Tag Archives: samuel beckett

Lucia Joyce Radio Documentary

Plenty I wasn’t aware of regarding Lucia Joyce’s life laid out in this documentary. Lucia’s involvement  in bohemian Paris, how her psychosis may have been barbiturate withdrawal, and how Joyce was her primary advocate for Lucia’s welfare in the family. Lucia’s strained relationship with Nora and Giorgio meant she was to become isolated after his death in 1939.

Has a nice reading from Finnegans Wake also, but not, sadly, her novel, which was destroyed, and I mourn for.

http://www.rte.ie/radio1/doconone/2013/0604/647434-radio-documentary-podcast-lucia-james-joyce-bloomsday/

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Modernism, Post-Modernism and Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Psychology’

katherine-mansfield

I’ve yet to tell anyone what my PhD research question is without boring them. In the interests of brevity, key in not murdering conversational rhythm dead, I’m not above lying about what it involves, so I tell people I’m counting which authors use full stops and how many, and what that might mean. I suppose that I can’t blame them, just the word ‘modernist’ turns people off.

So, what it is that I am actually doing is utilising an open-source programming language (R) to ingest and index a large corpus of modernist prose authors, (using a wide-ranging definition of ‘modernist,’ to bring us beyond the tens and twenties of the nineteen hundreds to the fifties, in order to include people like Doris Lessing, for example) and compare them on the basis of a largely arbitrary range of stylostatistical indices (richness of vocabulary, sentence length, punctuation usage, among others) with a number of living authors who have, at one time or another, identified themselves as writing within the modernist tradition, as re-vivifying a presumably extinct ethic of novel-writing. These contemporary modernists will be Eimear McBride, Will Self & Anne Enright.

My hope in doing so is to move beyond the essentialistic critical reception of Anne Enright and Eimear McBride as existing within a canon of Irish modernism, consisting only of Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien, which reviewers are always keen to broach in analysing their works. Who’s to say Gertrude Stein might not be a better comparison? Or Proust? Or Woolf? Via computation and pseudo-formalistic analysis, I hope to focus my comparisons, and the comparisons of others, a bit more accurately.

All this justifies the Hegelian trajectory sometimes imposed on discussions of the novel as a genre; as if there was the modern novel, then there was the post-modern novel and now there is what we have now, the execrably named post-post-modern novel, or the newly sincere novel, which isn’t much better. How are we draw these lines, and are literary scholars doomed forever to cut the timeline of literature into ever thinner slices?

It is David Foster Wallace I think, that offers us the two best means of segmenting the modern from the post-modern in literary terms, by shaking his head and refusing to answer. But then he does answer, in two ways, though the first answer is Foster Wallace’s way of not answering, while still mounting a very astute point.

Answer the First

‘After modernism.’

Answer the Second

‘…there are certain, when I’m talking about post-modernism, I’m talking about, maybe the black humourists who came along in the nineteen sixties, post-Nabokovians, Pynchon, and Barthelme, and Barth, De Lillo…Coover…’

What engages Wallace about these authors, as he goes onto explain in the interview, is the fact that they wrote novels that were absolutely bristling with self-conscious possibilities; of the text as a text that is mediated, constructed, conflicted, created in the act of its reading, writing and post-mortem discussion(s), the writer as historically constructed, discursive persona and the reader as persona. So we have two things we can probably say about literary postmodernity. It is a temporal phenomenon, kicking off after whenever it is that modernism petered out, and secondly, that a post-modern text is more self-conscious than a modernist one.

My own take would introduce a third encapsulation, and that is that post-modernism is an outgrowth from, and potential response to, modernism, rather than a rejection. This will come as a surprise to exactly zero people, and gets me to the fault line of this issue; that it is impossible to speak in broad terms about any literary grouping worth discussing that wouldn’t be essentially true of any other one. Literature’s pesky way of valuing ambiguity, referentiality and innovation ensures this.

As I was reading Katherine Mansfield’s Collected Short Stories, and Virginia Woolf’s novel The Voyage Out, I was trying to locate some qualitative phenomenon that one would not find in a post-modernist novel. And I was unsuccessful in doing so. I might say that post-modernists are more prone to textual experimentation than the modernists were; I’m always disappointed by modernist writers’ words appearing in a linear, left to right, up to down way. You’re more likely to find an image, a font change, or interruptive clause in the counter cultural writers coming in Gaddis’ wake.

But, self-consciousness is not a quantifiable phenomenon, and to say that it increases or decreases is at least a little futile. (In the context of a literary discussion that is. Given a wide enough scope of inquiry, everything is futile.) To say that post-modern novels are self-conscious to an extent that was impossible before the sixties is untrue; Don Quixote encounters a counterfeit version of himself during one of his sagas, which was Miguel de Cervantes’ clever method of criticising those who were distributing pirated, unofficial and non-canonical versions of the Quixote. Laurence Sterne also provides a blank page in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy; a Gentleman, so that the reader may draw a character according to how they think she might look. As always, far more valuable literary discussions operate in the range of the qualitative rather than the quantitative. As such, back to Mansfield.

One could turn to a story such as ‘Psychology’ for example, which appears in Bliss and Other Stories. It is a story of about six pages, deriving its title from a pseudo-scientific movement that was then disrupting the notion that the self was knowable, and that we acted according to rational impulses. It’s a bold title, and by choosing it, Mansfield promises us much about what it is that motivates us, how we judge, how we interpret. But, rather than calling the story something like ‘What It Is To Be Human,’ she calls it ‘Psychology,’ shifting the focus from some Platonic realm wherein such lines of enquiry are easily defined, to the discipline or institution of psychology itself. Which is of course, carried out by a human agent, just as flawed and prone to unreason as the subject, and, in Mansfield’s time at least, male. And no one writes about how stupid men can be better than Mansfield.

The story represents two unnamed characters, male and female. The narrator makes it clear that they are deeply attracted to one another, perhaps even in love, but something, whether it be their own defensiveness or social convention, prevents them from expressing it. Mansfield represents this by doubling the presences in the text, providing each character with a ‘secret self.’ Significantly, these secret selves, at one or two points speak with the same voice:

‘Why should we speak? Isn’t this enough?’

Their ‘real’ conversation is stilted and awkward. The male character makes up an excuse to leave and in response, the female character inwardly rages:

‘You’ve hurt me; you’ve hurt me! We’ve failed!’ said her secret self while she handed him his coat and stick, smiling gaily.’

In her despair, the female character is overly affectionate and glad to receive a normally unwelcome friend, then writes a letter to the departed object of her affection, in which she is far more at home with expressing herself, almost as if the mediated, imaginative space of a letter is far more comfortable than the ‘real’ social encounter, in which both of them flailed.

The subject they discuss, is the ‘psychological novel,’ which I have seen practicing modernist authors use as a term which refers to the work that they and their contemporaries are doing with the novel form. (Joyce refers to Proust taking it as far as it can go in Á la récherche.)

It might not be a stretch to see Mansfield as doing some meta-commentary in referring to the psychological novel and in having here two characters, explicated in terms of their inner, imaginative psychology far more illustrative than in their outer, social one. So, we have a story that is pointing to its ‘about-itselfness,’ throughout, a narrative concerning the discontinuity of self-hood and the intractable crevasse that separates our inner being from the outer world. The contours of the inner/outer are perhaps more clearly drawn than you’d get in something written today, but were double-blind test to be arranged, adjusted for historical changes, (appearance of trains, telegrams v. planes & the internet) the emphasis upon social convention, the use and meaning of the word ‘gay,’ I’m not sure that a reader could be relied on to tell the difference between a modernist and a post-modern text.

Maybe it might be more useful to say that post-modernism is like modernism, only more so.

Ten Year Anniversary of Garrett Phelan’s Black Brain Radio @IMMA

Content warning: Post contains excessive, undue use of the first person pronoun.

I really like Arts Tonight on RTÉ. Its quiet pace, insider baseball language and uncompromising commitment to taking a deliberate, intellectual approach to the arts would be easy to parody, but because of its informativeness and tendency to source academics for its panels, it is among the best arts programmes in radio, and I mean the best from both RTÉ and the BBC. I find that the BBC, In Our Time aside, too often goes in for either Today Programme ebullience, in demanding straightforward-one-word, no-nonsense answers to weighty abstract questions or a whimsically boisterous tone, in pursuit of an imagined layman. It is sadly the case that it may be the among the only remaining serious arts programme left on the radio.

On a recent episode, on the subject of a book taking a retrospective view on five hundred years of Irish sculpture, Vincent Woods spoke on a particular work he once saw. What seems to have made this piece distinctive for Woods was its temporary nature and this allowed him to strike a personal note, which is welcome, and definitely rare in a programme that wears its occasional staidness with pride. Woods described ‘a sculpture trail in Achill, I think it was in 1996…I was lucky enough to see it and I’ll never forget, even some of the sounds, the sound of a cement mixer in an abandoned concrete house on the Edgewood Cliff…and a series of mirrors on Corrie Lake which just sat like petals, floating on the water…those sorts of images stay.’

Woods’ comments made me think of my own relationship with art that engages with its spatial component to such an extent that it often can’t be replicated elsewhere, or at least without inducing a logistical nightmare, such as site-specific or public art. I can always pick up a Yeats poem that made me feel something, or recall a sentence in The Green Road that makes something cold break over my spine and disseminate itself in my nerves, but I can’t summon up the way that Owen Roe reads an Oscar Wilde story, or Barry McGovern performs Beckett. Installation has that effect too, perhaps accentuated because of my relative ignorance when it comes to contemporary art in general, which may be an asset, because I haven’t yet lost that sense of challenge that confronts one when standing in a space with a thing that has a mass, that one has to mobilise oneself around, perhaps through, in order to grapple with it adequately.

With this in mind, around this time ten years ago I went to IMMA, and saw an installation that I’ve probably been thinking about ever since. The installation occupied one of the many white, airy rooms in the museum and it was on this occasion, that it was sparsely adorned and contained only a vintage-seeming radio, perched on a makeshift metal platform. One of the corners of the room was spray-painted black.

The installation was Black brain radio, and in a wider sense, beyond the confines of the room, it was a sequence of audio pieces recorded, collated and arranged by the artist Garrett Phelan. The pieces were broadcast for about thirty days in early 2006 on the 89.9 FM frequency and touched on topics as varied as the presidency of George W. Bush, the evolution/creationism debate and self-actualisation, albeit in each case, very obliquely. Phelan recorded himself reading reams of material from newspapers, books, or transcribed conversations from commercial radio. However, Phelan didn’t inflect his speech to suit what it was that he was reading, nor did he ‘produce’ his recording in the usual sense. His recordings were no-frills, highlighted by time he took to cough, yawn into the microphone or stop in the middle of a sentence.

I listened to it constantly for as long as it was broadcast, struck primarily by its strangeness and motivated by some desire to understand what the broadcast was adding up to. I think I knew it was mostly nonsense, or too fragmentary to be a whole, but I didn’t realise the extent of its aleatory qualities at the time. Phelan had cut his recordings into two-minute chunks, and randomised the broadcast on an MP3 player, so whatever sequentiality Black brain radio developed was always accidental, always provisional.

Since becoming conscious of how possible it is to purchase just about anything on the internet, I’ve been searching for some hard copy of Black brain radio, and I was thrilled to eventually find it on Discogs; a guy in Holland owned one of the 200 pressings of the broadcast issued by Nine Point records. I was disappointed to realise that the CD doesn’t contain the entire broadcast, but of course, that would’ve been too easy and insufficiently conceptual. My copy has two, apparently random, 30 minute chunks.

The product itself contains a fairly lengthy essay in its sleeve which makes some gesture towards enclosing the meaning or significance of Black brain radio. Of course, it makes no such claims for itself, but it’s hard not to regard it as a manifesto for the work, outfitted with Dadaistic murals and slogans, positing radio as a more immanent mode of dissemination than television; its history more implicated with the opposed forces of revolution and fascism. It’s a slightly essentialist history, it claims radio has a power to foster community while running counter to globalisation, but it’s a well-written and a competent anatomising of the project, and how it aims to transcend fascistic taste-makers of art and democratise its appreciation. Now I will criticise it. I don’t think that Black brain radio quite rose to the heights of anti-globalisation, de-naturation of self and disarticulation of the simulated nature of community that the essay posits, nor do I see the kind of engagement with manufactured consent, the point at which opinions are generated by our encounters with mass-media outlets. Rather, I see it as definitively located within a critique of the artifice of commercial radio.

