A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 13

Where this began
Day 12

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 158-169.

This section sent me back to Wordsworth, to "The Prelude" and the "Intimations of Immortality" ode, those poems that trace the process from boyish exhilaration to the disillusionment of maturity in which
nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower.

On his solitary walks in the autumn of his aunt's death the narrator begins to discover the disjunction between himself and the world, to be "struck for the first time by this discord between our impressions and their habitual expression."
And seeing on the water and on the face of the wall a pale smile answering the smile of the sky, I cried out to myself in my enthusiasm, brandishing my furled umbrella: "Damn, damn, damn, damn." But at the same time I felt I was in duty bound not to stop at those opaque words, but to try to see more clearly into my rapture.

But from the grumpy way with which his enthusiasm is received by a passerby, he "learned that the same emotions do not arise simultaneously, in a preestablished order, in all men."

And mostly what he discovers in himself is the limits of his adolescent erotic longings, which merge with the landscape.
For at that time everything which was not I, the earth and other people, seemed to me more precious, more important, endowed with a more real existence than they would have appeared to a grown man. And I made no distinction between earth and people. I desired a peasant girl from Méségliese or Rossainville, a fisherwoman from Balbec, just as I desired Méségliese and Balbec.

The narrator assumes an availability of women from the "lower" classes, keeping his imagination distant from women of his own class. And he "has not yet abstracted [sexual] pleasure from the possession of the different women with whom one has tasted it, [or] reduced it to a general notion that makes one regard them from then on as the interchangeable instruments of a pleasure that is always the same." Even in the sly passage in which he masturbates "at the top of our house in Combray in the little room smelling of orris root," he's at one with nature "until the moment when a natural trail like that left by a snail added itself to the leaves of the wild black currant that leaned in toward me."

And then adolescent eroticism gives way to detachment, disillusionment, depression:
I no longer believed that the desires which I formed during my walks, and which were not fulfilled, were shared by other people, that they had any reality outside of me. They now seemed to me no more than the purely subjective, impotent, illusory creations of my temperament. They no longer had any attachment to nature, to reality, which from then on lost all its charm and significance and was no more than a conventional framework for my life, as is, for the fiction of a novel, the railway carriage on the seat of which a traveler reads it in order to kill time.

This is followed by the scene, which takes place a few years later, in which the narrator spies on Mlle. Vinteuil and her lover as they mock the portrait of the late M. Vinteuil. It is a moment "that remained obscure to me at the time" but will eventually form in him the idea of sadism. Throughout the scene, the narrator's sympathetic understanding remains with Mlle. Vinteuil, in whom he "recognized her father's obsequious and reticent gestures, his sudden qualms.... And time and again, deep inside her, a timid and supplicant virgin entreated and forced back a touch and swaggering brawler."

Proust is, I think, rather self-conscious in his somewhat overheated treatment of this incident: He tries to downplay its melodramatic theatricality by drawing attention to it.
It was true that in Mlle. Vinteuil's habits, the appearance of evil was so complete that it would have been hard to find it so perfectly represented in anyone other than a sadist; it is behind the footlights of a popular theater rather than in the lamplight of an actual country house that one expects to see a girl encouraging her friend to spit on the portrait of a father who lived only for her; and almost nothing else but sadism provides a basis in real life for the aesthetics of melodrama.

But the narrator discerns in Mlle. Vinteuil something of the prudishness of her father. "It was not evil which gave her the idea of pleasure, which seemed agreeable to her; it was pleasure that seemed to her malign." And he ends by (somewhat heavy-handedly, I think, drawing a moral from the incident:
Perhaps she would not have thought that evil was a state so rare, so extraordinary, so disorienting, and to which it was so restful to emigrate, if she had been able to discern in herself, as in everyone else, that indifference to the sufferings one causes which, whatever other names one gives it, is the terrible and lasting form assumed by cruelty.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Different Perspective

I have mixed feelings about this, a three-dimensional exploration of Picasso's "Guernica." On the one hand, it draws attention to details in the painting I had never observed so closely before. But on the other, I think it oddly diminishes the work, reducing it to a collection of shapes. The impact of the painting is sufficiently strong without camera tricks and mood music. But as an "interpretation," I suppose it's as valid as any other form of criticism.

The Proust Project, Day 12

Where this began
Day 11

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 146-158.

After the encounter with Gilberte, there are no more visits to Tansonville, but the family's walks continue. Along them, they sometimes encounter Mlle. Vinteuil -- Montjouvain, Vinteuil's home, lies along their route -- "driving a cabriolet at top speed." And then one year, "she was always accompanied by an older friend, a woman who had a bad reputation in the area and who one day moved permanently into Montjouvain." As the local gossips put it, Vinteuil "can be sure she's not dabbling in music when she's with his daughter."

Though "prudish," as the narrator has called him, Vinteuil is "incapable of any effort whose direct goal was not his daughter's happiness." The narrator comments that
it is remarkable how a person always inspires admiration for her moral qualities in the family of the person with whom she is having carnal relations. Physical love, so unfairly disparaged, compels people to manifest the very smallest particles they possess of goodness, of self-abnegation, so much that these particles glow even in the eyes of those immediately surrounding them.

Nevertheless, Vinteuil "saw himself and his daughter in the lowest depths, and because of this his manner had recently acquired that humility, that respect for those who were above him and whom he saw from below (even if they had been well below him until then)." When Vinteuil encounters Swann, whose "inappropriate marriage" has also put him in disgrace in the eyes of Combray, Swann invites him to "send his daughter to play at Tansonville." The invitation was one "which two years before would have incensed M. Vinteuil, but which now filled him with such feelings of gratitude that he believed he was obliged by them not to have the indiscretion of accepting it."

We jump ahead to
the autumn in which we had to come to Combray to settle my aunt Léonie's estate, because she had at last died, proving correct both those who had claimed that her enfeebling regimen would end by killing her, and those who had always maintained that she suffered from an illness that was not imaginary but organic, to the evidence of which the skeptics would certainly be obliged to yield when she succumbed to it.

Françoise's grief is
"savage," and "some demon" leads the narrator to tease her with his lack of sentiment over his aunt's death. She is especially provoked because the plaid wrap that the narrator puts on for his solitary walks in the direction of Tansonville, where he still hopes for a glimpse of Gilberte, is so out of keeping with the mourning for his aunt that she feels has been sadly deficient.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 11

Where this began
Day 10

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 129-146.

The narrator goes to dinner at M. Legrandin's but finds him no less enigmatic. When the narrator tries to inquire into Legrandin's acquaintance with "the ladies of Guermantes," Legrandin retreats into florid evasions: "Deep down, I care for nothing in the world now but a few churches, two or three books, scarcely more paintings, and the light of the moon when the breeze of your youth brings me the fragrance of the flower beds that my old eyes can no longer distinguish." He claims that he is still a radical, "a Jacobin in my thinking." But the narrator senses that
another Legrandin whom he kept carefully concealed deep inside himself, whom he did not exhibit because that Legrandin knew some compromising stories about our own, about his snobbishness, had already answered by the wound in his eyes, by the rictus of his mouth, by the excessive gravity in the tone of his answer, by the thousand arrows with which our own Legrandin had been instantly larded, languishing like a Saint Sebastian of snobbishness.

