Sunday, 23 January 2022

Review of Scott Newstok’s How to Think Like Shakespeare

I should start off by saying that I received a copy from the author to review. But don’t worry, I’m not paid for it, and anyone who knows me knows that I can’t flatter anyone and I’m too blunt for my own good.  

That said, I think it’s an enjoyable and thought-provoking book. One complaint I have about How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education is that it’s a bit of a misleading title: it made me think that it’s a book about Shakespeare, for Shakespeare’s fans (such as me), but it’s about education. Once I got that out of my head, it’s an interesting book.

In 14 chapters, Scott Newstok examines 14 subjects, 14 ways in which education today isn’t quite working (he focuses on American education but certain values and trends can also be found in other countries), and he writes about what we could learn from a Renaissance education, the kind of education that produced Shakespeare. 

“Thinking like Shakespeare untangles a host of today’s confused—let’s be blunt: just plain wrong—educational binaries. We now act as if work precludes play; imitation impedes creativity; tradition stifles autonomy; constrain limits innovation; discipline somehow contradicts freedom; engagement with what is past and foreign occludes what is present and native.”  

The most interesting chapters for me are perhaps 8 “Of Imitation”, 9 “Of Exercises”, 10 “Of Conversation”, 11 “Of Stock”, 12 “Of Constraint”, and 14 “Of Freedom”. Newstok makes lots of good points. I do think, for example, that people now are not taught to argue, especially argue against themselves and their own positions; many people see “argument” as a bad word, Devil’s advocate as a bad thing, and are incapable of considering different sides to an issue and different arguments on each side. There is too much certainty in the current climate, too much cant, too much black-and-white thinking. There is too much us vs them mentality, too much conformity, too much intolerance. 

I’ve also noticed an ignorance of and indifference, if not outright hostility, to tradition and classic works. In English-speaking countries, many people including teachers no longer care about cultural inheritance or legacy of the past, and only talk about relevance and relatability. A lot of it seems to come from an ignorance of the past, ignorance of context and history and development. Some teachers, for example, see Shakespeare’s plays through the lens of feminism or post-colonial theory or anti-racism or some fashionable ism, impose modern standards on his works, and want to remove him from the curriculum, partly because they don’t understand literature and can’t talk about literary merit, and partly because they look at the plays alone, ripped off from context, and have no understanding of literary history and Shakespeare’s influence on literature and other arts. 

Scott Newstok doesn’t name those movements and doesn’t directly talk about the attacks on Shakespeare and the Western canon. He focuses on what’s not right with today’s education and what could be learnt from a Renaissance education, though it does help me see the roots of the problems I’ve been noticing in academia and the teaching of literature in English-speaking countries. 

Sometimes a chapter feels a bit too short and makes me want something more. In “Of Imitation”, for example, I want more counter-arguments, and want to read more about how one moves beyond imitation. Newstok is right that imitation was seen as a good thing in Shakespeare’s days and a bad thing now, and today’s culture values (or is supposed to value) originality, but contradictingly we’re also living in an age of countless film adaptations of the same books over and over again, we’re also living in an age of remakes and reboots and modernisations and prequels and sequels and spin-offs. 

Or, in “Of Attention”, he writes about distraction and the overload of information, but I’m not quite sure what the solution is for better attention.

Overall, it’s still a thought-provoking book. Newstok also lets me see how many of Shakespeare’s qualities, such as his ability to consider every side to an issue and ability to enter the minds of such a wide range of characters, were partly shaped by the education he got at grammar school. I enjoy that. 

If you consider reading How to Think Like Shakespeare, it’s only 163 pages (not counting the thanks and index).   

Friday, 21 January 2022

The Jew of Malta, anti-Semitism, and Marlowe vs Shakespeare

1/ Could anyone read The Jew of Malta now without comparing it to The Merchant of Venice? I doubt it.

The difference is quite clear from the beginning. After the Prologue, spoken by Machevill (Machiavelli), Marlowe’s play begins with Barabas the Jew in his counting-house, surrounded by money and jewels. 

“BARABAS Thus trowls our fortune in by land and sea, 

And thus are we on every side enriched: 

These are the blessings promised to the Jews,

[…] Who hateth me but for my happiness?

Or who is honoured now but for his wealth? 

Rather had I a Jew be hated thus, 

Than pitied in a Christian poverty:

Tuesday, 18 January 2022

Cymbeline, an underrated Shakespeare play


Painting of Imogen by Wilhelm Ferdinand Souchon

1/ I often say we cannot know Shakespeare the way we know other writers, because his plays have such different visions and depict such a wide range of perspectives and views—he is elusive. But we may notice his obsessions, we may notice the themes that keep recurring in the plays. Forced marriage is one example, which can be found in Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and now Cymbeline. Father-daughter relationship, especially a difficult one, is in those plays and also in King Lear, Othello, Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet, The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, The Merchant of Venice, and probably some other plays I haven’t read. 

Let’s look at Cymbeline

“CYMBELINE That mightst have had the sole son of my queen. 

IMOGEN O blessed that I might not! I chose an eagle 

And did avoid a puttock. 

CYMBELINE Thou took’st a beggar, wouldst have made my throne 

A seat for baseness. 

IMOGEN No, I rather added 

A luster to it.” 

(Act 1 scene 1) 

I like that.

Here’s the plot: King Cymbeline wants his daughter Imogen to marry his second wife’s son Cloten (strictly this isn’t incest, but still rather weird) but Imogen secretly marries a guy called Posthumus Leonatus, adopted as an orphan and raised in Cymbeline’s family (also kinda weird—no?). Cymbeline imprisons his daughter, as one does, and banishes Posthumus. In Italy, Posthumus meets a bunch of guys and one Iachimo, believing that all women could be seduced, makes a wager that if he can “[enjoy] the dearest bodily part of [Posthumus’s] mistress”, he can keep the diamond ring Posthumus got from Imogen, and if he loses, he has to give him 10,000 ducats. 

Pleasant guy, that Iachimo.

There are many elements in Cymbeline that make me think of other plays: the wager and the ring make me think of The Merchant of Venice and All’s Well That Ends Well; the potion reminds me of Romeo and Juliet; the chastity theme echoes Much Ado About Nothing and contrasts with Troilus and Cressida; the separation and adoption are later echoed by The Winter’s Tale; the banishment is reminiscent of King Lear and The Tempest; the father’s ghost makes me think of Hamlet. Cymbeline has the jealousy theme, as in Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale; it also has the theme of appearance vs reality, and slander (the danger of words), two of Shakespeare’s obsessions. 

“PISANIO […] The paper 

Hath cut her throat already. No, ‘tis slander, 

Whose edge is sharper than the sword, whose tongue 

Outvenoms all the worms of Nile, whose breath

Rides on the posting winds and doth belie 

All corners of the world. Kings, queens, and states,

Maids, matrons, nay, the secrets of the grave

This viperous slander enters…” 

(Act 3 scene 4) 

And of course, like every other Shakespeare play, Cymbeline has disguise. 

2/ Look at this line: 

“CLOTEN […] If you can penetrate her with your fingering, so; we’ll try with tongue too…” 

(Act 2 scene 3) 

HAHAHAHAHAHA. If that doesn’t persuade you to read Cymbeline (or just Shakespeare in general), I don’t know what will.

This is Cloten talking to the musicians.

I don’t know what Jane Austen thought about Cymbeline, but I imagine that she would have enjoyed the foolish Cloten’s courtship of Imogen.

A critic (I forgot which one) has pointed out that Shakespeare often has his characters cling to, and become fixated on, a word or a phrase that they say over and over again. An example is here, when Cloten keeps repeating “his garment” and “his meanest garment” before Imogen, only because she says “His meanest garment/ That ever hath but clipped his body is dearer/ In my respect than all the hairs above thee/ Were they all made such men” (ibid.). 

3/ Imogen’s soliloquy when she’s alone in Wales in men’s clothes (before she meets Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus) has 3 things I find interesting. 

“IMOGEN I see a man’s life is a tedious one…” 

(Act 3 scene 4)

In Shakespeare’s plays, there are many women who disguise themselves as men, and generally they then have more power and are more in control—see Portia in The Merchant of Venice or Rosalind in As You Like It. With Imogen, Shakespeare shows that it’s not always the case.

