Sodom and Gomorrah: Part I & Part II: Chapter 1 (3.4.14)

To pick up Sodom and Gomorrah is to be shocked at the homophobia of Proust. He begins with a fairly representative metaphor of climbing, self-fertilizing flowers as he describes the Jupien-Charlus congress but quickly moves on to crasser language. He calls the men monkeys and he is so repetitious in his references to Charlus's girth that he uses "potbellied" twice on the same page (for unknown reason he also compares black people to lions). There is a three page long paragraph that employs the least interesting prose I've found ISOLT, a series of huffy prepositional phrases and circular reasoning.

When the Narrator speaks obliquely of Gilberte and Albertine I wished desperately that the focus would shift to these more "appropriate" relationships, in which Proust puts aside his self-loathing and goes back to being the best writer of all time. 

Dictionary consultations:

embonpoint: the plump or fleshy part of a person's body, in particular a woman's bosom...I mean, THIS is why it's good to look shit up--the meaning, the pronunciation, the fact that Proust is referencing the Baron de Charlus--just outstanding.

vibrio: bacteria possessing a curved rod shape, several species of which can cause foodborne infection, usually associated with eating undercooked seafood...this will make me look smart in front of the doctor who's just told me I ate bad John Dory.

girandole: an ornamental branched candlestick or lighting device often composed of several lights...sort of a boring definition until you remember Proust makes it a metaphor for a blue jellyfish.

deliquescent: becoming liquid or having a tendency to become liquid...a bit obvious but he was talking about poetry here.

bordereau: a detailed memorandum, especially one that lists documents or accounts...this one I'm afraid is just boring.

Most humorous moment:

It's only fair that after being the butt of so many cruel Proustian descriptions in the opening pages of the book, M. de Charlus spits the most vicious diatribe of the book at the expense of Mme de Saint-Euverte (apparently Proust lifted the speech word for word from Robert de Montesquiou). Charlus describes the lady's gait as follows: "she still frisks about on those venerable hams!"  Every time she opens her mouth he's concerned that "somebody's burst my cesspit." And as for her garden parties, Charlus insists she watches over them as an "indefatigable street walker."

And all of this said a few feet from the lady in question. Well done, Charlus.

Most fabulous splash of color:

The homophobic self-loathing of Sodom and Gomorrah's opening movements is also notable for its colorlessness. From the first 120 pages of the book, a few glimmers of blue are about the best colors I can find.

The narrator describes the sick Swann: "His face was marked with small speacks of Prussian blue, which appeared not to belong to the world of the living..." Prussian Blue is never a good thing, as the prominent white nationalist pop group can attest.

Most interesting outside reading tidbit:

Proust is everywhere. As part of my continual need for distractions (mistresses, really) to accompany my abiding love, I picked up Alejandro Zambra's Bonsai:

"The first lie Julio told Emilia was that he had read Marcel Proust."

The lie is that he read all of Proust in one summer! Poppycock. Inconceivable that anyone could move fasted than I am. Emilia then lies back to him about having read In Search of Lost Time. I would have at least hedged and said I only got through Swann's Way, just as I say I've seen Tokyo Story when in fact I've never finished a film of Ozu's.

Julio and Emilia claim to be rereading Proust together when in fact they are reading it for the first time. I am rereading Proust via this log and I swear I'm not lying about that. As much as I admire the sprawl of Proust I am increasingly (consequently?) drawn to novellas and Bonsai is trimmed back right to the pith of a love story. I don't want to be someone who must lie about having read ALL of Proust. That's what year two of my year of reading Proust is all about. As Julio says, "It's one of those books that we will reread forever." So what if they only got to page 372 of Swann's Way together.

Concept I am stealing for my own work:

While Proust's overcompensating hatred for "inversion" is distressing to read, it is significant that he writes about gay sex at all. There are small details of gay life to be treasured, for instance the barely visible bracelet the Baron wears on his wrist that confirms his homosexuality for the narrator. Throughout ISOLT I've found Proust's eyes to be sharpest when it comes to Charlus, and that is probably because he's so intent on running the man down.

Thus I think it is well to catalog all the details of those I loathe in order to one day excoriate.

The Guermantes Way: Part II (1.26.14)

In 2013, there was no more striking representation of time flying than when I looked up and saw I hadn't posted in the Proust Log for six months. I cast The Guermantes Way aside, searching always for slimmer volumes, shorter sentences, fewer references to Louises.  I left the book in the sun and went away for a long weekend and the cover had discolored. I feel badly about all these things.

But in Year 2 of The Year of Reading Proust I am going to finish the job!

I'm wrapping up this volume, and I swear up and down that I read the whole thing. I did, it's just that the last 200 pages were a May to January romance. With Sodom and Gomorrah I'll back to my weekly (okay, bi-weekly) tricks. As far as I remember that one gets straight into the gay sex, which is nice.

Dictionary consultations:

suzerainty: occurs where a region is a tributary to a more powerful entity which controls its foreign affairs while allowing the tributary vassal state some limited domestic autonomy...the better term here is overlordship.

febrifuge: a medication that reduces fever...and the name of the medicine I'm going to develop to compete with NyQuil.

pharisaical: marked by hypocritical censorious self-righteousness...Proust uses it in reference to anti-Dreyfusards, but it could apply to most talking heads currently employed at ESPN.

formol: a 10% solution of formaldehyde in water; used as a disinfectant or to preserve biological specimens...not recommended: doing Google image search of this word.

quenelle: a mixture of creamed fish, chicken, or meat, sometimes combined with breadcrumbs, with a light egg binding...oh man, this was added to the list before the kerfuffle over the other quenelle, which is not delicious.

ortolan: a rite of passage for French gourmets has been the eating of the Ortolan: tiny birds—captured alive, force-fed, then drowned in Armagnac—were roasted whole and eaten that way, bones and all, while the diner draped his head with a linen napkin to preserve the precious aromas and, some believe, to hide from outlawed, shockingly, but sure to pair nicely with foie gras. 

enfeoff: To invest with a feudal estate or fee...I imagine this is related to that most happy word to pronounce: "fiefdom." 

myosotis: the flowering forget-me-not...which is a much better name than myosotis.

Most humorous moment:

While I was hardpressed to keep up the pace with the second half of The Guermantes Way, there were many laughs in the drawing rooms at those endless dinner parties.

Here's the Baron de Charlus showing Marcel he's no anti-Semite: "Perhaps you could ask your friend to get me invited to some attractive festival in the temple, a circumcision, or some Hebrew chants." Bloch really takes a beating throughout ISOLT.

And now the Narrator using a classic gambit to get Albertine in bed with him: "You know, I'm not in the least ticklish. You could tickle me for a whole hour and I wouldn't feel a thing." The pink globe of her cheeks quickly leads to the quick development of "a horny tusk." Sadly, he does not conclude the encounter by telling her that, if she pets it, it might spit at her.

The chaster affair of Marcel and Albertine would be of little interest to Mme de Guermantes who despairs: "I've got a footman who's in love with a little slut and goes about sulking if I don't ask the young lady to quit her streetwalking profits for half an hour to come and have tea with me!" Yee-owch.

She continues in the same vein by shooting down the Princess of Parma on the topic of some haute bourgeoisie scion or other: "A good looking boy, I believe?" "No he looks just like a tapir."

Most fabulous splash of color:

Proust describing an evening as a passing epoch: 

"Like the dead leaves on the ground, the clouds in the sky were following the wind. And a flock of migrant evenings, their various layers--pink, blue, green--made visible by a sort of conic section cut into the sky, were stationed there in readiness for departure to warmer climes." It reminds me of the wavering beauty when Fitzgerald's "fire-red, gas-blue, ghost-green signs shone smokily through the tranquil rain."

After he's back inside, the Narrator comes to a profound realization: "...our social life, like an artist's studio, is filled with abandoned sketches depicting our momentary attempts to capture our need for a great love, but what did not occur to me was that sometimes, if the sketch is not too old, we may return to it and transform it into a completely different work, possibly more important than the one we had originally planned." My computer is file after file of abandoned sketches and I hope each time I leave my home that I might find the right colors to complete them.