The narrator takes this knowledge of the second Legrandin home with him, and his parents take delight in what they have learned about their friend. "My mother was infinitely amused each time she caught Legrandin in flagrante delicto in the sin that he would not confess, that he continued to call the sin without forgiveness, snobbishness." And the father, who knows that Legrandin's sister, Mme. de Cambremer, lives near Balbec, where the grandmother plans to spend a summer vacation, delights in trying to make Legrandin confess that he knows someone in the area. But he evades the question with extravagant circumlocutions, and they conclude that
M. Legrandin, had we insisted further, would have ended by constructing a whole system of landscape ethics and a celestial geography of Lower Normandy, sooner than admit to us that his own sister lived a mile from Balbec and be obliged to offer us a letter of introduction.

This glimpse of the social mores of Combray yields to another when the family goes out on one of its walks and decides to go "Swann's way" rather than "the Guermantes way." The narrator informs us that his parents "had ceased to visit Tansonville since Swann's marriage," but believing that Swann's wife and daughter were in Paris, they decide to take a shortcut through the park. They're mistaken, however, and the narrator gets his first glimpse of Swann's daughter, Gilberte.
Her dark eyes shone, and since I did not know then, nor have I learned since, how to reduce a strong impression to its objective elements, since I did not have enough "power of observation," as they say, to isolate the notion of their color, for a long time afterward, whenever I thought of her again, the memory of their brilliance would immediately present itself to me as that of a vivid azure, since she was blonde: so that, perhaps if she had not had such dark eyes -- which struck one so the first time one saw her -- I would not have been, as I was, in love most particularly with her blue eyes.

The setup for this encounter is telling: The narrator has just been admiring a pink hawthorn.
Inserted into the hedge, but as different from it as a young girl in a party dress among people in everyday clothes who are staying at home, the shrub was all ready for Mary's month, and seemed to form a part of it already, shining there, smiling in its fresh pink outfit, catholic and delicious.

Only about twenty pages earlier, the narrator has described for us the hawthorns adorning the altar at Saint-Hilaire for the celebration of "Mary's month." Mary is, of course, the emblem of virginity -- like the "young girl in a party dress." But the narrator dwells on the pinkness of the flower, on the buds "which revealed, when they began to open, as though at the bottom of a cup of pink marble, reds of a bloody tinge." The language here is sensual, hinting at pubescence and menstruation. And Gilberte's behavior toward the narrator is hardly virginal:
she allowed her glances to stream out at full length in my direction, without any particular expression, without appearing to see me, but with a concentration and a secret smile that I could only interpret, according to the notions of good breeding instilled in me, as a sign of insulting contempt; and at the same time her hand sketched an indecent gesture for which, when it was directed in public at a person one did not know, the little dictionary of manners I carried inside me supplied only one meaning, that of intentional insolence.

(I'm trying not to venture too far into Proust commentary and criticism at this point, but I couldn't resist Googling "Proust Gilberte 'indecent gesture'," and sure enough there's plenty of discussion of this passage.)

And then Gilberte is called away by her mother, who is accompanied by Charlus. And the narrator is left to reflect on the encounter.
I thought her so beautiful that I wished I could retrace my steps and shout at her with a shrug of my shoulders: "I think you're ugly, I think you're grotesque, I loathe you!" But I went away, carrying with me forever, as the first example of a type of happiness inaccessible to children of my kind because of certain laws of nature impossible to transgress, the image of a little girl with red hair, her skin scattered with pink freckles, holding a spade and smiling as she cast at me long, cunning, and inexpressive glances.

Note that Gilberte's hair, previously described as "blonde" or "reddish-blonde," has here become simply red, and that the pinkness of her freckles is emphasized.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 10

Where this began
Day 9

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 118-129.

Thus far, Aunt Léonie and Françoise have been rather narrowly defined comic figures, so set in their routines as to be almost mechanical. But now Proust delves into their psychology, adding perverse and contradictory qualities to their characters. For Proust, as for Austen, George Eliot, Flaubert, Faulkner and any number of other novelists, provincial life, with its limited and circumscribed relationships, provides a laboratory for character analysis and moral commentary.

Léonie's utter self-absorption leads to the narrator's conclusion that "she would have taken pleasure in mourning us," that if the rest of the family were wiped out in one fell swoop, it would have allowed "her to savor all her tenderness for us in an extended grief and to be the cause of stupefaction in the village as she led the funeral procession, courageous and stricken, dying on her feet." He asserts that "she would from time to time resort to introducing into her life, to make it more interesting, imaginary incidents which she would follow with passion," Françoise being a prime player in these fantasies, which Léonie would act out over the board on which she played solitaire, speaking the roles aloud.

"Sometimes, even this 'theater in bed' was not enough for my aunt, she wanted to have her plays performed." So she would set Françoise and Eulalie against one another to watch the consequences. She demonstrates the paranoia of the idle imagination, or as the narrator calls her, "an old lady from the provinces who was simply yielding to irresistible manias and to a malice born of idleness."

Françoise, the dutiful servant, is similarly perverse. She "would for her daugher, for her nephews, have given her life without a murmur, [but] was singularly hard-hearted toward other people." So when the kitchen maid who has given birth is seized by postpartum pains, Françoise is sent for the medical book to find a treatment and is discovered weeping over the "hypothetical" patient in the book, but she treats the maid herself with harshness and indifference. And she drives away another kitchen maid who is allergic to asparagus by repeatedly forcing the girl to clean them.

This section ends with the family's puzzlement over the behavior of M. Legrandin, who had "barely responded" to the father's greeting him after church, "walking by the side of a lady from a neighboring château whom we knew only by sight." Then the next evening, Legrandin greets them in a friendly manner, paying especial attention to the narrator. But several Sundays later, they have an encounter with Legrandin similar to the one that puzzled them earlier, in which he is walking with the same lady, and exhibits "a love-smitten eye in a face of ice," as he pretends not to see them. Despite the family's doubts, they allow the narrator to accept an invitation to dinner that Legrandin has extended to him, and him alone, the day before.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 9

Where this began
Day 8

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 102-117.

Thanksgiving, a day of rituals (turkey, cranberry sauce, yams, etc.), is a good day to read about the routines and rituals of Combray.

We focus again on Aunt Léonie and Françoise, as they await the arrival of Eulalie with news about the church service. Rain begins to fall, and Françoise reports that Mme. Amédée, the narrator's grandmother (who has previously been identified as "Bathilde"), has gone out for a walk.
"That doesn't surprise me at all," said my aunt, lifting her eyes to the heavens. "I've always said that her way of thinking is different from everyone else's...."

"Mme. Amédée is always as different as she can be from everyone else," said Françoise gently, refraining until she should be alone with the other servants from saying that she believed my grandmother was a little "touched."

Finally, Eulalie arrives, but her visit coincides with that of the garrulous curé -- "an excellent man," the narrator observes, "with whom I am sorry I did not have more conversations, for if he understood nothing about the arts, he did know many etymologies." His visit tires out Aunt Léonie, who sends Eulalie away without learning the "important" information whether "Mme. Goupil arrived at Mass before the elevation."

Françoise, who detests Eulalie, is unhappy that Aunt Léonie always gives Eulalie money.
She would not, however, have seen any great harm in what my aunt, whom she knew to be incurably generous, allowed herself to give away, so long as it went to rich people. Perhaps she thought that they, having no need of gifts from my aunt, could not be suspected of showing fondness for her because of them.