“IMOGEN […] To lapse in fulness

Is sorer than to lie for need, and falsehood

Is worse in kings than beggars. My dear lord, 

Thou art one o’ th’ false ones…”


I like that. 

“IMOGEN […] I were best not call; I dare not call. Yet famine, 

Ere clean it o’erthrow nature, makes it valiant. 

Plenty and peace breeds cowards; hardness ever

Of hardiness is mother…” 


That is very true.


“IMOGEN […] Gods, what lies I have heard!

Our courtiers say all’s savage but at court. 

Experience, O, thou disprov’st report!” 

(Act 4 scene 2) 

In his essay, Tony Tanner points out that there are many secrets in Cymbeline; Imogen is in a unique plight, compared to other Shakespeare heroines, in that she is unaware of many secrets, and also doesn’t have anyone to guide her like Isabella has Vincentio in Measure for Measure; and no character knows much. 

The last point I think is interesting. In Measure for Measure, Vincentio knows and stages everything; it’s the same for Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, and Prospero in The Tempest. In Othello, Iago is the one with secrets and plots everything—the only thing he doesn’t know is the love his wife is capable of. In King Lear, Edmund knows most secrets, except Edgar’s disguise. Other plays tend to have one big secret that one character or more know.

Cymbeline is a play full of secrets and each character only knows a bit. It’s a fog-bound play. 

4/ The jealousy theme in Cymbeline is different from that of other plays in that the slanderer doesn’t point towards someone else: in Much Ado About Nothing, Don John tells Claudio that Don Pedro woos Hero for himself and later makes him think that Hero has sex with Borachio; in Othello, Iago poisons his mind and leads him to think Desdemona has sex with Cassio; whereas in Cymbeline, Iachimo claims that he has had sex with Imogen. But why?

Is Iachimo evil, like Iago? Or is he a callous, thoughtless man who wants to prove a point and makes a wager, and once he fails, cheats so as not to lose money, without thinking about consequences for others?

I’m inclined to think Iachimo is callous, thoughtless, and even misogynistic rather than evil—I don’t think he aims to destroy Posthumus and Imogen—he seems to think it’s a harmless game. Posthumus is the one who wants to have Imogen killed. Considered from every perspective, it is wrong, and it’s even more inappropriate when Imogen is a princess (currently the only heir to the king, as Cymbeline’s sons are long lost), Posthumus is socially inferior to her, their marriage doesn’t seem to be official, and he is banished. What right does he have to kill her?

However, he later repents and tries to kill himself. 

“POSTHUMUS […] You married ones, 

If each of you should take this course, how many 

Must murder wives much better than themselves 

For wrying but a little!” 

(Act 5 scene 1) 

This is interesting because at this point, Posthumus doesn’t know that Imogen was innocent. He is filled with guilt and remorse, whereas Othello doesn’t regret killing Desdemona until he realises that she never did anything wrong. It doesn’t justify his order for Pisanio, but there’s a difference and it must be said.   

5/ Apparently one of the common complaints about Cymbeline, and one of the reasons it’s not very popular, is that it has too much plot. Samuel Johnson, going even further, calls it “unresisting imbecility” (he’s wrong). 

The complex plot, with various secrets, doesn’t really bother me till Act 5, when it becomes rather messy. 

When the ghost of the father appears, I think, wait, is this Hamlet?

Then some time after, a character says “The Queen is dead” (Act 5 scene 5), and I think, is this turning into Macbeth

“CORNELIUS With horror, madly dying, like her life, 

Which, being cruel to the world, concluded 

Most cruel to herself…” 


That sounds like Lady Macbeth. But no. Cornelius goes on about the Queen’s confessions before death.

“CORNELIUS […] She did confess she had

For you a mortal mineral, which, being took, 

Should by the minute feed on life and, ling’ring,

By inches waste you. In which time she purposed, 

By watching, weeping, tendance, kissing, to 

O’ercome you with her show and, in time, 

When she had fitted you with her craft, to work 

Her son into th’ adoption of the crown…” 


What is going on? Is this Hamlet

I can’t help thinking that Shakespeare is doing something in Cymbeline but I don’t know what it is—there are lots of parallels to his other plays. Self-parody?  

But finally, when Shakespeare ties up all the loose ends (there are much more here than in other plays, as far as I remember), all details fit together and somehow it all makes sense: Imogen casually tells Cloten that he can’t even compare to Posthumus’s clothes so he puts on those clothes and seeks her (with the intention of raping her); he wears Posthumus’s clothes and gets beheaded, so Imogen thinks Posthumus is dead; Cloten dies so the Queen dies (admittedly she doesn’t know he’s dead, only that he’s gone missing), and it has to be Guiderius who kills Cloten so Belarius has to tell Cymbeline who they are, etc.

Act 5 is messy, but it gets all tidied up. Perfectly. 

As Tony Tanner puts it: 

“And yet, in what seems like the last few minutes of this very long play, everything is resolved, clarified, unified, without a loose end left behind. Never was a more dazzling feat of tidying-up.” (Introduction) 

6/ I myself love Cymbeline. If you like the play, read Tony Tanner’s essay. If you don’t, read it and see if he may change your mind. 

For example, he says that the scene of Imogen (as Fidele) next to the headless body of Cloten “must be the strangest scene in Shakespeare”. 

“She not only assumes that it is Posthumus but identifies the body, part by part, as that of her beloved—yet it is the body of the figure she most abhorred, on which she proceeds to throw herself. What is this telling us? Is it the head alone (=quality of mind, refinement of intelligence and understanding) which differentiates man from man?” (ibid.)

When I read the scene myself, I thought it was an implausible, fairytale-logic scene—how could Imogen not recognise that it’s not Posthumus’s body, even if she’s somewhat dazed from the potion? But she clearly identifies the body, part by part. There’s something odd here. 

Tony Tanner goes on: 

“Take off the heads or ‘tops’, and is there then no difference between Posthumus and Cloten? And didn’t we see Posthumus effectively ‘lose his head’ in Rome, succumbing figuratively to what has overtaken Cloten literally? This point was nicely made by Robert Hunter, who suggested that, since we see the insanely jealous Posthumus adopting the mindless savagery of Cloten, during Posthumus’s two-act absence Cloten provides us with a present parody of him. Others have suggested that the execution of Cloten in Posthumus’s clothes acts as a vicarious or symbolic (or substitute) death of Posthumus’s bad self. However you take it, there is certainly an odd continuity between Posthumus and Cloten; and, despite what looks like their all too obvious oppositeness, a curious kind of heads-and-tails identity.” (ibid.)

As he points out, they are never on stage together—it would be funny if a production has the same actor play both Posthumus and Cloten.

Are these good interpretations, or far-fetched? But clearly there is something here—Shakespeare deliberately has Imogen identify the body parts as Posthumus’s. 

This is how Tony Tanner ends his essay: 

“Shakespeare has taken an assortment of the most disparate, incongruous, intractable material imaginable, all concerning important matters—sexual, familiar, dynastic, political, imperial, and proceeds to show with what a light touch it can be handled. He allows it to puddle and fog together to the point of hopeless chaos, and then—whoosh! it’s all significantly related and cleared up. And suddenly the play seems to have been like Imogen’s dream: 

‘Twas but a bolt of nothing, shot at nothing,

Which the brain makes of fumes.

(IV, ii, 300-301) 

Our pleasure should be tragical-historical-comical-pastoral-romantical, and also, theatrical-magical, Cymbeline, it seems to me, is the most extra-ordinary play that Shakespeare ever wrote. How does he do it! Staggering!” (ibid.)

Friday, 14 January 2022

The Merry Wives of Windsor

1/ Apparently the thing most often said about The Merry Wives of Windsor is that it’s a disappointment, for fans of Falstaff. It’s not hard to see why—Falstaff of the Henry IV plays is one of the finest creations in Shakespeare, and in literature in general, whereas Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor barely has any of the charm or wit. But it’s still a very funny play. Perhaps the key to enjoy it is to pretend that this Falstaff is a different character altogether. 

There are two plots.

The sub-plot mainly involves Anne Page and her three suitors (Slender, the French doctor Caius, and Fenton). That makes me think of Bianca and her three suitors in The Taming of the Shrew.

The main plot mostly involves Falstaff, the merry wives of Windsor (Mrs Ford and Mrs Page), and their husbands (Ford and Page). Falstaff is the butt of the jokes, but the plot is more interesting for the jealousy theme. 

