WRAP UP SEASON 2016: The ten books I liked best this year


This year's been a good one for reading. I started it out as part of the jury for an award, which consumed my reading for the first few months. Then I got kind of depressed and couldn't really read anything: I just had no taste for books anymore. But somehow Proust was the only thing I could still enjoy, so I read all of In Search of Lost Time, and it was amazing! Even better than the first time! Whereas during my first read, I'd sometimes needed to fight my way through the books, with this one that only rarely occurred (except during the fifth and sixth volumes, where there's a distinct sense of repetition). I've posted about Proust at length on this blog, so I won't discuss it too much here. This time I had more interest in his descriptions of walks and subtle psychological states, but to me the series is still, at its core, a novel of manners. This about the complex relationships of a very tiny segment of society: the highly-fashionable people of Paris, and the social climbers who want to be part of that set. The novel starts on the edges, by showing you Swann, who's an interloper who made his way into the center of society. Then it circles back around and nibbles its way around the edges. In the second book, Marcel lives in an apartment bloc owned by the leader of fashionable society, the Duke and Duchesse de Guermantes. He attempts to know them and is rebuffed. But he gets in through a side door because of his grandmother's friendship with a distant relative, the Mme de Villeparisis. Who in turn introduces him to a scion of the house: Robert de Saint Loup.

And so he spends three books circling through these characters, showing them to us in all their complicated relations with each other. Then he turns everything on its head, introducing the passage of time. Suddenly the Fauborg St. Germain we know begins to change. People who were on the outskirts are now working their way into the center. The catalyst is the Dreyfus Affair, which tore apart French society for reasons I still can't quite understand. Somehow support for Dreyfus became identified with opposition to the nobility and the church and all things traditional, and the Fauborg, in order to shore itself up, starts admitting certain people, so long as they are very anti-Dreyfus.

Then the wheel turns again, and we're suddenly after the Dreyfus affair, but things are different. The Duke and Duchesse de Guermantes are sadly changed. Mme de Villeparisis is dead. Robert de Saint Loup is fallen. Swann's widow, who everyone once decried as a prostitute, is at the top of the social heap. And the terrible bourgeois, Mme Verdurin, runs her own highly fashionable salon.

The whole work is an attempt to span time. To catch it, and make us understand its passing in ways we wouldn't otherwise: not just as the aging of individual people, but also as the destruction and construction of entire systems of relation.

Okay, I said I wasn't going to talk about it, and then I did, for five hundred words. Sigh.

This year I also read a lot of Anthony Trollope. I read all the novels in his Palliser series. Each one is easily 300-400k long, so that makes something like two million words of it. And the series is so fucking good! It's all about people falling in and out of love in 19th century Britain (like all Trollope novels), but these people are also Members of Parliament, and Cabinet Secretaries, and, sometimes, Prime Ministers.

In this series, Trollope is at his most realistic. He shows us what can happen to people: the ways they can be twisted and destroyed. He shows us the ways that character matters, not just in national affairs, but especially when it comes to those we are closest to. And you don't come out with easy answers. In one book, he'll seem to say one thing is right (you should always cleave to your husband, for instance), and in another book you'll have a situation wherein that's absolutely the wrong thing to do.

The first novel in the series is fantastic, but it's not for everyone. Three years ago, I got a hundred pages into it, and then threw it away because I was so bored. This time I was riveted throughout. The political element doesn't get introduced until halfway through the volume, so wait for it. The best books, though, are the fifth and sixth. Here everything starts to pay off. You have these two characters, Plantagenet Palliser and his wife, Lady Glencora, and it's such a delight to see them grow up and change. Neither is perfect. Neither is quite a hero. Plantagenet is too stern and unwavering (he becomes Prime Minister and then messes everything up). And his wife really doesn't have very good judgement (even as a matron and mother of adult children, she's getting into weird and poorly-thought-out schemes). But they're both strong-willed and good-hearted. Highly recommend.

The absolute best book I read this year was Emma Cline's The Girls. The language in the book is fantastic. Few authors are truly able to create novel combinations of words. Cline actually manages to put things in such a way that you're like: A) That's beautiful; and B) I can now see this thing in a new light. Not to mention the story itself is pretty good! I mean it's a little sensationalistic for my tastes; I didn't love the whole Manson murders aspect. But I liked the bildungsroman hidden inside, and I think the ending is perfect. I can't recommend this book enough. It ought to win the Pulitzer Prize. The only other writer who I can compare Cline to, on a sentence by sentence level, is Virginia Woolf. She's that good.