And so the routine goes on, interrupted only by the kitchen maid's suddenly going into labor, an event that deprives Aunt Léonie of Françoise's ministrations while she is sent to fetch a midwife. The narrator, sent to check on his aunt, looks in to find her awaking with a look of terror on her face. He lingers to hear her murmur, "I've gone and dreamed that my poor Octave had come back to life and was trying to make me go for a walk every day!" There are even subroutines within the routine, as when lunch is served early on Saturdays because Françoise goes to the market in the afternoon. Any stranger who is ignorant of this change in routine, or even any family member who forgets it, is subject to ridicule.
The surprise of a barbarian (this was what we called anyone who did not know what was special about Saturday) who, arriving at eleven o'clock to talk to my father, found us at table, was one of the things in her life which most amused Françoise.

We also meet the "extremely prudish" M. Vinteuil and his "tomboyish" daughter, and we go on a Sunday walk with the narrator and his parents, following a circuitous route familiar only to the father until they reach home.
And from that moment on, I would not have to take another step, the ground would walk for me through that garden where for so long now my actions had ceased to be accompanied by any deliberate attention: Habit had taken me in its arms, and it carried me all the way to my bed like a little child.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


The following review ran today in the San Francisco Chronicle:


By Philip Caputo

Knopf, 480 pp., $27.95

The enormous malevolence of Sept. 11, 2001, still squats upon the imagination, resisting our efforts to comprehend it. Writers as various as Jay McInerney (“The Good Life”), Jonathan Safran Foer (“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”), John Updike (“Terrorist”) and Andre Dubus III (“The Garden of Last Days”) have tried working the events of 9/11 into their novels, but most of these ambitious books were doomed to at least partial failure because our memories of the actual events retain an emotional immediacy that even the most skillfully crafted fiction can't approximate.

But Philip Caputo's “Crossers” succeeds, in part because it's about a man who recognizes that the imagination is inadequate to comprehend evil. For Gil Castle, Caputo's protagonist, the enormity of 9/11 is “beyond grasp – an insane act perpetrated by sane minds.” Castle's wife was aboard the first plane that flew into the World Trade Center towers, and the senselessness of her loss has left him emotionally crippled. After pulling back from the brink of suicide, he decides to withdraw from the sources that feed his memories and his grief – the home where he and his wife lived and the city where he worked and she died. Castle, who has made a fortune on Wall Street, liquidates his holdings, sells his house, and moves to his cousin Blaine Erskine's ranch on the Arizona-Sonora border.

Castle takes this course not out of any mythic urge to move West – in fact, he explicitly rejects it: “It was important in America to move on, to avoid living in the past. That, Castle supposed, made him somewhat un-American. He could not help but live in the past; it clung to him like a second skin.” And so he holes up in an outbuilding on Blaine's ranch, nursing his grief and reading the Roman Stoic Seneca, though he finds Seneca's counsel -- “there is such a thing as moderation in grieving” -- inadequate.

Castle's grief will moderate, though not without the hard wrenching away that produces guilt and pain, because he is right about the inability to avoid living in the past. The irony here is that the past that will intrude upon him is not his own but that of his family. The novel begins with a story from the boyhood of Castle's maternal grandfather, Ben Erskine, who was once described as “the last ember of the true Old West,” and as “an adventurer, a soldier of fortune, and a lawman, [who] put about twelve men in the ground – the ones he didn't put in jail.”

As “Crossers” intermingles the stories of Ben Erskine and Gil Castle, it becomes a novel about the intersection of history and the present, set in a place where, as Blaine's wife observes, things are “like the days of Pancho Villa, except now the bad guys ride Dodge Rams instead of on horses and bang away with AK-47s instead of Winchesters. ... Cell phone on one hip, pistol on the other. The Wild West meets the twenty-first century.” The Erskine family's ranch edges up to the U.S.-Mexican border, a barrier ineffective in stemming the traffic in narcotics and undocumented immigrants. Castle is caught in the crossfire – sometimes literally – between people who run drugs and people who run people, between law enforcement and lawbreakers, and between cultures separated only by a boundary made visible by the barbed-wire fences that deter cattle from crossing, but not human beings.

Caputo gives us characters with credibility and individuality, even though we can see the Western-fiction stereotypes underlying them: the Tenderfoot Easterner, the Rugged Individualist Rancher, the Woman Who's As Tough As Any Man, and so on. There's even a Man With a Mysterious Past known as “The Professor,” who travels between the two countries gathering information. “I can't figure out if you're in this for yourself, if you're a double agent, a triple agent, a quadruple agent, or what,” says one baffled lawman. “I'm an agent of history,” replies The Professor. It takes a skillful writer to avoid falling into hokum with a character like that, but Caputo avoids it -- narrowly. He is a little less successful with his novel's villain, the rapacious drug queen Yvonne Menéndez, whose son reflects, “The only thing he would not put past his mother was cannibalism.” Caputo takes the character so far over the top that the reader probably won't put even that past her.

Similarly, Caputo's plotting has elements of conventional fiction: Castle's healing process is accelerated when he falls in love again, and the novel climaxes in a rush of thriller-type action. But the book manages to rise above its generic elements. Without any ripped-from-the-headlines artifice, “Crossers” gives us an intense, clear-sighted account of the times in which we live, of 9/11, the Iraq war, the “war on drugs” and the conflict over illegal immigration. Caputo succeeds in showing how our contemporary paranoia and homeland insecurity are rooted in the inescapable past.

The Proust Project, Day 8

Where this began
Day 7

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 90-102.

The narrator is introduced to the works of a writer named Bergotte "by a friend of mine older than I whom I greatly admired, Bloch." Unfortunately, the rather pretentious and affected Bloch is not admired by the rest of the family. The narrator's grandfather is concerned that Bloch is "a Jew, which would not have displeased him in principle -- even his friend Swann was of Jewish extraction -- had he not felt that it was not from among the best that I had chosen him." His barometer-watching father is perturbed by Bloch's indifference to the weather. His grandmother suspects Bloch of insincerity when he wipes away tears after hearing that she was "a little indisposed." And when he arrives for lunch "an hour and a half late covered with mud," Bloch, instead of apologizing, proclaims that he knows "nothing about the use of those ... pernicious and insipidly bourgeois implements, the watch and the umbrella." But the final straw is Bloch's telling the narrator "that he had heard most positively that my great-aunt had had a wild youth and had been known to be a kept woman." The narrator, incapable of keeping secrets, tells his parents with the result that Bloch is banished and the narrator's tattling ends their friendship.

But the narrator's obsession with Bergotte continues. He becomes so taken with the writer's observations and opinions "that, when by chance I happened to encounter in one of his books a thought that I had already had myself, my heart would swell as though a god in his goodness had given it back to me, had declared it legitimate and beautiful." So he's overcome when Swann informs him that he knows Bergotte quite well and would even ask him to inscribe the narrator's book. The narrator learns that La Berma is Bergotte's favorite actress and that Swann's daughter is great friends with Bergotte, which puts the narrator "on the point of falling in love with" Mlle. Swann.
Our belief that a person takes part in an unknown life which his or her love would allow us to enter is, of all that love demands in order to come into being, what it prizes the most, and what makes it care little for the rest. Even women who claim to judge a man by his appearance alone see that appearance as the emanation of a special life. This is why they love soldiers, firemen; the uniform makes them less particular about the face.