2/ Some funny bits in the play: 

“CAIUS […] By gar, I vill cut all his two stones; by gar, he shall not have a stone to trow at his dog.” 

(Act 1 scene 4) 

Stones are testicles, if you’re wondering. 

“MRS FORD […] What tempest, I trow, threw this whale, with so many turns of oil in his belly, ashore at Windsor? How shall I be revenged on him? I think the best way were to entertain him with hope till the wicked fire of lust have melted him in his own grease…” 

(Act 2 scene 1) 

That whale is later thrown into the Thames.  

“PISTOL He woos both high and low, both rich and poor, 

Both young and old, one with another, Ford. 

He loves the gallimaufry. Ford, perpend.” 


I don’t like the eye dialect very much—Shakespeare makes fun of the French and Welsh accents—but this line makes up for it: 

“CAIUS If dere be one, or two, I shall make-a de turd.” 

(Act 3 scene 3) 

Sometimes a line amuses me greatly but I can’t say why, like what Ford says to Mrs Page about her and his wife: 

“FORD […] I think if your husbands were dead, you two would marry.” 

(Act 3 scene 2)

And this is probably the funniest speech in the play: 

“FALSTAFF […] I suffered the pangs of three several deaths: first, an intolerable fright to be detected with a jealous rotten bellwether; next, to be compassed like a good bilbo in the circumference of a peck, hilt to point, heel to head; and then, to be stopped in, like a strong distillation, with stinking clothes that fretted in their own grease. Think of that, a man of my kidney—think of that—that am as subject to heat as butter; a man of continual dissolution and thaw. It was a miracle to ‘scape suffocation. And in the height of this bath, when I was more than half stewed in grease, like a Dutch dish, to be thrown into the Thames, and cooled, glowing hot, in that surge, like a horseshoe. Think of that—hissing hot—think of that, Master Brooke!” 

(Act 3 scene 5)


Again, if you think of Falstaff of the Henry IV plays, this seems out of character—the real Falstaff always paints himself to be greater, braver, more glorious, not such a laughingstock. But this is a different Falstaff, and the speech is so hilarious and the images are so colourful that it doesn’t matter.

Tony Tanner thinks differently. With the same speech, he argues: 

“The accounts he gives of his misadventures […] are not the words of a broken man. He can be funnier about his own body than anybody else. With his rich elaborations, he transforms what was pure knock-about farce into something of grander proportions and resonances—mock epic perhaps, but the epic note is there.” (Introduction) 

Maybe I should think about that some more. But whatever we think about Falstaff (and the question “Is this the same Falstaff as in the Henry IV plays?”), some of the funniest lines in The Merry Wives of Windsor are said by Falstaff. 

“FALSTAFF […] If it should come to the ear of the court how I have been transformed, and how my transformation hath been washed and cudgeled, they would melt me out of my fat drop by drop, and liquor fishermen’s boots with me. I warrant they would whip me with their fine wits till I were as crestfall’n as a dried pear…” 

(Act 4 scene 5) 


“QUICKLY […] Mistress Ford, good heart, is beaten black and blue that you cannot see a white spot about her. 

FALSTAFF What tell’st thou me of black and blue? I was beaten myself into all the colors of the rainbow…” 


3/ I haven’t read all of Shakespeare (I’ll get there), but The Merry Wives of Windsor again confirms my suspicion that every single one of Shakespeare’s plays has some sort of disguise, some form of acting or pretending. The device is present in both plots.

The play also has the jealousy theme, which is clearly one of Shakespeare’s obsessions. Everything works out in the end because the play is in comic mode, but it could easily turn into something tragic, like Othello

The thing that interests me more in the jealousy plot is the idea of “seeming”, or appearance versus reality, one of the themes that keep recurring in Shakespeare’s plays. Ford is undeniably jealous and unjust to his wife, but if you look at it from his perspective, everything appears to be what he thinks is happening, every detail fits. In his mind, he is reasonable and right.  

4/ Some people may like the play and find it hilarious; some may find it slight, not witty like Much Ado About Nothing, not lyrical like Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream; some others may even find it a disappointment because of Falstaff, but I think everyone would agree that the highlight of the play is the merry wives. They’re the smart ones in the play, the men are dumb. 

“MRS PAGE […] We’ll leave a proof by that which we will do, 

Wives may be merry, and yet honest too. 

We do not act that often jest and laugh; 

‘Tis old but true, ‘Still swine eats all the draff’.” 

(Act 4 scene 2) 

The point of all the staging and playing pranks on Falstaff is not only to punish Falstaff but also to educate a man, Ford.

(In the sub-plot, we have a smart girl, with her guy, outwitting her parents and two men, and escaping a forced marriage).

It’s interesting to see how Page reacts when Ford apologises to his wife however: 

“FORD Pardon me, wife. Henceforth do what thou wilt. 

I rather will suspect the sun with cold 

Than thee with wantonness. Now doth thy honor stand

In him that was of late an heretic.

As firm as faith.

PAGE ‘Tis well, ‘tis well; no more. 

Be not as extreme in submission as in offense.

But let out plot go forward…” 

(Act 4 scene 4) 

That’s very good. Out of context, the line doesn’t look like much, but in context, it is said by a man who from the beginning has been calm and secure about his wife, who fully trusts her and pays no heed to hearsay. He’s chill throughout. In his eyes, Ford seems to swing from one extreme to another. 

Tony Tanner writes about Ford:  

“If his jealousy is ‘in the round’, then he is anticipating Othello and we suffer with him and sympathize. If he is a ‘humour’ figure, he could easily appear in a Ben Jonson satire and we should laugh at him and condemn. I suppose you take your pick. It is very hard for Shakespeare not to humanize what he touches, and he does not offer the skeletally thinned-down humour-figures of a Ben Jonson. On the other hand, given the manifest virtue and probity of his wife, and the attitude of his fellow citizens—‘the lunatic is at it again’—I think he is more of an amplified humour than an inchoate Othello. Still, jealousy is a phenomenon which can always generate tragedy, and in this comedy, it has to be very thoroughly defused. Shakespeare has just the verb for it; they have to ‘scrape the figures out of [his] brains’ (IV, ii, 212, my italics). By the end, we are to take it that they have succeeded.” (Introduction) 

5/ I’ve also watched the 1982 BBC production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by David Hugh Jones (credited as David Jones). 

In both text and performance, the play takes some time to set up, and the second half is much funnier than the first half. The Merry Wives of Windsor is perhaps also funnier in performance, partly because of the accents (I don’t really like eye dialect) and partly because of the farce (especially the scene of Ford beating up Falstaff in women’s clothes). Richard Griffiths is good as Falstaff, I like Judy Davis and Prunella Scales as the merry wives, but most surprising is Ben Kingsley as Ford—I didn’t know he could be so hilarious. 

I also like the warmth of the ending. 

Saturday, 8 January 2022

Reading Light in August

I’ve been reading Light in August. Faulkner is very, very different from Proust.

People (or rather Proust fans) often say that after Proust, it’s hard to read anything else for a while, because nothing could compare. I myself thought that perhaps characterisation in most novels would appear crude after the intricacy and subtlety of Proust. But after Swann’s Way, I was enjoying the fresh air in Faulkner, and thought that next to Faulkner, Proust appeared so narrow, almost even trivial, in his navel-gazing, his focus on minutiae, his long passages about the look of asparagus or the changing colour of a steeple or the light on a tiled roof. I thought, there’s much more to life than being desperately obsessed with someone and wondering how different the real person is from the one in your head.

But about 80 pages in (the book is about 350 pages on my kobo), I started getting a bit weary of Light in August. Again, it’s personal—I think it seems to be a great novel and Faulkner is a great writer—but at the moment, I’m rather fed up with race issues, especially in America. Light in August is more than that, but race is one of the main themes (it’s set in the South in the 1930s), and it’s a cruel, violent world that the novel is depicting.

I can see what Faulkner is doing (or so I think). I like the way he jumps back and forth in time, and switches between perspectives. I like the way he depicts characters. I also like his metaphors and images—interesting without drawing much attention to themselves. 

