What I hadn't realised when I first read this was how much this volume presages the themes and sometimes the incidents of the later volumes. Proust had the entire series in mind when he began it. Swann's infatuation with Odette and the course of his love, jealousies, and suspicions duplicates many elements of the narrator's later history with Albertine.
Proust is so skilled at using details to adumbrate his larger themes and narrative. Early on, the boy-narrator of this is given a magic lantern to help calm him for sleep and prepare him for being left alone at night. The images cast by the lantern slide over the furnishings and the elements of his bedroom--doorknobs, curtains, pictures, furniture--momentarily taking on the shape of the objects they are displayed on, much as our memories take on the shapes of the elements they are projected on. The magic lantern is a minor detail, but it works both as an element in the immediate narrative of a small boy who has trouble sleeping and as a symbol of the working of our minds.
The one thing that still troubles me is the seeming inconsistency between the narrator's age and his narration. In this part, he is a child, and often very childish, but the sophistication of his analysis of himself and others often make him see more childlike than any actual child would be. The narrator is of course reminiscing and brings to those reminiscences his adult sensibilities. Still sometimes it jars and I end up wondering just how old the narrator is. But then Proust isn't trying to present the child in the terms the child would have understood himself at the time, but in trying to capture why the child behaved and thought as he did. He's after something other than autobiography. Nor is it clear how the narrator came to know the details of Swann's love life.
2. Proust, 2, Within a Budding Grove. 1/15. Oddly I find Proust's meandering sentences much easier to accept than I did fifty years ago. The changes in my life make the work more readable for me, a change that is coincidentally one of the themes of the book. I find his endless digressions within the scope of a period much easier to read than, say, Henry James's, but then I haven't read James lately, and perhaps I can tolerate him more than I once did. Unlike James, Proust wasn't prissy about sex, and hence wrote more convincingly about love. I don't find either writer's psychology completely convincing, but that's undoubtedly due to differences in our respective bodies of experience, another theme of Proust's.
The narrator moves into adolescence and struggles to define himself in relation to his inner mental and his outer social life (family, friends, artists, women, especially women). He woos and then rejects Gilberte Swann, for reasons that confuse her and, despite long analyses on his part, make sense only if one accepts him as an emotional sadist/masochist--he's rather like one of those people who woo and then break up with someone for the sake of having the experience and creating a memory--the love affair and its subsequent (necessary) break-up as an item in one's curriculum vitae. On the other hand, Gilberte's love for the narrator may exist only in his mind. There is something fictitious about this relationship and a strong suggestion that the narrator sees more in his association with Gilberte than she does.. We get only his side of the story--hers remains to be written (Gilberte Swann n Love--that's a novel waiting to be written)
He also discovers that realities don't measure up to his imagined constructs when he finally sees a play featuring his revered actress Berma and visits the church at Balbec. And he meets the characters who will loom large in the later novels--Saint-Loup, Charlus, and Albertine. Much discussion of how our life in the moment is selectively overlaid by our expectations based on past experiences, and the resulting changes in our understanding when reality confounds those expectations. Reality still eludes us, however as our mental tinkerings interfere with perception. The narrator is growing (though perhaps not maturing) and accumulating the bases for the insights that he reaches in the final volume.
Still many lovely details--he is playing a game of Pass the Slipper with Albertine and her friends as well as two other men. He is sitting beside Albertine and misunderstands the signals she is trying to send him. He thinks she is telling him that she feels toward him the way he feels toward her, when in reality she is trying to pass him the ring that is the slipper in this particular game. She gets angry and he is presented with an occasion for a long mental chat with himself--their future relationship in nuce.
One mystery is why this sickly egoist so easily attracts others and so effortlessly gains their respect, particularly since he so often treats them carelessly and callously. People as diverse as the writer Bergotte, the painter Elstir, his grandmother's friend the Marquise de Villeparisis, Saint-Loup, Bloch, Charlus, and Albertine and her circle of friends quickly come to prize their friendships with the narrator. Some of this may be that in narrating his encounters with these people, Proust gives us much of their conversations and long paragraphs of the narrator's thoughts on their actions and comments, but little of what the narrator says to them. It makes the encounters rather one-sided: they are present in the narrator's recountings of them; he is present as the analyst of them and of his reactions to them.
3. Proust, 3, The Guermantes Way. 1/24. The narrator again discovers that his imagination outstrips reality.
In volume 2, the Marquise de Villeparisis remarks that Balzac's portraits of aristocrats were inaccurate. At the moment, the remark could be taken either as an accurate reminiscence by someone of an age to speak authoritatively or as an aristocrat's pique over Balzac's accurate portraits or both. The narrator doesn't dwell on the remark and, in an oddity for him, doesn't analyze it or her reasons for making it. Here, the narrator reveals that, because of Villeparisis's memoirs, people of the age in which he is writing mistakenly believe that she had a leading salon frequented by all the important people of her age, when in truth she was shunned by all leaders of society except a few of her relatives, who paid duty calls only. Taken together, the comments undermine retrospective accounts of social life, such as his own.
As the narrator's grandmother is dying, Francoise refuses to allow any of the servants but herself to tend the grandmother or help with her cooking duties. This leaves her 'footman' at loose ends, and he takes to reading the narrator's books of poetry. At the end of the volume, the narrator returns home after the monumental dinner party at the Guermantes, which, among other things, features quotations of poetry, not all of them accurate or apt, to discover a letter by the footman on his desk that is strewn with misquotations from poetry. The effect is to underline his discovery that the people who constitute elite society, their appearance, their actions (the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes are as heartless as Francoise--they refuse to let Swann's revelation that he is dying interfere with their plans for the evening with the same ease as she kills poultry) and their conversation aren't that physically or mentally different from others. What sets them off is his assumptions about their position and the romance their names have in his imagination. It is the observer who sets them apart.
We depend so much on written accounts for our views of history, especially such aspects as social history, that we are apt to forget that such accounts are tenditious. We shall never know how much Balzac's or Proust's recountings owe to reality and how much to art and imagination, which, of course, is one of Proust's points.
4. Proust, Sodom and Gomorrah. 2/6. In an earlier volume, Proust through the narrator comments on our tendency to see our hobby-horses everywhere and cites the inclination of homosexuals to see homosexuality everywhere as an example. In this volume he proceeds to demonstrate the truth of this example.
Here there be monsters. The monstrous egoism of the narrator. The monsters that are Mme Verdurin and Morel the violinist. Charlus, who becomes a sad monster because of his infatuation with Morel. The self-blindness of most of the characters.
Looming over this volume is the affair with Albertine. The narrator is obsessed with her, but I don't understand why--he doesn't love or respect her. His approach to her is psychologically sadistic--and knowingly so. Her fascination with her seems to arise mainly from his suspicions that she is a lesbian. Yet he grows jealous when she is courteous to Saint-Loup. She is a possession rather than a person. Nor do I understand why she puts up with him. The more she appears in the novel, the less I feel I know about her. We get the narrator's version of her, but he is so uninterested in her as a person that he doesn't subject her to the same level of analysis as he does other actors in this drama (nor does Proust show us her character separate from the narrator's vision to the extent he does some of the other major characters). The narrator does in one of his self-analyses admit that he imposes his vision of their nature on his mistresses and that the vision has little to do with them as individuals. His monomania and his cruelties derive from the same source. In some ways, his visions of his grandmother and mother are like this as well. He has difficulty seeing them except as his visions of them as enablers of his manias.
There are people who regard the epic as funny, but the characters are figures of fun rather than funny. Only someone who positions himself outside humanity would see this as humour. Once you begin to see yourself in any of these characters, you have to admit our essential foolishness. I would say rather that the dominant mode of this is irony. The narrator often gives us detailed analyses of other characters and their foibles that apply equally well to himself. He makes statements about himself (that he is not a slob, for example) that are contradicted by his behaviour. He can be as blind about himself as he shows the other characters to be about themselves.
5. Proust, The Captive. 2/14 (some irony in this date). Is there any reader who doesn't heave a sigh of relief when the interminable and joyless affair between the narrator and Albertine finally ends? One of the volumes left unfinished at Proust's death; this shows in the many premature deaths and the inconsistances.
Nominally the 'captive' is Albertine, but the narrator is even more imprisoned in his desire to possess and dominate her.
There are many disturbing scenes in this, not the least the times when the narrator watches the sleeping Albertine and finds pleasure in the thought that she does not in her sleep impose her personality on his imaginings of what she could be to him.
This book also contains one of the great segments of the novel--the concert at the Verdurins organised by Charlus to introduce Morel to the aristocrats of his set, at which Mme Verdurin has her revenge on him by inflaming Morel against the baron. It is difficult not to find all three repellent. Even so, they fascinate, especially in contrast to the narrator, who is repellent without being fascinating.
The narrator is here beginning to work towards the theory of art that is fully discussed in the final volume.
Proust is in some respects the last nineteenth-century novelist. There are a lot of 'gentle reader' remarks here and much unnecessary summary of future events to tidy up narrative threads.
6. Proust, The Fugitive. 2/19. Another of the volumes unfinished at Proust's death. More agonising over Albertine, but the narrator is nudged closer to self-awareness. He remains a self-absorbed monster, and his psychologising is becoming more and more a self-defense mechanism. Despite his grandiose generalisations about men and women, he (the narrator) is much more of an outlier than he thinks. His personality becomes less and less convincing.
