lookihaveopinions

Tag: marcel proust

On how opinions are made

“This new concept of ‘the finest, highest achievement in the realm of art’ had no sooner entered my mind than it located the imperfect enjoyment I had had at the theater, and added to it a little of what it lacked; this made such a heady mixture that I exclaimed, ‘What a great artiste she is!’ It may be thought I was not altogether sincere. Think, however, of so many writers who, in a moment of dissatisfaction with a piece they have just written, may read a eulogy of the genius of Chateaubriand, or who may think of some other great artist whom they have dreamed of equaling, who hum to themselves a phrase of Beethoven for instance, comparing the sadness of it to the mood they have tried to capture in their prose, and are then so carried away by that perception of genius that they let it affect the way they read their own piece, no longer seeing it as they first saw it, but going so far as to hazard an act of faith in the value of it, by telling themselves, ‘It’s not bad, you know!’ without realizing that the sum total which determines their ultimate satisfaction includes the memory of Chateaubriand’s brilliant pages, which they have assimilated to their own, but which, of course, they did not write.”

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, Marcel Proust, translated by James Grieve

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On interestingness as a driving force in fiction

“Proust succeeds, in my opinion, by being interesting on every single page. [In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past] is one of the few philosophical novels, for instance, that actually has something to say. Proust’s ideas on art, on society, on love, on politics, are fascinating. It’s like going to dinner with the most interesting person you’ve ever met.

“And there’s also a certain moment to moment ingenuity. Unexpected things happen. People change in odd and striking ways. And, of course, the sentences are amazing. I hesitate to call them good or beautiful (because no one except Proust should ever attempt to write like this), but they are an experience. The nearest thing I can compare him to, in English, is Samuel Johnson: a writer who says, in page-long sentences, the kind of thoughts that can only really be expressed in page-long sentences.

“But none of this is any good to the aspiring writer of fiction, of course. And by giving writers the notion that they don’t need story—they just need to be interesting!—I’m pretty sure Proust has harmed many more writers than he’s helped.”

—Rahul Kanakia (x)

What makes an experience real

“[… T]he feeling which makes us not merely regard a thing as a spectacle, but believe in it as in a creature without parallel[….]”

—Marcel Proust by way of C. K. Scott Moncrieff

Short story: “Madeleine”

“Madeleine,” by Amal El-Mohtar

Published in issue 61 of Lightspeed Magazine, June 2015

5899 words

A story about Proustian memories where the main character is named Madeleine? Kind of hokey, but I have to admit I’m jealous that I didn’t come up with it first. Anyway, more to the point, this is a good, believable story. It would work without the gimmick.

I’m not sure how to feel about the author using an epigraph from a book she hasn’t read—my pride and my anxious perfectionism would never let me do that, perhaps to my detriment—but I feel justified in chiding her for not crediting the translators. I googled it, and the translation is by C. K. Scott Moncrieff, as edited by Terence Kilmartin and D. J. Enright.

On literary bookjacket copy

“The jacket copy on literary novels is always incredibly dull (genre writers would say that this is because literary fiction is inherently dull, but I disagree with that). I think it’s because literary jacket copy always tries to convey the experience of reading a book, even though that’s an inherently unexplainable thing. Whereas genre jacket copy just tries to convince you to read the damn thing. The jacket copy on a literary novel is like your college professor telling you why the book is important, whereas the jacket copy on a genre novel is like your best friend telling you why the book is fucking awesome.”

—Rahul Kanakia (x)

Yeah, I feel like literary fiction shouldn’t have that kind of copy at all. Just quotes from the work itself (assuming it’s the kind of thing that can be quoted effectively) and blurbs that make it sound awesome in a literary way.

I would have a hard time explaining why Swann’s Way is awesome, but if you put an excerpt about Marcel’s childhood clinginess, or his madeleines, that would be explanation enough.

On the idea of becoming a writer

“[S]ince I wished, some day, to become a writer, it was high time to decide what sort of books I was going to write. But as soon as I asked myself the question, and tried to discover some subjects to which I could impart a philosophical significance of infinite value, my mind would stop like a clock, I would see before me vacuity, nothing, would feel either that I was wholly devoid of talent, or that, perhaps, a malady of the brain was hindering its development.”

Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust, as translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff

This is intriguing

Describing a lesbian relationship between his neighbors, the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past calls it

“one of those situations which are wrongly supposed to occur in Bohemian circles only; for they are produced whenever there needs to establish itself in the security necessary to its development a vice which Nature herself has planted in the soul of a child, perhaps by no more than blending the virtues of its father and mother, as she might blend the colours of their eyes.”