For example, look at the wagon moving very slowly that Lena is watching: 

“Though the mules plod in a steady and unflagging hypnosis, the vehicle does not seem to progress. It seems to hang suspended in the middle distance forever and forever, so infinitesimal is its progress, like a shabby bead upon the mild red string of road. So much so is this that in the watching of it the eye loses it as sight and sense drowsily merge and blend, like the road itself, with all the peaceful and monotonous changes between darkness and day, like already measured thread being rewound onto a spool. So that at last, as though out of some trivial and unimportant region beyond even distance, the sound of it seems to come slow and terrific and without meaning, as though it were a ghost travelling a half mile ahead of its own shape.” (Ch.1) 

The novel is bleak from the beginning. Lena is unwed and pregnant, hitchhiking without much money from Alabama to Jefferson, Mississippi to look for her baby daddy, Lucas Burch.

In chapter 2, Faulkner switches to Byron Bunch, a guy working at a mill. See the metaphor when he watches Joe Christmas and Joe Brown, two other men working at the mill: 

“And then Christmas would turn and with that still, sullen face of his walk out of whatever small gathering the sheer empty sound of Brown’s voice had surrounded them with, with Brown following, still laughing and talking.” (Ch.2) 

That’s very good. I like that. 

This is Hightower, the disgraced minister, friend of Byron Bunch: 

“His skin is the color of flour sacking and his upper body in shape is like a loosely filled sack falling from his gaunt shoulders of its own weight, upon his lap.” (Ch.4) 


See Joe Christmas: 

“It seemed to him that he could see the yellow day opening peacefully on before him, like a corridor, an arras, into a still chiaroscuro without urgency. It seemed to him that as he sat there the yellow day contemplated him drowsily, like a prone and somnolent yellow cat.” (Ch.5) 

Christmas turns out to be the central character of Light in August

“Nothing can look quite as lonely as a big man going along an empty street. Yet though he was not large, not tall, he contrived somehow to look more lonely than a lone telephone pole in the middle of a desert. In the wide, empty, shadowbrooded street he looked like a phantom, a spirit, strayed out of its own world, and lost.” (ibid.) 

He grows up in an orphanage: 

“… the bleak windows where in rain soot from the yearly adjacenting chimneys streaked like black tears.” (Ch.6) 

Note: “black tears”. 

Christmas is later adopted by Mr McEachern, a devout Presbyterian and a hard man who believes in corporal punishment as the way to bring up children. I like the metaphors when Faulkner writes about Mrs McEachern: 

“She was waiting on the porch—a patient, beaten creature without sex demarcation at all save the neat screw of graying hair and the skirt—when the buggy drove up. It was as though instead of having been subtly slain and corrupted by the ruthless and bigoted man into something beyond his intending and her knowing, she had been hammered stubbornly thinner and thinner like some passive and dully malleable metal, into an attenuation of dumb hopes and frustrated desires now faint and pale as dead ashes.” (Ch.7) 

Being an orphan with no knowledge of his family background, Christmas is nevertheless convinced from a young age that he’s part black. The novel revolves around the conflicting emotions, the loathing of a man believing himself to be part black in the time of Jim Crow laws. Cheery stuff. 

Light in August seems to be a great novel. I loved The South and the Fury and As I Lay Dying. But I can’t help thinking that literary works sometimes must come at the right time, and this is perhaps not the right time for me and Light in August.  

Sunday, 2 January 2022

In Search of Lost Time Vol.1: love, obsession, jealousy

I have complaints.

Before we get to that, it must be said that I do think Proust is a great writer, which you can see in my previous 5 blog posts about Swann’s Way. I absolutely love “Part 1: Combray”, with which many readers seem to struggle, and I do think that “Part 2: Swann in Love” is a great study of obsession and jealousy.

My problem with Proust is personal, and seems to be a clash of sensibilities. 

First of all, Proust is exhausting. He goes on and on and on about Swann’s obsession with Odette, and his jealousy. Swann’s Way is not a big volume—on my kobo, it is 445 pages, and Part 2 is about 184 pages or so—and yet it feels very long. Why do I find Proust, though not Tolstoy, so long and exhausting when both writers are interested in details and subtleties? I asked myself.* A major difference between Tolstoy and Proust is that Tolstoy moves rather quickly between characters and between groups of characters, and he inhabits everyone’s mind, whereas Proust’s underlying tempo is slow, and mostly stays in one character’s mind for a long time, either the narrator (unnamed but generally called Marcel for convenience), or Swann. Everyone says Swann is like Marcel, or at least his obsession with Odette will be later paralleled by Marcel’s obsession with Gilberte and Albertine (Proust writes “like certain novelists, he had distributed his own personality between two characters”).  

Another difference is that many things happen in Tolstoy and he writes about the minute changes in consciousness, whereas Proust writes about different actions and different incidents that are essentially manifestations of the same thing—Swann’s obsession with Odette and his jealousy.

Proust fans don’t have to tell me that the two novelists have different aims and must be judged accordingly, I know. I understand that Swann projects his fantasies onto Odette, as the narrator does with Gilberte in Part 3. I understand that Proust deliberately stays in Swann’s mind so that we don’t quite see Odette, only the Odette in Swann’s head. I understand that Proust is making a point about the impossibility of truly knowing another person. The comparison with Tolstoy is to explain what about Proust I personally find exhausting.

Part 2 of Swann’s Way is a great study in obsession, but being stuck in Swann’s neurotic, jealous mind feels oppressive after a while. Proust and Cao Xueqin have opposite “problems”: if Cao Xueqin largely conveys characters through action and dialogue, and sometimes makes me want to know more about characters’ thoughts but doesn’t go any further, Proust holds me hostage in a character’s head and doesn’t let go. Proust explores the subject till exhaustion, I end up feeling exhausted. 

My second complaint, again personal, is that I don’t know how old the characters are and how much time passes between events. We know how much time passes in Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, in The Tale of Genji and Hong lou meng…; in In Search of Lost Time, memories are jumbled together and time is generally unclear (even though once in a while there are references to historical events). In novels, sometimes it doesn’t matter, but the omission of time references in Swann’s Way can be a barrier: my perception of the behaviour of the narrator and Gilberte in Part 3 would change depending on how old they are (their language about playing games sounds young, but they’re probably older); I want to know the time gap between him first falling in love with Gilberte in Combray and meeting her again in Paris; the time gap also changes the significance when the narrator makes a distinction between Combray Swann and Swann as father of Gilberte; even something as minor as Marcel lying to Françoise and writing a note to his mother to ask for a goodnight kiss would be viewed differently depending on his age, and so on. 

Perhaps this is premature and reading all 7 volumes may help me create some sort of timeline, but my complaint remains true for Swann’s Way

My third complaint is to do with Psychological Proust. In my previous blog post, I wrote that I didn’t understand Swann’s love for Odette. I have decided to go along with Proust and see that love as irrational, though there’s something very strange about the way Swann associates Odette’s face with a painting by Botticelli (for some sort of satisfaction, because he’s not attracted to her), and associates their love with Vinteuil’s music. But let’s say I accept that.

Proust writes: 

“For what we suppose to be our love or our jealousy is never a single, continuous and indivisible passion. It is composed of an infinity of successive loves, of different jealousies, each of which is ephemeral, although by their uninterrupted multiplicity they give us the impression of continuity, the illusion of unity. The life of Swann’s love, the fidelity of his jealousy, were formed of the death, the infidelity, of innumerable desires, innumerable doubts, all of which had Odette for their object. If he had remained for any length of time without seeing her, those that died would not have been replaced by others. But the presence of Odette continued to sow in Swann’s heart alternate seeds of love and suspicion.” (Vol.1, P.2) 

Perhaps I misunderstand what Proust means, but I don’t think it’s true. It’s true for Swann, and I suppose, for some people, but Proust writes it as a universal thing and I don’t think it is. Swann’s love for Odette seems to die and gets replaced with jealousy (or insecurity) when they’re apart, and he loves her again when they’re together (and she doesn’t play games with him), then his love dies again, and so on and so forth, but that isn’t normal. This is the relationship of a neurotic and insecure man with a manipulative woman; loving couples aren’t like that. 

