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My last post

by Dennis Abrams

I’m going to try and keep this short and sweet.  Proust, among the many things he has to teach us, teaches how to see, not through his  eyes but through our own eyes, and in ways we never imagined possible.  And I have to thank all of you who, through your posts, your questions, your comments, and your emails, helped to show me ways to read In Search of Lost Time that I never imagined possible.  It has been an extraordinary journey — a little more than a year completely immersed in Proust.   Knowing that you were out there forced me to read the book more closely than I’ve ever read anything in my life. Forced me to think about it more constantly than I have any other book. Forced me to look at, analyze and write about the book in ways that not only kept me interested but kept the hundreds of readers around the world who have been following the blog interested as well.

For that, for your constant inspiration, for the friendships I’ve made, I am eternally grateful.

I wish you all the very happiest of new years, and I hope to see you next week when Project D is officially launched.





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by Dennis Abrams

Why can’t I quit this blog?

I am, I promise, going to wrap things up this week in preparation for the launch next week of Project D — the four major novels of Russian literary giant Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Until then, for today’s post, the last section from Alain de Botton’s Hos Proust Change Your Life, from the chapter entitled “How to Put Books Down,” and the last symptom of which might indicate that you might be an overreliant, overreverent reader:

“Symptom no. 5:  That we will be tempted to visit Illiers-Combray

Travelling by car southwest of the cathedral town of Chartres, the view through the windscreen is of a familiar northern European arable landscape.  One could be anywhere, the only feature of note being a flatness to the earth which lends disproportionate significance to the occasional water tower or agricultural silo asserting itself on the horizon above the windscreen wipers.  The monotony is a welcome break from the effort of looking at interesting things, a time to rearrange the twisted accordion-shaped Michelin map before reaching the chateaux of the Loire, or to digest the sight of Chartres cathedral with its claw-like flying buttresses and weather-worn bell-towers.  The smaller roads cut through villages whose houses are shuttered for a siesta that appears to last all day; even the petrol stations show no signs of life, their Elf flags flapping in a wind blowing in from across vast wheatfields.   A Citroen makes an occasional hasty appearance in the rear-view mirror, then overtakes with exaggerated impatience, as if speed was the only way to protest against the desperate monotony.

At the larger junctions, sitting innocuously among signs vainly asserting a speed limit of ninety and pointing the way to Tours and Le Mans, the motorist may notice a metal arrow indicating the distance to the small town of Illiers-Combray.  For centuries, the sign pointed simply to Illiers, but in 1971 the town chose to let even the least cultured motorist know of its connection to its most famous son, or rather visitor.  For it was here that Proust spent his summers from the age of six until nine and once again at the age of fifteen, in the house of his father’s sister, Elisabeth Amiot — and here that he drew inspiration for the creation of his fictional Combray.

There is something eerie about driving into a town which has surrendered parts of its claim to independent reality in favour of a role fashioned for it by a novelist who once spent a few summers there as a boy in the late nineteenth century.  But Illiers-Combray appears to relish the idea.  In a corner of the Rue du Docteur Proust, the patisserie-confiserie hangs a large, somewhat puzzling sign outside its door: ‘The House where Aunt Leonie used to buy her madeleines.’

Competition is fierce with the boulangerie in the Place du Marche, for it too is involved in the ‘fabrication de la petite madeleine de Marcel Proust‘.  A packet of eight can be had for twenty francs, twelve for thirty.  The boulanger — who hasn’t read it — knows that the shop would have had to close long ago had it not been for In Search of Lost Time, which draws customers in from across the world.  They can be seen with cameras and madeleine bags, heading for the house of tante Amiot, an undistinguished, rather sombre edifice that would be unlikely to detain one’s attention were it not for the fact that within its walls young Proust once collected impressions used to build the narrator’s bedroom, the kitchen where Francoise prepared her chocolate mousse and the garden gate through which Swann came for dinner.

Inside, there is the hushed, semi-religious feel reminiscent of a church, children grow quiet and expectant, the guide gives them a warm if pitying smile while their mothers remind them to touch nothing along the way.  There turns out to be little temptation.  The rooms recreate in its full aesthetic horror the feel of a tastelessly furnished, provincial bourgeois nineteenth-century home.  Inside a great perspex display cabinet next to ‘tante Leonie’s bed’ the curators have place a white teacup, an ancient bottle of Vichy water and a solitary, curiously oily-looking madeleine, which on closer inspection reveals itself to be made of plastic.

According to Monsieur Larcher, the author of a leaflet on sale at the tourist office,

‘If one wishes to grasp the deep and occult sense of In Search of Lost Time, one must, before starting to read it, devote an entire day to visiting Illiers-Combray.  The magic of Combray can really only be experienced in this privileged place.’

Though Larcher displays admirable civic feeling and would no doubt be applauded by every patissier involved in the madeleine trade, one wonders after such a day whether he is not at risk of exaggerating the qualities of his town, and unwittingly diminishing those of Proust.

More honest visitors will admit to themselves that there is nothing striking about the town.  It looks much like any other, which doesn’t mean it is uninteresting, simply that there is no obvious evidence of the privileged status which monsieur Larcher accords it.  It is a fitting Proustian point:  the interest of a town is necessarily dependent on a certain way of looking at it.  Combray may be pleasant, but it is a valuable a place to visit as any in the large plateau of northern France, the beauty which Proust revealed there would be present, latent, in almost any town, of only we made the effort to consider it in a Proustian way.

