Tag Archives: The Prisoner

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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Anne Enright Sesh

The Portable Virgin

From the first line in The Portable Virgin, I was reminded of why Anne Enright is so much fun to read. If David Foster Wallace proceeds via disclaimer, Enright proceeds via negation. As successfully as any writer I’m aware of, she makes the reader conscious of what she is not saying, what is withheld. The first paragraph of the first page of the first short story, ‘(She Owns) Every Thing,’ is a time that many other authors would have seen a good opportunity to orientate the reader, set them down, let them know what they’re in for, like many of Enright’s contemporaries do in their own short story collections, like one I recently chucked that I won’t name. Enright, instead, is determined to keep the reader off-balance:

“Cathy was often wrong, she found it more interesting. She was wrong about the taste of bananas. She was wrong about the future of the bob. She was wrong about where her life ended up. She loved corners, surprises, changes of light.”

I think Cathy might have some kind of emblematic significance, as Enright frequently orientates her fiction relative to corners, surprises, changes of light and the hows and whys of people being wrong about them. In pursuit of this, much of what Enright does is based around immersing of the reader within a partial perspective in which words are rarely the words alone, while never being gratuitously fancy about it. In this case, one begins to wonder what corners, surprises and changes of light mean for Cathy, what her interest in rather mundane things in life tells us about her, if this interest relates to how wrong she often is, and, wrong according to who, is she wrong to like corners, surprises and changes of light, and if so, why, if they appeal to her as an individual, how can this preference be, of itself, incorrect, and then before you know where you’re at, corners, surprises and changes of light become invested with some half-metaphorical sheen.

Another example: “the bag of dicks escapes, rolls down a flight of steps, shuffles over to the beautiful young girl and starts to whine. She sets them free.

‘What a peculiar language you speak,’ she said mentally, with a half-smile and a nod, as if her own were normal. ‘Normal’ usually implied American. I am Canadian, she used to say, it may be a very boring country, but who needs history when we have so much weather?”

It might take me about half an hour to parse exactly what I think is happening in the above, and the many different directions in which it cuts, which is not, exclusively what I look for in what I read, but it definitely helps.

The Portable Virgin is riven with these sorts of sentences, fun, impossible, witty sentences. Enright is drawn to and elucidates with undeniable skill things like a ‘quiet disgrace’ (not the kind of volume one would expect to attach itself to disgrace), instances of not having sex with an architect (seventeen instances, by the by) and the zero men on a bus.

 

The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch

A lot of Anne Enright’s critics opine the supposed lack of interiority in her novels. James Wood, writing on What Are You Like?, says that the characters appear as “neurasthenic clowns” and in a review of The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch, Julie Myerson writes that the protagonist, “doesn’t feel so much like a person as a collection of brilliantly dashed off observations, arch comments and frayed titbits of Celto-Latin nymphomania.”

Yes, if you are in pursuit of the Cartesian notion of a human mind, a whirring cog in a clockwork universe, don’t read Enright. Eliza Lynch is not necessarily present in The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch in the way that the title, a very sensual, individually focalised and suggestive one, might lead you to believe. I like to think that Enright might be writing against a particular strain in historical novels which could be evident in novelisations of the life of say, Marie Antoinette, adverb-heavy, YA novelism-laden.

One thing that I think a lot of historical novels which take women as their subjects leave out, probably for commercial reasons, are just how grim, to put it mildly, the past was for women. What we often have is a largely sanitised protagonist and milieu, with one eye to the BBC mini-series, who often tells us more about our contemporary concerns than those of the past. Though I can’t really speak on the exact differences between the two, being alive now, and not having read very many commercially successful historical novels.

Enright does not go in for such sentimentalising of female subjects lost in the mists of time; instead, we have frequent suggestions that none of what we are reading is real. And I don’t mean that in the old-standard postmodernist way, where the author-prosthesis footnotes a text and makes frequent references to how tiresome the endless re-hashing of discordant signifiers are, Enright’s use of this technique is far more radical. At one point the narrator states (with contextual clarifiers, admittedly) that “she cannot relax, because she is not real.” This itching at the reality of Lynch persists with: “Eliza was never alone.” (the tree falling in the forest with no one to perceive it argument) or in the following bald riposte to a narrative event, which appears in parentheses “it was not true.”

This is because in order to survive in the time in which she did, Lynch was forced to ceaselessly reinvent and outfit her self relative to the caprices of male power. A key component of this theme is Lynch’s intermittent descriptions of particular outfits, given witty names such as ‘The Bluebottle,’ (“a grey so dark it is black. Tablier of dull peacock sheen.”) ‘The Housey Housey,’ (“otter-coloured taffeta trimmed with black silk moss”) and ‘The Medea’ (“to be worn with diamonds, when I get them.”).

