Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Let us not speak of the brain

Proust, in volume V of Les Portes de la Perception, requires twenty-five pages to move Marcel, Brichot, and Charlus from the front steps to the entry hall of the Verdurin's house in Paris. It is a very energetic twenty-five pages, a swirling mass of regret and approaching humiliation for the baron. Proust has by now abandoned traditional narrative means of foreshadowing, instead blatantly telling the reader how things will go badly for which characters in the future, and even why.
at each fresh doubt we feel that the measure is heaped full, that we cannot cope with it, then we manage to find room for it all the same, and once it is introduced into our vital essence it enters into competition there with so many longings to believe, so many reasons to forget, that we speedily become accustomed to it, and end by ceasing to pay it any attention. There remains only, like a partly healed pain, the menace of possible suffering, which, the counterpart of desire, a feeling of the same order, and like it become the centre of our thoughts, radiates through them to an infinite circumference a wistful melancholy, as desire radiates pleasures whose origin we fail to perceive, wherever anything may suggest the idea of the person with whom we are in love. But pain revives as soon as a fresh doubt enters our mind complete; even if we assure ourself almost immediately: "I shall deal with this, there must be some method by which I need not suffer, it cannot be true," nevertheless there has been a first moment in which we suffered as though we believed it. If we had merely members, such as legs and arms, life would be endurable; unfortunately we carry inside us that little organ which we call the heart, which is subject to certain maladies in the course of which it is infinitely impressionable by everything that concerns the life of a certain person, so that a lie—that most harmless of things, in the midst of which we live so unconcernedly, if the lie be told by ourselves or by strangers—coming from that person, causes the little heart, which surgeons ought really to be able to excise from us, intolerable anguish. Let us not speak of the brain, for our mind may go on reasoning interminably in the course of this anguish, it does no more to mitigate it than by taking thought can we soothe an aching tooth.

Monday, April 17, 2017

a little fool has made you the hero of one of his volumes

The death of Swann had been a crushing blow to me at the time. The death of Swann! Swann, in this phrase, is something more than a noun in the possessive case. I mean by it his own particular death, the death allotted by destiny to the service of Swann. For we talk of 'death' for convenience, but there are almost as many different deaths as there are people. We are not equipped with a sense that would enable us to see, moving at every speed in every direction, these deaths, the active deaths aimed by destiny at this person or that. Often there are deaths that will not be entirely relieved of their duties until two or even three years later. They come in haste to plant a tumour in the side of a Swann, then depart to attend to their other duties, returning only when, the surgeons having performed their operation, it is necessary to plant the tumour there afresh. Then comes the moment when we read in the _Gaulois_ that Swann's health has been causing anxiety but that he is now making an excellent recovery. Then, a few minutes before the breath leaves our body, death, like a sister of charity who has come to nurse, rather than to destroy us, enters to preside over our last moments, crowns with a supreme halo the cold and stiffening creature whose heart has ceased to beat. And it is this diversity among deaths, the mystery of their circuits, the colour of their fatal badge, that makes so impressive a paragraph in the newspapers such as this:

"We regret to learn that M. Charles Swann passed away yesterday at his residence in Paris, after a long and painful illness. A Parisian whose intellectual gifts were widely appreciated, a discriminating but steadfastly loyal friend, he will be universally regretted, in those literary and artistic circles where the soundness and refinement of his taste made him a willing and a welcome guest, as well as at the Jockey Club of which he was one of the oldest and most respected members. He belonged also to the Union and Agricole. He had recently resigned his membership of the Rue Royale. His personal appearance and eminently distinguished bearing never failed to arouse public interest at all the great events of the musical and artistic seasons, especially at private views, at which he was a regular attendant until, during the last years of his life, he became almost entirely confined to the house. The funeral will take place, etc."

From this point of view, if one is not 'somebody,' the absence of a well known title makes the process of decomposition even more rapid. No doubt it is more or less anonymously, without any personal identity, that a man still remains Duc d'Uzès. But the ducal coronet does for some time hold the elements together, as their moulds keep together those artistically designed ices which Albertine admired, whereas the names of ultra-fashionable commoners, as soon as they are dead, dissolve and lose their shape. We have seen M. de Bréauté speak of Cartier as the most intimate friend of the Duc de La Trémoïlle, as a man greatly in demand in aristocratic circles. To a later generation, Cartier has become something so formless that it would almost be adding to his importance to make him out as related to the jeweller Cartier, with whom he would have smiled to think that anybody could be so ignorant as to confuse him! Swann on the contrary was a remarkable personality, in both the intellectual and the artistic worlds; and even although he had 'produced' nothing, still he had a chance of surviving a little longer. And yet, my dear Charles ——, whom I used to know when I was still so young and you were nearing your grave, it is because he whom you must have regarded as a little fool has made you the hero of one of his volumes that people are beginning to speak of you again and that your name will perhaps live. If in Tissot's picture representing the balcony of the Rue Royale club, where you figure with Galliffet, Edmond Polignac and Saint-Maurice, people are always drawing attention to yourself, it is because they know that there are some traces of you in the character of Swann.

