Monthly Archives: September 2006

Art and life and Proust

I have recently come across a beautiful passage from Proust on the relationship of art and life. It is a passage on Vinteuil’s sonata, the famous sonata from which comes the “little phrase” that was so important to Swann as he fell in love with Odette. Now it’s the narrator who is thinking about its significance.

This is what he thinks: upon encountering a new work of art — “new” meaning something recent that departs from established methods and schools — we can’t understand it immediately. We don’t have the background to make sense of it; it seems foreign and chaotic, and maybe ugly. We can’t analyze it — break it into parts — because we can’t get a grasp of the entire thing in order to understand its structure. When we do begin to appreciate the new work of art, we don’t appreciate the right things:

Not only does one not immediately discern a work of rare quality; but even within such a work, as happened to me with the Vinteuil sonata, it is always the least precious parts that one notices first.


When we finally understand the work more fully, those things we valued at the beginning of the process, we have now forgotten. And here is his conclusion:

Because it was only in successive stages that I could love what the sonata brought to me, I was never able to possess it in its entirely — it was an image of life.


If we were to possess life entirely, it would have to be from the perspective of death, wouldn’t it? Otherwise, we are always changing and so can’t possess a thing in flux. But because we are changing constantly, our understanding of art is constantly changing, so we can’t possess the work of art either. Art isn’t so much a way of getting life to stand still as it is a way of charting its movement.

Proust elaborates:

But the great works of art are also less of a disappointment than life, in that their best parts do not come first. In the Vinteuil sonata, the beauties one discovers soonest are also those which pall soonest, a double effect with a single cause: they are the parts that most resemble other works, with which one is already familiar. But when those parts have receded, we can still be captivated by another phrase, which, because its shape was too novel to let our mind see anything there but confusion, had been made undetectable and kept intact; and the phrase we passed by every day unawares, the phrase which had withheld itself, which by the sheet power of its own beauty had become invisible and remained unknown to us, is the one that comes to us last of all. But it will also be the last one we leave. We shall love it longer than the others, because we took longer to love it.


I like what this says about art; I’m not sure I like what it says about life. About art, this tells me that some of the greatest pleasures to be had are those I have to wait and work for. It tells me, as I think about my post from a couple days ago, that pleasure and effort and patience are not opposed. If I stick with a difficult and bewildering work of art, it will begin to reveal beauties to me.

About life, Proust implies that the best parts come first, that we have the greatest access to beauty when we are young. I’m not sure I like this because I find it depressing, and also because I’m not sure it’s true. Perhaps we have more intense experiences of life when we are young — perhaps — but surely the nature of one’s experiences become deeper and more complex. Surely there is beauty in life that witholds itself until we have been patient long enough to see it revealed.

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What is it with me and footnotes lately?

I’ve begun reading The Mezzanine, by Nicholson Baker, and guess what? It’s a novel with footnotes! Not the usual kind of scholarly footnotes written by an editor, but footnotes written by the first-person narrator. I had no idea! I’ve only read about 15 pages of the novel — which is short at 135 pages — so I can’t say much about whether they work or not, but so far, I’m liking it. In typical Nicholson Baker-fashion, the book gives you everything in minute detail: the setting, the character’s thoughts, the action — which, as I understand it, consists of the main character taking an elevator ride. The footnotes elaborate in great detail on the already detailed main text, explaining such things as the history of staplers, the history of straws, and how the narrator pulls up his socks. This could be intensely annoying, but so far it’s not, although I am predisposed to like this book, as I like other things Baker’s written (especially U & I).

Thanks to Barry for pointing out Mark Dunn’s novel Ibid, a novel made up entirely of footnotes. This, clearly, I will have to check out.

One of the blurbs for The Mezzanine says this:

I love novels with gimmicks. The list of great ones — Tristram Shandy … Pale Fire … Ulysses, the ultimate gimmick novel. The Mezzanine is a definite contribution, a very funny book about the human mind. Mesmerizing.