This awareness of how fraught her life with the Francisco Solano López, president of Paraguay is, how required she is to be always ‘on the move,’ exhausts her, at one point she becomes convinced that there has been a mutiny on the ship on which she is travelling and walks from her cabin “to see who the new masters of my fate might be.” It stands to reason that few reviewers would appreciate the ‘lack’ of Eliza’s identity. Apart from the spectacular language, it is a historical novel that reads like actual an actual history book, where the personages therein have no free will and are determined wholly by circumstance.

 

The Green Road

 

When I went to London, it was important to me that I got to the London Review of Books bookshop. I regularly see the London Review of Books bookshop cakeshop advertised in the London Review of Books, particularly when I want cake, which, true, is most of time. I’m going to go there and get some cake when I’m in London, I always think.

When I got there, I bought a croissant, a coffee and cake (sticky toffee, I believe) all of which tasted much the same as croissant, coffee and cake available on the Emerald Isle. I then went on to fall in love with someone doing not much except sitting and reading, another thing I regularly do in other bookshop cafés closer to home. I went about deciding what book to buy and wondered where it is that Jacqueline Rose or Will Self stands when they give lectures here.

I think I spent about an hour or so doing circuits of the place, trying to figure out what book is the one that you buy when in the London Review of Books bookshop. The shelf stocking method is refreshingly idiosyncratic – rather than having the spines face outward, arranged by size, all running in strict, straight lines, with perhaps the occasional cover facing forward in order to compensate for some troublesome volume that won’t adhere, the books are arranged by genre, alphabetical order and not much else. Spine heights zigzag about the place. This is presumably done in order to simulate the kind of ramshackle, dusty, character-having second-hand bookshop display of a bygone age, which might never have existed, but is nice to think about all the same.

I saw a lot of books I wanted, but none that presented themselves as the one book that you buy when you’re in London, in the London Review of Books bookshop. Mindful of my baggage allowance on the return, I had to be choosy.

I eventually decided the fifth volume of Proust would be the one. I had the first four, Proust was sufficiently prestigious, and may even get the approval of the teller. This would do. While handing it across the till, I saw a display Anne Enright’s The Green Road, in hardback, which I didn’t think was out yet, all signed ‘by the author.’ I changed my mind mid-transaction, and the teller was moderately scandalised.

‘Are you, are you jolly well sure?’ he asked.

‘Yeah man, she’s my favourite living author, it’s signed, no-brainer.’

‘Well it is good, but it’s good in a very silly way, Proust’s world is so rich.’

So here’s the signature, I like that Enright puts a line through her printed name and wrote her own, like a riposte.

 

enright

 

There was a brief period of great optimism among progressives in Irish cultural discourse in the early 90’s. This might seem like a digression, and it is, but bear with me. I don’t have a whole lot of first-hand evidence, my political imaginary wasn’t exactly honed back then, but there is a certain tenor struck in a number of academic publications of the time, books written on the New Voices in Irish fiction, discussing the work of the young up-and-coming writers coming to international prominence, such as Colm Tóibín, the aforementioned Enright and Roddy Doyle. I think that this optimism can be largely attributed to Mary Robinson becoming president at the end of 1990 (or an IRA ceasefire which seemed conclusive at the time), an event which, for many of these academics, (bless them), surely heralded the coming of an Irish socialist matriarchal utopia. This was before the X case, tribunals, and revelations about the Magdalene laundries and child sexual abuse within the church reminded us all how awful we really are.

Much of what these books narrate is the spaces that the new ‘Robinsonian politics’ open up and there is furthermore, much discussion of ‘the fifth province’ and preliminary murmurs of Celtic Tiger discourse. These concerns all get to the heart of The Green Road’s broader societal themes. First, both of Rosaleen’s sons, Emmet and Dan, form a part of that diaspora symbolised in the light in the window kept in Áras an Uachtaráin. For the cosmopolitan Dan and the politically informed Emmet, Old Ireland is an irrelevance and an embarrassment respectively. This comes across when Emmet inwardly apologises to his Kenyan housemate Denholm for not inviting him to Christmas dinner in Ardeevin: “I am sorry. I can not invite you home for Christmas because I am Irish and my family is mad.

The Irish poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill once wrote on the rejection of the sentimentalised figure of Cathleen Ní Houlihan/Dark Rosaleen, saying that she’ll do “anything just to keep this batty old woman quiet.” Ciarán Carson translates this line through his own prism and gives it quite a bit more emphasis, if not necessarily weight:

“anything, anything at all

To get this old bitch to shut the fuck up.”

It can be hard not to envision Rosaleen Madigan’s character as existing in this continuity of writing back against the embarrassing personification of Ireland as a ghoulish old crone, keening mournful demands that the blood of young men be spilled so that she can regain her lost youth. But in The Green Road, we don’t want ‘this old bitch to shut the fuck up,’ Rosaleen gets some of the best lines and scenes in the whole novel, (followed closely by Emmet (‘Mind the Belleek!’)).