To return to more general realities, it was of this foretold and yet unforeseen death of Swann that I had heard him speak himself to the Duchesse de Guermantes, on the evening of her cousin's party. It was the same death whose striking and specific strangeness had recurred to me one evening when, as I ran my eye over the newspaper, my attention was suddenly arrested by the announcement of it, as though traced in mysterious lines interpolated there out of place. They had sufficed to make of a living man some one who can never again respond to what you say to him, to reduce him to a mere name, a written name, that has passed in a moment from the real world to the realm of silence. It was they that even now made me anxious to make myself familiar with the house in which the Verdurins had lived, and where Swann, who at that time was not merely a row of five letters printed in a newspaper, had dined so often with Odette. I must add also (and this is what for a long time made Swann's death more painful than any other, albeit these reasons bore no relation to the individual strangeness of his death) that I had never gone to see Gilberte, as I promised him at the Princesse de Guermantes's, that he had never told me what the 'other reason' was, to which he alluded that evening, for his selecting me as the recipient of his conversation with the Prince, that a thousand questions occurred to me (as bubbles rise from the bottom of a pond) which I longed to ask him about the most different subjects: Vermeer, M. de Mouchy, Swann himself, a Boucher tapestry, Combray, questions that doubtless were not very vital since I had put off asking them from day to day, but which seemed to me of capital importance now that, his lips being sealed, no answer would ever come.
from Le Cygne by M. Proust

In the fifth book of his Lost Time novel, Proust frequently addresses the reader, admitting that long passages (the introductory scene where Marcel awakens to the "symphony of the street", for example) are fictional simplifications, condensations as it were, of the real world that have been put together in the interests of narrative coherence, as Proust stresses that he is writing a novel rather than a memoir, that the effect he strives for is more important than any fidelity to the actual workings of actual life. "If we were not obliged, to preserve the continuity of our story, to confine ourselves to frivolous reasons, how many more serious reasons would permit us to demonstrate the falsehood and flimsiness of the opening pages of this volume in which, from my bed, I hear the world awake, now to one sort of weather, now to another. Yes, I have been forced to whittle down the facts, and to be a liar, but it is not one universe, there are millions, almost as many as the number of human eyes and brains in existence, that awake every morning."

These asides to the reader, like the aside above to Swann's ghost, are delightful. Also delightful is that Marcel-the-narrator is just about to walk into another 150-page party scene. The parties are great fun in Proust, lively and sparkling with a lot of comic set-pieces and sight gags. Great stuff.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

longed long to return

I'm a little more than 200 pages into The Modern Library's fifth volume of In Search of Lost Time, which begins with The Captive, wherein our narrator (we'll call him "Marcel" for convenience's sake) has brought Albertine to live with him in his parent's Paris house. This volume has been, I am sorry to say, a real drag, a repetitive morass of a jealous lover's complaints and suspicions:
Thus it is that jealousy is endless, for even if the beloved object, by dying for instance, can no longer provoke it by her actions, it so happens that posthumous memories, of later origin than any event, take shape suddenly in our minds as though they were events also, memories which hitherto we have never properly explored, which had seemed to us unimportant, and to which our own meditation upon them has been sufficient, without any external action, to give a new and terrible meaning. We have no need of her company, it is enough to be alone in our room, thinking, for fresh betrayals of us by our mistress to come to light, even though she be dead. And so we ought not to fear in love, as in everyday life, the future alone, but even the past which often we do not succeed in realising until the future has come and gone; and we are not speaking only of the past which we discover long afterwards, but of the past which we have long kept stored up in ourselves and learn suddenly how to interpret.
and on and on in that vein for hundreds of pages. Proust interrupts his claustrophobic meditation on jealousy here and there with some marvelous set pieces: conversations with the Duchess de Guermantes about clothing, a long passage about the songs of street vendors (a sort of precursor to the "Who Will Buy" number in "Oliver!"), and a variety of other vignettes that break up the steady stream of Marcel's paranoia about a girl he does not love but cannot let go.

I've read a few reviews of The Captive where the reviewer clearly misses that Proust is condemning his narrator, letting him paint himself into a moral corner in a way similar to that of Nabokov's Humbert Humbert. Marcel is small-minded, lazy and ridiculous, and Proust knows this. Hell, Marcel knows this; Marcel the narrator, that is, if not Marcel the jealous young man living with his uninterested lover in Paris. I think that the relentlessness of Marcel's broody suspicion is meant to imitate the state of mind of a person obsessed with his own jealous nature (his jealousy fascinates him much more than Albertine, the object of his jealousy, does). It is a good character study, an encyclopedic study, rigorous and thorough. But long, man. Long and exhausting.

Monday, April 10, 2017

the rilling and skirring of high and low artifice

“Complex Chinese”

