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.
I used Leap Day to catch up on my Marcel Proust reading. And my laundry. Now, it’s March, I’m doing laundry again, and I’m finally caught up and well into Volume II. I was keeping a good pace with Volume I until mid-February, when my son had a week off from nursery school. During that same week, my husband was traveling in Australia. So it was just me and a three-and-a-half-year-old and a bad Skype connection for six days. I planned activities and playdates but foolishly did not schedule a babysitter. Also, it didn’t occur to me that it would be summer in Australia, and that when I dialed up my husband for an end-of-the-day chat, it would be morning where he was, and that he would be wearing sunglasses, a short-sleeved shirt, and a helpless grin.
On the second-to-last day of winter break I was so exhausted that I went to bed at eight, shortly after my son fell asleep. I slept deeply, waking up the next morning with the sense that I was in my childhood bedroom — that feeling Proust describes so well in the opening pages of Volume I. I closed my eyes and held onto the illusion, wondering if I noticed and identified the feeling because I had been reading Proust or if the feeling itself had arisen from reading Proust. And then my son called for me to make his breakfast and the sensation of being in my old bedroom vanished.
At that time, I was still reading Volume I, finishing up the last pages of the third section, “Swann in Love.” I was only managing a few pages a day, which was maybe an apt way to finish “Swann in Love,” with the slow pace of my reading mimicking the protracted period in which poor Swann, tormented by jealousy, can’t get enough time or attention from his lover, Odette. The worst part is, even when he’s with her, he can’t enjoy her company. And then, one morning, after a strange dream, his love dissipates and he famously wonders how he could have spent years of his life pining “for a woman who did not please me, who was not my type!”
This is probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve read “Swann in Love,” because even though I haven’t finished Proust’s novel, I’ve returned to “Swann in Love” several times and read it as if it were a stand-alone novella. When I first read it, I was most struck by Proust’s insights about romantic relationships, specifically, the role that memory plays in shaping our idea of a person, and how those memories create a narrative of “falling in love.” We use memories of shared experiences to build a story for our love and then we live in that story, inhabiting it so completely that we no longer see it as a fiction. Falling in love means abandoning an objective point of view for a subjective (some might say delusional) one. Somehow Proust manages to dramatize this change in perception in Swann’s story, making it feel epic and emblematic.
Over the years, I’ve approached “Swann in Love” from an apprentice fiction writer’s perspective, wondering how on earth did he do it? In earlier readings, I’ve thought the genius of the narration had everything to do with Proust’s prose style — his beautiful sentences and insights, his similes, his sense of humor. Now I think what matters most is the distance from which Marcel tells the story. Finding the right narrative distance is a problem I’ve been tackling in my own fiction, so maybe this is just projection on my part, but as I reread “Swann in Love,” this time, I kept thinking about the fact that Marcel introduces the story of Swann’s love affair with Odette as one that happened before he was even born. It’s a story he’s telling secondhand, “with the precision of detail which it is easier, sometimes, to obtain about the lives of people who have been dead for centuries than about the lives of our most intimate friends.”
Marcel never says who told him the story of Swann’s love affair, though there are occasional references to Marcel’s grandfather, who was friends with Swann’s father, and has a somewhat paternal and disapproving view of the younger Swann. We also meet Swann in the Combray sections of Volume I. He first appears as the visitor whose unexpected appearance disturbs Marcel’s bedtime routine, preventing Marcel from receiving a kiss from his mother. In this way, Swann is a father figure of sorts. But most of the time, Swann is like the fun, bachelor uncle whose unpredictable visits and dilettantish, social existence is in contrast to the staid routines of Marcel’s traditional, middle-class family. Swann fascinates the young Marcel, even more so after his “unfortunate marriage” to Odette, the coquette who is not even “his type.” But the younger Marcel of the Combray years doesn’t know her as Odette, he doesn’t know her “type,” and he has not yet heard the story of Swann’s tortured early years with her. All young Marcel knows is that his parents do not approve of the woman Swann has married.