I held off on reading The Green Road for a while, despite devouring any and every review of the thing, because I was afraid that it wouldn’t be as good as The Gathering. I was anxious that the conversations The Green Road was having with other texts wouldn’t come off. Just as Rosaleen’s name harkens back to some foundational myths of modern Ireland, her plans to divide the monies acquired through the selling of some land that she owns aswell as her frequent reprimands to her offspring for their perceived ungratefulness evokes King Lear and therebyThe Green Road amounts to an ambitious interfolding of Saxon and Irish mythology, or perhaps more to the point, the blending of William Shakespeare and William Butler Yeats.

One is tempted, when reading such an allegorically flirtatious text, (see also,Hood, Ulysses) to find neat little correspondences for every last detail. My favourite one as regards King Lear was Rosaleen’s daughter Constance describing an affair that she had had years ago:

“’I thought, you know, it would be like jumping off a cliff,’ she said. ‘The big leap.’

‘And?’

‘It was like landing in a fucking puddle. A bit of a splash, that’s all. It was like standing out in the goddamn rain.’”

This chimes with the scene in King Lear in which a disguised Edgar tricks his blind father Gloucester, into thinking that he stands at a cliff-edge, perfectly suited to bring about the death that Gloucester wishes for. Gloucester jumps off a not-very- steep verge and Edgar has to presumably change his voice in order to pretend to be someone else at the base of a cliff, amazed to have seen a man landing in front of him and survive. At a number of points in The Green Road, various members of the Madigan family think of jumping off the nearby cliffs. Hanna imagines doing so with her baby in her arms:

“they twisted slowly in the black air, drifting towards the sea, and then hitting the sea. The water was hard and the baby bounced up out of her arms and they were swamped and sank, both of them, and even that sinking was just a slower fall, as they turned and found each other, and lost each other again.”

The register here is bizarrely epiphanic, with Hanna fantasising about emancipation from her failing career as an actress, her alcoholism and her sensed duty to raise her son responsibility to raise her son, while engaging in a gesture that she seems to believe is a loving one, in some way. Rosaleen thinks similar thoughts, though as more a vindictive reproach to her children.

It’s fairly obvious that the analogues aren’t totally neat, their half-echoes and distorted resonances play in suggestive ways, depending on how long you want to stare at words on a page for. I was fairly sure Constance would be a Cordelia analogue, Lear’s only non-scheming and favourite, daughter. The name was also a bit of a hint. But Constance’s constancy is more a cause of Rosaleen’s ire; Constance’s self-sacrificing gestures just get on her nerves. The mutually assured destruction of their relationship is just one of my many, many favourite things about this novel, they truly sing like birds i’ th’ cage.

Many parts do gel rather neatly. It is during the storm scene in Lear that we begin to feel some sympathy towards Lear, the autocratic patriarch. This is, at least, what was drilled into me by my Leaving Certificate teacher. Lear studies the disguised Edgar and becomes enraptured by his feigned suffering, displaying the kind of sustained interest visible heretofore only when he engages with his flattering daughters at court. Whether it is the case that one feels sympathetic for Lear in this scene, before or after, is beside the point, I think that its analogue inThe Green Road, when Rosaleen walks along the green road on Christmas Day, remembering a conversation with her husband while they were young and ‘courting,’ is certainly the first time we feel sympathetic for Rosaleen. And it is, like the storm scene, utterly unsparing and very, very raw:

“What did it mean, when the man you loved was gone? A part of his body inside your own body and his arms wrapped about you. What happened when all of that was in the earth, deep down in the cemetery clay?

Nothing happened. That is what happened.”

I read what follows in a way that I don’t remember having read anything for years, that is, my eyes moving too quickly over the words to track the significance of each one, or even what the sentences were cumulatively up to, because I was so eager to find out what happened next. I can’t remember the last time I read a book where the momentum of the plot coalesced so successfully with verbiage of the highest order of pulchritude.

Read this book.

 

The Wig My Father Wore

 

1) Lists, generally, are neither sexy nor fun.

2) As far as literary genre goes, I think it’d be safe to say that they are non-entities.

3) They more often serve utilitarian, rather than aesthetic purposes: shopping lists, to-do lists, lists of enemies, etc.

4) This is why it’s fun when writers do them.

5) I’m getting tired of mentioning Big J, but, he probably started it in the following from the twelfth episode of Ulysses, however much, when reading it, we may wish that he did not:

“Thither the extremely large wains bring foison of the fields, flaskets of cauliflowers, floats of spinach, pineapple chunks, Rangoon beans, strikes of tomatoes, drums of figs, drills of Swedes, spherical potatoes and tallies of iridescent kale, York and Savoy, and trays of onions, pearls of the earth, and punnets of mushrooms and custard marrows and fat vetches and bere and rape and red green yellow brown russet sweet big bitter ripe pomellated apples and chips of strawberries and sieves of gooseberries, pulpy and pelurious, and strawberries fit for princes and raspberries from their canes.”

6) On a soon-to-be related note, Anne Enright is very funny.

7) Her novels are among the few that make me laugh in public.

8) When that happens, I read back over it and figure out what it was exactly about that joke that made it work.

9) Bathos and anti-climax are probably the most effective way for a littérateuseto get the laughs in, sudden switches from high falutin’ registers to the colloquial sets up a fairly straightforward atonality, from which hilarity can often result.