Ben Anderson praises the vitality and capacity of radio to create communities through voice, but Black brain radio seems far too drained, or doubled back on itself to be indicative of a community spirit being generated in this way. Rather, I see or behold in Black brain radio an antiquarian anxiously parsing transcripts of an irretrievably lost past with no sense of its context, or even how it should be read. Phelan speaks in a cold, blank drawl and what springs to mind of course is Beckett’s radio plays, but without Beckett’s rhythm or bursts of lyricism. This is highlighted all the more by the sardonic intrusions of the overplayed radio hits of the day used occasionally as an audio bed (albeit without the high standard of production one would expect from a ‘normal’ broadcast). Snoop Dogg’s tune Signs (feat. Justin Timberlake & Charlie Wilson) features, followed by the usual senseless over-production, overheard from FM 104 that Phelan leaves on while he’s recording, that leavens mass-media artefacts. ‘Fun fact’ type segments wherein tedious information is rehearsed also, interspersed with milquetoast banter from co-hosts in the same lifeless, blank tone of an over-long exhalation.

Five years and counting of higher education, have prepared me to approach all manifestations of a creative impulse with a scalpel, murdering to dissect and to have a thing to say, for fear of coming away feeling like a dope. In his introduction to William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, William Gass offers the critic an alternative:

“No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation…would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes…Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms.”

This is increasingly coming to my mind when I listen to academic papers, Arts Tonight or when I read the essay that accompanies the CD, written by Sarah Pierce. It doesn’t matter what’s under discussion, the history of the Irish Sea, Leda and the Swan, or the errant jotters of Leonardo da Vinci, almost everything discussed features some variation on limits, peripheries, narratives, stereotypes, re-conceptualisations, differential networks of meaning, straw man paradoxes, etc, this programmatic patter that smothers what is unique about everything, and makes it the same tortured play of nothing. I’m not opposed to criticism, I never will be, but I’m sure we all recognise the patterns of reductionism, and recognise too, real, dynamic, elevating critiques every bit as vital as their subject.

This sense of wonder, this physical reaction that certain works of art can engender in us is not a mysterious quintessence antithetical to its explanation; criticism as its best can intensify, even prompt it. These received routes of understanding should be eschewed and replaced by something amazing.

The Life-Cry of Don De Lillo’s Ratner’s Star

The novel Ratner’s Star was pitched to me, in the few outlets that have posted their reviews of the text online, as a Menippean satire, a work that is usually in prose, multi-perspectival, in that it makes ideology or interior mental states targets of fun rather than individuals, and I can’t conjure a third trait to complete the Rule. It strikes me that this is a useful means of taxonimising a good heft of the post-war American literary milieu, at least those who I’ve read enough of in order to identify what they have in common with De Lillo. I won’t name them here because it should be fairly clear that when I talk about maximalist male authors with more interest in critiquing systems/order than the steady clockwork of characterisation, that I’m hardly talking about Franzen.

This is an abstruse way into Ratner’s Star, because I’m a little stumped for what to talk about. Spelling out the satire of the novel, its brilliant deconstruction of the mechanisms of scientific enquiry, its shortcomings, its ideological blind spots, would be too programmatic, not to mention futile in its re-hashing of the case, though I do think it’s worth mentioning that the hermetic, dry humour of the novel (its re-hashing similarly useless), is as funny, smatteringly laughing out loud in places funny as Beckett or Douglas Adams.

I may just have to quote from a characterless invective towards the novel’s close that takes a global view of an eclipse forecasted by an ancient civilisation wiped out by nuclear war before our current ‘civilisation’ rose in its wake, and essentially spells out some of what the novel’s mission statement may be taken to be:

“To be Outside is to know an environment infinitely less complex than the one you left. Far from wishing to revisit misery, you are nonetheless able to experience once again some of the richness of inborn limits. You see our rapt entanglement in all around us, the press to measure and delve…Why are you here? To unsnarl us from our delimiting senses? To offer protective cladding against our cruelty and fear? The pain, the life-cry speak our most candid wonders. To out-premise these, by whatever tektite whirl you’ve mastered, would be to make us hypothetical, a creature of our own pretending, as are you.”

To quote, “Excuse me, but what the fuck is going on there?”

The paragraphing there is non-existent, the words of the section of which the above forms a part just spills and spills for pages. The rhythm is compulsive, the outlook is unrelenting, visceral, all the more so for its stepping out of the familiar novelistic framework, for its purging of all characters and scenarios we’ve been acclimatised to and for its filming a close-up of De Lillo’s monologuing face. Any other novelist would’ve been well advised to quell such faffery, as it is more likely than not to be heavy handed Malicking, but he pulls it off, and its pretty damn astounding.

David Foster Wallace’s ‘The Pale King’ and style

The more I read and write about reading, the less convinced I become that it is possible to talk about a writer’s ‘style’ in a meaningful way. The word ‘style,’ begins with the assumption that there are certain things in a text that can be neatly compartmentalised, anatomised and put in different, clearly labelled Tupperware containers. But we’d never argue that form and content are easily separable from one another, unless we were a fool, which we are not, because we know well that the form that an artwork takes is indissociable from the content that it supposedly contains. Form constitutes an integral part of any text’s processes of meaning-making and is never merely a disposable container of the work itself.

But we still talk about ‘style,’ as if the words on the page were say, replaced by indistinct smudges of wet coal, we could come to an understanding of the way the writer wrote, by elucidating the tempo of these smudges. Awful example. The point is I think when we talk about ‘style,’ we often mistake ‘style’ for what the words are actually saying. For example, I doubt Beckett’s ‘style’ would be referred to so frequently as ‘morbid,’ ‘moribund,’ ‘mordant,’ or ‘pared-back,’ if he didn’t spend so much of his time describing death, decay in witty, economical ways. When we think we’re talking about ‘style,’ we’re often just re-deploying content any varying our vocabulary a bit.