Some pretty prose surrounding the trip to Venice. The narrator still uses the people who love him, in this case notably his mother. Gilberte resurfaces and marries Saint-Loup, who is revealed to be a homosexual--an unnecessary distraction.
The unfinished nature of the work shows up in its repetitiousness. Proust makes the same points several times about the nature of desire and love, the impossibility of friendship, grief and its fading.
Perhaps the scariest moment in the series is when the narrator gets a garbled telegram from Gilberte announcing her marriage. He deciphers it as a message from Albertine announcing that she is alive and wants to marry him. The prospect of Albertine resurfacing is sure to give even the hardiest fan of Proust nightmares.
6. Proust, Time Regained. 2/27. Again, an unfinished volume--though it's an open question whether Proust would have considered any of his works finished. There are a number of inconsistencies and much repetition. The beginning of the sequence at the Princesse de Guermantes's party in which Proust reflects on how aged many of his onetime acquaintances have become is an example--a sixty-page catalogue of the varieties of aging. Proust sometimes crosses the line from exhaustive to exhausting. He does defend that practice later when he considers the book he will finally begin writing; such devotion to detail is necessary to plumb the reality behind reality.
The work of the artist, this struggle to discern beneath matter, beneath experience, beneath words, something that is different from them, is a process exactly the reverse of that which, in those everyday lives which we live with our gaze averted from ourselves, is at every moment being accomplished by vanity and passion and the intellect, and habit too, when they smother our true impressions, so as entirely to conceal them from us, beneath a whole heap of verbal concepts and practical goals which we falsely call life. In short, this art which is so complicated is in fact the only living art.
To judge from the quotations from other writers, Proust's Platonism appeals because it justifies the exertions of the suffering writer to extract general laws and 'the real' from everyday life. His elevation of this activity as the only real 'art' is sometimes a call to self-congratulation. For me the point of writing is to celebrate the messiness of life, to point out its contingencies and the trivial nature of its realities. Perhaps these are general laws, but they are no more to be celebrated than Proust's attitude toward women. But then I am not a Platonist.
I enjoyed this much more than I did when I read it before. I must have been in my mid-twenties at the time, and I was not ready for this. I still find it an appalling read not just because of the narrator's emotional and verbal flatulence but also because of the egoism of the characters. ('Here be monsters' would be my title for a work on Proust.) The first is a criticism of Proust as a writer who needed a good editor and more discipline; the second is an admission that he saw life accurately. Proust dismissed the greed of the literary Realists for recitals of facts as missing the point that the facts have to lead to the truth within, which can be uncovered only by a joint operation of the sentiments and the intellect, but his own insistence on plumbing emotions and impressions at great length misses the ability of someone like James or Harry Greene to use the surface facts as a means of revealing inner emotions and impressions. In the 'show vs tell' spectrum, Proust was a teller. There is still much of the nineteenth-century novelist about him. Like Balzac, he was an historical chronicler of society, alert to changes and the whimsies of fashions and fads. He saw the growing power of money over society and the decline in ancient claims to social pre-eminance. He understood the power of sexual attraction and its fleeting nature, the role of jealousy and pride. He revealed our basic egoism and blindness.
7. Balzac, The Black Sheep. Trans. Donald Adamson, of La Rabouilleuse. 3/6. A melodrama. Good brother, bad brother, the bad brother doubled by another villain whom he outwits and kills and then takes over his schemes. Neither brother is a convincing character. Careful plotting.
8. Stendhal, The Red and the Black. Trans. Roger Gard. 3/16. At least among young male fictional protagonists, Napoleon seems in the nineteenth century to have served as an example of a man of low birth and moderate means becoming a success. Julian Sorel is a difficult person to admire--confused, willful, touchy, a cad and a bounder, a daydreamer. The admiration, devotion, and love he provokes in Mme de Renal and then in Mlle de la Mole are inexplicable. The plot of this verges on the absurd, but Stendhal was accounted a realist by his contemporaries, and so the novel must have struck them as plausible.
9. Balzac, Lost Illusions. Trans. Herbert Hunt. 3/22. Like The Black Sheep, this features a contrasting pair of brothers (brothers-in-law this time). Both David Sechard and Lucien Chandon/de Rubempre are dreamers and naifs. Lucien is taken to Paris by an aristocratic woman who soon deserts him. After a period of poverty and struggling, during which he comes into contact with a high-minded group who advise him to be content with poverty while he struggles to become a great writer, Lucien opts for an easy success in journalism, takes an actress as his mistress, rises to great heights only to fall just as quickly. In the process he ruins David and his sister, impoverishing them and making them easy prey for an unscrupulous lawyer and his business rivals. Lucien returns in disgrace, achieves a measure of local success, realises how much harm he has done and decides to commit suicide. On his way to his intended watery grave, he meets the evil Vautrin, who is posing as a Spanish cleric and diplomat. Vautrin seduces him into returning to Paris and gaining revenge on all who humiliated him. In the end, David abandons his quest for fame and fortune and opts for a quiet life of domestic contentment in the countryside (bankrolled by money earned by selling his business and a stupendous inheritance from his miserly father--no lack of comfort here).
Balzac carefully details many varieties of chicanery--political, social, literary, theatrical, financial, legal, commercial. He writes with apparent accuracy about contemporary practices in finance, publishing, printing, papermaking, and journalism. The knowledge he exhibits about these subjects stands him in good stead when he presents the people in these worlds. I think one tends to carry the realism he exhibits in discussing technical subjects over into his presentation of his characters and assume their depictions are similarly accurate. Sometimes here I suspect his satire crosses the line into caricature--not that that makes it less enjoyable to read.
Balzac knew of The Red and the Black when he wrote this. Both feature ambitious but naive provincials who seek success in Paris only to fail. Both Julien and Lucien are less than sterling characters. They deserve their fates. Lucien is so weak-willed and so desirous of success that he is willing to do whatever it takes. He lives off the earnings of his actress girlfriend and, after her death, takes money earned by her faithful servant who prostitutes herself. He runs off with a married woman, loses her through his arrogance, and then regains her affections only to desert her again. He writes reviews, both favourable and unfavourable, for pay. He takes bribes and kickbacks. And in the end he sells himself to the devil. Throughout it all, he achieves the feat of being a thoroughly unlikeable character. He's not even a charming rogue.
10. Balzac, The Splendours and Miseries of Courtesans, trans. as A Harlot High and Low, by Bayner Heppenstall. 3/29. The continuation of Lost Illusions. Lucien is back in Paris and advances to a new position in society thanks to the funds provided by the mysterious priest, Carlos Herrera (Vautrin in diplomatic disguise). Coralie has been replaced by Esther. To further his scheme of promoting Lucien to the peerage and an important government post, Vautrin forces Esther to become the mistress of the plutocrat Nucingen. His schemes fail when he and Lucien are arrested after Esther's suicide. Lucien commits suicide in gaol, but Vautrin trades his position as head criminal in Paris for that of head of the CID in the Surete.
Here again Balzac present depictions of events and people that he wants to persuade readers are as accurate as his descriptions of Paris and its institutions. It's a neat trick for a 'realistic' author.
11. Stendhal, The Charterhouse of Parma, trans. John Sturrock. 4/5. A grand romance, whose major point seems to be that the Italians are driven by passion (unlike the rational French), that their closeness to their emotions is a superior form of living, and that sacrificing oneself for love is admirable. A theatrical and unlikely plot. I can't decide if Stendhal was intentionally humourous; perhaps I just not sympathetic to this type of work. Unable to devise a satisfactory ending, Stendhal opts for killing off his major characters.
12. Shakespeare, Macbeth. Arden 3 ed., ed. Sandra Clarm and Pamela Mason. Good introduction.
13. Madame de Sevigne, Selected Letters. Trans., with an introduction by, Leonard Tancock. Tancock says his translation contains about a tenth of the letters--most of them are letters to the daughter. Why is gossip--even gossip about people who have been dead for four centuries--so fascinating?
14. Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb. a translation of selected chapters by Robert Baldick. 4/17. I found a translation of the complete work online--this volume appear to be 20-25 percent of the complete Memoirs. It came as a shock to read this after Mme de Sevigne. Her prose is is so direct and unburdened by ornament and flourishes that Chateaubriand seems prolix and overblown.
It is clear why C is considered the father of romanticism in French literature. He tries hard to be modest but his ego defeats him. I recently read a comment by Hazlett to the effect that our confessions of our shortcomings are not attempts to be virtuous but assertions of our conceitedness. C is an example of this. His melancholy and world-weariness seem poses rather than expressions of self. He appears to be more himself when he brags that he was single-handedly responsible for the Bourbon restoration. He does seem more clear-sighted and level-headed when speaking of the events of his time apart from himself.
The middle of these 'memoirs' is devoted to a long biography of Napoleon. The author disappears for long stretches here. C both admired and deplored Napoleon. His aim is to present a balanced portrait as a correction to the glorification of Napoleon that happened following his death. Napoleon's impact on the lives of his contemporaries is apparent in the amount of space C devotes to him. Both C and Stendhal were romantics, but Stendhal's reaction to Napoleon is the opposite of C's--Stendhal was an unabashed admirer and the type of mythologiser C was determined not to be.
