Monthly Archives: June 2007

Reading Proust

I haven’t posted on Proust in a while (which Stefanie’s post reminded me of); I’m not sure why I haven’t, except perhaps laziness — it feels like a lot of effort to pull together a post on In Search of Lost Time. But I have been reading steadily away, and have reached the middle of The Fugitive, the second to last volume. I plan on finishing the entire thing by the end of the summer, assuming nothing unexpected gets in the way.

To be honest, I don’t think I’d be able to keep reading this if I didn’t have a steady pattern of reading 50-60 pages a week. I mean, if I read now and then, stopping and starting, picking it up as I have time and am inspired, I probably would have stopped for good at some point. I would have piled other books on top of it and would have eventually given up. But a regular schedule keeps me going; reading Proust is just one of the things I do every week. When I’m finished reading Proust I will feel a sense of loss, I think. He’s been a constant companion for a year now.

Oh — I just remembered that it’s almost exactly one year since I began reading Proust. Involuntary Memory, the group blog devoted to reading Proust began last July. I wonder how the other members are doing with the book? That blog has languished of late.

I don’t want to imply that reading Proust has not been enjoyable — it certainly has. It’s just that … well, one doesn’t keep reading it for the plot. It’s beautiful and thought-provoking and brilliant, but not exciting. So a little bit of discipline helps me out.

I found the first two volumes Swann’s Way and In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower to be the best so far (I’ve heard wonderful things about the last volume, though, so I don’t know which ones will turn out to be my favorites). The third and fourth volumes, The Guermantes Way and Sodom and Gomorrah are a bit slower going. They still have much that’s wonderful — those long passages where the narrator analyzes his thoughts and feelings in such wonderful depth and detail and that say so many wonderful and true things about life and existence — but they also have long passages describing parties and social intrigues and gossip that aren’t quite as fascinating. (This is one advantage of reading through the volumes slowly — I never feel that bogged down when things get slow, since I’m only reading 10-20 pages at a time.)

I’ve felt that in The Prisoner and The Fugitive the book is closer to what it was in the first two volumes. There are fewer party scenes and more passages of introspection and analysis. These are the Albertine volumes, where the narrator describes his ever-changing feelings toward her — and believe me, they are ever-changing.  Nobody captures the vicissitudes of feeling better than Proust.  I have just finished a section of The Fugitive, about half the volume, where the narrator describes his feelings in response to a big plot event — which I won’t give away here, although someone gave the event away to me a while back, so I’ve spent a long time wondering when this big thing would happen.  It’s a little like reading Clarissa, where big events don’t happen very often, so you learn to treasure the ones that do.

I’m far enough along in the book now that I’m quite sure I’ll finish it, and I know I will be happy that I did.  The world will never look quite the same again after reading Proust.

If we went to Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, everything we might see there would take on the same aspect as the things we know on Earth.  The only real journey, the only Fountain of Youth, would be to travel not towards new landscapes, but with new eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them can see, or can be …

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The perfect thing

I began Alison Lurie’s novel Foreign Affairs last night and continued reading it for a while this afternoon, and I’m finding it to be the perfect thing to read right now. It’s a novel that I feel I can read for hours on end; although I really loved The Voyage Out, I didn’t feel I could read it for hours on end (maybe one or two, but not longer). I’m in need of something absorbing — something serious, but just a little on the lighter side. Lurie is perfect.

It’s got a lot of things I like — it’s about characters and relationships and emotions and conversations; it’s also about academic-type people, which, although I sometimes feel this is a masochistic tendency, I like reading about. (Don’t I spend enough time among academics as it is?) It’s about Americans in London, so I can read and fantasize about being there myself.

The story is about two English professors from Corinth University, which, since it’s prestigious and in upstate New York, I’m presuming is something like Cornell; plus there’s the fact that Lurie has taught at Cornell for many years. Both professors are conducting research in London. One of them is a woman in her 50s, independent and eccentric; the other is in his late 20s, recently separated from his wife, and very unhappy. So far they have met in London a few times and don’t like each other particularly.

One thing I’ve noticed — a couple of times Lurie refers directly to her text; for example, she mentions the length of a particular paragraph, or in Chapter 3 she makes a reference to Chapter 1. She’s being playful, I suppose, pointing out to readers that it’s a novel they’ve got in their hands, not trying to be perfectly realistic and to make readers forget that it’s a book they are reading. And the tone of the novel is light; it seems like she had fun writing it, and I’m having fun reading it.