“… The important thing was that we should see each other, Gilberte and I, and should have an opportunity of making a mutual avowal of our love which, until then, would not officially (so to speak) have begun. Doubtless the various reasons which made me so impatient to see her would have appeared less urgent to a grown man. As life goes on, we acquire such adroitness in the cultivation of our pleasures, that we content ourselves with the pleasure we derive from thinking of a woman, as I thought of Gilberte, without troubling ourselves to ascertain whether the image corresponds to the reality, and also with the pleasure of loving her without needing to be sure that she loves us too…” (Vol.1, P.3) 

Again, I suppose it’s true for the narrator, and many people, perhaps also Proust, but Proust presents it as a general thing and I don’t think it’s true for everyone. It’s not true for me, for example—I know that I cannot truly know my boyfriend and can only know what I know (I’ve seen Solaris), but I do care that my love for him is grounded in (part of) reality rather than some sort of fantasy entirely in my head; and it’s not enough to love unrequitedly. I asked a few grown men, and they didn’t think it’s a universal thing either.  

Generally speaking, Proust does have great psychological insight, especially when he pierces through people’s pretensions and hypocrisies, and when he writes about cruelty (the scene of Mlle Vinteuil and her lesbian lover in Part 1 is shocking and unforgettable). His depiction of a sick mind (I mean Swann’s) is brilliant. But Proust seems to have no idea what a normal, healthy love is like, so when the narrator speaks of his own or Swann’s feelings as something universal, problems arise.

Having said all that, I still think Proust is a great writer, and the last 20 pages of Swann’s Way, when the narrator returns to the Bois much older, are wonderful. 

“They had long since fled, and still I stood vainly questioning the deserted paths. The sun had gone. Nature was resuming its reign over the Bois, from which had vanished all trace of the idea that it was the Elysian Garden of Woman; above the gimcrack windmill the real sky was grey; the wind wrinkled the surface of the Grand Lac in little wavelets, like a real lake; large birds flew swiftly over the Bois, as over a real wood, and with shrill cries perched, one after another, on the great oaks which, beneath their Druidical crown, and with Dodonian majesty, seemed to proclaim the inhuman emptiness of this deconsecrated forest, and helped me to understand how paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one’s memory, which must inevitably lose the charm that comes to them from memory itself and from their not being apprehended by the senses. The reality that I had known no longer existed. It sufficed that Mme Swann did not appear, in the same attire and at the same moment, for the whole avenue to be altered. The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. They were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.” (Vol.1, P.3) 

(The excerpts are from the edition translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, and revised by D.J. Enright).

That is magnificent writing. 

Will I read Volume 2? Probably, but not yet. 

*: I once came across a tweet from a (self-proclaimed) Proust fan saying that Proust did everything Tolstoy could do, and better. This, now I know, is pure bollocks. This person clearly knows neither Tolstoy nor Proust.   

Tuesday, 28 December 2021

In Search of Lost Time Vol.1: Comedy of Manners Proust vs Psychological Proust

There are, you probably noticed, different modes in Proust. According to the New Yorker

“There are at least six Marcel Prousts to study, and, though we’d like to say that each feeds the others, the truth is that they exist in separate, sometimes baffling strata. There’s the Period Proust, the Toulouse-Lautrec-like painter of the high life of the Belle Époque, who offers an unmatched picture both of riding in the Bois and of visiting the brothels near the Opéra; and the Philosophical Proust, whose thoughts on the nature of time supposedly derived from the ideas of Henri Bergson and are argued to have paralleled those of Einstein. There’s the Psychological Proust, whose analysis of human motives—above all, of love and jealousy—is the real living core of his book; and the “Perverse” Proust (as the eminent scholar Antoine Compagnon refers to him), who was among the first French authors to write quite openly about homosexuality. Then there is the Political Proust, the Jewish writer who diagrammed the fault line that the Dreyfus Affair first cracked in French society, and that the war pulled apart. Finally, there’s the Poetic Proust, the pathétique Proust who writes the sentences and finds the phrases, and whose twilight intensity and violet-tinted charm make his Big Book one of the few that readers urge on friends rather than merely force on students.” 

I may (or may not) come back to this point. But in terms of writing characters, I would say that there are two different modes: Comedy of Manners Proust, and Psychological Proust.

Proust begins Part 2 of Swann’s Way telling us about the Verdurin set. That is Comedy of Manners Proust—he satirises various types of people and pierces through all of their pretensions; he is comic, sometimes even grotesque; and he makes me think of Jane Austen.

Mme Verdurin, for example, once laughs so hard that she dislocates her jaw.  

“From this lofty perch she would take a spirited part in the conversation of the “faithful,” and would revel in all their “drollery”; but, since the accident to her jaw, she had abandoned the effort involved in wholehearted laughter, and had substituted a kind of symbolical dumb-show which signified, without endangering or fatiguing her in any way, that she was “splitting her sides.” […] So, stupefied with the gaiety of the “faithful,” drunk with good-fellowship, scandal and asseveration, Mme Verdurin, perched on her high seat like a cage-bird whose biscuit has been steeped in mulled wine, would sit aloft and sob with affability.” (Vol.1, P.2) 

That’s what I mean about Proust being grotesque. Her husband is also ridiculous. 

“As for M. Verdurin, he was unsparing of his merriment, having recently discovered a way of expressing it by a convention that was different from his wife’s but equally simple and obvious. Scarcely had he begun the movement of head and shoulders of a man shaking with laughter than he would begin at once to cough, as though, in laughing too violently, he had swallowed a mouthful of pipe-smoke. And by keeping the pipe firmly in his mouth he could prolong indefinitely the dumb-show of suffocation and hilarity. Thus he and Mme Verdurin (who, at the other side of the room, where the painter was telling her a story, was shutting her eyes preparatory to flinging her face into her hands) resembled two masks in a theatre each representing Comedy in a different way.” (ibid.) 

This is the sort of thing you expect to find in Dickens. 

This is Dr Cottard, one of the people who frequent the Verdurin salon: 

“Dr Cottard was never quite certain of the tone in which he ought to reply to any observation, or whether the speaker was jesting or in earnest. And so by way of precaution he would embellish all his facial expressions with the offer of a conditional, a provisional smile whose expectant subtlety would exonerate him from the charge of being a simpleton, if the remark addressed to him should turn out to have been facetious. But as he must also be prepared to face the alternative, he dared not allow this smile to assert itself positively on his features, and you would see there a perpetually flickering uncertainty, in which could be deciphered the question that he never dared to ask: “Do you really mean that?”” (ibid.) 

He doesn’t dare to have an opinion of his own. But Swann is not different. The narrator has told us from the beginning: 

“When challenged by [my family] to give an opinion, or to express his admiration for some picture, he would remain almost disobligingly silent, and would then make amends by furnishing (if he could) some fact or other about the gallery in which the picture was hung, or the date at which it had been painted.” (Vol.1, P.1)

He says: 

“… whenever he spoke of serious matters, whenever he used an expression which seemed to imply a definite opinion upon some important subject, he would take care to isolate, to sterilise it by using a special intonation, mechanical and ironic, as though he had put the phrase or word between inverted commas, and was anxious to disclaim any personal responsibility for it…” (ibid.) 

The narrator says this again when he writes about Swann and the Verdurin set. Swann can see the ridiculousness of the other members, but he is the same.

Here is Mme Saniette, another person in the set: 

“As she was entirely uneducated, and was afraid of making mistakes in grammar and pronunciation, she used purposely to speak in an indistinct and garbling manner, thinking that if she should make a slip it would be so buried in the surrounding confusion that no one could be certain whether she had actually made it or not; with the result that her talk was a sort of continuous, blurred expectoration, out of which would emerge, at rare intervals, the few sounds and syllables of which she felt sure.” (Vol.1, P.2) 


This is Brichot, a professor from Sorbonne:  

“For he had the sort of curiosity and superstitious worship of life which, combined with a certain scepticism with regard to the object of their studies, earns for some intelligent men of whatever profession, doctors who do not believe in medicine, schoolmasters who do not believe in Latin exercises, the reputation of having broad, brilliant and indeed superior minds.” (ibid.) 

Not different from the numerous English teachers I saw on twitter who hated classic literature. 

I must note that the first-person narrator is not present in any of these scenes. Proust isn’t strict about point of view. 

Most ridiculous so far is probably Dr Cottard—he has no critical thinking, no opinions of his own; he takes everything in the literal sense and is easily fooled (“instead of sending Dr Cottard a ruby that cost three thousand francs and pretending it was a mere trifle, M. Verdurin bought an artificial stone for three hundred, and let it be understood that it was something almost impossible to match”); and he keeps making lame jokes, fancying himself so witty.

His wife is the same. She too has no opinions of her own. She too laughs at her own “witticism”. 

“And then, in her joy and confusion at the aptness and daring of making so discreet and yet so unmistakable an allusion to the new and brilliantly successful play by Dumas, she broke into a charming, girlish laugh, not very loud, but so irresistible that it was some time before she could control it.” (ibid.) 

These people all seem so insufferable. Like Jane Austen and Edith Wharton, Proust is ruthless. This is the Proust I like: sharp, precise, ruthless, and hilarious.

But there is another Proust—Psychological Proust—the Proust who goes on and on, for pages and for ages, about Swann’s love for Odette, or Swann’s jealousy. If you think of other psychological novelists such as Tolstoy or Flaubert, they depict characters in one mode, and move fluidly between scenes or conversations and characters’ thoughts, whereas in Proust, there is a clear division, a clear shift. Psychological Proust is analytical and not comic (though once in a while he may be funny). 

“Truth to tell, as often as not, when he had stayed late at a party, he would have preferred to return home at once, without going so far out of his way, and to postpone their meeting until the morrow; but the very fact of his putting himself to such inconvenience at an abnormal hour in order to visit her, while he guessed that his friends, as he left them, were saying to one another: “He’s tied hand and foot; there must certainly be a woman somewhere who insists on his going to her at all hours,” made him feel that he was leading the life of the class of men whose existence is coloured by a love-affair, and in whom the perpetual sacrifice they make of their comfort and of their practical interests engenders a sort of inner charm. Then, though he may not consciously have taken this into consideration, the certainty that she was waiting for him, that she was not elsewhere with others, that he would see her before he went home, drew the sting from that anguish, forgotten but latent and ever ready to be reawakened, which he had felt on the evening when Odette had left the Verdurins’ before his arrival, an anguish the present assuagement of which was so agreeable that it might almost be called happiness. Perhaps it was to that hour of anguish that he owed the importance which Odette had since assumed in his life. Other people as a rule mean so little to us that, when we have invested one of them with the power to cause us so much suffering or happiness, that person seems at once to belong to a different universe, is surrounded with poetry, makes of one’s life a sort of stirring arena in which he or she will be more or less close to one.” (ibid.)

I keep a long passage so you see what I mean about the difference, the shift. 

“… he would ask her, instead, to give him the little phrase from Vinteuil’s sonata. It was true that Odette played vilely, but often the most memorable impression of a piece of music is one that has arisen out of a jumble of wrong notes struck by unskilful fingers upon a tuneless piano. The little phrase continued to be associated in Swann’s mind with his love for Odette. He was well aware that his love was something that did not correspond to anything outside itself, verifiable by others besides him; he realised that Odette’s qualities were not such as to justify his setting so high a value on the hours he spent in her company. And often, when the cold government of reason stood unchallenged in his mind, he would readily have ceased to sacrifice so many of his intellectual and social interests to this imaginary pleasure. But the little phrase, as soon as it struck his ear, had the power to liberate in him the space that was needed to contain it; the proportions of Swann’s soul were altered; a margin was left for an enjoyment that corresponded no more than his love for Odette to any external object and yet was not, like his enjoyment of that love, purely individual, but assumed for him a sort of reality superior to that of concrete things.” (ibid.) 

My problem with Proust at the moment is not that he takes his time and writes about it for so long, but that the more he explicates the relationship between Swann and Odette, the more puzzled I am about Swann’s feeling for Odette. I simply don’t get it. 

From the beginning, we are told that Swann is not sexually attracted to Odette: 

“… she had struck Swann not, certainly, as being devoid of beauty, but as endowed with a kind of beauty which left him indifferent, which aroused in him no desire, which gave him, indeed, a sort of physical repulsion, as one of those women of whom all of us can cite examples, different for each of us, who are the converse of the type which our senses demand. Her profile was too sharp, her skin too delicate, her cheekbones were too prominent, her features too tightly drawn, to be attractive to him.” (ibid.) 

She’s not his type, so what is his type? 

“… as often as not they were women whose beauty was of a distinctly vulgar type, for the physical qualities which he instinctively sought were the direct opposite of those he admired in the women painted or sculpted by his favourite masters. Depth of character, or a melancholy expression, would freeze his senses, which were, however, instantly aroused at the sight of healthy, abundant, rosy flesh.” (ibid.) 

We are told that for some time, Swann doesn’t spend the early part of his day with Odette, nor go with her to the Verdurins, because he spends that time with a young seamstress—a woman of his type. 

I know that sometimes married couples who don’t love each other at the beginning may come to respect and love each other (which Chekhov depicts in “Three Years”, for instance), but it isn’t the case here. 

Physically, Swann isn’t attracted to Odette, and has to associate her looks with a painting by Botticelli to find some satisfaction. Mentally, he knows she isn’t intelligent, they don’t have the same tastes, and probably don’t have much in common. Socially (this is a classist world, a world of snobs), Odette is beneath him—she is part of the demi-monde, and said to be a kept woman, a courtesan, or what we nowadays call a sugar baby. He’s also aware that their relationship may be based on self-interest on her side, for he gives her presents and sometimes helps her with her money troubles. 

And yet, Swann is besotted with her, obsessed with her. Why?  

Proust says: 

“In his younger days a man dreams of possessing the heart of the woman whom he loves; later, the feeling that he possesses a woman’s heart may be enough to make him fall in love with her.” (ibid.) 

I’m not quite convinced. He spends pages and pages analysing it, explicating it, but I still don’t quite understand Swann’s feeling for Odette. Love? I don’t think it is. But what is it? It seems irrational. 

“And the pleasure of being a lover, of living by love alone, the reality of which he was sometimes inclined to doubt, was enhanced in his eyes, as a dilettante of intangible sensations, by the price he was paying for it—as one sees people who are doubtful whether the sight of the sea and the sound of its waves are really enjoyable become convinced that they are—and convinced also of the rare quality and absolute detachment of their own taste—when they have agreed to pay several pounds a day for a room in an hotel from which that sight and that sound may be enjoyed.” (ibid.)

I would understand perfectly Swann heaping money on Odette and loving her despite not seeing love from her, if he were sexually attracted to her, but he’s not. As the narrator says over and over again, her kind of beauty leaves him cold and indifferent. Perhaps I’m missing the point and it’s meant to be irrational, but if that’s the intention, why does Proust spend so long analysing it?

After introducing Forcheville, a newcomer to the Verdurin set, and satirising the set, Comedy of Manners Proust again leaves for Psychological Proust to write about Swann’s love and jealousy.

“… It was true that Swann had often reflected that Odette was in no way a remarkable woman, and there was nothing especially flattering in seeing the supremacy he wielded over someone so inferior to himself proclaimed to all the “faithful”; but since he had observed that to many other men besides himself Odette seemed a fascinating and desirable woman, the attraction which her body held for them had aroused in him a painful longing to secure the absolute mastery of even the tiniest particles of her heart.” (ibid.) 

The writing about jealousy is very good, especially Swann’s mishap and Proust’s use of metaphors, but it remains puzzling to me that Swann becomes so obsessed and jealous when he thinks Odette is “no way a remarkable woman” and “so inferior to himself”. 

I don’t get it. 

Sunday, 26 December 2021

The 18 types of people on Book Twitter

1/ The Book Shopper:

Buys more than reads. Tweets photos of book posts and book hauls, but doesn’t say much about books. Loves book sales, especially NYRB sales. Has an NYRB collection. Complains about lack of space, but continues buying books. Once in a while says “oh no, I went to a bookstore and accidentally came out with a pile of books”. 

2/ The Fancy Book Photographer:

Visual. Likes beautiful covers and sees books as objects of beauty. Takes photos of books with flowers, a cup of tea/ coffee, some decoration, etc. Doesn’t talk about the beauty of prose or metaphors.  

3/ The Book Counter: 

Posts photos of books read in the week/ month. Counts number of books they read in a year, and compares it to previous years. More extreme: may have statistics about how many books are by women, how many books are by writers of colour, how many books are in translation, and so on. Generally prefers novellas and short novels to “loose baggy monsters”. 

4/ The Ranker: 

Likes lists and rankings. Occasionally creates a poll comparing books or authors, even when there’s no basis for comparison.  

