The Results of a Deep Dive

The things you learn in workshops, or the benefit of the latter more generally: I’m thinking both and more were present in yesterday’s small gathering to talk about the aubade, in which we read Louise Bogan’s wrenching “Leave-Taking”:

I do not know where either of us can turn
Just at first, waking from the sleep of each other.
I do not know how we can bear
The river struck by the gold plummet of the moon,
Or many trees shaken together in the darkness.
We shall wish not to be alone
And that love were not dispersed and set free—
Though you defeat me,
And I be heavy upon you.

But like earth heaped over the heart
Is love grown perfect.
Like a shell over the beat of life
Is love perfect to the last.
So let it be the same
Whether we turn to the dark or to the kiss of another;
Let us know this for leavetaking,
That I may not be heavy upon you,
That you may blind me no more. (1)

It’s the first Louise Bogan poem that’s ever really blown me away, and I’m wondering if it’s because it’s the first of hers I’ve really slowed down and spent any time on. (That question in itself is also making me consider whether I’m often so puzzled by poetry because I don’t devote a half-hour of analysis to each piece that comes my way.)

“For Guilty without Guilty,” Egle Rakauskaite, via Wikimedia Commons.

What I admitted to the others in the room was that the two mentions of heaviness were what stuck out for me—but what I didn’t say was why. I suspect it may be an exemplary case of how we read ourselves, or our own fears, into others’ words. I agree with my fellows that the narrator is releasing both herself and her lover in this poem—but I don’t think she’s managed to free herself from her own (probably culture-encouraged) guilt about being heavy in general, her conviction of being at fault down to the core of her being. It’s (the fear of) a weight with which I’m intimately familiar: the sense that you shouldn’t be too serious, or make anyone think, or present anything other than a happy and willing face to your significant other (or to anyone, really). The fear that sincerity will be too weighty a thing to handle, a relationship-smasher between friends and especially between lovers. Why else is irony so maddeningly pervasive within hipster culture, to take just one example?

The heaviness the poet points to here may merely have been an admission that she did legitimately demand too much, or cause her lover too much worry. But I also want to know whether way back in 1922, when women (some, at least) were feeling a new freedom, a new sense that they could go on their own adventures, they felt the pressures akin to those I felt growing up not to be a downer, or clingy, or make too many so-called demands upon a man, not to invade too much of his space or make him pay attention to your own interests and concerns. To be light, to be the perpetual, receptive, agreeably good sport.

Maybe Bogan wrote about these considerations somewhere; maybe I’ll go on a search to find them. I/we might all be better served, though, going in search of those lingering, lying convictions, and taking our final leave of them.

(1) Now, courtesy of poetryfoundation.org. Originally published in the August 1922 edition of Poetry.

 

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Impatience with the Oldster

I’m disheartened, or disappointed, or, I don’t know—just not quite comfortable—with the confession I’m about to make. As I slog my way through Proust (I’ve completed Swann’s Way, and am now on to Within a Budding Grove), I’m beginning to believe that I no longer have as much patience for what I can only clumsily call less-contemporary literature. The label is problematic, because for one thing, some of my favorite authors—Benjamin and Kafka, to name just two—were living and/or writing at the same time as the one in question. And where does that leave the unparalleled-in-my-book Sophocles and Aristophanes, from the way, way back? Maybe I should narrow down that original assertion; it could be that what I’m feeling instead is (whether accurately or not), Proust’s distinct lack of modernism, which may equate here with straightforwardness.

Courtesy Rubyubyduby on Wikimedia Commons.

My view might change as I go further along in this seven-volume collection. But this odd, intricate delicacy in Proust’s work: I know he’s looking back at “lost time,” but while doing so, it’s as if the language he uses in bringing it forth never caught up with the present he’s sitting there remembering it in. It may, in other words, simply seem affected. The style is something I would have gone in for as a teenager, when I earnestly believed that the only right and proper stuff to read were the so-called classics, when I didn’t understand, for example, that the flowery woes of the romantics were no more profound (or, in spite of their calls for authenticity, authentic) than were our standard adolescent complaints and late-night discussions of problems we didn’t understand at the time were just part of growing up.