The Wikipedia article on C questions some of the C's accounts--his dinner with Washington, his travels in the American south. Even if one discounts C's bragging, this is still the account of his times and its experiences. In that it is genuine. I may read the complete online version.
15. John McGahern, All Will Be Well. 4/19. McGahern's autobiography. This focuses on his youth in the 1930s and 1940s, especially his relationships with his parents. His mother died when he was nine. Before that, he and his five siblings lived mostly with the mother, who was a teacher in Co. Leitrim. The father was a Garda sergeant stationed nearby who visited on occasion. After the mother's death, the children went to live in the Garda barracks with the father. The father was a horror--angry, sullen, physical, ignorant, vain, boastful, tyrannical, jealous. The ingredients of many of McGahern's works were taken from his life. The work is written in McGahern's understated style and displays his deep understanding of us and the worlds that make us what we are. One of the few autobiographies that I have read that impresses me as honest.
16. Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education. Trans. Robert Baldick, with an introduction and notes by Geoffrey Wall. 5/6. Flaubert wanted to make this a record of his generation, and that meant grounding it thoroughly in French political history of the 1840s. He could count on his immediate audience knowing that history, but many of his offhand references to events are now obscure. Wall's annotations are a great help in navigating the novel.
Frederic Moreau, and many in the group of men surrounding him, are dilettantes. They have great dreams but do little to bring them about. They talk rather than act, They run after whatever idea is in fashion at the moment. Their opinions are easily swayed by others.
Except for a few months when he has to return to his native town because of a lack of funds, Frederic never works. A timely inheritance, which he gradually fritters away, saves him from the necessity of earning a living. Life deals him good cards and he plays that hand. The money frees him from the necessity of becoming involved with others that work would have entailed. He is an exemplar of the uncommitted man. He drifts and becomes a sightseer, a tourist, of life. He even misses out on the most dramatic political event of his times. He fortuitously happens to take his mistress on vacation during the siege of Paris in 1848, returning only as the government is restoring order.
Early in his life, he meets a married woman, Mme Arnoux, who becomes the ideal love of his life. The two eventually admit their love for each other, but they never progress beyond talk and a few kisses. Their relationship mirrors Frederic's relationships with ideas and events. It's tepid and distant, frequently interrupted for years at a time..
Frederic also is involved with one of those lower-class women who become a professional mistress (to several of the characters in the novel in succession) and fathers a child by her. Although the involvement lasts several years, it, too, is tepid and off-again, on-again. Frederic is unmoved by the child's death. The mistress finds him crying over his estrangement from the love of his life and thinks Frederic is crying for the loss of the child. Frederic lets her believe this--which is typical of his approach to others. He is content if others have an opinion of him that doesn't complicate his life. (The mistress is most often called the Marshal in the text after the costume she is wearing when Frederic first meets her--the one woman with whom Frederic has a long-term physical relationship is often figured as masculine.)
He also becomes the "boy toy" of a rich woman, and the daughter of a rich man chases him. (Other than the mistress who is in part attracted to his money, the reasons for his ability to interest women is obscure. Like many French novelists of this period, Flaubert seems to assume that it's enough for a man to be handsome and presentable for him to prove irresistible to women.) Frederic's approach to these two women, either of whom would have been the 'splendid' match much pursued in nineteenth-century fiction, is occasionally opportunistic but always unenthusiastic. They are more convenient, pleasant ways to pass the time and fuel for daydreams than occasions for romance and grand passions. He loses both of these women through carelessness and inaction.
In his old age, he has no female companions, but that does not bother him. The novel ends with he and a life-long friend reminiscing about a visit to a brothel during their school days. Frederic ended up fleeing the brothel when the women laughed at him for being shy. Both Frederic and his friend remark that those were 'good times'. A fondly remembered episode of failure and non-engagement sums up Frederic's life.
Flaubert includes several detailed descriptions of scenes and social events. The chaos of the siege of Paris is contrasted with an idyllic description of the Forest of Fountainbleau that runs for several pages. Early in the work there is a description of a fancy-dress party at the home of the mistress; later there are similarly detailed accounts receptions and dinners at the home of the rich woman. These impressed me as being much more realistic than the analogous episodes in Balzac. Balzac's chronicles are atmospheric and melodramatic in comparison with Flaubert's. At least for me, this makes Flaubert's account of his times more convincing.
Like Julian Sorel, Frederic falls in love with an unhappily married woman. Both women break off the relationship when their child becomes ill, which they consider a sign from god and a punishment for their sins. Also like Julian Sorel, Frederic has an opportunity to make an advantageous marriage. Unlike Sorel, Frederic never really becomes deeply involved with any of the women in his life. The same can be said of their involvement with the events of their times. Frederic is an observer; Julian is a participant. Flaubert and his readers would have been familiar with The Red and the Black. and the differences between Julian and Frederic would have been apparent and reinforced Flaubert's presentation of Frederic.
The contrasts with both Balzac and Stendhal are telling. Frederic Moreau is a very different person from Julian Sorel and Lucien Chandon/de Rubempre. The latter two are far more intense and motivated by their passions. Ultimately they both failed to attain their dreams, but they tried to achieve them. Frederic fritters away his life much as he fritters away his fortune and his opportunities. He always finds something to do that seems important at the moment but that has the effect of allowing him to neglect what is truly important. It is a recurrent pattern in his life.
17. Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature (A Rebours), trans. Robert Baldick, with introduction and notes by Patrick McGuinness, 5/13. Des Esseintes, a rich young man disgusted with modern life, retreats to an isolated house in the countryside, where he surrounds himself with furnishings, paintings, and books that meets his exacting tastes. The furnishing of the house allows him to deliver sermons on colors, paintings, home furnishings, gemstones, plants and flowers, and literature (classical, religious, modern prose and poetry). He is attracted to the artifact rather than nature. In fact nature tends to shrivel and die in his house--a tortoise whose carapace he has gilded and decorated with gems expires quickly, as do all the exotic plants he fills his house with. His tastes run toward the surface.
He is isolated in the house except for two elderly servants, with whom he has little contact, the occasional tradesman delivering orders, and doctors. He leaves the house only once--after reading Dickens, he develops a desire to see London. With several hours to spend in Paris before the boat train leaves, he visits an English bookstore and an English pub. In the end he decides that is sufficient exposure to England and he returns to his hermitage. He has a nervous breakdown, which bleeds over into physical deterioration. A specialist brought in from Paris prescribes a cure--a return to the world Des Esseintes hates. His attempted cure for the disease of bourgeois modernism makes him physically and mentally ill, and the only way to overcome those illnesses is to plunge into modernism.
This edition contains a preface Huysmans wrote twenty years after the first publication and a selection of contemporary reviews of the work. In retrospect Huysman saw the work as the first step in his conversion to Christianity. His contemporary were confused by the work and rejected it.
It is still an odd work--the disquisitions on various subjects are detailed and veer toward the esoteric. Huysmans did his homework. An earlier commitment to naturalism made Huysmans prize (and display) research into the topics discussed, and that learning is ponderously on display. At points in the work, I found it hard to read more than a few pages at a time. As an essay on taste, the work is consistent in favoring the decadent--Huymans favoured the products of worlds in decline.
It is a book I read more because of a fascination with the main character and his eccentricities than because I find it convincing.
18. Colm Toibin, Nora Webster. 5/15. Following the death of her husband, Nora Webster finds a new life for herself. Left with four children, she has to find an income, deal with her own and her children's grief, and circumvent the efforts of her well-meaning relatives to run her life. She lives in one of those small towns in which everyone knows everyone else, and everyone feels obliged to comment on their neighbours, either directly or through intermediaries. The story takes place in County Wexford during the late 1960s and the Troubles (Bloody Sunday figures in the story). In the end, it is music that helps her get on.
The story is told from Nora's point of view and is calculated to make her seem the most reasonable person in the book, yet there are enough comments from others to derail this view--many of the other characters view her as difficult, and she can be fierce in defending her own turf or her children. She is not what she thinks herself to be, and there is more to her than she or others think.
In thinking over her younger son: 'He would always be like this, she thought, he would become a man who worried about things, who watched the world for signs that something would go wrong.'
The writing in this is so simple and transparent that it's easy to overlook how complex this story is. It is a lesson in how to use everyday words and everyday situations to tell a story.
19. John McGahern, The Collected Stories. 5/22. Thirty-four short stories; original dates of publication from 1963 to 1985; the collection was first published in 1992. A reading of McGahern's autobiography makes it clear that he drew on his life for these stories. His father appears in many guises, some only thinly fictionalised.
Many of these stories deal with the shift from the rural Ireland that existed in McGahern's youth in the 1930s and 1940s to the more urban life experienced by people like McGahern. There are a lot of lost people in these stories. They inhabit the quiet, uneventful world found in much of McGahern's fiction, and their lives aren't filled with dramatic events. People live, they fall in love (or try to), they fall apart, they drift past each other, they understand too little or too much, they care too much or too little. They are cruel and kind to others in petty ways. They are confused and overwhelmed.
20-21. Read two thrillers while in vacation, one about the Boston strangler case, another about two cops robbing a bond firm and cheating the mob and getting away with $2 million.
22. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. 6/11. After watching Shakespeare in Love on Friday, I hungered to reread this. The same exuberance and volatility that propel Romeo and Juliet to fall in love also propel them to their deaths. Some of the most careful plotting and language in Shakespeare. The first half is bawdier in the original than in many revisions, perhaps because the archaic usages prevent us from getting the joke without footnotes.
It's hard to imagine Romeo and Juliet's love surviving past the initial enthusiasm--R and J on their fiftieth anniversary--that would be a play of regret and remorse and vindictiveness.
23. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Arden 3 ed., ed. David Daniell. 6/14. Nicely introduced and annotated volume, particularly on the use of language and rhetoric in this play. Daniell, for example, shows that at the beginning of the play, Brutus uses only long-established words whereas Cassius uses more recently coined words. As the play progresses Brutus's language moves closer to Cassius's.
24. Colm Toibin, The Heather Blazing. 6/15. Toibin's second novel, published in 1992; this version (2012) restores a chapter as originally written that was revised for the first edition to avoid a possible conflict with an ongoing legal case.
Eamon Redmond, a judge on the Irish high court in Dublin, periodically returns to his boyhood vacation home in Co. Wexford, where most of the contemporary action is set. Redmond grew up in nearby Enniscorthy in the 1940s. His father was a secondary teacher and an active local member of Fianna Fail. The novel mixes chapters on Redmond's current life with reminiscences of his youth. His father's family was very active in the Easter Rising and its aftermath and apparently in the Civil War, although no one talks about that. Reticence is very much at the heart of this work. The father's reticence is that of a man who has done awful things and doesn't want to think about them. Eamon's reticence is that of an emotionally hampered man. He keeps himself apart from his wife, barely knows his children. His one enthusiasm is the law.
There are problems with this work--Toibin can't quite manage to convey the desert at the heart of Eamon's marriage and his family life and has to resort to the wife complaining about it in order to reveal it in full, but he has since learned how to do that. Some of this was, I think, due to a failure of confidence--he wasn't quite sure that he was getting his point across and had to resort to an explicit 'tell-all' lecture by one of the characters.
The writing is so clear and the characters are so embedded in their location and time and their history (the blazing heather is a phrase in a song about the 1796 rebellion in Wexford) . Good novelists don't need drama, and the stuff is this novel is the quotidian choices and missed opportunities that bedevil all of us. Toibin has a short story entitled 'The Empty Family'--that could have been the title of this work as well.
25. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman. 7/7. Ed. Melvyn New and Joan New, with introductions by M. New and Christopher Ricks. Exemplary annotations by the News, explaining not only unfamiliar expressions and references but also the sources of Sterne's facts and opinions and his emendations of them.
Sterne published two volumes of this roughly annually over a four-year period. (There are nine volumes in all.) Annual instalments of two volumes might be the best way to read this--especially the middle volumes charge at the reader with the relentless humour of an undergraduate magazine. Surely the shaggiest shaggy-dog story ever told.
Uncle Toby and Tristam's father are, variously, the sensitive and rational halves of one person. If neither succeeds in embodying his respective principal quality, it is because his hobby-horse interferes. Both are very human in their predilection to be distracted, as are the other characters.
According to the introductions, Joyce cited this as an ancestor of Ulysses. It could as equally be cited as the source of the stream of consciousness method. It surely is one of the earliest examples in the history of the English novel of an author challenging the novel to be something more than a mere picaresque entertainment.
26. Colm Toibin, The Empty Room, 7/7. A collection of nine short stories.
Two of these, 'The Empty Family' and 'One Minus One', are first-person narratives in which Toibin might himself be speaking and not some unnamed narrator. The supposition that they are fictional and not autobiographical arises only because they are part of a volume labelled "stories" on the title page. Both involve a return of the narrator to Ireland. In 'The Empty Family' he returns to a vacation home near Wexford that he has maintained for many years without visiting it. His return from the San Francisco Bay area is unheralded and almost whimsical--at least no reason for it other than his desire to be back is stated. The narrative is addressed to an unnamed person with whom in the past he had some sort of relationship. The only other characters are the brother of this person and his family. The brother shows the narrator a telescope, and the narrator becomes entranced by a view of distant waves. What he sees through the telescope is their indifference to his situation. In the end, he remains undecided about what he will do--nature isn't cooperating by sending him a sign. In 'One Minus One' the narrator is in Texas, alone. He wishes he could speak with a past lover--it isn't stated explicitly, but it's clear that this is a male lover. The last time he saw this person was at his mother's funeral, and this thought leads into the story of his mother's death. As it does for many people, death led him to the thought that he had failed to do much that he should have done before his mother death and that it's too late now. Upon the narrator's return to the United States, however, he realises that he is just as happy not to have had an opportunity to construct a stronger relationship with her.
Three of the stories deal with Spain. The longest of these (in fact the longest story in the collection), 'The Street', concerns a young Pakistani guest-worker in Spain who falls in love with an older man, also a Pakistani worker. They eventually arrive at a modus vivendi that will allow them to be together in the future. What's interesting here is the double displacement from Ireland to Spain and from a gay Irishman living in Spain (as Toibin did in his youth) to a homosexual (there's nothing gay about him) Pakistani living in Spain. The characters in this are so restrained and tentative. It's a marvel that they find a way to love each other. Did the double displacement allow Toibin to let them experience the love the other--Irish--characters in this collection cannot?
'Silence' deals with a dinner-party conversation between Lady Gregory and Henry James. Lady Gregory is a widow, much sought after as a guest when an extra woman is needed because she is careful not to step outside the bounds of supportive dinner guest. While she was married, she had an affair with a poet. When the affair ended, she wrote a series of sonnets and then gave them to the poet and asked him to include them in his next book of poetry, which he did. No one else knows that she wrote them. She asks James if he will listen to an anecdote that might serve as a basis for one of his stories. With his encouragement, she tells a fictional story of a clergyman who, on his honeymoon, finds a letter from a former lover of his wife. The clergyman is at first inclined to banish his wife, but then decides to live with her but not have sex with her. Lady Gregory wonders later if she should have made the story closer to her own experience. Her gift of the story to James duplicates her gift of the sonnets to the poet--her impact on literature is mediated through others and maintained by silence.
More important, her silence is replicated by many of the other characters. Silence, reticence, an unwillingness or inability to express emotion, is a way of life for them. The one character who does talk too much is a professional journalist, a devout Catholic, and a tireless proponent of the 'new' Ireland about to publish a book that will reveal all about a sexual liaison with a priest during her schooldays. One gets the sense that she isn't so much protesting her abuse as revelling in it (almost as if she is taking advantage of all the publicity surrounding the sex scandals). She announces her intentions over dinner in an hotel to a long-time acquaintance, a gay writer of mysteries and thrillers. What she doesn't know--or doesn't want to know--is that the writer and her husband had a sexual liaison of their own during the schooldays and later. Verbosity becomes as much a means of hiding from emotion as reticence.
27. Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Pages from the Goncourt Journals. Foreword by Geoff Dyer; selections ed. and trans. with an introduction by Robert Baldick. 7/10. A reminder of how difficult it is to see oneself with the 'honesty' one is willing to levy on others. A record of a spiteful, mean-spirited egoist blind to his own failings. Nonetheless an engaging, gossipy look at an era and several important writers.
Favorite quote: 'If there is a God, atheism must strike Him as less of an insult than religion.
28. Colm Toibin, Blackwater Lightship. 7/11. The plot of this is familiar--a family is brought together by a crisis and works through old quarrels and begins to move towards reconciliation. Helen, her mother Lily, and her grandmother Mrs. Devereaux, who seldom see one another, learn that Declan, Helen's brother, has AIDS (this appeared in 1999, when AIDS was still fatal). Declan wants to spend time at his grandmother's house along the Irish Sea in County Wexford. This is the same crumbling seacoast found in The Heather Blazing, and, like the family in that novel, the siblings were sent away during their youth while a parent died. Helen and Declan stayed with their maternal grandparents. Like the brothers in The Heather Blazing, they felt abandoned by their parents and coped by stifling their emotions. Helen has retained that isolation more than Declan. Declan has been ill for some time and is nearing the end when he informs his family of his condition. During the few days he spends at his grandmother's house, his condition worsens and he has to return to hospital in Dublin. Two of his friends, Paul and Larry, join the group of women. They know far more about Declan's life and his illness than do the women, adding to the tensions. Neither the mother nor the grandmother knew that Declan is gay, let alone that he is sick, and they do not take gladly to the news. Between sessions of caring for Declan, various of the caregivers have conversations about their pasts and their conflicts.
Nothing dramatic happens to resolve the tensions. The relationships among the three women begin to change, but the rapprochments are tenuous. One feels that the status quo ante could reappear quickly.
Helen's relationships with her husband and two sons are similarly guarded on her part. She holds back. She is afraid of her love for her husband, but Declan's approaching death and her own realisation of the causes of her estrangements from her mother and grandmother lead her to resolve to do better by her own family--again movement towards change but still tenuous and fragile.
The title comes from a former lighthouse near the grandmother's house. In explaining this to Paul and Larry, the mother remarks, 'I thought it would always be there'. And then she remarks to Helen, 'I thought your father would live for ever.' At another point, the grandmother reminds everyone that this is a 'vale of tears'. The father's death drove mother and daughter apart; the brother's death may bring them together.
All this is narrated in Toibin's usual sparse, laconic prose. The man seldom uses an adjective, let alone metaphors or similes. It is a prose that reflects the emotional poverty at the centres of these characters.