He seems awfully confident in attributing sexual orientation (“vice” or not) to genetics or at least to some biological origin! I haven’t read very far yet, so I imagine I’ve only scratched the surface of Proust’s intriguing asides….

Short story: “Suzanne Delage”

“Suzanne Delage,” by Gene Wolfe

Originally published in the 1980 anthology Edges; collected in Endangered Species in 1990; appeared here in the September 2013 Lightspeed Magazine

2,422 words according to Lightspeed; 2,283 according to MS Word

I didn’t understand this story, but when the ending came I felt like laughing, as though I had caught the tone of a joke without hearing the words. The excellent reading by Stefan Rudnicki in the Lightspeed podcast probably contributes a lot to the charm I feel about it.

The style and subject matter make me think of Henry James. Also reminded of Edith Wharton’s “Afterward” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Missing Girl”—two maybe-ghost stories that refuse to solve their mysteries for us. This story, however, goes further than either of those, refusing to make it explicit what the mystery is and whether it even exists. The narrator denies that anything “supernatural” has taken place.

I’m not sure whether a twice-married, at-least-middle-aged guy checking out a fifteen-year-old was creepy to Wolfe’s readership when this was first published, or for that matter to the narrator’s own contemporaries (the story seems to be set earlyish in the twentieth century; some, based on the mention of Spanish influenza, have said the 1910s). I would like to think it’s intentionally creepy. Especially the “virginal breasts” thing and the implication that he’d like to fondle her waist. Talking to the reader, the narrator is self-aware enough to feel compelled to deny that his interest in her is merely physical; talking to his acquaintance, he says “child” rather than “girl.” All this seems like a clue that he’s an unreliable narrator, as well as, perhaps, a clue to what makes him unreliable. His idea that he “would no doubt have soon come to both love and hate” Suzanne also stands out, being too extreme a sentiment for a rivalry that never happened in the reasonably happy childhood of a sedate man.

It’s also possible that the narrator is in fact pretty reliable. The fact that he and Suzanne have never met is explicable only by an astonishing set of coincidences, each of which is unremarkable on its own. But if this fact points to the one “extraordinary experience” in his life, then by the rules of the story he is incapable of telling us about that experience, because “he has forgotten it.” He can only offer hints. The story may merely be an excerpt from his private musings, whose larger significance, if any, he fails to recognize.

This is the first thing I’ve read by Wolfe, who’s been strongly recommended to me. It strikes me as very accomplished, even if it’s a literary joke of some sort.

§

A great collection of theories here. Perhaps this is the real point of the story, to provide endless grounds for analysis and debate.

The meaning of the tale consisted / In discussing if it existed.

I can’t resist jotting down a few more points:

  • The narrator notes that some of the girls in the Pie Club photo have their backs turned. He wouldn’t mention that fact if he didn’t consider it significant. Therefore, we can infer that the number of names in the caption of the photo is greater than the number of visible faces. (The only way it makes sense for the two numbers to be the same, or for the names to be fewer than the faces, is if there are faces in the background, where the photo captioner would have had the option of leaving them nameless. The narrator doesn’t mention any background faces, so there probably aren’t any.)
  • Assuming the captioner didn’t make a mistake, Suzanne is visible in that photo. No photographer has the patience to take notes on everyone present in a group photo; it would make far more sense to note “Pie Club” and let the yearbook editors work out the details. Therefore, we can rule out the theory that Suzanne is supernaturally impossible to photograph.
  • If someone deliberately expunged Suzanne’s picture from the yearbook, they must have been interested only in removing her face. The yearbooks still contain her name and, almost certainly, a photo of her facing away from the camera.
  • The Spanish influenza isn’t enough information to reliably date this story. The narrator seems vague about what kind of epidemic it was. Furthermore, we know he has been married and separated amicably twice (he never actually says divorced). Would that really have been acceptable and “mundane” in small-town America before 1960? He says he has “lived nowhere else”; where, then, did he find two women who were willing to end a marriage for no reason except boredom?
  • Even post-1960, was it conventional for people to end marriages so lightly? Perhaps he’s fudging the truth a bit. His wives left him because he couldn’t give them children, or for sexual reasons.
  • Speaking of culture questions, when and where do Americans customarily visit each other “for tea”? I associate that phrase with something more elaborate than a mug of Lipton or a Southern glass of iced tea, but the discussion of textiles places us in North America.
  • The rules of the small town setting seem to ensure that, if Suzanne had been involved in some scandal, the narrator would have known something about it. He admits to knowing “the few really promiscuous girls and the dazzlingly beautiful ones[.]”
  • Robert Borski’s “Snow White” theory doesn’t hold up. His interpretation of the narrator’s role is good and he points out some tantalizing connections, but the apple and mirror allusions are too faint and too ambiguous to be convincing. It would be just as plausible to connect the textiles with Sleeping Beauty’s spindle, or the yearbook to the book of life (Revelation 3:5). Besides, Suzanne’s daughter isn’t described as having anything like “lips as red as blood,” and there’s no one to fill the roles of the huntsman or the dwarves.
  • Here’s a theory: The narrator’s mother, or some other adult, actually conspired to keep the narrator and Suzanne from meeting. Perhaps she was trying to protect him from something she knew about Suzanne, or to protect her friend’s daughter from something she knew about her son. Perhaps he and Suzanne were secretly siblings or half siblings, and their guardians were terrified of accidental incest. The widowed neighbor’s grudge was an invention, the yearbook photos were destroyed deliberately, and the narrator’s and Suzanne’s classes were carefully scheduled to keep them from even passing each other in the halls. (It’s unusual for a mother to see a good marriage prospect for her child without at least making introductions, isn’t it? The narrator doesn’t seem to notice the oddity of that omission.) But no, a parental conspiracy makes no sense. If their parents wanted to separate them, the obvious thing would be to send them to different schools. The narrator implies that there are at least two elementary schools in town, so it would be odd for there to be only one high school, even an “overgrown” one.
  • Hasn’t anyone suggested a time travel theory yet? No wild mass guessing session is complete without Purgatory, a gay romance, and time travel. So, in another timeline, the narrator knew Suzanne, and their relationship had disastrous repercussions. He caught the flu from Suzanne; he passed the flu on to someone important (perhaps to all the “pilgrims from other towns” who visited his mother!); he and Suzanne, young and foolish, did something terrible together; Suzanne infected the main quarterback with flu, thus giving the narrator his chance to shine (or to get horribly injured); the widowed neighbor turned against him and his family; whatever. At some later date, somebody (the narrator, Suzanne, Suzanne’s mother, or someone else entirely) decided to overwrite the timeline, giving the narrator a dull, peaceful life.
  • The Purgatory theory should be easy to come up with. Actually, the narrator’s mediocrity might place him just outside the gates of Dante’s Hell, among “the sorry souls of those who lived without disgrace and without praise.”
  • The mothers’ obsession with textiles is extreme, even manic—more passionate than anything in the narrator’s own life. A hint of what he’s missed out on, and/or been protected from?
  • Neither the narrator’s father nor Suzanne’s is ever mentioned.

Things I haven’t read and mean to

These are books, plays, etc. that I keep hearing about that make me think I’m missing out on something significant.

That may be a mistake, that sense of missing out. I’ve noticed that people’s “Things I haven’t read” lists usually seem tinged with misplaced social anxiety. It’s one of the reasons this type of list is so irritating. The social value of having read The Old Man and the Sea is that I can now, comparatively late in life, tell people I’ve read The Old Man and the Sea—which is very close to zero value. The pleasure of reading it was non-zero but pretty low on the scale compared to, say, an Agatha Christie novel (certainly lower than certain other Hemingway stories). The real value of reading it was that I figured out what irritates me about Hemingway and what I like about him, and what makes him as widely read and admired and influential as he is. So I now have some opinions. I also now have the right to my opinions, which is a certain base satisfaction of its own. I still need to find something worthwhile to do with these opinions. But they’re there if I need them.

Luckily, most of the things I read to avoid missing out on are a great pleasure. Great Expectations, Howards End, the Book of Ecclesiastes, A Doll’s House, and Portnoy’s Complaint were all wonderful. Wuthering Heights was repellent but riveting, and the same for Of Human Bondage and Candide. Even if I didn’t have any useful opinions about those books, I wouldn’t regret talking myself into reading them.

My only fear about is that I will talk myself into finishing something irrelevant instead of coming to understand why it isn’t worth finishing. (Tim Parks at the New York Review of Books suggests that even excellent books may not always need finishing.)