I don’t like this reviewer calling these novels gimmicky. Isn’t the term “gimmicky” kind of dismissive? These novels are more than just gimmicks; they are experiments, explorations, novels where the author is pushing the limits of what a novel can do. If something is gimmicky, it’s interesting only in its newness and tricksiness, but these books do new things and also old things — old things like telling us what it’s like to be a person or to live in one’s mind or to experience the world or to be obsessed with another person.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt from one of Baker’s footnotes, one that’s about reading and eating:

I stared in disbelief the first time a straw rose up from my can of soda and hung out over the table, barely arrested by burrs in the underside of the metal opening. I was holding a slice of pizza in one hand, folded in a three-finger grip so that it wouldn’t flop and pour cheese-grease on the paper plate, and a paperback in a similar grip in the other hand — what was I supposed to do? The whole point of straws, I had thought, was that you did not have to set down the slice of pizza to suck a dose of Coke while reading a paperback. I soon found, as many have, that there was a way to drink no-handed with these new floating straws: you had to bend low to the table and grasp the almost horizontal straw with your lips, steering it back down into the can every time you wanted a sip, while straining your eyes to keep them trained on the line of the page you were reading. How could the staw engineers have made so elementary a mistake, designing a straw that weighed less than the sugar-water in which it was intended to stand? Madness!

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Old and new books

I was intrigued by Patrick Kurp’s post on the value of reading old books as opposed to new ones — old meaning published many years ago, not old as in used. He says, “the past is a much bigger place than the present, so it follows that most worthwhile books were published not last week but some time in the previous three millennia. Every minute devoted to reading the new and middling is a minute spent languishing away from the old and dependably superior.” This makes sense to me in a way. Almost everything we read that’s recently published won’t last; it will be forgotten, and there’s no knowing which very few books are the exceptions. I was interested to read in Virginia Woolf’s diary about the books she reviewed, and I noticed that many of them I hadn’t heard of before. The books we are debating about today, people won’t have heard of 100 years from now. The things we read from the past are by definition the stuff that has lasted, and perhaps that means they’re superior to today’s books.

Patrick also argues, following William Hazlitt, that it’s the older books that are really new: they can show us a world different from the one we inhabit. Older books can shake us up a bit, show us new things, get us out of the familiar and make us encounter the alien. I like that idea too. I look for the new and unfamiliar in my reading, often.

And yet, I wonder. Why do we read? Is it for edification and instruction, or for comfort and pleasure? Okay, it can be both, sometimes both at once, sometimes in separate reading experiences, depending on one’s mood.

But here’s what I really wonder: does it matter why we read? I kind of buy the argument that reading older books can be an encounter with the new and can help us break out of our private comfortable worlds as Patrick argues. But does it have to be older books that do this? Can’t we have that experience with new books, if that experience is what we are looking for, ones that show us worlds different from the ones we know?

And when it comes to the argument that older books are the ones that have lasted and new books probably won’t, and that therefore reading older books is more worthwhile, I begin to wonder what we mean by “worthwhile.” What do we seek to get out of reading? I guess this kind of argument presumes that we should be reading for self-edification, for self-improvement, that reading should be a learning experience.

I’ve often thought that myself. I’ve read a whole lot of older books because I wanted to be a better person. I wanted to be well-read and well-educated, and knowledgeable and open-minded. But sometimes I wonder what the point of all that is. Does every minute we spend have to be spent in a worthwhile manner?

Maybe after all pleasure and not edification is a better goal. A part of me shudders to say that — forget being a better person, just enjoy yourself! I’ve spent most of my life thinking I needed to be a better person and that every minute should be devoted to it. Ultimately, I wouldn’t be able to shake that way of thinking, even if I decided I really wanted to. But I do sometimes think I might be better off if I decided that not a whole lot matters but enjoyment of the present moment, and in that case I’ll read what I damn well please, old or new.

I guess ultimately I think that if everyone decided that not a whole lot matters but enjoyment of the present moment, the world would be a messed-up place (oh, wait … the world IS a messed up place …), but I also think that people like me who are driven fairly mercilessly to spend every moment of time wisely might be better off seeking pleasure more often.

And so I’m having a bit of a bad reaction to the idea that my reading should be worthwhile. Would it hurt me much if my reading were more escapist?

Hmmm … I’m off to read Proust. Make of that what you will.