Most interesting outside reading tidbit:

My first moments of disloyalty to Proust (which led to several other affairs) came when I read a book written by the man a friend referred to as "the new Proust": Karl Ove Knausgaaard. The Norwegian's writing is sort of the opposite but it goes down much faster (Knausgaard's endless descriptions of Scandinavian cleaning products and their application were absorbed in a week). He also lacks Proust's willingness to at least thinly veil his characters and risks being sued and divorced and hated by his friends. But I assume Knausgaard would be fine with that, as things like children are contemptible distractions from one's real work, the creation of art.

I hope that in acknowledging my mistakes and coming back to the Proust Log, I will deny the temptation to let My Struggle: Volume Two distract me from Sodom and Gomorrah.

Concept I am stealing for my own work:

I always need fresh motivation to continue writing, so here's Mme de Guermantes on the topic of writers who don't produce enough work: "My cousin follows the same pattern as the constipated writers who present us with a one-act play or a sonnet every fifteen years. The sort of things people call little masterpieces, little jewels of nothing--the sort of thing I really hate, in fact."

Too cruel Marcel. But I am working on my constipation.

The Guermantes Way: Part II (8.9.13)

One forgets that there is nearly as much writing about obscure French military movements in The Guermantes Way as there is about the beaches of Balbec in the rest of ITSOYGIF. What's more, to my mind anyway, Marcel himself speaks aloud with the young officers at Doncieres at greater length than anywhere else in the book so far.

It is nice to enjoy these rhapsodic passages about Robert Saint-Loup--later in the book he's yet another of the fallen ("sexual inverts") that were apparently general in Parisian high society. Robert contributes to the confusions of lusts in the air when he refers to the roaring sodomite Baron de Charlus as "an old womanizer." Jupien does not appreciate being called a woman, thank you very much. 

Dictionary consultations: 

sinople: what a fabulous can mean green OR red, perfect for Christmas. 

adrinople: the internet does not know what this word it and you get a place in Turkey and references to ISOLT (though contextually it must be some furniture thing). 

villeins: a peasant (tenant farmer) who was legally tied to a lord of the manor...the drones who help with the Guermantes hive. 

parterre: a formal garden constructed on a level surface, consisting of planting beds arranged to form a pleasing, usually symmetrical pattern...delightful, I will have one in my palace gardens one day. 

aigrette: the tufted crest or head-plumes of the egret, used for adorning a headdress. The word may also identify any similar ornament, in gems...of course Proust is using it in the sense of precious stones but I love that it is the tufted crest of the egret only--other birds with head-plumes can go ahead and find a different word. 

phlogiston: a hypothetical substance formerly thought to be a volatile constituent of all combustible substances, released as flame in combustion...haha, silly Proust, that's not a real thing! 

vatic: describing or predicting what will happen in the future...e.g. "most of my vatic utterances turn out to be pessimistic." 

paschal: like around Easter or Passover...or whatever. 

bluestocking: an educated, intellectual woman...fabulous, I'm going to really impress all the bluestockings I know when I start referring to them by the proper term. 

Most humorous moment:

Often the humor deployed in the novel is more high-minded but there is a "yo momma" joke quality to the insults Mme. de Guermantes directs at regular punching bag Mme. de Cambremer:

"'You're right, she doesn't look like a cow. She looks like a whole herd of them...Believe me, I was hard put to it to know what to do when I saw those cows come lumbering into my drawing room in a hat asking me how I was. I had half a mind to say: "Please, cows, there must be some mistake. How can we possible be acquainted? You're a herd of cows."'"

As if that's not enough, Oriane continues, "She has a girth on her like the Queen of Sweden." That Scandinavian royal generates about as much respect in the Guermantes set as Roseanne Barr does amongst a cappella singers. 

Most fabulous splash of color:

I'm tempted to include Saint-Loup's bespoke, pink military britches but there is an even better bit of fashion writing when Marcel describes Mme. de Guermantes' outfit one morning when he was doing a little light stalking (later in this volume there's a nice moment where she tells Marcel "I sometimes see you in the morning" and it gets real awkward).

"Meanwhile, she was drawing nearer: unaware of this far-reaching celebrity of hers, her narrow, refractory body, which has gleaned nothing of it, was arched forward beneath a violet surah scarf; her sullen, bright eyes looked ahead absently and had perhaps caught sight of me; she was biting the corner of her lip; I watched her adjust her muff, give some money to a beggar, buy a bunch of violets from a flower-woman, with the same sort of interest I should have shown in the brush strokes of a great painter at work."

M. Proust, when you mention that great painter you're talking about you. The glory of following those blue-violet strokes, each separated by a semicolon. The color of her eyes and the morning sky are inferred by the violets that bracket them. 

Most interesting outside reading tidbit:

Chantal Akerman made a version of La Captive, a book that awaits later this year. Because I am a big boy and not afraid of spoilers, I watched it recently. Her approach is so different from Raoul Ruiz' Time Regained that it's hard to believe they share source material. As I lamented earlier in the Proust Log, Ruiz saw how difficult it is to do a straightforward presentation of Proust in his own day and Akerman found a way around that. 

La Captive is contemporary, color-leeched and dry, with the Marcel figure (called Simon) quietly controlling the activities of the Albertine figure (called Ariane). The film is a fair take on what it would be like if you stripped all the lush description from the book and just described the Narrator's actions in a spare, Robbe-Grillet way. Then, the narrator is just an extremely creepy stalker. And so I give you Simon.

That's not to diminish many wonderful details, like the fact that Simon's tie is terribly aligned at the bottom (and it never matters because he never takes off his suit jacket) and the dazzling variety of neutral color dresses Ariane deploys. 

Concept I am stealing for my own work:

I must, of course, address the extended aquatic metaphor that flows from Proust in the early in The Guermantes Way. On the top of page 32 in my edition there appears the phrase "marine grottoes," followed by "water nymphs" and from there it is, as they say, ON. My highlights:

"...rising toward the light, they allowed their half-naked bodies to emerge as far as the vertical surface of the half-light where their gleaming faces appeared behind the gently playful foam of their fluttering feather fans, and beneath their purple, pearl-threaded coiffures, which seemed to have been bent by the motion of incoming waves..."

"...some aquatic demigod, whose skull was a polished stone, around which the tide had washed up a smooth deposit of seaweed, and whose gaze was a disc of rock crystal."

"Over her hair, reaching down to her eyebrows and continuing lower down at her throat, hung a net made up of little white shells that are fished from certain Southern seas, mingled with pearls, a marine mosaic barely emerging from the waves and every so often plunged back into darkness..."

I recommend all of these descriptions to people who want to watch Pirates of the Caribbean films instead of reading.

Sure, Proust is playing with a seven volume novel but I think it's worth following a thread until it is completely exhausted. The only thing I could ask for at the end of the dense opera sequence is a couple more ocean similes.

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower: Part II: Place-Names: The Place (5.27.13)

When I close my eyes I often see these roses. They're in the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and I ran into them the summer I read ITSOYGIF for the first time. I have not linked to my picture because not only was there no Instagram, there was not even a digital camera in my hands. But it seemed a blessing to see them and I even got a honey bee in the frame. Proust: "Albertine's cheeks in purplish-pink blush, creamy, like certain roses with a waxy sheen." So they are.

My favorite lines from Albertine the fictional character are when she gives young Marcel a piece of her mind. "'Well, you got a good look at here,' unmollified by the fact that she was the one I was now taking a good look at. 'You looked as if you wanted to paint her portrait.'" In the closing pages of ITSOYGIF, Proust runs through many different ways you can paint such a portrait.

The gallery moves from Elstir's watercolors (including a scandalous appearance from Odette) to the constant pastels by way of the Impressionists to even the Cubist faces here: "Nor is this inevitable surprise the only one that awaits us: there is another sort that comes not from the disparate stylizations of the remembered and the real, but from the difference between the person we saw on the previous occasion and the one we have before us today, seen from a new point of view and now showing a hitherto undisclosed aspect. The human face is truly like that of a god in some Oriental theogony, a whole cluster of faces side by side..." 