I just finished David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King, wishing to understand why he has come to be known as a primo sentencer, but mostly to lecture sanctimoniously to those who will only come to him after having seen The End of the Tour. Anyway, Wallace’s ‘style’ is, I think, notably pliant. It is by turns capable of evoking 1) the concatenating anxiety of Sylvanshine, 2) the neurotic ruminations of the over elucidating prosthesis, the ‘author,’ David Wallace and, perhaps most impressively, his ‘common touch,’ which makes itself known in a sequence of dialogues between a number of unnamed, sometimes un-numbered men, which appear too infrequently.

These stylistic fireworks do much in the service of The Pale King, because, in its unfinished state at least, much of what the novel has to say seems rather disappointingly conservative. Zadie Smith’s critique of Wallace being too over-laudatory of the relationships between quote unquote simple folk, (an oppressively irritating presence in a novel written by a known beneficent of an education from a prestigious university, it really is the noble savage of our time) makes itself known in the aforementioned dialogues, as does the tentatively advanced notions that things ain’t what they used to be, the decadence and luxury of our contemporary milieu has compromised our moral integrity and kids these days don’t want to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.

I suspect that a lot of this is bull and on some level, I think Wallace thinks so too, he has a number of characters voice their opposition to these beliefs as being too simplistic. The characters who have initially advanced the views held above accept that this is probably true, and yet these arguments keep re-surfacing. Perhaps the most accurate thing one can say about Wallace’s ‘style’ is that he advances via disclaimer, as may be attested to by David Wallace’s (the character-author this time) frequent insistence that what is contained within the novel is all fact, that when he says so he is not indulging in a kind of meta-fictional tease or ‘titty-pincher,’ though of course, he is doing exactly that.

William H. Gass’ ‘The Tunnel’ and the Sad Man Monologue

William H. Gass’ novel The Tunnel strikes me, in one way, by its similarity to a particular kind of fiction written by a particular kind of novelist of a particular age and gender, a sub-genre I call ‘The Sad Man Monologue.’ This form was, I would argue, pioneered by Samuel Beckett in his Trilogy of Molloy, Malone meurt and L’innomable, though I am open to being corrected on that, (damienrants at https://iscriptorblog.wordpress.com/ suggests Goethe, Heinrich Von Kleist and Fyodor Dostoevsky as plausible pre-modernist progenitors) and is practiced nowadays by the aforementioned Gass, occasionally by Paul Auster and exclusively by John Banville.

Below are some key features of the genre, for your perusal and edification:

The narrator is a middle-aged man – This is a fairly consistent feature of the genre, as these texts generally depict the narrator as writing the account as we read it, hopping back and forth in time, from a bathetic present to a Kodak-distant youth in which feelings were felt intensely. The neither/nor in-between space of middle age is crucial for bringing together the pathos of departed days with the anxiety of a more proximate death.

The writing is of an extremely heightened sort – More so, I think than any other invented sub-genre today, the authors of sad man monologues embroider with densely worded baroqueries. The reason behind this linguistically charged and seductive register is that the sad men are, generally speaking, shits, and often unrepentant shits at that, probably necessitating its glossy surfaces and (sometimes) exquisite proliferation of sub-clauses.

The narrator complains about the unattractiveness of their spouse – A bugbear I have as regards this genre is that each sad man finds time, ample time in fact, to denigrate the attractiveness of their wife and log their resentment over how little gratifying sex they get. I find it so bizarre that in the works of these writers, time and time again, half the novel is devoted to the fundamental pain of the human condition, epistemological, phenomenological uncertainty, the unreliability of memory, the indignity of having an infinite intellect yoked to a decaying body, yet the narrator still finds time to harp on his petty domestics chauvinistically, as if this had some sort of universal significance. This annoys me because 1) I suspect the narrator is no spring chicken, 2) I have no idea what they expect, holing themselves away authoring the story of their life and being so angst ridden all the time, 3) it comes across like a male author getting a dig in at their wife.

The narrator is an erudite and studious sort, well up on contemporary thought – These novels are shot through with flirtations of references to The Jacques. This is fun, but wears quickly, especially when one reads Gass, who makes the effort to traduce this theoretical terminology into his own inimitably mad register, then returns to these other authors, who make use of phrases like ‘unconscious,’ ‘meaninglessness,’ ‘fracture,’ or god help us, that familiar clattering of the undergraduate, ‘signifier.’

Scanning my bookshelves for a gender counterpoint, the sad woman monologue, (again, examples please), I come away with J.M. Coetzee’s In The Heart of the Country and Anne Enright’s The Gathering. Both bring productive knottiness into the formulae above, Enright’s Veronica moves back before her own birth, introducing impossible pre-natal perspectives, just as Coetzee’s Magda, allows others to speak their own pieces in dialogue, committing a cardinal sin against the genre. This is complicated by the fact that both narrators inflect what they see or narrate to suit their own interests; their supposed capacity to deal in heteroglossia in fact points towards a more insidious variant of monomania.

The Gathering is class. Read The Gathering.

Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’

I: The Way by Swann’s

I found the second part of the first volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to be in equal measures utterly singular, beautiful and unsatisfying. This blog post aims to elucidate some of the reasons why I have reservations about A Love of Swann’s, the second of three parts in The Way by Swann’s.

A Love of Swann’s outlines, over the course of some two hundred pages, a love affair between Charles Swann, a friend of the narrator’s family and Odette de Crécy. There is such an excess of detail provided in this section, descriptions of how attraction works, limerence and the inevitably trite courtship rituals that it can be difficult to know where to begin when parsing it, but the essential point to grasp while reading it is that Swann is a jealous, possessive lover.

Swann’s biggest problem is that he has fallen in love with Odette, who isn’t really a character at all, but a harsh metaphor about the inscrutable nature of other humans. We can never know what passes through other’s minds, we don’t know how closely their actions reflect their true feelings for us, we don’t even know if they can be said to have true feelings at all. This problem is added to by the fact that Odette seems to be more capricious than your average. Swann hears second hand that she thinks very highly of him when he had just convinced himself that she has become utterly exhausted by his clinginess. Furthermore, Swann is doomed to interpret her actions mediated through a number of upper middle class rituals of behaviour, giving him even less insight into Odette’s ‘true’ character than would be possible without them. This section therefore describes how he deals, or fails to deal, with his overwhelming jealousy.