That Monday evening, as William stood washing dishes in his miniscule kitchen, millions of pale blue soap bubbles rilled and skirred atop the sinkful of hot water, humming a song of cleanliness into the humid air. Every bubble reflected, refracted, received a hallucination of William’s distracted expression and they knew, did the pale blue bubbles, that William was thinking about the as-yet unwritten fourth act of the stage play he’d been composing. William’s hands broke through the skirring, rilling clouds of bubbles, down into the water where the dirty dishes mumbled in various tongues, all incomprehensible to the soap bubbles. The very water from the taps seemed to have a foreign accent. The soap bubbles rilled and skirred and hummed a song that questioned the source of the water. The dish soap, mostly water itself, had been bottled in Wisconsin. William’s taps were not full of Wisconsin water.
    William squeezed the blue sponge he held in his right hand, the soft rough mound hot and slick with Wisconsin soap. The complete fourth act of William’s play came to him at that moment, every word of it all at once, and he squeezed the blue sponge again. He felt a powerful new force in his chest, a concentrated pyramid of coals that gave off opal heat and the scent of apples glowing around his heart. Soap bubbles drizzled from his hand to the sink, glowing and giggling with surprise and pleasure, squirming between his fingers before leaping away in celebration.
    That night William dreamed again about the Chinese waitress, a hot blue dream of squeezing and slickness and the movement of foreign tongues. When he awoke, William discovered that he was covered with lipstick prints, the crimson shape of a woman’s open mouth stamped all over his pale skin. In the shower he scrubbed at the impressions, pushing hard against himself with a sponge, but he was unable to wash the hundreds of mouths away. He shut his eyes and he could feel them on his skin, gently sucking, warm. I’m imagining them, William told himself. They’re just a distracted hallucination and nobody else will see them. The lipstick prints went no higher on his body than his jaw line, and when he squirmed into a turtleneck shirt, only two and a half of the mouths on his throat were visible in the mirror. William saw that since his shower three new imprints had appeared on the back of his left hand, and two on the back of his right hand. He pushed his hands into his pockets.
    William worked as a file clerk in an immense subterranean storage room beneath a towering office building. He supplied and received boxes of documents via a large and noisy dumbwaiter that rattled and skirred within the most remote wall of the file room; he communicated with his coworkers by handwritten notes sent through a pneumatic tube system. If a message came for William through the pneumatic tube, the mechanism convulsed and gave a noise of surprise and pleasure, a forceful “Ah!” to which sound William reacted by shivering, as a cold vibration rilled up his spine. William would have gladly listened all day to the sound of messages arriving, but the pneumatic tubes were not pleasured and surprised more than a few times each week. The workday began at eight o’clock, and at noon William climbed the service stairs that led up to the alley behind the office building. He blinked against the pale blue light and walked five blocks to the Chinese restaurant where he sat in a booth and wrote his dramatic works.
    It was a good booth, with a window and bright sunlight and a large table on which William could open out his work amongst the dishes and silverware. William wrote his plays longhand, into a particular brand of spiral-bound notebooks manufactured in Denmark. The crisp white pages reminded him of bed sheets. The stiff metal spiral that punctured and twisted the pages together reminded William that he’d lived alone for a long time. For two and a half years William had worked in the file room, had written plays in that booth at the Chinese restaurant during his lunch hour. All through those two and a half years the same waitress had brought him his hot tea, his egg drop soup and his stir-fried pork. The waitress was short and narrow through the shoulders, with poorly-cut hair lopped at her collarbone, a few gray strands among the dull black threads. William had no idea what her name was. Her English was not good; William’s Mandarin was nonexistent. He often thought about her hands as he fell asleep, her trimmed nails and sallow skin, the wrinkles of her small palms.
    The waitress came to his booth a few minutes after William seated himself. He’d laid his notebook on the table to the right of the place setting. The steel soup spoon, bamboo chopsticks in a bright red paper sleeve, the steel fork, all swaddled in a white paper napkin, reminded William of nothing but his hunger. He pushed the laminated menu with its water spots and adhesions of dried rice to the edge of the table and smiled at the waitress. She put her hand over her mouth and choked on soft trebles of laughter.
    “You had exciting night, huh?”
    William tugged at the collar of his shirt. The red lipstick mouths imprinted on his skin pulsed, all together at once, scalding wet over the length of his body. His clothing felt stiff, a carapace or a plaster cast, ready to burst open.
    “They won’t wash off,” he said.
    “They look like writing.”
    “Like writing?”
    “Like Chinese character, means ‘hunger.’ You need better soap.”
    The waitress raised her pen to her mouth and pushed against her lower lip with the pen’s pointed blue cap, leaving a tiny crevasse behind when she moved the pen away. The flesh on each side of this miniature valley swelled momentarily, glossy under the pale blue fluorescence of the dining room lamps.
    “You want stir-fry pork today?”
    “Yes.”
    William was aware that the waitress scrutinized his throat, and then he saw her gaze shift to the backs of his hands. He remained still, suppressing the impulse to hide his hands beneath the table, and then he felt her eyes upon his arms, his chest, his lap, as if the waitress was computing how many crimson mouths lay hidden from sight, and where precisely they were. William remembered the fourth act of the play he was writing and in surprise and pleasure he sat up straighter and said “Ah!” as a cold vibration rilled up his spine.
    The waitress retreated to the kitchen. William heard her voice, contralto and commanding, as she gave his lunch order to the cook. William had never seen the cook. He had never seen anyone but the waitress in the way of staff at the restaurant, but he’d often heard a man’s basso rumbling in Mandarin behind the beaded curtain that protected the kitchen from William’s curiosity. And it was to the sounds of this rumbling basso that William began hurriedly scratching away at his spiral-bound notebook, writing down the fourth act of his new play. William’s hope was that this would be the one to finally launch his career.
    Later that same afternoon, William locked himself into the employee washroom at the foot of the staircase that led down to the subterranean file room. He stripped off his clothes, careful to fold and stack them in the dust atop the paper towel dispenser. Standing naked and without socks in his untied shoes, William scrubbed himself with his employer’s harsh pink antibacterial hand soap. The soap, which was manufactured in Indiana, did not lather, bubble, rill, skirr or sing. It expressed only a slimy grumble as it ate away the lipstick impressions and irritated William’s skin even where he was most particularly gentle with himself. After half an hour or so he’d removed all but one of the crimson mouth prints. The washroom was especially cold in the summits of hot weather and William’s skin clung to him like wet fur, uncomfortable, ungainly, intolerable. William worried about the security of the washroom door. As he dried himself on coils of rough brown paper towel and wriggled into his clothing he heard the rattle of the dumbwaiter, the pneumatic tubes convulsing in surprise. Two and a half inches to the left of his navel, the single lipstick stain he could not remove clung moist to William’s skin. He felt the dark lips beneath his shirt, hungry with a life separate from his own. He tried to concentrate on his work.
    In the evening when he returned to his small apartment, William was tortured by the unwritten fifth act of his play. Two hours of pushing against the audience, of grinding into perceptions and filling eyes and ears with the rilling and skirring of high and low artifice and then—and then, a rhythmic building and pressing toward, toward—toward what? William didn’t know. He threw his imagination forward into the dark furrow of the unknown aesthetic and encountered nothing, desiring to leave the hypothetical audience open-mouthed, drained, filled with his vision. How? Nothing was coming and William sat at his small desk over the open pages of his particular spiral-bound notebook manufactured in Denmark and nothing was coming. He felt dry, his fingers limp around his fountain pen. In frustration William left his apartment and wandered aimlessly through his neighborhood, zigzagging northeast and then westerly, listening to the heat of the evening, his scalp damp with sweat.
    Light and movement caught his eye and he looked up into the attic windows of a large craftsman house on his left, an old home that enterprising landlords had filled with walls and doors, dividing it into many irregular studio apartments. William looked up into the windows of one of these apartments where a young woman languidly worked a wide brush across an enormous dark canvas. The woman had rolled her hair into a vinuous flaming mass atop her head and William saw the sheen of sweat on her bare skin as she worked naked, or at least naked to the waist. She turned and her shoulders, arms and breasts shone beneath the brilliant blue-white lights she’d mounted above the easel and William watched the fluid chiaroscuro of muscles and bones in her back.
    The woman looked down through the open window and William knew she could see him there, standing on the sidewalk looking up into her apartment. A vibration began at the base of William’s spine and then the woman turned away, her brush shivering into the canvas, the paint singing a song of blurring and opacity. The brush protested in confusion as the canvas stretched in the heat. William hurried back to his apartment where it was too hot to do anything and he lay on his secondhand couch dressed in nothing but a pair of boxers, the lamps off and the casement windows propped open in the hope of a cooling breeze. It was too hot to eat or drink so William slumped in the humid blue evening as the traffic grumbled along the street, exhaling an unpleasantness of fumes and heat that traveled in waves to roll, unwanted, into the condensed darkness of William’s apartment, lapping over William’s damp skin as he was slowly ground down into an unpleasantness of restless sleep. He wandered past the automobile exhaust and the heat, into a dream where the Chinese waitress sat in an office high above William’s file room in the towering building where he worked. She wore a tailored black suit with a short skirt, heels and an apricot-colored silk blouse. She called out to William as he passed her door on his way to the dumbwaiter, whose rectangular mouth slacked open, waiting to lower him into his own domain. William turned back from the dumbwaiter’s jaws and walked into the office. The waitress rose from her leather chair, circled around the pale blue steel desk and took William by the hands. She was excited, her eyes bright, a smile of surprise and pleasure on her face. Her fingers skirred and rilled and trembled against William’s.
    William smiled, aware that he was expected to share the happiness of the moment even though he didn’t know its source. He recalled that the waitress often seemed tired and melancholy, her greetings to customers a little forced. Sometimes she sang in Mandarin, quiet songs of misery that spun wobbling and limping into the dim air of the restaurant as she rolled soup spoons, chopsticks and forks in white paper napkins or wiped down the laminated menus with bleach water and a threadbare towel. When he thought about her past, William sometimes imagined that the waitress had come to America to escape persecution, and that in China she had been a research scientist or a physician, that identity and all her credentials abandoned during desperate flight to asylum across thousands of miles of ocean, Shanghai to Seattle, where she was lucky to have a job carrying tin pots of hot tea and bowls of soup.
    She drew him close. Her body was rigid, aflame and vibrating.
    “I leaving soon,” she said.
    “Leaving?”
    “I appointed professor of drama back home. I quit this job. Permanent faculty with tenure. No more stir-fry pork.”
    “When are you going?”
    “Tomorrow I fly back to Beijing.”
    “Tomorrow? But I haven’t finished my play.”
    She took William into her arms and the office building dissolved the way dream locations always do. They were in a room somewhere in Shanghai, naked on a bed. The high crescent moon shone through white curtains billowing at an open window. William lay with his head between her apple-scented breasts, her legs firmly around him, her vibrating fingers pressing his shoulders. When she moved, he felt her thousand soft mouths, slick with lipstick, sucking gently at his skin, leaving their mark.
    She whispered something in beautiful Mandarin, but he was already awake and could no longer hear her voice. On the dark street outside William’s apartment, a delivery truck stopped abruptly, the pneumatic brakes convulsing in surprise and pleasure.

