Friday, July 20, 2007

Harry Potter and the Cult of the Aesthetes

Ever since Readercon, I’ve been thinking a lot about the various reasons why I read. I’ve never been a lover of short stories in general, but I went to a couple of different panels that caused me to re-examine this long-standing prejudice. I bought a couple of collections and anthologies and have been dipping into them in exploratory fashion. I’m even considering trying to write a short story or two—just as an experiment.

As a small child, I read for two reasons: a) for pure, blissful escape; and b) because I received positive reinforcement for it. I knew reading was something smart people did; I wanted to show how smart I was, so I read. Some books I read because they were long. I wanted my vacation from reality to be as long as possible; this is probably why I developed a dislike for short stories early on.

Other books I’d pick off the shelf purely because they looked ‘hard.’ Often the reading of a hard book was its own reward; the text might be a challenge, but the exposure to new ideas, tropes, and styles was commensurate.

When I was a junior in high school, the fact that I was carrying a Herman Hesse paperback on top of my stack of textbooks convinced the Honors History teacher to let me into his already overfull class. It was pure happenstance that I was reading Steppenwolf at the time, but I learned a valuable social lesson that day—that of the book as accessory.

I began noticing what other people were carrying around and formed conclusions about them accordingly. Judging people by their book covers seemed a handy window into the souls of others, but it had a dark side; fearing presumptions that might be made about me, I started censoring what I read (at least in public) as well. I was a teenager; I felt compelled to be conscious of what I was communicating to others.

I was already familiar with this shorthand in other forms—T-shirts, locker decorations, bumper stickers—attractors as blatant as those displayed in nature by frigate birds and bullfrogs. “This is how I define ‘cool,’” these things say to those who encounter them.

My boyfriend my senior year caught my attention in precisely this fashion. One day in September, I, with my peroxided, spiky hair and torn jeans, slunk by a cadre of tall, tan, chlorine-blond members of the water polo team, mentally sneering at them before they could snub me first.

“Heyyyyy!” one called out to me. I braced myself for the inevitable teasing by jocks that my hairstyle invited in our cow town. Instead, he held out the bottom of his shirt, distorting the already stylized features of Sting, Andy, and Stewart. I knew that image; I was wearing its twin. “I was at that concert, too,” the impossibly handsome boy crowed. He crossed a strict social border purely because of what I was wearing; we became close friends and dated for over a year as a result.

In college, books were more valuable shibboleths than T-shirts, affording a subtlety that those in high school had lacked. One really smart guy inspected my shelves when I had him over for dinner at my apartment. He pulled my copy of Swann’s Way down, noting the creases in the paperback spine. “Wow,” he said. “I can tell you’ve actually read this.” He put it back and took Ulysses off the shelf, flipping to the pages I had dog-eared, nodding and smiling. Apparently I met with his approval; he proposed not many days afterward. (I turned him down; I didn’t think I could take the pressure of constantly maintaining those lofty standards.)

I helped Patrick paint his bedroom not long after I met him. I wasn’t surprised to see all the black-clad Penguin paperbacks that form the core curriculum at his alma mater, but I was glad to see the same edition of The Lord of the Rings I own. I won’t lie and say that didn’t affect my judgment of him for the better. Knowing that he was familiar with Tolkien was icing on his delicious cake.

Living in Manhattan brought exhilarating freedom from worries about what other people thought about my taste in reading. On any given day on the subway, the overwhelming range of reading materials being avidly perused brought me a comforting sense of anonymity. Happily married, loving the adventure of self-discovery against the backdrop of the fabulous City, I allowed myself to read for pure joy again.

Adriana admitted in a recent comment that she’d been ‘cheating’ on Proust. If that’s the case, I’ve got a serious issue with serial infidelity; I’ve read at least twenty books since we started reading In Remembrance of Things Past together. When it comes to books, I’m like one of those perennial bachelors played in movies by people like Vince Vaughn. Commit? To just one? But what about all the others? There’s no way.

My taste in books has always been eclectic. Diana Gabaldon one day, Graham Greene the next, Orson Scott Card the day after that. For me, reading is like eating (in many ways). Mexican food is great, but would you eat it to the exclusion of French or Ethiopian? I guess some people do just that. But I never could.

I re-read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince yesterday to prepare for tonight’s unveiling of Book Seven. The great pleasure I derived from doing so is vitally different from, but no less than, the ongoing enjoyment of reading Proust. Marcel’s exquisite attention to the finest detail, his incisive social criticism, his fervor for art, all set in sentences of intricate hypotaxis like burnished jewels—they make a savory feast indeed.

But Marcel will wait patiently in the wooden box at my bedside tomorrow as I blaze my way through J.K. Rowling’s latest and greatest ice cream extravaganza; I’ve promised Christian that he can have The Deathly Hallows first thing Sunday after church.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Ceci n'est pas une poste.

I PROMISE, I actually do have a real post coming. It would have been up today if I hadn't had to remove a giant tick from Tess's neck this morning. I'm still shuddering from a little PTSD.

But Jane Brocket posted something Prousty yesterday, so I thought I'd put the link up.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007



(I'm re-starting the second book now....honest....still reading! Just....slowly.)

Friday, July 6, 2007

Anybody out there?

Hello??? Hello???

Echo! Echo!

Are we still reading?

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Proust appears on the Daily Show

I'm making progress through Swann's way, coming up with post ideas that keep getting tossed aside. But I had to mention Wednesday night's Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Does anyone else watch? I sometimes watch online. Anyway...

At the end of the episode there was a little exchange with Stephen Corbert, who made some aggressive jabs at the Daily Show. Jon told him there was no need for such hostility. Stephen replied, "As the writer Marcel Proust said, 'Need to is different from likey to.'" Jon questioned Stephen's quote (not to mention pronouncing the name "prowst"). "Prowst really said that?" "Through what he didn't say." Stephen replied, "That's what made him such a great writer. King of subtext. He also said, but I'm not saying it, 'you could lose a few pounds.'"

Catch the literary mayhem here:

And maybe one of these days I'll have something more intelligent to post.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Look who's coming to dinner

Now that it is summer, and I have been gardening without the protection of a wide-brimmed hat, I have been having strange fantasies. Specifically what would Mr. Proust, aka the narrator of Swann's Way, be like in real life? Or better yet what would it be like to have dinner with him and a tableful of my favorite authors? (Cue flashback harp music and rippling visual effects).

At the head of the table is moi. This is my fantasy so I get to look like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, complete with retro eye liner, beehive hairdo, long black gloves and fabulous dress. To my left is Marcel. He has complained about the chill in the room in his high-pitched whining voice so many times that we broke down and lit the fire even though it is eighty-five degrees outside. This is still not enough for him, so he wraps his mother's shawl around his thin shoulders and warms his hands over a candle. Next to him is Ernest Hemingway--I know, I know. It was a naughty trick to put those two together, and I am now regretting it. Ernest has decided to forgo the formality of a wine glass and clenched in his fist, he has a bottle of Jack Daniel's, which he takes slugs of at regular intervals. He has already caused Marcel to burst into tears once this evening by calling him a "pussy" and threatening to "kick his ass." If there is another such incident, I may have to intervene.

Beside Ernest is George Orwell (Eric Blair). He arrived late as usual, offering a profusion of apologies and a bunch of roses, which I believe came from my front hedge. His hair is greasy, his nails filthy, but his aristocratic English accent is so lovely and charming, I cannot resist him. You can always tell an Eton man. Must find a subtle way to remind the others to steer the conversation away from the current political climate or we'll have another hour and a half diatribe. Nothing kills a good dinner party quite like an Orwellian anti-fascist screed. Poor George, though. He is telling a perfectly lovely story when a dinner roll pops out of his shirt pocket. He pretends it had fallen in there by accident, but we are all aware of his "scavenging." Luckily, he is sitting next to Albert Camus so there are plenty of cigarettes for him to bum. Albert is in a brooding mood tonight. I can barely make out his bored countenance behind a thick blanket of cigarette smoke, but am pleased he is at least making the effort to nod his head from time to time in response to Charles Dickens who is relating yet another story from his childhood. When he gets going, all dinner conversation must come to a halt for the difficulty of being heard over his booming voice. Charles's stories are so entertaining, but they do tend to go on, often ending with him scratching his great wooly beard and murmuring, "I did have a point to this. What was it, exactly?"

To my right, Agatha Christie and Stephen King are giggling over their extra-rare steaks. Due to last month's unfortunate incident, I have supplied them with plastic cutlery and left the chairs on either side of them empty. I know they were only being playful, but the others complained, particularly Marcel, and he did have a point this time, what with the stitches and all.