29. Colm Toibin, Mothers and Sons. 7/12. A collection of ten short stories, one of which ('One Minus One') is included in The Empty Room. All the stories have a mother and a son, but the relationship is not the focus of some of them, in the sense that either the son or the mother could be replaced by some other character. In 'Famous Blue Raincoat', for example, a son finds some old records that his mother recorded decades earlier when she and her sister briefly formed a rock group. The finding prompts the mother to think about her sister and her experiences. The son functions here as the initiator of the story, but he has no role in the main part of the story. Someone else--the husband, the woman herself--could have found the records that trigger the mother's memories.
The title aside, all the stories here display Toibin's ability to amass quiet details into revelations. His stories work by accretion, much as does experience.
30. Colm Toibin, The South. 7/13. Toibin's first published novel; first published 1990. The 'south' here is both the south of Europe and the South as in the Irish Republic. In 1950 Katherine, a daughter of a well-off Protestant family in County Wexford (their home was torched after WWI), deserts her husband and ten-year-old son in Ireland and flees first to mother in London (who in the 1920s similarly deserted her husband and Katherine) and then with her mother's financial support to Barcelona. There Katherine falls in with a group of artists (she is herself a painter). She moves in with Miguel, a former supporter of the Spanish Republic. They move to a village in the Pyrenees and have a child together. Michael Graves, another Irish emigre, who coincidentally is also an artist and also from Wexford, becomes a close friend. He is enamoured of Katherine, but their relationship doesn't move beyond friendship. Michael/Miguel are from the other side of the political divide--Miguel realises when Katherine tells him about Irish history that she and he do not have similar political leanings, and Michael is a Catholic and a supporter of the Republic.
Spanish history catches up with Miguel. He is arrested by the police and severely beaten. He goes into a depression, abandons painting, and dies in an automobile accident, along with their daughter. Katherine leaves the village and moves back to Barcelona and eventually ends up in Dublin. She contacts her son (the husband is now dead). The son is married (to a Catholic) and has a child. Katherine continues to paint--she is successful artistically, less so financially. Michael Graves has also returned to Ireland along with her and scrapes along on the dole.
It is tempting to see this as a national allegory--people from opposite sides of political divides coming together with Katherine figured as the one-time member of an ascendancy joining with representatives of the oppressed. Her relationship with Miguel ends when he and the product of their union are killed; her relationship with Michael never develops much beyond co-existence. At the end of the novel, Michael is staying overnight in Katherine's Dublin flat, but they are sleeping in separate bedrooms and their diurnal schedules are not synchonised. Both countries that Katherine inhabits are 'southern'; Miguel and Michael are related names; both of the principal men in her life are radicals. The two sides in both countries' conflicts are headed toward a sort of rapprochement (explicitly in the novel in Ireland, and surely Toibin expected readers to be aware of events in post-Franco Spain).
Katherine's paintings are mostly landscapes. Her painting teacher in Spain trains her to sketch in the outlines with black lines and then fill in the colours. Her Spanish paintings feature reds, yellow, browns; the Irish ones are grayer. Her artistic endeavours are more attached to the land and the scenery than to the people in those scenes. Toibin's writing technique resembles Katherine's painting--outlines gradually filled in with colours, warmer ones in the Spanish scenes, grayer ones in the Irish.
According to Toibin's afterword (dated 2012) , he spent many years writing this. It isn't so much a 'first' novel or a piece of juvenalia as a much revised product of many years' labour and the work of a mature writer. His prose is, as always, quiet and undramatic.
31. Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Trans. Lafcadio Hearn, with notes and other apparatus by Marshal C. Odes. 7/15. On a wild night, Saint Anthony is tempted by the Seven Deadly Sins, a host of heretics, the gods from many different pantheons, monsters, and the Devil, who tries to persuade him that all of his beliefs about God contradict God's nature and hence can't be true. That he cannot encompass the infinite with his finite mind. In the end, Anthony is surrounded by teeming life and accepts it. As the dawn breaks, he resumes his meditations.
Flaubert worked and reworked this over several decades. It is a product of much research, and, avaunt le nom, he produces what would now be called an info-dump. The book occasionally seems a means to house all his researches. This edition is provided with a glossary of personal and place-names and a few terms. Without it, the book would be a mystery. This is cast in the form of a play, with stage directions and descriptions of the scenery, costumes, appearance of the various characters. The spoken parts take the form of the dramatic declarations found in the classical French drama. The dedication of Naturalism to the facts meets baroque excess.
32. Colm Toibin, The Story of the Night. 7/16. A first-person narrative told by Richard Garay. He is the son of an English woman and an Argentine father. His father dies when he is young and he is raised by his mother and lives with her in Buenos Aires until she dies when he is in his twenties. He first makes a living by teaching English in a private school, but is taken up by an American couple, who work for the IDA (or maybe the CIA) and arrive in Argentina after the Falklands War and the downfall of the generals. The Americans are working to restore democracy and privatize Argentina's oil industry. Richard first serves as an interpreter but quickly becomes a successful intermediary between the visiting businessmen and the Argentine bureaucracy.
While in college, Richard tutored the scion of a rich family in English. As he becomes more successful, the family begins to treat him as someone they want to know and he meets the younger son in the family, Pablo. Pablo and Richard fall in love and live together. Both discover that they have AIDS (they contracted the disease separately from other partners). The story ends with them beginning to work out how they will live and more than likely die with AIDS.
It is a love story, with all the ups and downs of all love stories. Pablo's first response upon learning he has AIDS is to break off the relationship without telling Richard why. It is only when both pay a visit to the same doctor that they reunite. Pablo worries about how his family will react if they discover that he is gay. Both men choose to be closeted in a society that would judge them harshly. There are many other demands on their time--careers, family, friends, and eventually medical treatments. Their relationship is stifled more than most relationships because of their felt need to hide it.
Since this story is told by Richard, we get as much of his personal history as he chooses to tell us and as much of Pablo's history as Pablo chooses to tell Richard or that Richard finds out from Pablo's friends. Particularly in Richard's story there are many undeveloped or open-ended pieces of history. People come into his life, appear to be on the verge of becoming important to him, and then meander out of it. He has many false starts on the way to his relationship with Pablo. In that sense the novel mirrors life more than do most narratives with their overdetermined plots. It has characters who might become major players in most novels but don't here.
Argentine history and culture are major factors in Richard's story, but their introduction is handled deftly. Toibin doesn't do 'info-dumps' even though he obviously knows enough about Argentina to create a realistic background. Argentina hangs like a pall over this novel. Toibin's Irish novels have the grayness of that washed-out landscape. Here the grayness isn't so much the colours of the landscape as the strictures of Richard's life--personal, societal, professional.
The people--the mother as English immigrant clinging to her origins as her sign of difference from Argentinians, Pablo's family, Richard as a liminal figure between cultures and between gay and straight society, the American agents and the American businessmen Richard meets as part of his work, Pablo's two gay friends from San Francisco--all of them ring true, even the minor characters. Given the great differences among them, it's a feat of writing.
The title refers to the differences in nightlife under the generals (non-existent) and under the more open society found after their fall--Richard notes at one point that the number of well-dressed revellers on the street late at night must surprise the visitors he oversees. It is also a personal 'night' for Richard and Pablo as they muddle their way towards more of a life for themselves.
33. Colm Toibin, Brooklyn. 7/19. Eilis Lacey is a precursor to Nora Webster, who is referred to twice in this novel. Both women are forced by circumstances to move outside their accustomed path and become independent. Both emerge from circumstances in which others or society has decided what they should be and have to find for themselves the way that they want to live.
Toibin's ability to write quiet stories is again displayed. He also knows the meanness that can be found in small towns and small groups and also the generosity.
34. Colm Toibin, The Testament of Mary. 7/21. Mary's story retold as a grieving mother who doesn't understand her son or his followers and who was devastated by his crucifixion. She is plagued by two would-be chroniclers who insist that he was divine and want stories to put in their accounts. By removing the numinous from the story, Toibin renders Mary a very human person. The book isn't long (perhaps 25,000 words), but it's effectively told in Toibin's sparse dry prose that focuses on Mary's first-person narrative giving her versions of events.
35. Colm Toibin, New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families. 7/24. A collection of fifteen lectures and essays on the relationships between writers' families and their writings. The essays treat a variety of writers, including President Obama. In moving from these essays to Toibin's fictions, his obsession with families and childrens' relationships with parents becomes clearer. An critic's abiding interest is also a writer's concern.
Toibin on the novel and criticism--
"The novel is not a moral fable or a tale from the Bible, or an exploration of the individual's role in society. . . . A novel is a pattern, and it is our job [not to judge characters morally "but] to relish and see clearly its textures and its tones, to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put in place This is not to insist that a character in fiction is merely a verbal construct and bears no relation to the known world. It is rather to suggest that the role of a character in a novel must be judged not as we would judge a person. instead, we must look for density, for weight and strength within the pattern, for ways in which figures in novels have more than one easy characteristic, one simple affect. A novel is a set of strategies, closer to mathematics or quantum physics than something in ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatization of how these energies might be controlled, given shape."
"The novel is unsure whether it is a story told by a singnle teller, or a play enacted by a number of actors. It is both static and theatrical in its systems, a sphere in which a single controlling voice operates or many competing voices."