Ironically, however, it is out of an idolatrous reverence for Proust, and a misunderstanding of his aesthetic ideas, that we speed blindly through the surrounding countryside, through neighbouring non-literary towns and villages like Brou, Bonneval and Courville, on our way to the imagined delights of Proust’s childhood locale.  In so doing, we forget that had Proust’s family settled in Courville, or his old aunt taken up residence in Bonneval, it would have been to these places that we would have driven, just as unfairly.  Our pilgrimage is idolatrous because it privileges the place Proust happened to grow up in rather than his manner of considering it, an oversight which the corpulent Michelin man encourages, because he fails to recognize that the worth of sights is dependent more on the quality of one’s vision than on the objects viewed, that there is nothing inherently three-star a bout a town Proust grew up in or inherently no-star about an Elf Petrol station near Courville, where Proust never had a chance to fill a Renault — but where if he had, he might easily have found something to appreciate, for it has a delightful forecourt with daffodils planted in a neat border and an old-fashioned pump which, from a distance, looks like a stout man leaning against a fence wearing a pair of burgundy dungarees.

In the preface to his translation of Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, Proust had written enough to turn the Illiers-Combray tourist industry into an absurdity had anyone bothered to listen:

‘We would like to go and see the field that Millet…shows  us in his Springtime, we would like Claude Monet to take us to Giverny, on the banks of the Seine, to that bend of the river which he hardly lets us distinguish through the morning mist.  Yet in actual fact, it was the mere chance of a connection or family relation that give…Millet or Monet occasion to pass or to stay nearby, and to choose to paint that road, that garden, that field, that bend in the river, rather than some other.  What makes them appear other and more beautiful than the rest of the world is that they carry on them, like some elusive reflection, the impression they afforded to a genius, and which we might see wandering just as singularly and despotically across the submissive, indifferent face of all the landscapes he may have painted.’

It should not be Illiers-Combray that we visit:  a genuine homage to Proust would be to look at our world through his eyes, not look at his world through our eyes.

To forget this may sadden us unduly.  When we feel interest to be so dependent on the exact locations where certain great artists found it, a thousand landscapes and areas of experience will be deprived of possible interest, for Monet only looked at a few stretches of the earth, and Proust’s novel, though long, could not comprise more than a fraction of human experience.  Rather than learn the general lesson of art’s attentiveness, we might seek instead the mere objects of its gaze, and would then be unable to do justice to parts of the world which artists had not considered.  As a Proustian idolater, we would have little time for desserts which Proust never tasted, for dresses he never described, nuances of love he didn’t cover and cities he didn’t visit, suffering instead from an awareness of a gap between our existence and the realm of artistic truth and interest.

The moral?  There is no great homage we could pay Proust than to end up passing the same verdict on him as he passed on Ruskin, namely, that for all its qualities, his work must eventually also prove silly, maniacal, constraining, false and ridiculous to those who spend too long on it.

‘To make [reading] into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement.  Reading is on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it:  it does not constitute it.’

Even the finest books deserve to be thrown aside.

More later in the week…

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by Dennis Abrams

For your holiday weekend reading, further advice on how to put down your Proust and move on, from Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life:

The previous symptoms of the overreverent, overreliant reader were “That we mistake writers for oracles,” and “That we will be unable to write after reading a good book,”

“Symptom no. 3:  That we become artistic idolaters

Aside from the danger of overvaluing writers and undervaluing oneself, there is a risk that we will revere artists for the wrong reasons, indulging in what Proust called artistic idolatry.  In the religious context, idolatry suggests a fixation on an aspect of religion — on an image of a worshipped deity, on a particular law or holy book — which distracts us from, and even contravenes, the overall spirit of the religion.

Proust suggested that a structurally similar problem existed in art, where artistic idolaters combined a literal reverence for objects depicted in art with a neglect of the spirit of art.  They would, for instance, become particularly attached to a part of the countryside depicted by a great painter, and mistake this for an appreciation of the painter, they would focus on the objects in a picture, as opposed to the spirit of the picture — whereas the essence of Proust’s aesthetic position was contained in the deceptively simple yet momentous assertion that ‘a picture’s beauty does not depend on the things portrayed in it.’

Proust accused his friend, the aristocrat and poet Robert de Montesquiou, of artistic idolatry, because of the pleasure he took whenever he encountered in life an object which had been depicted by an artist.  Montesquiou would gush if he happened to see one of his female friends wearing a dress like that which Balzac had imagined for the character of the Princesse de Cadignan in his novel Les Secrets de la Princesse de Cadignan.  Why was this type of delight idolatrous?  Because Montesquiou’s enthusiasm had nothing to do with an appreciation of the dress and everything to do with a respect for Balzac’s name.  Montesquiou had no reasons of his own for liking the dress, he hadn’t assimilated the principles of Balzac’s aesthetic vision, nor grasped the general lesson latent in Balzac’s appreciation of this particular object.  Problems would therefore arise as soon as Montesquiou was faced with a dress which Balzac had never had a chance to describe, and which Montesquiou would perhaps ignore — even though Balzac, and a good Balzacian, would no doubt have been able to evaluate the merits of each dress appropriately had they been in his shoes.