In no fixed order, in no way complete, to be updated when I feel like it: …


  1. Moby-Dick: Currently listening to an audiobook. This audio version is really well done, but I think I missed something by listening to it rather than reading it with my eyes. Even at the height of the action, Ishmael (Melville?) writes some long, convoluted sentences.
  2. The Iliad: Need to look into translations. This seems like the kind of thing that can easily be killed by a bad or archaic or overly fussy translation. (Edited to add: Why is everyone in this book such an ASSHOLE?)
  3. The Odyssey
  4. Ulysses
  5. The Tempest
  6. Twelfth Night
  7. The Merchant of Venice
  8. Crime and Punishment This character list was a big help, though it names Lebeziatnikov twice.
  9. War and Peace
  10. Pride and Prejudice Surprised how much I liked this one. Might try some more Austen.
  11. Emma
  12. Anne Frank’s diary—Preferably an uncensored version. Wow, this book is a breath of fresh air. The jacket copy on my edition talks about Anne having “adult wisdom and views beyond her years,” but that’s crap. In fact, she’s an utterly ordinary teenager: sensitive to things adults fail to notice, ruthlessly critical of herself and others, lonely. In some better world, a renowned journalist turns eighty-three this June.
  13. Beloved: Got an audiobook.
  14. The Color Purple
  15. The Grapes of Wrath
  16. Of Mice and Men
  17. Don Quixote
  18. Notre-Dame de Paris/The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
  19. To Kill a Mockingbird
  20. Brideshead Revisited
  21. À la recherche du temps perdu/Remembrance of Things Past/In Search of Lost Time (update: Swann’s Way is amazing)
  22. Beowulf (Seamus Heaney’s translation—very good!)
  23. A Tale of Two Cities
  24. Oliver Twist
  25. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
  26. Kafka’s diaries—Assuming I can stomach them. There’s something awful about reading something the author never meant to publish and thought he wanted to destroy.
  27. The Cherry Orchard
  28. The Sorrows of Young Werther: I started this but Werther was such a drip I gave up. I think it’s worth another try though.
  29. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations: Listening to an audio version.
  30. The Screwtape Letters: Just started this. Amazingly clever writing. C. S. Lewis often offends me with his slightly arrogant, scolding brand of Christianity, but the preachiness is constantly tempered by earnest, merciless self-reflection.
  31. Tristram Shandy
  32. The Book of Job: Listened to an audiobook of the American Standard Version, very confused. I’m going to try another version. Tried Young’s Literal Translation and then skimmed a simple English version (here). I think it’s just confusing because God is a very strange character and Job’s friends all kind of sound alike.
  33. The Book of Revelation
  34. Orlando: Got an audiobook of this.
  35. Stranger in a Strange Land
  36. In Cold Blood
  37. Gravity’s Rainbow
  38. White Noise
  39. Snow Crash
  40. Neuromancer
  41. American Pastoral
  42. Rabbit, Run
  43. And Then There Were None Good times.
  44. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: I’m sad to already be spoiled for this but it does sound really interesting. Kind of cool.
  45. Death of a Salesman Hope to see a production at some point.
  46. The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Might borrow a paperback translation.
  47. The Satanic Verses: Got an unwieldy hardcover of this.
  48. Winesburg, Ohio Much as I enjoyed parts of this book, the stories all have an undeniable sameness, and the prose style, like most very distinctive styles, becomes cloying after a while. All the characters struggle with roughly the same inability to express themselves; that may be why, when they do manage to speak, their voices are frequently identical. Reading more than one story at a time, therefore, takes away some of their power, and I admire the individual pieces more than the cycle as a whole.
  49. Treasure Island: Listening to an audio version. Marvelous.
  50. The Tale of Genji
  51. “Brokeback Mountain”: Never saw the movie, curious about the short story. Liked it.
  52. The House of Mirth: Currently listening to an audiobook. Just finished this. Holy shit.
  53. Good Omens: My geeky friends tell me this is a must. Looks like a fun read.
  54. Pale Fire: I can’t believe I haven’t read this. I’m fascinated by bizarre misreadings of texts, for reasons that are probably pretty obvious. That was pretty sweet. I might have to go back and reread for the clues I missed.
  55. Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales
  56. The Age of Innocence !
  57. The Human Stain
  58. On the Road
  59. Death in Venice
  60. “Hapworth 16, 1924”—May as well bite the bullet. I feel like I just went to see Rocky Horror for the first time.
  61. The Cyberiad I can’t believe I never read this before. Fantastic.
  62. Relativity: The Special and General Theory—Reading various online versions.
  63. The Origin of Species
  64. The Epic of Gilgamesh
  65. The Great Gatsby—I read this as a teenager but it didn’t interest me at the time. Bit better this time around.
  66. “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”
  67. Trainspotting
  68. The Idiot
  69. Solaris
  70. Lost in the Funhouse
  71. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
  72. Invisible Man (Ellison, not Wells)
  73. Nausea
  74. The Brothers Karamazov !
  75. King Lear
  76. Ethan Frome
  77. Just So Stories
  78. The Federalist Papers
  79. Democracy in America
  80. The Death and Life of Great American Cities
  81. Sense and Sensibility (spoilers!): I’m so pissed that Marianne married Colonel Brandon.
  82. Histoire d’O/Story of O
  83. 120 Days of Sodom
  84. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
  85. Walden
  86. Bleak House
  87. The Killer Inside Me
  88. Le Deuxième Sexe/The Second Sex
  89. Venus in Furs
  90. The Possessed/The Demons
  91. The Communist Manifesto—to be strictly truthful, I listened to it and understood very, very little.
  92. The Book of Psalms
  93. The Constitution of the United States—Seeing as I live here and all. A pretty easy read. Of course, it’s hard to know how much of it I actually understood for practical purposes.
  94. “The Things They Carried”—I’m not sure if I’ve ever read this entire story or not. Maybe the others in the same collection too.
  95. Amerika—It’s kind of weird that I haven’t read this yet, right?
  96. We Have Always Lived in the Castle !
  97. A Brief History of Time
  98. Barthelme’s Sixty Stories
  99. Everything That Rises Must Converge
  100. Orientalism
  101. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
  102. The Kreutzer Sonata (Tolstoy)
  103. The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  104. White Teeth, by Zadie Smith
  105. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie
  106. Our Mutual Friend
  107. We Need to Talk About Kevin
  108. Demian
  109. Oryx and Crake