36. Colm Toibin, The Master. 8/5. Toibin's take on Henry James, somewhere between biography and a fictional reconstruction of James's inner life, dealing especially with his relationships with family members, the three women (his sister Alice, Constance Woolson, and his cousin Minny Temple) with whom he had a deeper emotional attachment, and his attractions to several men.
Toibin pursues one of his interests here by showing how James transmuted his relationships and chance encounters and stray bits of gossip into his fictions. He also explores the mystery of how this emotionally stunted man managed to produce fiction of such emotional depth. The James of this book keeps real people at a distance emotionally but draws close to them in his fictions--which begs the questions of why so many people found such a man in both his real life and the fictional life given him here an attractive companion.
I've never been convinced by many of James' characters. They are too analytical, too wizened. They are too much the product of a man who thinks about feeling rather than feels, an observer rather than a participant. I wonder how James would have rated on the autism scale--near the more sociable end certainly but still the type who deals best with people when they don't impinge on him. None of this has anything to do with Toibin's work, however--as a work of fiction, it is a stunning character study. Toibin's character James is more convincing than many of James's characters.
37. Leon Edel, Henry James: A Life. 8/11. This is a one-volume, condensed version of Edel's five-volume magnum opus, put together about a decade after the last volume in that series was published. In the preface, Edel says that because of the differences in mores since he began writing the biography, he is able to be more open about James's sexual life here than in the original.
Edel's main concern is to link James's psychology with his fictions and show how his childhood and family relations shaped his dominant themes. His is perhaps a more Freudian version of James than would be written now. He stresses James's exploration of what would now be called his feminine side in his works. He addresses James's numerous close relationships with men, especially younger men later in his life, but concludes that we can't know the extent of physical intimacy in these relationships.
Even after reading this, I still find James an enigma. Why did people like this man so much? There is too much neatness in Edel's formulation of James--a neatness James himself would have rejected. One of the reviews quoted on the back cover of this edition characterises Edel's biography as a 'nonfiction novel'. That is true of all biographies I've read.
38. Henry James, The Golden Bowl. 8/28. I find that I can read about ten pages of James before my mind turns off and refuses to make sense of the words. It took me over two weeks to finish this. My opinion remains the same. Nobody behaves like the characters in this book. It's more one of James's thought experiments about he would react if he were each of the four main characters in the two love triangles. Why is James labeled a realist? Maybe Edel is right--this is just an extended therapy session for James, the final work in he which he resolved all the problems he faced in his life.
James has an interesting technique of having one of the characters (here the ridiculously named Fanny Assingham) comment on the other characters' actions. Fanny is helped in this by an apparently dense husband anxious to indulge her penchant for analytical gossip. James uses this technique not only to reveal things about the other characters but about the speaker. Fanny is so often wrong--another of James's unreliable witnesses.
39. Ivan Turgenev, Sketches from a Hunter's Album. Trans. Richard Freeborn. 9/6. A collection of character studies. A member of the rural gentry class travels around his home area hunting. During his rambles he meets people and they tell him their story, which he then presents to his readers. The narrator here is quite conscious of his audience and frequently addresses them directly. In its day, this was considered political enough to earn Turgenev a sentence of banishment to his own estate in the country. The political and social commentary is no longer salient. What remains is an immensely entertaining cross-section of rural life in the 1840s and 1850s. Turgenev's ability to describe a scene or a person is impressive. He is able to make much out of a few details.
40. Anne Enwright, The Green Road. 9/8, A familiar novel about a family. This one features a drama queen mother, an absentee father (he isn't much of a presence in the first half and he is dead in the second half), and four children, each with problems. No one is particularly loving or lovable, although each is demanding about love. The two sons and the younger daughter drift into and out of relationships; the older daughter has a successful marriage but she is obese and has cancer and focused on food and feeding. The four children escape home. The older son is gay and ends up in New York and Toronto; the younger son is an aid worker in Africa and Asia, before returning to Dublin; the younger daughter is a drunken actress (she is far more successful at her drinking than at her acting), who lives with and has a child by a man she isn't closely attached to. All four children return home for Christmas; the mother goes out for a drive and a walk after Christmas dinner and gets lost. She has an epiphany (rebirth in a cow byre--shades of Jesus in the manger) and realizes how lost she has been her entire life. Family relations improve a bit after this, but only a bit.
Enwright writes incredibly well (at one point a son investigating his parents' old bedroom imagines his mother sitting before her mirror having a 'demanding relationship with her own image'), but this is well trod novelistic ground, and even Enwright, with all her capacity to understand people and her skills at conveying that understanding, cannot make it fresh.
41. Henry James, The Jolly Corner and Other Tales. 9/16. Ed. with an introduction and notes by Roger Gard. Penguin Classics ed., 1990. Contains 'The Third Person,' 'Broken Wings,' 'The Beast in the Jungle,' 'The Birthplace,' 'The Jolly Corner,' 'The Velvet Glove,' 'Crapy Cornelia,' and 'The Bench of Desolation.' All there were published between 1900 and 1910 and are written in the 'late style'.
The late style is easier to take in small doses.
James can be sly. The two old maids in 'The Third Person' jointly inherit an old house. Upon taking residence, they discover it is haunted, and they quietly compete first to see which has the most visitations and most knowledge of the spirit and then to see which of them can exorcise the ghost. The feckless married couple in 'The Birthplace', by a karmic reward for a past good deed, become curators of Shakespeare's natal home and almost lose their posts because of the husband's predilection for telling the truth about house to visitors (i.e., that its contents and the legends associated with it are largely fictional). Luckily for them, the husband discovers in time that the way to prosper at the job is to supply the tourists with the colourful details they want.
'The Beast in the Jungle' and 'The Jolly Corner' are among James's best short stories. The man whose fate it is to be nothing and who misses out on the one significant event in his life (the love given him by his faithful companion in his wait for the significant event) and the man who in late middle age contemplates what might have been had he chosen a different course are here observed wisely and sympathetically. The sympathetic woman figures in both stories, as well as in 'Crapy Cornelia,' which, like 'The Jolly Corner,' also has an ex-pat American returning to New York. 'Broken Wings' and 'The Bench of Desolation' deal with the re-uniting of ancient lovers; the latter is for me the least successful story in the collection. The woman, who is jilted by the man, extorts money from him by threatening a suit for breach of contract (did anyone still do that in 1910?). The man's life is ruined financially. The woman returns many years later to give the man a large sum of money in recompense and reveals that she did what she did out of love for him. It just isn't convincing, not the least because the man hardly seems the type to inspire such love.
42. Henry James, The Other House. 9/21. James originally sketched this out as play, but following his failure in the theatre, he was unable to interest anyone in it and he reworked it as a short novel. It still bears traces of its origins. It is presented in three books; each book takes place in a single location, just an act of a play might take place on one set. Two, sometimes three, characters have a conversation; one of them leaves; the person who remains is joined by another character and the two of them have a conversation; the process repeats until all the major characters have had a turn on stage. The characters travel to the location, rather than, as more usual in a novel, the location shifting with the characters.
A husband promises his wife on his deathbed that he will not remarry until their child is grown. This promise is witnessed by a good friend of the wife, who secretly loves the husband. Following the wife's death, another woman falls in love with the husband. The husband secretly loves the second woman but he holds to his promise. The first woman kills the child and tries to blame the death on the second woman. Her plot fails. The husband and the second woman confess their love for each other. Even though everyone realizes the first woman is guilty of murder, they let her escape.
The plot is melodramatic, and the novel relies more on dialogue than many of James's novels--more signs of its conception as a play. The first woman is far more overtly evil than many of his villains--that too must derive from the need for drama on stage. James must not have felt good about this--he excluded it from the New York edition. It would have been interesting to see how the 'late' James would have handled this theme. The second woman confesses that she suspected that the first woman intended to kill the child, but did not stop her. Since she (and the husband) profit by the murder, they owe their newfound ability to marry to the murderess. The later James would have found much to fuss over in that.
43. Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. 9/25. A history of the 70,000 years of Homo sapiens in 400 pages is necessarily devoted to the very large picture. Some of this seems willful ignoring of complications--Harari argues that since WWII we have lived in a peaceful era, which ignores a lot of conflicts since then.
The book is organized around the question of whether our increasing ability to organize ourselves into large polities and to control more and more of our environment for our collective benefit has increased our happiness. It depends on how you define and measure happiness, of course; but according to Harari by any standard we are not individually much different from our ancestors in terms of happiness. And what of the future--what will we make of ourselves given our potential to redesign ourselves and our environment? The answer to that is we don't know because we don't know what we want. The last sentence in the book: 'Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?' History meet Donald Trump.
I should know better by now than to read books like this.
44. Henry James, The Spoils of Poynton. 9/26. Not one of his best. Melodramatic and ends with a convenient fire that eliminates the wellspring behind the plot without resolving the conflicts driving the plot. A young woman and a young man opt to do the right thing (the young man marries another woman) rather than follow their passions and get married themselves. It feels allegorical, with the artworks at Poyton (the 'spoils' of the title) representing the values threatened by modern mores and the young man's marriage as the triumph of shoddy tastes and acquisitiveness without understanding.