10) How reductive is that?

11) Here’s an example because I can’t stand myself:

“’You know what I think,’ she said as I showed her out, ‘about you and men?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Now fuck off Ma and leave me alone.’”

12) Yes, the vulgarity is carrying a lot of the weight in the case, but here’s another to serve what I’m building to:

“It did not agree with Stephen. He ended up calling God on the big white telephone. ‘Gawhhd!’ he said. I slept well.”

13) There is something very definitive about these.

14) Enright’s funniest lines are almost like full stops turned into sentences. Bluntness, finality, terminus, whatever you want to call it.

15) This is why her usage of lists is so fun, the deadening stopgaps of bullet points, finality, off/on, all the places that good art goes to die, are enlivened, mostly because she refuses to use lists for what they are supposedly for.

16) The Wig My Father Wore has a number of lists, which is good, because it allows me to talk about my favourite parts of What Are You Like?, which also uses lists.

17) The Wig My Father Wore is about a lot of things, but one of those things is Grace, who has an angel named Stephen show up on her doorstep, presumably to improve her life.

18) If this all sounds a bit daytime TV, it is, deliberately.

19) I think a lot of Enright’s early fiction was built on taking apparently silly premises, (The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch as a BBC bodice-ripper, or twins separated at birth, and eventually finding one another in What Are You Like?) and making them good.

20) Stephen is a bit of a hopeless case, and doesn’t really do much apart from watch daytime TV and complain about his love life, back when he did have a life in which love was a part.

21) When first making Grace’s acquaintance, he produces a list of questions to ask, which presumably a standard issue for life-coaching angels.

22) From what higher authority they are provided is not made clear.

 

“THE LIST

Did my mother weep, did my father die, did the two happen around the same time and which one caused the other.

Did I leave lightbulbs burning alone, did I draw the curtains at night, did I ever put a plug in a socket just to make it feel happy.

Had I ever pissed myself in public, did I take pleasure in it.

Did I suffer from the feeling that I had left something behind on a train. Is that why I smoked, so I could check my pockets for cigarettes.

Had I ever been overheard in a private conversation. Had I ever put blood on a mirror. During the sexual act did I suffer from regret.

Did beauty disgust me.

Did Jesus Christ die for me.

Did I ever hoard parts of another person’s body, for example a lock of hair.

Had I ever seen a pregnant woman swimming on her back.”

23) As you can well imagine, this doesn’t do a whole lot to help assuage whatever sense of lostness that Stephen is supposed to be there to cure.

24) What Are You Like? is, as said above, about twins, separated at birth. While waiting for the end of the book, which brings their reunion, they spend it trying to find out who they are and get some sort of grasp on their identities.

25) Funnily enough, they both use lists for this purpose.

26) Rose’s first attempt reads as follows:

“She was twenty-one years old. (Probably)

She was studying music. (More or less)

She was a woman. (?)

She was in bed with William/Will/Bill.

She was too full of things.

She was born with a hole in her head, a hole in her life.

Everything fell into it.”

27) In case the punctuative disclaimers didn’t alert you to it already, this attempt is unsuccessful and she tries a second time:

“She started again.

She was Irish.

Her favourite colour was blue.

Her favourite colour was actually a deep yellow, but she couldn’t live with it.

She was English.

She was tidy. She was polite. She hated Margaret Thatcher.

She was a mess.

She was someone who gave things up.

She was someone who tried to give things up and failed all the time.”

28) If lists are generally dry, making one interesting could serve as a sort of a challenge for an author to set themselves, there’s a lot in both of the above examples, in the first, basic punctuation is sufficient in introducing tension.

29) In the second, it is shown how little of who we are reside in basic facts about ourselves.

 

Yesterday’s Weather

 

Critical categorising, academic quibbling over short stories tends to discomfit me more often than not. Convincing sociological explanations for novels proliferate endlessly, but seem a little more paltry when it comes to the short story, which unfortunately seems to depend a bit too often on essentialism and even worse, on national essentialism. It is an obligation, it seems, for authors on the publicity trail of a new short story collection to have to answer some vague, abstract, mealy sort of question about why they think people like short stories, which prompts some vague, abstract mealy sort of response, which rarely defers to more obvious reasons, that people like short stories because they like stories, and perhaps their shortness has something to do with it also.

Descriptions of Irish short stories discomfit me in similar ways, all too often there are things like ‘the Bardic tradition,’ mentioned, seanchaí and, god help us all, Frank O’Connor’s ‘lonely voice in the wilderness,’ as if submerging population groups are less likely to write short stories than the population groups that they submerge. Such delineations were invented, I think, to fluff out the xiii or so required pages to not another anthology of Irish writing.

So, synecdoches of the short story form are essentialising constructs that serve the ends of marketeers, hack critics and writers. Fine. With that in mind, I’m going to try to encapsulate what it is that Enright does with her short stories, based on my reading of Yesterday’s Weather which collects stories from Taking Pictures, The Portable Virgin and one or two that appear in neither.