I think I’m coming around to the realization that it’s not so much frustration with times or attitudes that were—but with how this particular witness to past thoughts and events decided not to talk to his contemporaries as contemporaries. I might get schooled on that claim, but check out some of the other books published in the same year Swann’s Way was: Cather’s O Pioneers!, Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Hamsun’s Children of the Age, Apollinaire’s Alcools,… Something new was happening in literature, while to me, it feels like Proust was tenaciously hanging back in the previous century.

My argument, or assertion of feeling, or whatever it is, doesn’t exactly have an answer; I’m simply trying to get to the bottom of this lack of patience I’m feeling for something I haven’t quite identified in Proust’s project. Thankfully or not, I’ve got tons of pages left to help me figure this situation out.

A Breath of Fresher Air

All the century-old French pondering of flowers and gestures and social mores I’ve been doing lately made me rush yesterday for something less adorned, or at least descriptive of its world in a more contemporary way. I don’t even remember what made me purchase Jon McGregor’s 2002 novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, in the first place—but when I lunged at my to-be-read stack, the sheer near-currency its cover promised stood out to me, and I thought now was as good a time as ever to pick something up that might otherwise be passed over for another few years.

Courtesy Viosan on Wikimedia Commons.

It was an OK read, and I don’t regret having selected it. But, and this might sound strange, I don’t think I’m young enough anymore to agree with all the claims on the cover about its “ecstatic writing.” Because Remarkable Things, I’ve decided, is a young person’s book—not one written by a young person, although the author was only twenty-six when he completed it—but one that might speak more meaningfully to people still trying to find themselves and establish better-than-shaky identities within a populous, variegated world. The momentous summer day our protagonist keeps looking back to was only three years prior to the story’s present, a time stretch that seems too short for her to have matured into the different person she seems to have bcome. In the end, that may be what I mean with my “young person” claim: that the space of three years can seem like an unspannable chasm to a twenty-four-year-old (I’m estimating her age here) looking back on her just-barely-legal self.

I do wonder how I would have felt about the book had I read it in my twenties. McGregor and I are the same age, and I’m sure I would have been profoundly envious at how he brought together the lives of so many people, at how he spoke to the uncertainties so many of the younger portion of those characters were living into. But now? I admit I may be misjudging everything entirely, calling out the wrong reasons for why I give this one a three out of five—but now, I just see a good observer of a neighborhood street, and will pass the book on to someone else, maybe a much younger reader who can report back about whether or not I’ve completely missed the mark.

I’m also speculating about what makes a book (or film, or anything else) stay with you through different parts of your life. What keeps it fresh? I’ve probably written before about my disappointment and irritation on viewing The Three Amigos in high school, after having enjoyed it in elementary school. The film proved so annoying to my late-teen self, I wished I’d never watched again, so that at the very least, I’d be able to maintain unsullied memories of it. I’m also wondering—just a little bit—whether I should go back and give it a third try, and see whether that irritable youth might have misunderstood things that my middle-aged self could appreciate. And then there are so many others, Trainspotting, for one, that were such a noticeable part of early adulthood that I’m almost afraid to return to them, that make me wonder how what a (potential) change of taste says about a change in the person in which that transformation has taken place.

Unanswerable questions, probably. But it did feel good to get out of the world of corsets and drawing rooms for a while, to breathe a little more easily and to feel a little less literary weight. I’ll get back to that intricate world now refreshed and ready to take it on once more.

A Bit of Foul Pleasure

Involved as I was in digging myself up from under a pile of Proustian detail, I failed to mention the other day that as I was starting on Remembrance of Things Past, I was also smack in the middle of Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh’s PEN Hemingway-winning novel.