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Thoughts on footnotes

I’ve written a number of times about the footnotes to my edition of Dracula (you can find those posts here and here), and I’ve continued to think about how fun they were — perhaps not so much as a first-time reader of the novel, but still, they were fun. And I’m reminded of a comment Mandarine left on one of those posts:

I was thinking someone should set up a literary comments/editing/footnote wiki, where one would suggest classics, and everybody could add/edit all sorts of comments around the text. Each comment would have categories, so a reader can then check or uncheck the ‘fun’, ‘gothic’, ‘schoolboy’, ‘academic’, ‘cultural reference’ footnotes as they please.


Now wouldn’t that be awesome? I think that’s a great idea. I have no idea how to set this up, but someone else surely does (maybe someone’s done this already?). The footnotes in Dracula make me realize how much fun this would be, because those footnotes provide a range of information, from historical background to personal responses to almost off-topic musings to textual inconsistencies. They are much more personal than footnotes generally are; in places they are more like a reader’s musings than formal footnotes. And reader’s musings are very interesting to read, provided, of course, that the reader is interesting. Maybe one of the options on this hypothetical literature wiki would be to follow the footnotes or comments of one particular author, so you could find a writer you liked and follow his or her way through the text.

For those of you who know Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, you have a glimpse of how much fun this can be; that novel starts with a 999-line poem and the rest of it is one person’s notes on that poem, notes that are … fascinating. Given the right primary text and the right reader, or group of readers, this could be a great exercise in thinking about how people read. Or it could be just plain old fun.

And, of course, you could have the scholarly comments, the historical footnotes, the theoretical ponderings, the critical citations. And these wouldn’t be limited by space constraints. They could be limitless in number and endless in length.

The commentary would get much longer than the primary text, I would think. You’d need to make sure a person could search through the material and get a handle on it somehow. I guess you’d run into the problems they have over at Wikipedia with fights over who gets to post what material. But anyway — it would be cool to experiment with, wouldn’t it?

As I’m typing this, in the oddest of coincidences, the Hobgoblin is laughing uproariously at this website: Joe Mathlete Explains Today’s Marmaduke in 500 Words or Less — it’s a site that has a commentary on the cartoon that’s just as funny as or funnier than the cartoon itself. I call it a coincidence, because it’s kind of like the commentary I’m talking about with Dracula — parasitic, perhaps, second-hand, but very clever and funny. The internet makes this sort of thing easy. Isn’t the internet the best?

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Dracula

I reached my goal for the weekend: I finished Dracula, and what fun it was! The ending is very tense and exciting. And so now my rather lame RIP challenge is finished, only one book, and it’s not even October yet. I have time to read more RIP books if I like. We’ll see.

I thought the book was good in a number of ways, most of all, perhaps, because it was a great story. It’s a relatively long novel, but Stoker kept the tension high throughout. He’s fabulous at creating the frightening, eerie mood that this novel absolutely must have. The parts that take place in Transylvania — at the beginning and the end — are the most exciting and atmospheric, but the middle parts in England maintain the momentum.

The book is also good in ways Stoker might or might not have intended: it strikes me as the perfect late 19C novel (1897), reflecting so precisely so many of the period’s preoccupations. It’s about the too-thin veneer of order and rationality that we sometimes think is all of life, and how easily this gets ripped away to reveal the chaos and irrationality beneath. The book is full of train time tables and business accounts, signs of an orderly society at work, but order and rationality are at war with the supernatural. Nice, neat categories such as “alive” and “dead” are disturbed and forced to make room for the “undead” vampire. Up until the very end, the time tables are there, symbols of “civilization,” weapons the characters must wield against Count Dracula, whose powers and actions defy the rules that generally govern humanity.

The book is also about very weird and disturbing gender dynamics, and it’s obsessed with sexuality. You have the typical Victorian bifurcated view of women: Lucy, for example, the innocent, beautiful, sexually-attractive-but-pure, soon-to-be wife and angel of the house at first, who then transforms into a lustful, aggressive, evil vampire who must be killed. The issue is complicated, however, because while the men in the novel insist that Mina, the other main female character, remain out of their planning to destroy Dracula, they soon learn that Mina is precisely the one they need to track him down. It’s her good memory for those train tables and her forceful logical thought that save them in the end. The women in this novel are either perfectly pure or perfectly corrupt, but it is a woman who employs the stereotypically male power of logic to deduce Dracula’s whereabouts at a crucial moment in the story.

