Tuesday, October 18, 2016

paying out a long braided steel cable

The next morning, the Lady Grace encountered the ice pack. It was as if they had run aground in the night on the shores of a broken white wasteland, or had discovered an archipelago of floating islands, a few fathoms thick, blanketed with snow and streaked with muddy yellow at the waterline. The ice pack shifted, rising here and dropping there with the currents and the action of the slow waves. This shattered wasteland covered the hundreds of miles ahead of the Lady Grace, crazed ice hard and blinding bright in the daylight, the seams between the separate floes black as if great quantities of ink had been poured out by the hand of Heaven. The Lady Grace followed these dark seams south, into the pack. It was, as the whalers of Grytviken had warned, much farther north than usual, especially at the start of summer. But it was loose pack, and under reduced sail the Lady Grace pushed her way easily through the gaps in the frozen archipelago, sometimes running half a mile or more in open water.

Jernagen and Weir had set up their scientific gear on the quarterdeck. Weir lowered his dredge over the taffrail, paying out a long braided steel cable, hoping to find something new swimming in the deep cold water. Jernagen measured the air and water temperatures, the geomagnetic variances, the mineral content of the ice and the water, and the spectrum of the sunlight. Weir netted petrels, fulmar gulls and dreamed of dissecting Emperor penguins. He photographed crabeater seals, killer whales, humpback whales, and Finner whales. He found shrimp and jellyfish in his dredge, a thousand feet below the ship's keel. Jernagen and Weir sat on the deck with their heads close together, scribbling notes in their journals, smiling and breathing each other's pipe smoke.
This post is just a reminder to myself that yesterday, after a break of a month, I began again to work on the draft of the novel I'm calling Nowhere But North. I've written about 70,000 words of that draft, and have about 25,000 still to write. I think it will be a pretty good book. Currently, I realized at lunch today, I am entering that phase of first draft writing when I have pretty much abandoned ideas of propriety, which is to say that as far as what and how I write, anything goes. This is how it always is, having mentally collapsed under the pressure of the work, I decide that every idea--no matter how absurd--is probably a pretty good idea and should be allowed its place in the book. Three quarters of the way through and I've become punchy. The above-quoted excerpt is not an example of the absurd which creeps into the novel.

Friday, October 7, 2016

there have been great changes

like a kaleidoscope which is every now and then given a turn, society arranges successively in different orders elements which one would have supposed to be immovable, and composes a fresh pattern. Before I had made my first Communion, ladies on the "right side" in politics had had the stupefaction of meeting, while paying calls, a smart Jewess. These new arrangements of the kaleidoscope are produced by what a philosopher would call a "change of criterion." The Dreyfus case brought about another, at a period rather later than that in which I began to go to Mme. Swann's, and the kaleidoscope scattered once again its little scraps of color. Everything Jewish, even the smart lady herself, fell out of the pattern, and various obscure nationalities appeared in its place. The most brilliant drawing-room in Paris was that of a Prince who was an Austrian and ultra-Catholic. If instead of the Dreyfus case there had come a war with Germany, the base of the kaleidoscope would have been turned in the other direction, and its pattern reversed. The Jews having shewn, to the general astonishment, that they were patriots also, would have kept their position, and no one would have cared to go any more, or even to admit that he had ever gone to the Austrian Prince's. All this does not, however, prevent the people who move in it from imagining, whenever society is stationary for the moment, that no further change will occur, just as in spite of having witnessed the birth of the telephone they decline to believe in the aeroplane. Meanwhile the philosophers of journalism are at work, castigating the preceding epoch, and not only the kind of pleasures in which it indulged, which seem to them to be the last word in corruption, but even the work of its artists and philosophers, which have no longer the least value in their eyes, as though they were indissolubly linked to the successive moods of fashionable frivolity. The one thing that does not change is that at any and every time it appears that there have been "great changes."
from A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs by Marcel Proust (C. K. Scott Moncrieff, trans.).

