Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Joy of Slowing Down

Before I begin bloviating about slow reading and my adventures with Marcel Proust, I want to share some information and some links.

Timothy Hallinan, author of a number of novels, but most recently, The Fourth Watcher has got a fascinating series of guest blog posts on creativity going up each week. The first was by author Christopher West and on Sunday, the second post in the series, by Stephen Cohn, Emmy Award winning composer will be up. Tim has a whole series of guest bloggers lined up so check out these fascinating posts and comments on living a creative life.

Larramie, known to most as the muse behind the delightful Seize a Daisy has launched a new project and blog called The Divining Wand. Have a wish you want to make with your own personal fairy godmother? Curious? You should be. Check out the site and maybe one of your dreams will come true.

On a more serious note, Travis Erwin from One Word, One Rung, One Day lost his home and everything in it to a fire earlier this week. Thankfully, Travis and his family were not injured. Blogger Erica Orloff and friends have set up the Habitat for Travis site where you can help the Erwin family.

* * *

When I think about reading as a child, or more accurately, as a pre-adolescent and then a teenager when books made their deepest impressions on me, I recall a feeling of warmth and of hiding out with a book. It’s a fetal, curled up with bare feet memory. I have sense memories of sitting on beaches, disappearing into sofa cushions, elbow-propped face in hands underneath an oak tree or summer furniture on a breezeway or porch and I remember that nothing in the world existed but what was on the page in front of me and maybe the sound of waves crashing or leaves rustling. It seems I was always reading, but I don’t remember having lots of books. Most came from the library or were borrowed -- with or without the permission of their rightful owners. I was serially monogamous with books and in love with whatever I was reading at the time. I may even have needed a cooling off period, the space to grieve the book just finished before I turned to something new. I was depressed at learning I’d read the only book by an author whose words I couldn’t get enough of and frequently I started a book I’d only just finished all over again so that the experience didn’t have to end.

I don’t read that way anymore and I miss it. Rare are the times most of us have to slip away and spend hours reading. We grab a quick chapter at lunch or on the treadmill or before bed. We listen to books while we drive or when we’re drifting off to sleep. We don’t discover books in the same way we did as kids. Thousands of titles are competing for our time and attention and we’re in a race to read through the piles that spill over from our bed side tables onto stacks all around our homes. My unread books come from places they’d never have come from before. I never knew an author or bought a book written by anyone I knew before I started blogging, but I’ve read quite a few in the past two years. Recommendations used to come from a trusted few who knew my taste or through happy accidents browsing my local bookstore, but now I choose books I read about online more often than not.

I confess to frequently choosing novels based on their lack of heft, the pressure to work through the intimidating pile of unread books spurring me to just get through them. It’s not really a very satisfying experience and I sometimes feel guilty, thinking I haven’t given the author the time and care he or she put into the work.

There are a few books I keep on a special shelf that I know require more of me than the two or three days most books are allocated and at the start of the year, I decided it was time to read one of them.

Mention of the name, Marcel Proust brings about a wide range of reactions. Most people know him as the turn of the century French author of what some think is the greatest novel of the twentieth century. Since I watched the movie, Little Miss Sunshine, I’m afraid I can’t think of him without thinking of Steve Carell’s character. Proust's novel, In Search of Lost Time is actually seven separate books weighing in at something like 3,000 pages. Swann’s Way (the first book) is a manageable size at under 450 pages. I felt a little weird attempting the book, worried that I’d be too stupid to get through it and wondering if reading Proust and then attempting to talk about it made me seem pretentious. There is a freakish sort of competitiveness that I confess to living with. I’m not measuring myself against anyone else, which is why I don’t think competitive is the right word, but I do have a certain need to challenge myself. More than almost anything else, I was inspired by Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life (and everything else I’ve read of his) to give Proust a try.

January 1st, the took out a fresh notebook, a set of Post-It flags, a pen and a highlighter and I hunkered down, curled up, found a corner to hide in and I began.

In addition to a generalized intimidation factor, there are several things that make reading Proust challenging.