I had to laugh at the juxtaposition of my reading choices: the thick, sensory-laden, beauty-loving world of an early twentieth-century (let’s face it) aesthete, running alongside the not-remotely nostalgic, or even kind, really, tale of a simultaneously bland and distasteful protagonist in a filthy, dysfunctional universe. The squalid home she shares with her abusive, alcoholic father; the car that will poison her with exhaust if she drives with the windows shut; her poor hygiene; her acceptance and sometimes even pride in the foul ways that make up her existence: all of these things and more make Eileen distinctly repugnant.

Courtesy kennethaw88 on Wikimedia Commons.

While the character’s grossness may be the truly original aspect of what might otherwise have just been a sort of crime novel, I think it’s more than a mere shtick. The poor creature, in her early twenties, knows very little about sex or even male-female relationships, and what she does grasp (or misconstrue) sends her into either squirmy moral discomfort or sadomasochistic visions whose implications she may not understand. And within it all, it’s sometimes her very body parts themselves that are the source of bad feeling. Eileen is a sort of dark caricature of sexuality-based self-loathing, but there’s a kernel of truth there in how the shame many women are still raised to feel about themselves, their bodies, and their role in anything remotely sexual can take ugly, tenacious hold of girls’ hearts and minds. And if shame and disgust get directed at certain body parts, those feelings can easily become directed at oneself in general.

I’m tempted to call Eileen a literary cousin of Roman Polanksi’s Repulsion, just with a saner, more self-possessed protagonist at the helm, one who at least recognizes, with a sneer, her “skills as a doormat.”* But it also hit me at some point that her story, or at least its workaday details—lack of opportunity or meaningful environments, dysfunction, loneliness—are probably all too common. And that for every Eileen who does get out of her hopeless little world, whether through crime or otherwise, there are whole communities who go from cradle to grave in existences little better than pointless. I almost (almost) wanted to hear that story told: the mass of humanity that not only people in general, but literature as well, forget, or don’t want to imagine in the first place. While Eileen gives us a disturbing picture of what it means to be a person, it may also inadvertently have caused us to wonder what happens to those who get left behind—who never really emerge into the state of having a personality, reprehensible or not, at all.

 

* Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen (New York: Penguin, 2015), 55.

Too Much of a Good Thing

And so the trek has begun: with the complete Remembrance of Things Past now in my possession, I’m a little over 150 pages of small print into Swann’s Way. As is appropriate for such a lengthy series, the thoughts about it are already flowing, and I’m sure I’ll lay down more than my fair share as I move through it. Other than the fact that I did, in fact, retain some vague memory of the protagonist’s intense fixation on his mother early in the book, what’s coming primarily to mind at present is this: the way in which I’m seeing similarity of endeavor between Proust’s grand send-up of detailed memory and two very different projects: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine.

The relationship to the first of those is most obvious, just by virtue of sheer size, although Knausgaard’s six-volume foray into his own life is more explicitly and purely autobiographical than is Proust’s saga. Or maybe it’s better to say that Knausgaard admits that, yes, this is me on the page, taking no effort to mask that fact, to protect himself or anyone associated with him from condemnation or any other reaction to what a reader finds in his writing. (Both authors have also received accusations of navel-gazing, and questions about why anyone should care about the minutiae of an individual’s everyday activities.) And in what may be more indicative of the preferences and protocols of contemporary literature than authorial style, the Norwegian author hardly ever (if ever, at least as far as I’ve gotten in the series, namely, through the fourth book) glosses over or euphemises the scenes he’s presenting. Sex is very clearly sex, and no detail is spared when depicting despicable or unflattering acts.