Symptom no. 4:  That we will be tempted to invest in a copy of La Cuisine Retrouvee

Food has a privileged role in Proust’s writings; it is often lovingly described and appreciatively eaten.  To name but a few of the many dishes which Proust parades past his readers, we can site a cheese souffle, a string bean salad, a trout with almonds, a grilled red mullet, a bouillabaisse, a skate in black butter, a beef casserole, some lamb with a Bearnaise sauce, a beef Stroganoff, a bowl of stewed peaches, a raspberry mousse, a madeleine, an apricot tart, a raisin cake, a chocolate sauce and a chocolate souffle.

The contrast between what we usually eat and the mouthwatering nature of the food Proust’s characters enjoy might inspire us to try and savour these Proustian dishes more directly.  In which case, it could be temping to acquire a copy of a glossily illustrated cookbook entitled La Cuisine Retrouvee, which contains recipes for every dish mentioned in Proust’s work, is compiled by a top Parisian chef and was first published in 1991 [by a company otherwise responsible for a comparably useful title, Les Carnets de Cuisine de Monet].  It would enable a moderately competent cook to pay extraordinary homage to the great novelist, and perhaps gain a closer understanding of Proust’s art.  It would, for instance, enable a dedicated Proustian to produce exactly the kind of chocolate mousse which Francoise served to the narrator and his family in Combray.

Francoise’s Chocolate Mousse

Ingredients: 100g of plain cooking chocolate, 100g of caster sugar, half a liter of milk, six eggs.

Method: Bring the milk to the boil, add the chocolate broken in pieces, and let it melt gently, stirring the mixture with a wooden spoon.  Whip the sugar with the y0lks of the six eggs.  Preheat the oven to 130C.

When the chocolate has completely melted, pour it over the eggs and the sugar, mix rapidly and energetically, then pass through a strainer.

Pour out the liquid into little ramekins 8cm in diameter, and put into the oven, in a bain-marie, for an hour.  Leave to cool before serving.

But once the recipe had resulted in a delicious dessert, in between mouthfuls of Francoise’s chocolate mousse, we might pause to ask whether this dish, and by extension the entire volume of La Cuisine Retrouvee, really constituted a homage to Proust, or whether it was not in danger of encouraging the very sin which he had warned his readers about, artistic idolatry.  Though Proust might have welcomed the principle of a cookbook based on his work, the question is what form he would have wished it to take.  To accept his arguments about artistic idolatry would mean recognizing that the particular foods which features in his novel were irrelevant when compared to the spirit in which the food was considered, a transferable spirit which owed nothing to the exact chocolate mousse which Francoise had prepared, or the particular bouillabaisse which Mme Verdurin had served at her table — and might be as relevant when approaching a bowl of muesli, a curry or a paella.

The danger is that La Cuisine Retrouvee will unwittingly throw us into depression the day we fail to find the right ingredients for the chocolate mousse or green bean salad, and are forced to eat a  hamburger — which Proust never had a chance to write about.

It wouldn’t, of course, have been Marcel’s intention:  a picture’s beauty does not depend on the things portrayed in it.”

Enjoy your weekend everybody.  And a very merry Christmas to all.

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by Dennis Abrams

A couple of days ago, I posted part of Alain de Botton’s final chapter in How Proust Can Change Your Life,” “How to Put Books Down,” and specifically the section of that chapter entitled “The Limitations of Reading.”  That section ended with a quote from Proust, “Reading ins on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it:  it does not constitute it.”  Today, the continuation…

“However, Proust was singularly aware of how tempting it was to believe that reading could constitute our entire spiritual life, which led him to formulate some careful lines of instruction on a responsible approach to books:

‘As long as reading is for us the instigator whose magic keys have opened the door to those dwelling-places deep within us that we would not have known how to enter, its role in our lives is salutary.  It becomes dangerous, on the other hand, when, instead of awakening us to the personal life of the mind, reading tends to take its place, when the truth no longer appears to us as an ideal which we can realize only by the intimate progress of our own thought and the efforts of our heart, but as something material, deposited between the leaves of books like a honey fully prepared by others and which we need only take the trouble to reach down from the shelves of libraries and then sample passively in a perfect repose of mind and body.’

Because books are so good at helping us become aware of certain things we feel, Proust recognized the ease with which we could be tempted to leave the entire task of interpreting our lives to these objects.

He gave an example in his novel of such excessive reliance in a vignette about a man reading the works of La Bruyere.  He pictured him coming across the following aphorism in the pages of Les Caractieres:

“Men often want to love, without managing to do so:  they seek their own ruin without being able to attain it, and, if I can put it thus, they are forced against their will to be remain free.’

Because this suitor had tried unsuccessfully for years to make himself loved by a woman who would only have made him unhappy if she had loved him, Proust conjectured that the link between his own life and the aphorism would deeply move this unfortunate character.  He would now read the passage over and over again, swelling it with meaning until it was ready to burst, appending to the aphorism a million words and the most stirring memories of his own life, repeating it with immense joy because it seemed so beautiful and so true.

Though it was undoubtedly a crystallization of many aspects of this man’s experience, Proust implied that such extreme enthusiasm for La Bruyere’s thought would at some point distract the man from the particularities of his own feelings.  The aphorism might have helped him to understand part of his story, but it did not reflect it exactly; in order fully to capture his romantic misfortunes, the sentence would have had to read, ‘Men often want to be loved…” rather than ‘Men often want to love.’  It wasn’t a major differe3nce, but it was a symbol of the way that books, even when they brilliantly articulate some of our experiences, may nevertheless leave others behind.