45. Henry James, What Maisie Knew. 9/29. An unusual topic for a novel written in the mid-1890s. Maisie is the young daughter (six when the story starts, perhaps ten or eleven when it ends) of Ida and Beale Farange, a divorced couple who treat Maisie as a way of punishing the ex-spouse. Neither cares much for her except as a pawn in their ongoing struggle and as a source of income (Maisie has a trust fund). Maisie's first governess marries her father and becomes her stepmother, and at that point disappears with the father from Maisie's life for over a year. Maisie's mother leaves her for long stretches in the care of Mrs Wix, nominally a governess but really the only mothering figure in Maisie's life. Maisie's mother also remarries, to Sir Claude, who takes an interest in Maisie and aligns with Mrs Wix to give Maisie the affection she craves. Claude and the new Mrs Farange meet and become attracted to each other. Both birth parents take up with other people and abandon Maisie to her stepparents and Mrs Wix. The liaison between the two stepparents affronts Mrs Wix, who is discharged. Maisie returns to the care of her stepmother. Sir Claude spirits her away to France, where they are joined by Mrs Wix and eventually by the second Mrs Farange. The birth parents and stepparents are now separated and may divorce. Maisie is forced to choose whom she will live with, and she chooses Mrs Wix.
Maisie discovers early on that feigned ignorance saves her a lot of grief in the war between her parents and later between parents and stepparents. She sees and understands more than the adults realise, and it is her growing sense of morality (encouraged by Mrs Wix) that leads her to see that all four are not the best people and to throw in her lot with Mrs Wix. Of the four, she develops the closest bond with Sir Claude, but she eventually understands that he is weak and cowardly and will not be the loving protector she wants.
A curious book--James tries to put himself in the position of a confused child but he can't help endowing Maisie from time to time with his own ability to understand people. Nowadays a stepfather who abducts his stepdaughter would be arrested, but James avoids any suggestion of sexual attraction between the two. He does, rather openly for James, deal with the philandering of the parents and the stepparents. At the end of the novel, the birth father and mother are being kept by their respective lovers, and the second Mrs Farange will need Sir Claude's financial help to survive and looks likely to get it.
46. Henry James, The Awkward Years. 10/5. I know this is supposed to be read as sharp commentary of fashionable English society in the 1890s, but the characters are as trivial and tedious as those in Meredith and are given to occasional bursts of Wildean dialogue. They just are not worth the effort it would take to understand James's understanding of them. It doesn't help that James's writing is particularly turgid here. This contains a much higher percentage of dialogue than most of James's works. It has the faults of much of his renderings of speech--too long, too meandering, too filled with qualifications and asides, too many sentences left unfinished when the interlocutor appears to get the point. There are places where the dialogue becomes so convoluted that it's impossible to tell who's speaking or to whom the pronouns refer. Since this lacks the usual Jamesian belabouring of the point through narratorial analyses, there are passages that defeat easy comprehension--which is perhaps the point--these people aren't understandable by any normal gauge. But why write about them then?
47. Henry James, Selected Tales, ed., with notes and introduction, by John Lyon. 10/15. Contains 'Four Meetings', 'Daisy Miller', 'The Pension Beaurepas', 'The Lesson of the Master', 'The Pupil', 'The Real Thing', 'Greville Fane', 'The Middle Years', 'The Death of the Lion', 'The Figure in the Carpet', 'In the Cage', 'The Real Right Thing', 'Broken Wings', 'The Abasement of the Northmores', 'The Beast in the Jungle', 'The Birthplace', 'Fordham Castle', 'Julia Bride', and 'The Jolly Corner'. Good notes and introduction. Many of these stories deal with the role of the artist. The difficulty of knowing another person and our tendency to misinterpret are common themes. Ultimately many of these are sad stories, peopled with flawed, very human characters. Of the stories that were new to me, 'In the Cage,' with its theme of the observer and interpreter of life and the observer's tendency to cross the line into participant, impressed me the most. 'The Figure in the Carpet' is one of the greats in my opinion--the inability of all but a few to decipher the meaning of life (of anything) and the subsequent anguish of those who realise there is a meaning but who can't comprehend it is a common experience.
48. Henry James, 'The Figure in the Carpet' and Other Stories, ed. Frank Kermode. 10/17. Eight stories dealing with writers. The usual suspects plus three I haven't read in the current series of excursions with James.
'The Private Life' is about a group of English staying at an inn in a mountainous area of Switzerland. The narrator and an actress discover that one of the other guests, an English aristocrat who is a leading socialite, literally ceases to exist when he is not in public; he has no private life. Another guest, a prominent writer, is actually divided into two people an affable and popular public man, and a private man who writes in a dark room while his public persona rambles about. An odd venture into the supernatural for James; clever but not compelling.
In 'The Next Time', James treats a serious literary author determined to write a work that will prove popular and earn him money. He fails because he is unable to write the kind of 'trash' that would sell. This was apparently written soon after James's failed attempt to find popularity on the stage.
'John Delavoy' deals with a young critic who has written a criticism of the title character (deceased at the time of the story) and his works. He meets Delavoy's sister, who thinks highly of his work. The piece is accepted by a magazine, only to be rejected in proofs when the editor finally reads it and realises that John Delavoy wrote about sex. The editor asks the sister to supply an article filled with gossipy anecdotes about Delavoy. She refuses and remains loyal to her brother's vision of life.
The themes of the last two are familiar--the isolated, lonely serious writer battling publishers' preferences for trash and the public's indifference to quality.
49. Henry James, 'An International Episode' and Other Stories, ed. S. Gorley Putt (lovely Jamesian name that). 10.23. Contains beside the title story, 'The Pension Beaurepas' and 'Lady Barberina'. All three deal with encounters between Americans and Europe/Europeans.
'An International Episode' and 'Lady Barberina' deal with 'mixed' marriages. In 'An International Episode', the son and heir of the Duke of Bayswater visits New York and Newport and becomes enamoured of a young woman from Boston, Bessie Alden. Bessie rejects the heir's offer of marriage because she finds him lacking in seriousness--in her view he squanders his advantages and refuses to use them to be a responsible person. In 'Lady Barberina', the male heir to an American fortune falls in love with the daughter of a marquis. He eventually marries her (but only after his new in-laws have forced him to make a generous settlement on LB) and takes her to New York City, where she refuses to be anything but disdainful of the US. A younger sister who accompanies her to NYC adjusts so well, however, that she elopes with an adventurer from the American West. The English mother demands the return of her older daughter, and LB refuses to leave England once she gets there. As the editor of the volume says in the introduction, the mismatch is not only between different cultures but between an intelligent man and a stupid woman--although the man is not intelligent enough to heed the warnings of an acquaintance about LB's behaviour in the US if he is foolish enough to marry her.
'The Pension Beaurepas' is more about encounters among Americans with different approaches to Europe. The wife and daughter of the Ruck family are Philistines who see Europe as a bazaar filled with luxury items for them to buy. Mrs. Church sees it as a cultural bazaar for her to study, and she is appalled by the Rucks and their influence over her daughter. The narrator is a student, ostensibly in Geneva to study French at the university, but over the course of the story he studies his fellow Americans more closely than he does his French lessons. Interestingly the narrator makes much the same point about the Ruck daughter Sophy and her mother that Edith Wharton makes in The Customs of the Country about Undine Spragg and her mother--than women in rich families are kept so ignorant of the family finances that they become unrestrained consumers and do not understand the impact of their extravagance on the family coffers.
All three predate the 'late period' James, which means the language is more straightforward. In terms of theme, they belong to James's explorations of American/European encounters. There is much misundertanding by both sides.
50. Henry James, Great Short Works, ed. Dean Flower. 10/24. Contains Washington Square, Daisy Miller, The Aspern Papers, 'The Pupil', The Turn of the Screw, and 'The Beast in the Jungle'. Read Washington Square, The Aspern Papers, and The Turn of the Screw.
I find The Turn of the Screw rather hysterical and more interesting for technical writerly concerns for the frame story that introduces it. As do many frame stories, it accounts for the existence of the manuscript that is the main story. It goes beyond this in suggesting that the story contains horrors quantitatively and qualitatively greater than the other stories told at the house party (there are other tales of the supernatural that utilise the same tactic), thus setting up the reader's approach to the story, and in speculating on the relationship between the man who possesses the manuscript and the woman who wrote it. The horror in the tale lies not so much in the supernatural events but in the governess's reaction to her visions/hallucinations. The governess survives (she has to in order to tell the tale) and apparently is sane enough to attract the house guest who owns the manuscript, which is another piece of evidence in the mystery of what is going on in this story.
Washington Square and The Aspern Papers are remarkable for presenting two women who are stronger and more decisive than they first appear. Catherine Sloper and the young Miss Bordereau turn out to be much more resolute than the men who want the goods they have (rather than the women themselves). They are less showy than Daisy Miller, but in the end they, too, are bent on living their own lives.
I read somewhere that children do not fare well in James's works. The younger characters in 'The Pupil' and The Turn of the Screw bear this out. They suffer for their elders' failings. The stories deflect what should be the other characters' just rewards on to the children. Perhaps the destruction of the innocent makes their ends even more horrific.
51. Shakespeare, King Henry IV, part 2. Arden 3 ed., ed. James C. Bulman. Good introduction and essays on performance and adaptations of the series. Bulman argues that our view of this play is conditioned by how it is performed--as an independent play or as the sequel to Part 1 or as the prequel to Henry V. As an independent play, he sees it as Falstaff's story and a celebration of both the high and the low parts of English society, with an emphasis on the chicanery both groups indulge in. As part of a series, it continues the story of Prince Hal's two fathers and his growth into a king. Obviously it is simultaneously both--it's impossible to read this without knowing the other two plays, but it is possible to forget them for long stretches in the sheer joy of Falstaff's cons of the Hostess and Justice Shallow.
