Well, it is finished. After a 12-hour marathon yesterday, I completed the last volume of Á la recherche du temp perdu. I’m still a bit dazzled at the moment, not to mention more than a little exhausted. It may be some time before I can post anything resembling a debrief or final essay. For the moment, I will say that it was extremely rewarding, and that it is a profound work on every level — in its exquisite details, its discursive meanderings, its macrocosmic themes and ideas — which has changed, permanently, how I engage the world and myself.

Now, what’s next. Do you have to ask?

Eleven Twenty


Okay, so Pynchon’s newest is now listed at Amazon as having 1120 pages, rather than the 992 as previously reported.

I finished MD. It was magnificent. Once Mason & Dixon begin the work of drawing the Line, the story takes several staggering turns, involving (among many other things) various nested fictions, not unlike The Saragossa Manuscript. There has only been a handful of books that, when I finish them, I have a nearly uncontrollable urge to start over again from the beginning. A Room of One’s Own was one; Fitzgerald’s Odyssey another; Walden of course; Moby-Dick. And now Mason & Dixon.

But instead, I have gone back to In Search of Lost Time. The main problem that I was having was, it turns out, with the translation of Sodom & Gomorrah. You will not be surprised if I tell you I have quite a bit of patience for shall we say thick prose, but S&G was turgid, convoluted, plodding… So I skimmed through the synopsis at the end, and moved on to Parts 5 and 6, The Prisoner and The Fugitive, bound together in one volume. And it is the Proust I remember from Guermantes and especially from Young Girls.

I’m sure I can be done with the last one thousand pages of Proust not too long after Against the Day is released. And it’s only 1120 pages long: how hard can it be?



I finished V.

It is the 20th century in microcosm. People are on obsessive quests for something they don’t understand, and which may be nonexistent; who believe their personal meaning-making can somehow illuminate the wider, meaningless universe – indeed, that simply because they make a connection between two things, they come to think that the connection exists empirically. The Authorities (governments, churches, corporations, aka “Them”) who are obsessed with the clean, the polar, the binary, the unhuman: plastics, robotics; who praise the individual, then crush it. And how delightful to reflect that nothing much has changed since 1204, except They have gotten even more powerful, by making us all think that we have. A great trick right out of Lao-tzu’s playbook: fill their bellies and empty their heads. We are all fated to die, masked and anonymous, pinned beneath the rubble in the basement of some unknown Mediterranean city, as the feral children strip us of our jewels. So remember, in only a few billion years, none of this will matter. In the meantime: go to church, buy your polyester and medications, and vote against your own interests.

Back to Proust with a vengeance; with Boëthius' Consolation, Henrick’s Te Tao Ching and the Tractatus for light distractions.

And still it rains.

Rocketman Was Here


So. The Proust has stalled. This is okay with me; I need time to digest all that has happened. I reached the end of Vol 3 at the end of January, and decided to take a few weeks off. I read Moby-Dick for what I think was the fifth time; then I finished The Master and Margarita, which had been an xmas present; then I drowsed thru Don Quixote; I put that down midway through while upstate last month, where I bought and read the incandescent Ginger Man by JP Donleavy. After finishing that, I gulped down Eco’s newest book, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. There is, here, an online annotation project for all its millions of allusions and references. I learned of the Loana project from The Modern Word… where I couldn’t help but notice the Thomas Pynchon pages.

Now, people who’ve known me long enough may know of my teen obsession with Pynchon. It was, in fact, twenty years and one month ago that I bought Gravity’s Rainbow. 12 April 1986. I read it two times in succession, and one more time in college. I attempted it again without success some time in the late 90s, and then one more time in the summer of 2000. I couldn’t take it. Giggling fratboy jokes, I thought, and backshelved all my Pynchon.

But something happened as I clicked around the Pynchon page, and felt myself getting all wispy and nostalgic. Three weeks ago, I bought a new copy of The Crying of Lot 49 (the old one, like my copy of V., had long since disintegrated (strangely appropriate for an author so preoccupied with paranoia and entropy)) and dove in. And I loved it. It was actually human. And exuberant. The comedy was a welcome antidote to the lugubrious earnestness of modern “mainstream” fiction, a genre I had vowed I would never commit myself to again. So I pulled GR out, and started. Why not? What’s the worst that will happen? I’ll still find it too reminiscent of my hypereducated adolesencce, or it will make me vomit, and that will be that.

But that wasn’t that. Two weeks later, I’m on page 365. It’s a lark. By turns slapstick, philosophical, vivid, vague…

I am reclaiming old parts of myself. All this spring, as I relearn who I am, in light of deeply saddening revelations, I have been going back to the poetry, music, and prose of my youth and finding that little of it deserves the backshelved neglect it’s received. When did I decide I wasn’t allowed to like what I like?