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

some astonished condition of soul

...if you address any average modern English company as believing in an Eternal life, and endeavour to draw any conclusions, from this assumed belief, as to their present business, they will forthwith tell you that what you say is very beautiful, but it is not practical. If, on the contrary, you frankly address them as unbelievers in Eternal life, and try to draw any consequences from that unbelief,--they immediately hold you for an accursed person, and shake off the dust from their feet at you. And the more I thought over what I had got to say, the less I found I could say it, without some reference to this intangible or intractable part of the subject. It made all the difference, in asserting any principle of war, whether one assumed that a discharge of artillery would merely knead down a certain quantity of red clay into a level line, as in a brick field; or whether, out of every separately Christian-named portion of the ruinous heap, there went out, into the smoke and dead-fallen air of battle, some astonished condition of soul, unwillingly released.
I have been reading a collection of Ruskin's lectures on political economy (The Crown of Wild Olives) and discover that in it Ruskin covers a great deal of the ground I have been tramping through in my work-in-progress novel Nowhere But North. I find myself wondering why I am writing my novel, unknowingly paraphrasing Ruskin a hundred and twelve years or whatever after his death. Mighty Reader might point out that I'm not exactly writing my novel; I seem to have stalled at 70,000 words, unwilling to go forward.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

within a toxi-alimentary dyspnoea grove

As my chokings had persisted long after any congestion remained that could account for them, my parents asked for a consultation with Professor Cottard. It is not enough that a physician who is called in to treat cases of this sort should be learned. Brought face to face with symptoms which may or may not be those of three or four different complaints, it is in the long run his instinct, his eye that must decide with which, despite the more or less similar appearance of them all, he has to deal. This mysterious gift does not imply any superiority in the other departments of the intellect, and a creature of the utmost vulgarity, who admires the worst pictures, the worst music, in whose mind there is nothing out of the common, may perfectly well possess it. In my case, what was physically evident might equally well have been due to nervous spasms, to the first stages of tuberculosis, to asthma, to a toxi-alimentary dyspnoea with renal insufficiency, to chronic bronchitis, or to a complex state into which more than one of these factors entered. Now, nervous spasms required to be treated firmly, and discouraged, tuberculosis with infinite care and with a 'feeding-up' process which would have been bad for an arthritic condition such as asthma, and might indeed have been dangerous in a case of toxi-alimentary dyspnoea, this last calling for a strict diet which, in return, would be fatal to a tuberculous patient. But Cottard's hesitations were brief and his prescriptions imperious. "Purges; violent and drastic purges; milk for some days, nothing but milk. No meat. No alcohol." My mother murmured that I needed, all the same, to be 'built up,' that my nerves were already weak, that drenching me like a horse and restricting my diet would make me worse. I could see in Cottard's eyes, as uneasy as though he were afraid of missing a train, that he was asking himself whether he had not allowed his natural good-humour to appear. He was trying to think whether he had remembered to put on his mask of coldness, as one looks for a mirror to see whether one has not forgotten to tie one's tie. In his uncertainty, and, so as, whatever he had done, to put things right, he replied brutally: "I am not in the habit of repeating my instructions. Give me a pen. Now remember, milk! Later on, when we have got the crises and the agrypnia by the throat, I should like you to take a little clear soup, and then a little broth, but always with milk; au lait! You'll enjoy that, since Spain is all the rage just now; olé, olé!" His pupils knew this joke well, for he made it at the hospital whenever he had to put a heart or liver case on a milk diet. "After that, you will gradually return to your normal life. But whenever there is any coughing or choking—purges, injections, bed, milk!" He listened with icy calm, and without uttering a word, to my mother's final objections, and as he left us without having condescended to explain the reasons for this course of treatment, my parents concluded that it had no bearing on my case, and would weaken me to no purpose, and so they did not make me try it. Naturally they sought to conceal their disobedience from the Professor, and to succeed in this avoided all the houses in which he was likely to be found. Then, as my health became worse, they decided to make me follow out Cottard's prescriptions to the letter; in three days my 'rattle' and cough had ceased, I could breathe freely. Whereupon we realised that Cottard, while finding, as he told us later on, that I was distinctly asthmatic, and still more inclined to 'imagine things,' had seen that what was really the matter with me at the moment was intoxication, and that by loosening my liver and washing out my kidneys he would get rid of the congestion of my bronchial tubes and thus give me back my breath, my sleep and my strength. And we realised that this imbecile was a clinical genius.
from In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower by Marcel Proust, Moncrieff translation.

