In June, my partner and I moved from Boston back to Brooklyn, where we last lived, separately, almost a decade ago. The cost of moving and the inevitable decline in square footage occasioned a (very) reluctant jettisoning of books, though you wouldn’t know it from visiting our apartment, where almost every inch of wall space is now taken up with self-installed shelves of questionable sturdiness holding “must-haves,” such as galleys of NYRB Classics from the late 2000s, giant undergraduate philosophy anthologies, and that book of Don DeLillo short stories that I swear is climbing out of giveaway boxes and following us, Toy Story-style, across the country.
All of which is to say that it sometimes felt like I spent
as much time lifting, sorting, stacking, shelving, and contemplating the
physical necessity of books as reading them this year. Nevertheless, I did read
a bunch of them.
I started the year reading My Tender Matador by the Chilean writer Pedro Lemebel, after learning about him in Alejandro Zambra’s Not to Read. Lemebel, who died in 2015, was a brave and outspoken gay activist, and his novel combines a high camp sensibility with grave political concerns in a way that’s reminiscent of his Argentinian predecessor Manuel Puig. Lemebel dares to enter the perspective of Pinochet, and is blessedly merciless in his depiction of the ugliness and emptiness of what lies within the dictator’s mind. I wish this novel was better known, and that more of Lemebel’s work was available in English, because my Spanish remains terrible.
Though Lemebel’s novel is fast, funny, and relatively short, I thought of it while reading Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman, a nearly 900-page, deeply unfunny book. Like Lemebel, Grossman was determined, at all costs, to speak hard—impossible, in his case—truths about the governing ideology of his time. (His novel was confiscated by the Soviet authorities and not published until long after his death, in the 1980s.) After years of people telling me to read it, I was finally convinced to take it on over afternoon beers with an n+1 editor, who made it clear that our continuing friendship was contingent upon my reading it. OK, I haven’t finished it yet. But after a few hundred pages, I can safely affirm that it is one of the most emotionally intense books I’ve ever read—page after page of horror and empathy across the Soviet Union during the battle of Stalingrad, including possibly the most devastating letter—from a mother, being sent to a death camp, to her son—in all of literature. I cried while reading this book in an airport, and then on a plane, and then on a bus. So maybe read it at home?
Rounding out the nightmare political portion of the year’s reading, I was totally engrossed by Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?, about the brazen murder of a Guatemalan bishop following his involvement in the compilation of a report detailing the military’s atrocities against civilians, many of them indigenous. It’s a fascinating and horrifying work of investigative journalism—if you liked Say Nothing by Patrick Raden Keefe (which I certainly did), you should read this, as well as the scabrously funny Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, which fictionally depicts the writing of a report very much like the one Bishop Gerardi was murdered over.
I read Her First American by Lore Segal after reading about it in a great essay on Segal’s work by Madeleine Schwartz. It’s a novel about an Austrian war refugee falling in love with an alcoholic black intellectual in New York in the ’50s. It may well be the perfect novel. It seems criminally under-known, or under-discussed at least. I read it around the same time as I read For Rouenna by Sigrid Nunez, an incredibly dark novel about a woman who serves as a field nurse in the Vietnam War, then returns home to a grim and circumscribed existence. I think the title might be holding this one back from becoming the modern classic it should be. That led me associatively, I think, to The Lover by Marguerite Duras, which I had pretended to have read for years. It’s really great! And Dorothy just put out a funky collection of her nonfiction, Me, that is well worth reading, too.
I read two and a half books of Proust—part two of The Guermantes Way through The Captive—and decided that he is not overrated. I also read a bunch of Annie Ernaux, and I’m currently reading The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrere and Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes. I wish I knew French. I wish I was French.
I read excellent new books by my friends. Caleb Crain’s novel Overthrow and Andrew Marantz’s nonfiction chronicle Antisocial make a nice holiday pair, covering the surveillance state and the rise of the right-wing Internet with matching red and black covers. Adam Sachs’s The Organs of Sense is the funniest, smartest book about an eyeless astronomer you’ll ever read. And Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation is the best novel of next year—I’m so sure of it that I’m not going to bother reading any other new books in 2020.
Finally, I listened to James Atlas’s lovely audiobook reminiscence of his friendship with Philip Roth. It’s a short, sweet New York memoir that captures the character of the great novelist and biographer, both now gone and deeply missed. Let it serve as an elegiac gateway back into their unruly, essential bodies of work.