Dictionary consultations: 

titivate: to make decorative additions; to spruce up...not the same as titillate but still fun to say. 

madrepore: any of various stony corals of the order Madreporaria, which includes the reef builders of tropical seas...Proust uses the beach at Balbec as the madrepore from which the gang of girls sprout, like exotic corals! 

scumble: to make (as color or a painting) less brilliant by covering with a thin coat of opaque or semiopaque color applied with a nearly dry brush...I've read this poem but never actually knew what scumble meant. 

zoophytic: any of various invertebrate animals, such as a sea anemone or sponge, that attach to surfaces and superficially resemble plants...attached to those madrepores! 

bacchante: a female follower of Bacchus...lady Bacchuses, obvs. 

diabolo: a juggling prop consisting of a spool which is whirled and tossed on a string tied to two sticks held one in each hand...this kid is still cooler than I was at that age. 

papilionaceous: having a corolla (as in the bean or pea) with usually five petals that include a large upper petal enclosing two lateral wings and a lower carina of two united a butterfly?? 

bucentaur: the state galley of the doges of Venice...sick boat bro! 

buhrstone: a siliceous rock used as a material for millstones...that's...pretty boring. 

poltroonery: mean pusillanimity...which is like cowardice right? here's the sample sentence I found:
"Nature’s own sacred voice heard once more athwart the dreary boundless element of hearsaying and canting, of twaddle and poltroonery, in which the bewildered Earth, nigh perishing, has lost its way."

Most humorous moment:

Sure there's the whole Dreyfusard thing but in the small details Proust doesn't do the Jews many favors in the book. After Albertine has already lispingly derided them as "the children of Isssrael," here is the Narrator on Bloch's sisters: "overdressed but half naked, managing to look both languid and brazen, resplendent and sluttish." Ouch. It's worth noting that young Marcel does not seem to find his favorite little band of girls whoreish in the least, and he would know. Still, it's a delightful phrase for some Spring Breakers--resplendent and sluttish.

Most fabulous splash of color:

But wait, there's another style of art to be explored at the end of ITSOYGIF:

"One evening it would be an exhibition of Japanese prints: beside the flimsy cutout of the sun, red and as round as the moon, a yellow cloud was a late against which black blades, and the tree on its bank, were silhouetted; a bar of soft pink, in a shade I had not set eyes on since my very first paintbox, swelled like a river, with boats seemingly beached on both sides of it, looking as though waiting there to be refloated."

With the hundreds of color words Proust has at his disposal, it's fantastic that he selects red, yellow, black and pink in this sentence. He enforces the oversimple, "my first paintbox" nature of the prints with their bracing contrasts between primary colors. 

Most interesting outside reading tidbit:

Despite the promising first title in the volume ("Pederasty"), I'm lukewarm to the new Penguin collection of Proust's poems. The exclamation-point-to-all-other-punctuation-mark ratio is way out of whack. In the first section of poems one mainly senses how much Proust would like a certain Daniel Halévy to touch his penis. "O cruel king, young killer, / Overwhelming sire of the heavy sleep of sweat." There are many more such sickly sweet images to come.

The dashed off quality of the lines makes sense when reading the footnotes to the poems--they are almost all mailed to others as additions to letters. I think of the pages of Proust's ISOLT manuscripts, covered over with endless rewriting and then I think of the quick doodles in his notebooks. 

Concept I am stealing for my own work:

In case I was not sufficiently scared of getting hit by a bus before finishing my life's work, which is (probably) not to be found on a powerpoint deck, there's this:

"The person who would be stricken by grief if they were to die sits waiting for them at home, when the book, as yet unrevealed to the world, in which they see the point of their whole life, still lives only within their fragile brain."

It strikes me that the brain may be fragile in the physical sense, just a bit of jelly in my skull, but also fragile in the motivational sense, as days rush by without a jot of my novel being written. Until my richly deserved lottery win I'll have to content myself with the knowledge that my book need not be anywhere near as long as ISOLT.

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower: Part II: Place-Names: The Place  (4.29.13)

I have been lazing around the beach at Balbec, not keeping pace with my Proust Log and even falling behind the reading schedule. Like a child from Wichita who has fallen behind on her Bible study, I am consumed by guilt and endeavor to do better.  

Dictionary consultations:        

educe: to bring out or develop (something latent or potential)...I'm going to get better at educing word definitions by the time I'm done reading Proust. 

korai: a sculpture representing a standing young woman clothed in long robes, especially one produced in Greece...old school hotties.

intaglio: techniques in art in which an image is created by cutting, carving or engraving into a flat surface...e.g. the work by my homie Albrecht Dürer.

jehu: a driver of a coach or cab...not the King of Israel, unless the King of Isreal were also a cabdriver. 

percaline: a fine cotton fabric, usually glazed, used especially for linings and in the bindings of an inveterate book buyer this term is especially useful.

: a flag-like object used as a military standard by units in the Ancient Roman means little sail!

bezique: a 19th-century French melding and trick-taking card game for two players...a forerunner of pinochle, for all the pinochlers reading along today.

demirep: [rare] a woman of bad repute, especially a prostitute...James Grieve really had to dig deep in his thesaurus for whore-y words.

caravanaserai: was a roadside inn where travelers could rest and recover from the day's journey...just a fabulous word--next time I stop at a Howard Johnson I'm gonna drop that on the desk clerk to show my MFA dominance.

nugatory: of no value or it's not related to nougat then.

: a loose outer robe worn by women in ancient Greece...Proust is obviously in his Classical phase this week. 

Most humorous moment:

After numerous lusty thoughts about various milk maids, fisherwomen and train attendants, the young Narrator finally springs out of a carriage on a late Paris evening to chase some tail...sadly for him the feathers belong to Mme Verdurin, who is of course delighted that he would so exert himself to say hello to her.

I'm sure Marcel made it up to himself by directing his coach to the brothel and paying young boys to masturbate in front of him on his Aunt Leonie's old couch. 

Most fabulous splash of color:

The grand hotel in Balbec was different than a Holiday Inn Express in Barstow.

"It's furnishings were also very different, including armchairs embroidered in filigree and embossed with pink flowers, which seemed to be the source of the fresh and pleasant smell on encountered on entering. At that late-morning moment, when rays of sunlight came in from more than one aspect and seemingly from other times of day, breaking the angles of the walls, setting side by side on the chest of drawers a reflection from the beach and a wayside alter of colors as variegated as flowers along a lane, alighting brightly on the wainscot with the warm tremble of folded wings ready to fly away, warming like bathwater a country mat by the little courtyard window, which the sunshine festooned like a vine, adding to the charm and the decorative complexity of the furnishings by seeming to peel away the flowered silk of the armchairs and unpick their braidings, that room where I loitered for a moment before dressing for our outing was a prism in which the colors of the light from outside were dispersed, a hive in which all the heady nectars of the day awaiting me where still separate and ungathered but already visible, a garden of hopes shimmering with shafts of silver and rose petals."

To enter a hotel room and be moved to poetry by the upholstery instead of being frightened to touch the chairs and comforters because they might be covered with years of drifter semen....Brilliant movement in his passage, out the window, into the light and sea, all the way back to Combray and the variegated flowers beside the line. The image of the prism is perhaps an expected one but then Proust hits back with the surprising shafts of silver and rose petals, mixing the quality of light, the flowered silk and the roses along the Guermantes Way.
Most interesting outside reading tidbit:

I've been to New York to see Proust's own handwriting. The most important thing to know about visiting the small Proust room in the confusingly boxed Morgan Library & Museum is that one need not feel badly for not reading French. The prose is so messy it might as well be in hieroglyphics.

The first four of the 25 or so notebooks in the collection are remarkable--the skinniest notebooks I've ever seen. The first ISOLT sketches are made with three or four words per line, running illegibly down the page. I have no idea how he would carry such a notebook, unless he had quite a tall pocket inside his overcoat. The covers appear to be hand-painted with slim figures of fin de siècle swagger. It's something of a relief to see that he moves on to substantial ledger books after the effete notebooks of his youth are exhausted.

