Monday, June 26, 2017

this exciting era when science and superstition were battling for supremacy

So it looks like I was only about four years too early with my novel. I have always been out of step with the times, I admit.

Friday, June 9, 2017

thoughts on having finished Proust's "In Search of Lost Time"

Some Observations:

It often seems that In Search of Lost Time is less a novel than it is a multi-volume personal essay about memory and the failure of our intellect to grasp reality in the present. Leaping from Volume VI back to Volume I, I see that Proust has been making the same points about memory and experiential knowledge the entire time, but I didn't grasp what he meant in his exposition; it was only much later that I was able to share his understanding of how life can truly only be known in retrospect, through the working of memory outside of the stream of experience. The novel demonstrates the author's proposition through it's very structure. In Search of Lost Time is then, among other things, a 4,300-page expansion of Kierkegaard's well-known comment that "Life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards." But everyone knows that already.

Possibly Proust's theme of memory hides an even greater theme in Lost Time, a quite moral theme having to do with human relationships. The Narrator claims more than once that friendship is for him essentially an empty thing: at best a utilitarian mechanism for getting something he wants (sex, generally) through social connections, and at worst a complete waste of time. The Narrator of course has many character flaws and isn't ashamed to claim them as virtues (this is the primary source of Proust's comic irony throughout the many books of the novel). We are shown repeatedly how one person will (often willfully) misunderstand the motives and actions of another and will treat that other person thoughtlessly or with deliberately harmful intent, often just for the pleasure of spite and the wicked amusement of others. We are shown repeatedly (and, in the case of the Albertine-as-prisoner story, at great length) how a person can be blind to everything except a mistaken idea he clings to in his ignorance, refusing to abandon that idea even as he destroys another person. This ethical theme of Proust's is the same as that of Chekhov: we are all living badly, and we should stop it. We are half-blind monsters, mauling each other in a fog while shouting about love, unable (or unwilling) to accept the reality of each other*. This monstrousness is presented by Proust as a tragedy, as he can see no remedy for it. The best we can do is recognize our mistreatment of our loved ones in retrospect. In Search of Lost Time is a melancholy novel.

The plot doesn't matter. None of the events matter. One person's life is much like another's, and even a great hero of the Great War has spent most of his life off the battlefield, wasting time and looking past his friends at nothing, at his own prejudices, at his unfulfilled desires. The truth of our lives can be found just as much by gazing through a shop window at a new pair of kid gloves as it can be found in the struggle for existence. After all, one mourns the loss of a favorite pair of gloves much more than one mourns the loss of a sister, cousin, husband or wife. One was, it must be admitted, better acquainted with the gloves.

Again, this is a sad book. Marcel dissects and dismisses everyone, from poor fishermen to princesses and all comers in between, including himself. We are distant and unkind because we never see each other, not really, and one cannot be expected to love a person one has never met. Each of us is transitory, unnecessary, interchangeable and there is an endless supply of new humanity swarming to take up our places, our causes, our thoughts and mannerisms. Witness the section in Volume VI about "the Princess de Guermantes", a royal title that endures in the world for century upon century as the title is held by a succession of women, the most recent being a selfish and small-minded narcissist who has managed to marry and inherit her way upward from the shops to the nobility, but even she will die and there will be a new Princess de Guermantes, an empty tiara atop an expendable head. Witness also the changing of social places between Madame Verdurin (who has become that most recent Princess de Guermantes) and Oriane, the Duchess de Guermantes (who is originally introduced to us as a magical creature, the apex of elegance and style); Oriane in Volume VI finally comes to possess the mocking laughter and appalling humor exhibited by Mme Verdurin in volumes I-V.