(c) Scott G.F. Bailey, for what it's worth

Friday, March 31, 2017

the names of things

A great deal of effort in Sodom and Gomorrah is devoted to the ways in which language hides the world rather than revealing it. The second half of the book returns Marcel to Balbec and surrounds, where the once-mysterious place names from Swann's Way are transformed for Marcel into symbols for people he knows, stations along the local railway where the little train stops long enough for people in the carriages to get out and chat or have a drink with residents of the towns. Marcel has also learned several possible etymologies of many of the local place names (traditional etymologies from a local vicar's book on the subject, and possibly-more-exact etymologies from Brichot, a scholar in one of the social circles Marcel joins). The names found on maps or train timetables are vestiges of names that once signified the agrarian use of lands or the ownership of property, of places where one could fish or cut trees for lumber. Many of the place names are connected (directly or indirectly) with names of France's great families, depending on who is giving the etymologies or genealogies (there is no clear consensus on any of this). This business with the historical ("true, original") meaning of names, which mean one thing in common use but also carry hidden--sometimes quite different--meanings of their own, is a metaphor for the whole of language, for the whole of human discourse. Charlus speaks in a kind of doublespeak code--revealing his sexuality while attempting to disguise it--in conversations with people who are quite sure about Charlus' tastes but speak to him as if they are unaware of it, all the while making private jokes to each other about Charlus, right in front of him. Morel--after whom Charlus longs with a passion so powerful it could destroy him, a passion that makes him abase himself before Morel even in front of witnesses--says whatever is convenient at any given moment in order to maintain his childish pride and his control over Charlus. Everyone says one thing and means something else. Everyone is in an agony of desire, pretending otherwise when they can and humiliating themselves when they cannot, all the while smiling and leaving visiting cards and shaking hands on the train station platform as they are all carried from hotel to hotel, party to party, during a long summer vacation that must, of course, come to an end. We lie to one another and ourselves without realizing we are lying, without knowing that we lie to push back our despair, we stuff ourselves with lies to fill holes in ourselves we don't even know we have. Marcel, aware that he does not want Albertine, must have her because he knows she does not want him. Everyone becomes Swann or Odette, though by now we must realize how miserable Odette must've been, with Swann relentlessly pursuing her, misunderstanding her lies though she was certain he knew what she was really saying. How dumb we all are.

