Dec 082016

The heart changes, and it is our worst sorrow; but we know it only through reading, through our imagination: in reality its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change.

–Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

 Proust on Reading Change  December 8, 2016  Tagged with:
Oct 152015

Proust CoverEdmund White’s biography of Proust is like his fiction: dense and intellectual but gossipy. He always seems to be watching you with twinkling eyes, waiting to see if you’ll realize how salacious and funny all this serious stuff is.

Proust’s spectacular climb to social success and wealth is the focus of White’s story, and he explains how Proust’s social climbing and the strategies he uses to accomplish it create the material for his fiction.

Yet, if Proust’s social climb provides the skeleton of the biography,  his sexual behaviour is its flesh and blood. There are tales of Proust’s love affairs with young men, quotations from letters bluntly proposing to his friends that they should masturbate each other, the outraged calls for a dual by pistol when he learns that someone has suggested he is homosexual. White presents this tangle, explaining how Proust uses and transforms it in his fiction. In the process, he establishes that even Proust’s heterosexual moments aren’t.

Interestingly, White refuses to rationalize the contradiction between Proust’s bald expression of desire privately to intimates and the theatrical violence of his rejection of the role of public homosexual. In our era of celebrity outing and legalized gay marriage, such a disjuncture can easily appear like repression, closeting, or an act of bad faith, but White doesn’t speak in these terms. Instead, he offers a frank (and gossipy) account of Proust’s sexual behaviour without assuming that this behaviour must define his identity (or that he must have one).

As a result, Proust–a character I found thoroughly unappealing–emerges from the shadows of the past as refreshingly and provocatively queer.

Aug 232011

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan PamukA huge novel that is carefully written and that I often enjoyed. But it’s not easy going: partly because of the length, partly because of the pacing (“carefully written” often reads “slow”). But partly too because it was hard not to side with the protagonists’ critical friends while also disliking them intensely. There’s not obvious place to stand in this story, and I frequently felt uncomfortable reading this book.

There was a lot to like here…and I’m going to read another book by Pamuk in the coming months because I’m curious now. But hesitant too.

N.B.–The references to Proust and Montaigne at the end make sense of a lot of what came before. This is an intensely intellectual book hiding in the sentimental novel it pretends to be. Aside from a brief moment (one paragraph) in the engagement party (an incredible, long chapter, pure tour-de-force) the novel’s intellectual project is withheld to the very final pages, where (as in Proust) the status of what you have been reading is revealed. Making sense of that will take rereading and I’ve not done it. So for now, my judgment is “interesting,” “enjoyable if frustrating” and “I’m curious.”

July 2011. Mysore/Chennai, India and Montreal