In these pages we also learn a little more about Swann's mannerisms, including his adoption of an ironic tone of voice, "as though he had put it between quotation marks, seeming not to want to take responsibility for it," when expressing an opinion.
Until then his horror of ever expressing a serious opinion had seemed to me a thing that must be elegant and Parisian and that was the opposite of the provincial dogmatism of my grandmother's sisters; and I also suspected that it was a form of wit in the social circles in which Swann moved, where, reacting against the lyricism of earlier generations, they went to an extreme in rehabilitating those small, precise facts formerly reputed to be vulgar, and proscribed "fine phrases." But now I found something shocking in this attitude of Swann's toward things. It appeared that he dared not have an opinion and was at his ease only when he could with meticulous accuracy offer some precise piece of information.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Gender Gap

One of Andrew Sullivan's readers on why women don't like Sarah Palin.
Sarah Palin is the peppy cheerleader in high school all the boys thought was so sweet but the girls knew was really a vicious shrew. She's the new girl in the office who wears tight shirts and three-inch heels, is super-friendly to her male superiors, ignores the other women, and gets promoted sooner than her more capable and hard working peers. She's the outgoing PTA mom all of the other women are scared to cross because they will find themselves put on the worst committees. Only a woman knows how to give another woman a sweet smile and at the same time cut her down to size with an artfully crafted "compliment" without male observers having a clue about what just happened. It's like a dog whistle.

The Proust Project, Day 7

Where this began
Day 6

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 73-89.

The narrator is sent out to "get a little fresh air first so that you don't start reading right after leaving the table" -- a caution familiar to every bookworm child. We are on the brink here of a dense philosophical excursus on the externality of nature and the internality of literature, the kind of passage that stymies some would-be readers of Proust, and may have been the one that stymied me in my earlier attempts to read him. Some of it remains opaque to me, but I think I glimpse where he's going.

But first, we meet Uncle Adolphe, the brother of the narrator's grandfather, "who no longer came to Combray because of a quarrel that had occurred between him and my family, through my fault." The narrator "loved the theater, with a platonic passion since my parents had not yet allowed me to enter the theater." And he is drawn to his uncle because Adolphe was friends with actresses -- "and also some courtesans whom I did not distinguish clearly from the actresses. He would entertain them at home. And if we went to see him only on certain days, this was because on the other days women came whom his family could not have met." But the narrator, slipping away from home to see his uncle on one of the "other days," does meet one, a woman in a pink dress, who demonstrates to him "one of the touching aspects of the role of these idle and studious women that they devote their generosity, their talent, a free-floating dream of beauty in love ... to enrich with a precious and refined setting the rough and ill-polished lives of men." Infatuated with her, he blurts out to his parents the full story of his encounter, with the result that his uncle "died many years later without any of us ever seeing him again."

We also meet the pregnant kitchen maid who reminds Swann of the image of Charity in Giotto's Padua frescoes of the Virtues and Vices, who "holds her flaming heart out to God, or, to put it more exactly, "hands" it to him, as a cook hands a corkscrew through the vent of her cellar to someone who is asking her for it at the ground-floor window." Swann has given the narrator photographs of the frescoes which hang in the schoolroom. "There must have been a good deal of reality in those Virtues and Vices of Padua, since they seemed to me as alive as the pregnant servant, and since she herself did not appear to me much less allegorical." This correlation between art and life leads us into the reflections on the external world and the world of the imagination.
When I saw an external object, my awareness that I was seeing it would remain between me and it, lining it with a thin spiritual border that prevented me from ever directly touching its substance; it would volatize in some way before I could make contact with it, just as an incandescent body brought near a wet object never touches its moisture because it is always preceded by a zone of evaporation.

The natural world remains at a distance, because it apprehended only by the senses. So too do human beings: "A real human being, however profoundly we sympathize with him, is in large part perceived by our senses, that is to say, remains opaque to us, presents a dead weight which our sensibility cannot lift."

Fictional characters, on the other hand, occur "within us." The novelist "provokes in us within one hour all possible happinesses and all possible unhappinesses just a few of which we would spend years of our lives coming to know and the most intense of which would never be revealed to us because the slowness with which they occur prevents us from perceiving them."

Similarly, the landscapes of the imagination have for the narrator an immediacy that observed nature lacks. But then memory transforms the external world into a world that can be apprehended by the imagination. So these reflections on the relationship between life and art, between nature and the imagination, between experience and memory, end with a lyrical valorizing of the Sunday afternoons in Combray:
Lovely Sunday afternoons under the chestnut tree in the garden at Combray, carefully emptied by me of the ordinary incidents of my own existence, which I had replaced by a life of foreign adventures and foreign apirations in the heart of a country washed by running waters, you still evoke that life for me when I think of you and you contain it in fact from having gradually encircled and enclosed it -- while I went on with my reading in the falling heat of the day -- in the crystalline succession, slowly changing and spanned by leafy branches, of your silent, sonorous, redolent, and limpid hours.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Palin Meets the Press

Matt Taibbi on media groupthink and Sarah Palin.

The press corps that is bashing her skull in right now is the same one that hyped that WMD horseshit for like four solid years and pom-pommed America to war with Iraq over the screeching objections of the entire planet. It’s the same press corps that rolled out the red carpet for someone very nearly as abjectly stupid as Sarah Palin to win not one but two terms in the White House. If there was any kind of consensus support for Palin inside the beltway, the criticism of her, bet on it, would be almost totally confined to chortling east coast smartasses like me and Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan.

The Proust Project, Day 6

Where this began
Day 5

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 60-73.

Sundays in Combray, starting with the narrator and his parents going to Mass, and with Proust's rhapsodic description of Saint-Hilaire. The passages describing the church are not only a tour de force, but they also serve a thematic purpose. The church becomes "an edifice occupying a space with, so to speak, four dimensions -- the fourth being Time -- extending over the centuries its nave which, from bay to bay, from chapel to chapel, seemed to vanquish and penetrate not only a few yards but epoch after epoch from which it emerged victorious." Saint-Hilaire is time recaptured itself, so that later, glimpsing "some hospital belfry, some convent steeple" in Paris reminiscent of the church in Combray, the narrator will "remain there in front of the steeple for hours, motionless, trying to remember, feeling deep in myself lands recovered from oblivion draining and rebuilding themselves."

The narrator's grandmother, she who found the gardener's paths "too symmetrically aligned," has her own take on the church:
Without really knowing why, my grandmother found in the steeple of Saint-Hilaire that absence of vulgarity, of pretension, of meanness, which made her love and believe rich in beneficent influence not only nature, when the hand of man had not, as had my great-aunt's gardener, shrunk and reduced it, but also works of genius.... I believe above all that, confusedly, my grandmother found in the steeple of Combray what for her had the highest value in the world, an air of naturalness and an air of distinction.
In these pages we also meet M. Legrandin, the engineer-poet who spends his weekend in Combray, and whom the narrator's family regards as "the epitome of the superior man, approaching life in the noblest and most delicate way." The grandmother has reservations, of course. She
reproached him only for speaking a little too well, a little too much like a book, for not having the same naturalness in his language as in his loosely knotted lavalier bow ties, in his short, straight, almost schoolboy coat. She was also surprised by the fiery tirades he often launched against the aristocracy, ... going so far as to reproach the Revolution for not having had them all guillotined.

And we learn a little more about Aunt Léonie, who has banished all visitors but Eulalie, a former servant to Mme. de la Bretonnerie. Eulalie has the tact to avoid falling into either of the categories of people Léonie detests.
One group, the worst, whom she had got rid of first, were the ones who advised her not to "coddle" herself.... The other category was made up of the people who seemed to believe she was more seriously ill than she thought, that she was as seriously ill as she said she was.... In short, my aunt required that her visitors at the same time commen her on her regimen, commiserate with her for her sufferings, and encourage her as to her future.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 5

Where this began
Day 4

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 49-60.

