art of aphorism. We discover early on that he is a fine coiner of apercus, and if fatigue sets in halfway through the book, we finish with exhausted admiration: the man is a mint, a machine churning out sheet after epigrammatic sheet.Unfortunately, in literature, unlike science, elegance is no indicator of truth, and it’s not always clear whether James’ clever turns of phrase are backed by any standard other than authorial fiat. To put it another way (paraphrasing Virginia Woolf), Clive James seems willing to throw a few truths on the fire in order to make an essay blaze. Of Rilke, for example, he writes, “There is a dangerous moment when, in the [Duino] elegies, ‘the tear trees, the fields of flowering sadness’ start sounding like fine shades of meaning, instead of forced exercises in sentimentality.” James’ British resistance to even the mildly visionary does lend this assessment a bumptious snap, crackle, and pop. But in straining for a phrase to parallel “fine shades of meaning,” the critic does violence to the poet he professes to admire. Whatever they are, the Elegies are less like “forced exercises” than anything else in the Rilke canon… possibly in 20th Century poetry. And this slip recursively undermines one of James’ earlier aphorisms, decrying “ways of studying the arts so as to make the student feel as smart as the artist.” (Because what else is James doing with Rilke here? (And do we really venerate artists for their “smarts?”))We can forestall the dizzying cascade of parentheses that might ensue by reminding ourselves that Cultural Amnesia is, among many other things, a character study. Its subject: one Clive James. For the duration of our reading, we are in the presence of a voice no more self-aware than that of Nabokov’s Kinbote. As with Pale Fire, we get to what is worthwhile not by nodding along with the narrator but by reading through him, by teasing out the contradictions he’s straining to conceal. And because our narrator’s subjects are seldom so small as a line of Rilke – because he rarely stoops to close reading – the potential rewards, are enormous.Really, despite some introductory fulminations against “ideology” (a neat lift from the Marxism it purports to abhor), Cultural Amnesia aims at a kind of unified field theory of 20th Century history and culture. In alphabetized essays running from Anna Akhmatova through Dick Cavett all the way to Stefan Zweig, James returns again and again to the same questions: How did artists (not to say works of art) respond to the atrocities of Nazism and Communism? How should we value works of art, and why, and which ones? II.These are, as James suggests, humanist questions, and if the answers he arrives at don’t quite meet that standard, there’s much to admire in the attempt. Over and above the sheer pleasure of James’ style stands his passionate moral engagement with history. He assays his new humanism on behalf of the millions and millions of victims of totalitarian movements. Like McDuff, he feels these losses as a man.Indeed, writing about the suicide of Viennese polymath Egon Friedell, as storm troopers come “marching down the street,” James sounds almost envious that he was born too late to have been there alongside Friedell, to prove his own mettle. Our current pieties and abstractions about the war in Iraq or the genocide in Darfur can sound hollow in comparison to James’ moral outrage; there is much to learn from the way he takes massacres personally, and the critic owes it to him to take seriously the possibility that Stalin’s gulags might be a “central product” of socialism, rather than an aberration. (There was a time when Jean-Paul Sartre did not take that possibility seriously, and if James’ renunciation of everything Sartre wrote requires some willful misreading, at least it stands for something. James and Sartre have this in common: the belief that critical positions should never be lightly held.)It bears saying, too, that we are lucky Clive James is on our side. Passion is crucial to thought – it’s what makes thought matter – but it can also cloud judgment, and too frequently in Cultural Amnesia James’ zeal for laissez-faire liberalism tips over into a ratification of corporate capitalism or a crotchety disdain for “economic determinism [and] dogmatic egalitarianism.” In the Introduction, he writes,”Bright, sympathetic young people who now face a time when innocent human beings are killed by the thousand can be excused for thinking that their elders do not care enough […] but their elders grew to maturity in a time when innocent human beings were killed by the million.”Even as he ignores Rwanda and Darfur (syntactically blaming the bright young things for even bringing them up), James seems implicitly to dismiss the liberal, democratic catastrophe in Iraq by saying, in effect, “well, things could be worse.” Such Panglossian sophistry, pronounced throughout the book, is a blot on the good name of humanism.Nor does James quite follow through on his pluralist aspirations, which are the best and most