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Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out

I have now finished Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out, and I just finished reading the chapter on the novel in Julia Briggs’s Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. I enjoyed all this reading very much and would like to continue reading more of her work and more about her, although I’m not sure I’ll pick up another novel really soon. But I can see myself reading through Woolf’s novels slowly over the course of a few years. I always talk about how much I love Woolf’s writing, and yet there’s so much of hers that I haven’t read, or that I should re-read. I read both The Waves and Jacob’s Room and found myself a bit bewildered, and I wonder if I re-read them now whether I would have a different response. I like Woolf’s other novels and essays enough to be willing to give it a try.

The Voyage Out is a more traditional novel than many of Woolf’s later works, although even here she is playing around with narrative conventions. I can’t really describe how she plays around with these conventions or I’d have to give away the ending, but let’s just say that the ending does something quite different from your typical 19C novel.

The story is about a group of English people who travel to South America; among them are Rachel Vinrace, a young woman who has led a very sheltered life, and Helen Ambrose who takes charge of Rachel and attempts to educate her. In South America, they meet a group of people staying in a resort hotel, and the novel describes the interactions among all these people — the love affairs, engagements, arguments, irritations, likes and dislikes, etc.

Underneath all these interactions lies much that is deeper and darker. Rachel has many difficult things to learn; she undergoes a sort of sexual initiation that leaves her shaken. She learns about prostitutes in Piccadilly and realizes:

“So that’s why I can’t walk alone!”

By this new light she saw her life for the first time a creeping hedged-in thing, driven cautiously between high walls, here turned aside, there plunged in darkness, made dull and crippled for ever — her life that was the only chance she had — a thousand words and actions became plain to her.

“Because men are brutes! I hate men!” she exclaimed.

Women’s status in society is a recurring theme — the characters talk about differences between men and women, the possibility that women will gain the vote, and the compromises that marriage requires. The novel considers the various fates that await women; one woman is single and must work for a living, and the other characters admire but mostly pity her. For another character, Susan Warrington, marriage seems to be a way out of a life spent caring for an aging relative, but she is heading into a similar relationship with her husband-to-be. And even Helen’s marriage, which seems to be the strongest, has flaws.

Through the course of the novel, Rachel learns much about the flawed, complicated world Woolf describes — and she only ambivalently finds her own place within it. She’s haunted by dreams that speak to the difficulty of the initiation she is undergoing.

The book has a dream-like quality to it, perhaps partly because of its exotic location; the characters feel adrift in a world that is so different from England — they try to recreate English traditions, but it often feels like play-acting. A group of them take a trip into the interior to see a native village and (in a way that is reminiscent of Heart of Darkness) feel themselves increasingly uneasy and disoriented as they travel inland.

The conversations struck me as odd, although they also struck me as typical of Woolf’s writing; there isn’t the psychological exploration in this novel that she would develop in her later ones, but I do see the beginnings of it in the way the characters often seem to be speaking from the depths of their minds. The dialogue doesn’t seem realistic to me at all, but somehow it captures a truth about these characters’ experiences and it works to create that dream-like mood. To me, Woolf captures what it feels like to exist, to be aware of one’s own mind and the minds of others.

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Novel obsessions

I’m wondering what people think about the conversation in Don Quixote between the canon and the priest in chapters 47-48. The canon at times seems very logical and at other times inconsistent. He criticizes novels of chivalry as “foolish stories meant only to delight and not to teach, unlike moral tales, which delight and teach at the same time.” And yet he says that he has read the beginning of almost every chivalric novel that’s been written. He can’t read to the end of any of them, though, because their plots are so repetitive. So why does he keep beginning them over and over?

In spite of being so critical of chivalric novels, he can’t seem to let them go:

Despite all the bad things [the canon] had said about those books, he found one good thing in them, which was the opportunity for display that they offered a good mind, providing a broad and spacious field where one’s pen could write unhindered, describing shipwrecks, storms, skirmishes, and battles …

and the canon goes on for a long paragraph listing all the wonderful things a writer of chivalric novels can write about. He ends his long speech describing how fabulous a chivalric novel could be if only people wrote them well:

And if this is done in a pleasing style and with ingenious invention, and is drawn as close as possible to the truth, it no doubt will weave a cloth composed of many different and beautiful threads, and when it is finished, it will display such perfection and beauty that it will achieve the great goal of any writing, which, as I have said, is to teach and delight at the same time. Because the free writing style of these books allows the author to show his skills as an epic, lyric, tragic, and comic writer, with all the characteristics contained in the sweet and pleasing sciences of poetry and rhetoric; for the epic can be written in prose as well as verse.