The place names/family names theme also reveals to us how the mysteries of life (once where Marcel would look at a map of France he'd imagine all sorts of romances behind the exotic names of towns he'd never seen, or when he would see the names of the nobility in the papers or overhear them in the conversation of adults he would imagine the glittering and brilliant lives connected to those names) become mundane once encountered and examined (the exotic locales of Brittany transform into a mere list of places where one can shake hands with an acquaintance one can very well live without, and the famous names reveal themselves as belonging to wealthy but shallow folks who are no better than those people to whom they refuse to be introduced). Which is not to say that this new perception of reality is true; it is merely another thing we tell ourselves, merely another layer of language obscuring whatever reality actually is. Language is what we tell ourselves, not a map of the world.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

knife safe; condition of man uncertain

he himself wanted

...And people even went so far as to seek out, in an isolated past, men of independent talent upon whose reputation the present movement would not have seemed likely to have any influence, but of whom one of the new masters was understood to have spoken favorably. Often it was because a master, whoever he may be, however exclusive his school, judges in the light of his own untutored instincts, gives credit to talent wherever it is to be found, or rather not so much to talent as to some agreeable inspiration which he has enjoyed in the past, which reminds him of a precious moment in his adolescence. At other times it was because certain artists of an earlier generation have in some fragment of their work achieved achieved something that resembles what the master has gradually become aware that he himself wanted to do. Then he sees the old master as a sort of precursor; he values in him, under a wholly different form, an effort that is momentarily, partially fraternal. There are bits of Turner in the work of Poussin, phrases of Flaubert in Montesquieu. Sometimes, again, this rumored predilection of a master was due to an error, starting heaven knows where and circulated among his followers.
--from The Anxiety of Influence, by M. Proust, (C. Montcrieff, trans.)

Friday, March 17, 2017

not as good as Anna Karenina, though

Everybody feels the greater force of the climax that assumes its right place without an effort, when the time comes, compared with that in which a strain and an exaggerated stress are perceptible. The process of writing a novel seems to be one of continual forestalling and anticipating ; far more important than the immediate page is the page to come, still in the distance, on behalf of which this one is secretly working. The writer makes a point and reserves it at the same time, creates an effect and holds it back, till in due course it is appropriated and used by the page for which it is intended. It must be a pleasure to the writer, it is certainly a great pleasure to the critic, when the stroke is cleanly brought off. It is the same pleasure indeed ; the novelist makes the stroke, but the critic makes it again by perceiving it, and is legitimately satisfied by the sense of having perceived it with good artistry. It is spoilt, of course, if the stroke is handled tactlessly and obtrusively ; the art of preparation is no art if it betrays itself at the outset, calling attention to its purpose. By definition it is unrecognizable until it attains its end ; it is the art of rendering an impression that is found to have been made, later on, but that evades detection at the moment.
Percy Lubbuck on Balzac, characterization and foreshadowing, from The Craft of Fiction, 1921

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

How much money did the devil make by gulling Eve?

We are not among those who have had faith in Herman Melville's South Pacific travels so much as in his strength of imagination. The Confidence-Man shows him in a new character -- that of a satirist, and a very keen, somewhat bitter, observer. His hero, like Mr. Melville in his earlier works, asks confidence of everybody under different masks of mendicancy, and is, on the whole, pretty successful.... It required close knowledge of the world, and of the Yankee world, to write such a book and make the satire acute and telling, and the scenes not too improbable for the faith given to fiction. Perhaps the moral is the gullibility of the great Republic, when taken on its own tack. At all events, it is a wide enough moral to have numerous applications, and sends minor shafts to right and left. Several capital anecdotes are told, and well told; but we are conscious of a certain hardness in the book, from the absence of humour, where so much humanity is shuffled into close neighbourhood. And with the absence of humour, too, there is an absence of kindliness. The view of human nature is severe and sombre -- at least, that is the impression left on our mind.... Few Americans write so powerfully as Mr. Melville, or in better English, and we shall look forward with pleasure to his promised continuation of the masquerade. The first part is a remarkable work, and will add to his reputation. --London Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review, July 1857
"a certain hardness in the book," yes, that's it exactly. This is a stern book, an upwelling of Melville's disappointment and frustration with his America. I am not sure what to say about this novel, or why I'd say it or to whom I'd say it. And yet, look at me go.

The Confidence-Man is the last Herman Melville novel published during his lifetime. On the whole, it baffled American reviewers; the English reviewers, such as the above-quoted writer, were able to make more of the book. I don't know what that means, if anything, except that perhaps it's hard to have a sense of humor about oneself, to understand when one is the subject of a powerful and cutting satire.