Otherwise, I have the usual grab bag of books I loved. The latest on my list was added only yesterday. Jane Austen's novella Lady Susan is her earliest complete work. It wasn't even published during her lifetime. It's also fantastic, and, in my opinion, significantly better than a couple of her novels. You've never read a Jane Austen character like Lady Susan: she's an amoral schemer who sort of gets away with her schemes! And the whole thing is told in letters too, so you can see her sly asides right alongside the confusion of the people she's trying to fool. You can read this book in like two hours, and you should.

For the last few months my friend and fellow writer Erin Summerill has been sending me romance novel recommendations, and I have faithfully read all of them. Most are or were initially self-published, and most are mega-bestsellers. The best of the lot, in my opinion, is also the creepiest: On The Island, by Tracy Garvis-Graves, is about a thirty year old woman stranded on an island, after a plane crash, with her sixteen year old pupil. Yeah. They don't hook up until after he turns nineteen, but that's still pretty sketchy!

And yet despite all of that, the book is so visceral. The struggle to survive is so immediate that you forget about the age stuff. These are just two different people trying to stay alive for another day. And the age gap serves an important purpose: it keeps them apart. Without it, they would've hooked up on day two: the sexual tension is that deep and simmering.

Umm, what else...I read East of Eden. And it was a very good book, but also a little...perplexing. This is the kind of book that hooks you and keeps you reading, but when you look back on it six months later, you're like, "Why?"

Oh, The Caine Mutiny! Herman Wouk is one of those writers, like Margaret Mitchell, who were hailed as literary in their own day (his book won the Pulitzer Prize) but now seem to only be real by average people who're looking for good books (i.e. not critics). The Caine Mutiny is unbelievably complex, though. It does the interesting trick of actually showing you, within the narrative, the situation in which the titular mutiny arose, and then making you see that mutiny in a completely different way when it gets picked apart in the courthouse scenes. In the end, it makes you see how multi-faceted reality is. And in the end you're left wondering, "Were they right to mutiny? Was Captain Queeg really incompetent?" You're never quite sure.

I also read Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar and Youngblood Hawke and found them both to be extremely worthwhile.

Oh wait! The Girls was NOT the best book I read this year. As I look at my notes, I realize that the best book was actually Marguerite Duras' The Lover. This is also a book with questionable sexual and racial politics. It's about a fifteen year old French girl, a colonial in French Indo-China, who has an affair with a Chinese man who's in his thirties. The book is short and amazing. The narration loops around on itself, threading forward, through World War II and into the narrator's current life, and then going back into her girlhood. And it's about a girl coming into her sexual power. Which sounds terrible, I know, but it's about how double-edged that is. She's now seen as a sexual being, and that's enticing to her in some way, but it's also dangerous. Agh, I explain it all better in my original blog entry about the book.

The only novel on my best-of-the-year list that I haven't yet mentioned is Henry James's The Bostonians. It's really good, but it's also Henry James, and you have to like that sort of thing. It's early Henry James though, so it actually does kind of tell a straightforward story! It's one of his political novels (don't snicker, he was very political). I thought the novel, particularly the ending, was both brutal and very true.

Okay, so that's my short-list. If I had to recommend five books you should seriously consider trying to read, they would be, in order: The LoverThe Girls, Lady SusanThe Caine Mutiny, On The Island, and the first Palliser novel Can You Forgive Her?



My answers to a questionairre recently given to me by a friend

A friend is writing a blog post about peoples' favorite books. I am going to repost her questions and my answers here because I am short on time to write today's post

If you could please provide your favorite:
1. Book you could read over and over and over again.
2. Book from your childhood (childhood ends whenever you decide it ends but please specify).
3. Book that you would be embarrassed to admit is your favorite book.
7. BOOK OF ALL TIME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! If you have one of those.
Answers to question 1, 2, 3, and 7: My favorite book is Atlas Shrugged. It was my favorite when I was 14 and it's my favorite now. I've read it at least a dozen times. I think it is sublime. (And no, I don't believe in her political philosophy. But then...I don't believe in Tolstoy's either...) I wrote about it here.
4. Academic/pretentious favorite book... this category could also be thought of as "book that you maybe wouldn't read again but really loved being forced to read in school" or "favorite book in the opposite of category #1 type of way."
Answer to question 4: I really did love In Search Of Lost Time (which I read on my own and was not forced to read in school). But I also probably wouldn't have stuck it out if it wasn't as famous as it is. It's also the book I've gotten by far the most mileage out of having read. It's so expansive and so much stuff is related to it and even most people who love books haven't read it. I do recommend it to anyone who has a few months to spare, though!
5. Out of genre/ "not my typical steeze" book (ie: "I normally never read Sci-fi/Fantasy, but I really liked [insert book title here]" or "Poems make me want to vomit except that one time when they didn't because I read {insert poetry book here})
Answer to question 5: I don't read much poetry, but the collected poems of Philip Larkin was amazing (only 250 pages, at least the version I got [which had all his published poems], though they have a much longer one now, which strikes me as BS. If you have an amazing 250 pages, why pad it out with 100 unpublished poems to make a turgid 450.)
6. Book to put on your shelf and admire... (you can pick a certain edition or cover or send me a pic if that's important to you. This can also be a coffee table book that you have never read full of pictures of naked women.)