A bonus treat is seeing a charming photograph of Marcel with his mother and brother. Proust looks like something of a swell and his mother wears a disapproving look. But it's Marcel's brother who really looks like a dandy--the self-satisfied lean coming out of the frame. 

Concept I am stealing for my own work:

The introduction of Baron de Charlus is perhaps the finest collection of telling details I've ever read. Before the man even appears Saint-Loup tells a fun story about a man who comes on to Charlus and is stripped naked and whipped bloody...because the Baron does not condone such advances. The Narrator first compares the dark figure of Charlus to a hotel thief but then gives some deliciously revealing sartorial hints about the man in black. He picks out an almost imperceptible green racing stripe on the sides of Charlus' trousers (which corresponds with a line on his socks) and there is a humorous moment where the Baron shoves the colored edge of a pocket square back into his pocket, "like a prudish woman," hiding his plumage.

Beyond his suppressed dandyism, Charlus commands respect and my favorite action in the sequence is when he perceives the Narrator is about to step out of the room and extends two fingers towards him without looking. Here Proust tells us that the roving bird's eyes "study all the points of the compass" at once. To have such a gift...
In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower: Part I: At Mme. Swann's  (4.5.13)

This entry is a memory of remembering. My copy of ITSOYGIF still had original Post-It flags on the pages I wanted to write about in my first reading. This week I came across this passage below, the first occurrence of that characteristic Proust experience: a gasp of personal recognition followed by a period of reflection on a buried memory. The movement fits perfectly on the last 17 lines of page 161 in the new Penguin edition.
"I had just dashed off a furious letter to Gilberte, being sure to place in it the life buoy of a few apparently casual words to which she could cling if she wanted us to make up; but then, in a quite different moods, I dashed off another, full of loving words, in which I savored the touching sweetness of certain forlorn expressions such as Never again, so moving for the one who writes, yet so boring for the one who reads, either because she suspects them of being false and translates Never again as This very evening, please or because she thinks they are true and sees in them the promise of the sort of lifelong separations that we accept with utter indifference when dealing with people we do not love. But since we are unable, while we love, to act as the worthy predecessor to the next person we are going to be, the one who will no longer be in love, how could we accurately imagine the state of mind of a woman who, even though we knew we meant nothing to her, has always figured in our sweetest daydreams, a figment of our illusive wish to fancy a future with her, or of our need to heal the heart she has broken, whispering to us things she would have said only if she had been in love with us?"

I read this page in the first months of 2006 in Las Vegas, NV. It was probably only in the 80 degree range but I remember the pounding heat through the sliver of the blackout window shade in my room. At the breathless end of the last sentence I threw myself back in self-dramatizing despair, my face pressed into the red corduroy of a deep-seated Ikea chair. I only got into that chair for serious reading, long afternoons with two or three books. 
A couple weeks before getting stuck on this page I'd been in writing school residency in Vermont, in the real winter. Looking down at my bare feet I remembered the last walk back under some flurries, the new flakes melting on the surface of my shiny black loafers. How pleasant it is when you're sad to take gulps of needle-cold air. The crunch of snow and swallowed sea urchins, the melodramatic self-talk: I can't go on/I must go on. Back in the dorm room I listened to the aluminum bat on baseball rattle of the antiquated radiator, the perfect background noise for dark reflections deep in the night.
I was in the headspace that Proust is best at describing: after the affair, before the recovery, on the knife edge of love and anger. Like the Narrator, I felt a strangling nostalgia for being in love the previous summer and calibrated my emails accordingly. For every resigned phrase a counterweight of hopefulness (I believe there was a blindingly allegorical anecdote about hiking Red Rock Canyon and finding the blue and green trickle of stream in the wide desert).
I never stopped daydreaming that reply: This very evening, please. And, never getting one, I hoped for that Albertine to take the place of that Gilberte.


In preparation for another trip East this week I had occasion to copy some files to a thumb drive. On the only one I could find I found emails sent from this period in my life. There's no chance I'll read them, yet. Perhaps the next time through Proust, if I'm ready to see the buoys in all that melancholic water. 

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower: Part I: At Mme. Swann's  (3.13.13)

My stars, one must never try to rush Proust...I'm 120 some pages into ITSOYGIF and we're still in Paris. I think it must be time to hit the beach already but the Narrator is still getting all he can from his invitations to the Swann abode. Even in these passages I do not recall from my previous reading there is consolation from the author. Here he is talking about a passage from Vinteuil's sonata but also about his own book:
"...and the phrase we passed by every day unawares, the phrase which had withheld itself, which by the sheer power of its own beauty had become invisible and remained unknown to us, is the one that comes to us last of all. But it will also be the last one we leave. We shall love it longer than the others, because we took longer to love it."
Critical breaking news update: We've reached dry humping culmination! Behind the hedges in the park with Gilberte, Marcel reports: "I shed my pleasure." Afterwards, the odor was a little "musty." We've all been there, brother.
Dictionary consultations:      

plenipotentiary: invested with full power...I have always wanted to know that word.

squireen: a gentleman in a small way...what a fabulous definition--one's life is full of squireens.

repine: to express discontent or to long for something...I can't say certainly which definition is called for in the book, but M. Norpois speaks the word so I take some solace from the fact that he doesn't know either.

sesquipedalian: given to or characterized by the use of long words...well I should have known that bit of self-reflexive mockery. 

ukase: a proclamation by a Russian emperor or government having the force of that is some random shit.

[I wanted to make the joke that Lydia Davis was nicer and used smaller words than James Grieve in her translation but I think it might actually be true...] 

equerry: an officer of a prince or noble charged with the care of horses...if you don't know a definition look for root words! 

fustian: high-flown or affected writing or speech...a word that applies to more or less every person Marcel meets. 

bole: tree trunk...what am I, a botanist? (I'm really starting to feel badly about my ignorance.) 

Ninevite: a native or inhabitant of Nineveh, the ancient capital of Assyria...I was hoping this would be more interesting. 

light-o'-love: a prostitute...though the word can also mean "a lighthearted dance," Proust is calling Odette a whore. 

teapoy (not misprint of teapot!): a 3-legged ornamental stand...of which Mme. Swann must have many. 

serried: crowded or pressed the serried adjectives of Proust. 

Most humorous moment:
Because ISOLT was definitely short one stuffed shirt, ITSOYGIF introduces us to M. Norpois, a man long-winded enough to make Proust seem a pithy aphorist. I chuckled through his passage in which the ambassador mocks young Marcel's favorite author with assonance:

"Bergotte is what I call a flute player. It must of course be admitted that he tootles his flute quite mellifluously, albeit with more than a modicum of mincing mannerism and affectation. But when all's said and done, tootling is what it is, and tootling does not amount to a great deal. His works are so flaccid one can never locate in them anything one could call a framework..."

And so on, for another page and a half. I just wish Bergotte had been there to defend himself--he might have shouted: "It takes a flute player to know one, you mellifluous tooter!!" To be fair, Norpois criticizes Bergotte for being a bad writer whereas the Narrator just criticizes him for being ugly.   

Most fabulous splash of color:  

In this week's splash Proust moves from a more typical description of a room to something more intense:

"Once I was inside, my sole encounter at first was with a footman, who walked me through a series of spacious drawing rooms before putting me into a little one that was uninhabited and was beginning to bask in the blue afternoon from its windows; there I was left in the company of orchids, violets, and roses, which, like people who stand waiting beside you but do not know you, did not break the silence, which their individuality as live things only made more striking, while they looked shiveringly glad of the warmth of a fire of glowing coals, preciously laid behind a pane of pure crystal, in a trough of white marble, into which now and then crumbled its dangerous rubies."

At first this seems to match the impressionistic softness of Odette's tea gowns or the flowers of Combray but by the time we reach the beautiful phrase "dangerous rubies," the feeling has shifted. The crystal and marble make the fire paradoxically cold (the flowers still shivering) and the solidity of the coals is an inspired leap from everyday flames. 

Most interesting outside reading tidbit:

In this case, I read the Raoul Ruiz film Marcel Proust's Time Regained. I was disappointed, given my high regard for Mysteries of Lisbon and high expectations for Night Across the Street. The adaptation was an uphill battle of course--how does one do seven novels in under three hours, when a third of The Hobbit now takes the same amount of time?