Some Complaints:

This is a long book. We all know that, right? Every reader seems to find something he must drag himself through, some resistant narration to overcome, some seemingly-endless swamp to cross. I don't understand the readers who find the party scenes dull; they all struck me as vibrant, living scenes full of action and humor and irony. In fact, any time three or more people gather together, there are bound to be hijinks. But what was it that made me pray for either death or sudden speed-reading abilities? Oh, yes: The Captive and Marcel's endless suspicions that Albertine might be having lesbian affairs, and his examination of every detail of Albertine's life in search of evidence by which to condemn her. I can't tell you how happy I was when Francoise announced to Marcel that Albertine had packed her bags and fled the house. The scenes which follow--the opening of The Fugitive, that is--are fairly packed with comedy as Marcel reaches increasingly great heights of nervous fluttering about as he plots to get Albertine back or, if he can't have her, he plans to kill himself on the front steps of Albertine's mother's house. That'll show her.

Yes, yes, Albertine, the love of Marcel's life until he forgets all about her, is barely sketched in; we learn nothing about her mind or personality except those impressions had by Marcel, who knows less about the interior world of Albertine than I know about the interior world of my cat. Some readers see this as a weakness in Proust's writing. I recognize it as a central pillar of Proust's characterization of the Narrator. Marcel the narrator is not Marcel Proust the author of the book. Imagine if Anthony Burgess had only written A Clockwork Orange, and readers assumed Burgess was essentially the same person as young Alex. Proust sees the moral and intellectual weaknesses of Marcel.

Still, Proust himself seems to have been something of a weirdo. But really, get to know anyone well enough, and you see their eccentricities. Write enough prose and your own eccentricities will rise to the surface of the work. I claim to know something about this. But what was I saying? Oh, the dull parts. I'm in the camp of readers who grew exhausted reading many sections in which a single idea was examined and rephrased again and again and again as Proust (or Marcel; hard to say here) sought the perfect analogy and failed to find it. Sometimes there is less deep and probing meditation than there is waffling about in the hope that inspiration will eventually strike. In Search of Lost Time employs techniques of comparison, showing us for example different sets of people engaged in essentially the same activities but believing themselves inhabitants of foreign worlds, and these comparisons continue across the length of the novel and successfully expose the Verdurin set and the Guermantes set to be the same people in different hats. The technique of comparision lends itself less well to abstract ideas, and this is I think a weakness of In Search of Lost Time. Some of Proust's pet ideas are unhappily static and despite the author's best efforts, these ideas do not get up and dance no matter how insistent the tune Proust plays. Happily, for me at least, these static sections always end and there's another party, or Charlus comes prancing up the sidewalk. The inserted essays about art and writing, on the other hand, are worth their weight in gold. Really good stuff in every volume.

Some Other Things:

The ending, so I have read many times, is where we learn that In Search of Lost Time is a Künstlerroman, the story of a writer named Marcel becoming a writer, as if his discovery that he has a work of art in him is the primary point toward which the novel has built, the thematic and dramatic climax of the work. I think people who say this are mistaking structure for content. Volume VI is the author instructing the reader on how to read In Search of Lost Time. Marcel becoming a writer, as a sick old man, is plot, not subject matter. The novel is not an adventure unfolding over time. The Odyssey is more than the story of an old king who tries to go home and then finally goes home. Just because Odysseus sits in his great hall with Penelope at the end of the story does not mean that the story is about him getting to that point. See above about the moral theme of the novel. My complaints, I begin to realize, are mostly concerned with things I've read about Proust, not so much with Mr Proust's work itself. Huh. I am a cranky old reader trying to go home, maybe. This post is the story of me getting to the end of this post, realizing that I could write a post about this post. This is not that post I realized I could write. In Search of Lost Time is not the novel Marcel realized he could write. That novel is on the shelf of Borges' imaginary library.