As such, Swann conceives of a number of scenarios that involve Odette’s cheating on him, even among a group of his closest friends. When he shows up at her door one night, he bangs on it insistently and contrives an extravagant scenario wherein Odette escorts the man she is in bed with at that moment out the back door, lying about who is banging at the front at this hour of the night in order to cover her tracks. Swann becomes so convinced of this having happened, despite any actual evidence to attest to it, that he begins to read her letters behind her back and replays the scenario over and over in his mind, altering it to fit the little in the situation that he did apprehend.

On first reading this section, I enjoyed it, because I believed that what I was witnessing was the process of Swann alienating Odette and driving his love away from his forever. And who doesn’t love reading something like that? But in the back of my mind I was aware that Swann ultimately does end up marrying Odette, the narrator has told us as much earlier in the text.

So I was surprised to find myself disappointed that Odette has in fact been unfaithful. Extravagantly unfaithful, in fact, indulging in all manner of sexual hedonism, with both men and women, sometimes both at the same time. On one hand I’m interested that late nineteenth and early twentieth century Parisian salon culture provided a safe haven for homosexuals, bisexuals, pansexuals and ambisexuals, as it must have done for Proust, but on the other I’m moderately perplexed.

I thought Swann’s jealous embroideries functioned rather like Leopold Bloom’s obsessions with who has slept with his wife Molly in Ulysses. In the penultimate episode of James Joyce’s novel, ‘Ithaca,’ it is revealed how many men Bloom has been suspicious of in this regard, no matter how improbable it would have been for Molly to have had this many sexual partners in a city as small as Dublin was then:

“Penrose, Bartell d’Arcy, professor Goodwin, Julius Mastiansky, John Henry Menton, Father Bernard Corrigan, a farmer at the Royal Dublin Society’s Horse Show, Maggot O’Reilly, Matthew Dillon, Valentine Blake Dillon (Lord Mayor of Dublin), Christopher Callinan, Lenehan, an Italian organgrinder, an unknown gentleman in the Gaiety Theatre, Benjamin Dollard, Simon Dedalus, Andrew (Pisser) Burke, Joseph Cuffe, Wisdom Hely, Alderman John Hooper, Dr Francis Brady, Father Sebastian of Mount Argus, a bootblack at the General Post Office, Hugh E. (Blazes) Boylan and so each and so on to no last term.”

For Swann’s jealousy to have been bettered by Odette’s sexual reality seems to me to have missed the point, though it is possible that I’ve missed the point instead, that this blog post should have a more sociological import, as A Love of Swann’s is an important component of a marginalised history, rather than about how possessive male desire can actualise itself as being.

II: In The Shadow of Young Girls in Flower

 

In one of the more well-worn anecdotes of literary history, Marcel Proust’s masterpiece Du côté de chez Swann was rejected by Humblot, a reader for a publishing house. In a letter, Humblot wrote the following: “My dear friend, perhaps I am dense but I just don’t understand why a man should take thirty pages to describe how he turns over in his bed before he goes to sleep. It made my head swim.”

Trotting out these anecdotes in general introductions to cheep and cheerful Wordsworth editions serve a very particular end, a phenomenon that Julian Barnes describes in an essay written on Vincent Van Gogh’s life and work in the London Review of Books: “this…spurs us towards self-congratulation: look how we who have come later appreciate your work, how superior our eye and taste and sympathy are to those who snubbed and misprised you back in the day.” In other words, we look back at Humblot as perhaps the most tone-deaf reader in literary history, in contrast with us, those who, if the contingencies of fate were only aligned differently, would have been born in late nineteenth century France and would have appreciated Proust’s writing, as so many of his contemporaries did not.

This is to miss, if not the point, a point.

One of the themes that Proust consistently refers to is the relationship that exists between sensibility and habit. The general track of the novel (says I, being currently (almost) half way through) is how the narrator’s sensibility, his openness and receptivity to the world around him in all its strangeness and assorted differengenera comes to be overwhelmed by his habits. Sexual debauchery, love, drunkenness, no matter how novel and abject these feelings are when we first experience them, we, with surprising rapidity become adjusted to them, to the point that we barely can be said to experience them at all.

Habit is not a malign however, though it calcifies our precious and individual sensibility. It is a wholly necessary force, allowing us to grow accustomed to people and places that our sensibility led us to despise instinctively. As Proust writes: “habit…also undertakes to endear us to people whom we disliked to begin with, alters the shapes of their face, improves their tone of voice, makes hearts grow fonder.”

The average sentence length in English writing is around 15-17 words, style guides generally recommend that sentences longer than twenty words be shortened as it is likely that they are unclear or convoluted. From a very rudimentary quantitative analysis, I found Proust’s sentences to be, on average, 35 words long. It is therefore possible to view Humblot as not just the first, but one of the more perceptive of Proust’s critics, immediately getting to the heart of what it is that is unique about Proust’s style.

The point behind Proust’s excessively long sentences is precisely this – their excess. What we judge as a coherent sentence in a novel runs to a certain length. We are accustomed to it and when we read, we are within the realm of habit. Proust’s prose is intended to be shocking, to awaken us to the possibilities of language and thought, to appeal to our sensibilities again by having our texts violently defamiliarised from ourselves.

I would accord more with Humblot’s reading than with the mainstream understanding of Proust as a canonical author, among the other masterpieces that we stock our bookshelves with and rarely read. James Grieve, a translator ofÀ l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, speaks pithily of Proust’s irreconcilable strangeness, based on the highly irregular nature of his prose style: “Proust’s reflections, his enunciation of philosophical and psychological truths…are often more importance to him than his verisimilitudes. His composition was often not linear; he wrote in bits and pieces; transitions from one scene to another are sometimes awkward, clumsy even.” If that wasn’t devastating enough, Grieve delivers a final cruelty: “His paragraphing often seems idiosyncratic.”

Far from being a word virtuoso, a fluent weaver of imaginative reality, Proust is in many ways inept and it is in this way that we should appreciate him; his idiosyncrasies are what make In Search of Lost Time such a brilliant and bizarre novel.   

III: The Guermantes’ Way

 

A large proportion of Marcel Proust’s magnum opus In Search of Lost Time is given over to salon conversations. Salons have a long history as gatherings of educated members of the upper and middle classes keen to discuss art and politics over good food and wine.