One is that the book was originally written in French, so there is always a danger that the translation may not have preserved the meaning and tone of the original or that the translations aren’t necessarily accurate. Many of the words used in the book are words that, quite simply, I am not familiar with. The version of Swann’s Way I’m reading was published in 2004 and by all accounts, the translation is excellent. The original book was published in 1913 and the story begins when the narrator is a child, so many of the references are to places and people who were well known (if you were French and of a certain social standing) in the late nineteenth century, but the translator has done the reader a great service by footnoting many of the references.

Swann’s Way is not structured like a traditional novel. Lydia Davis, the translator says:

“In fact, it does not set out to tell a linear, logically sequential story, but rather to create a world unified by the narrator’s governing sensibility, in which blocks of a fictional past life are retrieved and presented, in roughly chronological order, in all their nuances. A reader may feel overwhelmed by the detail of this nuance and wish to get on with the story, and yet the only way to read Proust is to yield, with a patience equal to his, to his own unhurried manner of telling the story.”


Those who’ve described Proust as difficult sometimes attribute the difficulty to his notoriously long sentences. Long sentences work when they’re called for. I have a certain affinity for authors who use them to good effect and he is one of them. From Lydia Davis again:

“Proust felt, however, that a long sentence contained a whole, complex thought, a thought that should not be fragmented or broken. The shape of the sentence was the shape of the thought, and every word was necessary to the thought: ‘I really have to weave these long silks as I spin them,’ he said. ‘If I shortened my sentences, it would make little pieces of sentences, not sentences.’ He wished to ‘encircle the truth with a single – even if long and sinuous – stroke.’"


In approaching Proust with such patience and such caution, I’ve learned that I would likely enjoy a great many other books more if I would take them a little more slowly. I’ve found that although I am taking what many would consider an annoying and painstaking route through Swann’s Way, it has put me into a pleasant rhythm and taught me how to read Proust.

Admittedly, the first fifty pages were slow going for someone accustomed to reading modern day novels where if a reader isn’t “hooked” within the first page, or paragraph or sentence (!) he might toss the book aside and look for something more exciting. But once I surrendered to Proust’s style, I found that I was committed to a narrator unlike any other I’ve ever read and I have been unable to put the book down – save the multiple times per page that I do stop to write down an unfamiliar word, or flip to the back of the book in order to read a footnote.

I have encountered many words I’ve had to write down and later research, but I’ve become much more aware of words that I am familiar with and that I assume I do know the meanings of, but in this slower, more patient approach I've come to realize that they may not mean exactly what I think they mean – often nuance is everything. I’ve written them down and looked them up too and have had a few surprises.

Here’s a sampling of some of the words I’ve encountered: architectonic, expatiations, metempsychosis, transvertebration (no luck finding this one), Merovingian, ferruginous, lorgnon, ignonimous, demimonde, cocotte, alienist, viaticum, otiose, desuetude, lacunae, reredos, chimera, porphyry, ashlar, annulated, crenellated, quatrefoil, cardoon, punctilious, sibylline, calash, chasuble, hymenopteran, palimpsest, sainfoin, and immanent.

To be fair, quite a few of the words relate to parts of churches or castles, plants, religious articles and archaic items no longer in use, but many of them are perfectly good words that we just don’t often see.

The words slow me down, but so do the hundreds of references to painters, sculptors, musicians, writers, Greek mythological figures, playwrights and other cultural and social references. Again, Lydia Davis has provided comprehensive notes to enhance the reading experience.

In terms of style, there is nothing especially difficult about Proust. In fact, once I gave in to him, I realized that Proust was teaching me how to read Proust and it is easy to stand back and see why the entire novel runs as long as it does. I have never read an author who was able to communicate sensory experience or the details of an emotional experience, or the odd interaction between human beings in social situations in the precise and exacting way that he does. I’ve never read characters who are more meticulously and perfectly described.