It obligates us to read with care, to welcome the insights books give us, but not to subjugate our independence, or smother the nuances of our own love life in the process.”

More tomorrow…

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by Dennis Abrams

I saw this piece on 60 Minutes last night.  There’s been a new discovery in the field of memory, known as “superior autobiographical memory.”  It’s very rare, only six people have been identified with it so far, including, oddly enough, actress Marilu Henner.  These people, quite literally, never forget anything that took place during their lives.   What they wore on March 23, 1987.  Who they were talking with that day and what they were wearing.  What day of the week it was.  What the weather was like.  It’s amazing.  And frightening.

Henner described it like this:

“You really do remember your whole life,” Stahl remarked.

“It’s like putting in a DVD and it cues up to a certain place. I’m there again. So, I’m looking out from my eyes and seeing things visually as I would have that day,” she replied.

“Do you remember all your old boyfriend’s birthdays? I’ll bet you do,” Stahl asked.

“Oh, yeah. Not only that, the date of the first time, you know. It’s like…in order,” she replied, laughing.”

Of course, there’s a downside, as Leslie Owen described,

“But what exactly does “normal” mean, when you remember every day of your life? When everything good – and everything bad – that has ever happened to you is right there, instantly accessible?

“When you look back at painful memories, is it just as raw?” Stahl asked.

“Sometimes it’ll be as though it happened yesterday. Sometimes, it’s as though it happened last week,” Owen said.

Just the mention of a sad day, like the one in 1986 when Owen learned she’d have to change schools , and she relives it emotionally. “I felt like my whole world was collapsing. And you say that and it’s like all of a sudden I feel like this really heartbroken little 13-year-old all over again,” she explained.

She said the feeling was vivid and awful, even after all these years. “I mean, my heart is actually pounding right now in telling you this,” she told Stahl.

She says her memory is a gift, but there are definitely downsides.

“Sometimes, having this sort of extreme memory can be a very isolating sort of thing. There are times when I feel like I’m fluent in a language that nobody else speaks. Or that I’m walking around and everybody else has amnesia,” Owen explained.”

Naturally, I couldn’t help but think would Proust might think about this, given his view that it’s our ability to forget, the very fact that memory fades, that makes life bearable.

If you’re interested in reading more, here’s the link.


Let me know what you think.

More tomorrow…

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by Dennis Abrams

I wasn’t going to post again until Monday, but I’ve been thinking and thinking about this piece since I read it earlier this week, and the more I think about it, the angrier I get.  Please read — I’ll have comments at the other end.


Published on The New Republic (http://www.tnr.com)


Bad Expectations

Oprah’s misguided view of Charles Dickens—and literature as a whole.
  • Hillary Kelly
  • December 14, 2010 | 12:00 am

On December 2, as Oprah Winfrey stood on the stage of her TV show, tightly clutching her newest Book Club selection to her chest so that no one could see its title, she proclaimed in her singular, scale-climbing voice, “Dickeeeens for the hooolidaaaays!” Oprah declared that she has “always wanted to read Dickens over the holidays,” and “now [she] can.” Never mind that she could have read Dickens whenever she wanted, seeing as his books have been popular for more than a century. Never mind that Oprah hadn’t chosen A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, or any of Dickens’s other Christmas tales. Never mind that neither Great Expectations nor A Tale of Two Cities, the books she did choose, have anything to do with the holidays. Our shepherd has spoken, and we must blindly follow.

Billed as “A Date with Dickens,” Oprah’s sentimentalized pitch for consuming the author’s work—it’s “cup of hot chocolate” reading—is sure to inspire a frightening number of purchases. Just as they have for the past 14 years, cadres of women around the globe will flock to bookstores to nab covers with a small circular “O” sticker on the top right corner. Oprah has proven that she can catapult a contemporary author from obscurity to fame; but, more interestingly, she’s shown she can also revivify the great novels. Dubbed the “Oprah Effect,” Winfrey’s seal of approval and magnanimous praise has bolstered the sales of dozens of novels and, in turn, annoyed bitter English teachers everywhere. After all, Oprah is doing the impossible—she is convincing the masses to purchase and read classics.

In recent years, Oprah’s contemporary choices have wavered wildly, between new classics and “one-dimensional” heart-wrenchers (as Jonathan Franzen so aptly put it back in 2001). The Road (also a Pulitzer-Prize winner) introduced the world to the menacingly minimal prose of Cormac McCarthy, but Fall on Your Knees (Anne-Marie MacDonald) left me wishing for … wait, I hardly even remember finishing that one. The most galling of Oprah’s selections, however, aren’t the terrible new ones; they are magna opera of literary history. Indeed, Winfrey has seen fit to dip into the annals of literary history, pull out ringers like Anna Karenina and As I Lay Dying, and tell us why she, Oprah, thinks we should read them.

Her current choices, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, are perfect examples of this phenomenon. Surely both belong to the realm of classics and should, no must be read—and Oprah’s fans will inevitably dive in, not only because Winfrey has told them to but also out of a desire to assuage old guilt about required reading in high school that was left untouched. But what can Oprah really bring to the table with these books? Oprah has said that, together, the novels will “double your reading pleasure.” But is that even true? And do the novels even complement each other? Can you connect Miss Havisham’s treatment of time to Carton’s misuse of his “youthful promise”? Well, don’t ask Oprah herself, as she “shamefully” admits she has “never read Dickens.”