And Stoker has way too much fun playing around with images of sucking people’s blood and blood transfusions and exchanges of blood as thinly veiled sex acts. Sexuality is equated with vampirism, showing how a fear of and obsession with sex underlie Victorian staidness. Sex haunts the book, just as do a fear of the supernatural and of death.

I think Dracula belongs to the class of book which is at least as interesting for the ways it reveals something about the culture it came out of as it is for its story and characters. Any book will reveal something about its time and place of origin, but some books sum up what’s characteristic of its time and place so well that that becomes one of the chief pleasures of reading it. This novel is quite like The Monk and The Castle of Otranto in the way they all are often a bit sloppy and sometimes unintentially hilarious (well, maybe this is intentional?) but very good and interesting nonetheless, because of the energy and pleasure that obviously went into the writing and also because of the way they so perfectly speak to their times.

This book certainly has its flaws: I wished Stoker hadn’t bothered with the accents, especially Van Helsing’s, which is horribly distracting, and, like the accent of a bad actor, comes and goes. And not only are the gender stereotypes pervasive, but the national stereotypes are as well. The American character, Quincy Morris, made me laugh; he was from Texas, of course! and was rather cowboy-like. And the farther east the characters traveled across Europe, the more “primitive” and superstitious and irrational the natives became. But the book was just too much fun to let its flaws get to me.

If you’ve read Dracula before and are looking to read it again at some point, I highly recommend this edition. It’s not good for a first-time read (as mine was) because the footnotes are very intrusive and give away parts of the story early on, but it’s excellent for a re-reading. The footnotes are thorough and very funny in places; you can see my delighted posts on them here and here. They are the footnotes of a book-lover as well as a scholar, and they make good reading in and of themselves.

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TBR shelves

Here are my nice, neat, pretty shelves full of books I own but haven’t yet read, from two weeks ago:

And here are my shelves today:

I blame this on Book Mooch; I swear I haven’t been near a bookstore recently, except to buy a copy of Indiana, which I need for a book group and Book Mooch doesn’t have. And now I’ve got two more books on the way: The Periodic Table by Primo Levi and Veronica by Mary Gaitskill. I’ll need a new shelf soon!

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Anarchy Soup

I’m having a whole lot of fun reading the Hobgoblin’s novel. Something about writing one’s novel on a blog strikes me as really, really cool. Part of the fun of reading it for me is recognizing some of the settings and characters from our real life. I won’t discuss those details because you probably wouldn’t know what I was talking about anyway, but the locations and some of the characters sounded quite familiar to me, and I was right: the Hobgoblin confirmed that he used some places we’ve spent time in and people we’ve spent time with as inspirations for his writing. One of the professors we both knew from grad school quit her job to write academic mysteries, and I remember people in the English department speculating about which character corresponded to which faculty member. In that department the “cookie key” was well-known — the key that got you into any office — and it made an appearance in this professor’s novel, which delighted us all.

I also think it’s very interesting to be writing a novel and getting feedback on it as he goes along. I’ll probably never write a novel, so I won’t know about these things first-hand, but it must be very, very different writing a novel in the usual way and publishing chapters online as they get written. I doubt any of the reader comments will change the way the Hobgoblin is writing his novel, but those comments have an influence anyway — the encouragement that comes from the comments must have an impact, and simply knowing that people are reading the chapters as he produces them must influence his motivation to write. It makes novel-writing a less isolating endeavour and a more communal one. I guess people working on novels in writing workshops can have a similar experience, but the reader/writer relationship is different, and the way readers encounter the novel is different too.

This kind of publication is like the old 19C way of serializing novels, so that the author could get reviews and other forms of feedback before the end of the novel is written. With a blog, however, the feedback can be more immediate and direct. I’ve come to see how blogging is a form of journal-writing gone public, so that one’s journal becomes more communal than private, but to apply that model to novel writing seems to be a different thing. Journals lend themselves to daily or at least frequent publication, where it seems more natural to be able to see the process of living and thinking and writing at work. But readers rarely get a glimpse of the process of novel writing (check out Bloglily’s excellent post on the subject if you are interested).

Okay, let me go and ask the Hobgoblin when I can expect his latest chapter …

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