To tell a story well, you need the right combination objectivity and intimacy. It’s important that Marcel’s fascination with Swann begins in childhood. Marcel will always have a memory of Swann that is visceral and associated with his family and his childhood home; he will always feel that he knows Swann in a deep way. That’s where the intimacy comes in. The objectivity comes into play as Marcel begins to wonder about Swann and the world he inhabits — a world that Marcel’s parents conceal or else know very little about. Looking back on my own childhood, the most interesting stories were the ones that my parents only told in part. I would have to piece the untold parts together like a reporter, using logic, deduction, and my own observations to make sense of what little I knew — as young Marcel does with Swann. Marcel’s questions about Swann’s life and his love affairs are essential questions of childhood: what is love, what is sexual desire, what is society, what is class, what, in short, are these mysterious forces that are shaping life but which no one alludes to directly?
A couple of months ago, I saw the movie, Brooklyn, based on Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name and was struck by how well it translated to film. It’s not an especially dramatic story. It follows Eilis, an ordinary Irish girl who immigrates to Brooklyn in the 1950s and has to decide who she will marry and where she will live. Her choices are not very surprising or bold. And yet, in both the book and the movie, Eilis comes across as a brave heroine. Her ordinary life seems larger than life. Even with the period details, there was something slightly out-of-time about the story; it was almost like a fairy tale. Some critics objected to the tone, wishing for something more gritty and realistic, but I don’t think it would have had the same emotional depth without it — the same mix of intimacy and objectivity. In an interview with Tóibín, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the story was from his childhood, one he heard secondhand at an emotional moment in his life:
My father died when I was 12. We were living in a small town in the southeast of Ireland. An old woman came to our house to pay her condolences. She told a story about her daughter, who had left Ireland to live in Brooklyn. She never said “America” or “New York.” She always said “Brooklyn.” Like it was a country all by itself. The way she talked about her daughter’s experiences there — working in a big department store on Fulton Street, marrying an Italian boy — there was something magical about it. I knew even then that one day I would tell that story.
Flannery O’Connor famously said that anyone who has survived childhood has more than enough material to write fiction. When I first heard that quote, secondhand and out of context, I assumed she was referring to the trauma of adolescence, and that it was her way of saying, “if you can’t get a story from that transformation, you probably won’t get a story from anything.” That’s part of what she’s saying, but having read the quote in context, her main point seems to be that it’s not life experience that makes you a good writer; it’s your contemplation of whatever experience life gives you. More than any writer I know, Proust shows how the half-stories we hear in childhood, the people we meet, the histories and landscapes we absorb, can be excavated in adulthood, with an adult’s sympathetic imagination.
I don’t know what I’m preparing for. My whole life I’ve considered valuable certain experiences, accomplishments, and knowledge simply because I imagine they’ll be useful to me in the future. I’m beginning to doubt this proposition.
Here’s an example. For the last ten years, I’ve kept a Word document for quotes. Any time I come across a worthy passage, I file it away. By now, the file has grown to over 30,000 words from hundreds of books, articles, poems, and plays. I do this not in the interest of collecting quotable prose or for the benefit of inspiration or encouragement or even insight. What I’m looking for are potential epigraphs.
You see, I love epigraphs. Everything about them. I love the white space surrounding the words. I love the centered text, the dash of the attribution. I love the promise. When I was a kid, they intimidated me with their suggested erudition. I wanted to be the type of person able to quote Shakespeare or Milton or, hell, Stephen King appropriately. I wanted to be the type of writer who understood their own work so well that they could pair it with an apt selection from another writer’s work.
If I ever wrote a novel, I told myself, about a writer, maybe I could quote Barbara Kingsolver: “A writer’s occupational hazard: I think of eavesdropping as minding my own business.” Or maybe one of Philip Roth’s many memorable passages on the writer’s life, like:
No, one’s story isn’t a skin to be shed — it’s inescapable, one’s body and blood. You go on pumping it out till you die, the story veined with the themes of your life, the ever-recurring story that’s at once your invention and the invention of you.