I am a surrealist. The world is so irredeemably sick and tragic, and the surest way to wither to Bartlebian nothingness is to take it seriously. Instead, we must be like Charles Halloway and draw a smile on the wax bullet, to kill the October Queen. We mustn’t cry because of the world, but laugh in spite of it.

Laughter is a rebellious act. If the world is straight, we must bend it with comedy, which is, of course, the most serious way to face the world.

So I reclaim comedy, the absurd, the impossible, the hopeless. After all: it’s funny!

The Midterm


I finished The Guermantes Way a few days ago, after roughly ten weeks of reading. In Search of Lost Time is divided into seven parts, but because Parts 5 and 6 are fairly short, they are bound together. So in reaching the end of Volume 3, I think of myself as half way through. It is appropriate, therefore, that I take a moment and reflect on the book so far.

The Guermantes Way focused on a series of social encounters over the course of two years or so. The narrator has left behind his childish crush on Gilberte, and his adolescent obsession with Albertine, and now finds himself mesmerized by the Duchesse de Guermantes. He stalks her for many months, and in a double attempt to forget her and ingratiate himself with her family in the hope of being invited into her salon, he visits for several weeks one of his very good friends, Robert Saint-Loup, who is a nephew of the Duchesse.

His ardor for the Duchesse finally cools over the course of the next half year, and only then does he finally get invited to one of her parties. He is approached by the eccentric M. de Charlus, another Guermantes. He is an aloof, pompous, and, frankly, creepy old man. The narrator does not keep an appointment with Charlus because he learns that his grandmother has had a stroke. She dies early in the second part, or about halfway through the volume, but we do not hear much about it. Instead, we see how others react, or don’t react. The Duc de Guermantes stops by during the grandmother’s final hours and is left waiting in the hall because the rest of the family is rushing about, calling for servants to bring boiling water, or fresh towels, or more medications. The Duc, oblivious of the crisis, and perplexed that there could possibly be anything more important than a visit from a Guermantes, is extremely offended and goes away with the impression that the narrator’s mother is a distant and antisocial woman who does not know how to run a good house.

In all, the portraits of high society are deeply unflattering; vain and childish fools hide behind grandiose titles. The Proustian habit, established in the first two volumes, of delving into long, discursive reflections and descriptions of peoples' innermost motivations is often abandoned in Guermantes, in favor of straightforward narrative. It is less introspective and more purely driven by narrative than the previous volumes. Many characters' personalities are laid bare through simple descriptions of their actions and words.

So it was a shock yesterday and today to find that Volume 4, Sodom and Gomorrah, returns to the simultaneously microscopic and macrocosmic reflections on human nature. This volume marks the beginning of what Proust called the “great inversion.” Our perception of many characters, beginning with M. de Charlus, are altered utterly through a series of revelations regarding their hidden motives and relationships.

If the principal themes of Swann’s Way were that of childhood and memory (and the introduction of later themes, such as senseless obsessive love), and In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower was that of adolescent puppy love, and The Guermantes Way was the glittering and worthless surfaces of high society, then Sodom and Gomorrah is that of homosexual love. It also begins the reprise of unthinking obsession, first stated relatively mildly in the backstory of Swann, the social-climbing Jew who is passing for a gentile, and Odette, the erstwhile prostitute and courtesan who is clawing her way into society. This time, it is the narrator who finds himself increasingly obsessed and jealous of Albertine, and not Albertine as she is, but Albertine as he imagines her to be, just as Swann has little notion of Odette’s past, and no inclination to find out.

The overall experience of reading Proust is a wrenching one. He is unsparing in his critiques and insights into human behavior; his portrayal of teen love was, for example, pitch-perfect and embarrassingly accurate. I find myself recasting my own life upon reflection. I also find myself recalling events in my own life that had otherwise fallen into oblivion. He describes the sensation of lying awake at night as a child, watching the faint lights seep in through the windows, or around the edges of the door, and I remember my own insomniac anxiety: the gold and glass chandelier over the stairs, the tan carpet, the distant adult voices downstairs.

Reading Guermantes has been, like the previous volumes, a great comfort, but unlike them, a mild torture. Proust’s acuity in portraying the quotidian nature of hypocrisy is devastating. Every relationship in this volume is in one way or another unhealthy, doomed, loveless, mercenary. The Duc, for example, is an incorrigible philanderer, cycling rapidly through gold-digging courtesans, who, when inevitably they are cast off, become confidantes and “ladies-in-waiting” to the spurned Duchesse. The Duc is kind to the Duchesse only when he has discarded a mistress or when he’s beginning to woo a new one. But they are a formidable social team, bound together by deep habit and ancient obligation, and so they entertain together. He serves as the Duchesse’s impresario; her wit is bitter and funny, and he sets up the marks for her to strike down with her sharp tongue.