Answer to question 6: I keep my bookshelf in my bedroom, so few people ever see it. And, in any case, I recently got rid of most of my physical books. I guess the most impressive books I still have in physical form is my copy of Democracy In America by Alexis De Tocqueville. I read the first half of it ages ago, and am still planning on reading the 2nd half someday.

Nicholas Nickleby, Proust…other stuff

So I’ve been reading Les Miserables (the novel by Victor Hugo) for the past few days. And, since it is hellaciously long (like...War and Peace long), that means I’ve kind of been left without books to blog about. Nor do I really have any writing news. I’m writing and stuff…

I did finish reading Nicholas Nickleby I can’t tell whether the novel picked up at the end or whether I just got used to it, but I raced through the last third of the book. Sometimes, it’s hard to pick out the theme of a Dickens novel. There’s just so much stuff happening, in so many weird ways, that it all kind of blends together like a delicious stew. For instance, Nicholas Nickleby at various times works for a super-evil Yorkshire schoolmaster, a very clever theater troupe impresario, and a pair of super kindly merchants (who, like all Dickensian merchants, don’t seem to do anything other than be kindly all day). But I guess if I had to pull out a linking thread in NN, I’d say that it’s about the various shades of greed. The novel starts off with NN’s dad losing all his money in a stock market speculation. And most of it is concerned with the greed of NN’s cousin Ralph, who is actually an extremely complex character. He’ll literally screw over anyone if there’s money in it (for instance, he uses his innocent niece as bait to entrap a young lord into debt), but he’s not cruel—he won’t molest someone when there’s no gain in it for him. And…at times…this very thin, reedy sort of pity starts to whistle through his hollow insides. It doesn’t last for long, but each time it starts up, the reader sort of cocks his ear and thing, “Maybe…maybe this time he’ll change…” Ralph’s ending was really fascinating. The book is reading for him alone.

It occurs to me that I’ve often used some version of the phrase: “This book taught me how to read itself.” The idea is that a masterpiece breaks so much new ground that no one really knows how to read it. A masterpiece creates its own audience by teaching people how it should be read. This is not a notion that’s original to me. I got it from In Search Of Lost Time. There’s a section of that novel where the narrator is talking about the composer Vinteuil and how people always say stuff like, “He was ahead of his time” and “if he’d only come fifty years later, then he’d have been appreciated” Then the narrator discourses for twenty pages on how geniuses create the world in which their genius can finally be appreciated.

You know, many of my feelings about art are pretty much lifted from Proust. For instance, there’s a section where he talks about the writer Mme de Villeparisis, he says that she wasn’t particularly fashionable and she didn’t really keep the most charming or high-toned company. In fact, there were many women who’d never, ever allow Villeparisis to come to their salons. However, because Villeparisis was so skilled at writing about her milieu and successfully capturing what sparkle and charm it did have, future generations consider her to have been one of the grandest hostesses of la belle époque. To me, that kind of rings true. Writers don’t need to have interesting lives; they just need to be able to transfer something that is alive onto the page. Since most written things are quite dead, a capable writer is just a person who’s able to make something, anything, seem alive. It also makes me wonder whether history’s coolest circles--the Bloomsbury group, the Alconquin Round Table, the Montparnasse set—were actually not nearly as cool as some other bunch of anonymous people who were busy living life instead of writing about it.

Anyway, it’s kind of an accomplishment that so much of Proust’s philosophy is so memorable and useful, since most of the philosophical interludes in novels tend to be garbage. War And Peace is a stand-out here. The philosophy in War and Peace is fascinating, and really fun, but it basically amounts to “For mysterious reasons, God let Napoleon destroy Europe and then God destroyed Napoleon.”

If I had to guess, I'd probably say that this guy's personal philosophy involved eating babies.
If I had to guess, I'd probably say that this guy's personal philosophy involved eating babies.