deeply held part of his own ideology. He can imagine Duke Ellington jamming for Igor Stravinsky, but cannot hear the “we vs. they” contradictions in his assessment of leftist academics:”The Procrustean enemies of our provokingly multifarious free society are bound to come, sometimes merely to preach obscurantist doctrine in our universities, at other times to fly our own airlines into towers of commerce. What they hate is the bewildering complexity of civilized life.”To align the “witch doctors” of Cultural Studies with Al Qaeda is to fail to understand either, and this failure is not just intellectual, it is moral.In more supple hands, the conjoinment of conscience and illiberalism in James’ essays – the way even his “descriptive” certainties shade toward systems of intolerance and control – might help illuminate the vexing ideological blind spots James exposes in subjects like Sartre. A fuller humanism, that is, might explore the ethical tensions of being human. But James, despite having his own person as good evidence to the contrary, conceives of human beings as unitary creatures, either cowardly or heroic. And, with sometimes disastrous results for his criticism, he resists the idea that generally lousy people can make genuinely great art.III.Given James’ stern opposition to critical theory, it is both ironic and heartening to hear him decry the commodification of culture. In years past, an essayist’s insistence on learning as its own virtue might have suggested a doctrine of art for art’s sake. James, however, seems to view an artist’s works as an accessory to his or her life. Beneath a veneer of newfangled catholicism, he is that most old-fashioned of creatures – a biographical critic. Reading carefully through his renunciations of ideology, it becomes possible to discern James’ own. He does not believe that an artist with socialist sympathies can be as great as an artist who made do without them… or that a book colored by an objectionable ideology may also be a great one.“Louis-Ferdinand Celine, the author of that amazing phantasmagoria Voyage au bout de la nuit, had also written Bagatelles pour un massacre, a breviary for racialist fanatics,” he writes, blithely ignoring the incipient racism in the former. Why can’t he see Journey to the End of the Night for what it is? Would remembering Celine’s jaundiced account of the “primitives” in the novel’s African section make Journey less of a book? Or does the dialogic form of the novel allow us to situate Celine’s fictional alter-ego in a fully articulated ethical world, in which we can evaluate and possibly understand his misanthropy? Answering these questions would require a wholesale reexamination of James’ precepts about art… and might even force him to borrow a trick or two from Marxist literary theory, or – horrors! – from deconstruction. But James, blithely assured that academic critics “have nothing in mind beyond their own advancement,” can’t entertain the notion that moral and ideological ambiguity might enrich, rather than reduce, a text.Of course, evaluating a genius mainly in light of his stated views on totalitarianism can itself become a reductio ad absurdum. Here, for example, is James’ version of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: “Wittgenstein had thus constructed an instrument for discussing the totalitarian mentality, but he never used it. […] There is evidence, however, that when he finally saw the photographs of the hideous aftermath in the concentration camps he forgot his famous rule about being silent on issues of which one cannot speak, and broke down in tears.”Aside from being a vulgar misapprehension of Wittgenstein’s proposition about the limits of language (or, if James had the nerve, a gestural opening into Wittgenstein’s later philosophical investigations), this moment of voyeurism is spectacularly beside the point, reducing Wittgenstein and the Holocaust to mere credentialing mechanisms for one another. James presupposes that a virtuous human being surprised by the evidence of totalitarian slaughter could be anything other than grief-stricken. (In James account, Sartre would be one of those human beings. Here bad historiography is the accessory to bad criticism, falsifying the way Stalin’s propaganda machine worked… which is not to excuse Sartre, who should have known better.) Anyway, we end up learning more about Clive James than about Ludwig Wittgenstein.Even those artists lucky enough to have died before the rise of totalitarianism are not spared the indignity of becoming Rorschach tests for James’ various preoccupations. Gibbon gets taken to task for his prose (!) and Proust gets praised for all the wrong reasons. To hear James tell it, Proust’s virtue is his essayistic “wisdom”; In Search of Lost Time has “no structure to speak of.” This is heroically contrarian, but also dead wrong, and points to the blessing and curse of Cultural Amnesia. Unless we are inspired to remember the works of art James is nobly attempting to rescue, we’ll be stuck having to take his