Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Marcel Proust, Swann's Way (Volume 1 of In Search of Lost Time)

This was technically a re-read for me, since I first read Swann's Way with the Biblioholics Anonymous back in 1999, I believe. At that time, I thought this was one of the worst books I had ever read ... a colossel waste of time, six hundred pages of absolutely nothing happening, and all that silly French stuff. For years I carried around within me that embarrassing reductionist attitude, claiming ridiculously that "all the [book] is about is dipping cookies in tea."

My, how a decade of reading can change one's attitude.

Du Cote de chez Swann (trans. Swann's Way) is the first of seven volumes that together comprise Proust's masterpiece, A la recherche du temps perdu (trans. In Search of Lost Time). It serves as both an introduction to the entire work and it functions as a novel in itself, consisting of three parts ("Combray," "Swann in Love," and "Place Names - The Name"). "Combray" is a beautifully written meditation on the early childhood memories of the narrator (who at the moment is unnamed, but will eventually be revealed as "Marcel") as he describes his parents, his extended family, the small town of Combray where they lived, and memories of his parents' friend, Charles Swann. "Swann in Love" is primarily a third-person account of Swann in his younger years when he met and fell in love with Odette, a local courtesan who gradually becomes his obsession. Finally, "Place Names - The Name" is a brief conclusion to the entire volume, further delineating the setting while giving the reader a glimpse of the narrator, slightly older now and obsessing in his own way over Gilberte, the beautiful daughter of Charles and Odette Swann. That's it, in a nutshell.

But that summary does no justice to the beauty of the prose, something that escaped me the first time I read the book. Constructed of long, labyrinthian sentences that dip in and out of time periods and narrative consciousness, Proust's prose itself reflects one of the major themes of the novel -- time -- and forces the reader to meander and reconstruct as the narrator drifts from one event to the next, occasionally stopping to show us an epiphany or recount an amusing anecdote or offer a delightful observation about French society or time or memory or love.

What I especially enjoyed, however, was way in which Proust maintains subtle balances of motifs and images throughout the work: Swann's obsession over Odette -- detailed over almost half the book in episodes that are alternately poignant, infuriating, and hilarious -- parallels the obsession young Marcel later develops over Gilberte; flowers of various kinds become a recurring image fraught with symbolic meaning; Marcel and Swann have moments of "awakening" from dreams at different points in the novel, leading the narrator to speculate on memory and how it impacts our perception of time. Like a giant wheel, the narrative cycles gently around to give the reader glimpses of moments, places, objects that continue to develop with meaning as the narrative gently circles once more.

There's SO much more to say about this volume; a simple blog entry is insufficient. Suffice it to say, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Swann's Way and have begun the next volume, Within a Budding Grove.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?: A Re-Emergence

This is perhaps the longest stretch of time I've ever gone without writing about some of the things I've read. To be honest, I've not read all that much. Yet, I have been reading the whole summer and fall ... just not blogging it. But everything's been very scattershot and, coupled with all sorts of detours and such, it's been hard to document.

Most of my reading time since mid-August has been spent on a lot of school-related material. I've had to re-read the usual fall texts: The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter (for American Literature), The Maltese Falcon (for Film Study), and Ethan Frome (a new addition to a new class I'm teaching: Studies in American Literature). In A.P. English, we read Oedipus Rex, Lysistrata, The Inferno, and Hamlet ... but I added two new texts this year: Kafka's The Metamorphosis (which we read in a week) and Dickens's Bleak House (which we devoted all semester to, three/four chapters per week for eighteen weeks). Coupled with the selected readings, poetry, and other stuff we had to read in each of those classes, my nose has been in a book of some sort most of this semester.

Then there was the fall seminar course at the Newberry Library, where I re-read Dickens's Dombey and Son, A Christmas Carol, and three other Christmas tales: "The Cricket on the Hearth," "The Chimes," and "The Haunted Man." Additionally, there were supplemental readings for that class.

Of course, all work and no play makes Tim a dull boy ... so amid all of this I read Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker by James McManus and Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture, both via my Kindle. And based on a friend's recommendation I read Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation by Edward L. Deci ... a somewhat dated text, but still relevant in its more universal scope of how to motivate groups.

So as you can see, I have indeed been reading ...

Yet it all has left me feeling inexplicably unfulfilled ...

Until about a month ago.

It was early November when I realized that I was tired. Tired of reading quickly. Tired of reading for the sake of reading over 200 pages each week for classes! I needed something slower, something to savor. So much of my life has always been consumed with reading for a classroom audience that really reading for me ... for ME ... wasn't happening much any more.

Partly inspired by a literature conference I attended at Eastern Illinois University in early November, I found myself being reacquainted with the writings of Emerson and Thoreau ... the importance of reflection ... the need to simplify one's life ... the terrifying notion that, when you come to die, you discover you have not lived. All of these sentiments came bubbling back to the surface of my consciousness, just as they had twenty-five years ago when I was studying Transcendentalism in college.

And suddenly, strangely, as I sat on my couch downstairs, waiting for the rest of my family to finish getting ready so's we could all go out to dinner on a Friday evening, I scanned my bookshelves and realized the book I am finally ready to read, given this point in my life:

A 'la recherche du temps purdu (In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust!