Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Spiraling Sentences and Runaway Clauses

I have made it halfway through the Overture (Part One in my version, which was revised in 1992 by DJ Enright) and thought I'd share some thoughts. In an earlier post, Luisa referred to the "spiraling subordinate clause glory" of the Proustian sentence. This is an excellent description--Proust's sentences are glorious and after reading them for a period of time, I feel light-headed and dizzy. They circle back upon themselves, clauses that describe clauses that were referring to earlier clauses. The most remarkable aspect of this is at the end of a paragraph/sentence, I know exactly what he's talking about.

Speaking of long sentences, I would like to enter my current favorite in the longest sentence in literature contest:

"But I had seen first one and then another of the rooms in which I had slept during my life, and in the end I would revisit them all in the long course of my waking dream: rooms in winter, where on going to bed I would at once bury my head in a nest woven out of the most diverse materials--the corner of a my pillow, the top of my blankets, a piece of shawl, the edge of my bed and a copy of a children's paper--which I had contrived to cement together, bird-fashion, by dint of continuous pressure; rooms where, in freezing weather, I would enjoy the satisfaction of being shut in from the outer world (like the sea-swallow which builds at the end of a dark tunnel and is kept warm by the surrounding earth), and where, the fire keeping in all night, I would sleep wrapped up, as it were, in a great cloak of snug and smoky air, shot with the glow of the logs intermittently breaking out again in flame, a sort of alcove without walls, a cave of warmth dug out of the heart of the room itself, a zone of heat whose boundaries were constantly shifting and altering in temperature as gusts of air traversed them to strike freshly upon my face, from the corners of the room or from parts near the window or far from the fireplace which had therefore remained cold;--or rooms in summer, where I would delight to feel myself a part of the warm night, where the moonlight striking upon the half-opened shutters would throw down to the foot of my bed its enchanted ladder, where I would fall asleep, as it might be in the open air, like a titmouse which the breeze gently rocks at the tip of the sunbeam;--or sometimes the Louis XVI room, so cheerful that I never felt too miserable in it, even on my first night, and in which the slender columns that lightly supported its ceiling drew so gracefully apart to reveal and frame the site of the bed;--sometimes, again, the little room with the high ceiling, hollowed in the form of a pyramid out of the two separate storeys, and partly walled in mahogany, in which from the first moment, mentally poisoned by the familiar scent of vetiver, I was convinced of the hostility of the violet curtains and of the insolent indifference of a clock that chattered on at the top of its voice as though I was not there; in which a strange and pitiless rectangular cheval-glass, standing across one corner of the room, carved out for itself a site I had not looked to find tenanted in the soft plenitude of my normal field of vision; in which my mind, striving for hours on end to break away from its moorings, to stretch upwards so as to take the exact shape of the room and to reach to the topmost height of its gigantic funnel, had endured many a painful night as I lay stretched out in bed, my eyes staring upwards, my ears straining, my nostrils flaring, my heart beating; until habit had changed the colour of the curtains, silenced the clock, brought an expression of pity to the cruel, slanting face of the glass, disguised or even completely dispelled the scent of vetiver, and appreciably reduced the apparent loftiness of the ceiling."

And now I swoon...

I have found Swann's Way is best enjoyed early in the evening when I can snuggle in my favorite reading chair with a mug of Sleepytime Tea and devote myself to the task of reading. Monsieur Proust doesn't conform himself to my typical protocol for book-reading. He does not like to be half-attended to while the pasta is stirred or dropped in on for a few quick minutes while waiting for the bus. Instead, he demands my utmost concentration and respect. And if I give him these things, he rewards me handsomely with images of beauty seen through the crystal prism of Combray. So, a bit demanding, but worth it.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Proust Says Exactly What I Mean...

I'm about halfway through part one...and I thought I'd quickly stop in to post one of my (so far) favorite quotes. Do you know that delicious feeling of reading something and immediately recognizing it? That's how I felt when I read this, like he was saying something I've been trying to say for a long while...

"And in myself, too, many things have perished which I imagined would last for ever, and new ones have arisen, giving birth to new sorrows and new joys which in those days I could not have forseen, just as now the old are hard to understand."

This, to me, is a terrific description of that transition I went through when I got married and became a mother. As a teenager, I'm sure that we all went through our little dramas and felt like we were so grown up - we knew exactly what our lives were supposed to become...and then, as they say, life actually happened. Things that used to be so important and vital to my happiness faded in comparison to taking care of my boys and maintaining a solid relationship with my husband...at the same time, having the new responsibilities opened up a whole new world of worry and work (because even though everyone told me that marriage is hard work, I really didn't understand that, hey - marriage is hard work. That compromise stuff comes into play, like, almost every day! ). I suppose that's enough elaboration at the moment...I just really, really liked that sentence!

(I'm discovering that Proust makes me go into a reflective mode - he talks about his bedrooms and I'm mentally going through all of my own bedrooms...I've been thinking about those houses and towns that made an impression on my childhood memory...is anyone else finding this to be an effect of Combray?)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Ig-nert Question From a True Texan

I must reveal my lack of French-y sophistication (or really any sophistication). Is the first book pronounced "swan", as in the swan floating in the new lake in my backyard after this nor'easter? Or is there another pronunciation? Not knowing this has kept me from bragging to everyone I see that I have undertaken such a monumental reading challenge. Please advise...

Monday, April 16, 2007

Providing An Antidote to the H&R Block Waiting Room Blahs

The reasons I love books are vast and varied - but sitting in the waiting room of H&R Block today, dreading the inevitable tax angst (and berating myself for once again procrastinating until the last minute), I experienced one of the best aspects of reading. I was able to whip out my copy of Swann's Way and let the lime green walls of H&R Block fade out of my mind. Being transported into another place and time by language is a wonderful thing...particularly when dull 'grown-up' tasks loom over me.

When I read Luisa's first post about Proust, my curiosity was sparked. I checked Swann's Way out of the library, read the first few pages, and got on-line to order my own copy. I'm an under-liner, a post-it pro, and I love being able to make a book mine. And it only took a few pages to figure out that Proust is something to experience. So the first two volumes (Moncrieff/Kilmartin translation) arrived a few days ago and that waiting room was my first opportunity to really delve in. To be quite honest, I was sort of hoping that there would be a line, so that I could do just that.

I live in a small town where I don't have access to much literary discussion or book clubs...so I am pretty ecstatic at this opportunity to bounce around thoughts on these books as we read through them.

And now, while my kids are still completely fascinated by the puzzles I just pulled down from their closet shelf, I will return to Combray.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Just the Facts, Ma'am

When I got home from the gym this afternoon, two smiling boxes were waiting patiently on my front porch. Inside, amongst the other tag-a-longs, I found my first three volumes of In Search of Lost Time. All the covers are quite sensual: Swann's Way has a rumpled bed bathed in afternoon light; Within a Budding Grove has a blue-eyed girl resting her porcelin cheek against same rumpled bed; The Guermantes Way has a string of pearls lying on a cinnamon-colored table and disappearing into the fuzzy horizon. It made me instantly want a cup of Celestial Seasonings' Mandarin Orange Spice tea and a snuggly chair to curl up in (oh, what did I ever do with that Papasan?).

Just so we all know what we've gotten ourselves into--the first three volumes together measure four inches in height, weigh 3 lbs 5 oz and consist of a daunting 2155 pages. An interesting factoid from the introduction-- In Search of Lost Time contains the longest sentence written in the history of literature (I thought that was to be found in Ulysses, but perhaps that sentence only feels like the longest). There is also a parlor game in which people challenge one another to diagram this sentence. Luisa, you go first.

I guess I can't say I wasn't warned. But for now, I better go. I hear the tea kettle whistling in the kitchen and Papasan or no, I've got some reading to do.

Step one: purchase book

I finally bought the book! At least the first volume -- Swann's Way, the 2004 Lydia Davis translation. I based my decision on aesthetics. If I have to lug a big book around with me for months (for it will take me months to read) it had better be beautiful. That it's the most recent translation is a side benefit, though who knows if that means it's the best translation.

You know those people who show up to book group not having read a page of the assigned book? I remember one such woman who then went on to declare that she didn't even like reading that much. Well, I'm the opposite. I'm supposedly in a book group, at least I get the e-mailed announcements. And I read the assigned book. But I never make it to the actual meeting. That's why I love this online book group. I'll read the book... eventually. But I don't have to make special arrangements so I can travel to some inconvenient location in Brooklyn on a Tuesday night.

Months ago I read Golden Country by Jennifer Gilmore and was swept away into her world. Since then I've been craving more fiction (I went for a long time without reading fiction) but have been flummoxed by all the choices. This one? That one? How to decide? I just needed a little shove in one direction.

I always loved reading as a child but stuck with picture books a little longer than most kids because I didn't want to give up the illustrations. Once I started chapter books, though I was obsessed with narrative. Madeline L'Engle especially -- remember those books? Later on in middle school I would get in trouble for reading novels during math class. Couldn't put the book down.

Sorry for the rambling post. It's 3 a.m. here. My son isn't sleeping well tonight and so now I'm not, either.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Why I Love Books

Amazon.com. (Deep inhale, satisfied sigh.) I just ordered my copy of Swann's Way, Within a Budding Grove and The Guermantes Way translated by CK Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. While on the site, I also ordered Story of the World Vol. I CD set and activity book for the kiddies and The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays for me. I just can't seem to stop myself. What is it about books that I love so much?

Books are miracles, really. What other human endeavor allows someone far away or long dead to whisper in your ear and tell you how the sun feels in Algeria or how a madeleine tastes (we really must get the recipe). Good authors fill the movie screen of your mind, make you feel the chill of a cold rain, the pain of grief, the joy of a new-found love. Books also connect to the selves we once were and show us glimpses of who we can become.

I remember falling in love with reading as a fourth grader at Northampton Elementary School. My kooky teacher, Ms. (you better believe it) Moss created a reading cubby in our classroom with four bookshelves set in a square. She filled it with bean bag chairs and throw pillows. I had a favorite bean bag--lilac, I remember, but it wasn't the color that made it my favorite. It had just the right amount of styrofoam beads inside to make a comfortable cocoon around me as I propped a book on my knees and twirled an errant strand of bangs with my right index finger. In that bean bag chair, I read A Wrinkle in Time, The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel), The Westing Game, The Great Brain. I also remember reading a lot of Greek mythology --Medusa and her stony stare, Prometheus and his eagle trouble, Hercules and his to-do list.

In junior high, my best friend Jodi Atkinson and I discovered the pleasures of the Harlequin romance novel. We borrowed them by the hundreds from the library and brought them with us when we worked as Candystripers in the gift shop at Northwest Medical Center. Instead of helping customers, we sat huddled on our stools behind the counter and read about Drake and Destiny's passionate/on-again off-again love. How far away that life felt from Spring, Texas.

I have other fond reading memories: Gone with the Wind read on the sunny balcony of my first apartment; Coming Up for Air read in the wake of an organic chemistry final exam; For Whom the Bell Tolls read in a single weekend while coiled up on the Papsan chair I shared with my white cat, Sebastian; David Copperfield read in a Bermudian cabin while on a stolen weekend with my husband, Samuel. My all-time favorite reading memory happened when I was a junior in high school. I was up late finishing Animal Farm. As I turned to the last page, my father poked his head into my bedroom, probably to tell me to turn off my light. I must have had a look of pure astonishment on my face (Those pigs!) because he said, "It's good, isn't it?" Oh yes, it's good. There is no pleasure like reading a truly great book for the first time.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Last night I read the Overture, getting more excited with each page I turned. The writing is even lovelier than I remembered. Proust's Overture to his more-than-a-million-word work functions in the same way as does an overture to an opera or a musical; it introduces the style and dominant themes that will be developed throughout the piece.