Monday, September 12, 2016

"I am greedier than any of you"

    Meanwhile M. Verdurin, after first asking Swann's permission to light his pipe ("No ceremony here, you understand; we're all pals!"), went and begged the young musician to sit down at the piano.
    "Leave him alone; don't bother him; he hasn't come here to be tormented," cried Mme. Verdurin. "I won't have him tormented."
    "But why on earth should it bother him?" rejoined M. Verdurin. "I'm sure M. Swann has never heard the sonata in F sharp which we discovered; he is going to play us the pianoforte arrangement."
    "No, no, no, not my sonata!" she screamed, "I don't want to be made to cry until I get a cold in the head, and neuralgia all down my face, like last time; thanks very much, I don't intend to repeat that performance; you are all very kind and considerate; it is easy to see that none of you will have to stay in bed, for a week."
    This little scene, which was re-enacted as often as the young pianist sat down to play, never failed to delight the audience, as though each of them were witnessing it for the first time, as a proof of the seductive originality of the 'Mistress' as she was styled, and of the acute sensitiveness of her musical 'ear.' Those nearest to her would attract the attention of the rest, who were smoking or playing cards at the other end of the room, by their cries of 'Hear, hear!' which, as in Parliamentary debates, shewed that something worth listening to was being said. And next day they would commiserate with those who had been prevented from coming that evening, and would assure them that the 'little scene' had never been so amusingly done.
    "Well, all right, then," said M. Verdurin, "he can play just the andante."
    "Just the andante! How you do go on," cried his wife. "As if it weren't 'just the andante' that breaks every bone in my body. The 'Master' is really too priceless! Just as though, 'in the Ninth,' he said 'we need only have the finale,' or 'just the overture' of the Meistersinger."
    The Doctor, however, urged Mme. Verdurin to let the pianist play, not because he supposed her to be malingering when she spoke of the distressing effects that music always had upon her, for he recognised the existence of certain neurasthenic states—but from his habit, common to many doctors, of at once relaxing the strict letter of a prescription as soon as it appeared to jeopardise, what seemed to him far more important, the success of some social gathering at which he was present, and of which the patient whom he had urged for once to forget her dyspepsia or headache formed an essential factor.
    "You won't be ill this time, you'll find," he told her, seeking at the same time to subdue her mind by the magnetism of his gaze. "And, if you are ill, we will cure you."
    "Will you, really?" Mme. Verdurin spoke as though, with so great a favour in store for her, there was nothing for it but to capitulate. Perhaps, too, by dint of saying that she was going to be ill, she had worked herself into a state in which she forgot, occasionally, that it was all only a 'little scene,' and regarded things, quite sincerely, from an invalid's point of view. For it may often be remarked that invalids grow weary of having the frequency of their attacks depend always on their own prudence in avoiding them, and like to let themselves think that they are free to do everything that they most enjoy doing, although they are always ill after doing it, provided only that they place themselves in the hands of a higher authority which, without putting them to the least inconvenience, can and will, by uttering a word or by administering a tabloid, set them once again upon their feet.
    Odette had gone to sit on a tapestry-covered sofa near the piano, saying to Mme. Verdurin, "I have my own little corner, haven't I?"
    And Mme. Verdurin, seeing Swann by himself upon a chair, made him get up. "You're not at all comfortable there; go along and sit by Odette; you can make room for M. Swann there, can't you, Odette?"
    "What charming Beauvais!" said Swann, stopping to admire the sofa before he sat down on it, and wishing to be polite.
    "I am glad you appreciate my sofa," replied Mme. Verdurin, "and I warn you that if you expect ever to see another like it you may as well abandon the idea at once. They never made any more like it. And these little chairs, too, are perfect marvels. You can look at them in a moment. The emblems in each of the bronze mouldings correspond to the subject of the tapestry on the chair; you know, you combine amusement with instruction when you look at them;—I can promise you a delightful time, I assure you. Just look at the little border around the edges; here, look, the little vine on a red background in this one, the Bear and the Grapes. Isn't it well drawn? What do you say? I think they knew a thing or two about design! Doesn't it make your mouth water, this vine? My husband makes out that I am not fond of fruit, because I eat less than he does. But not a bit of it, I am greedier than any of you, but I have no need to fill my mouth with them when I can feed on them with my eyes. What are you all laughing at now, pray? Ask the Doctor; he will tell you that those grapes act on me like a regular purge. Some people go to Fontainebleau for cures; I take my own little Beauvais cure here. But, M. Swann, you mustn't run away without feeling the little bronze mouldings on the backs. Isn't it an exquisite surface? No, no, not with your whole hand like that; feel them properly!"
    "If Mme. Verdurin is going to start playing about with her bronzes," said the painter, "we shan't get any music to-night."
From Swann in Love. When I read these scenes, I think that I've seen this party before, and then I remember the gatherings with the Veneers and the Podsnaps in Our Mutual Friend, though the Podsnaps are more like Marcel's family than they are like the Verderins, so bound by custom. They are all judgmental, though, in their own ways. Swann in Love is a funny book, hysterically so in places, even if Proust can be as mean spirited as the characters he lampoons.