Wrap-Up Season 2011: In Search Of Lost Time

With yesterday’s completion of Finding Time Again, the seventh and final book in Proust’s series, I’ve finally finished a quest that I began way back in February, when I checked out Swann’s Way from the Oakland Library just because I had to check out to two books before my lending privileges would be fully activated and the library’s attractive-looking copy of the Lydia Davis translation was one of the first things to catch my eye in my hurried glance through the stacks (the other being The General In His Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which was also pretty good).

I can’t tell whether the final book is actually better than all of the previous books or if I only enjoyed it more because the previous books had taught me how to read Proust, but I think this book contains three of the most delightful set-pieces in the whole septology.

Firstly, roughly the first third of the book contains a discussion of Paris during war-time (and the activities of some of the characters during the war). I’ve always thought of Proust as being a very domestic sort of novelist, but he’s surprised me time and again. Throughout the series, he devotes considerable attention to political matters (such as the Dreyfus affairs) and technological ones (such as lengthy meditations on first the telephone and then the airplane). But, considering that he began the novel during peace-time, in 1907, I think it showed a lot of courage for him to incorporate the war into the work, and I think he does a really good job of using it to start wrapping up a lot of his threads about patriotism, nationalism, and masculinity.

The next fourth of the book balloons outward from when the narrator steps on an uneven pair of cobblestones and immediately remembers another uneven pair of cobblestones mentioned earlier in the novel (I know that this kind of seems like a joke about navel-gazing French novels, but that’s really how it goes down) and realizes that in the circumscribed span of time between the two events—the present moment and the event he’s remembering—he’s found the grand theme of the literary work that he’s been thinking about writing for the past 3500 pages (the narrator is an aspiring writer).

The next sixty pages basically contain Proust’s guide to the themes and aims of the book that you’re holding in your hand. I’m sure I’m going to garble this, but he basically writes about how we live primarily in our own memories, and how, in remembering, we resurrect the past, but we also fill it with a kind of goldenness that didn’t exist at the time. He writes about how he can be filled with exhilaration by the memory of his childhood, even though it was actually filled with boredom and anxiety. That’s because the moment is kind of a mishmash of sensory perception, but in our memory, we craft a sort of more idealized, more artistic moment. We select the stimuli we will remember, and we create something beautiful out of our raw impressions. He thinks that the purpose of his literary work will be to capture these intervals of time and allow the reader to not only live within them, but also teach the reader how to recapture his (or her) own past and own memories and reanimate those as well.

The rest of the book is given over to a description of a dinner party where Proust highlights how everyone has aged by describing them as if they are actors who are wearing makeup. It’s one of the best 100 page dinner parties of a book that has at least six or seven 100 page dinner parties. You get to see what everyone is doing and how they ended up. You get to see characters whom you met as youths and see how they’ve been transformed into old women.

For me, the prime joy of this series was always in its characterization. Proust doesn’t pay attention to any of the normal ways of making a character arcs. His characters don’t progress from one goal to another, from one personality quirk to another. Instead, his characters are discontinuous. He spends fifty pages sketching a static portrait of a character, and then, two books later, he’ll spend another fifty pages sketching a portrait of that character is mostly, though not entirely, different.

Proust is the only novelist who shows people from multiple angles. Like, you know how when serial killers get caught, their wives and neighbors will often describe them as alright guys? Well, that’s not just because they’re putting up a façade. It’s also because we are simply different people at different times and places. That’s why Proust can show someone like his maid Francoise as being devoted to correcting anything that might even slightly inconvenience him, and then later show her as being selfish and bitter and cruel. Even though they can be contradictory, his portraits retain enough overlap, and resonate strongly enough with each other, that they never seem arbitrary.

I don’t think any other novelist has yet done anything like Proust. In a way, it’s kind of demoralizing, because it exposes how much of ordinary novel format is a kind of consensus fiction. We know that humans are really much more complicated than the way they’re shown in novels, but we accept that as “reality” just because we’ve been taught to.

Still, his work is not something that can be followed up or built upon. It’s hard to imagine imitating its structure. Actually, I’m surprised that even Proust managed to do it. This is the kind of work that seems like it ought to be forever unfinished. However, even though he never managed to edit the last four volumes, I think that the series comes to a satisfactory conclusion. Part of me would like to see someone try to give the Proustian treatment to something other than fin de siècle French high society, but I don’t think that anyone else can or will try.