In Proust, though, there’s a certain coyness, or delicacy, or—I don’t know: a tendency, with particular times and types of literature, to speak in a sort of code that a certain class of reader will understand, but which is a bit, if not totally, confusing for an outsider. An example comes with the case of M. Vinteuil’s daughter, who’s shunned because she’s hanging out with an unacceptable woman—and I’m unsure whether it’s just because they’re ill-behaved, racing their carriage all over the place, or whether said woman is “fallen” and the two are lovers, a possibility that seems to be present, based on the main character’s seeing the two through a window (I guess) cuddling with each other. But it’s hard to understand whether these are just two girls being girls, or whether there’s something a little more risqué going on, all because the author won’t just come out and say it. I may, of course, just be dense—but I’m reminded of the case of one of the characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude, who’s so prudish about telling her doctor what’s actually wrong with her that she speaks with such completely cryptic vocabulary that the poor physician has no idea what’s going on.

A vision of overload, courtesy Nevit Dilmen on WIkimedia Commons.

The comparison with The Mezzanine, now, has nothing at all to do with length, or even, ostensibly, topic. For one thing, Baker’s wonderful creation, the entirety of which takes place over the course of a lunch break and involves extended considerations of, for example, the laces on one’s shoes, is blessedly short. And now I’m wondering whether he intended it as such—if, in fact, he read Remembrance at some point and realized what I have: that such an incredibly dense and exhaustive presentation of detail is just too much, if carried on for too long. Proust’s nearly getting down to the granular level when telling us all about a stained-glass window and a tapestry is fine in itself—but these merely two paragraphs carried out over the course of two pages make up only a tiny percentage of an 1100-plus page book. (1)

It’s no wonder I have virtually no memory of having read Swann; there’s absolutely too much here to hold in one’s head, and the brain becomes overwhelmed with a swarm of details that completely overtake the general picture. I suddenly sympathized with the not-quite-up-to-it emperor in Amadeus, who criticized one of Mozart’s operas by saying, “There are, in fact, only so many notes the ear can hear in the course of an evening… There are simply too many notes.” Of course, his advice to “just cut a few” would be equally as ridiculous when applied to Proust’s production—but what I feel sometimes in reading this book is the weight of certain technophiles who attempt to document and save every waking moment of their lives via digital extensions of themselves (first with lifelogging, and now just social media). The linked article in that sentence mentions “data fatigue,” and that phrase may be the best encapsulation I can summon when a particularly Proust-driven tiredness comes over me.

Of course, I think Proust, in his investigation of memory and how the world only carries on and truly shows itself and lives in and through memory, would have been intrigued by all of this recording of the moment. At the same time, I’m also guessing he would have seen it as a pale consolation prize for those who can’t truly pay attention to what they’re doing. In other words, I’ll assert that he would have felt sorry and/or sad for those people who spend their vacations taking pictures of their food and of themselves in particular landscapes, who spend family get-togethers and chidren’s recitals and ballgames filming the action, instead of actually experiencing and participating in the moment. It’s only because Proust (or his fictional stand-in) was fully immersed in the occasions he lived through and the places in which he found himself that he could recall with such clarity the things he experienced. In participating in what he was doing, he was going beyond mere lifelogging. Anyone can take a picture, he might have thought; anyone can save that picture and look back at it for recall—but only someone who’s experienced what was going on in that picture can bring back, unaided, the feeling and atmosphere of what happened there.

So: data fatigue, definitely. But I also don’t want to put the book down, and am drawn into the world Proust creates for us, especially when amid all the surplus of detail, you find beautiful, clear descriptions such as this one, with which I’ll leave you, of a rain shower coming in:

A little tap at the window, as though some missile had struck it, followed by a plentiful, falling sound, as light, though, as if a shower of sand were being sprinkled from a window overhead; then the fall spread, took on an order, a rhythm, became liquid, loud, drumming, musical, innumerable, universal. It was the rain. (2)

 

(1) This particular book contains vols. I–III of Remembrance. Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, vol. 1: Swann’s Way, Within a Budding Grove, The Guermantes Way, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff (New York, Random House, 1934).

(2) ibid, 77.

An Overdone Question of Etiquette

The following may best be described as a working-through of a conundrum that has very little importance in the course of things, but which, happening every now and then as it does to me, makes me worry about how best to handle it.