word for it.Proust’s “wisdom” isn’t contained in his discursive speculations, the critical essays (sometimes enchantingly specious) indebted to Ruskin and Bergson. The Search’s essayistic passages are aesthetic movements, not entries in a philosophical rolodex (a critic who characterizes Wittgenstein as primarily a poet should understand this.) It is precisely the structure of In Search of Lost Time, mapped in miniature by the “Combray” section, that embodies Proust’s species of wisdom. James, not surprisingly, sees Proust’s book as a mirror of his own – “an imaginative encyclopedia” – and misses the ironic reversals, the ultimate recognition toward which Proust’s grand structure tends.But in James’ own search, as in Proust’s, the narrator’s most dubious conclusions may serve to highlight deeper truths of psychology. The truth about Clive James is that he can’t entertain the idea that his triumphalist brand of capitalist liberalism might have its own flaws to be guarded against, its own totalizing tendencies, its own rolls of the dead. James is wonderful on artists whose lives and work are ideologically in harmony with each other and with him, but is much less tolerant than his bete noire Georg Lukacs of those whose ideas challenge a laissez-faire global political order. James frequently and rightly affirms that a right to dissent saves liberal democracy from becoming a totalizing ideology, but can’t conceal his resentment of the ungrateful few who exercise that right. And in the absence of Proust’s structural wisdom – in the absence of a Recognition scene, in which the narrator belatedly discovers his own imperfect apprehension of things – Cultural Amnesia trembles with unresolved tensions, threatening to bring down even the heroes James has enlisted on behalf of his cause.IV.To borrow from his sketch of Egon Friedell, James “comes on like an actor and a thinker both.” And sometimes the point of his performance seems to be to indemnify the capitalist West against any notion of progress. This leads him to the two tendencies that compromise, perhaps fatally, several of his essays.The first tendency is to distort the legacies of the cultural figures he admires (those who fit comfortably within the current version of centrist, bourgeois tradition) through misplaced emphasis. In James’ ode to Louis Armstrong, Armstrong’s single greatest achievement appears to be that he admired Bix Beiderbecke. Margaret Thatcher, we are told, posed “a crisis for Britain’s ideological feminists, who could no longer maintain that there was a glass ceiling.” Thomas Mann? “A solid paterfamilias.” One does not doubt that Mann confined his homosexual feelings to his fantasy life, that Thatcher vexed feminists, and that Armstrong approved of white musicians. But surely the collective achievements of this triumvirate amount to more than allowing straight white heirarchs to say, “Look, boys, he’s one of us!”Nor does James does reserve distortions for his fellow humanists. If he mischaracterizes artists who worked to shape the center, he fictionalizes those on the left.A tortured eulogy for Edward Said dissolves into an orgy of bad faith, as our narrator tells himself that faint praise and outright damnation add up to an ingenuous farewell.”There is no call to doubt [Said’s] integrity just because he had been raised in transit on luxury liners, laurelled at Princeton and Harvard, and otherwise showered with all the rewards Western civilization can bestow. What can be doubted is his accuracy. […] It is important to say that there were some Arab thinkers who […] found Orientalism a wrong-headed book. According to them, it encouraged a victim mentality by enabling failed states to blame the West for their current plight: a patronizing idea, common to the Western left. Though most of Said’s Western admirers were never aware of it, this ambiguity marked Said’s written work throughout his career: he was continually telling the people he professed to be rescuing from Western influence that they were helpless in its embrace. A quality of self-defeating ambiguity also characterized Said’s role as a practical diplomat.”This tangle of innuendo belies James’ insistence elsewhere that transparency of prose and transparency of meaning are synonymous. Every possible charge against Said is given space on the page, even as James conceals his endorsement. The rhetorical coup de grace comes when James hides behind “some Arab thinkers.” These nameless Arab thinkers’ sole contribution to 20th Century culture seems to be that they make it easier for Clive James to write off a subaltern whose politics he finds threatening; in the rest of the book, James evinces no interest in Middle Eastern culture.We are further informed, in the space of a paragraph, that “the Western and non-Western worlds of creativity had not been symmetrical”; that “no Orientalist had ever been more damagingly superficial than” Edward Said (again, according to non-Western scholars); that “Egypt had Napoleon to thank for everything it possessed” (said