Anyways, when I started reading Swann’s Way, I was like, “Holy shit, I am going to have to read all the rest of these now, aren’t I?” and when I read the next book In The Shadow Of Young Girls In Flower and saw how interconnected it was with Swann’s Way, I realized that I was going to have to read the whole series in a pretty short timespan, if I wasn’t going to forget who everyone was. So I did, and it was pretty decent. If anyone wants my tips on reading the series, I offer them as follows:

·         I have absolutely no opinion on which translation is the right one to read. I chose the more recent Penguin translations because I had a suspicion that the Moncrieff translations (from the 30s) might bowdlerize the homosexual content (which I was particularly interested in). The last two volumes of the Penguin translation are not available (due to copyright issues) in the U.S. I ordered them from amazon.co.uk because I figured that I might as well.

  • If you’re not sure whether you’ll like the series, then I recommend that you read the middle section of Swann’s Way (entitled Swann In Love) first. It’s about 200 pages long. If you like it, you’ll probably like the rest. It’s kind of the whole series in miniature.
  • You can’t really skim Proust, since it doesn’t go anywhere. There’s no point rushing to reach a destination that won’t give you any satisfaction when you reach it, since the main pleasures of the book don’t arise from resolution of plot threads or character development. Whatever pleasure you derive from each page is pretty much it. The sum is not much greater than the parts. However, I do recommend that you don’t read too closely (unless that kind of reading comes naturally to you, of course). The writing is very dense, and it’s easy to read and reread the same passage, but I didn’t find that very rewarding. I found that whatever I didn’t quite get on my first read-through of a page was unlikely to reveal itself on a subsequent read-through of the same page. I tried, as much as possible, to read it like a regular book, and to keep going through it at a reasonable clip, finishing each book in a week, at most.
  • Read the books in rapid succession. Even ten months between the first and last book was almost too much. There were allusions in the final book to events that I didn’t remember from previous books.
  • Don’t worry if you get bored sometimes. Sometimes I’d be reading the book and I’d start thinking about something else, and I’d read several pages without retaining a word of them. I don’t think the solution to boredom is to keep re-reading the boring part until you remember it; I think the solution is to read onwards until you reach an interesting part.



Science-Fictional Moments In Modernist Literature

            So, I just finished reading Proust’s Sodom And Gomorrah. It was really good. And very different from all the other volumes. Actually, every volume has been different from all the other volumes. But instead of talking about how awesome it is to finally see some male homosexuality (Proust got the women out of the way [The Gomorrans, he calls them] way back in the first book, which is really just so typical, you know?), I am going to talk about how awesome it is to see someone talk about cars in a turn of the century book!

Between 1880 and 1920, the world was totally turned on its head, technologically speaking. It was like computers getting invented, except times a billion. Cars, planes, telephones, refrigerators, electric lights, radios, submarines, movies, and probably about a bazillion other things I am forgetting were all invented and/or made generally available during this forty year period.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this period is also when literature got totally flipped on its head. The kinds of stories people wrote, and the kind of stuff they wrote them about, changed dramatically.

But you know what people didn’t write about? How weird it was that they could suddenly, like…drive wherever they wanted, or talk to people hundreds of miles away. I guess this should not be that surprising. There are not many books, nowadays, about how cool and strange it is to now have the internet. There are books from 1990 with no internet, and then there are books from 2010 with lots of internet, but no book where it’s suddenly like, “And then I suddenly had access to all the information there is.”

But it’s a weird feature of Proust that he takes the time to lovingly explain each new introduction of technology, and how he interacted with it, and how he was introduced to it, and how he came to love/hate it and eventually not care about it anymore. It’s weird because of all the stuff he leaves out (like, oh, every single one of his male relatives?). And yet he has time for this?:

“She did indeed think that we might stop here and there on our way, but supposed it to be impossible to start by going to Saint-Jean de la Haise. That is to say in another direction, and to make an excursion which seemed to be reserved for a different day. She learned on the contrary from the driver that nothing could be easier than to go to Saint-Jean, which he could do in twenty minutes, and that we might stay there if we chose for hours, or go on much farther, for from Quetteholme to la Raspelière would not take more than thirty-five minutes. We realised this as soon as the vehicle, starting off, covered in one bound twenty paces of an excellent horse. Distances are only the relation of space to time and vary with that relation. We express the difficulty that we have in getting to a place in a system of miles or kilometres which becomes false as soon as that difficulty decreases. Art is modified by it also, when a village which seemed to be in a different world from some other village becomes its neighbour in a landscape whose dimensions are altered. In any case the information that there may perhaps exist a universe in which two and two make five and the straight line is not the shortest way between two points would have astonished Albertine far less than to hear the driver say that it was easy to go in a single afternoon to Saint-Jean and la Raspelière, Douville and Quetteholme, Saint-Mars le Vieux and Saint-Mars le Vêtu, Gourville and Old Balbec, Tourville and Féterne, prisoners hitherto as hermetically confined in the cells of distinct days as long ago were Méséglise and Guermantes, upon which the same eyes could not gaze in the course of one afternoon, delivered now by the giant with the seven-league boots, came and clustered about our tea-time their towers and steeples, their old gardens which the encroaching wood sprang back to reveal.”