Now imagine this scenario somewhat differently. Your 16 year old announces that her English class will be reading Great Expectations. Fabulous, you think. A real piece of literature, a break from the Twilight nonsense and the watering down of education. “What will you discuss?” you ask your child. “Oh, we don’t know yet,” she says. “My teacher has never read it before. In fact, she’s never read any Dickens. She just thought it would be fun to read this with a cup of tea in hand!” My guess is that you would be annoyed.

And yet, Oprah does just that, only it’s worse: She has asked millions of people to follow her into some of the more difficult prose to come out of the nineteenth century—prose she knows nothing about. Put simply, a TV host whose maxim is to “live your best life” is not an adequate guide through the complicated syntax of Dickens, not because she lacks the intelligence—she is quite clearly a woman of savvy—but because her readings of the texts are so one-dimensional.

Oprah’s approach to her Book Club is all about herself. Her recent announcement contained not a word of reasoning or insightfulness about Dickens’s work; instead, she explained her reason for picking two of his novels by shouting, in a lame attempt at literary humor, “Cause it’s the best of times!” Just as she deems her “favorite things” worthy of an annual consumer-fest, she happily pushes to her audience of millions whatever books she herself wants to read.

Making the situation all the more appalling, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities could not be more different. Focusing on wildly different themes and set in two distinct historical periods, scholars do not even regard the books as being of the same caliber—Great Expectations is often considered the far superior work.Reading them in conjunction imparts no nutritional value. This whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.

Even more confusingly, Oprah’s comments about Dickens making for cozy reading in front of a winter fire misinterprets the large-scale social realism of his work. It stands to reason that her sentimentalized view of Dickens might stem from A Christmas Carol—probably his most family-friendly read and one of his most frequently recounted tales. But her quaint view of Victoriana, as she’s expressed it, belies an ignorance of Dickens’s authorial intentions. Indeed, both A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations are dark and disturbing, with elaborate ventures into the seedy underbelly of London and the bloody streets of Paris. How can we trust a literary guide who, ignorant of the terrain ahead, promises us it will be light and easy?


Since its inception in 1996, the Book Club has carved its niche among readers by telling them that the novel is a chance to learn more about themselves. It’s not about literature or writing; it’s about looking into a mirror and deciding what type of person you are, and how you can be better. While a generally wrongheaded view of novels, this notion is all the more frustrating when the club delves into the true classics, with their vast knottiness, glorious language, breathtaking characters, and multi-faceted, mind-twisting prose. None of that matters in Oprah’s view of books, since reading is yet another exercise in self-gratification. “If you have read him, what do you think Dickens might have to share and teach those of us who live in this digital age?” the Book Club’s producer, Jill, asks on Oprah’s website. This is the Eat, Pray, Love school of reading.

Indeed, Oprah’s readers have been left in the dark. They must now scramble about to decipher Dickens’s obscure dialectical styling and his long-lost euphemisms—and the sad truth is that, with no real guidance, readers cannot grow into lovers of the canon. Instead, they can only mimic their high-school selves with calls of, “It’s too hard!” Or, else, they can put aside any notions of reading to become a better reader and instead immerse themselves in the nonsense of “discovering their true selves” in novels.

A glance at the discussion boards on Oprah’s website confirms my worst fears. “I have read all the print-outs and character materials and the first two pages,” said one reader, referring to supplementary reading guides produced by the Book Club. “The first two pages are laden with political snips and I am trying to grasp what it is saying. I was able to look up cock-lane and figure that out, but where do I go to figure out the innuendos?” And the response: “SparkNotes provides an excellent summary of the context of the book as well as chapter summaries and analysis.”

Despite Oprah’s joyous yelling and shepherding, despite her character guides and suggestions of cups of hot cocoa, despite the gorgeously crafted Penguin edition of two Dickens novels and the soon-to-come chats on Winfrey’s couch about how readers can find themselves in these books, the battle has been fought and the victor already decided: Oprah 1, Literature, 0.

Hillary Kelly is assistant editor of THE BOOK.

I see her point that perhaps A Tale of T wo Cities and Great Expectations are not the most natural wedding of Dickens’ classics.  And I see her point (to a degree) that Oprah’s literary criticism can, at time, be slightly one-dimensional.

BUT…to say that

“Indeed, Oprah’s readers have been left in the dark. They must now scramble about to decipher Dickens’s obscure dialectical styling and his long-lost euphemisms—and the sad truth is that, with no real guidance, readers cannot grow into lovers of the canon.”

strikes me as so breathtakingly condescending towards whatever it is she imagines Oprah’s readers to be, such ivory-tower-lit-crit nonsense as to be beneath contempt.  Without “real guidance” readers can not grow into lovers of the canon?  Meaning, I suppose, without the books being “taught,” and taught by whatever literary theory is in favor at time, those poor poor readers without degrees in English and Semiotics or whatever are incapable of understanding what Dickens was saying?  Is she serious?

Doesn’t she realize that Dickens, Tolstoy, Austin, all the writers (I’ll exempt Joyce from this, among others)  enshrined in the “canon” wrote their books to be read not taught?  That Dickens is one of the most insanely readable of all the “great” authors?