Still for all their quirks, my guests can spin a good yarn. All too soon, it is time for dessert and coffee. Agatha immediately offers to serve and runs into the kitchen. She returns moments later, grabs a brown bottle from her handbag then darts out again. Stephen smiles, and I am immediately suspicious. Marcel is listing his many allergies and describing in great detail how it feels at the precise moment when his congestion becomes a sinus infection. Ernest has moved on to absinthe after polishing off the Jack Daniel's and has been leering at me for some time. I am thankful that Marcel sits between us, though I know he will really be of no help if things get out of hand. Agatha returns to the dining room with a pot of coffee and a wicked smile. Stephen puts up a hand in refusal as does everyone at the table. Agatha glares at each of us in turn. "What? No coffee?" She slams the coffee pot on the table and sulks back to her seat. The table cloth sizzles and dissolves into smoke where the coffee has spilled.

Albert who has been silent for the entire evening chooses this moment to turn to George and say, "So, what do you think of the Patriot Act?" George's face lights up. Albert inhales deeply on his cigarette and smiles across the table at me. The rest of us moan and contemplate the coffee. Suddenly, it doesn't seem so bad after all.

Friday, May 11, 2007

How does he do it?

I have been very bad about reading over the past few weeks--please forgive me. I have recently been embroiled in a local squabble and, being conflict-phobic, have been unable to concentrate on anything of any density including the black hole that is Swann's Way until the squabble was resolved. Now that I am no longer perseverating on the stupidity of our local leaders, I have settled down four nights in a row and read. What a treat. It's like getting a brain massage.

I have always been the kind of reader who doesn't crease the spine of a book--no underlining or page folding, a real paperback Nazi. And yet here I am with dozens of dog ears, paragraphs highlighted, exclamation points and astericks in the margins of Swann's Way because I am shocked to see my own personal thoughts descibed so vividly. These are thoughts that I have always chalked up to my own eccentricities, tricks of the mind and body that are mine alone because they can never be truthfully rendered through language, and yet page after page, I am astonished to discover that I am not alone inside my skin, but that my experience is the same as a man who died nearly a hundred years ago who spoke a different language and lived in an entirely different world than mine. There is something that connects us all, isn't there?

Here are a few of my favorites:

"And then my thoughts, too, formed a similar sort of recess, in the depths of which I felt that I could bury myself and remain invisible even while I looked at what went on outside. When I saw an external object, my consciousness that I was seeing it would remain between me and it, surrounding it with a thin spiritual border that prevented me from ever touching the substance directly; for it would somehow evaporate before I could make contact with it, just as an incandescent body that is brought into proximity with something wet never actually touches its moisture, since it is always preceded by a zone of evaporation."

"For even if we have the sensation of being always enveloped in, surrounded by our own soul, still it does not seem a fixed and immovable prison; rather do we seem to be borne away with it, and perpetually struggling to transcend it, to break out into the world, with a perpetual discouragement as we hear endlessly all around us that unvarying sound which is not an echo from without, but the resonance of a vibration from within."

"Sometimes it would even happen that this precocious hour would sound two strokes more than the last; there must have been an hour which I had not heard strike; something that had taken place had not taken place for me; the fascination of my book, a magic potent as the deepest slumber, had deceived my enchanted ears and had obliterated the sound of that golden bell from the azure surface of the enveloping silence."

As someone who is learning to write, I have been trying to analyze Proust's technique. How is he able to capture an image, a feeling, a moment so precisely with nothing more than words, translated words, at that? One thought I have had is his sentence structure has a lot to do with the power of his descriptions. His famously long sentences allow him to pick a thing apart and hold its elements to the light, all while keeping that tension of an unfinished sentence as the forward momentum. The many clauses also serve, I think, to further fine tune the point he is making or the description so the reader is left with a crystal clear image. However, this style is so different from the way most modern books are written, I wonder if this were to be published today, how well would it do? The current wisdom is keep the descriptions to a minimum; cut out anything that doesn't lead to the advancement of plot; lean, hard language is what the people want. I guess it says something about our society where we have such a hard time enjoying the beauty of life.

Speaking of the beauty of life--Happy Mother's Day to all you mothers out there.