Another theme relates to the utter divorce between loyalty and reason. The events in the book take place during the height of the Dreyfus Affair. Whether you thought Dreyfus innocent or guilty had almost nothing to do with the facts of the case, which were few and largely indisputable, and had almost everything to do with your social standing, your political sympathies, and, of course, whether you were Jewish or not, and Anti-semitic or not. Just as Swann finds himself blindly obsessed with Odette, despite knowing full well that the tart is a sly, self-serving, faithless whore, and not even remotely his type, so did royalists and conservatives unthinkingly condemn Dreyfus against all reason, and supporters of Dreyfus instinctively dismiss anti-Dreyfusards as worthless and mindless wastes of skin, regardless of their other virtues. It was to French society what the debate over abortion has been for the US in the last several decades.

This is what is so wrenching about Proust: the silly, the callow, the perverted, the vain, the noble, the naïve… they all are me, they all are us.

Young Girls in Flower


In the last week or so, I advanced to Volume 2 of In Search of Lost Time. So far, we have returned to the youthful narrator’s perspective, and we are hearing about his naïve love for Swann’s daughter, Gilberte. We are also gaining more insights into Swann’s obsessive and disastrous affair with Odette, and we understand a little better how they came to be married, despite Swann having arrived at the sobering realization, at the end of Swann in Love, that Odette really just isn’t his type.

And Proust continues to do a very strange thing with the point of view; he regularly slides from his own first-person account of things to an omniscient narrator privy to everyone’s internal motivations and back again. He somehow manages to do this fluidly, without the slightest jolt to the narrative; we simply shift from, say, a dinner party at which the narrator is present, to deep background regarding events from years before the narrator would even have been born.

I experience no jolt because, I think, of the absolute trust he inspires. He could tell me about anything, however dull or otherwise not to my taste, and I’d happily listen for as long as he wished to speak, because he has proven beyond doubt that he can make insightful and profound use of anything at all, including wallpaper, furniture, mediocre Romantic sonatas — and of course madeleines dipped in herbal tea.

By a curious coincidence, my wife spotted a Proust reference in an unlikely spot. As a ramp up to the imminent theatrical release of its sequel, some cable channel has been repeatedly airing an action flick called The Transporter. At one point, a character bakes some madeleines, prompting a revery from the French police chief on the nature of memory and observation, noting that Proust, being a “details man,” would have made a great detective; he adds that in fact it had been his reading of Proust as a youth that inspired him to become an investigator.

She had just told me of this scene when we turned on the TV — and there was the movie, moments away from the very scene in question. And in a typically Proustian way, I experienced the scene twice — but the first one seemed more real, because it had been Ana’s story, and the actual film itself, upon which her version was based, seemed like a mere enactment.

(The silly Python song faded weeks ago, thankfully — except when my wife asks me, “And in the second book: what did Proust write about, write about?")

Proust Update


Mere pages away from the end of Swann’s Way — so close in fact that I don’t know if I should even haul it to work or not; I could finish it on the ride in this morning, and I hate lugging dead books with me. Volume 2 is somewhat larger, so I sure as heck don’t want to drag them both. Ah, the quandaries of a reader.

But more about the book itself:

It is breathtaking. He slows time down for you to draw out, over many pages, the refractions of a single moment. The narrator sees, for example, a girl through the hedge, falls instantly in love, and we then read about how the mind so often latches onto some framing detail, the colors of the leaves and flowers in the hedge, the flash of a beach ball, the sound of some distant wind high in the trees, as the crucial mnemonic detail that will forever stand in for the luminous flashing moment of first love. The mind can only grasp that first moment by approaching as it were obliquely, by way of some indirect and innocuous aspect.

The novel within a novel, Swann in Love, which I just finished, is a study of sexual jealousy, agonizing and embarrassing in its brutal and lacerating accuracy. A trainwreck in dreamlike slow motion. And Odette isn’t even his type.

The Plunge


I have at long last taken the Proust plunge. I began the Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation about six years ago, but stalled out. I tried picking it up again this spring, and faltered once again. Then, on a whim a month or so ago, I poked around online trying to tease out what had always struck me as its bewildering history of translations in English. I found that there are essentially only two. The first is the Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation. Moncrieff died before finishing, so Kilmartin rounded out Time Regained. Later, D.J. Enright worked his way through M/K, revising it considerably.

And the only other English translation, it turns out, is the one instigated by Penguin a few years ago, where each of the seven volumes has been assigned a different translator. Lydia Davis takes on Swann’s Way, and it is this volume that I bought, and am surging through on the train each day. I cannot speak yet to any qualitative difference between this and the M/K, since I’d rather not get distracted (and, frankly, I don’t remember much from my previous two incomplete passes), but suffice it to say, I have found myself completely enthralled, which is not how I would have described my previous attempts. Thankfully, I ride to the terminus of each of my commuter lines (at least on the way home), so I have not missed my stops.

One unpleasant side effect has been that I’ve been incessantly singing and humming, “Proust in his first book, wrote about, wrote about”… This will pass, I hope, once I move beyond the first book.