I have also just noticed the theme of invalids who construct and maintain their own infirmities, a recurring motif of Swann's Way. Everyone in Proust's world is an invalid, suffering under imaginary disabilities.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Action and flowers and pink sugar

She makes an obscene gesture at him; he mistakes the color of her eyes. That's young Marcel's first encounter with Gilberte Swann, a brief scene that nicely encapsulates not only Marcel and Gilberte's entire later relationship, but also the relationship of Gilberte's parents. It is also, I might say, a rendering in miniature of the entire six-volume In Search of Lost Time. One thing I didn't notice upon my first reading of Swann's Way a decade ago is the way Proust keeps working in foreshadowing, the way the layers of early memory are indeed overlapped and in some respects interchangeable with later events, the way certain character types appear and reappear to interact with Marcel in similar ways. It's almost as if the idea of past is meaningless, as if Proust was not only writing In Search of Lost Time but also Finnegans Wake, which circles around and neither begins nor ends, every event becoming every other event in history, if you look at it from the correct angle. Really a remarkable book. Full of action, too. Action and flowers and pink sugar. And Proust's comic characters are excellently drawn (and I pause to realize that all of his characters are comic, even the tragic ones, which is the way I like my clowns to be written).

Monday, August 29, 2016

26.2 miles with Marcel; I will bring bottled water

In the summer of 2006, I think, I read Marcel Proust's novel Swann's Way. Most of that reading was done in a porch swing during very pleasant weather. I don't remember what edition/translation I read, but when I finished "Place Names," I thought, "Now that was an interesting book. I assume I'll read the other five volumes someday." A decade passed, alarmingly quickly, and I did not read any of the subsequent books of In Search of Lost Time though I read some of Proust's shorter works here and there, now and then. Mostly then. Mighty Reader, in the meanwhile, kept reading and finished In Search of Lost Time as well as, I think, everything else of Proust's that has been translated into English (except for that novel that is apparently a sort of short rough draft of ISoLT). Anyway, this unfinished business has remained a nagging voice in my pre-conscious mind, and last fall, or maybe last winter, Mighty Reader and I declared that we would spend the summer of 2016 performing A Duet in Search of Time to Read, which is to say, a two-person readalong of ISoLT.

Summer of 2016 is, as we can all see, mostly past us, at least in the Northern Hemisphere of Planet Earth. However, the time finally almost seems ripe for this event. As soon as Mighty Reader finishes her Jasper Fforde re-read and I finish that Dinesen book which I can probably put aside until 2017 anyway as it's just not sending me, we will be off and running for our marathon Proust read. I don't know why I am telling you any of this. Do you care if I read Proust? No, you do not, just as I was only vaguely yet politely interested to hear about your own reading of Proust, those of you who have done. But still, here I am, typing away. Where was I?

For the Proust marathon, I will be reading this set, which Mighty Reader so kindly gave me on my recent birthday. Mighty Reader will be employing a variety of translations, just like the last time she read the complete In Search of Lost Time.