The Confidence-Man is a powerful and cutting satire of America, Melville focusing his "certain hardness" on the American love of profit and the American casual objectification of Native Americans. It is a social critique in the form of a sort of picaresque folk tale: a riverboat sails up the Mississippi River on April Fool's Day of 1851 or so, filled with Americans from all walks of life. Onto this boat steps The Confidence-Man, a professional swindler with no fixed identity, who changes his name, costume, and persona about once an hour, seeking victims who will "have confidence" in him. "Confidence" here means something like "trust", as in "will you trust this man with your money?" He is at one time a beggar, at another a hawker of medicines, turning up later as a representative of a mining firm who'll sell you as many shares in the mine as you can buy. He is made of air, mostly, lies and air. The Confidence-Man preaches tolerance and charity, chiding his fellows when they show selfishness, getting money from many of them by a wide variety of ruses. If you were to call the Confidence-Man a fraud, a thief, he would put on a wounded expression and quote the gospels at you.

This is a funny book, an insightful book, a terrifying book. Melville was angry.

A few nights ago I was struck by how similar The Confidence-Man is to Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel. Not just because the Rabelais book has a cast of characters on a boat and each chapter is a comic episode, and not just because the character who gradually takes over the "Pantagruel" books is a dishonest and selfish liar, but there is also something in the tone of both books that is similar, and I realized for the first time that Gargantua and Pantagruel must be a satire of 16th-century France, when all this time I was thinking it was mostly just a bawdy comedy. Shows what I know.

I am also delighted to find so many references to the plays of Shakespeare in The Confidence-Man. They're scattered liberally across the whole narrative, which is quite fun for a guy like me.

Friday, February 17, 2017

astonishment at the tangled web of some character

If reason be judge, no writer has produced such inconsistent characters as nature herself has. It must call for no small sagacity in a reader unerringly to discriminate in a novel between the inconsistencies of conception and those of life as elsewhere. Experience is the only guide here; but as no one man can be coextensive with what is, it may be unwise in every ease to rest upon it. When the duck-billed beaver of Australia was first brought stuffed to England, the naturalists, appealing to their classifications, maintained that there was, in reality, no such creature; the bill in the specimen must needs be, in some way, artificially stuck on.

But let nature, to the perplexity of the naturalists, produce her duck-billed beavers as she may, lesser authors some may hold, have no business to be perplexing readers with duck-billed characters. Always, they should represent human nature not in obscurity, but transparency, which, indeed, is the practice with most novelists, and is, perhaps, in certain cases, someway felt to be a kind of honor rendered by them to their kind. But, whether it involve honor or otherwise might be mooted, considering that, if these waters of human nature can be so readily seen through, it may be either that they are very pure or very shallow. Upon the whole, it might rather be thought, that he, who, in view of its inconsistencies, says of human nature the same that, in view of its contrasts, is said of the divine nature, that it is past finding out, thereby evinces a better appreciation of it than he who, by always representing it in a clear light, leaves it to be inferred that he clearly knows all about it.

But though there is a prejudice against inconsistent characters in books, yet the prejudice bears the other way, when what seemed at first their inconsistency, afterwards, by the skill of the writer, turns out to be their good keeping. The great masters excel in nothing so much as in this very particular. They challenge astonishment at the tangled web of some character, and then raise admiration still greater at their satisfactory unraveling of it; in this way throwing open, sometimes to the understanding even of school misses, the last complications of that spirit which is affirmed by its Creator to be fearfully and wonderfully made.

At least, something like this is claimed for certain psychological novelists; nor will the claim be here disputed. Yet, as touching this point, it may prove suggestive, that all those sallies of ingenuity, having for their end the revelation of human nature on fixed principles, have, by the best judges, been excluded with contempt from the ranks of the sciences—palmistry, physiognomy, phrenology, psychology. Likewise, the fact, that in all ages such conflicting views have, by the most eminent minds, been taken of mankind, would, as with other topics, seem some presumption of a pretty general and pretty thorough ignorance of it. Which may appear the less improbable if it be considered that, after poring over the best novels professing to portray human nature, the studious youth will still run risk of being too often at fault upon actually entering the world; whereas, had he been furnished with a true delineation, it ought to fare with him something as with a stranger entering, map in hand, Boston town; the streets may be very crooked, he may often pause; but, thanks to his true map, he does not hopelessly lose his way. Nor, to this comparison, can it be an adequate objection, that the twistings of the town are always the same, and those of human nature subject to variation. The grand points of human nature are the same to-day they were a thousand years ago. The only variability in them is in expression, not in feature.

But as, in spite of seeming discouragement, some mathematicians are yet in hopes of hitting upon an exact method of determining the longitude, the more earnest psychologists may, in the face of previous failures, still cherish expectations with regard to some mode of infallibly discovering the heart of man.
From one of several essays about literature worked into Melville's The Confidence-Man. This is most of "Chapter XIV: Worth the Consideration of Those to Whom it May Prove Worth Considering." I must say that Melville hits the nail pretty squarely on the head here.

Friday, February 10, 2017

He belonged to that race of beings, less paradoxical than they appear, whose ideal is manly simply because their temperament is feminine

I have not read much in the way of Proust studies, so I don't know if it's already been pointed out: the similarities between the Marcel character and the Charlus character in Proust's In Search of Lost Time, especially in volume IV, Sodom and Gomorrah. Is the irony intentional? Was Marcel Proust aware that Marcel-the-narrator and the Baron de Charlus were versions of each other?