Speaking of Marcel as a sick old man, Proust died before he finished revising the final volume, and I think that's evident; in many places there is a rough work-in-progress quality, of unstitched hems and sleeves tacked into place awaiting a final fitting. You can tell that the last paragraph of the book, with it's lovely image (of a man walking on ever-lengthening legs which raise him daily farther above his birth so as to lengthen his physical body as his existence in time grows progressively longer until one day his legs are so long that they can no longer support him and he topples over, falling to his death), has been polished and worked at by Proust, so perfect is it in tone and rhythm. But the fifty pages before this gem are quite uneven and I am sure that Proust would've done a lot of work on them had he lived longer. Even the final long party scene (how pleased I was when Proust gave me another party in the Faubourg Saint Germain), where Proust drags nearly every character who's appeared in the book back onto the stage for a final bow, has events out of order and odd repetitions and contradictions. I can't say what Proust would've done with Volume VI had he lived except that surely he'd have resolved the narrative contradictions, smoothed out the sketchy ideas of the last fifty pages, and gosh we can all predict that it would've been a hundred or two hundred pages longer. Which would've been fine. I'd have read another two hundred pages, especially of party scenes.

I claim the unfinished state of the novel for my uncertainty as to what Proust was getting at in some places in Volume VI. The idea of characters taking on the habits and ideas of other characters, of each of us being not one person but many people who are born and die in succession without realizing it (the new identities visible only to outside observers who have been out of contact with us long enough for our internal changes to have come to the surface), is a good one and Proust makes good use of it. I assume that's what he's doing when he has Marcel state that he plans to withdraw from society in order to concentrate on his writing, the only contact he'll desire being that of young girls whom he might shower with gifts and someday maybe be kissed on the cheek, and Gilberte introducing Marcel to her own sixteen year-old daughter for this very purpose. That is an odd episode, and the best I can make of it is that Marcel is taking the place of the late M. Bergotte, whose behavior in this vein is described early in The Captive:
For years past Bergotte had ceased to go out of doors. [...] He was generous above all towards women — girls, one ought rather to say — who were ashamed to receive so much in return for so little. He excused himself in his own eyes because he knew that he could never produce such good work as in an atmosphere of amorous feelings. Love is too strong a word, pleasure that is at all deeply rooted in the flesh is helpful to literary work because it cancels all other pleasures, for instance the pleasures of society, those which are the same for everyone. And even if this love leads to disillusionment, it does at least stir, even by so doing, the surface of the soul which otherwise would be in danger of becoming stagnant. Desire is therefore not without its value to the writer in detaching him first of all from his fellow men and from conforming to their standards, and afterwards in restoring some degree of movement to a spiritual machine which, after a certain age, tends to become paralysed. We do not succeed in being happy but we make observation of the reasons which prevent us from being happy and which would have remained invisible to us but for these loopholes opened by disappointment. Dreams are not to be converted into reality, that we know; we would not form any, perhaps, were it not for desire, and it is useful to us to form them in order to see them fail and to be instructed by their failure. And so Bergotte said to himself: "I am spending more than a multimillionaire would spend upon girls, but the pleasures or disappointments that they give me make me write a book which brings me money." Economically, this argument was absurd, but no doubt he found some charm in thus transmuting gold into caresses and caresses into gold.
I was pleased with the way, about four pages from the end, Marcel loops back around to the night when Swann visited his parents at Combray and Marcel's mother did not come upstairs to kiss Marcel goodnight, choosing instead to remain in the parlor until Swann had left. Swann's coming between Marcel and his mother that evening was the beginning of the end of Marcel's childhood and innocence, Swann's life casting a shadow all through Marcel's days, from one end of time to the other.

* Witness the "air raid" scene early in Volume VI, in which Parisians rush to the Metro--its tunnels in complete darkness--where they hope to find a willing partner for anonymous sex, to engage with others at a purely physical level, simultaneously intimate and absent, simultaneously vulnerable and invulnerable, simultaneously naked and fully-armored, as all the while the City of Lights above their heads is being bombed into rubble.