We begin our post-madeleine exploration of Combray, a village not that different from the ones in Austen and Trollope or Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford. Or rather we begin in the bedroom of Aunt Léonie, who gradually retreated there after the death of her husband, Octave, and can be found there "always lying in an uncertain state of grief, physical debility, illness, obsession, and piety."

The vehicle that conveys the narrator there is the sense of smell, "the thousand smells given off by the virtues, by wisdom, by habits, a whole secret life, invisible, superabundant, and moral, which the atmosphere holds in suspension." Proust is careful to undercut the sentimentality evoked by these "linen smells, morning smells, pious smells" by characterizing them as "happy with a peace that brings only an increase of anxiety and with a prosiness that serves as a great reservoir of poetry for one who passes through it without having lived in it." It's a nice life, but you wouldn't necessarily want to live it, as Proust, himself a famous semi-recluse, is aware.

Aunt Léonie, the daughter of the narrator's imperious great-aunt, who was his grandfather's cousin, "always talked rather softly because she thought there was something broken and floating in her head that she would have displaced by speaking too loudly." But she talks constantly "because she believed it was beneficial to her throat," and "she attributed to the least of her sensations an extraordinary importance." She could be dismissed as a stock figure, the malade imaginaire, except that Proust devotes so much nuance to her portrayal. As he does with Léonie's dutiful servant Françoise, who
was one of those servants who, in a household, are at the same time those most immediately displeasing to a stranger, perhaps because they do not bother to win him over and are not attentive to him, knowing very well they have no need of him, that one would stop seeing him rather than dismiss them; and who are, on the other hand, those most valued by masters who have tested their real capacities, and do not care about the superficial charm, the servile chatter that makes a favorable impression on a visitor but that often cloaks an ineducable incompetence.
It is, I think, because Proust tells us so much about these relatively minor characters, analyzes them so individually, that we come to take them as real -- or rather as a remembered reality. Otherwise, they could be just dismissed as "comic relief" for their bits of idiosyncratic provincialisms, such as the conviction that "in Combray, a person 'whom one does not know at all' was a creature as scarcely believable as a mythological god."
One knew everybody so well, in Combray, both animals and people, that if my aunt had chanced to see a dog pass by 'whom she did not know at all,' she would not stop thinking about it and devoting to this incomprehensible fact all her talents for induction and her hours of leisure.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Beyond Politics

Matt Taibbi has at Palin, too.
Palin’s extraordinary ability to inspire major national controversies around these injustices done to her immediate person is going to guarantee her some kind of major role in American politics for the next dozen years. In this regard she is going to have a willing ally in her supposed keen enemy, the mainstream media, which likewise loves nothing more than a political narrative that has nothing to do with politics.

Running Wild

Frank Rich decodes Sarah Palin.
Even by the standard of politicians, this is a woman with an outsized ego. Combine that with her performance skills and an insatiable hunger for the limelight, and you can see why she will not stay in Wasilla now that she’s seen 30 Rock. The question journalists repeatedly asked last week — What are Palin’s plans for 2012? — is a red herring. Palin has no obligation to answer it. She is the pit bull in the china shop of American politics, and she can do what she wants, on her own timeline, all the while raking in the big bucks she couldn’t as a sitting governor. No one, least of all her own political party, can control her.

The Proust Project, Day 4

Where this began
Day 3

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 37-48.

And so we come to the scene everyone knows (or knows about), the "Proustian moment," the epiphany in a teaspoon. I admit that from my previous forays into Proust, I had thought it came at the very beginning of the novel, not 40-some pages in. (Although in a novel the size of In Search of Lost Time, 40-some pages in does rather qualify as "the very beginning.")

The narrator's account of the scenes of his childhood rising before him, awakened by the taste of crumbs from a madeleine steeped in tea, comes after his account of the rare, privileged night his mother spent in his room, reading to him from books that were supposed to be a gift from his grandmother. It is "a sort of puberty of grief, of emancipation from tears," "the beginning of a new era" that "would remain as a sad date."

It also reinforces the grandmother's role in forming the narrator's character as an aesthete, a man of discerning tastes. She "could never resign herself to buying anything from which one could not derive a intellectual profit." And even when forced to select a gift that was utilitarian, preferred to give antique things in which "long desuetude had effaced their character of usefulness."
We could no longer keep count, at home, when my great-aunt wnted to draw up an indictment against my grandmother, of the armchairs she had presented to young couples engaged to be married or old married couples which, at the first attempt to make use of them, had immediately collapsed under the weight of one of the recipients.
Of course, the narrator comes to rebel against the imbuing of art with "that moral distinction which Mama had learned from my grandmother to consider superior to all else in life, and which I was to teach her only much later not to consider superior to all else in books."

But for years afterward, his childhood in Combray remained limited to what it has been in the first 40-some pages of the novel: "the theater and drama of my bedtime" -- "as though Combray had consisted only of two floors connected by a slender staircase and as though it had always been seven o'clock in the evening there." The rest of it comes to life when he pursues something ineffable awakened by the taste of the madeleine in tea. At first, he doesn't know what he has glimpsed: "Undoubtedly what is palpitating thus, deep inside me, must be the image, the visual memory which is attached to this taste and is trying to follow it to me." Note here that he ascribes the volition to the memory, that he must meet the memory -- "struggling too far away" -- halfway.
Ten times I must begin again, lean down toward it. And each time, the laziness that deters us from every difficult task, every work of importance, has counseled me to leave it, to drink my tea and think only about my worries of today, my desires for tomorrow, upon which I may ruminate effortlessly.
For Proust this is, I think, the distinction between the artist and the layman, the willingness to struggle against the "laziness" that traps most of us in the quotidian.

And then he meets the memory, of aunt Léonie giving him a taste of madeleine soaked in lime-blossom tea. It's the fortuitous combination of tea and madeleine that does it -- the intimate power of taste that proves more effective than sight alone in raising the past. He had seen madeleines in shops without awakening any distinct sensations. He even finds a way of moralizing the image of the little shell-shaped cake, "so fatly sensual within its severe and pious pleating."
But, when nothing subsists of an old past, after the death of people, after the destruction of things, alone, frailer but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, smell and taste still remain for a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, upon the ruins of all the rest, bearing without giving way, on their almost impalpable droplet, the immense edifice of memory.
And so rooms, roads, people and the town join themselves in his imagination. The stage is set.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 3

Where this began
Day 2

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 23-37.

Swann comes to dinner, with the result that the narrator is sent to bed early without a goodnight kiss from his mother. He persuades Françoise, the cook who is tasked with looking after him, to take a letter to his mother asking her to come see him, but his mother declines the request. Unable to sleep, he waits until she comes upstairs, even though he fears that he'll be punished by being sent away to school. To his surprise, his father tolerates his misbehavior, and even suggests that his mother spend the night in the narrator's room.

But first, we see the grandmother's spinster sisters again, and learn their names -- though Proust makes a mistake when he reveals them. One sister addresses the other as Céline, but when she replies, Proust writes, "answered her sister Flora." He has no particular interest in distinguishing Flora from Céline; they are there only for sake of the joke, which in this case involves their making "such a fine art of concealing a personal allusion beneath ingenious circumlocutions that it often went unnoticed even by the person to whom it was addressed." And so their thanks to Swann for the case of wine he has sent them goes so veiled in indirect references that grandfather is indignant at the end of the evening when he learns that their coy allusions to "good neighbors" were their expressions of gratitude.

We learn one more bit of information about Swann's unhappy marriage, which has been alluded to earlier, when the narrator hears his great-aunt say, "I think he has no end of worries with that wretched wife of his who is living with a certain Monsieur de Charlus, as all of Combray knows. It's the talk of the town."