The DVD I watched did not help the cause. The bleached graininess was unexpectedly severe for a 14-year-old film (and I know image quality can have a strong effect on my judgment--I first saw and dismissed Lola Montès on a terribly faded transfer). At a certain point I realized I'd fallen asleep to Time Regained once before, which is sort of logical because it felt like I was watching it through a pillow case.

I wrote the following in my notebook: this is just a garden party for frivolous, malapropism-spouting women and masochistic gay men! And perhaps that's a pithy description of the whole book. But not the one I like to imagine I'm reading!

A terrible crutch in the film is people being played by multiple actors at different stages in life. For instance, It is absurd that Marcel himself is played by four different actors (two characters we only glimpse--Edith Scob as Oriane de Guermantes and Chiarra Mastroianni as Albertine--were my sole bright spots). At the culmination of the film, a decadent fête Guermantes, Ruiz switches between present-day and younger versions of the characters, with a rather inexact overlap in the cuts. For me it was amateurish and I was pleased to be back on the page. 

Concept I am stealing for my own work:

The opening of ITSOYGIF made me want to be a better correspondent. I loved the carefully studied idiosyncrasies of Gilberte's handwriting: she is just the kind of girl to mis-cross her T's. Her short texts are a revelation--so tactile and, given their purposefulness, more meaningful to the narrator than the plait of hair that strays across his cheek. I also need to get more stationery--Gilberte's has an impressive array of papers with monograms, Latin words, Chinese hats and knights' armor. Letter writing is a great way to be intimate with people, especially in the oncoming age of Google Glass. I'll leave this one to Proust: "...when you believe in the reality of things, using an artificial means to see them better is not quite the same as feeling closer to them."

Swann's Way Part III: Place-Names: The Name (2.27.13) 

I wonder if Faulkner said that the past wasn't even past while Proust was still alive--the Narrator might have been comforted by it. Instead he writes, "The reality I had known no longer existed." And with that cheery thought we close out Swann's Way. The Narrator also laments the changes in ladies' fashion. I'm so glad Proust never had to live in a time when people find it acceptable to go grocery shopping in their pajamas. 

But the brief mention of the savor of the salt air in Balbec entices me forward into the second, and my favorite, book of ISOLT. To be sure, I was in love when I first read it and, in the author's aphorism, "We no longer love anyone else when we are in love."
Before I move on, I do have an important dry-humping update: Marcel does not dry hump Gilberte at the end of Swann's Way. He must do it at the beginning of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. Or, more disturbingly, I have conceived of a dry-humping incident that does not exist in ISOLT.
Dictionary consultations:      
heteroclite: a word irregular in inflection; especially a noun irregular in declension...I won't even pretend that this is a definition I'll retain but I do find it appropriate that it appears in a section called "The Name."

fabliau: a medieval verse tale characterized by comic, ribald treatment of themes drawn from life...I always wondered about the title of this Wallace Stevens poem--and please read this cheeky Wiki entry also.

prisoner's base: a children's game described thusly...I find it surprising that our young narrator was selected as the prisoner (someone who could run fast)--it seems like he'd be distracted at the crucial moment by a bout of ennui or onanism.

adumbration: a sketchy outline, a my head there was totally foreshadowing that is what adumbration meant.

entresol: the floor just above the ground floor of a building; a mezzanine...such a nice latinate improvement over that uncouth mouthful "mezzanine."   

Most humorous moment: 

Francoise, for once without any linguistic fumbling, asks the most pertinent question of young Marcel:

"What's wrong with you?"

In this case what's wrong with Marcel is that he's dragging the poor woman through the cold to try to catch a glimpse of someone, anyone, with the surname Swann. I like to imagine Proust's own parents asking that question with great frequency as he grew up, hoping to themselves that the eccentricities were the adumbration of genius. And they would have been right! 
Most fabulous splash of color:   

Sometimes I don't know which sequence of color will win this coveted shout out until the end of the week. This week I knew straight away:

"...I would have wished by preference to stop in the most beautiful towns; but compare them as I might, how could I choose, any more than between individual people, who are not interchangeable, between Bayeux, so lofty in its red-tinged lace, its summit illuminated by the gold of its last syllable; Vitré, whose acute accent barred its ancient glass with black wood lozenges; gentle Lamballe, whose whiteness goes from eggshell yellow to pearl grey; Coutances, a Norman cathedral, which its final, fat, yellow diphthong crowns with a tower of butter; Lannion with the sound, in its village silence, of the coach followed by the fly; Questambert, Pontorson, naive and ridiculous, white feathers and yellow beaks, scattered along the road to those poetic river spots; Benodet, a name scarcely moored, which the rivers seems to want to carry away among its algae; Pont-Aven, a pink-and-white flight of the wing of a lightly poised coif reflected trembling in the greeny waters of a canal; Quimperlé, more firmly attached, ever since the Middle Ages, among the streams about which it babbles as they bead it with a pearly grisaille like that which it sketched, through the spiderwebs of a stained-glass window, by rays of sunlight which have turned into blunted points of burnished silver?"

As I mentioned last month, I think Proust's uncanny ability to match color to proper nouns is one of his greatest gifts. And it's not just the colors he finds in etymological roots, it's the way the colors complement each other, flowing together across one countryside. I could try until the end of time to describe the shades of coastal California towns I know well and never get close.

(I do not wish to merely cheerlead in these updates so let me also share my least fabulous splash of color: Proust says that pigeons are "the lilacs of the bird kingdom." I curled my lip at the foul flying rodents, which are like the wet garbage of the bird kingdom.)
Most interesting outside reading tidbit: 

When one is partaking in the Year of Reading Proust, one realizes Proust appears everywhere. Take, for instance, this n + 1 post about exotic online drug purchasing and the chemical compounds that often result in delicious intellectual highs with unforeseen and deleterious effects on the body. The author, Ned Beauman, needed a great closing quote for his piece and let Proust take it away:

"recognise that we are chained to a being from a different realm, worlds apart from us, with no knowledge of us, and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood."

In writing this update I felt the unfairness that this mind is chained to a body that demands food. Or at least chips and salsa followed by cherry Pop-Tarts.  
Concept I am stealing for my own work: 

Here is a great example of how to make an entrance. From between the Champs-Élysées circus and puppet theater:

"And already Gilberte was running as fast as possible in my direction, sparkling and red under a square fur hat, animated by the cold, the lateness, and her desire to play; a little before reaching me, she let herself slide along the ice, and either to help keep her balance, or because she thought it more graceful, or pretending to move like a skater, her arms opened wide as she came forward smiling, as if she wanted to take me into them."

Like the astonishing cut in Claire Denis' The Intruder, when we snap from a shot of peaceful warmth into a snowscape and the onrushing face of a gap-toothed dogsled driver, Gilberte's entrance is like a real life silver bullet from one of those wonderful Coors Light commercials.

Swann's Way Part II: Swann in Love (2.19.13)

Like a horse heading back to the barn, I worked purposefully through the end of "Swann in Love" this week. The bummer is that we never see how Swann convinces dumb ole Odette to marry's just 204 pages of his torture. But we're past that now and, doggone it, that "Balzac's tigers" passage is one of the best things in the novel. Ain't no party like a Guermantes party.

And pretty soon, if memory serves, we get lil Marcel dry-humping lil Gilberte in the park, which is what ISOLT is all about! 

Dictionary consultations:  

anfractuosity: a winding channel or course; especially: intricate path or process (as of the mind)...friends will be impressed when I drop this one into casual conversation--it's so Proustian. 

gorget: an ornamental collar or a part of a wimple covering the throat and shoulders or a specially colored patch on the throat...whichever of these Proust was talking about I don't think I want one. 

ultra-Legitimist: are royalists in France who adhere to the rights of dynastic succession of the descendants of the elder branch of the Bourbon dynasty...these fuckers don't know when to give it up. the wiki list of Legitimist claimants to the throne is fun. 

polonaise: a stately Polish processional dance popular in 19th century's also a kind of fancy dress (which would fit ISOLT) but I think this was about this dance in "moderate" 3/4 time. 

