Tag Archives: Sodom and Gomorrah

Too Many Thoughts on David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’

 

Before doing what it is that these posts do, whether it be parsing texts for political shortcomings, justifying my own intelligence in a work’s margins or talking about myself at a remove, I want to say that Infinite Jest is staggeringly good. Of all the achievement lit. I’ve read, books where the length or relative difficulty of the text becomes a kind of perverse selling point (“look at me, I’m reading this book!”), it apportions its fun about twenty per cent more generously than your average example of the genre. William H. Gass’ The Tunnel could’ve lost 150 some pages towards the end, I shift into skimming mode for two-three of the episodes towards the end of Ulysses, and I could go on just about as long as Proust does about memory expressing the level of antipathy I have for at least two of the volumes of á la recherche. Infinite Jest is almost non-stop reward for the work you put in. Know this.

In comparison to Proust, there’s very few parts of Infinite Jest that are a slog, and many of the parts that critics have identified as slog-like, such as the Eschaton sequence, in which Foster Wallace lets us know that he can out-Gravity’s Rainbow Gravity’s Rainbow, I actually had as much fun as I’ve ever had reading a book. Eschaton, by the by, is a complex geo-political strategy game played across tennis courts with an apparently endless proliferation of equations delimiting the state of play and tennis balls as nuclear warheads, something that references the V-2 rockets of Gravity’s Rainbow’s plot, while reducing them within the context of on international war-games picaresque of a picaresque.

In initial mind-drafts of this overlong thing, I had invectives against the Québecois separatist sections, convinced that I was of a mind with Foster Wallace’s editor, who deemed it a harangued and haranguing ‘huggermugger,’ lobbed in to prove that Foster Wallace is among the big boys, literarily speaking and is just tedious and incongruous. However, after finishing the book and coming in retrospect to assemble its foreshadowings, elisions and manifold, manifold hints about the structure of its plot, one comes to some sense of its indispensability, which is either a testament to Foster Wallace’s heightened levels of novelistic craftsmanship or an example of literary Stockholm syndrome, the month and a half you spend immersed in Inifinite Jest’s mass, the more mesmerised you become by the compulsive noticing and tortured asymmetry of the narrator’s voice. I would, maybe, take exception to some of the lengthy phone conversations between Hal Incandenza and his older brother Orin. Their reckless and often hilarious badinage can’t disguise the leaden and expository tendencies beneath their dialogue, during which Foster Wallace feels compelled to lay out a setpiece about Hal finding his father after he has committed suicide and the resulting co-dependent relationships Hal establishes with a therapist he didn’t really need to see but felt the need to impress. It is characteristically funny and vivid, but credulity is stretched and sundered by having the two brothers rake over details they are certain to have covered at some point before. Why Foster Wallace didn’t establish this in some other mode, tense or with some other narrator is a bit mysterious, to say nothing of their for no reason anatomising of the nutty history of Québecois separatism.

Coming to the sixty or so page home stretch, and finding Effy Dubbs mid-swing in crafting an account of Donald Gately’s dabblings in the criminal underworld of Boston Massachusetts, I began to doodle idle pleas in the margins for the narrative to get to wrapping up, before it gave way to an utterly stellar scene in which Gately binges on a stash of Substances with a felony-committing friend over a number of days, interspersed with Hal Incandenza’s childhood memories, hashing them over as vividly as your best sepia drenching word artists of nostalgia (like, dunno, Nabokov) while addressing their uncertain origin in a way that is not pretentious, overdone or hackneyed, but in a way that is not a little bit devastating.

But yes, Infinite Jest is really class, fun, funny and profound, and more than repays the amount of attention and time that it demands. It’s a shame that its twenty year anniversary (its set towards the end of last year, one of the background characters sports a Sinn Féin t-shirt, suggesting their prospects in the general election prospects sont bonnes) coincides with a film so devoted to explicating Foster Wallace as a person rather than the book(s) he has produced, because regardless of how complex, interesting he was, (and he was, he really was) having read Infinite Jest I really feel like his persona, let alone his actual, real-world personality, cannot compare with the complexity and intricacy of the questions thrown up by his novel. But, the book is very long and Foster Wallace is an incredibly entertaining speaker and short-form non-fiction writer, so there tis.

 

The beginning of Foster Wallace’s literary career, so the chronology has it, begins with him alienating creative writing professors with Thomas Pynchon influenced post-minimalism, which made use of the theories of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jacques Derrida. This was all done, Foster Wallace later said, in order to project his intelligence onto others and make manifest his academic brilliance. It was also done, he said less often, in order to best Pynchon, and stage an Oedipal confrontation with his most significant influence. But Foster Wallace managed to make something novel of his maximalist pretensions, by subverting one of the key tenants of postmodernism, irony itself. He believed that it had exhausted its usefulness in making meaningful critiques of corporatist, mass-media hegemony (read: ‘The Man’). As he said:

“The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, “then” what do we do? Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone. Once everybody knows that equality of opportunity is bunk and Mike Brady’s bunk and Just Say No is bunk, now what do we do? All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.”

In this attempt to get past irony, Foster Wallace is also earnestly working through his aesthetic framework. How is he to approach writing after a novel as expansive and ambitious as Gravity’s Rainbow? How was one to write with moral certainty after the Great Cultural Decentre-ing of the sixties, seventies and eighties?