Enright arranges them in reverse chronological order, as a kind of overt piss-take: “I may be the only one who is laughing, but it is a great and private joke to see myself getting younger – shedding pounds and wrinkles, gaining in innocence and affectation – as the pages turn.” So there is already a kind of retrospective, reverse-lens quality to the collection, even without the title being what it is. As the writing continues, it’s fascinating to watch the style increasingly de-stabilised, as the Nabokovian subversion of artifice, usually kept on the margins of Enright’s overtones, come into conflict with her usual mode, before overwhelming it altogether in the final story, ‘Felix,’ a writing against Lolita: “Felix, my secret, my angel boy, my dark felicity. Felix: the sibilant hiss of the final x a teasing breath on the tip of the tongue…You can always count on a suicide for a clichéd prose style.” That final sentence is a nice touch also, considering The Gathering, written eighteen years later, is about a suicide and is anything but clichéd.

‘Yesterday’s Weather,’ the story this time, not the collection, describes a young couple, Hazel and John, with a newborn. “John. Divorce! Now,’ Hazel, not really joking, jokes at one point. Hazel’s tendency to anticipate the behaviour, thoughts and potential danger the baby (who I think stays unnamed) may end up in all serve as preludes to an argument which ultimately defines their blurry, anxious weekend in Clonmel with John’s parents.

The final paragraph has them making peace: “John drove as though the road could feel his tyres; the tyres could feel the road. The whole world seemed as tender as they were. At Monasterevin, he reached this hand to touch her cheek, and she held it there with the flat of her own hand while, in the back of the car, the baby still slept.” Peace of a sort. I say so because of the baby’s ominous presence, such moments of tranquillity and contemplation are evidently rare and arguments are likely to erupt again once that changes. Such is early parenthood. I think. Hazel and John will only be born ceaselessly forwards, and it in this case that the short story’s shortness serves an imperative function. At ten pages long, it is hyper-compressed to the kind of length that people as harried as Hazel and John are could feasibly assimilate, a moment of stock-taking and retrospection, within the context of the short story: “She tried to think of a number she could ring, or a site online, but there was nowhere she could find out what she needed to know. It was all about tomorrow: warm fronts, cold snaps, showers expected. No one ever stopped to describe yesterday’s weather.”

 

Taking Pictures

Just below there, I talked about Anne Enright’s use of the short story forms as a means of affording space for thought and/or contemplation, signalled by Enright’s self-consciously retrospective focalising. I didn’t mean for this to sound too mindfulness-y, but that’s perhaps inevitable when talking about such things. The reason I think this is relevant to Enright, all the same, is for a particular reason.

When I was reading one of the stories, the salaciously entitled ‘In The Bed Department,’ Kitty, manages to find time between her two adolescent sons and her job to have a brief relationship with a man she meets in a local theatre group. Reading this story, I was reminded of what the poet Marianne Moore once said about unfair aspects of life to the poet Elizabeth Bishop: “One is always having to go to market or drive the children somewhere. There isn’t time to wonder, is this right or isn’t it?” Kitty is trying to work that out for herself, the escalators in the department store in which she works are a striking metaphor for how we order experience and how we categorise what happens to us as good or bad:

“Kitty was suspicious of the escalator, or more properly the escalators, as there were two of them, one falling and one rising…She disliked the push of the motor, and under that, the loose, light clacking sound of something she could not analyse. A chain perhaps, that ran freely deep in the machine.”

David Foster Wallace, speaking on surrealism in the David Lynch film Blue Velvetand in his own writing once said:

“being a surrealist, or being a weird writer, didn’t exempt you from certain responsibilities. But in fact it upped them…whatever the project of surrealism is works way better if 99.9 percent of it is absolutely real…most of the word surrealism is realism, you know? It’s extra realism, it’s something on top of realism.”

In this schema, surrealism is a super-imposed topos, hovering just above the realness of the world, which bears most of the burden of proof.

In Enright’s fiction, it’s almost the other way around, as if Dali-esque archetypes, abstract interiors without individuation find themselves in relatively affluent South Dublin suburbs and “normal” family environments, or at least, in family environments where normality is expected.

As is her wont, Enright returns to the escalator metaphor:

“She could not bear the lopsided sight of the stalled steps, like someone endlessly limping at the other end of the shop floor…They packed around the central pivot like big slices of metal pie, then separated out on the way up, dangling their triangular bases into space.”

She then buttresses it further with boisterous working-class repair men who leave Kitty ambivalent. Such seemingly extraneous detail takes the rather straightforward escalator/categorising of experience metaphor from us and leaves us with a far more intricate and over determined vehicle, never mind all the interrelations of the organic/inorganic in the metal pie, or the radicalism of using such a pedestrian (literally, pedestrian) machine to characterise an inner state.

But Kitty is never stifled by all this. She becomes pregnant as a result of the aforementioned fling, but she doesn’t tell anyone. Most importantly, she deliberately doesn’t tell the man, who makes an awkward, unsuccessful attempt to follow up on their affair in a bungled phone call.