What is it that goes into this kind of thinking?

Back to coping with Proust withdrawal tomorrow.

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by Dennis Abrams

For your weekend reading pleasure, more from Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, and, specifically, to help us all through our Proust withdrawal, more from the chapter “How to Put Books Down.”

i.  The benefits of reading

“In 1899 things were going badly for Proust.  he was twenty-eight, he had ndone nothing with his life, he was still living at home, he had never earned any money, he was always ill and worst of all, he had been trying to write a novel for the last four years and it was showing few signs of working out.  In the autumn of that  year, he went on holiday to the French Alps, to the spa town of Evian, and it was here that he read and fell in love with the works of John Ruskin, the English art critic renowned for his writings on Venice, Turner, the Italian Renaissance, Gothic architecture and Alpine landscapes.

Proust’s encounter with Ruskin exemplified the benefits of reading.  ‘The universe suddenly regained infinite value in my eyes,’ explained Proust subsequently; because the universe had had such value in Ruskin’s eyes, and because he had been a genius at transmuting his impressions into words.  Ruskin had expressed things which Proust might have felt himself, but could not have articulated on his own; in Ruskin, he found experiences which he had never been more than semi-conscious of, raised and beautifully assembled in language.

Ruskin sensitized Proust to the visible world, to architecture, art and nature.  Here is Ruskin awakening his readers’ senses to a few of the many things going on in an ordinary mountain stream:

‘If it meets a rock three or four feet above the level of its bed, it will often neither part nor form, nor express any concern about the matter, but clear it in a smooth dome of water, without apparent exertion, the whole surface of the surge being drawn into parallel lines by its extreme velocity, so that the whole river has the appearance of a deep and raging sea, with only this difference, that torrent-waves always break backwards, and sea-waves forwards.  Thus, then, in the water which has gained an impetus, we have the most exquisite arrangements of curved lines, perpetually changing from convex to concave and vice versa, following every swell and hollow of the bed with their modulating grace, and all in unison of motion, presenting perhaps the most beautiful series of inorganic forms which nature can possibly produce.’

Aside from landscape, Ruskin helped Proust to discover the beauty of the great cathedrals of northern France.  When he returned to Paris after his holiday, Proust travelled to Bourges and to Chargres, to Amiens and Rouen.  Later explaining what Ruskin had taught him, Proust pointed to a passage on Rouen cathedral in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, in which Ruskin minutely described a particular stone figure which had been carved, together with hundreds of others, in one of the cathedral’s portals.  The figure was of a little man, no more than ten centimetres high, with a vexed, puzzled expression, and one hand pressed hard against his cheek, wrinkling the flesh under his eye.

For Proust, Ruskin’s concern for the little man had effected a kind of resurrection, one characteristic of great art.  He had known how to look at this figure, and had hence brought it back to life for succeeding generations.  Ever polite, Proust offered a playful apology to the little figure for what would have been his own inability to notice him without Ruskin as a guide [‘I would not have been clever enough to find you, amongst the thousands of stones in our towns, to pick out your figure, to rediscover your personality, to summon you, to make you live again’}.  It was a symbol of what Ruskin had done for Proust, and what all books might do for their readers, namely bring back to life, from the deadness caused by habit and inattention, valuable yet neglected aspects of experience.

Because he had been so impressed by Ruskin, Proust sought to extend his contact with him by engaging in the traditional occupation open to those who love reading:  literary scholarship.  He set aside his novelistic projects and became a Ruskin scholar.  When the English critic died in 1900, he wrote his obituary, followed it u p with several essays, and then undertook the immense task of translating Ruskin into French, a task all the more ambitious because he hardly spoke any English and, according to George de Lauris, would have had trouble correctly ordering a lamb chop in English in a restaurant.  However, he succeeded in producing highly accurate translations of both Ruskin’s Bible of Amiens and his Sesame and Lilies, adding an array of scholarly footnotes testifying to the breadth of his Ruskinian knowledge.  It was work he carried out with the fanaticism and rigour of a maniacal professor; in the words of his friend Marie Nordlinger:

‘The apparent discomfort in which he worked was quite incredible; the bed was littered with books and papers, his pillows were all over the place, a bamboo table on his left was piled high, and more often than not, there was no support for whatever he was writing (no wonder he wrote illegibly), with a cheap wooden penholder or two lying where it had fallen on the floor.’

Because Proust was such a good scholar and such an unsuccessful novelist, an academic career must have beckoned.  It was his mother’s hope.  After watching him waste years on a novel that had gone nowhere, she took pleasure in discovering that her son had the makings of a fine scholar.  Proust could not have ignored his own aptitude, and indeed, many years later, expressed sympathy with his mother’s judgement:

‘I always agree with Maman that I could have done only one thing in life, but a thing which we both valued so much that it is saying a lot:  namely, an excellent professor.’

ii.  The limitations of reading

However, needless to say, Proust did not become Professor Proust, Ruskin scholar and translator, a significant fact, given how well suited he was to academic discipline, how ill suited he was to almost everything else and how much he respected his beloved mother’s judgement.

His reservations could hardly have been more subtle.  He was in no doubt as to the immense value of reading and study, and could defend his Ruskinian labours against any vulgar arguments in favour of mental self-sufficiency.