Or, taking a different tack:
It may look to outsiders like the life of freedom — not on a schedule, in command of yourself, singled out for glory, the choice apparently to write about anything. But once one’s writing, it’s all limits. Bound to a subject. Bound to make sense of it. Bound to make a book of it. If you want to be reminded of your limitations virtually every minute, there’s no better occupation to choose. Your memory, your diction, your intelligence, your sympathies, your observations, your sensations, your understanding — never enough. You find out more about what’s missing in you than you really ought to know. All of you an enclosure you keep trying to break out of. And all the obligations more ferocious for being self-imposed.
In some cases, I’d read something that was so eloquent and succinct, so insightful, I’d be inspired to write something around it, even if I didn’t have anything to go on other than the quote. Aleksander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project is positively riddled with possible epigraphs. Right away, on page two, we get this: “All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is all that the world is.” (Recognize that one? If you do, that’s because it has already been used as an epigraph for Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, except McCann changes all of the I’s to we’s.) Then, on the very next page, this: “There has been life before this. Home is where somebody notices when you are no longer there.” A few pages later: “I am just like everybody else, Isador always says, because there is nobody like me in the whole world.” On page 106: “Nobody can control resemblances, any more than you can control echoes.” That one made me want to write about a despotic father and the son who’s trying to avoid following in his footsteps. I didn’t have a great need to write that story, but the quote would have fit it so perfectly I actually have an unfinished draft somewhere in my discarded Word documents.
This is, of course, a stupid way to go about crafting fiction. I learned that lesson. You can’t write something simply because you’ve found the perfect epigraph, the perfect title, the perfect premise –– there has to be a greater need, a desire that you can’t stymie. Charles Baxter once wrote, “Art that is overcontrolled by its meaning may start to go a bit dead.” The same is true of art overcontrolled by anything other than the inexplicable urge to put story to paper. I know this now.
Yet I still collect possible epigraphs. And so far, I have yet to use a single entry from my document at the beginning of a piece of fiction.
Epigraphs, despite what my young mind believed, are more than mere pontification. Writers don’t use them to boast. They are less like some wine and entrée pairing and more like the first lesson in a long class. Writers must teach a reader how to read their book. They must instruct the tone, the pace, the ostensible project of a given work. An epigraph is an opportunity to situate a novel, a story, or an essay, and, more importantly, to orient the reader to the book’s intentions.
To demonstrate the multiple uses of the epigraph, I’d like to discuss a few salient examples. But I’m going to shy away from the classic epigraphs we all know, those of Hemingway, Tolstoy, etc., the kinds regularly found in lists with titles like “The 15 Greatest Epigraphs of All Time,” and talk about some recent books, since those are the ones that have excited (and, in some cases, confounded) me enough to write about the subject in the first place.
A good epigraph establishes the theme, but when it works best it does more than this. A theme can be represented in an infinity of ways, so it is the particular selection of quotation that should do the most work. Philip Roth’s Indignation opens with this section of E.E. Cummings’s “i sing of Olaf glad and big”:
Olaf (upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”
For a book titled Indignation, this seems a perfect tone with which to begin the novel. Olaf’s a heroic figure, who suffered unrelenting torture and still refused to kill for any reason, which means Roth here is also elevating the narrative of his angry protagonist to heroic status. Marcus Messner is a straight-laced boy in the early 1950s, attending college in rural Ohio. Despite his best efforts, Marcus gets caught up in the moral hypocrisy of American values, winding up getting killed in the Korean War. Marcus and Olaf are, as Cummings wrote, “more brave than me:more blond than you.”
Authors do this kind of thing all the time. They borrow more than just the quoted lines. In Roth’s case, it was Cummings’s moral outrage about American war he wanted aligned with his novel.
Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years.
The unknown element in the lives of other people is like that of nature, which each fresh scientific discovery merely reduces but does not abolish.
