Sunday, February 24, 2008

This blog started as I was reading Ulysses. In fact, this blog was conceived partly as a way through that book: I’d write an entry after each chapter, or couple of chapters, as a way of keeping myself reading. After that point, it became less about what I read each day and more my first thoughts on the book I had just finished reading, a sort of aide-memoire about what I had read. The entries have not been essays nor reviews, except very occasionally, but rather a journal of my initial impressions. Not every book I have read since the blog began has made its way here, but most of them have. School has rather slowed my progress, of late, and there have not been many that I could add. Complicating matters yet further, I’ve started a very, very long book, and it will be a while before I finish one volume of it—let alone the whole thing. Because of school, and an uncertain future, and because I’ve just started reading In Search of Lost Time, I have decided to return for the next while to a more episodic sort of reading blog: as I finish a chunk of Proust, I’ll blog about the chunk. And, if I decide to keep reading this book after I finish the first volume, you’ll be able to read about my experiences reading Proust for the next four-five years, at the glacial pace I seem to be managing. As an alternative, you could go read the disappointing The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time by Phyllis Rose, and skip my blog until I return to other books. (It’s likely that, with the end of school drawing nigh, I will start blogging about “work books”—i.e., theology, pastoral stuff, group stuff, leadership stuff, biblical criticism—in a way that I have avoided while in school. That means there will be other things interspersed with Proustian chunks.)

So. Part one “Combray” of volume one (Swann’s Way) of In Search of Lost Time. (I own the volumes from the Modern Library paperback printings: "The C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin translation, Revised by D.J. Enright")
Not, perhaps, the best thing to read each night before bed—particularly during the long section musing about memories of not being able to fall asleep, and what races through the narrator’s brain! Throughout “Combray,” I kept empathizing with the narrator: not in details, obviously, but in the way his brain works and makes associations and connections; I felt as though my brain works exactly the same way. Here and there were some brilliant bits that leapt out at me, and I’ve quoted some of them below.

There’s a dazzling array of remembered detail, all of it interesting. The sheer volume slows and lengthens my reading so that my thoughts are nearly at the same speed as what I read: Proust overwhelms me and forces me to slow my pace, to stay in the moment he is describing. Nor are there a lot of natural breaking points, in which I can cease my reading for the night. Because of this latter fact, I find I’m picking a paragraph, ending with it, and returning the next night by reading that same paragraph again—and yet, it’s not hard to remember both the overall course of the story and the details of where I am in it, a fact that is surprising to me given my lack of knowledge of the story.

I think my other major response, to this point, is to wonder how this first section sets the stage for what is to come—and I find myself worrying that I will need to re-read what I have just finished, perhaps many times, to actually get a good feeling for the novel as an entity.

As promised, a few quotations. I don’t always agree with M.P., but I do enjoy his conclusions for what they are and how they emerge; they’re deeply thoughtful.

But none of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a real person arouse in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or misfortunes; and the ingenuity of the first novelist lay in his understanding that, as the image was the one essential element in the complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which consisted in the suppression, pure and simple, of real people would be a decided improvement. (116)

…why then, for the space of an hour he sets free within us all the joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which only we should have to spend years of our actual life in getting to know, and the most intense of which would never be revealed to us because the slow course of their development prevents us from perceiving them. It is the same in life; the heart changes, and it is our worst sorrow; but we know it only through reading, through our imagination: in reality its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change. (117)

We try to discover in things, which become precious to us on that account, the reflection of what our soul has projected on to them; we are disillusioned when we find that they are in reality devoid of the charm which the owed, in our minds, to the association of certain ideas; sometimes we mobilise all our spiritual forces in a glittering array in order to bring our influence to bear on other human beings who, we very well know, are situated outside ourselves where we can never reach them. (119)

The facts of life do not penetrate to the sphere in which our beliefs are cherished; they did not engender those beliefs, and they are powerless to destroy them; they can inflict on them continual blows of contradiction and disproof without weakening them; and an avalanche of miseries and maladies succeeding one another without interruption in the bosom of a family will not make it lose faith in either the clemency of its God or the capacity of its physician. (209)