‘The mediocre usually imagine that to let ourselves be guided by the books we admire robs our faculty of judgement of part of its independence.  ‘What can it matter to you what Ruskin feels:  feel for yourself.’  Such a view rests on a psychological error which will be discounted by all those who have accepted a spiritual discipline and feel thereby that their power of understanding and of feeling is infinitely enhanced, and their critical sense never paralysed…There is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master has felt.  In t his profound effort it is our thought itself that we bring out into the light, together with his.’

Yet something in this forceful defence of reading and scholarship intimated Proust’s reservations.  Without drawing attention to how contentious or critical the point was, he argued that we should be reading for a particular reason; not to pass the time, not out of detached curiosity, not out of a dispassionate wish to find out what Ruskin felt, but because, to back with italics, ‘there is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master has felt’.  We should read other people’s books in order to learn what we feel, it is our own thoughts we should be developing even if it is another writer’s thoughts which help us to do so.  A fulfilled academic life would therefore require us to judge that the writers we were studying articulated in their books a sufficient range of our own concerns, and that in the act of understanding them through translation or commentary, we would simultaneously be understanding and developing the spiritually significant parts of themselves.

And herein lay Proust’s problem, because in his view, books could not make us aware of enough of the things we felt.  They might open our eyes, sensitize us, enhance our powers of perception, but at a certain point they would stop, not by coincidence, not occasionally, not out of bad luck, but inevitably, by definition, for the stark and simple reason that the author wasn’t us. There would come a moment with every book when we would feel that something was incongruous, misunderstood or constraining, and it would give us a responsibility to leave our guide behind and continue our thoughts alone.  Proust’s respect for Ruskin was enormous, but having worked intensely on his texts for six years, having lived with bits of paper scattered across his bed and his bamboo table piled high with books, in a particular burst of irritation at continually being tethered to another man’s words, Proust exclaimed that Ruskin’s qualities had not prevented him from frequently being ‘silly, maniacal, constraining, false and ridiculous.’

The fact that Proust did not at this point turn to translating George Eliot or annotating Dostoevsky signals a recognition that the frustration he felt with Ruskin was not incidental to this author, but reflected a universally constraining dimension to reading and scholarship, and was sufficient reason never to strive for the title of Professor Proust.

‘It is one of the great and wonderful characteristics of good books (which allows us to see the role, at once essential yet limited, that reading may play in our spiritual lives) that for the author they may be called ‘Conclusions’ but for the reader ‘Incitements’.  We feel very strongly that our wisdom begins where that of the author leaves off, and we would like him to provide us with answers when all he is able to is provide us with desires…That is the value of reading, and also its inadequacy.  To make it into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement.  Reading in on the threshold of the spiritual life; it can introduce us to it:  it does not constitute it.'”

More to come…enjoy your weekend.

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by Dennis Abrams

Clearly, we’re all going through Proust withdrawal.  In his book,  How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton’s last chapter is titled “How to Put Books Down.”  Herewith, a sampling, including an introduction and one of the signs of addiction and writer worship:

“How seriously should we take books?  ‘Dear friend,’ Proust told Andre Gide, ‘I believe, contrary to the fashion among our contemporaries, that one can have a very lofty idea of literature, and at the same time have a good-natured laugh at it.’  The remark may have been throwaway, but its underlying message was not.  For a man who devoted his life to literature, Proust manifested a singular awareness of the dangers of taking books too seriously, or rather of adopting a fetishistically reverent attitude towards them, which while appearing to pay due homage would in fact travesty the spirit of literary production; a healthy relationship to other people’s books would depends as much on an appreciation of their limitations as of their benefits.

Symptom no. 1:  That we mistake writers for oracles

As a boy, Proust has loved reading Theophile Gautier.  Certain sentences in Gautier’s Le Captitaine Fracasse had seemed so profound that he had started to think of the author as an extraordinary figure of limitless insight, who he would have wanted to consult on all his significant problems:

‘I would have wished for him, the one wise custodian of the truth, to tell me what I ought rightly to think of Shakespaeare, of Saintine, of Sophocles, of Euripides, of Silvio Pellico…Above all, I would have wished him to tell me whether I would have had a better chance of arriving at the truth by repeating my first-form year at school, or by becoming a diplomat or a barrister at the Court of Appeal.’

Sadly, Gautier’s inspiring, fascinating sentences had a habit of coming in the midst of some very tedious passages, in which the author would, for instance, spend an age describing a chateau, and show no interest in telling Marcel what to think of Sophocles, or whether he should go into the Foreign Office of the law.

It was probably a good thing, as far as Marcel’s career was concerned.  Gautier’s capacity for insights in one area did not necessarily mean that he was capable of worthwhile insights in another.  Yet how natural to feel that someone who has been extremely lucid on certain topics might turn out to be a perfect authority on other topics too, might indeed turn out to have the answers to everything.

Many of the exaggerated hopes which Proust harboured of Gautier as a boy cam in time to be harboured of him.  There were people who believed that he too might solve the riddle of existence, a wild hope presumably derived from the evidence of nothing more than his novel.  The staff of L’Intransigeant, those inspired journalists who had felt it appropriate to consult Proust on t he consequences of global apocalypse, were supreme believers in the oracular wisdom of writers, and repeatedly bothered Proust with their questions.  For example, they felt he might be the perfect person to answer this enquiry:

‘If for some reason you were forced to take up a manual profession, which one would you choose, according to your tastes, your aptitudes and your capacities?’