Proust makes clear that these gatherings are not mini-utopias of intellectuals forging the uncreated conscience of their race within drawing rooms. Instead, they consist mostly of nouveau riche philistines, uneducated social climbers and artists who compromise themselves through their wishes to succeed within ‘society.’

The conversations between the attendees at these salons are rendered in Proust’s deadpan manner, a mode in which he is particularly adept. The idiot comments of the idiot attendees are expressed with a minimal amount of overt editorial glossing on the part of the narrator, allowing the members of the petit gentry to condemn themselves out of their own words and actions. If one were to open the third instalment in In Search of Lost Time, The Guermantes Way on a random page, one is more likely to find one of these people sounding off on something on which they understand little about than not.

Note: So it actually took me five tries of a random page to find a demonstrative example. The first paragraph on page 236 reads: “But still, don’t lets fool ourselves; the charming views of my nephew are going to land him in queer street. Particularly with Fezensac ill at the moment. That means Duras will be will be running the election, and you know how he likes to bluff,’ said the Duc, who had never managed to learn the precise meaning of certain words and thought that bluffing meant, not shooting a line, but creating complications.”

The effect of this exhaustive rendering of banal conversation is to suffocate the reader through over-exposure to the awful things that these boring people say, making it almost impossible not to despise these poor deludes. However, the appearance of a seemingly endless succession of conversations that the narrator is privy to prompt a question or two.

Getting access and moving through the ranks of society is a nuanced process. One risks becoming a figure of fun for others, being exiled from them altogether for being perceived as a flatterer or for attending other salons, namely, not showing sufficient loyalty to one’s hosts. Therefore each salon abides by a particular code of behaviour that one should not violate, if one wishes to maintain one’s position within them. The Verdurin salon demands absolute loyalty, the Guermantes insist that art and other ‘serious topics’ are too tedious to be discussed and for Odette Swann (née de Crécy)’s salon, being an anti-Semite is, (ironically, considering M. Swann is Jewish) a bonus.

‘Wit’ and ‘eloquence’ are prized traits for any would-be salon attendee and these terms are placed within perverted commas to demonstrate how advisedly they are used in this instance; both manifest themselves more frequently as obnoxiousness. Therefore one wonders how the narrator seems to succeed in gaining access to these exclusive social clubs when he barely speaks; all the space he provides is given over to the conversation of others. Are we as readers supposed to believe that in this hyper-critical environment that the narrator, M, is allowed to sit back in silence, committing every word of the conversations of others to his memory and be invited back week after week? Especially since even the most trivial detail or impression can send him into a two or three page verbal effusions at the least notice?

One suspects that he is guilty of saying exactly the same kind of shallow nonsense enunciated by those around him and covers himself by devoting all his time to describing the foolishness of others.

IV: Sodom and Gomorrah

At this stage, the fourth volume of six in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, it doesn’t need saying that Proust is a hyper-critical author. He doesn’t allow his characters to get away with anything and dwells for sentence after sentence after sentence on their most minute flaws and concealed insecurities. However, there seems to be shades of difference in Proust’s treatment of particular characters based on their class. Regardless of how denigrating he may be towards the Guermantes or the Princess de Parma, their characterisations retain an idealised quality, their personas never lose their sheen of seemingly fundamental decency. The origin of this positive discrimination is somewhat unclear, as the focalisation of In Search of Lost Time’s perspective is so overdetermined. Blame could lie with the narrator, M, who is, after all, hopelessly besotted with all members of the aristocracy, regardless of the depth of their ignorance. Some blame could well be attached to Proust himself, with one eye on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s admiration of rich people, for being in some self-evident way different from the have-nots.

Characters such as Charles Morel and Françoise lack this ‘upper-class’ status, which would otherwise have allowed for their redemption, at least partially, from M’s perspective. Therefore, there is something altogether crueler about M’s probing evisceration of Françoise’s character, considering she is employed as his family’s servant. Françoise also has the dubious honour of being the only character that M has told to her face exactly what he thinks of her, something that he would not dare do to someone with a secure place on a social scale of any kind (as yet, anyway, I have only read the first four parts of six): “’You’re an excellent person, I said smarmily, you’re kind, you’ve a thousand good qualities, but you’re no further on than the day that you arrived in Paris, either in knowing about women’s clothes or in how to pronounce words properly and not commit howlers.’”

M’s identification of Françoise’s primary failing as linguistic is, I believe, revealing. First, her way of speaking is wholly idiosyncratic, because she is from rural France and was not formally educated. This can be seen in her occasional tendency towards exaggeration, at occasions like being found by a member of the family in the kitchen, particularly when she is with her daughter: ‘She’s just had a spoonful of soup, Françoise said to me, and I forced her suck on a bit of the carcass,’ so as thus to reduce her daughter’s supper to nothing, as though it would have been wrong for it to be plentiful. Even at lunch or dinner, if I made the mistake of going into the kitchen, Françoise would make as if they had finished and even apologise by saying: ‘I just wanted a bite of something,’ or ‘a mouthful.’ Her supposed ineptitude in expressing herself exasperates M, who constantly demonstrates his facility in doing so with an endlessly proliferating sequence of sub-clauses erupting at the least prompting.

This relates to another reason for preferring Françoise above all others that populate Proust’s ‘world entire,’ as parts in the novel that feature her are generally an occasion of humour, as M’s frustration with her manifests itself in a haughty and staccato sentence style, often a welcome relief from his normative mode. The second part of In Search of Lost TimeIn The Shadow of Young Girls In Flower, contains what I believe to be the funniest part of the entire novel, if I can be allowed to decide this with two volumes remaining. This section of the novel describes a holiday that M, his grandmother and Françoise take in the coastal town of Balbec. They stay in a hotel and Françoise makes the acquaintance of a number of staff members, butlers and servants, etc. This has unexpected effects for M and his grandmother:

“she had also gotten to know one of the wine waiters, a kitchen-hand and a housekeeper from one of the floors. The result of this for our daily arrangements was that, whereas at the at the very beginning of her stay Françoise, knowing no one had kept ringing for the most trivial reasons, at times when my grandmother and I would never have dared to ring 0 and if we raised some mild objection to this,. she replies, ‘Well we’re paying them enough!’ as thought she herself was footing the bills – now that she was on friendly terms with one of the personalities from below stairs, a thing which had initially seemed to augur well for our comfort if either of us happened to have cold feet in bed, she would not countenance the idea of ringing, even at times which were in no way untoward; she said it would ‘put them out,’ it would mean the…servants’ dinner-hour would be disturbed and they would not like that…The long and short of it was that we had to make to do without proper hot water because Françoise was a friend of the man whose job it was to heat it.”