The final paragraph reverses the trajectory of Veronica at the end of The Gathering, who rather spectacularly concludes with: “I have been falling for months. I have been falling into my own life, for months. And I am about to hit it now.”

Kitty: “Her life was changing, that was for sure, though she seemed to be standing still. But, ‘Up or down?’ she wondered. ‘Up or down?’ The children threw the plane back in the air and circled again on the end of its wire. Kitty walked on. It had been a baby, she knew it. She had been visited. How could it be down, when she felt such joy.”

 

The Forgotten Waltz

 

The Forgotten Waltz is narrated by one Gina Moynihan, writing about an affair she embarks on with Seán, a man she meets both through her sister and in her ‘in IT, sort of’ job. Most reviewers have this pegged as a sort of post-Celtic Tiger novel, narrated as it is in the first person in the winter of 2009 in retrospect, when ‘things’ had well and truly ‘slowed down’ and there was a lot of bad snow and the guy slipped on the news.

From Gina’s stately viewpoint, the era of the Celtic Tiger becomes a time of lost innocence. Each chapter is named after a saccharine, nostalgia infused ballads from the fifties, ‘There Will be Peace in the Valley,’ ‘Love is Like a Cigarette,’ ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow.’

There is a kind of irony in this proscribed soundtrack, not least because Gina’s acerbic tone is present throughout, (despite her professed love for Seán, she never seems to have fallen for him), because the Celtic Tiger doesn’t usually get represented as a bygone day of innocence, so much as a tacky era of indulgence and reckless deregulation for which deserved punishment was received. ‘We all partied,’ etc.

With a Bret Easton-Ellis-esque turn, designer label names are sprinkled throughout. Gina’s sister Fiona notices the brand of shoe a lawyer is wearing and Seán’s wife is at one point referred to as ‘Missus Issey Miyake.’ I panicked when I read it as I remembered no character named something so distinctive.

Another thing to notice is how prevalent alcoholism is. In a recent interview, with Miriam O’Callaghan, Enright, speaking on the past quarter-century, says that she hopes that the Irish will one day develop a grown-up view of themselves. I reckon that the prevalence of booze in  The Forgotten Waltz bears this at least partially adolescent quality to Irish society out. No matter how fancy the shoes, tiled kitchens and holiday homes in Ballymoney get, alcohol as hobby remains. It is generally fancy, European booze though, like Campari, Krug and ‘Canadian ice-wine.’ When people drink at the time in the book that I presume in the eighties, it’s just generic naggins of gin or vodka. Guinness never appears, which is progress, I suppose.

Published as The Forgotten Waltz was between The Gathering and The Green Road, its content straddles both. Like The Gathering it takes the form of a sort of an extended justification or witness statement, with the same narratorial self-consciousness that Veronica has. Gina sees the world a lot like Veronica does, but interacts with it very differently. I can’t see Veronica ever saying “Those mango slices are a crime!” at a New Year’s party or anywhere else.

Scenes like the party at Fiona’s house are new territory for Enright, a movement into less claustrophobic environs, from the tortured Nabokovian first person, to third-person comedy set-piece, like the Christmas dinner in The Green Road and its fallout.

Making Babies: Stumbling Into Motherhood

First, I’ll say that the reason I did not read this text in the initial Enright sesh of late 2015, is not because I was dismissive of Enright’s non-fiction. Nor was I dismissive of the parts of her non-fiction which deal with the conceiving, bearing and raising of her babies. I tried to obtain the book when I was making my way through her entire novelistic oeuvre, but after waiting for almost a year on the order waiting list in Hodges & Figgis, I decided to buy a digital copy, as it would seem that Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood, is out of print. My having to wait to long is, as is the case with so many other things, everyone else’s fault.

And I’m glad I got to it eventually, as it is every bit as illuminating, funny and well-written as any of her novels. This is unsurprising. What is surprising, if you picked this book up without knowing who Anne Enright is (which, at the time of the book’s publication, in 2004, might be more likely than not) is what the book is doing on the level of genre. I am, I admit, mostly unfamiliar with books on baby-bearing/child-rearing, but over the course of the two decades I’ve spent in the houses of people who buy newspapers, I’d take a look at lifestyle sections, coldset magazines, and this, coupled with an obsessive devotion to a number agony aunt columns, gives me a sense of the kind of ‘market’ that Enright has side-eyed here.

The book opens with aporia, an apology for its existence; the motivation to collect and expand the smattering of essays which form its backbone seems to have sprung from an outraged sequence of reactions in the Guardian letters page to a few of her thoughts on motherhood. Enright caustically observes that she probably “should be talking dimple, gurgle, puke-down-the-back-of-my-Armani-jacket.” Enright knows better than anyone how political it is to insist on when, where and how a woman should be speaking.