5/ The Memer:

Regularly shares memes about how much they love books, how all they need is a library and a garden, how books are friends, how books allow you to travel, how books make you better people, and so on and so forth. Doesn’t talk much about specific books, however. 

6/ The Quoter: 

Types lines from books, or shares photos of passages in books, though doesn’t comment on them. 

7/ The Plot Summariser:

Has a blog and reviews books by summarising the entire plot then adding about 2-3 sentences of comments. 

8/ The Group Read Participant:

Takes part in group reads, often more than one at the same time. Reads a set number of 20-40 pages a day. Sees reading “loose baggy monsters” as climbing the Everest, and feels a sense of accomplishment after getting to the top. Congratulates others for reading books. 

9/ The Challenge Participant:

Takes part in challenges such as German Literature Month, Women in Translation Month, Japanese Literature Month, and so on. 

10/ The Text Disruptor/ Canon Hater:

Attacks the Western canon and hates the concept of a canon, though forgets that other countries and cultures also have their own canons. Thinks that the canon is created by a committee, and wants to “disrupt texts”, “decolonise the bookshelf”, “decolonise the curriculum”, etc. Thinks that Shakespeare is celebrated only because of the establishment. First and foremost concern when they look at a book list is to see how many of the books are by women and how many are by people of colour. Often an English teacher.  

11/ The Canon Defender: 

Continually argues with DisruptTexts proponents, always in vain, but doesn’t learn. There can be an overlap with the next group, but a Canon Defender isn’t necessarily a Bloom Worshipper. 

12/ The Bloom Worshipper: 

Quotes Harold Bloom often, and sees The Invention of the Human as a Bible. Often speaks of the School of Resentment, and uses words such as “inwardness”, “anxiety of influence”, “overhearing himself/ herself”, etc. Has little interest in non-Western literature. 

13/ The Nabokov Worshipper: 

Aesthete, only interested in details and “the tingle in the spine”. Refuses to look at literature through the lens of gender, race, or ideology, and ends up looking at literature through a Nabokovian lens. Always defends Nabokov when someone criticises his novels, especially Lolita, or his views, especially on Dostoyevsky. 

14/ The Book Slut/ the Omnivore:  

Reads everything, from different periods, different countries, and different genres. Thinks all kinds of books are good and people shouldn’t be snobbish. Often says “as long as people are reading, that’s good”. 

15/ The Book Snob/ the Old Fogey: 

Reads classics (almost) exclusively. Only interested in books that have stood the test of time. Out of the loop, has no idea what’s hip and who’s currently big.  

16/ The Women Promoter: 

Reads women (almost) exclusively, and often uses the hashtag #ReadMoreWomen. Tends to prefer modern literature. When looking at a book list, first checks how many books are by women. Protective of Persephone Books. Loves Woolf and A Room of One’s Own

17/ The Edgy Kid:

Sees Modernism as the peak of literature, and thinks the novel belongs to the 20th century, not the 19th. Likes Proust, Kafka, and Dostoyevsky, thinks Tolstoy is sunny and simple, and doesn’t care about Shakespeare. Not interested in Dickens or Jane Austen, sees them as old-fashioned, boring, and “safe”. Not interested in plot, and generally not interested in anything before the 20th century. Tends to read books that are difficult, challenging, plot-less, experimental, and overall intellectual. Likes unreliable narrators, dislikes intrusive narrators. Often male. 

18/ The Peacemaker: 

Cheers for everyone. Sees “argument” as a bad word, and sees any challenge to an opinion as a provocation. Sees Book Twitter as a safe space. Mostly female. 

In Search of Lost Time Vol.1: light and shadow

One of my favourite writers, Edith Wharton, is brilliant at writing about light. So is Proust. 

The main difference is that Edith Wharton briefly describes a scene and picks out an image or two—how light is reflected on something or how something looks in a certain light—whereas Proust tends to spend pages and pages describing a room, a path, a church, and so on. See, for example, the way Proust describes light moving in a church: 

“… There was one among them which was a tall panel composed of a hundred little rectangular panes, of blue principally, like an enormous pack of cards of the kind planned to beguile King Charles VI; but, either because a ray of sunlight had gleamed through it or because my own shifting glance had sent shooting across the window, whose colours died away and were rekindled by turns, a rare and flickering fire—the next instant it had taken on the shimmering brilliance of a peacock’s tail, then quivered and rippled in a flaming and fantastic shower that streamed from the groin of the dark and stony vault down the moist walls, as though it were along the bed of some grotto glowing with sinuous stalactites that I was following my parents, who preceded me with their prayer-books clasped in their hands. A moment later the little lozenge panes had taken on the deep transparency, the unbreakable hardness of sapphires clustered on some enormous breastplate behind which, however, could be distinguished, dearer than all such treasures, a fleeting smile from the sun, which could be seen and felt as well here, in the soft, blue stream with which it bathed the jewelled windows, as on the pavement of the Square or the straw of the market-place...” (Vol.1, P.1)  

I especially like “had taken on the shimmering brilliance of a peacock’s tail, then quivered and rippled”.

The steeple of the church looks different at different times of day: 

“From my bedroom window I could discern no more than its base, which had been freshly covered with slates; but when, on a Sunday, I saw these blaze like a black sun in the hot light of a summer morning, I would say to myself: “Good heavens! nine o’clock! I must get ready for mass at once if I am to have time to go in and kiss aunt Léonie first,” […] 

And again, after mass, when we looked in to tell Théodore to bring a larger loaf than usual because our cousins had taken advantage of the fine weather to come over from Thiberzy for lunch, we had in front of us the steeple which, baked golden-brown itself like a still larger, consecrated loaf, with gummy flakes and droplets of sunlight, thrust its sharp point into the blue sky. And in the evening, when I came in from my walk and thought of the approaching moment when I must say good night to my mother and see her no more, the steeple was by contrast so soft and gentle, there at the close of day, that it looked as if it had been thrust like a brown velvet cushion against the pallid sky which had yielded beneath its pressure, had hollowed slightly to make room for it, and had correspondingly risen on either side; while the cries of the birds that wheeled around it seemed to intensify its silence, to elongate its spire still further, and to invest it with some quality beyond the power of words.” (ibid.) 

The houses on the narrator’s walk look different at different times of the year: 

“We used always to return from our walks in good time to pay aunt Léonie a visit before dinner. At the beginning of the season, when the days ended early, we would still be able to see, as we turned into the Rue du Saint-Esprit, a reflection of the setting sun in the windows of the house and a band of crimson beyond the timbers of the Calvary, which was mirrored further on in the pond; a fiery glow that, accompanied often by a sharp tang in the air, would associate itself in my mind with the glow of the fire over which, at that very moment, was roasting the chicken that was to furnish me, in place of the poetic pleasure of the walk, with the sensual pleasures of good feeding, warmth and rest. But in summer, when we came back to the house, the sun would not have set; and while we were upstairs paying our visit to aunt Léonie its rays, sinking until they lay along her window-sill, would be caught and held by the large inner curtains and the loops which tied them back to the wall, and then, split and ramified and filtered, encrusting with tiny flakes of gold the citron-wood of the chest of drawers, would illuminate the room with a delicate, slanting, woodland glow. But on some days, though very rarely, the chest of drawers would long since have shed its momentary incrustations, there would no longer, as we turned into the Rue du Saint-Esprit, be any reflection from the western sky lighting up the window-panes, and the pond beneath the Calvary would have lost its fiery glow, sometimes indeed had changed already to an opalescent pallor, while a long ribbon of moonlight, gradually broadening and splintered by every ripple upon the water’s surface, would stretch across it from end to end.” (ibid.) 

Proust writes about light and shadow: 

“It was on the Méséglise way that I first noticed the circular shadow which apple-trees cast upon the sunlit ground, and also those impalpable threads of golden silk which the setting sun weaves slantingly downwards from beneath their leaves, and which I used to see my father slash through with his stick without ever making them deviate.” (ibid.) 

That’s shadow from sunlight. This is shadow from moonlight: 

“Outside, things too seemed frozen, rapt in a mute intentness not to disturb the moonlight which, duplicating each of them and throwing it back by the extension in front of it of a shadow denser and more concrete than its substance, had made the whole landscape at once thinner and larger, like a map which, after being folded up, is spread out upon the ground.” (ibid.)