If that didn’t split your sides, Proust may not be the best place for you to get your laughs.

M probably gets annoyed as he does because he doesn’t want someone competing with him, in the realm of linguistic play, least of all an uneducated woman of the servant class, self-obsessed little twerp that he is.

V: The Prisoner

 

Someone in my gaff was recently reading Joanna Rakoff’s 2014 memoir, My Salinger Year, a book that I haven’t yet read. As I am the Proust expert in residence, in the aforementioned gaff in which I live at least, I was consulted about a reference to Proust in Rakoff’s text, which ran along the lines of some male discussing Proust with Rakoff. He is rather proud of the fact that he has managed to read Proust in its entirety and brags about it. The blogger has a straight face. Rakoff asks him what his favourite part in the seven volume work was and he tells her that he particularly enjoys when the narrator of In Search of Lost Time, Marcel, is appraising his lover Albertine and describes how she seems most attractive to him when she’s asleep.

‘Yes,’ I intoned solemnly, ‘I think that passage occurs in the fourth volume,Sodom and Gomorrah,’ which I had just finished, though I wasn’t sure.

‘Yes, yes, I’m sure that its in Sodom and Gomorrah,’ I intoned again, just as solemnly and no more sure than I initially was. Imagine my surprise when reading the fifth volume, The Prisoner, and found the passage in question and that I had contrived the memory of having read it before I really had, which is a very Proustian moment in itself, justifying the unreliable nature of memory and demonstrating how pretentious fools will generally condemn themselves out of their own mouths.

If one was to pursue the intertextual dialogue that The Salinger Year here establishes between itself and The Prisoner as an interpretative avenue, one would be led to believe that this man is an intensely jealous obsessive and the female narrator should run a mile from him.

There are a number of passages in The Prisoner which describe Albertine as she sleeps, one of the most revealing one reads as follows:

“When I came back she would be asleep, and I saw before me the other woman she became when seen full face…My jealousy was being calmed, for I felt that Albertine had become a creature of respiration and nothing more, as was shown by her regular breathing, the expression of this purely physiological function, which in its fluidity lacks the consistency of either speech or silence; lacking all knowledge of evil, this sound, which seemed to be drawn from a hollow reed rather than a human being, was truly heavenly for me who at those moments felt Albertine to be removed from everything, not just materially but morally; it was the pure song of the Angels.”

The reason that Marcel feels himself to be most in love with Albertine when she is unconscious is because he has a deep seated fear of Albertine’s alterity, her status as ‘other.’ Albertine is an autonomous human being, with her own desires, impulses and opinions, the nature of which the narrator reflects on constantly and finds himself unable to cope with. When he is asleep, the narrator sees Albertine as empty, a blank canvas for the projection of his desires, suggested by the use of the terms ‘hollow reed,’ and ‘creature of respiration’ truly a macabre duo of images of Albertine as being simultaneously dehumanised and emptied out.

Marcel’s jealousy borders on a kind of psychosis. At a soirée arranged by Mme Verdurin (but hi-jacked by the Baron de Charlus, much to Mme Verdurin’s chagrin), Marcel hovers around the borders of a conversation between Charlus and Brichot, as mysteriously silent as ever. The two are estimating the extent to which society people are unfaithful to their spouses. Charlus picks a figure out of the air and Brichot essentially agrees, plunging Marcel into a crevasse of doomed speculation about what Albertine might be up to in his absence and finds himself unable to enjoy the rest of the night.

Proust elsewhere notes that Albertine is that impossible kind of person, one who is prematurely woken up by someone else and is in a good mood. Not only that, she seems positively ecstatic. I think, by the by, that whatever about Marcel’s seemingly infinite amount of money and leisure time, this is the most egregious example of Proust’s liberty-taking with reality. Marcel convinces herself that turning over in Albertine’s sleeping mind is pure gaiety; her mind is absolutely directed towards pleasing him, towards complying with his wishes. He also satisfies himself physically while she sleeps. In one particularly grotesque sequence, he describes how he moves Albertine’s body around without her consent according to his needs. It’s really awful.

While Albertine is dozing, she invites Marcel, who, in her half-awake state she believes to be one of her female lovers, to initiate sex. She gets about one word into her proposition before she regains her sense of her surroundings, saying only ‘casser,’ the French word for ‘break.’  (What this is suggestive of I would have no idea, if the footnotes weren’t present, by the way.) It’s not that this reveals that Albertine is having an affair, that she is gay and possibly not attracted to Marcel at all, but that she frankly expresses her own sexual desire, in a space (bed) and at a time (while asleep) in which Marcel imagined Albertine to be his and his alone. This makes what happens such a betrayal in his eyes.

VI: The Fugitive

 

Speculative fiction is a straightforward enough concept to grasp. As the name indicates, it creates a breach in fiction’s conventions of representation and violates the rules that traditionally govern the world in which fiction takes place. In short, a speculative fiction begins with a ‘what if?’

Jorge Luis Borges is one of the most skilled practitioners of speculative fictions, though he rarely needs more than twenty or twenty five pages to exhaust his capacity to work through every aspect of the world that he has conjured up. Being as I am on the last volume of á la recherche I cannot over-emphasise how grateful I am to him for his capacity for brevity.

Of course, there are very few novels that don’t fall into the category delineated above; novels that are propelled by a question in the mind of the author are not a niche genre. There are certain coping mechanisms that one finds oneself devising when making one’s way through a 3500 page novel and one of them is to fixate on the abject strangeness of many of its key moments, many of which seem to border on aspects of science-fiction sub-genre.