‘I think I would become a baker.  It is an honourable thing to give people their daily bread,’ replied Proust, who was incapable of making a piece of toast, after asserting that writing in any case constituted manual labour:  ‘You make a distinction between manual and spiritual professions which I couldn’t subscribe to.  The spirit guides the hand’ — which Celeste, whose job it was to clean the loo, might politely have contested.

It was a nonsensical reply, but then again, it was a nonsensical question, at least when addressed to Proust.  Why would an ability to write In Search of Lost Time in any way indicate an aptitude for advising recently dismissed white-collar workers on their career?  Why would the readers of L’Intransigeant need to be exposed to misleading notions of the baking life, put forward by a man who had never had a proper job and didn’t much like bread?  Why not let Proust answer the questions in his area of competence, and otherwise admit the need for a well-qualified career adviser?”

More to come…

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by Dennis Abrams

I’ve been thinking back to one of my first posts, listing the ten reasons why people should join in the reading of reading Proust.  In it I quoted Virginia Woolf’s famous line, “My great adventure is really Proust.  Well — what remains to be written after that?”   In reading Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life,” I read about the danger that such feelings had for Woolf.

“Reading Proust nearly silenced Virginia Woolf.  She loved his novel, but loved it rather too much.  There wasn’t enough wrong with it, a crushing recognition when one follows Walter Benjamin in his assessment of why people become writers: because they are unable to find a book already written which they are completely happy with.  And the difficulty for Virginia was, for a time at least, she thought she had found one.

Virginia Woolf first mentioned Proust in a letter she wrote to Roger Fry in the autumn of 1919.  He was in France, she was in Richmond, where the weather was foggy and the garden in bad shape, and she casually asked him whether he might bring back a copy of Swann’s Way on his return.

It was 1922 before she next mentioned Proust .  She had turned forty and, despite the entreaty to Fry, still hadn’t read anything of Proust’s work, though in a letter to E.M. Forster, she revealed that others in the vicinity were being more diligent.  ‘Everyone is reading Proust.  I sit silent and hear their reports.  It seems to be a tremendous experience,’ she explained, though appeared to be procrastinating out of a fear of being overwhelmed by something in the novel, an object she referred to more as if it were a swamp than  hundreds of bits of paper stuck together with thread and glue; ‘I’m shivering on the brink, and waiting to be submerged with a horrid sort of notion that I shall go down and down and down and perhaps never come up again.’

She took the plunge nevertheless, and the problems started.  As she told Roger Fry, ‘Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence.  ‘Oh, if I could write like that!’ I cry.  And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures — there’s something sexual in it — that I feel I can write like that, and write seize my pen, and then I can’t write like that.’

In what sounded like a celebration of In Search of Lost Time, but was in fact a far darker verdict on her future as a writer, she told Fry:  ‘My great adventure is really Proust.  Well — what remains to be written after that?…How, at least, has someone solidified what has always escaped — and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance?  One has to put the book down and gasp.’

In spite of the gasping, Woolf realized that Mrs Dalloway still remained to be written, after which she allowed herself a brief burst of elation at the thought that she might have produced something decent.  ‘I wonder if this time I have achieved something?’ she asked herself in her diary, but the pleasure was short-lived:  ‘Well, nothing anyhow compared with Proust, in whom I am embedded now.  the thing about Proust is his combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity.  He searches out these butterfly shades to the last grain.  He is as tough as catgut and as evanescent as a butterfly’s bloom.  And he will I suppose both influence me and make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.’

But Woolf knew how to hate her sentences well enough even without Proust’s assistance.  ‘So sick of Orlando I can write nothing,’ she told her diary shortly after completing this book in 1928.  ‘I have corrected the proofs in a week:  and cannot spin another phrase.  I detest my own volubility.  Why be always spouting words?’

However, any bad mood she was in was liable to take a dramatic plunge for the worse after the briefest contact with the Frenchman.  The diary entry continued:  ‘Take up Proust after dinner and put him down.  This is the worst time of all.  It makes me suicidal.  Nothing seems left to do.  All seems insipid and worthless.’

Nevertheless, she didn’t yet commit suicide, though she did take the wise step of ceasing to read Proust, and was therefore able to write a few more books whose sentences were neither insipid nor worthless.  Then in 1934, when she was working on T he Years, there was a sign that she had at last freed herself from Proust’s shadow.  She told Ethel Smyth that she had picked up In Search of Lost Time again, ‘which is of course so magnificent that I can’t writ e myself within its arc.  For years I’ve put off finishing it; but now, thinking I may die one of these years, I’ve returned, and let my own scribble do what it likes.  Lord, what a hopeless bad book mine will be!’

The tone suggests that Woolf had at last made her peace with Proust.  He could have his terrain, she had hers to scribble in.  The path from depression and self-loathing to cheerful defiance suggests a gradual recognition that one person’s achievements did not have to invalidate another’s, that there would always be something left to do even if it momentarily appeared otherwise.  Proust might have expressed many things well, but independent thought and the history of the novel had not come to a halt with him.  His book did not have to be followed by silence, there was still space for the scribbling of others, for Mrs Dalloway, The Common Reader, A Room of One’s Own, and in particular there was space for what these books symbolized in this context, perceptions of one’s own.

More to come…

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