Other possible additions:

  • A Suitable Boy: Got a massive hardcover, suitable only if I find a good place to sit.
  • Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady: Sounds slow and difficult but interesting. Maybe I’ll just watch the BBC series.
  • The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion: Hoping someone publishes an abridged version someday.
  • Dune
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • JR
  • The Recognitions
  • The Corrections or Freedom
  • The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings
  • Naked Lunch
  • Kim
  • A Passage to India
  • The Hunger Games
  • A Lover’s Discourse
  • The Waves
  • The Twilight books—I have to admit, what with all the rants and parodies and wringing of hands, I feel like I’ve read them already.
  • Agnes Grey
  • House of Leaves
  • Strangers on a Train
  • The Left Hand of Darkness
  • Robinson Crusoe
  • The Magic Mountain
  • The Bhagavad Gita
  • The Painted Bird
  • Steps
  • Peace, by Gene Wolfe—I’ve had this author recommended to me several times, and the book sounds interesting in a meta kind of way.
  • Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
  • The Aeneid
  • Mansfield Park
  • Ovid’s Metamorphoses
  • The works of Andrea Dworkin
  • The Name of the Rose
  • Foucault’s Pendulum
  • The works of George Sand (update: read The Devil’s Pool; it was okay)
  • The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories (Anton Chekhov)
  • Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons
  • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
  • Ancillary Justice
  • The Journalist and the Murderer
  • The Violent Bear It Away
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
  • Tess of the D’Urbervilles and other works of Thomas Hardy
  • Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson—Wow, that was weirder than I was expecting.
  • The works of Friedrich Schiller
  • The Magicians
  • The Theory of the Leisure Class
  • Herland
  • The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

Postscript: I forgot to mention the other reason this type of list is so irritating—the stench of acquisitiveness it gives off. As though every Significant Book were a merit badge to be collected, instead of (as it usually proves to be) a little world of its own. The desire to read lots of Significant Books is admirable in people who are just setting out to educate themselves; in people who have degrees and convoluted literary opinions, it’s another matter. I don’t mind being a snob, but I mind being a hobbyist. I have all the instincts of a hobbyist, a compulsive collector, and I don’t like to see them eat the things I love. Much worse than an irritation.

Postpostscript: If I remember right, this list originally contained around fifty things to read/listen to/consume. As of October 2012, it contains eighty, of which I’ve read twenty. At this rate, it will contain an extra ten unread things every six months. Presumably the rate at which I add things will diminish as I work my way through the canon and narrow my focus, while my reading rate will remain constant, so I’ll eventually catch up. Who are you calling a hobbyist, asshole?

Postpostpostscript: 39/100 as of April 2014.

“I have seen a great many lists of her drawing-up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through—and very good lists they were—very well chosen, and very neatly arranged—sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule. The list she drew up when only fourteen—I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time; and I dare say she may have made out a very good list now. But I have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma. She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding.” —Mr. Knightley in Emma, by Jane Austen

“[A]ny list you care to make about anything automatically creates two categories, those that are on the list and those that are not.” —John Searle