The car gets a good twenty or thirty pages in Sodom And Gomorrah, and it is glorious. I would love to assemble an anthology just composed of works and excerpts like this, totally science-fictional stories about people coming to grips with really weird new technology. Like, is there an account of what Native Americans felt when they first saw people riding horses? Or when people rode their first railroad train? That would be really neat. Does anyone have any good suggestions for said anthology?

In The Shadow Of Young Girls In Flower

Before I abandoned the series*, one part of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque cycle (apparently) impressed itself in my mind. It’s a part where Daniel Waterhouse tries to explain to Robert Hooke the reason why the public does not consider him to be as great a man as Isaac Newton:

“Newton has thought things that no man before has ever thought. A great accomplishment, to be sure. Perhaps the greatest achievement any human mind has ever made. Very well—what does that say of Newton, and of us? Why, that his mind is framed in such a way that it can out-think anyone else’s. So, all hail Isaac Newton! Let us give him his due, and glorify and worship whatever generative force can frame such a mind. Now, consider Hooke. Hooke has perceived things that no man before has ever perceived. What does that say of Hooke, and of us? That Hooke was framed in some special way? No, for just look at you, Robert—by your leave, you are stooped, asthmatic, fitful, beset by aches and ills, your eyes and ears are no better than those of men who’ve not perceived a thousandth part of what you have. Newton makes his discoveries in geometrickal realms where our minds cannot go, he strolls in a walled garden filled with wonders, to which he has the only key. But you, Hooke, are cheek-by-jowl with all of humanity in the streets of London. Anyone can look at the things you have looked at. But in those things you see what no one else has. You are the millionth human to look at a spark, a flea, a raindrop, the moon, and the first to see it.”

I thought of this scene while I was reading Proust’s In The Shadow Of Young Girls In Flower – which is the sequel to Swann’s Way – because I don’t think any other work of literature I’ve read has so inspired me with the thought that I could write a masterpiece.

Proust’s virtue seems, at times, to be so akin to Robert Hooke’s. He’s able to see what other people can’t. When you think about it one way, that’s amazing. How can someone possibly have written something new on the subject of – for instance – adolescent love? It was certainly not a novel subject even in the early 20th century. But as amazing as it is, at least the ability to see new things is not an incomprehensible talent.

Many of the talents of a great author can seem either unremarkable or incomprehensible. How do they decide to write about these situations? How do they come up with these words? How do they decide to write about these people? How do they decide that out of all the infinite possible stories they can imagine, this story is the one to which they will devote years of their life?

But the ability to see new things is not incomprehensible. It seems pretty simple. Proust had kind of the opposite of an exciting life. He just sort of hung out in the upper echelon’s of bourgeois French society for forty years, and then devoted the next fifteen years to remembering it…..I could do that.

Of course, Proust’s virtue is not that he sees new things, it is that he sees new ways of seeing things, and that he applied these new ways to everything around him, in order to generate a flood of observations.

I really love Proust’s mode of psychological observation, but I am not quite sure how to describe it. I think it is mainly marked by a refusal to reduce a person to unitary characteristics. Most of the time, when we try to observe a person, we are attempting to pigeonhole them, as cruel or kind, intelligent or stupid, tactful or rude, etc…to seek some meterstick that will allow us to know how they will act in all situations.

And as we come closer and closer to our judgment of that person, we are required to throw out more and more data that does not support that judgment. Thus we arrive at a lovely assessment…which doesn’t actually explain their behavior. Proust does not do that with his characters. He just accretes more and more characteristics upon them, and describes them in more and more situations, so you can gain a little insight into how they are with one group of people, but not feel like you understand them totally. The more he describes a character, the more thick and impenetrable they become.


The second volume progressed much more smoothly for me than did Swann’s Way. It appeared to me to have a much smoother progression between scenarios, characters, and topics. But what I perceived was not a difference in the structure of the novel, but instead an improvement in my own subconscious understanding of the linkages that underpin the novel.