Friday, June 2, 2017

my apprehensions on the subject of my death

...and I understood but too well that the sensation the uneven paving-stones, the taste of the madeleine, had aroused in me, bore no relation to that which I had so often attempted to reconstruct of Venice, of Balbec and of Combray with the aid of a uniform memory. Moreover, I realised that life can be considered commonplace in spite of its appearing so beautiful at particular moments because in the former case one judges and underrates it on quite other grounds than itself, upon images which have no life in them. At most I noted additionally that the difference there is between each real impression—differences which explain why a uniform pattern of life cannot resemble it—can probably be ascribed to this: that the slightest word we have spoken at a particular period of our life, the most insignificant gesture to which we have given vent, were surrounded, bore upon them the reflection of things which logically were unconnected with them, were indeed isolated from them by the intelligence which did not need them for reasoning purposes but in the midst of which—here, the pink evening-glow upon the floral wall-decoration of a rustic restaurant, a feeling of hunger, sexual desire, enjoyment of luxury—there, curling waves beneath the blue of a morning sky enveloping musical phrases which partly emerge like mermaids' shoulders—the most simple act or gesture remains enclosed as though in a thousand jars of which each would be filled with things of different colours, odours and temperature...

Yes, if a memory, thanks to forgetfulness, has been unable to contract any tie, to forge any link between itself and the present, if it has remained in its own place, of its own date, if it has kept its distance, its isolation in the hollow of a valley or on the peak of a mountain, it makes us suddenly breathe an air new to us just because it is an air we have formerly breathed, an air purer than that the poets have vainly called Paradisiacal, which offers that deep sense of renewal only because it has been breathed before, inasmuch as the true paradises are paradises we have lost. And on the way to it, I noted that there would be great difficulties in creating the work of art I now felt ready to undertake...

...the being within me which sensed this impression, sensed what it had in common in former days and now, sensed its extra-temporal character, a being which only appeared when through the medium of the identity of present and past, it found itself in the only setting in which it could exist and enjoy the essence of things, that is, outside Time. That explained why my apprehensions on the subject of my death had ceased from the moment when I had unconsciously recognised the taste of the little madeleine because at that moment the being that I then had been was an extra-temporal being and in consequence indifferent to the vicissitudes of the future. That being had never come to me, had never manifested itself except when I was inactive and in a sphere beyond the enjoyment of the moment, that was my prevailing condition every time that analogical miracle had enabled me to escape from the present. Only that being had the power of enabling me to recapture former days, Time Lost, in the face of which all the efforts of my memory and of my intelligence came to nought.
The Great War is over, and Marcel returns to Paris where he has an epiphany concerning the difference between the real workings of memory and the social construction of reality. He thinks that maybe, after all, he could have an art project.

Meanwhile, Baron Charlus has become quite a sad figure indeed.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

I am all at once what Christ is, says Gerard Manley Hopkins

After a little poking around, I discover without a speck of surprise that everyone (and the dog as well) has seen the mark of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poetry on the poems of Dylan Thomas. Having just read the collected poetry of Hopkins, I am ready to announce that I find much of Thomas' work baffling and impenetrable in the same way I find much of Hopkins' work. I call that real progress, the ability to point to one poet and see an ancestor poet, an influence. I can only do this with Thomas and Hopkins, but it's a start, you boys. Though it's true that there are plenty of other poets whose work I can't understand. I should rewrite this entire paragraph, add a little structure and sense. Alas.

I am also ready to announce that I find much of Hopkins' baffling work to be quite a lot of fun on the level of localized wordplay, of rhythm, and of rhyme even if I can't beat much sense out of the poems (or: even if the poems can't beat much sense into me). I can't say that I have that much fun with the baffling works of Dylan Thomas, but I have also not read that many of Thomas' poems; I could probably list them all in a short space if I could remember the names. Almost none of this is what I'd intended to write. I have not been a good reader of Gerard Manley Hopkins, is what I'd intended to write.