The theme of Egan’s novel is time and its effects on us –– how we survive or endure, how we perish, how things change, etc. –– a fact established here by quoting the foremost authority on fictive examinations of time, memory, and life gone by. But more than that, Egan is connecting her novel –– which is full of formal daring and partly takes place in the future –– to a canonical author whose own experimentation has now become standard. Like the music industry in her book, the world of literature has changed, maybe not for the worse but irrevocably nonetheless, and Proust’s monumental achievement has become, to most modern readers, an impenetrable and uninteresting work. Egan’s choice of epigraph places her squarely in the same tradition. The Modernism of Proust gave way to the Postmodernism of Egan. Years on, to readers not yet born, A Visit from the Good Squad may seem a hopelessly old-fashioned relic. Such is the power of time.
James Franco also opens his story collection Palo Alto with a selection from In Search of Lost Time, but the effect is severely diminished in his case. First of all, the quoted passage reads:
There is hardly a single action that we perform in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. 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.
Though a fitting passage for a work that focuses on young, troubled California teenagers, there is nothing other than the expressed idea that justifies Franco’s specific use of Proust as opposed to anyone else. And Franco attributes the quotation to Within a Budding Grove, which is the second book in, as Franco has it here, Remembrance of Things Past. Those two translations of the titles are, by now, somewhat obsolete, the titles of older translations. Within a Budding Grove is now usually referred to as In the Shadows of Young Girls in Flower. There is something a tad disingenuous about Franco’s usage here, a more transparently self-conscious attempt to legitimize his stories, something he didn’t need to do. His stories, despite some backlash he’s received, are pretty good.
Some writers are just masters of the epigraph. Thomas Pynchon always knows an evocative way to open his books. His Against the Day is a vast, panoramic novel that features dozens of characters in as many settings. The story begins at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 and goes until the 1920s, a period of remarkable technological change the world over. Electricity had been commercialized and was becoming commonplace. Tesla was conducting all his experiments. Pynchon reduces all of these pursuits to a wonderfully succinct quote:
It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light.
–– Thelonious Monk
First of all, have you ever even thought about the universe in this way? That darkness is its default setting? Secondly, have you ever heard a more beautiful and concise explanation for one of the great plights of humanity? We’re afraid of the dark, and the desire for light (both literal and metaphorical) consumes us. Referencing Monk does the opposite of referencing Proust. Pynchon’s working with high theme here, but he’s coming at it with the spirit of a brilliant and erratic jazz artist.
His so-called “beach read,” Inherent Vice takes place at the end of the 1960s, an era that clearly means a lot to Pynchon. Earlier, in Vineland, radicals from the 60s have become either irrelevant eccentrics or have joined the establishment. It’s a strange, mournful meditation on the failures of free love. Inherent Vice takes a similar approach. Doc Sportello is a disinterested P.I. for whom the promise of that optimistic decade offers very little. That optimism is where we begin the novel:
Under the paving-stones, the beach!
–– Graffito, Paris, May 1968
A very pointed reference. Paris in May of 1968, of course, was a hotbed of protest and civic unrest, a time of strikes and occupations, and, for hippies and radicals, a harbinger of the changes to come. Well, Inherent Vice takes place on a beach. No paving-stones need be removed for the beach to appear. Yet the promise of the graffito –– i.e., that beauty and natural life exist under the surface of the establishment –– seems, to Doc Sportello (and us, as readers, in retrospect) a temporary hope that, like fog, will eventually lift and disappear forever. In the end, as Doc literally drives through a deep fog settling in over Los Angeles, he wonders “how many people he knew had been caught out” in the fog or “were indoors fogbound in front of the tube or in bed just falling asleep.” He continues:
Someday…there’d be phones as standard equipment in every car, maybe even dashboard computers. People could exchange names and addresses and life stories and form alumni associations to gather once a year at some bar off a different freeway exit each time, to remember the night they set up a temporary commune to help each other home through the fog.
The fog will lift, and the dream of the 60s will become a memory, murky but present. For Doc, and for us, all he can do is wait “for the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead.”
For many, Inherent Vice was a light novel, a nice little diversion, and it mostly is, but for me it has more straightforward (and dare I say, sentimental?) emotional resonance than many of Pynchon’s earlier novels. And this epigraph is part of its poignancy. Doc’s complicated personal life becomes a panegyric for an entire generation, all in the form of a “beach read.”