One thing you could always say for me: I was a finisher. I may not have been a great reader, but by God I was dogged, and if I made it through the opening 10th of a book, then I was going all the way to the end. Though this started as merely an inclination, it eventually became a rule, for reasons I can’t quite understand. There are, after all, so many books that deserve abandonment, and to this day I admire readers like my wife, who can jump ship after 80 pages. But I suppose my years as an altar boy left their mark, both in a too-easy conflation of negligence and sin and in a deeper, anthropomorphic sense that even a bad book might at the last minute change into something singular and not-to-be-missed. “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life,” as Grace Paley put it, in her own American idiom. And if I was to be the little god of the worlds I made when turning the pages, then who was I to let a little boredom or disappointment turn me away? I mean, isn’t the real God, if there is one, a finisher, too?
This isn’t to say there weren’t challenges. The Book of Disquiet took me over a year, and several running starts. Ditto Being & Time. Proust I read over four summers, and though there was never a moment when he sunk me in the swamps of saudade, or gave me whatever is German for brain-freeze, it took a certain monogamous willfulness to return to, say, The Fugitive when fresher titles beckoned from the shelf.
But then came baby #3. Let’s call her N. She was not, exactly, planned on, though for several consecutive springs when my manic phase rolled in I had this sense that my own open destiny would probably include throwing myself out of the fatherhood plane one more time. Capping the family at two kids would have felt like stopping Proust after book six, somehow. I hasten to say of baby N, as of Proust: totally worth it.
Except that all of a sudden I couldn’t finish anything. When N was born, back in February, The Great War raged in Robert Musil’s diary. Socialism, in G.D.H. Cole’s five-volume history, had entered its anarchist phase. Now, in December, poor Robert Musil still hasn’t reached an armistice, while socialism retains a markedly anarchist flavor.
Here was me in the first few months after the delivery: I would open a novel, read along perfectly happily for a day or two, and then let it drop. I was waiting for the thing that would sweep me up and carry me through. But perhaps my reading list was too ambitious for my circumstances. (Like, who outside of grad school reads Musil at the same time as G.D.H. Cole?) I told myself I would move, temporarily, to something more sensible. But to no avail. My study grew littered with dog-eared New Yorkers, foreshortened short stories, longreads I sputtered out halfway through. Many of which I enjoyed, and hope to finish in the near future. For now, though, my year in reading comes back to me as a mixtape, as hip-hop: a swirl of enticing samples. Bits and pieces of Laura Oldfield Ford’s ’zine cycle, Savage Messiah. Phosphorescent sentences from Jaimy Gordon’s Shamp of the City-Solo. Andrew O’Hagan’s essay on Satoshi Nakamoto. Ian Frazier’s on New Jersey Route 3. The poem “Far Rockaway” by Delmore Schwartz. The part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything when Antinous Bellori spots some angels in the woods. The part of Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil where Virgil arrives in Brundisium and the translation hasn’t yet gone bananas. The unimprovable first paragraph of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days. And Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer,” whose allegorical valences were not lost on me. Here I was looking down from the deck of a ship, not quite where I ever thought I’d be, while down there in the water, untethered but unreachable, swam another, truer self.
Okay, so I guess I did finish the Conrad. And by summer there were other things, small things, I was managing to see to the end. Like several short stories by Mavis Gallant, including “Speck’s Idea,” probably the single most perfect piece of fiction I read this year. Gallant at her best is every bit the equal of Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg, or Joy Williams. Whose story “Stuff” was another highlight. As was Claire Vaye Watkins’s “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness,” from the Granta “Best of Young American Novelists” issue.
Or like the essays in Zadie Smith’s forthcoming collection, Feel Free. Several years ago, I thought I noticed a turn in Smith’s nonfiction, a loosening of the burdens of her remarkable erudition, like an astronaut swapping out the gravity boots, or like a swimmer kicking off from land. The places she now consistently reaches in her essays—on Joni Mitchell and Get Out and Anomalisa and joy—are not only nearer to the distant philosophical goalposts of the true and the just and the beautiful…they get us there with truth and justice and beauty of their own, and with an extraordinary, dab-worthy grace. In short, I feel lucky to be alive at a time when these essays are being written.
People must have felt similarly fortunate reading A Room of One’s Own a century ago, or hearing it in its original form, as lectures. I somehow made it to 38 without having read it, and in a weird way, I’m glad I did. In a college classroom, I might not have understood it as I did this summer in Maine, as a book not only about feminism, or art (as if these were ever “only”), but about how to live, for everyone, everywhere. That was a good week for finishing things, come to think of it, because I also, finally, tackled Evan S. Connell’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, those sterling examples of love as an act of ruthless attention. And I read much of Neil Sheehan’s A Bright, Shining Lie, a monument of narrative nonfiction that belongs on the national required reading list.