Points of comparison:
  • The aggressive public heterosexuality, featuring a near adoration of women and a constant leering evaluation of them as sexual objects
  • The sneering condescension based on a shallow intellectual pride
  • The overvaluation of art and the "proper" appreciation of art
  • The concern over one's wardrobe
  • The intense interest in the possible homosexual tendencies of other men
Is the joke that Marcel-the-narrator is in fact homosexual and hasn't figured it out yet? Or is the joke that Marcel Proust the author is in fact using Marcel-the-narrator as a stand in and is pointing to his own (Proust's) sexuality in an ironic fashion? Or is it that Proust the author doesn't see that he paints Marcel's portrait with the same brush strokes he uses to paint the portrait of Charlus? I'm not sure quite where the irony lies.
Their honour precarious, their liberty provisional, lasting only until the discovery of their crime; their position unstable, like that of the poet who one day was feasted at every table, applauded in every theatre in London, and on the next was driven from every lodging, unable to find a pillow upon which to lay his head.
I wouldn't be wondering any of this, I believe, if the theme of Sodom and Gomorrah wasn't How gay is Paris, anyway?

One thing I find very interesting is that there's the same sense of fearful anticipation in scenes where Charlus is seducing men as in scenes where Marcel is attempting to seduce women. Marcel's sympathies and fears for Charlus are the same as his sympathies and fears for himself (or Proust's sympathies and fears are equal for both men). There is something dangerous about sex all through In Search of Lost Time, alluring and full of extreme risk.

Monday, January 30, 2017

"It won't eat you." Elephants and H.E. Bates

I read a collection of stories by English writer Herbert Ernest (H. E.) Bates, who died in 1974 and of whom I'd never heard before I stumbled across this volume in a used bookstore during a trip to Boise. What sold me was the back cover copy comparing Bates to Chekhov, whom I love. Bates is not quite an English Chekhov, though, at least not in the collection Elephant's Nest in a Rhubarb Tree. Though by an interesting coincidence, Bates' first novel The Two Sisters was only published (after rejections from several other publishers) by Johnathan Cape upon the recommendation of Edward Garnett, whose wife Constance was the translator who more-or-less introduced Chekhov's works to the English-speaking world, and who remains my favorite translator of Chekhov. So there you go, small world and all of that.

Bates wrote a lot of novels and stories. Twenty-five novels, I think, a dozen story collections, books of criticism and books for children, three autobiographies, and God knows what else. Apparently he's quite well known and here I am, just now stumbling over his tomb. His writing career spanned the years 1926 to 1974, and for much of that time he put out a novel and a story collection each year. So a prolific and busy writer.

Henry Miller's preface to this collection calls Bates "rather conventional," by which I suppose Miller means that Bates was not in the least an experimental writer. Bates was not deeply influenced by the Moderns, in other words. Which is fine, because the best of the Bates I've read (which is not much, percentage-wise), is mighty fine stuff.

Miller also compares Bates to Isaac Bashevis Singer, which I suppose is a fair comparison, though perhaps I thought that Bates is closer in style, at least, to J. D. Salinger or even Ernest Hemingway. There is a directness of speech, a journalistic clarity of style, to Bates' writing that seemed quite modern (if not Modern) and even American rather than English. Part of that American is likely my inability to read Bates' use of the Northamptonshire dialect as being anything but a rural American dialect, like something out of Faulkner or O'Connor or Twain:
But she did not think of it much. Apart from the heaviness of her body she felt strong and well. And the country was new to her, the fields strange and the river wider than she had ever dreamed.

It was the river, for some reason, which struck her most. 'Don't it git big?' she said. 'Ain't it wide?'

'Wide,' Albert said. 'You want to see the Rhine. This is only a brook.' And he went on to tell her of the Rhine. 'Take you quarter of hour to walk across. And all up the banks you see Jerry's grapes. Growing like twitch. And big boats on the river, steamers. I tell you. That's the sort o' river. You ought to see it. Like to see a river like that, wouldn't you?'

'Yes.'

'Ah, it's a long way off. A thousand miles near enough.'
Bates' rural folks say "ain't," go fishin', drink hooch, and I cannot convince my inner reading voice to give these people anything but a backwoods American accent. Though once in a while someone says "blimey" or eats Yorkshire pudding.

Anyway, what's good or even great about these stories is that Bates has taken Chekhov's formula for a story (a man, a woman, and a reason for them to be unhappy) and run with it, peering deeply and objectively into his characters the while. A good example is "The Kimono," in which sense gives way to sensuality.
'Why don't you just come up and see the room?' she said. 'Just come up.'

'Well—'

'Come up and see it. It won't eat you.'

She opened the rear door of the shop and in a moment I was going upstairs behind her. She was not wearing any stockings. Her bare legs were beautifully strong and white. The room was over the cafe. It was a very good room for three and six. The new wall-paper was silver-leaved and the bed was white and looked cool.

And suddenly it seemed silly to go out into the heat again and wander about looking for Wade's Hotel when I could stay where I was.
The narrator is in London to interview for an engineering job, and cannot find the hotel he was advised to stay at. He's stumbled into Blanche's shop for an ice but the ice machine is broken. He spends the night in Blanche's arms, gets the job the next day and then returns home to marry Hilda, his fiance. Despite Hilda, our narrator cannot stay away from Blanche. He abandons Hilda, he abandons the prestigious engineering firm, and he abandons his family and friends to live above Blanche's shop until he is eventually abandoned by Blanche. If I was to compare "The Kimono" to a Chekhov story, I'd point to "Three Years," maybe.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