My ignorance of the Victorian Age allows me to skip right past Hopkins' references to the growing sense in England that Nature is just another machine, to be dealt with using more machines, and I am mostly blind to (unless I really search for it) Hopkins' growing insistence that Nature and the particularity of each individual thing within Nature is a road to spiritual perfection and grace (in the Catholic sense, that is). Most of that is lost on me; I know it's there because smarter readers, biographers and editors say it's so. I can see the poems invoke Nature and natural forces and I can see when Hopkins stretches and extends Nature into metaphor to evangelize, like he does in "The Starlight Night":
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
    Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
    Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.
shocks here refers to a collection of twelve sheaves of wheat, so the Apostles, you heathen you. This is one of those poems where some of it is for me mere fun with phonics rather than anything I can clearly understand. Check out the middle of the thing:
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
    Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
    Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.
I'm hazy as to what most of that intends to convey. Stars shining overhead and fields of grain maybe, snow like flying chicken feathers, sure. But what about them? I donno, not really.

In the end, I can't say I've gotten much out of Hopkins' poems. Though maybe it's too early to tell. After all, what do I mean by "gotten much out of," anyway? Certainly my initial response to many of the later poems was one of confusion, that of a man who stares at a sign writ in an unfamiliar tongue. But there are things like "Inversnaid," where I find
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
and that's quite fine, Hopkins keeping the complexity of the sounds themselves while leaving the grammatical complexity behind so that a simple guy like me can see Hopkins' weeds and agree with him that we should keep it all with us, the wet and the wildness. Hopefully, someday I will be comfortable with complexity in poetry the way I am with complexity in prose. How can I declare Finnegans Wake beautiful while declaring Hopkins impenetrable? I don't know. I do like this, though:
                                         ...Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; | world's wildfire, leave but ash:
                                            In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
                                            Is immortal diamond.
That one's easy to get something out of. Maybe I'll write about Hopkins again, in a year or two, after I read him another time. It could happen.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"War," he said, "does not escape the laws of our old Hegel. It is a state of perpetual becoming."

The city seemed a formless and black mass which all of a sudden passed from the depth of night into a blaze of light, and in the sky, where one after another, the aviators rose amidst the shrieking wail of the sirens while, with a slower movement, more insidious and therefore more alarming, for it made one think they were seeking ah object still invisible but perhaps close to us, the searchlights swept unceasingly, scenting the enemy, encircling him with their beams until the instant when the pointed planes flashed like arrows in his wake. And in squadron after squadron the aviators darted from the city into the sky like Walkyries. Yet close to the ground, at the base of the houses, some spots were in high light and I told Saint-Loup, if he had been at home the evening before, he would have been able, while he contemplated the apocalypse in the sky, to see on the earth, as in the burial of the Comte d'Orgaz by Greco, where those contrasting planes are parallel, a regular vaudeville played by personages in night-gowns, whose Well-known names ought to have been sent to some successor of that Ferrari whose fashionable notes it had so often amused him and myself to parody. And we should have done so again that day as though there had been no war, although about a very "war-subject", the dread of zeppelins realised, the Duchesse de Guermantes superb in her night-dress, the Duc de Guermantes indescribable in his pink pyjamas and bath-gown, etc., etc.
I am about 105 pages into the final volume of Proust's In Search of My Lost Time Piece, and by gum, it's riveting stuff. The War as seen from Paris, by a non-combatant observer, the political and social changes brought by war and the shifting power between the middle classes and the nobility. Truly great stuff, electric, even if it is mostly Marcel reporting conversations he's had with Parisians about the war. I find it impossible to imagine Paris in a blackout, the streets empty. In 1916, Proust was 45 years old. It's unclear how old Marcel was that year.