Most humorous moment: 

From the previously enjoyed comment about two young women "making music" together to the consistent reference in "Swann's Way" to Charles and Odette "making cattleya" (he turns an early days, corsage-adjusting boob graze into an inside joke), the book is well stocked with euphemism. The end of this section is thick with poor Odette's terrible lies to Swann, and in my humble opinion the most fabulous one is this, regarding Forcheville: "he asked me to come look at his engravings."

I want that line to work for me just once in my life...."Darling, I know you're busy, but I have these wonderful engravings you just can't miss--come up for just a quick second." 

Most fabulous splash of color:    

I quote from the wonderful "Balzac's tigers" sequence, which helpfully shows the way servants are indistinguishable from statuary:

"And the locks of his red hair, crimped by nature but glued by brilliantine, were treated broadly as they are in the Greek sculpture which the painter from Mantua studied so constantly and which, if out of all creation it depicts only man, is at last able to derive from his simple forms richness so varied, as though borrowed from all of living nature, that a head of hair, in the smooth rolls and sharp beaks of its curls, or in the superimposition of the threefold flowering diadem of its tresses, looks at once like a bundle of seaweed, a nestful of doves, a band of hyacinths, and a coil of snakes."

This coil of snakes brought me back to Cellini's Perseus--when I saw it in person I was shocked by how Perseus' hair was almost as snaky as Medusa's. I thought of the stabby Benvenuto and--would you believe it!--his name appears the next page. The continual red of the passage is gorgeous, more understated than Proust often leaves it, smoldering still with the old flames that fired the bronzes.  

Most interesting outside reading tidbit: 

I tried to read something more intellectual on Proust this week, really I did. I ordered something from the library called "The Weather in Proust," which is such a wonderful title. I did not know who Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was and wasn't frightened until I saw the genres listed on the back of the book: Queer theory/Affect theory/Literary studies. I did not have the courage to even google "Affect theory." As I do with ISOLT as a whole, I thought it might be worthwhile to list the words and concepts I did not understand (or understood incompletely) in "The Weather in Proust," up to the point I stopped reading:

architectonically, historiographic rhetoric tout court, roman-fleuve, Neoplatonic, Reason-Principle, stereotypy, Lacanian approach to psychic life, object-relations psychology, Ovidian preoccupation, Norns, samsara, last residue of supra-individual identity, buoyant internal homunculus, genitally organized, phantasy...

(...reading aborted after 11 pages.) 

Concept I am stealing for my own work: 

Proust tortures Swann so thoroughly that it's hard to pick one moment where he has it the worst. For me it might be when he makes Odette swear on a medal to her infidelities. She hisses, "maybe a very long time ago, without realizing what I was doing, maybe two or three times." Without reading forward I knew instantly the terror of this kind of lie. When she does not even commit to a firm count, the number is endless. 

What I love is the way Swann is stuck two ways: he knows that she has been unfaithful and, even worse, he knows that he will never get to the bottom of that unfaithfulness. I might write about a single lie between lovers--it is a blessing to have just a single lie between you--but the real horror is in leaving the betrayal open-ended. Instead of understanding and forgiving, you wonder and fret.

Swann's Way Part II: Swann in Love (2.14.13)

I've missed a PROUST LOG entry but I blame that on the author. My first time reading ISOLT I was also miffed with the almost third person departure of "Swann in Love." Alone in Swann's head we don't have as much fun. Of course, we read first Swann's future Combrayan life with Odette, shunned from the society he so enjoyed and having wasted so much time on a broad who is just going to marry Forcheville in the end. Swann has thrown so much away--I want to read his study on Vermeer but he's never writing it! I can't believe he wouldn't spend his youth gamboling with the "plump little girls" who leap gladly into his carriage and instead exhaust himself winning the favor of Odette, someone perfectly encapsulated by the phrase "cocotte dilettantism."

Perhaps the tale is not so far-fetched. One hates to quote the actor behind A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III but for this Swann, and for many men since, the game of love is about winning rather than happiness. 

Dictionary consultations:       

niello: a black mixture of copper, silver, and lead sulphides, used as an inlay on engraved or etched metal...more of that bling. 

extirpate: to root out and destroy completely...for those times when exterminate is too many syllables. 

rivière: a necklace of precious stones (probably diamonds)...for you etymology experts, please note that the word comes from the word "river." 

landau: a four-wheel carriage with a top divided into two sections that can be folded away or removed and with a raised seat outside for the this, not this. 

Most humorous moment:

Mme. Verdurin, who becomes a more laughably odious character as the pages roll by, "frolicked in the billow of stock expressions." It's a comfort to know that cliques at parties have always behaved in a juvenile fashion and you always had to hack your way through an undergrowth of cliché to find someone making an original statement.   

Most fabulous splash of color:  

Swann explores the color key to Odette and her Oriental apartments:

"...he had taken pleasure, this time, in seeing the half-light of the room striped with pink, orange, and white by the fragrant rays of those ephemeral stars which light up on grey days..."


"...between shutters which pressed its mysterious golden pulp..."


"... like that lamp, that orangeade, that armchair which contained so much of his dreams, which materialized so much desire--a sort of superabundant sweetness and mysterious density."

Gorgeous colors, but somehow frivolous, so like Odette and the essence of Odette passed down to Gilberte, with her pink freckles and orange hair. For me, a heavy Michele Pfeiffer in The Age of Innocence vibe, Swann ready to kiss her feet.

Those fragments are spread many pages apart and make up but one Proustian thread I happen to have caught in my ignorance--there are probably a hundred more in the book. 

Most interesting outside reading tidbit:

By way of Karpeles' Paintings in Proust, I've been carefully examining Botticelli's The Trials of Moses and Gustave Moreau's Salomé. Combined, they conveniently exhibit the two sides of Odette.

Zipporah, Jethro's daughter, at once voluminous and narrow-shouldered, is cloaked in pinks and peaches, with an innocent lock on her cheek. This Odette chastely wishing that Swann might have left his heart in her care. Salomé, Proust says, wears "poison-dripping flowers interwoven with precious jewels." Here is the kept woman/femme fatale side of Odette.

I wonder which of the two images Swann brought with him in this description: "this face he was seeing for the last time, the gaze with which, on the day of our departure, we hope to carry away with is a landscape we about to leave forever." 

Concept I am stealing for my own work:

Proust understands the immediate and intense jealousy we feel in love--it's upsetting that the jewels we give loved ones have been possessed by someone else, even glimpsed at by our forebears:

"...we resent the water of the gem and the words of the language, because they are not created exclusively from the essence of a passing love affair and a particular person."

I find "the water of the gem" to be a terribly beautiful phrase and, as Cormac McCarthy's Judge might say, "whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent."

Swann's Way Part I: Combray II & Swann in Love (1.29.13) 

A bifurcated week: first, we drowse on the banks of the Vivonne, with wasps "botanizing" and catch our first glimpse of Mme. Guermantes (the "vagabondage of her gaze"), then we enter a new section, "Swann in Love," which is an instructive title.

For me it is a shame to leave the paths of Combray, which are the lines I return when I'm out walking. Proust gives this perfect summation near the end of the section: "And so the Méséglise and the Guermantes way remain for me linked to many of the little events of that life which, of all the various lives we lead concurrently, is the most abundant in vicissitudes, the richest in episodes, I mean our intellectual life."

With the Narrator providing an extremely well-researched story of events that occurred before he was born, we see, in savage detail, the Verdurins "little clan," where Swann follows Odette de Crécy and is made to fondle bronze grapes has a sort of high-level hazing ritual.  

Dictionary consultations:    

peduncle: in botany, the stalk of an inflorescence or a stalk bearing a solitary flower in a one-flowered inflorescence...right, got it. 