At one point, the novel gives you, the reader, pretty good advice on what your own reaction to the novel will be (but perhaps by giving the advice, it imposes a certain form on that reaction?), and like probably hundreds of thousands of college students before me, I am going to use these passages to structure my reaction to the novel.

In the middle of the first part – which details the narrator’s adolescent love for Swann’s daughter Gilberte – Proust is listening to a piano sonata, and writes:

“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”.

I find that in this book – as in the previous one – the parts that I enjoy most are the ones that deal with the vanities of high society, particularly Part I of this book and Part II of the last, as well as innumerable little bits scattered throughout. Proust’s tales of social maneuvering in Paris salons are fairly similar to other authors I’ve enjoyed: Austen, Dickens, Fitzgerald, Thackeray, etc.

The parts that I don’t enjoy – and sometimes even find incomprehensible – are the parts that are most different, the parts that my eye, acting against my conscious will, skips over and that my mind forgets. These parts are the long walks, the descriptions of flowers, and all the countless bits of little paraphanelia that are stuffed in between and amongst the parts I am paying attention to. This is particularly annoying when my eye skips over things that I think I am interested in, things that somehow exert some kind of attraction on me, like Proust’s psychological musings about himself and his own motivation.

Most of the time I plod through these interstitial parts without knowing what I am missing, except sometimes, when for some reason, maybe because the light is good, maybe because I am sitting upright, maybe because I have just woken up, one of these parts will leap out at me, like the part where the narrator is looking out the window of his hotel at the seaside resort of Balbec (where the latter 3/5ths of the book are set) and I will notice some particularly beautiful passage, like:

“On the very first morning the sun kept smiling and pointing out to me the sea’s distant blue summits, named on no map, until its sublime transit of the resounding chaos of their cliffs and avalanches brought it dazzled into my room, out of the wind, to lie about on the unmade bed and strew its wealth on the wet washstand, in my opened trunk, it’s very splendor and extravagance increasing the effect of untidiness.”

Or, later in that same passage:

“…sprinkling from a lemon’s leather gourd a few golden drops on a brace of sole, which soon left our plates the plumes of their skeletons, as fragile as flowers and as resonant as zithers…”

And I realize that there are probably beautiful passages studded throughout the book, passages which I somehow can’t understand and don’t know how to read, and that I’ve lost out forever on my chance of appreciating them for the first time, but that, now, I will have to content myself with the joy of discovering them, perhaps, on some subsequent read-through.

In this, Proust’s series inspires perhaps less melancholy than other books for which I’ve had the same feeling (like Lolita) in that I am far from being done with it, and that the lessons I learn in reading through each volume can be applied to the next, so that there is at least the hope that by the time I finish the seventh, I will have gone through all the stages of appreciation that this novel describes in the passages directly following the one on the Vinteuil sonata (quoted above):

“…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 sheer 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 we leave. We shall love it longer than the others, because we took longer to love it.”

*Because I found it interminable and dull, although perhaps I’d like it more, now.

How Proust Changed My Life

I just finished reading Swann’s Way*, the first book of Proust’s series of big fat navelgazers (BFNs) Remembrance of Things Past**. This novel was really strange. I’ve never read anything like it. It was also really good.

The opening 200 pages (which recount the narrator’s remembrance of his childhood summers spent in the French town of Cambray) felt more like a memoir than a novel. Although I’ve never read a memoir that was so detailed, so promiscuous in delving into the inner lives of side-characters, and so lacking in self-consciousness, I’ve also never read a novel that didn’t seem concerned about going anywhere at all. Memoirs recount incidents just because they’ve managed to stick in the memory of the writer for years. Their durability is proof of their importance. But novels generally have some dramatic structure to tie incidents together.

Every page of the first section offers some kind of pleasure. Even in translation, the words seem to flow very mellifluously (I read the recent Lydia Davis translation, since I had bounced off the 1930s Montcrieff translation a few times before). It wasn’t hard to follow. It wasn’t “difficult” the way that, for instance, Faulkner is kind of difficult. You’re not wondering what’s happening, or who people are, or what their relationships are to each other. But there is a kind of meta-difficulty in trying to understand why all this information is being given to you, and where this is going to go.

Perhaps that understanding of the author’s intention is always an illusion. All books are filled with details and incidents whose purpose is not fully apparent, and perhaps was not even apparent to the conscious mind of the author. But most books keep you moving at a fast enough clip that you don’t notice that you can’t quite understand the purpose of the regimental commander’s marriage woes, or that of the old clocktower which is an hour slow.