Alfred Grévin, Man Bowing to a Woman, on Wikimedia Commons.

Unsurprisingly, I’m surrounded by fellow readers. And so it sometimes happens that I’ll show some faint curiosity about a book I haven’t read, or express vague interest in a writer my conversation partner has just mentioned—and before I know it, said person has shoved the book in question into my hands, assuring me I can borrow it if I want. Rarely do I actually want. This isn’t because I’ve been insincere about my desire to check out whatever we’ve been discussing; it’s just that I’m not in the mood, and/or can’t dive into the work right that second. After all, I’ve usually got multiple volumes going at the same time, and adding one more tome to the pile would be overwhelming. And I’ll also admit: if I’m going to read a book, I usually want it to be my own copy, something that, in stereotypical American fashion, is mine alone, not required to be treated with kid gloves.

I got to thinking about how I handle others’ enthusiasm about books I own—and realized that I hardly ever make an unsolicited offer to loan anything out. We talk happily, I’ll eagerly recommend something, and maybe point to it, or pull it off the shelf to let the person I’m speaking with read the back cover—but unless asked, I just don’t let it be officially known it’s available for borrowing. This might partly be due to my reluctance to hand over a book to someone whose practices with other people’s stuff is unknown; after all, I’ve been burned by people who never return printed matter, or who (what may be worse) hand it back having felt perfectly fine about leaving behind underlining and marginal notes.  But I also think my hesitation is due to not wanting to pressure my conversation partner.

Undoubtedly, I take too much to heart and worry too much about what people think—but when someone under the influence of total goodwill and generosity plops a book into my hands, and with such gleaming anticipation that I’ll go right home and get started on it, I feel nothing but pressure to please said person, and pain at the fear of causing hurt when I tell him/her I don’t want to take up the offer right now. It’s such a precious worry—and shouldn’t I have figured out such a little thing by now, well into middle age? I may have been influenced by far too many novels of manners, becoming somehow convinced that every little move a person makes has grand consequences. But in spite of reminding myself that honesty really usually is the best policy, and that people probably won’t stop hanging out with me if I don’t want to take their books home, I still flinch when the occasion comes up.

I suppose we would be incredibly fortunate to be able to claim such problems as our biggest ones. I think I’ll bow out now, and go read about global poverty and the imminent destruction of the atmosphere; there’s nothing like a good dose of doom-laden perspective to shake you out of a fit of cowering before the inconsequential.

Pages and Pages in Miniature

I’ve finally found it: the book that may be the death of me, and/or the cause of a new eyeglass prescription: Jean Paul Richter’s Flower, Fruit, and Thorn Pieces, or, the Wedded Life, Death, and Marriage of Firmian Stanislaus Siebenkaes, as translated by Alexander Ewing and published with CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2014).

Observe the size of the type, which is usually reserved for footnotes, as compared with a page from Jane Jacobs:

 

Yeah, it’s that bad (and my pocket-sized paperback version of Jacobs’ book is at least an inch less wide and high than is Richter’s). A horrified friend even gave me a magnifying glass to use while reading; attempting that route was amusing at first, but I finally had to choose the risk to my vision over the sense that someone had slipped me acid.

What the hell is this? If the first few pages of reading (which might have amounted to forty or so with a book that made use of humane type size) hadn’t proved so intriguingly weird, I probably would’ve given it up by now. And this begs the question: was the person who published this thing (probably the translator) so strapped for cash that s/he got the most economical type size available, not taking into consideration the fact that said option would at worst lead to blindness, and more probably turn off any readers who were on the fence about getting it and who, flipping through to check it out, dropped it and ran as fast as possible? I’ve been after a translation of this thing for so long, I’m damned if I’ll be conquered like this. But the whole situation is reinforcing a very important fact to would-be authors: book design is often just as important to the success of your product as are the words contained therein. Dismiss that reality at your own (or your profit’s) peril.