But the bulk of these pages deals with the narrator's long evening of waiting for his mother's arrival. They include some of Proust's famous long, curlicue sentences, exploring every nuance of the boy's anxiety but also anticipating some of the obsessiveness that will fill his later life. Proust's psychological insight radiates through these pages, as when he remarks of the "precious and fragile kiss" that on dinner-party evenings he had to "snatch ... brusquely, publicly, without even having the time and the freedom of mind necessary to bring to what I was doing the attention of those individuals controlled by some mania, who do their utmost not to think of anything else while they are shutting a door, so as to be able, when the morbid uncertainty returns to them, to confront it victoriously with the memory of the moment when they did shut the door." That's about as good a description of obsessive-compulsive disorder as you can find.

In the end, the father is kind, Abraham spares Isaac, and we have a happy ending. Or as happy an ending as you're likely to find in a writer like Proust, who can turn any triumph into melancholy:
This was many years ago. The staircase wall on which I saw the rising glimmer of his candle has long since ceased to exist. In me, too, many things have been destroyed that I thought were bound to last forever and new ones have formed that have given birth to new sorrows and joys which I could not have foreseen then, just as the old ones have become difficult for me to understand. It was a long time ago, too, that my father ceased to be able to say to Mama: "Go with the boy." The possibility of such hours will never be reborn for me. But for a little while now, I have begun to hear again very clearly, if I take time to listen, the sobs that I was strong enough to contain in front of my father and that broke out only when I found myself alone again with Mama. They have never really stopped; and it is only because life is now becoming quieter around me that I can hear them again, like those convent bells covered so well by the clamor of the town during the day that one would think they had ceased altogether but which begin sounding again in the silence of the evening.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 2

Day 1

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 11-23.

We meet Swann, but first we witness some of the family dynamic. The grandmother's love for being outdoors, even in a rainstorm, puts her at odds with the rest of the family, and even with the gardener whose paths are "too symmetrically aligned for her liking" and the maid who finds her muddied skirts "a source of despair and a problem." She is also perturbed by the failure of the narrator's father to "make him strong and active" and "build up his endurance and willpower." The narrator's mother submits to the father, unwilling to "try to penetrate the mystery of his superior qualities." The great-aunt's teasing of his grandmother provokes the narrator, who, "already a man in my cowardice, ... did what we all do, once we are grown up, when confronted with sufferings and injustices: I did not want to see them."

The boy's love of his mother is so intense that he can't enjoy it. When he hears her coming to his room to kiss him goodnight, the moment is marred because of his awareness that it will end. He comes to prefer anticipation to fulfillment:
It heralded the moment that was to follow it, when she had left me, when she had gone down again. So that I came to wish that this goodnight I loved so much would take place as late as possible, so as to prolong the time of respite in which Mama had not yet come.

And then Swann appears, to set the household dynamic into a new alignment. He has, we are told, an "aquiline nose" and "green eyes under a high forehead framed by blond, almost red hair, cut Bressant-style." A footnote to Lydia Davis's translation tells us that the actor Jean-Baptiste Prosper Bressant "introduced a new hairstyle, which consisted of wearing the hair in a crew cut in front and longer in the back." In other words, Swann had a mullet. But the chief thing that we learn is that, unknown to his neighbors in Combray, Swann, the stockbroker's son, moves in the highest social circles when he is in Paris.
Our ignorance of this brilliant social life that Swann led was obviously due in part to the reserve and discretion of his character, but also to the fact that bourgeois people in those days formed for themselves a rather Hindu notion of society and considered it to be made up of closed castes, in which each person, from birth, found himself placed in the station which his family occupied and from which nothing, except the accidents of an exceptional career or an unhoped-for marriage could withdraw him in order to move him into a higher caste.
This sets in motion some Jane Austen-style comedy, centered on the great-aunt who has pigeonholed Swann because his town house is in "a part of town where my great-aunt felt it was ignominious to live." She handles Swann, "who was elsewhere so sought after, with the naive roughness of a child who plays with a collector's curio no more carefully than with some object of little value."

Proust typically uses Swann's unsuspected double life as a means to reflect on the nature of personality -- we are what we are seen to be:
But even with respect to the most insignificant things in life, none of us constitutes a material whole, identical for everyone, which a person has only to go look up as though we were a book of specifications or a last testament; our social personality is a creation of the minds of others.
And since this is a novel about recovering time, the narrator observes that the varied encounters we have with one person over time are freighted with revelations not such much about them as about who we were when we previously encountered them:
I have the impression of leaving one person to go to another distinct from him, when, in my memory, I pass from the Swann I knew later with accuracy to that first Swann -- to that first Swann in whom I rediscover the charming mistakes of my youth and who in fact resembles less the other Swann than he resembles the other people I knew at the time, as though one's life were like a museum in which all the portraits from one period have a family look about them, a single tonality -- to that first Swann abounding in leisure, fragrant with the smell of the tall chestnut tree, the baskets of raspberries, and a sprig of tarragon.

Finally, we meet grandmother Bathilde's spinster sisters, with whom Jane Austen would have had almost as much fun as Proust does:
They were women of lofty aspirations, who for that very reason were incapable of taking an interest in what is known as tittle-tattle, ... and more generally in anything that was not directly connected to an aesthetic or moral subject. The disinterestedness of their minds was such, with respect to all that, closely or distantly, seemed connected with worldly matters, that their sense of hearing -- having finally understood its temporary uselessness when the conversation at dinner assumed a tone that was frivolous or merely pedestrian ... -- would suspend the functioning of its receptive organs and allow them to begin to atrophy.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Proust Project

Proust is my Everest, my Northwest Passage, a project much attempted but never achieved. So here's the idea: I'll read ten pages a day (at least) and report on them here. Having exposed my ambitions to Internet eyes, I have more incentive not to fail. My French, never a deftly handled precision instrument, is a thing of rust, dust and cobwebs, so I'll be reading the new translations published in the United States by Viking, and switch to the Scott Moncrieff version for the last three volumes, since the new translations aren't available in the States until 2018. I hope it won't take me that long.

Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 1-10.

The narrator reflects on sleeping and waking, and the momentary dislocations of time and space that occur when he does so.
A sleeping man holds in a circle around him the sequence of the hours, the order of the years and worlds. He consults them instinctively as he wakes and reads in a second the point on the earth he occupies, the time that has elapsed before his waking; but their ranks can be mixed up, broken.
His mind "hesitat[es] on the thresholds of times and shapes" as it surveys other beds and other rooms before he settles in the one in which he currently exists. At Combray, his mother and grandmother had set up a magic lantern "to distract me on the evenings when they found me looking too unhappy," but the images it projected on the walls, curtains and doors "destroyed the familiarity which my bedroom had acquired for me and which, except for the torment of going to bed, had made it tolerable to me." But the element in the description that I relish most is the humor, the inflated vocabulary with which Proust undercuts the neurasthenia of the narrator:
The body of Golo himself, in its essence as supernatural as that of his steed, accommodated every material obstacle, every hindersome object that he encountered by taking it as his skeleton and absorbing it into himself, even the doorknob he immediately adapted to and floated invincibly over with his red robe or his pale face as noble and as melancholy as ever, but revealing no disturbance at this transvertebration.
Somehow, I had never thought of Proust as funny, but this passage is like something out of Dickens.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

One Nation, Invisible

Michael Lind on the Pledge of Allegiance.
Could anything be more foreign to America's enlightened 18th-century liberal and republican traditions than this toxic compound of collectivism, nativism, Spartan militarism and theocracy?