What’s fascinating is how much ground Proust can cover in a good meander. He can sketch out characters in a moment, or spend pages detailing them. And then thirty pages later, he’ll revisit the character and demolish everything you thought about them. Kindly, confused aunts become selfish hags. Rakish men-about-town become sighing schoolboys. Devoted maids become cruel taskmaskers and then turn back into devoted maids. And each of these transformations is not, the way they would be in most books, a progression, or some kind of change of heart. Instead the transformation is only in your own mind. You come to understand that this aspect of the character was always present, that they were always like that, and it was only by selective interpretation that they gained the former character for you. It’s intense.


But it’s also a fragile pleasure. I found that a slight noise could put me off the book and make me do something else. Sometimes my mind would wander and I’d read on, unseeing, and not remember anything for two or three pages. When I’d come back, we’d be somewhere different, but because of the lack of progress, I wouldn’t have the impression that I’d missed anything.

In general, I’m not a huge believer that books need to be difficult. For me, books are first and foremost entertainment. If I am not enjoying myself, then I fail to see what I can be learning from the book.

But reading outside my comfort zone has, time and again, showed me new things. It’s trained me, and showed me new kinds of pleasures, and turned an initial mild interest into a passion. I’m not so well-defined in my reading tastes that I can immediately know what I’ll enjoy.


The presence of the book’s middle section – a 200 mini-novel segment entitled Swann in Love – is totally bizarre. Charles Swann is a friend of the protagonist’s grandfather who comes to visit them sometimes in Cambray. This middle section is a (mostly) third-person account of Swann’s love affair with the eminently unsuitable woman he will eventually marry.

In describing the vicissitudes of love, the book gains a sort of storyline that proceeds in fits and starts through Paris’ bourgeois and high societies. But its inclusion in the middle of this book almost struck me as a joke, the kind of high-concept novel that only really exists in parody, like Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream or David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. It is so different from the first section that the two are slightly hard to reconcile.

If not for this section I might have given up on the book. Not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but just because I didn’t know how to read it. It was hard for me to integrate the book into my life. I had to keep trying to read it. I had to read every word, instead of reading by the phrase or by the paragraph. Proust (and Faulkner) have made me realize how much skimming I actually do when I read.

I think I might have a better grasp on this now, but I do not know. I still wonder if perhaps I am fooling myself, and perhaps I did not enjoy it after all. I wonder whether I am committing some kind of deep-rooted intellectual pretension whose primary victim is myself.


The third section is short, only fifty pages, and recounts the narrator’s attempts (as a slightly older child) to win the love of Swann’s daughter, Gilberte, an attempt that contains echos of her father’s attempts to win and keep the love of her mother.

I am not sure if psychological realism is the right term for the novel. The novel seems very concerned with the working of the mind. It is a human brain trying to understand itself. But it’s also not reductionist in the way that psychology is. It taxonomizes mental phenomena, but doesn’t explain them.

When I was at Clarion, Kelly Link told us that the more you explain a character, the more he or she will begin to sound like everyone else. Psychological explanations tend to reduce people to the effects of some cause. I found that to be true in my own writing, and also kind of depressing. I’ve long struggled to try to convey the differences between people, and I’ve come to prize works that combine kindness and understanding with perception.

And Proust does that. But he’s also demonstrated to me another way to think about people. He portrays them as something whose character is not firmly set, except in the minds of those who know them. And he applies this even to the narrator. The narrator’s conception of himself shifts as memories recede or come back to the forefront of his mind. Things that were once important become unimportant and then seem important again. There is a complex ecology of selfhood that doesn’t has little to do with actions or events, and more to do with strange rules and species of interaction. We don’t understand why people change, or why they do the things they do or any of the whys, really, because it is difficult enough to perceive the changes themselves or to understand the ways in which the person we have in our mind is not the truth of the person in front of us.

Late in the second section, I thought, “Hmm, I better quote something when I blog about this,” so I marked the following sentences, which occur after Swann has learned about how his lover has betrayed him:

…it gradually ceased to hurt Swann. For what we believe to be our love, or our jealousy, is not one single passion, continuous and indivisible. They are composed of an infinity of successive loves, of different jealousies, which are ephemeral but by their uninterrupted multitudes give the impression of continuity, the illusion of unity. The life of Swann’s love, the faithfulness of his jealousy, were formed of the death, the faithlessness, of numberless desires, numberless doubts, all of which had Odette as their object.

And that is hella tight. I really hope that I get around to reading the second book.

*Or The Way By Swann's if you prefer the more recent translation of the title.

** Or In Search Of Lost Time....god, there really should be a ban on changing the accepted translation of a book's title.