Carol Clark, the translator of The Prisoner writes: “practical considerations of money, which would be at the centre of a novel by Balzac or Zola, seem to be of little importance here. Again, one feels that Proust is carrying out a thought experiment: let there be a young man M and a girl A, living in flat F. Let the money available to M be infinite.” The use of the term ‘thought experiment’ conveys how bizarre the novel can be. The Prisoner describes how Marcel’s lover Albertine moves into his apartment and how Marcel expends seemingly endless funds on lavish gifts for her. When she leaves him, he promises her a Rolls Royce and a yacht if she returns. All this focus on the financial inconsistencies glosses over the fact that Albertine’s aunt, Mme Bontemps, seems to be perfectly fine with her daughter living unmarried with a seemingly endlessly wealthy society dilettante with neurasthenia.

It’s not even fanciful to posit the existence of shape shifters in Proust’s novel, Odette de Crécy somehow manages to de-age as the novel continues; this is commented on by the narrator frequently with an appropriate incredulity and the scope of Albertine’s face seems to change dramatically at some point after In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, to an extent that I don’t think can be attributed to the normal changes brought about by adolescence. This presumably serves a metaphorical end about the multiplicity of self and the necessary masquerades adopted by people in the normal course of society life, a necessity that is only bolstered when one deviates from the proscribed sexual ‘norm,’ as very few characters in this novel don’t.

Proust also engages in a kind of description that I find myself noticing quite a bit recently, and that is prose that attempts to grapple with reality on a quantum level, to convey phenomena that are not visible to the naked eye:

“the whole sky was filled with that radiant, palish blue that the walker lying in a field sometimes sees over his head, but so uniform, so deep that one feels the blue of which it is made was used without any admixture and with such inexhaustible richness that one could delve deeper and deeper into its substance without finding an atom of anything but that same blue.”

It is this willingness to represent the ineffable in text that Proust’s best moments of confrontational strangeness that gets him his best moments as we see in the above, wherein an anonymous and yet universal representation of man ‘the walker,’ falls into the sky endlessly, which is at once the sky and also seems to prefigure some kind of undiluted cordial, perhaps anticipating the famous madeleine dissolved in tea. The paragraph is positively bristling with paradoxes and abstrusities, least among which is the suggestion that one can simply ‘find’ an atom, that atoms can be ‘pure’ and that they are colour-coded.

VII: Time Re-Gained

 

When I started Proust’s seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time and, indeed, when I had finished Proust’s seven-volume novel In Search of Lost Time, the only awareness that I had of French literature was limited to Gustave Flaubert’s one volume novel Madame Bovary, which I tapped out of reading at around page seventy, firstly because my idealistic commitment to reading it in French was proving very difficult and I was too pig-headed to change over to the English translation. The three or four page rant the guy gives in the pub about agriculture and rational philosophy seemed to be overly explicit thematising on Flaubert’s part, too holistic, too nineteenth-century and too boring. I went on to something else, Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland 1600-1970, I think. Apart from this, I had no knowledge of French literature, with the possible exception of Samuel Beckett if he counts and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, which is magical of course, but not terribly applicable to Proust.

As such, I was on the lookout for comparisons that could be made between Flaubert’s novel and Proust’s. The most obvious point of comparison could perhaps be found in the ballroom scene in the early stages of Madame Bovary, when the newlyweds Emma and Charles attend a fairly swish party in the castle of La Vaubyessard, hosted by the Marquis and Marquesse d’Aubervilliers. What follows is a rather famous description of the wealth and luxury of the party, both of which are augmented through Emma’s inflected perspective on reality and her desire to enter into her abstract notion of what that society is:

“Their clothes, of better cut, seemed to be of softer material, and their hair, gathered in curls at their temples, had the sheen of finest pomade. Their complexion was that of wealth, the shade of white that enhances the pallor of porcelain, the watered shimmer of satin, the shine of beautiful furniture, maintained in the peak of health by a simple and exquisite diet. Their necks moved effortlessly in low cravats; their long sideburns rested on turned-down collars; they dabbed their lips with handkerchiefs embroidered with large initials and from which rose sweet smells. The older ones looked youthful, while there was something middle-aged about the young men’s faces.”

This is a really vivid sequence and stands out among the almost a third of the novel that I’ve bothered to read. The description is subtly grounded in Emma’s point of view (how else would the words ‘better’ and ‘softer’ have a point of reference?), the strikingly luxurious diction is accentuated by the languorous undulation of the sentences but most of all, the people it supposedly describes are encumbered; they become mere referents for the materiality of their appearance, which is precisely the point. This is a mechanism deployed to emphasise Emma’s naiveté.

The closing sections of the final volume of In Search of Lost Time contains an equally striking description of a soirée, although it is so for very different reasons. Marcel, the narrator, is at this point in the novel, an old man and has recently returned to high society after a long period of seclusion. He has recently realised that his lifelong literary ambitions, if they are to be fulfilled, will be realised by bringing to life in prose the world that he now occupies, that of the Parisian upper and middle classes. This world then begins to manifest itself in a rather macabre and abject manner:

“it is more as a jigging puppet, with a beard made of white wool, that I saw him twitched about and walked up and down in the drawing-room, as if he were in a scientific and philosophical puppet show, in which he served, as in a funeral address or a lecture at the Sorbonne, both as a reminder of the vanity of all things and as a specimen of natural history…puppets which were an expression of Time, Time which is normally not visible, which seeks out bodies in order to become so and wherever it finds them seizes upon them for its magic lantern show.”

Marcel has arrived at a party and finds all of his friends so aged and changed, that he is unable to recognise any of them, and casts them as old marionettes, manoeuvred by the invisible hand of time, jostled along by threads (a word he later uses in relation to the links that bring us to other people that we meet in our lives) that only he, the author can perceive. In some ways, he makes himself the puppet master, at a safe distance from the decline visible in his extended group of friends.

That irrevocable agent of time may be responsible, but its him that gawps over it for a hundred or so pages, describes each one of his supposed friends past their prime in detail. Exactly why Emma perceives this age-reversal dynamic in the crowds of the upper crust remains for me to puzzle over, but if I was to reach for a fun, if unlikely explanation, I could sit it next to the final paragraph in the Proust quotation, which seems to evoke some sort of composite of the mythological beings of the changeling and the succubus, of immortal hermit crab people, capable of ‘entering’ these marionette bodies as they wish to. Probably not, never mind.