Merovingian: a Salian Frankish dynasty that came to rule the Franks in a region known as Francia in Latin...Proust frequently cites a (completely made up) connection between the Guermantes and this line and it does make for a pretty interesting Wiki read...especially with the Merovingian knowledge that men with long hair enhance their sexual prowess.   

verger: a person, usually a layman, who assists in the ordering of religious services, particularly in Anglican churches...sigh, more Christian terminology.   

haduttered: that's not a word, that's a misprint of "had uttered"...I'm asking Penguin for my money back. 

leucoma: a white opaque scar of the cornea...a logical meaning, but not a google image search I recommend.
Most humorous moment:

The funniest bit is actually about laughter--Mme. Verdurin's fake gaiety:

"...such was her habit of taking literally the figurative expressions for the emotions she was feeling that Dr. Cottard (a young novice at the time) would one day have to set her jaw after she dislocated it from laughing too much."

The detached jaw makes her seem even more like a snake, a python trying to make a meal out of a deer. And to think, much of her prey is the legion of "young artists" in her salon, not even named by the Narrator. Proust's keen observation of social situations is still completely relevant--I loved the real scenario in which an ignorant dandy looks to another man who looks to his wife to help him form a basic opinion on a work of art. 

Most fabulous splash of color:  

I was stunned by this passage on Combray during Easter weekend, as robust and colorful as ever, but three-dimensional in its depth.

"...the river already promenading along dressed in sky blue between lands still black and bare, accompanied only by a flock of cuckooflowers that had arrived early and primroses ahead of their time, while here and there a violet with a blue beak bowed its stem under the weight of fragrance it held it its throat. The Point-Vieux led to a towpath which at this spot would be draped in summer with the blue foliage of a hazel under which a fisherman in a straw hat had taken root."

This is the separation and the layering, the textural Cézanne technique. There's the surprising combination of blue and foliage, the shape of the hazel shade and then the scratchiness of the fisherman's hat. It didn't feel out of order to tamp down the page before turning it.    

Most interesting outside reading tidbit:

I'm going to tell you the truth: there have been some ill-conceived impulse purchases of Proust-related books in preparation for the year of reading. The most egregious, I hope, will be Anka Muhlstein's Monsieur Proust's Library--for some time I kept it wrapped in a plastic bag at the bottom of a drawer. She is, after all, also the author of something called Balzac's Omelette. I bought it like a thirteen-year-old girl might buy clove cigarettes, for the needless expense and violet appeal (the ink in this book is actually purple...and there are illustrations).

But somewhere in the first chapter, read between my fingers, there's a useful quote from Proust: "Words present to us a little picture of things, clear and familiar, like the pictures hung on the walls of school-rooms to give children an illustration of what is meant by a carpenter's bench, a bird, an anthill, things chose as typical of everything else of the same sort." More than anyone else I've read, the word-pictures of Proust dance up from the page and distract--from this week I think of the "cloisonné violet water" of the Vivonne.   

Concept I am stealing for my own work:

Perhaps a better concept to take in life than in writing.

"But at the age, already a little disillusioned, which Swann was approaching, at which one knows how to content oneself with being in love for the pleasure of it without requiring too much reciprocity, this closeness of two hearts, if it is no longer, as it was in one's earliest youth, the goal toward which love necessarily tends, still remains linked to it by an association of ideas so strong that it may become the cause of love, if it occurs first. At an earlier time one dreamed of possessing the heart of the woman with whom one was in love; later, to feel that one possesses a woman's heart may be enough to make one fall in love with her."

I feel almost certain the age he's approaching is 30....Next time out I will encourage myself to be in love for the pleasure of it and not for what that love might return to me.
Swann's Way Part I: Combray II (1.22.13)
It gets pretty gay this week in Combray. We start with M. Legrandin's "quite fleshly billows" and move in to some lesbian shacking up at M. Vinteuil's place. He can put all the shawls he wants on his daughter's broad shoulders but that Sapphism ain't going away. Hey Vinteuil, you want some more respect on the rues du Combray? Tell your daughter to get her tongue out from between the legs of her "music teacher." 

Dictionary consultations: 

sibylline: prophetic...shit, I knew that one. 

chasuble: a long sleeveless vestment worn over the alb by a priest during services...more dumb church stuff, though I think this is thing that the Pope likes to bling out in all gold thread.   

ciborium: a covered cup for holding hosts from the Christian eucharist...god damn it. 

houris: an alluring woman and/or a virgin in Koranic that's a word I need to know, so like whore but way classier.

lacustrine: related to lakes, or the edges of lakes...totally using this one next time I'm standing astride the shores of The Great Lakes State (A Superior State). 

sainfoin: a Eurasian plant often used as a forage what the hell is a forage crop?  

Most humorous moment:

Dr. Percepied trolls the family Vinteuil hard:

"'Well, now! It seems young Mlle. Vinteuil is making music with her friend. You seem surprised. Now I don't know. It was old Vinteuil who told me just yesterday. After all, the girl certainly has a right to enjoy her music. It's not for me to go against a child's artistic vocation. Not Vinteuil either, it seems. And then he himself plays music with his daughter's friend, as well. Heaven help us! There's certainly a good deal of music-making going on in that establishment. Well, why are you laughing? They play too much music, those people. The other day I met old Vinteuil near the cemetery. He was ready to drop.'"

No doubt when he heard tell of this speech, and the doctor's wide audience, M. Vinteuil screamed, "MY NAME WAS ON THE STREETS?!?!"

I've had some fun here with gay themes in the novel but I've honestly puzzled over a particular sentence later in the week's reading: "But a man like M. Vinteuil must have suffered much more than most in resigning himself to one of those situations which are wrongly believed to be the exclusive prerogative of the bohemian life: they occur whenever a vice which nature itself plants in a child, like the color of its eyes, sometimes merely by mingling the virtues of its father and mother..."

In my italics do I detect an early advocate for a biological reading of homosexuality?     

Most fabulous splash of color: 

The first heavy hits on the Narrator's favorite: hawthorns.

"It was in the Month of Mary that I remember beginning to be fond of hawthorns. Not only were they in the church that was so holy but which we had the right to enter, they were put on the altar itself, inseparable from the mysteries in whose celebration they took part, their branches running out among the candles and holy vessels, attached horizontally to one another in a festive preparations and made even lovelier by the festoons of their foliage, on which were scattered in profusion, as on a bridal train, little bunches of buds of a dazzling whiteness."

The punch of the color all the way to the end. Credit also to the incomparable Lydia Davis--unmentioned thus far in my commentary!--for the great music in translation. The alliterative Bs pop out like buds along the sentence, led to the church altar just as bride would be some lucky Sunday.   

Most interesting outside reading tidbit:

Speaking of un-American homos...Anne Carson has written Red Doc>, a sequel of some kind to The Autobiography of Red, a WTT urtext. Though his name does not appear in "Red Excerpts" from this month's Harper's, we can only assume this passage is from Geryon's life:

"Her eyelids flutter but do not open. He sits. The room is hot. There is a smell. Does Proust have a verb for this. This struggle she faces now her onetime terrible date with Night."

Amidst the strong echoes of Nox, an appeal to Proust. It seems quite possible that there is a verb somewhere in the seven volumes for the act of sitting hot, deathly silent room. And it's probable that I will have to look up the word when I get to it.   

Concept I am stealing for my own work:

In this case something I've already stolen, from the Narrator's first glimpse of Gilberte, her predestined beauty coming in under pink freckles:

"Her dark eyes shone, and since I did not know then, nor have I learned since, how to reduce a strong impression to its objective elements, since I did not have enough 'power of observation,' as they say, to isolate the notion of their color, for a long time afterward, whenever I thought of her again, the memory of their brilliance would immediately present itself to me as that of a vivid azure, since she was blonde: so that, perhaps if she had not had such dark eyes--which struck one so the first time one saw her--I would not have been, as I was, in love most particularly with her blue eyes."

Especially in California one has a tendency to give blue eyes to light-haired young women, then watch them darken over time. Before reading a word of ISOLT, I included this concept in some very bad poems written to someone we can only hope has discarded all evidence. Also: what a nice humblebrag on the "power of observation," Marcel.

To make the week even more amusing, my goodreads guide decided to break at a landmark passage: the first time Proust jerks off. That little room now smells of orris root and ejaculate, with certain patterns on the windowsill, like "the natural trail" cast behind a snail. Proust, you dirty dog you.