Some of these themes (as I see them) are:

the simplest pleasures may be the most intense;
the senses are a truer guide through memory than is the mind;
there are significant attractions and perils related to indulging passions, especially those forbidden by societal norms;
objectivity is impossible as we examine ourselves and others;
navigating 19th-century social class structure was an 'extreme' sport best left to daredevils;
and even the most obsessive attention to detail will not lead us to true knowledge of someone or something.

Proust's imagery is unsurpassed: "I would lay my cheeks gently against the comfortable cheeks of my pillow, as plump and blooming as the cheeks of babyhood." The narrator's grandmother removes stakes from the rose tree, "as a mother might run her hand through her boy's hair after the barber has smoothed it down, to make it look naturally wavy." And of course, the famous madeleine passage, which gives our blog its title. Gorgeous!

Grammatical aside: if Christian gets fiesty at all during summer school this year, I may well set him to diagramming some of Proust's sentences, in all of their spiraling subordinate clause glory.

Co-authors, please feel free to post (as opposed to commenting on my posts) whenever you feel so inspired. I won't comment again on my reading until everyone has her book in hand and is ready to go. In the mean time, I'll scout out some peripheral Prousty goodies (edible and non- ) for us all.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

A Memory of My Own

The photo was taken in August 1993 in Illiers-Combray, the little village near Chartres that Proust used as the setting for RTP. I was six months pregnant with Christian, our oldest child. Patrick had just graduated from law school, and we celebrated by taking a three-week trip through Paris, the Loire valley, and French-speaking Switzerland. Since we hadn't had any time or money for such things three years earlier when we got married, we pronounced this trip our official honeymoon, and it has become one of our most cherished memories. From my journal on that day:

We reluctantly left [Chartres Cathedral] at about 2 o'clock and headed for Illiers. I was very gratified to see that Illiers looked just like the Combray that Proust describes in Remembrance of Things Past. The hawthorne hedge, the old church--P took a picture of me in front of a plaque. We had a lovely late lunch in Illiers, then got on a poplar-lined country road south to Chambord.


I recently stated my intention to re-read Marcel Proust's mammoth work A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, known in English either as Remembrance of Things Past (RTP) or as In Search of Lost Time (ISLT). Since then, busy moms like me have been coming out of the woodwork to let me know they would be willing to join in the fun. How exciting!

As I mentioned on my other blog, I'm reading the 1981 translation by Terence Kilmartin and C.K. Scott Moncrieff--mainly because this is the version I read 20 years ago, and it's the version I own. Plus, the covers are very pretty. However, this version is now out of print. You can find it used, or you can choose one of two other English translations:

In Search of Lost Time. Translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin. Revised by D.J. Enright. New York: The Modern Library, 1992.


In Search of Lost Time. General Editor: Christopher Prendergast. London: Allen Lane, 2002

Just so you're clear: RTP/ISLT is really a series made up of 7 books. Their titles are, in order:

1) Swann's Way (or The Way by Swann's);
2) Within a Budding Grove (or In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower);
3) The Guermantes Way;
4) Cities of the Plain (or Sodom and Gomorrah);
5) The Captive (or The Prisoner);
6) The Fugitive; and
7) Time Regained (or Finding Time Again)

I suppose if you're really fabulous, you could read it in French. If so, the rest of us will admiringly lay roses and laurels at your feet.

This blog will serve as a virtual Reading Group for its members, with newcomers, commenters, and lurkers always welcome. We'll read as we can and write as we feel prompted. Allons-y!*

*I hereby promise in future to keep my Frenchifying to a bare minimum.