Naguib Mahfouz – and he won the Nobel Prize, so who can doubt him). James is nothing if not a marvel of compression:”Said was right to this extent, however: Occidental intellectuals find out very little about what is thought and written in the Oriental world. Very few of Said’s admirers in the West could begin to contemplate the fact that there are some bright people in the East who thought of Said as just another international operator doing well out of patronizing them, and with less excuse. I finished writing the piece that follows not long before Said finally succumbed to cancer, and I have left it in the present tense to help indicate that I was treating him as a living force, brave in a cause that was very short this kind of soldier.”We are witnessing here the birth of a new rhetorical mode: character assassination by friendly fire. Maybe James was right to suggest that Said should have stuck to playing piano.James is even worse on Sartre, whom he hates above all others. His inability to give Sartre a fair reading is a shame, as Sartre, unlike Said, might actually have been convicted of the most of the charges against him. To wit: “When Sartre broke with the Communists, he retained respect for their putatively benevolent social intentions, and was ready to say something exculpatory even if what he was exculpating was the Gulag network, whose existence, after he finally ceased to deny it, he never condemned as a central product of a totalitarian system, but only regretted as an incidental blemish.”But as excoriation curdles into invective, James sinks so low as to suggest that Sartre’s “physical ugliness” shaped his cultural positions, that Sartre was “debarred by nature from telling the truth for long about anything that mattered.” Sometimes it’s hard to tell what really enrages James most: Sartre’s apologies for Communism, or the fact that he beat James to the punch in opposing Nazism.In light of Sartre’s socialist sins, Being and Nothingness is written off here as an update of Heidegger’s “high-flown philosophical flapdoodle”… the product of “a mind that could not grant itself freedom to speculate in […] its own compromises with reality.” Now, in Heidegger, we have a man whose conduct under totalitarian rule deserves all the opprobrium that can possibly be heaped upon it. But Being and Time cannot be dismissed as “flapdoodle” on the grounds of biography alone. Nor can Being and Nothingness, whose author has the advantage of having participated in the Resistance. In fact, both Sartre and Heidegger were keenly interested in the mind’s compromises with reality, though they didn’t conceive of it in those terms (see, for example, Being and Time, Part One, Division I, Section V).It’s likely that Heidegger’s agnosticism on the subject the Other (later critiqued by that self-interested Witch-Doctor Emmanuel Lewinas) enabled his early political enthusiasm for Hitler. But it’s also possible to hang Heidegger out to dry on the grounds of his own definition of authenticity. Sartre, too, for that matter . To the extent that they endorsed or excused (respectively) totalitarian regimes, Heidegger and Sartre could be seen to have fallen short of their own philosophies. But to reach this nuanced verdict, one has to have actually tried to understand the philosophies in question, and James can’t be bothered with philosophy (not a great quality in a cultural critic). Even Hegel and Kant get his goat. I had always thought of the anti-intellectualism and paranoia as a combination peculiar to the American far right, but apparently it can afflict Aussie humanists, too.V.Which brings me to “Walter Benjamin,” the essay I hailed above as a fine piece of fiction. It’s not historical fiction, in that it doesn’t hew closely enough to fact. But as a work of imagination, it’s audacious.Okay, I’ll admit it… I’m being unfair to James. But only because James is unfair to Walter Benjamin. Apart from being a thinker whose sensibility – which can in no way be construed as ideological – has changed my life, Benjamin should be enrolled among James’ angels. He was a victim of totalitarianism, killing himself in the Pyrenees when it seemed he wouldn’t be able to escape the Reich. But because Benjamin practiced a syncretic version of Marxism, and would become popular, posthumously, with leftist academics, James can’t let him die with dignity.”It remains sadly true, however, that he is more often taken for granted than actually read. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ is the Benjamin essay that everybody knows a little about. Whether its central thesis is true is seldom questioned, just as the value of his work as a whole is seldom doubted. His untimely death was such a tragedy that nobody wants to think of his life as less than a triumph. But there had already been many thousands of Jewish tragedies before his turn came, and what is remarkable for the historically minded observer is just how slow so brilliant a man was to get the point about what the Nazis had in mind. About the other tragedy, the one in Russia, he never got the point at all.”How terrifying it is to see a fine mind in the grip of ideological fervor… I mean James’, of course. How terrifying the totalizing flatness of the phrasing: “his turn came”; “Jewish tragedies.” How awful the statement that Benjamin’s death was less remarkable than his failure to get the hell away from Hitler, the tiny insinuation that somehow his death was his fault. And how bizarre to take Benjamin to task for not having “got the point” about a tragedy he didn’t live to survey the extent of. And then James has the gall to tell us he’s doing Benjamin a “courtesy!”In real life, Benjamin is pretty widely read, and “The Work of Art” is well known precisely because its central thesis isn’t really up for debate. A quick comparison of James’ “proof” that this thesis is bogus with the thesis itself reveals that James hasn’t understood what Benjamin means by “aura.” Not even one bit. Normally, the James method would be to chalk this misunderstanding up to Benjamin’s obscurity – he goes on and on about Benjamin’s “all-inclusive obscurity” – but he’s made the mistake of granting that “The Work of Art” features “a general point designed to be readily understood.” So why can’t James understand it? If I may expropriate some other lines from this essay. “His life story gives us the answer: he was cushioning reality. It needed cushioning.”Of course Benjamin’s reality, James tells us, was anti-Semitism. (And if he knew what was good for him, the implication is, he’d have written about that, in the form of journalism, rather than theorizing about Parisian cafes (shopping arcades, actually.)) But what reality can a successful TV personality, in his (I’ll say it) idiotic dismissal of a cultural giant, possibly be cushioning himself against?VI.That reality is the world we now find ourselves in. The Soviet bloc has collapsed, without affording Clive James the chance to prove himself worthy of his heroes. Nazism, though it still persists, has dwindled. Only in the past few years have the lines for a new global conflict have been drawn. That the good guys have so far not acquitted themselves heroically challenges James’ picture of liberal democracy as a system that doesn’t require progressive intervention or even vigilance (only totalitarian ideologies have such requirements, he thinks). And so, rather than refine his model, James saddles up and goes looking for enemies. Too often, he finds the wrong ones.Given the amount of cannibalizing he’s done of his own body of work here, an odd palimpsest effect sets in… as if James is trying to reshape decades of enthusiastic reading and writing into a brief against the new enemies of civilization. Between the fits of intemperance, ignorance, and magnificent self-satisfaction are principled reflections on those who actually have blood on their hands, on Trotsky and Goebbels and Mao. And though it’s often said that it’s easier to write a bad review than a good one, James writes insightfully about figures like Albert Camus, whose art and political record were both sterling. His encomiums extend to literary critics, philologists, and historians from all over the world, and have left me with a list of writers I’m eager to read. I don’t know enough about Gianfranco Contini or Georg Christoph Lichtenberg to do anything other than enjoy James’ writing on them.In his role as a bourgeois provocateur, however, James is too willing to substitute ardor for attention, attention for smartness, smartness for intelligence. Cultural Amnesia is always ardent, often attentive, frequently smart, and sometimes intelligent. And boy is it learned. About the big things, it’s absolutely right. As students of culture, we must connect the dots. We must take a stand against oppression, against mass murder.But we know that already; we want our new humanism to help us with the details (with Guantanamo, with nuclear proliferation, with the ongoing totalitarian tragedies in North Korea and Iran). And it’s the details where James’ claims to humanism get dicey. He would rather praise that paragon of moral imagination, Mrs. Thatcher, than actually calibrate the human cost of the laissez-faire branch of economic determinism. (I can’t resist quoting this little cascade of reasoning (read closely, now): “She should have trusted her instincts and shut out the smart voices […] Her best instinct was to stick to a simple course of action once it had been chosen. That instinct became her enemy, and the enemy of the country, on those occasions when a simple course of action is not appropriate. In domestic policy it hardly ever is.”)What we can take from Cultural Amnesia, in the end, is a largeness of ambition, a breadth of learning, a catholic sensibility, and a heroic belief that culture can be a matter of life and death. But we must explore the finer points of art and history for ourselves, and reach our own conclusions. We must be intelligent readers. We must be careful not to let Clive James’ “necessary memories” stand in for our own.