Swann's Way Part I: Combray II (1.14.13)

This is a fabulous week in Proust. In Combray II, we move past the Narrator who can't fall asleep to the one who astonishes with verbose, painterly passages and (relatively) pithy psychological portraits.
It was, of course, disappointing anew to learn how much I resemble the snob (and suspected sexual invert!) M. Legrandin. About people like us Proust writes, "they imagine that the life they are leading is not the one that really suits them and they bring to their actual occupations either an indifference mingled with whimsy, or an application that is sustained and haughty, scornful, bitter, and conscientious." Too true.

Also true: no matter how lusciously he describes the church in Combray (the stained glass therein is a "dazzling gilded carpet of glass forget-me-nots), Proust still knows that the window in bookshop the next town over "is more sown with ideas than the door of the cathedral."

Dictionary consultations: 

antimacassar: the small cloths you put over the arms of chairs or grandmother had these! in mauve! 

reredo: ornamental screen behind altar at church...well if you say so Churchy McChurcherson. 

apse: semicircular recess at sanctuary end of week I'm gonna stop listing these nouns I don't know because I don't love God enough. 

lavaliere: a pendant on a fine chain that is worn as a necklace...and it was worn by a man! totally acceptable for men to wear necklaces.   

cardoon: a large perennial Mediterranean plant related to the artichoke...but is it tastier than asparagus?   

cuirassiers: cavalry soldiers...looking fine in their helmets rolling down rue Saint-Hilaire. 

Most humorous moment:

Regarding the romantic life of Uncle Adolphe:

"And if we went to see him only was only on certain days, this was because the other days women came whom his family could not have met, or so at least they thought, since my uncle himself, on the contrary, was only too ready to pay pretty widows who had perhaps never been married, and countesses with high-sounding names which were doubtless only noms du guerre, the courtesy of introducing them to my grandmother or even of presenting them with the family jewels, tendencies which had already embroiled him more than once with my grandfather."

Family jewels joke! When you're a rich old wretch with tobacco-stained cheeks, I suppose you gotta do what you gotta do. And something about that one lady in pink is already so familiar... 

Most fabulous splash of color:

Marcel, tell me about your auntie's lime blossom infusion from the pharmacist:

"And since here, each new characteristic was only the metamorphosis of an old characteristic, in some little gray balls I recognized the green buds that had not come their term; but especially the pink luster, lunar and soft, that made their flowers stand out amid the fragile forest of stems where they were suspended like little gold roses--a sign, like the glow on a wall that still reveals the location of a fresco that has worn away, of the difference between the parts of the tree that had been 'in color' and those that had not--showed me that these petals were in fact the same ones that, before filling the pharmacy bag with flowers, had embalmed the spring evening. That candle-pink flame was their color still, but half doused and drowsing in the diminished life that was theirs now, and that is a sort of twilight of flowers."

That's it. I'm going back to bed, like poor aunt Leonie, to live in the twilight of flowers. 

Most interesting outside reading tidbit:

I helpful soul on the Proust goodreads page mentioned Walter Benjamin's "The Image of Proust," which I sharply inferred might make for relevant outside reading. And, as it happens, Benjamin's Illuminations is one of the finest books I own but have not read. The essay gets juicy immediately. Benjamin calls the novel, in the best blurb I've heard about ISOLT, the Nile of language.

Both the Narrator's discussion of Combray tapestries and Benjamin's mention of them in the essay recalled this New Yorker piece about the "Hunt of the Unicorn" tapestries. I love the article because it stuck an image deeply in my mind: the backside of the tapestry is so vibrant, so densely woven, that high-powered digital cameras were unable to capture the complexity without the assistance of supercomputers.

Towards the end, Benjamin adds, "The true reader of Proust is constantly jarred by small shocks."

I can't say if I am a true reader (this is only week two of close observation!) but I feel the shocks. The reason this book takes so long is not because it is overly boring or difficult. It's because one must constantly set the book down to reflect on Proust's latest insight, his latest stunning extended metaphor. 

Concept I am stealing for my own work:

I try to keep my characters closely associated with specific color keys, perhaps because of buried memory of this passage, read for the first time eight and a half years ago in a hot room in Las Vegas, NV.

"It was thus that during two summers, in the heat of the garden in Combray, I felt, because of the book I was reading then, homesick for a mountainous and fluvial country, where I would see many sawmills and where, in the depths of the clear water, pieces of wood rotted under tufts of watercress: not far off, climbing along low walls, were clusters of violet and reddish flowers. And since the dream of a woman who would love me was always present in my mind, during those summers that dream was impregnated with the coolness of the running waters; and whichever women I conjured up, clusters of violet and reddish flowers would rise immediately on either side of her like complementary colors."

And so these sentences also conjure up the window box fuchsias that Prousts describes earlier, stretching impertinently to cool their cheeks on the cool stones of the village church front. What a book. And it's only been 100 pages.

Swann's Way Part I: Combray I (1.7.13)

As goodreads suggested and my Instagram promised, it's the year of reading Proust. I'm going to begin with the incredible claim that I will write an entry here for all 52 weeks of 2013 and be thrilled if I make half that. But one week in and I'm right on time.

There was not insubstantial pleasure in placing this most beautiful of paperbacks on the counter at the coffee shop while ordering Turkish coffee and, well, there were no madeleines. My dear friend Cody was visiting me this week and I reminded him of how, when he borrowed my original copy of Swann's Way and spilled coffee on the spine, I made him replace the book. And so it's not exactly like I'm reading something I've already read.

The first images come back, of the Narrator's family comfortably arranged around the table in Combray, my mental picture taken from Renoir's Boating Party. I hear Swann tentatively ringing the bell at the garden entrance, somehow as dashing as Burt Lancaster (it's Visconti's fault he's the figure I see when I think of the handsome European haute bourgeoisie (though, in reading up on Bressant-style hair, Burt would need to wear something closer to a mullet (moo-lay))).

My goal is to use this page to fill in some of the detail that makes the book so great (as Proust writes, we have only short sittings with our models and must prepare as much as possible without them) as I glancingly attempt to address the biggest subjects of the book and of life: time and memory. 

Here are a few categories upon which I might expand and contract in the coming months...

Dictionary consultations:

lorgnon: a pair of eyeglasses or opera glasses with a handle...maybe like a pince-nez but also maybe not!

gribiche: a mayonnaise-style cold egg sauce in the French cuisine...yuck!

viaticum: communion giving to the dying or the sick...Proust was exaggerating when he used this one...such a melodramatic child.

Most humorous moment:  

When young Marcel, out in the hallway well after bedtime, his incipient mustaches quivering, sees his father's candle in the hallway and murmurs aloud, "I'm done for!" Oh mon dieu!

Most fabulous splash of color: 

One of my favorite preoccupations is story told through color so this sentence pleased me.

"The castle and the moor were yellow, and I had not had to wait to see them to find out their color since, before the glasses of the frame did so, the bronze sonority of the name Brabant had shown it to me clearly."

There was totally a spoiler alert on Marcel's magic lantern.


For sheer randomness, I also have to include a piece of fatherly flair in this week's recap.

"...he was still there in front of us, tall in his white nightshirt, under the pink and violet Indian cashmere shawl that he tied around his head now that he had attacks of neuralgia..."

Um, I want to sleep in one too, Papa Proust.

Most interesting outside reading tidbit:

In Eric Karpeles' weighty supplement Paintings in Proust, I enjoyed the anecdote of Manet's asparagus, in which a small canvas of a single stalk is generated when a patron overpaid for a still life of a whole bunch. Later ISOLT I'll get to enjoy Proust's reimagining of the incident, which will, shockingly, make the Duc de Guermantes look like an arrogant prig.

Concept I am stealing for my own work:

Bengal light

The definition required another online consultation, but how evocative. Proust uses the image to reveal parts of his childhood summer dwelling that are (metaphorically) illuminated by a Bengal light while others are still plunged in darkness. But I'd add more romance to this highly romantic term: a blue flare set against a midnight blue seaside sunset, the brightness highlighting the tiger stripes of the restless ocean.

So it's a long year ahead but in case I ever lose my way I'll consult Maira Kalman's chart.

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