A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Poem of the Day: William Shakespeare

Sonnet XXX

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought 
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought, 
And with old woes new wail my dear Time's waste. 
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow, 
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night, 
And weep afresh love's long since canceled woe, 
And moan th' expense of many a vanished sight;
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone, 
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er 
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan, 
Which I new pay as if not paid before. 
   But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, 
   All losses are restored and sorrows end.
-- William Shakespeare

Not my favorite Shakespeare sonnet. It's one of those in which the final couplet too abruptly cancels out the rest of the poem. Still, it's full of wonderful soundplay, from the sibilants of the opening lines (sessions ... sweet silent ... summon ... remembrance ... things past) to the grieving open vowels of the later lines (moan ... foregone ... woe ... woe ... o'er ... fore-bemoanèd moan ... before). 

But I really chose this one because of remembrance of things Proust. This was the sonnet that Scott Moncrief chose to allude to when he went to translate the title À la recherche du temps perdu. Or rather, to mistranslate it. For Shakespeare is writing about what Proust called "voluntary memory" -- the effort to summon up things past -- whereas Proust is equally concerned with "involuntary memory," the way the past looms up unbidden when invoked by some sensory nexus -- a smell, a taste, a sound. True, Proust's narrator goes "in search of lost time" (the currently preferred translation of the title), but he succeeds only when conditions (most famously, the taste of a cookie crumb in a spoonful of tea) favor it. 

Still, you can see how the sonnet might have appealed to Scott Moncrief, for not only is "remembrance of things past" a classier sounding title in English than "in search of lost time," the sonnet itself is concerned with many of the things that troubled Proust's narrator: dead friends, old lovers, obliterated landmarks. But Proust's novel doesn't have a tacked-on couplet or coda to cancel out the sadness of those memories.  

O Calcutta!

The following review appeared today in the San Francisco Chronicle:



There's a house-of-mirrors moment in Paul Theroux's new novel when his narrator-protagonist, a travel writer named Jerry Delfont, meets up in Calcutta with a travel writer named Paul Theroux.

“What I knew about Theroux,” Delfont writes, “is what everyone knew about him. He was known for being intrusive, especially among the unsuspecting – strangers he met on trains, travelers who had no idea who he was, people thinking out loud in unguarded moments. I suspected that much of what he wrote was fiction, since he'd started his writing life as a novelist.” Delfont concludes from their conversation that Theroux is insincere, a phony, driven and competitive and envious. “I also knew that he was going to write about me, about meeting me, and that he'd get everything wrong.” 

So what we have here is Paul Theroux writing about Jerry Delfont writing about Paul Theroux. It's an oddly self-conscious moment, though whether it's self-deprecating or self-aggrandizing on Theroux's part is a little hard to say. It also plays only a tangential role in the plot: Theroux is there to find out what Delfont knows about a mysterious American woman named Merrill Unger, and Delfont isn't willing to let Theroux know that he knows a lot about her. 

There’s a lot Delfont doesn’t know, too, and that forms the plot of the novel. He meets Mrs. Unger (as he continues to think of her even after they’ve become intimate) when she sends a letter to him at his hotel in Calcutta. She explains that her son is an admirer of his writing and that a friend of her son’s  may be in trouble: The friend woke up in a fleabag hotel to find the body of a dead boy on the floor. She wonders if Delfont could help her son’s friend.

Delfont is afflicted with writer’s block, which he refers to as “dead hand.” (That’s not the only explanation of the title the novel provides.) So he goes to see Mrs. Unger and gets involved in more than he expected. He learns that she’s very wealthy, that she runs a kind of home for children she picks up on the Calcutta streets, that she’s a devotee of the goddess Kali, and that she gives a terrific tantric massage. He learns that she despises Mother Teresa, with whom she once worked, as a fame-seeker and celebrity hound who “believed that poverty made people better.”  He learns other things, too, which we won’t go into here, except to cite the warning of his friend Howard, who works at the American consulate: “a lot of foreign women get goddess complexes.”

As a novelist, Theroux has made a kind of specialty of stories about people who go to places where they don’t really belong and consequently get into major messes, the way Allie Fox does in The Mosquito Coast, for example. And Jerry Delfont’s problem is that he – one of the “big pink foreigners”  -- doesn’t belong in “populous Calcutta, city of deformities,” no matter how infatuated he becomes with Mrs. Unger.

In fact, Mrs. Unger herself gives him the bitterest insight: “India [is] a culture of evasions. This country is very dirty. It’s impossible to tell the truth here. The truth is forbidden, especially in writing. Anyway, a truthful book about India would be unbearable – about spite, venom, cruelty, sexual repression, incest, and meaningless crimes.” Later, Delfont would reflect, “Of all the foreigners I met in India, she was the one who was most at home.” 

Is “A Dead Hand” a truthful book about India? It certainly has all those “unbearable” things that Mrs. Unger enumerates. It also has an abundance of richly drawn characters, Mrs. Unger the most enigmatic and scariest of them. Theroux has used his travel writer’s eye and ear and his novelist’s imagination to craft a tense, disturbing, funny and horrifying book around all of them.