Monday, May 15, 2017

gnōthi seauton, Marcel

", even in its humblest beginnings, is a striking example of how little reality means to us." --Marcel Proust, À la Recherche du temps perdu: Albertine disparue, Montcrieff translation.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Burn the house and start from scratch

I have printed out the manuscript for a novel called Antosha!, in order to prepare it for submission to a variety of literary agents and small presses. "Prepare it" here means revise once again, polish up the prose, fuss with the narrative, and in at least one case, completely rewrite the ending of a section. None of this is new to me, having been down this road with other manuscripts many times already. I've been putting this off not because I don't enjoy the work (because I do enjoy the work of revising; it's where the real writing takes place, where the real creative work happens), but because it leads inevitably to the cover letter I must send along with the manuscript when shilling it to agents and publishers. What am I going to say about this book? That's always a vexing question.

I don't think of my novels as particularly experimental or unorthodox, though I suppose in my heart of hearts I am aware that I am not after all working along the same general lines as most of those writers whose novels are getting published. What are my books? They're collections of ideas more than they are self-contained stories about particular characters. I do not believe in characters, or setting, or plot, though all of my novels include stuff that looks like those things. What I mean is that I no longer believe that long-form fiction is really what we're all taught to believe it is. I don't believe that we are watching a play in our imaginations, or whatever, or that we are to believe in the structural integrity of the imaginary characters and the internal consistency of their imaginary worlds. No, I don't buy that, because what a writer of fiction does is manipulate and twist all of the imaginary elements of the imaginary events into arbitrary shapes to fit around his worldview, which is what's actually being put on display. In most current American fiction, the worldview is one where an Individual becomes valuable, overcoming adversity, or something like that. You are a special snowflake, imaginary protagonist, and so are you, imaginary reader. Fly your freak flag etc. Share your own story, we celebrate you.

My novels sort of tend to be fairy tales or myths about other novels, or at least they acknowledge that there is a great deal of other literature out there, and attempt to horn in on their imaginary real estate and invoke those other novels within my own imaginary lands. But mostly, my novels express my particular worldview that selfishness is a failing business and should be abandoned. Or, as Chekhov said to Gorky, "Tell my friends that they are living badly, and they should stop it." This worldview is not generally considered to be marketable. That's one reason my books stay unpublished, I believe. There are other reasons, such as my clanging reader-unfriendly prose and my refusal to hew closely to a certain novelistic metapredictability. I make myself out here to be some sort of militant avant gardist, but really I just write the books as they occur to me, and I try to make the process of writing them as interesting as I can, and I am attracted to certain things like stream of consciousness and sudden swaths of elevated language and metaphysics and looping chronology and the development of theme versus the development of plot. Also, probably, I moralize far too much, I am propelled by philosophical forces as much as I am by artistic forces. Which is just like I am in real, non-novel-writing life, I say touchily in my defense. My imaginary people often think about love and art and faith, instead of sex and money and success and what other people think about them. This makes the novels "not relatable," as Ira Glass said of "King Lear" in his Philistine "Shakespeare sucks" tweets a year or two ago. Fuck you, Ira Glass.

I am drifting far, far off topic here, amn't I? This is why I try not to blog about my own writing, because too often it turns into a litany of complaints. Who am I to complain? What standing have I upon which to base my complaints? So where was I?

Oh, yes, the cover letter. I am never sure what to say about my novels. Perhaps they are not really novels. Perhaps they're more like imaginary symposia superimposed over reports of fictional journeys. That last sentence will not go into my cover letters. It would be fun, though. But no.

Antosha! is the fictional biography of Antosha Chekhonte, who was a pseudonym of Anton Chekhov. Antosha! presents a skewed reflection of the life of Chekhov, in the form of stories, letters, and a stage play, and the novel projects past the death of Antosha Chekhonte to hint at the influence of Chekhov that has carried forward into the present day (though of course my book by itself already demonstrates that). There are also mashups of Shakespeare and Kafka with Chekhov, and a burlesque of Leo Tolstoy. Anyway, none of what I've just written is likely to make the novel look marketable (or relatable, Mr Glass), no matter how well the book is written. Nevertheless, I am preparing Antosha! for submission to a variety of literary agents and small presses. It's what I do, for now anyway.