a statement of theme

Very often one comes across a more-or-less bald statement of theme in a novel's latter pages. This is the one I discovered today, from about page 705 of Le Côté de Guermantes (Moncrieff translation):
[...]the very purity of the Duchess’s language was a sign of limitation, and that, in her, both her intelligence and her sensibility had remained proof against all innovation. Here again, Mme. de Guermantes’s mind attracted me just because of what it excluded (exactly the content of my own thoughts) and by everything which by virtue of that exclusion, it had been able to preserve, that seductive vigour of the supple bodies which no exhausting necessity to think no moral anxiety or nervous trouble has deformed. Her mind, of a formation so anterior to my own, was for me the equivalent of what had been offered me by the procession of the girls of the little band along the seashore. Mme. de Guermantes offered me, domesticated and held in subjection by her natural courtesy, by the respect due to another person’s intellectual worth, all the energy and charm of a cruel little girl of one of the noble families round Combray who from her childhood had been brought up in the saddle, tortured cats, gouged out the eyes of rabbits, and; albeit she had remained a pillar of virtue, might equally well have been, a good few years ago now, the most brilliant mistress of the Prince de Sagan. Only she was incapable of realising what I had sought for in her, the charm of her historic name, and the tiny quantity of it that I had found in her, a rustic survival from Guermantes. Were our relations founded upon a misunderstanding which could not fail to become manifest as soon as my homage, instead of being addressed to the relatively superior woman that she believed herself to be, should be diverted to some other woman of equal mediocrity and breathing the same unconscious charm? A misunderstanding so entirely natural, and one that will always exist between a young dreamer like myself and a woman of the world, one however that profoundly disturbs him, so long as he has not yet discovered the nature of his imaginative faculties and has not acquired his share of the inevitable disappointments which he is destined to find in people, as in the theatre, in his travels and indeed in love.
Marcel is becoming disappointed that the glittering high society of Paris turns out to be populated by vain, envious, backbiting mediocrities who just happen to have money, good looks and famous names. Marcel is very soon to meet again with the Baron de Charlus, an inhabitant of Paris high society and a cousin of the Duchess discussed above. Marcel has not yet realized that Charlus is an infamous sexual predator.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

the lady had felt hot and had stopped dancing

The river, the women's dresses, the sails of the boats, the innumerable reflexions of one thing and another came crowding into this little square panel of beauty which Elstir had cut out of a marvellous afternoon. What delighted one in the dress of a woman who had stopped for a moment in the dance because it was hot and she was out of breath was irresistible also in the same way in the canvas of a motionless sail, in the water of the little harbour, in the wooden bridge, in the leaves of the trees and in the sky. As in one of the pictures that I had seen at Balbec, the hospital, as beautiful beneath its sky of lapis lazuli as the cathedral itself, seemed (more bold than Elstir the theorician, then Elstir the man of taste, the lover of things mediaeval) to be intoning: "There is no such thing as gothic, there is no such thing as a masterpiece; this tasteless hospital is just as good as the glorious porch," so I now heard: "The slightly vulgar lady at whom a man of discernment would refrain from glancing as he passed her by, would except from the poetical composition which nature has set before him-—her dress is receiving the same light as the sail of that boat, and there are no degrees of value and beauty; the commonplace dress and the sail, beautiful in itself, are two mirrors reflecting the same gleam; the value is all in the painter's eye." This eye had had the skill to arrest for all time the motion of the hours at this luminous instant, when the lady had felt hot and had stopped dancing, when the tree was fringed with a belt of shadow, when the sails seemed to be slipping over a golden glaze. But just because the depicted moment pressed on one with so much force, this so permanent canvas gave one the most fleeting impression, one felt that the lady would presently move out of it, the boats drift away, the night draw on, that pleasure comes to an end, that life passes and that the moments illuminated by the convergence, at once, of so many lights do not recur.
from Le Côté de Guermantes by Marcel Proust, Translated from the French by C. K. Scott Moncrieff

I read this and I thought about the abstract landscapes of Turner and I thought, yes, that's it, the world does in fact look like a Turner even at his most abstract, if you think about it the right way; the vision of the artist is the value of an artwork, yes, which is what places art outside of history and separates the true value of art from it's price at auction. All of which made me think that I could buy an easel and some paints and some canvas and set up as a painter again. Which I won't do, but I had that happy thought for a minute or less.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Reading in 2017: a preposterous list

I really have no idea what I'll read in 2017, so I have no idea what makes me think this post is a good idea. And yet.

Proust. Yes, Proust. I'm not quite halfway through the six volumes of In Search of Lost Time. I imagine I'll have finished by the spring. It's a remarkable novel, this thing of Proust's, a sort of endless knot of desire and irony.

Tolstoy. War and Peace to be precise. I read this book when I was fifteen or sixteen, so almost forty years ago. I am certain I have forgotten most of what I read except for the Battle of Borodino (that spinning cannonball, have I got that right?) and the early scene in the bar with the English and German soldiers and the Russian officer (I think) who insisted on translating everything into English for the Englishmen, who protested that they did speak Russian. Or something like that. Anyway, it's such a long book that I figure there must be some other scenes in there that are worth remembering.

Miscellany. The Long Ships. Thayer's Life of Beethoven (again). More poetry (I shall force myself to swallow some of the Romantics, with whom I've always had difficulty). Erich Kaestner's Emil und die Detektive. The NYRB collection of "New York" stories by Henry James. More literary criticism, probably. More philosophy, very likely, hopefully with an emphasis on Augustine and Kierkegaard. Some sociology texts I happen to have to hand. Blah blah blah. A focus, possibly, on values and morals and art. I'm not really sure.

I have vague ideas about (re)reading all of Conan Doyle's "Holmes" stories and books this year, though I pretty much doubt that will happen. I think 2017 might be heavy on nonfiction. It feels like it, though I'm not sure why. Although, of course, there is no real reason to label literary criticism and philosophy as "nonfiction".

Other ideas. The Iliad again. Herodotus, Xenophon. That sort of thing. Aurora Leigh and other long poems. Long poems, yes. That's the ticket. Middlemarch, finally. This list is already too impossibly long.