Proust notes – Combray

The life of the young narrator in Combray. So far he attends mass and reads, he listens to his old aunt and maid, and reports on the goings of the town residents. Proust frames scenes in an odd way–paragraphs give way to tangents that eventually (but without warning) lead back to the main story. At the midpoint of the Combray chapter and young Marcel has encountered Swann, who visits with him in the garden as he reads books.

None of this is boring or tiresome, and the humor keeps popping up in unexpected places, such as the manners that are adhered to or violated, and in the people themselves. A school chum of Marcel’s is Bloch, a Jewish kid who finds trouble as one finds sunlight.

II

A very funny family scene as they take to the aunt’s special times of meals and happenings on Saturdays. Everything in the house is moved up one hour on Sat, and the family in-joke is a delightful touch–this is the kind of stuff that kids, like the narrator, love.

III

More fun with Legrandin, a family friend and social gadfly, a snob who despises snobs. Our narrator notices his blustery manners and physicality, and at a dinner between the two, his mention of the name Guermantes sparks a near-fit of emotion in poor Legrandin. Swann’s way and the Guermantes way are at last explained as differing paths one takes from the narrator’s home–the family is big on long walks.

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Proust notes – Overture

A strange tone and temperament to this first part of Remembrance of Things Past. Marcel (narrator) is a boy too attached to his mother, and he is a keen observer of the goings on in his grandfather’s country house, where his elder relatives–mostly gasbags–sit around and comment on how one should and should not comment on people. Very interesting idea that this middle class family is like those of Hindu origin, sticking to its born-that-way caste system. Marcel is a strange but keen on M. Swann, a visitor to the house. Swann has married badly (to a prostitute) and has a daughter, and delights in visiting Marcel’s elders. He styles himself an art connoisseur and yet most of his traits are described by others, not Swann himself. He is one who is talked about, and young Marcel’s fascination with him seems to be shared by his parents and grandparents.

Late in the chapter an adult Marcel eats a madeleine cookie and his memory recreates Combray, the country town where the action takes place. It’s the part of Remembrance of Things Past known by people who haven’t read it—like Don Quixote and the windmills. But the entire Overture is a very funny start to this long novel.

Conrad’s Chance

I continue with Joseph Conrad, and having just finished his wonderful unappreciated The Rescue I jumped into Chance, Conrad’s last go-around with Charles Marlow as the narrator.

Marlow this time is on land—I mean to say that Marlow himself, as he participates in the tale, is soil-bound. Certainly the novel involves some aspects of the sea, but Chance is concerned with domestic life, with women and society. And Marlow—a man who hates walking anywhere but a ship deck—has much to say about early 20th Century womanhood.

There’s a fascinating Chapter 5 in part one where Marlow and a Mrs Fyne have a long conversation over tea about how women behave and what they ought to do with their lives. Marlow admits to us readers that he doesn’t know the first thing about women (we are meant to take this as exaggeration) but he does enjoy pestering Mrs Fyne a bit, as she is in a state—her brother has run off with a house-guest, a young woman named Flora.

Marlow isn’t rude to Mrs Fyne but he is in a playful mood, as Mrs Fyne is determined to talk her brother out of this union—if she can reach him. Marlow verbally pokes at Mrs Fyne’s reason and arguments, if only to get different reactions out of her. Marlow is keen to know a woman of Mrs Fyne’s stature—he is a fan and chess partner of Mr Fyne, and admits that the Fynes have a good and healthy marriage.

Marlow of course is without a wife or companion, making sly jabs at his own preferred state of isolation from the opposite sex. But to see femininity through his eyes is helpful in knowing not only Marlow but Mrs Fyne as well, for we all become better when prodded by the curious mad people we encounter in life.

Novels worse than The Fountainhead

I was in a bookshop a week ago and came across a nice hardback of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a book I read long ago. The hardback was a reprint of the first edition, and it felt hefty and slick and looked nice with its sewn binding and slipcase cover. A book about an architect ought to be well made.

It’s common to poke fun at Rand’s talent, and it’s mostly fair, this poking, because Rand wasn’t much of a writer. She was a fascinating woman, and the screenplay she wrote for the film version of The Fountainhead resulted in a terrific movie, with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal as the stars. The screenplay was the best thing she ever wrote.

I didn’t buy the nice hardback, but I did think about rereading The Fountainhead, because I liked it when I was a kid, and because I now think there are so many worse popular novels that one can make fun of, novels written by men who have somehow escaped the ridicule Rand receives. So I came up with a list, a list of popular novels worse than The Fountainhead. Here they are:

  • A Confederacy of Dunces
  • The Broom of the System
  • A Man in Full
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
  • Middlesex
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Good novels about young people

Adults must not read Young Adult novels. Adults must instead read good novels about young people. There are more good novels about young people than there are good Young Adult novels. Here is a list of good novels about young people:

Ballard, J.G. Empire of the Sun
Blatty, William Peter. The Exorcist
Brodkey, Harold. First Love and other Sorrows
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Cather, Willa. My Antonia
Conrad, Joseph. The Shadow-Line
Crowley, John. Little, Big
Crowley, John. Love and Sleep
De Vries, Peter. The Blood of the Lamb
DeLillo, Don. End Zone
Dexter, Pete. Train
Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield
Dickens, Charles. The Old Curiosity Shop
Dreiser, Theodore. An American Tragedy
Egan, Jennifer. The Invisible Circus
Egolf, Tristan. Lord of the Barnyard
Eugenides, Jeffrey. The Virgin Suicides
Faulkner, William. Light in August
Forster, E.M. The Longest Journey
Forster, E.M. A Room with a View
Greene, Graham. Brighton Rock
Greene, Graham. The Captain and the Enemy
Hamsun, Knut. Hunger
Harrison, Jim. Farmer
Hazzard, Shirley. The Great Fire
Hughes, Richard. A High Wind in Jamaica
James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Kipling, Rudyard. Kim
Knowles, John. A Separate Peace
Lawrence, D.H. Sons and Lovers
Lindsay, Joan. Picnic at Hanging Rock
Llosa, Mario Vargas. The Time of the Hero
Macdonald, Ross. The Far Side of the Dollar
MacLaverty, Bernard. Cal
Mann, Thomas. Buddenbrooks
Maugham, W. Somerset. Of Human Bondage
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian
McCullers, Carson. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
McMurtry, Larry. Horseman, Pass By
Millhauser, Steven. Edwin Mullhouse
Mitchell, David. Black Swan Green
Murdoch, Iris. The Time of the Angels
Murdoch, Iris. Nuns and Soldiers
Murdoch, Iris. The Good Apprentice
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita
Narayan, R.K. Swami and Friends
Narayan, R.K. The Bachelor of Arts
O’Connor, Flannery. The Violent Bear It Away
Parker, Robert B. Early Autumn
Percy, Walker. The Last Gentleman
Portis, Charles. True Grit
Powell, Anthony. A Question of Upbringing
Proust, Marcel. Swann’s Way
Proust, Marcel. Within a Budding Grove
Reid, Forrest. Tom Barber trilogy
Santiago, Danny. Famous All Over Town
Singer, Isaac Bashevis. The Manor
Snow, C.P. Strangers and Brothers
Spark, Muriel. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Spencer, Scott. Endless Love
Stern, Richard. Other Men’s Daughters
Stevenson, Robert Louis. Treasure Island
Stevenson, Robert Louis. Kidnapped
Tartt, Donna. The Secret History
Tevis, Walter. The Queen’s Gambit
Theroux, Paul. The Mosquito Coast
Twain, Mark. Tom Sawyer
Twain, Mark. Huckleberry Finn
Waters, Sarah. Fingersmith
Waugh, Evelyn. Brideshead Revisited
West, Nathanael. A Cool Million
Wodehouse, P.G. Mike
Yu Hua. Brothers

Great California Novels

1899  McTeague  Frank Norris
1939  The Day of the Locust  Nathanael West
1951  The Way Some People Die  Ross Macdonald
1953  The Long Goodbye  Raymond Chandler
1962  Big Sur  Jack Kerouac
1966  The Crying of Lot 49  Thomas Pynchon
1968  Myra Breckinridge  Gore Vidal
1969  Fat City  Leonard Gardner
1970  Play It As It Lays  Joan Didion
1974  Dog Soldiers  Robert Stone
1978  Lying Low  Diane Johnson
1983  Famous All Over Town  Danny Santiago
1987  The Black Dahlia  James Ellroy
2009  Nobody Move  Denis Johnson

Year of Conrad

victory coverI started 2016 reading and rereading Conrad’s three great novels, Nostromo, Under Western Eyes, and Victory, and I couldn’t get enough of these books having read them and read them again, so I picked at them throughout the year, a mad compulsion for Conrad’s prose. “Conrad’s prose” is the exact synonym of “good writing” so that whenever I found myself reading a contemporary book and complaining about it, specifically its lack or lightness, I’d pick up Conrad to prove to myself that it is possible for man to do better, to do so much better, with words, ideas, and stories.

And so a week rarely passes where I don’t think about Axel Heyst and Razumov, the main—but not the most interesting characters—in Victory and Under Western Eyes. With Nostromo, there is place to think about as much as persons, and this is done by design—the first quarter of Nostromo is expository, with casual insights into the characters, and the story doesn’t properly start until Martin Decoud arrives. These three novels are so rich as they can be reread constantly with a reader gaining new and different insights with each pass.

I’ve put the trio of good books aside now, and have started again on Lord Jim, a novel that is so much sadder than I remember. But there’s a strange sparkle to the sadness, because Marlow is telling Jim’s tale, and Marlow is the liveliest narrator ever conjured by a modern novelist. The pleasure of great novels is that they don’t let you slide out of them, they invade your life waking and sleeping, and having a Marlow tell one’s story—one couldn’t ask for better.

So it is Conrad, waking and sleeping—and jogging. This morning on a run I finally listened to the Orson Welles version of The Secret Sharer. It is slightly abridged but wonderful, and I take it Welles was beat and worn during its recording, for his voice is labored, but he has spry moments, giving all characters a unique hiss or bark. No escaping this Conrad.