There was, too, the compellingly terrible first couple hundred pages of Harlot’s Ghost, part of an ongoing personal Norman Mailer project I probably won’t complete short of a vasectomy. There are times these days when I find bad writing as exciting as good writing. Maybe more. And apparently it’s not just me, because Mailer seems to bring the best out of his critics. Witness Elizabeth Hardwick, in her long-overdue Collected Essays: “the demonic, original clutter of Mailer’s high style.” Or witness Jonathan Lethem: “If, as in the Isaiah Berlin formulation, ‘the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,’ then Mailer’s gift and curse was to have been a hedgehog trapped inside an exploding fox.”
Other, more recent titles I should mention: Ben Blum’s Ranger Games, a gripping and thoughtful blend of memoir and true-crime. George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which I can’t make up my mind about—usually a good sign. And Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “My President Was Black,” with its arresting final cadences. I had read, and felt conflicted about, the epilogue to Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power when it appeared as a stand-alone in The Atlantic. (This is how I read now: epilogue first). If the evidence was hard to reproach, the rhetoric seemed to me flawed. But the book as a whole makes the argument far more persuasively, and—I know this is a little contrarian—I think it’s a more fully realized piece of analysis than Between the World and Me. Coates is that rare thing in our public life: a writer willing to let us see him becoming. We’ll need more of that in the year to come.
And finally, while on the subject of public life and presidents and the winter that is now upon us, I suppose it’s time—with apologies to any of his supporters left reading The Millions—to invoke He Who Must Not Be Named. For, as much as I’ve been pinning my distractibility on baby N (which would suggest I only have to persevere till she sleeps through the night), a novelist friend of mine recently proposed a counter-explanation. “Oh, yeah, man, that’s not you, it’s everyone,” he said. “All of our colleagues, everyone I talk to, my mom and stepdad, their neighbors…It’s been everyone’s worst year in reading.” His argument was that we’re so inundated just at present with narrative and fantasy—with one particular person’s narrative and fantasy—that the last thing we want in our reading lives is more imagination. If democracy dies in darkness, then dispense with the dreaming. Just give me the facts.
Now, if I were a Trumpist, I’d probably say “just give me a break.” There goes the liberal culture industry again, blaming him for their own failings, for every last thing they don’t like. To which I simply ask: aren’t you, too, tired of it? The insults, the feuds, the hysterical touchiness, the drag masculinity, the swamping of the drain, the bull in the nuclear china shop? Not to mention the buck stopping perpetually elsewhere. If politics has become a reality show, we’ve progressed in the last 18 months from the guilty pleasure of The Apprentice to the absurdity of The Celebrity Apprentice to, like, Season 7 of Real Housewives…and did anyone not stuck on an airplane even watch Season 7 of Real Housewives? Haven’t you, too, found far more of your brain given over to Donald Trump than you should have give over to even a good president? Or to put it another way: isn’t one definition of “a good president” “one you don’t have to constantly keep your eye on?” Speaking personally, I’m realizing that I read just as much this year as any year…it’s just that hundreds of my hours were given over to news, lest I fail to be aware of some developing crisis. And in the station wagon of representative government, the driver’s not supposed to be hunched over his twitter feed, leaving everyone else to watch out for hazards. We – I mean to include Trump voters here, too – deserve better. We deserve, at a minimum, adult hands on the wheel.
As to what duties an informed citizenry does have, in this or any other time, it’s worth asking: is newspaper prose plus a handful of cultural swatches anyone’s definition of an inner life? Will even the richest fragments be enough to shield us from ruin? Somehow, I don’t think so. In the short run, the con man who now has the car keys may have exposed our gullibility, sending all of us scrambling to find out things we never had to know before. But the long-term damage may be to a quantity so abused as to have fallen into shame and disrepute: the capacity for belief. We will need, if we are to stitch ourselves together again, to find stories that bridge the unbridgeable, stories that make sense of the senseless, or simply present it in all its mystery, stories that respect the difference between facts and truth – stories worth believing in. In some small way, then, seeing a novel or a poem or a work of imaginative nonfiction through to completion may turn out to be not an irrelevance but an act of subversion. Or better yet: preparation.
Here’s to being a better finisher in 2018.
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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.
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.