Everything under Proust’s pen comes alive and becomes interesting, even a tiled roof: 

“After an hour of rain and wind, against which I had struggled cheerfully, as I came to the edge of the Montjouvain pond, beside a little hut with a tiled roof in which M. Vinteuil’s gardener kept his tools, the sun had just reappeared, and its golden rays, washed clean by the shower, glittered anew in the sky, on the trees, on the wall of the hut and the still wet tiles of the roof, on the ridge of which a hen was strutting. The wind tugged at the wild grass growing from cracks in the wall and at the hen’s downy feathers, which floated out horizontally to their full extent with the unresisting submissiveness of light and lifeless things. The tiled roof cast upon the pond, translucent again in the sunlight, a dappled pink reflection which I had never observed before.” (ibid.)

Today, on the way to my boyfriend’s grandparents’, as we go every Christmas Day, I looked at the stone fences and noticed the sunlight gleaming on some of the stones. Proust, like other great writers such as Tolstoy or Nabokov, trains you to see things differently, and to notice more. 

The excerpts are from In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way (translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, and revised by D.J. Enright). 

Thursday, 23 December 2021

In Search of Lost Time Vol.1: Françoise and asparagus

The narrator writes of his aunt’s maid/ cook Françoise: 

“I came to recognise that, apart from her own kinsfolk, the sufferings of humanity inspired in her a pity which increased in direct ratio to the distance separating the sufferers from herself.” (Vol.1, P.1) 

Who does that sound like? Yep, Mrs Jellyby and Mrs Pardiggle in Bleak House (except that Dickens’s characters make no exception for their own kinsfolk).

If we have to categorise characters as caricatures (for lack of a better term) or realistic, complex, lifelike characters, everyone would put Mrs Jellyby and Mrs Pardiggle in the first group and Françoise in the second. Mrs Jellyby and Mrs Pardiggle are caricatures because the characterisation is exaggerated, because these characters have one facet, because they don’t change and don’t surprise us. This doesn’t mean that Mrs Pardiggle and Mrs Jellyby are failures—they have a vivid existence and are unforgettable. This also doesn’t mean that Dickens is incapable of creating complex and realistic characters as his detractors like to say—in Bleak House for example, Esther Summerson or Lady Dedlock is rounded and complex; Dickens may also write a character like a two-dimensional one then give him depth later on, turning him three-dimensional, such as Sir Leicester. 

Françoise would be seen as lifelike and realistic because there are different sides to her character, because she surprises us as we learn more and more about her. 

Françoise, when Proust first introduces her to us, is a kind, patient, and devoted servant. A great cook. A servant who well understands her mistress and puts up with her difficult demands and eccentricities. 

Then the narrator writes of the mutual hatred of Françoise and the aunt’s friend Eulalie: 

“… Françoise would sigh grimly, for she had a tendency to regard as petty cash all that my aunt might give her for herself or her children, and as treasure riotously squandered on an ungrateful wretch the little coins slipped Sunday after Sunday into Eulalie’s hand, but so discreetly that Françoise never managed to see them.” (ibid.) 

Françoise appears different: 

“… She would, however, have seen no great harm in what my aunt, whom she knew to be incurably generous, allowed herself to give away, had she given only to those who were already rich. Perhaps she felt that such persons, not being actually in need of my aunt’s presents, could not be suspected of simulating affection for her on that account. Besides, presents offered to persons of great wealth and position, such as Mme Sazerat, M. Swann, M. Legrandin and Mme Goupil, to persons of the “same rank” as my aunt, and who would naturally “mix with her,” seemed to Françoise to be included among the ornamental customs of that strange and brilliant life led by rich people, who hunt and shoot and give balls and pay each other visits, a life which she would contemplate with an admiring smile. But it was by no means the same thing if the beneficiaries of my aunt’s generosity were of the class whom Françoise would label “folk like me” or “folk no better than me” and who were those she most despised, unless they called her “Madame Françoise” and considered themselves her inferiors.” (ibid.) 

Psychologically, Proust is brilliant. Some time later, Proust again makes us see the character differently:   

“[Aunt Léonie] would beguile herself with a sudden pretence that Françoise had been robbing her, that she had set a trap to make certain, and had caught her betrayer red-handed […]. Sometimes, however, even these counterpane dramas would not satisfy my aunt; she must see her work staged.” (ibid.)

As aunt Léonie, believing herself to be ill and weak, confines herself in the rooms and goes nowhere, she makes up drama and imagines Françoise and Eulalie plotting on her. But if the suspicions she has about Eulalie are “no more than a flash in the pan that soon subsided for lack of fuel”, because Eulalie doesn’t live in the same house, she focuses her energy and paranoia on Françoise, seeming “to find a cruel satisfaction in driving deep into her unhappy servant’s heart”. 

“My mother was afraid lest Françoise should develop a genuine hatred of my aunt, who did everything in her power to hurt her. However that might be, Françoise had come, more and more, to pay an infinitely scrupulous attention to my aunt’s least word and gesture.” (ibid.) 

Both characters now appear in a different light: the pathetic aunt has a cruel streak in her, and Françoise becomes more sympathetic. 

But that isn’t all. Proust drops more and more details, and lets the characters unfold. Françoise again changes, as we see in the passage at the beginning of this blog post: she is unkind. 

“One night, shortly after her confinement, the kitchen-maid was seized with the most appalling pains; Mamma heard her groans, and rose and awakened Françoise, who, quite unmoved, declared that all the outcry was mere malingering, that the girl wanted to “play the mistress.” The doctor, who had been afraid of some such attack, had left a marker in a medical dictionary which we had, at the page on which the symptoms were described, and had told us to turn up this passage to discover the first aid to be adopted. My mother sent Françoise to fetch the book, warning her not to let the marker drop out. An hour elapsed, and Françoise had not returned; my mother, supposing that she had gone back to bed, grew vexed, and told me to go myself to the library and fetch the volume. I did so, and there found Françoise who, in her curiosity to know what the marker indicated, had begun to read the clinical account of these after-pains, and was violently sobbing, now that it was a question of a prototype patient with whom she was unacquainted. At each painful symptom mentioned by the writer she would exclaim: “Oh, oh, Holy Virgin, is it possible that God wishes a wretched human creature to suffer so? Oh, the poor girl!”

But when I had called her, and she had returned to the bedside of Giotto’s Charity, her tears at once ceased to flow; she could find no stimulus for that pleasant sensation of tenderness and pity with which she was familiar, having been moved to it often enough by the perusal of newspapers, nor any other pleasure of the same kind, in her boredom and irritation at being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night for the kitchen-maid; so that at the sight of those very sufferings the printed account of which had moved her to tears, she relapsed into ill-tempered mutterings, mingled with bitter sarcasm…” (ibid.) 

Giotto’s Charity is the nickname of the pregnant kitchen maid. 

Forget everything else and look at that passage alone, does it not sound exaggerated? Does Françoise not, in this passage, seem like a caricature? 

To get back to what I was saying, Proust lets his characters unfold and makes us view them differently over time. His characters feel like real people. I have no doubt that Françoise would continue to unfold, and to change.

Even more interesting is the way Proust writes about the asparagus, and makes us view it differently. 

When the asparagus is first mentioned in Swann’s Way, it is comic—the mistress and the servant talk about a neighbour’s asparagus—we’re told that Françoise has been cooking everything with asparagus and it seems to be one of those details which enrich the novel and give life to things but have no significance. 

Later on, Proust transforms asparagus into something magical and poetic: 

“… what most enraptured me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations to their white feet—still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed—with an iridescence that was not of this world. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form and who, through the disguise of their firm, comestible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting like one of Shakespeare’s fairies) at transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume.” (ibid.) 

Does that passage not make you see asparagus—not just in the novel but also in real life—differently? 

But some time later, the narrator reveals the truth about the asparagus: 

“… in the same way Françoise had adopted, to minister to her unfaltering resolution to render the house uninhabitable to any other servant, a series of stratagems so cunning and so pitiless that, many years later, we discovered that if we had been fed on asparagus day after day throughout that summer, it was because their smell gave the poor kitchen-maid who had to prepare them such violent attacks of asthma that she was finally obliged to leave my aunt’s service.” (ibid.) 

That changes everything. 

Proust is a wonderful writer.