Jeffrey Toobin on abortion and health care reform.
The President is pro-choice, and he has signalled some misgivings about the Stupak amendment. But, like many modern pro-choice Democrats, he has worked so hard to be respectful of his opponents on this issue that he sometimes seems to cede them the moral high ground. In his book “The Audacity of Hope,” he describes the “undeniably difficult issue of abortion” and ponders “the middle-aged feminist who still mourns her abortion.” Elsewhere, he announces, “Abortion vexes.” The opponents of abortion aren’t vexed—they are mobilized, focussed, and driven to succeed. The Catholic bishops took the lead in pushing for the Stupak amendment, and they squeezed legislators in a way that would do any K Street lobbyist proud. (One never sees that kind of effort on behalf of other aspects of Catholic teaching, like opposition to the death penalty.) Meanwhile, the pro-choice forces temporized. But, as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg observed not long ago, abortion rights “center on a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature.” Every diminishment of that right diminishes women. With stakes of such magnitude, it is wise to weigh carefully the difference between compromise and surrender.

Scare Tactics

This sort of thing scares the hell out of me.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

What I'm Watching

Waltz With Bashir

When Ari Folman's film switches to live action at the very end, you can see clearly why he chose animation. It's not enough for a documentary to ... well, to document. With no sacrifice of truth, animation allows him to go places documentaries usually can't, not only into the midst of unfilmed battles, but also into the dreams of his interviewees -- the pursuing wild dogs, the giant nude woman swimming to the boat, the swimmers rising from the sea and walking onto the devastated beach. War, as Folman says in one of the DVD's interviews, is the creation of "men with small minds and big egos." Folman's ego, I dare say, is rather large, too, but he has created something more valuable.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Why Jon Stewart Is America's Most Trusted (Fake) Newsman

Will Bunch on the media's failure to cover ... the media's failure.
Jon Stewart and his outstanding team of "Daily Show" producers and writers not only "get" the importance of media manipulation and propaganda, but they can take it a step farther because they also have something that most bloggers do not --resources. Their access to large film libraries is what helps them to take down Fox, CNBC, and all the other media types (and politicians, too) when they say the polar opposite of what they were saying a year ago or even a month ago.

You know who else has those kinds of resources? Mainstream, big media newsrooms. But big media pathologically refuses to think of itself as a part of the national narrative, even as the millions of people who watch Jon Stewart or read your top political blogs know better. And until we in the old media can comprehend that, the new media will continue to leave us in the dust. So will the "fake" media.

What I'm Reading

Notes on Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates.

But first, a word about spoilers.

I like them. I like seeing the way a writer or filmmaker puts things together, the artful dodges that conceal or hint at a story's direction, even when the work hinges on a surprise. I knew the surprise that was coming in The Crying Game, and delighted in the knowledge I had that characters in the film didn't. On the other hand, I didn't know what was coming in The Sixth Sense when I first saw it (though I was aware there was a gimmick), and I enjoyed the movie more on a second viewing, watching the way Shyamalan staged Bruce Willis's interactions with the living.

So this is a warning: There is no way I can write intelligently about Revolutionary Road without alluding to what happens at its end, so if you are a spoiler-phobic who hasn't either seen the film or read the book, you may want to stop right here. Nice to see you. Come back again.

This is not to place either the film of Revolutionary Road or the book in the same category as The Crying Game or The Sixth Sense. They don't depend on withheld plot in the same way. While April's death is shocking, it's not -- in terms of characterization -- a surprise. (I realize I'm being a little unfair to The Crying Game, a comparatively realistic film, by lumping it with a ghost story. What they really have in common is that both films were much discussed for their "twists.")

I saw the film version of Revolutionary Road before I read the book. And in a curious way the book made me more appreciative of the film, and the film made me more critical of the book. Specifically, the book made me better appreciate the skill demonstrated by Kate Winslet at drawing a character who is, I think, somewhat underdrawn in the book. Winslet's April is, I think, bipolar, swinging from the low of her failure in The Petrified Forest to the high of her scheme to drop out of the rat race and move to Paris. The April of the novel is more enigmatic, partly because Yates doesn't narrate from her point of view until the very end, as she's contemplating the suicidal self-induced abortion. We see events through Frank's point of view, through Milly and Shep's, through Mrs. Givings's, and once even through the children's. But we don't enter April's consciousness until it's too late.

Is this a narrative flaw? I hesitate to call it that: A writer has the prerogative to tell his story any way he wants. And by staying distant from April's point of view, Yates makes her even more the isolated, alienated figure in the novel -- a counterpart to the mentally disturbed John Givings. (We don't need to see events from John's point of view, however; he's perfectly willing to tell us what he thinks.) That April is the archetypal alienated 1950s housewife is perfectly obvious. Though she longs to escape to Paris, she couches it in terms of allowing Frank to "find himself." In service to her husband, she has given up her ambitions for a career, the pleasures of urban life, and even dominion over her own body.

Frank, of course, remains oblivious to what's eating away at April. His embrace of the Paris scheme is ambivalent at best -- he lacks the imagination either to conceive of such a plan himself, or to see what it represents for April. Though initially he thinks of his life as a sad carbon copy of his father's -- meaningless work for the same soulless company -- once a new pathway in that life opens up when his talent is recognized by Pollock, he's eager to settle in that routine, greatly relieved when April's pregnancy stymies the Paris escape.

One thing we sometimes forget in thinking about the man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit conformity of the Fifties is that Frank's generation is also the one lately celebrated as the "Greatest Generation." They had been to war, and were quite happy to settle into the routines of peace -- at the expense of becoming boring, as is revealed in the scene in which Frank embarrasses himself by recounting the same war story he had told the same people before. The wartime home-front service and sacrifices of the women of that generation have not been similarly celebrated, and that fact underscores the dissatisfaction of an April.

(Or a Betty Draper. The comparison of "Mad Men" and Revolutionary Road is by now a familiar one -- and a little misleading, since the action of the TV series takes place five to eight years later than that of the novel. And Don Draper/Dick Whitman is a rather more ruthlessly aggressive figure than Frank Wheeler. Don knows what he wants from life and reinvents himself to achieve it. He's also not one to dwell on war stories, since his are not really his own. But even though Matthew Weiner may deny the influence, April looks a lot like the pattern for Betty. Both are caught in the same suburban trap, and even had the same kind of children -- older girl, younger boy -- before unanticipated pregnancies thwarted their potential liberation from child-rearing. Betty studied archaeology only to find herself joking about it while looking at antique furniture; April aspired to be an actress but wound up in a disastrous amateur production of The Petrified Forest in a high school auditorium. And both fell decidedly out of love with their philandering husbands, and wound up having furtive casual sex. But unlike April, Betty has survived the fall. At least so far.)

The novel's beginning, I think, is stronger than its ending. In fact, this is one place where I prefer the film, which condenses the hospital scene and the redundant scenes at the Campbells and the Givingses. I think the inclusion of a shot of Frank playing with the children softens the film a little too much -- the novel almost leaves the impression that Frank farmed the children out to his brother and sister-in-law, an ironic recapitulation of April's scattered childhood. But I do like that both novel and film end with Mr. Givings turning off his hearing aid.