It is a hybrid work, in a sense, and sits on the boundaries between memoir/essay/fiction at a number of points, particularly when Enright’s Woolfian sensibility, attention to perception, light and the flux-y relationship between subject and object, shines through. The freshness which seems to attend to the way in which her children see the world empower these descriptive passages quite a bit, and give Making Babies some of its best moments:

“I wonder if this is the way that the baby sees things: vaguely and all at once. I imagine it to be a very emotional way to exist in the world…I imagine colour leaking into her head like a slowly adjusted screen — tremendously slow…the world simple and new as we all stop to admire the baby admiring a wrought-ion candelabra with peculiar dangly bits and five — yes five! — glowing, tulip-shaped bulbs.”

There wouldn’t be a great profusion of family journalism imaginatively dealing with the phenomenology of perception, he says in his ignorance, certainly not as much as there is judgemental tut-tut literature, that reprimand mothers for their impulse control, or not buying enough stuff. This too, Enright rails against, and its tremendously refreshing. As there is one massive oversight that this sub-genre overlooks, and that is class, something that Enright skirts around at many points in the text, building to the last chapter/essay, when Enright discusses her depression, and attempted suicide. She finds it difficult to see it as an event separable from her growing up as a young woman in Ireland in the eighties, a time when Ireland ‘broke apart:’

“The older I get the more political I am about depression, or less essentialist — it is not because of who you are, but where you are placed. Ireland broke apart in the eighties…the constitutional row about abortion was a moral civil war that was fought out in people’s homes…with unfathomable bitterness.”

The current trend in The Discourse is to make the political personal, but intellectual, probing and vivid works such as Enright’s, remind us that it cuts both ways, that the personal too, is political.

 

Anne Enright Sesh Part 3: The Green Road

When I went to London, it was important to me that I got to the London Review of Books bookshop. I regularly see the London Review of Books bookshop cakeshop advertised in the London Review of Books, particularly when I want cake, which, true, is most of time. I’m going to go there and get some cake when I’m in London, I always think.

When I got there, I bought a croissant, a coffee and cake (sticky toffee, I believe) all of which tasted much the same as croissant, coffee and cake available on the Emerald Isle. I then went on to fall in love with someone doing not much except sitting and reading, another thing I regularly do in other bookshop cafés closer to home. I went about deciding what book to buy and wondered where it is that Jacqueline Rose or Will Self stands when they give lectures here.

I think I spent about an hour or so doing circuits of the place, trying to figure out what book is the one that you buy when in the London Review of Books bookshop. The shelf stocking method is refreshingly idiosyncratic – rather than having the spines face outward, arranged by size, all running in strict, straight lines, with perhaps the occasional cover facing forward in order to compensate for some troublesome volume that won’t adhere, the books are arranged by genre, alphabetical order and not much else. Spine heights zigzag about the place. This is presumably done in order to simulate the kind of ramshackle, dusty, character-having second-hand bookshop display of a bygone age, which might never have existed, but is nice to think about all the same.

I saw a lot of books I wanted, but none that presented themselves as the one book that you buy when you’re in London, in the London Review of Books bookshop. Mindful of my baggage allowance on the return, I had to be choosy.

I eventually decided the fifth volume of Proust would be the one. I had the first four, Proust was sufficiently prestigious, and may even get the approval of the teller. This would do. While handing it across the till, I saw a display Anne Enright’s The Green Road, in hardback, which I didn’t think was out yet, all signed ‘by the author.’ I changed my mind mid-transaction, and the teller was moderately scandalised.

‘Are you, are you jolly well sure?’ he asked.

‘Yeah man, she’s my favourite living author, it’s signed, no-brainer.’

‘Well it is good, but it’s good in a very silly way, Proust’s world is so rich.’

So here’s the signature, I like that Enright puts a line through her printed name and wrote her own, like a riposte.

 

enright

There was a brief period of great optimism among progressives in Irish cultural discourse in the early 90’s. This might seem like a digression, and it is, but bear with me. I don’t have a whole lot of first-hand evidence, my political imaginary wasn’t exactly honed back then, but there is a certain tenor struck in a number of academic publications of the time, books written on the New Voices in Irish fiction, discussing the work of the young up-and-coming writers coming to international prominence, such as Colm Tóibín, the aforementioned Enright and Roddy Doyle. I think that this optimism can be largely attributed to Mary Robinson becoming president at the end of 1990 (or an IRA ceasefire which seemed conclusive at the time), an event which, for many of these academics, (bless them), surely heralded the coming of an Irish socialist matriarchal utopia. This was before the X case, tribunals, and revelations about the Magdalene laundries and child sexual abuse within the church reminded us all how awful we really are.

Much of what these books narrate is the spaces that the new ‘Robinsonian politics’ open up and there is furthermore, much discussion of ‘the fifth province’ and preliminary murmurs of Celtic Tiger discourse. These concerns all get to the heart of The Green Road’s broader societal themes. First, both of Rosaleen’s sons, Emmet and Dan, form a part of that diaspora symbolised in the light in the window kept in Áras an Uachtaráin. For the cosmopolitan Dan and the politically informed Emmet, Old Ireland is an irrelevance and an embarrassment respectively. This comes across when Emmet inwardly apologises to his Kenyan housemate Denholm for not inviting him to Christmas dinner in Ardeevin: “I am sorry. I can not invite you home for Christmas because I am Irish and my family is mad.