The sobriety meetings that he attended for his alcoholism provided him with the answer, and allowed him to write with moral seriousness in a post-ironic milieu. As such, he shares a literary generation with that other great white male of post-postmodernism, Jonathan Franzen. In him and his scepticism regarding all things internet we behold the place Foster Wallace may well have occupied were he alive today, as a punchline for literary thinkpieces. D.T. Max, author of Foster Wallace’s biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, writes that Alcoholics Anonymous, with its platitudes, pseudo-religiosity and lack of engagingly abstract, intellectual schemae initially alienated Foster Wallace. ‘One day at a time,’ ‘higher power’ and ‘just do what is front of you to do,’ seemed insufficient, but as he later said in This is Water: “in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life-or-death importance.” From this willingness to relax his over-active intellect, comes the impulse of post-postmodernism, the attempt to modulate a note of sincerity in a post-Reaganomics America. This tension is also played out in the some of the most engaging sections of Infinite Jest, through the eyes of the Bloomian decent-guy addict Don Gately.

From this impulse comes one of the more even more self-reflexive prose styles of the last few decades. While postmodernism brought us texts bristling with self-conscious possibilities, aware of book as book and author and reader as personae, post-postmodernism represents the author’s attempts to step outside of all this, take the reader aside, rub our shoulders and whisper words like ‘no,’ ‘actually,’ ‘yes,’ ‘please,’ and ‘sad’ in our ears. If you have ever read a recent piece of writing which steps out of its predominant mode to implore you on a point or other, that is Foster Wallace’s legacy. But, what David Foster Wallace didn’t understand about capitalism (he definitely does, in his Charlie Rose interview he discusses the ways in which Burger King sells burgers with the slogan “Sometimes you gotta break the rules”) is that, contrary to what Karl Marx thought, it is endlessly capable of dealing with contradiction. Rather than having contradictions overwhelm it, capitalism might be said to thrive on contradiction. Like the blob monster of many science fiction narratives, capitalism is capable of consuming something which may have posed an existential threat and take on its shape for the furtherance of its vile and tacky enterprise. As such, in the wake of the new sincerity, we get Wackaging ( http://wackaging.tumblr.com/ ) and the blurbs on Innocent Smoothies labels.  There is a section in Infinite Jest which addresses this, in which the reasons why video-calling is not a viable commercial enterprise and how the market steps in to solve the problem it creates. People don’t want video-calling because it requires maintaining one’s appearance on phone-calls, therefore a company begins producing custom-made masks of people at their most attractive. It’s a prescient metaphor for social media and reminds me of how much I wish I could stop marketing myself on various outlets and how transparent and awful all of this stuff is.

(As with all things, there is a PhD to be written on Foster Wallace’s use of the word ‘sad.’ Normally eschewed, I’m sure, by writers of serious literature as being too three-lettered to shoulder the burden of melancholy, depression or despair, far more robust embodiments of human misery; Foster Wallace makes frequent use of it. He was a highly self-conscious user of words, going so far as to begin writing a personal dictionary, and his use of the word ‘sad’ is part of his attempt to rehabilitate sincerity of expression in avant-garde literature.)

There is, furthermore, an extended interview in the footnotes with a former teammate of Orin Incandenza, in which details are provided of Orin’s behaviour in the early stages of his short-term relationships. The interviewee deposes that Orin: “is being almost pathologically open and sincere about the whole picking-up enterprise, but also has this quality of Look-At-Me-Being-So-Totally-Open-And-Sincere-I-Rise-Above-The-Whole-Disingenuous-Posing-Process-Of-Attracting-Someone, -And-I-Transcend-The-Common-Disingenuity-In-A-Bar-Herd-In-A-Particularly-Hip-And-Witty-Self-Aware-Away-,-And-If-You-Will-Let-Me-Pick-You-Up-I-Will-Not-Only-Keep-Being-This-Wittility-Transcendentally-Open-,-But-Will-Bring-You-Into-This-World-Of-Social-Falsehood-Transcendence, which of course he cannot do because the whole opennes-demeanour thing is itself a purposive social falsehood; it is a pose of poselessness; Orin Incandenza is the least open man I know.” In case you haven’t been paying attention so far (no judgement), this sounds eerily congruent with Foster Wallace’s own aesthetic.

And it’s difficult to shake this sense of irony, particularly when it is flagged by the author himself so frequently. For every time honesty, genuineness, moment-being is proposed as ultimate solution, we get an extended, improbable picaresque almost right out of Candide about the various misfortunes that have befallen any given addict/tennis player, albeit with far more instances of sexual assault played for laughs.  Which gets cloying, predictable and yucky. He addresses this intractability in his dishonesty granting him a greater verisimilitude via the film career of Jim O. Incandenza, but it doesn’t bring resolve the short circuit, it only perpetuates it further. To be expected.

In an earlier thing written on The Pale King, I mentioned how conservative Foster Wallace’s vision of generational gaps are, which is all the more surprising considering how much more reflexive his treatment of it is in Infinite Jest. The usual party line of Generation X as a generation of enfeoffed pastry people (in comparison to the Greatest Generation who survived the Depression and fought Hitler, ergo it would be best if Generation X get the opportunity to confront a catastrophe of a similar ilk) is in Infinite Jest, expressed by a disappointed and alcoholic father. I’m willing to attribute the hardening of this perspective into dogmatism by virtue of The Pale King being unfinished. At just under six-hundred pages it had barely started, and easily could have been two and a half times that length, ample time for Foster Wallace to ambiguate his position. At least I hope so.

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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.

Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time V: The Prisoner’ and Albertine’s relationship with Joanna Rakoff’s ‘My Salinger Year’

Warning: This post deals with racy stuff. Use discretion there now.

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.

The character of Françoise in Marcel Proust’s ”In Search of lost Time:’ ‘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.