The sections dominated by Falstaff introduce several well-rounded characters--Shallow, Silence, Pistol, Doll Tearsheet, the Hostess, plus the five recruits; Prince Hal's role in the Falstaff sequences is almost a walk-on. The Chief Justice has more interactions with Falstaff than does the Prince. Hal's life has moved on, and he has deserted Falstaff long before the climactic 'I know thee not, old man' speech. It's Falstaff's tragedy that he doesn't recognise that the finality of the break; he still holds to a belief in the King's friendship, now disguised for reasons of politics. His ability to deceive himself is part of his personality, and he doesn't change--all of which makes him a stronger character. The play wouldn't have the same impact if he reformed. (My view of that passage is influenced by Falstaff's lengthy, shadow-filled exit in Chimes at Midnight. Visual images from performances can overwhelm the reading of a play.)
On the political side, Northumberland's desertion of his erstwhile allies, the rebel leaders' self-deceptions, Prince John's trap, Henry IV's speeches about the cares of office and his justifications for his usurpation of the throne (my followers made me do it), the scene with the crown between the two Henrys, and Prince Hal/Henry V's speeches continue the Histories' themes about the immorality of political life. Henry V and his supporters argue that his riots and low companions are politic ventures to gain knowledge of all aspects of the people he will rule. That and Hal's 'my reformation will impress people' don't strike me as plausible. He's rationalising. Neither Falstaff and his companions nor the Kings and nobles face up to their behaviour, although Falstaff shows more self-awareness.
52. Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons. 10/30. The ideologies and the arguments of the day have changed but not the players. The clash between conservatives and revolutionaries and between parents and children remains the same, only the topics are different. The personalities are very familiar. Another work in which the story is resolved by killing off the main character. Bazarov is difficult to like, though, and impossible to admire. He may be a nihilist intent on questioning everything, but he upholds a traditional view of women without examining his reasons for doing so, and he tends to lecture the peasants he thinks he is studying.
53. Edith Wharton, 'Roman Fever' and Other Stories. 11.3. Besides the title story, this includes 'Xingu', 'The Other Two', 'Souls Belated', 'The Angel at the Grave', 'The Last Asset', 'After Holbein', and 'Autres Temps'. Deftly ironic tales.
54. Edith Wharton, 'The Muse's Tragedy' and Other Stories. 11/6. Twenty stories, including five of those in the preceding collection. Well written, but not spectacular for the most part. 'The Muse's Tragedy' is close in subject matter to 'The Aspern Papers', but Wharton focuses on the woman's point of view. Her secret is that although everyone, including the young sleuth/document hunter Danyers, thinks Mrs Anerton inspired the great poet Vincent Rendle, in truth she was a pleasant companion for him. She loved him, but he attached himself to her and her husband out for convenience' sake. She refuses Danyers's offer of marriage because of her shame.
55. Eudora Welty, The Optimist's Daughter. 11/6. A novella about loss, mourning, memory, family, place, and the ways we feed and feed off one another. Welty wrote with such economy of means--she needed only a few bits of conversation to present a character.
56. Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence. 11/8--a disaster of a day. Wharton deserves some carefully thought out comments, but I'm not in the mood (I'm writing this the day after). Early during his marriage to May Welland, Newland Archer thinks 'he did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience'. Archer overestimates his wife's lack of innocence and, like many of us, imagines himself to be in control when in truth he is the one being controlled. He's the innocent in the story.
57. Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth. 11/11. 'The heart of fools is in the house of mirth.' The sad tale of Lily Bart, who beauty, upbringing and expectations confine her to a frivolous life dedicated to the pursuit of a rich husband, but without the means to compete in the ultra-fashionable society of New York. She is foolishly heedless of the immorality of her associates but cursed with enough morality not to be ruthless enough to survive in their world. She isn't quite the pre-programmed automaton of the realists. Much of her bad luck is the result of chance--the man about to propose to her sees her leaving a house he knows to be tenanted at the moment only by a husband. Lily thought she was meeting the wife and leaves as soon as she discovers that the wife is not there, but not soon enough to save her reputation. There are a lot of chance encounters like that throughout the book. Wharton's point is that with enough money Lily could have overcome the social ostracism that comes her way in this immoral society, but that her poverty dooms her.
58. Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country. 11/12. As one character explains, the custom of the country is for American men to treat women with disdain and to regard them as incapable of understanding 'business'. Since Americans in general have no principles and no attachments, this in turn leads to the creation of frivolous spendthrifts like Undine Scragg.
The American 'aristocrats' in this--the old money of New York with their snobberies and finely tuned fastidiousness are too etiolated to contend with the newly arrived millionaires. The most they can do is contribute prestige through marriage and then sit on the sidelines tut-tutting. The new money Americans are also too naive and too uneducated to do much more than plunder Europe and consume its culture without understanding it. Despite her upward progression through 'society', Undine remains unsatisfied, indeed unsatisfiable, given her nature.
The work is marred by the author's own snobberies and disdain for her characters, especially the newly arrived Americans who have lots of money but little else. All of them have ridiculous names and live ridiculous lives. The satire is too broad to hit its target square on.
59. Edith Wharton, The Glimpses of the Moon. 11/14. A curious revisiting of The House of Mirth. Suzy and Nick Lanning are a young married couple, who are attached to the rich families of New York but lack their resources. In their first year of marriage, they move from free lodgings to free lodgings provided by their richer friends. One friend asks Suzy to repay her by abetting the deception of her husband and by taking care of her child. After some hesitation, she does. Nick finds about this later, and this leads to a rift in their marriage. Eventually the two reunite, having learned that they can do without their rich friends.
Like Lily Bart, Suzy is both attracted to and repelled by the attitudes of the rich. Once again, Wharton explores the compromises that those in the Lannings' and Lily's predicament have to make and the toll this takes on them. She opts here for the happy ending, but Suzy has married her Selden and settles for what he can give her.
This is a much lesser work than The House of Mirth, not only in length but in substance. Would a person capable of escaping from the temptations of the world of the rich have been attracted to it in the first place?
59. Christopher Gibbs, The Cambridge Companion to Schubert. 11/16. Sixteen essays on Schubert dealing with contemporary society and music culture, Schubert's works in various genres and his innovations and impact, and Schubert's reception and performance history. Informative and balanced.
60. Malcolm Boyd, Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos. Cambridge Music Handbook series. 11/17. A short guide (90+ pages) to the Brandenburgs, covering history, sources, general structure, and outlines of each of the six. Useful, informative.
61. Balzac, Pere Goriot. 11/20. Vautrin, Rastignac, a besotted old man, two grasping daughters, a squalid boarding house run by a repulsive crew, lessons on how to get ahead in Paris, and everywhere the putrefying impact of greed for wealth and position--ending with a young man whose education is complete and who is ready to take on the world. Sometimes the lectures are a bit forced into place, sometimes the dialogue is histrionic, but still one of the best works in the series.
62. Balzac, Ursule Mirouet. 11/29. Not one of his best. Occult themes melded to a tale of innocence wronged but (with supernatural intervention) eventually righted. Ursule is the virtuous heroine of Dickensian fiction. She meets and marries a dream lover out of romantic fiction. All this is joined to a tale of Balzackian greed in the provinces. There are moment that are quite good--the rapacious and mutually untrusting behaviour of a rich man's heirs at his deathbed is one of the best scenes in the book. There are also long lectures on mesmerism and Swedeborgianism--Balzac was a great proponent. The melodramatic righting of wrongs ends up punishing the wrong person, and the postscript assures readers that the happy couple prosper and live happily ever after and the bad man reforms and becomes a saint. This was written in the 1840s; so Balzac was a mature artist and not a novice writer trying his hand at an unrealistic romance.
63. Shakespear, Macbeth, 12/8. The Macbeths have the closest marriage in Shakespeare, a meeting of minds.
64. Robert Charles Wilson, Chronoliths. 12/11. Noticed this on the shelf and read it. Interesting sci-fi.
65. Neil Stephenson, Cryptonomicon. 12/23. 900 pages, nearly half a million words. Essentially two novels, one about cryptography and buried treasure in WWII and another about cryptography in the computer business of the late 1990s and buried treasure as a means of creating a cyber-currency, with improbably family links between the two groups of characters. A shaggy dog story that requires so much investment of time that one feels compelled to finish the book in order not to have wasted the time already put into it.
66. Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, Arden 3 ed., ed. Kent Cartwright. 12/24. Excellent introduction and editorial apparatus by Cartwright. It's a stellar piece of literary criticism that adds immeasurably to the appreciation of this work.
67. Patrick White, Memoirs of Many in One, by Alex Xenohpon Demirjian Gray. 12/27. White's last completed work. Alex Gray at one point writes that her purpose in writing and acting is to find out who she is. Her memoirs talk about her life as various characters and the madness of her old age. Patrick White, also a character in the book, is the writer she has charged with ordering her memoirs. The epilogue to this makes it clear that she is a stand-in for White himself, one of his creations who has somehow yoked him to her fictional daughter, the prosaic and unpassionate, very bourgeois, self-proclaimed rationalist Hilda, who is also another aspect of White the writer.
68. Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream. 12/28.