Of course, what makes the novel far superior to the film (even though the film is remarkably faithful to the book) is the fluency of Yates's prose and the keenness of his insight into the characters. We know where we are and where we're going with the Wheelers from the beginning, or at least when we experience with Frank the disaster of the production of The Petrified Forest:
[N]othing had warned him that he might be overwhelmed by the swaying, shining vision of a girl he hadn't seen in years, a girl whose every glance and gesture could make his throat fill up with longing ("Wouldn't you like to be loved by me?") and that then before his very eyes she would dissolve and change into the graceless, suffering creature whose existence he tried every day to deny but whom he knew as well and as painfully as he knew himself, a gaunt, constricted woman whose red eyes flashed reproach, whose false smile in the curtain call was as homely as his own sore feet, his own damp climbing underwear and his own sour smell.

It's a process of illusion and disillusionment that recurs throughout the book; only a few pages later Frank recalls a postcoital April "whispering: 'It's true, Frank. I mean it. You're the most interesting person I've ever met.'" And then only three paragraphs after that the present-day April is saying to him, "All right, Frank. Could you just please stop talking now, before you drive me crazy?" Has a more savagely anti-Romantic novel ever been published?

The key to Frank, I think, is his desire to be a man, not the scared boy he's afraid he really is. Working on the stone path to his house, he prides himself that "At least it was a man's work," and drifts into a reverie about his own masculinity:
At least, squatting to rest on the wooded slope, he could look down and see his house the way a house ought to look on a fine spring day, safe on its carpet of green, the frail white sanctuary of a man's love, a man's wife and children. Lowering his eyes with the solemnity of this thought, he could take pleasure in the sight of his own flexed thigh ... and of the heavily veined forearm that lay across it and the dirty hand that hung there -- not to be compared with his father's hand, maybe, but a serviceable good-enough hand all the same -- so that his temples ached in zeal and triumph as he heaved a rock up from the suck of its white-wormed socket and let it roll end over end down the shuddering leafmold, because he was a man.
And then his daughter asks why Mommy slept on the sofa last night.

No film can be as searching and probing as that passage is about the tyranny of masculinity and the narcissism it inspires, or as revelatory of the human gap between who we are and what we want to be.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Snobbier Than Thou

Michael Bérubé beautifully takes down Benjamin Schwarz's critique of "Mad Men."
There really should be a name for this kind of criticism. Begging Amanda’s pardon, this is not merely about “feeling superior to the writers of ‘Mad Men,’” though it certainly is that. It’s also about feeling superior to the rest of the show’s audience, who are clearly insufferably middlebrow, like that Charlie Rose fellow, “who can always be counted on to embrace the conventional wisdom”: “not just Rose but also Mad Men’s affluent, with-it target audience are particularly susceptible to liking what The New York Times’ Arts and Style sections tell them to like (30-plus articles in two years!).” Unlike the Arts and Style sheeple, however, Benjamin Schwarz likes this extraordinarily accomplished show—but for the right reasons.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Californicated by the Right?

Paul Krugman makes a disturbing point:
If Tea Party Republicans do win big next year, what has already happened in California could happen at the national level. In California, the G.O.P. has essentially shrunk down to a rump party with no interest in actually governing — but that rump remains big enough to prevent anyone else from dealing with the state’s fiscal crisis. If this happens to America as a whole, as it all too easily could, the country could become effectively ungovernable in the midst of an ongoing economic disaster.


It's not the flu, swine or otherwise. I know from flu. I think it's a head cold, but whatever it is, it has me slugging around the house in my robe and pajamas in the middle of the day. Fie on it.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Sibilant Rivalry

How do cats hiss? It's a very strange sound, sort of sibilant and guttural at the same time.

I ask this because Simon's home and Nicky's pissed off about it. After three days of mewing at every window, making us think that he was missing his brother, the first thing Nicky does when Simon comes back is hiss at him. It seems that he doesn't smell right.

Maggie heard Simon outside last night, and went out with
the laser pointer -- their favorite toy: they can chase the lightning bug without stop. He ran off when he saw her, but she sat down on the walk and coaxed him back. He has lost weight, but seems otherwise okay.

A Little Knot-Music

The following review ran today in the San Francisco Chronicle (just below Jon Carroll):

NOCTURNES: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Knopf, 240 pp., $25

Dry without being arid, lean without being starved, the stories in Kazuo Ishiguro's new collection are studies in disjunction. They're full of characters in a state of disconnectedness – miscommunicating, misjudging, mistaking one another's motivations and intent. The trick here is that Ishiguro exploits this state of things for neither pathos nor farce, but for a funny-touching blend of the two.

Four of the five stories are narrated by musicians. A Polish-born guitarist in Venice tells of being hired by a famous American pop singer to serenade the singer's wife. An aspiring singer-songwriter escapes to the country to try to compose, but finds no peace there. A jazz saxophonist has plastic surgery because his career has been stymied by his looks -- his manager tells him he's “dull, loser ugly.” Another saxophonist tells the story of the relationship between a cellist and a mysterious woman who becomes his mentor.

The one story that doesn't feature musicians is also the most wildly varied in tone. “Come Rain or Come Shine” still hinges on the power of music – as the title's allusion to the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer standard suggests. In the story, Ray, a middle-aged man who teaches English on the continent, comes to England to visit his old university friends, Charlie and Emily. The reunion is not a happy one: Charlie and Emily not only berate Ray for not making more of his life, but also embroil him in their own marital tensions, which are like something out of Pinter or Albee.

And then the story turns into situation comedy. Charlie leaves on a business trip and, while Emily is at work, Ray discovers that she has called him “the Prince of Whiners” in her diary. He angrily mutilates the book, but when remorse sets in he calls Charlie to ask what he should do about the diary. Charlie concocts a far-fetched scheme to to trash the apartment and blame the mutilation on a dog owned by some of their friends. The story moves from agitato to scherzando, and by the time it ends it has changed mood again, to andante. The healing agent, at least between Ray and Emily, is music.

Music hath charms. Indeed, it's the almost the only real agglutinating force in the lives of these characters, all of whom are – or feel themselves to be -- outsiders. Janeck, the narrator of the opening story, “Crooner,” was raised in Poland before the fall of communism, and now plays guitar in a café orchestra on the Piazza San Marco in Venice. “Anywhere else,” he tells us, “being a guitar player would go in a guy's favour. But here? A guitar! The café managers get uneasy. It looks too modern, the tourists won't like it.” He's also at a disadvantage because of “the small matter of my not being Italian, never mind Venetian,” but as long as he keeps his mouth shut he can get work because “they need a guitar – something soft, but amplified, thumping out the chords from the back.” He is delighted to meet the crooner, whose black-market records Janeck's mother used to play, and thrilled when the man engages him as an accompanist for the serenade, a romantic gesture that turns out not to be exactly what Janeck is expecting.

Ishiguro knows something about musicians and about feeling like an outsider: Born in Nagasaki, he moved with his family to England when he was five years old. As a teenager, he aspired to be a songwriter like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and at 19 he hitchhiked with his guitar around California and the West. (The guitar was stolen in San Francisco.) But the characters in Nocturnes are no more (or less) autobiographical than the emotionally atrophied butler in The Remains of the Day or the doomed clones of Never Let Me Go.

What gives Ishiguro's fiction its peculiar quality is the sense of things held in suspension, of situations and relationships never quite fated to work out the way they should, rather like unresolved chords in a musical composition. These stories are often quite funny, predicated as they are on odd behavior, misinterpreted actions and false conclusions. But laughter depends on the release of tension, and Ishiguro's skillful avoidance of the expected resolution and his sly refusal to give us a full release of the tension produces a laughter with a melancholy, nervous edge.