He’s so convinced the genre of chivalric novel can be saved, that he has tried to write one of his own and has written more than a hundred pages.

The canon sees so much potential in this genre that he seems obsessed with it. And I can’t help but think of Don Quixote itself when I read the last sentence of the above quotation — Don Quixote has its own “free writing style” that combines epic, lyric, tragic, and comic aspects, with a little poetry and rhetoric and a lot of prose. Is Cervantes speaking through the canon here, working his way toward the new genre that the novel will be?

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New books

I’ve been on a book-buying and book-mooching spree lately; I’m not sure why, since I don’t need any more books and have distressingly little time to read (my summer class has begun and it’s intense), but when does that ever stop a book lover? Just today The Walker’s Literary Companion arrived in the mail, a book I’ve mentioned multiple times on this blog. I’m not sure I’ll read the entire thing, but it will be a good source of information on authors who write about walking for whenever I get in the mood to read about it.

Just the other day, Kate Sutherland’s book of short stories All In Together Girls arrived in the mail; I want to read at least one more collection of short stories this year, and this sounds like an excellent one — plus I’m looking forward to reading the work of a fellow blogger. I ordered it from Canada; the book will be available in the U.S. in August, but given the mood I’m in, I decided not to wait.

Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage I received recently from a Book Moocher; it’s “the best book about not writing a book about D.H Lawrence ever written” according to Amazon. I really don’t care about D.H. Lawrence all that much, but a book about the struggles of writing a biography sounds like just my thing. Another interesting nonfiction book to arrive recently is Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity, which is part memoir, part philosophical pondering, part literary criticism. It sounds like a great mix.

And I also mooched Stephen Dixon’s Gould; I’ve never read Dixon before, but lots of bloggers rave about him, so I thought I’d give him a try.

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Not for children!

Online Dating

I got this rating because I used the words “dead,” “death,” and “murder.”  Hmmm … I didn’t know this blog was so morbid …

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I’m back …

I’m going to settle down to reading soon because I haven’t done a whole lot of it over the last few days, but I wanted to write just a few words about my trip home first. Hobgoblin and I rode 100 miles over the course of the two full days we were gone, 60 one day and 40 the next; both times we followed a course that took us along the shore of Lake Ontario.  The landscape is beautiful; it felt so different from what I’m used to in Connecticut — the land is flatter and more open, with more farmland and fewer trees so we could see the whole sky and a long way up the road ahead of us.  I always think of myself as a person who loves hills and mountains, but I was surprised to find myself loving the flat, open country.  I haven’t visited the area in summer in a long time, and I found I had forgotten how pretty it is.

But today my legs hurt … the landscape was wonderful, but the wind was not.  We had an easy time riding out, but once we turned to head home, we faced the wind and had a hard time of it.  My average speed dropped two miles an hour at least.  There’s nothing more demoralizing than working super hard just to crawl along at a slow pace.  I’m not used to riding on relatively flat roads either and it felt different; I’m used to coasting down hills now and then, and when I can’t coast and do nothing but pedal for hours and hours I hurt.

But that’s not the only cycling news I have — Hobgoblin and I went to watch a bike race in downtown Rochester on Saturday night and had a fabulous time; I’ve never seen so many spectators and such excitement at a bike race before.  This was a race we considered riding in, until I discovered it would conflict with my brother’s graduation party, so we went to the party and checked out the pro races afterward.  I can’t say I regret not being able to race, though, because the course looked difficult; it had seven or eight corners, including one hairpin turn, and just thinking about riding them at speed terrified me.  We may ride in the race next year, but I’m already nervous about it — cornering is not my strength!  We had so much fun , though, watching the the tail end of the women’s pro race and the full two hours of the men’s; we walked around the course a couple times, analyzing how the riders took the corners, watching them lean over frighteningly far.  Spectators lined the course the whole way around, cheering the riders on; it’s an amazing course, really, because from most places you can see two different sections of it, including two bridges that cross the Genessee River.  If I can get up the nerve, I think I’ll have fun riding on it.

But now I’m off to read … and I’ll be back posting on books soon.

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