The Irish poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill once wrote on the rejection of the sentimentalised figure of Cathleen Ní Houlihan/Dark Rosaleen, saying that she’ll do “anything just to keep this batty old woman quiet.” Ciarán Carson translates this line through his own prism and gives it quite a bit more emphasis, if not necessarily weight:

“anything, anything at all

To get this old bitch to shut the fuck up.”

It can be hard not to envision Rosaleen Madigan’s character as existing in this continuity of writing back against the embarrassing personification of Ireland as a ghoulish old crone, keening mournful demands that the blood of young men be spilled so that she can regain her lost youth. But in The Green Road, we don’t want ‘this old bitch to shut the fuck up,’ Rosaleen gets some of the best lines and scenes in the whole novel, (followed closely by Emmet (‘Mind the Belleek!’)).

I held off on reading The Green Road for a while, despite devouring any and every review of the thing, because I was afraid that it wouldn’t be as good as The Gathering. I was anxious that the conversations The Green Road was having with other texts wouldn’t come off. Just as Rosaleen’s name harkens back to some foundational myths of modern Ireland, her plans to divide the monies acquired through the selling of some land that she owns aswell as her frequent reprimands to her offspring for their perceived ungratefulness evokes King Lear and thereby The Green Road amounts to an ambitious interfolding of Saxon and Irish mythology, or perhaps more to the point, the blending of William Shakespeare and William Butler Yeats.

One is tempted, when reading such an allegorically flirtatious text, (see also, Hood, Ulysses) to find neat little correspondences for every last detail. My favourite one as regards King Lear was Rosaleen’s daughter Constance describing an affair that she had had years ago:

“’I thought, you know, it would be like jumping off a cliff,’ she said. ‘The big leap.’

‘And?’

‘It was like landing in a fucking puddle. A bit of a splash, that’s all. It was like standing out in the goddamn rain.’”

This chimes with the scene in King Lear in which a disguised Edgar tricks his blind father Gloucester, into thinking that he stands at a cliff-edge, perfectly suited to bring about the death that Gloucester wishes for. Gloucester jumps off a not-very- steep verge and Edgar has to presumably change his voice in order to pretend to be someone else at the base of a cliff, amazed to have seen a man landing in front of him and survive. At a number of points in The Green Road, various members of the Madigan family think of jumping off the nearby cliffs. Hanna imagines doing so with her baby in her arms:

“they twisted slowly in the black air, drifting towards the sea, and then hitting the sea. The water was hard and the baby bounced up out of her arms and they were swamped and sank, both of them, and even that sinking was just a slower fall, as they turned and found each other, and lost each other again.”

The register here is bizarrely epiphanic, with Hanna fantasising about emancipation from her failing career as an actress, her alcoholism and her sensed duty to raise her son responsibility to raise her son, while engaging in a gesture that she seems to believe is a loving one, in some way. Rosaleen thinks similar thoughts, though as more a vindictive reproach to her children.

It’s fairly obvious that the analogues aren’t totally neat, their half-echoes and distorted resonances play in suggestive ways, depending on how long you want to stare at words on a page for. I was fairly sure Constance would be a Cordelia analogue, Lear’s only non-scheming and favourite, daughter. The name was also a bit of a hint. But Constance’s constancy is more a cause of Rosaleen’s ire; Constance’s self-sacrificing gestures just get on her nerves. The mutually assured destruction of their relationship is just one of my many, many favourite things about this novel, they truly sing like birds i’ th’ cage.

Many parts do gel rather neatly. It is during the storm scene in Lear that we begin to feel some sympathy towards Lear, the autocratic patriarch. This is, at least, what was drilled into me by my Leaving Certificate teacher. Lear studies the disguised Edgar and becomes enraptured by his feigned suffering, displaying the kind of sustained interest visible heretofore only when he engages with his flattering daughters at court. Whether it is the case that one feels sympathetic for Lear in this scene, before or after, is beside the point, I think that its analogue in The Green Road, when Rosaleen walks along the green road on Christmas Day, remembering a conversation with her husband while they were young and ‘courting,’ is certainly the first time we feel sympathetic for Rosaleen. And it is, like the storm scene, utterly unsparing and very, very raw:

“What did it mean, when the man you loved was gone? A part of his body inside your own body and his arms wrapped about you. What happened when all of that was in the earth, deep down in the cemetery clay?

Nothing happened. That is what happened.”

I read what follows in a way that I don’t remember having read anything for years, that is, my eyes moving too quickly over the words to track the significance of each one, or even what the sentences were cumulatively up to, because I was so eager to find out what happened next. I can’t remember the last time I read a book where the momentum of the plot coalesced so successfully with verbiage of the highest order of pulchritude.

Read this book.

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 VI: The Fugitive’: ‘In Search of Lost Time’ as speculative fiction

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.

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.