Sometimes, though, epigraphs offer a different kind of poignancy Christopher Hitchens’s last collection of essays, Arguably, opens with this:
Live all you can: It’s a mistake not to.
–– Lambert Strether, in The Ambassadors
Hitchens, by the time Arguably was published, had already been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He knew he was dying. This epigraph stands as Hitchens’s final assertion of his unwavering worldview. Even more retrospectively moving are the epigraphs of Hitch-22, a memoir he wrote before the doctors told him the news. One of these passages is the wonderful, remarkable opening of Hitchens’s friend Richard Dawkins’s book Unweaving the Rainbow:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of the Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, who are here.
Though I’m not sure how “ordinary” Hitchens viewed himself (he seems to have thought a great deal of himself), this still seems an uncannily prescient sentiment to be quoted so soon before his diagnosis.
But maybe my all-time favorite epigraph comes from Michael Chabon’s recent Telegraph Avenue:
Call me Ishmael.
––Ishmael Reed, probably
This is one of the cleverest, funniest, and most arrogant epigraphs I’ve come across in recent years. “Call me Ishmael” is, as we all know, the opening sentence of Moby Dick. Ishmael Reed was a black experimental novelist, author of the classic Mumbo Jumbo, a writer steeped in African American culture not depicted in mainstream art. Chabon’s novel takes place in Oakland and focuses, in part, on race. It is Chabon’s most direct attempt to write a Great American Novel (it even suggests as much on the inside flap of the hardcover), with its grand themes and storied setting, its 12-page-long sentence, its general literariness. By framing his book with an irreverent reference to one of America’s definitive Great American Novels, placed in the mouth of a black writer, Chabon both announces his intention to write a Great book and denounces the entire notion that there can be Great books. How does the supposed greatness of Moby Dick speak to the black experience? What does its language offer them? So here, the most revered sentence in American literature becomes, for a man named Ishmael, a quotidian utterance, a common request. Call me Ishmael. Just another day for Ishmael Reed. And Telegraph Avenue works like that, too. It’s just another day for Archy and Nat, the book’s main characters. Is Telegraph Avenue Chabon’s Moby Dick? His Ulysses? Perhaps. But it’s certainly in conversation with those books; the epigraph makes that much clear.
Epigraphs are, ultimately, like many components of art, in that they can pretty much accomplish anything the writer wants them to. They can support a theme or contradict it. They can prepare readers or mislead them. They can situate a book into its intended company or they can renounce any relationship with the past. And when used effectively, they can be just as vital to a novel’s meaning as the title, the themes, the prose. An epigraph may not make or break a book, but it can certainly enhance its richness.
And, more, they can enhance the richness of the epigraph itself. Because of Michael Chabon, I can never look at Moby Dick’s famous opening the same way again. When I read Cummings’s poem “i sing of Olaf glad and big,” I have a new appreciation for its political implications. Literature is wonderful that way. It isn’t merely the creation of new work; it’s the extension of the art itself. Each new novel, each new story, not only adds to the great well of work, it actually reaches back into the past and changes the static text. It alters how we see the past. The giant conversation of literature knows no restrictions to time or geography, and epigraphs are a big part of it. Writers continuously resurrect the dead, salute the present and, like epigraphs, hint at what’s to come in the future.
Now that I think about it, I realize that all those quotes I’d been saving up over the years finally have a purpose. Since I’ve become a literary critic, I’ve mined my ever-growing document numerous times, not for an epigraph, but as assistance to my analysis of a literary work. I’ve used them to characterize a writer’s style, their recurring motifs or as examples of their insight. These quotations have become extremely useful, invaluable even. In fact, I see my collection as a kind of epigraph to my own career. At first, I didn’t understand their import, but as I lived on (and, appropriately, as I read on), those borrowed words slowly started to announce their purpose, and when I revisit them (like flipping back to the front page of a novel after finishing it), I find they have new meaning to me now. They are the same, but they are different. Like Pynchon writes in Inherent Vice: “What goes around may come around, but it never ends up exactly the same place, you ever notice? Like a record on a turntable, all it takes is one groove’s difference and the universe can be on into a whole ‘nother song.”