On the narrator’s elderly great-aunt, who has withdrawn to her bedroom, insisting that she's too ill to go out anymore:

“If Saturday, which began an hour earlier and deprived her of Francoise, passed more slowly than other days for my aunt, she nonetheless awaited its return with impatience from the beginning of the week, because it contained all the novelty and distraction that her weakened and finical body was still able to endure. And yet this was not to say that she did not now and then aspire to some greater change, that she did not experience those exceptional moments when we thirst for something other than what we have, and when people who from a lack of energy or imagination cannot find a source of renewal in themselves ask the next minute that comes, the postman as he rings, to bring them something new, even if it is something worse, some emotion, some sorrow; when our sensibility, which happiness has silenced like an idle harp, wants to resonate under some hand, even a rough one, and even if it might be broken by it; when the will, which has with such difficulty won the right to surrender unimpeded to its own desires, to its own afflictions, would like to throw the reins into the hands of imperious events, even if they may be cruel. Doubtless, since my aunt’s strength, drained by the least fatigue, returned to her only drop by drop deep within her repose, the reservoir was very slow to fill up, and months would go by before she had that slight overflow which others divert into activity and which she was incapable of knowing, and deciding, how to use.”


On Swann, who until this scene was not physically attracted to Odette:

“Standing next to him, allowing her hair, which she had undone, to flow down her cheeks, bending one leg somewhat in the position of a dancer so that without getting tired she could lean over the engraving, which she looked at, inclining her head, with those large eyes of hers, so tired and sullen when she was not animated, she struck Swann by her resemblance to the figure of Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, in a fresco in the Sistene Chapel. Swann had always had this particular penchant for amusing himself by rediscovering in the paintings of the masters not only the general characteristics of the real world that surrounds us, but what seems on the contrary the least susceptible to generalization, the individual features of the faces we know: for instance, in the material of a bust of the Doge Loredano by Antonio Rizzo, the jut of the cheekbones, the slant of the eyebrows, altogether the very evident resemblance to his coachman Remi; under the colors of a Ghirlandaio, M. de Plancy’s nose; in a portrait by Tintoretto, the whiskers, the break in the nose, the penetration of the gaze, the congestion of the eyelids of Dr. du Boulbon. Perhaps because he had always continued to feel a touch of remorse that he had limited his life to worldly relationships, to conversation, he believed he could find a sort of indulgent pardon granted him by the great artists, in the fact that they too had contemplated with pleasure, introduced into their work, faces like these which give it a singular certificate of reality and of truth to life, a modern flavor; perhaps, also, he had allowed himself to be so caught up in the frivolity of the society people that he felt the need to look into an old work of art for these anticipated and rejuvenating allusions to current proper names. Perhaps, on the other hand, he still had enough of an artist’s nature so that these individual characteristics gave him pleasure by assuming a more general meaning as soon as he saw them extirpated, emancipated, in the resemblance between an older portrait and an original which it did not represent. Whatever the case, and perhaps because the abundance of impressions that he had been receiving for some time, and even though this abundance had come to him more with his love of music, had enriched even his delight in painting, he now found a deeper pleasure – and this was to exert a permanent influence on Swann in Odette’s resemblance to Zipporah as painted by Sandro di Mariano, whom people call more often by his popular nickname of Botticelli, since that name evokes, not the painter’s true work, but the idea of it that is vulgarized, banal, and false.”

It is quite an indulgence that I’ve asked of you, in citing these long excerpts, but I don’t think it’s possible to even begin to offer up a sampling of Proust’s work without providing long passages. If you are still with me, I thank you.

I’m beyond the halfway point in Swann’s Way and I’m already a little sad to know that it won’t be long until the book is finished. Fortunately, there is much more Proust to read.

This reading experience has gone far beyond merely exposing me to this great writer’s work. It has allowed me to slow down and savor words again.

18 comments:

Elizabeth said...

I was a French and English literature major in college and groan when I think of how we had to read Proust in French. Even with an English translation it was utter agony for me! I don't think I could ever separate out his persona (the sickly man in bed, weak and whiny) with his great words. I admire you for the path you've undertaken and your serious intent, but when I go back to the classics, I think I prefer the ponderous James or Wharton to Proust. Your descriptions of what it feels like to be a child reading were right-on. I had the same myself and often wonder if it'll happen ever again. I can still remember those library stacks and all the books that I'd lug home...

Leslie said...

Hi, fellow reader here...I'm enjoying your blog. Cheers!

Lisa said...

Elizabeth, I cannot even imagine trying to read this in French (and it's not just because I only had two years of high school French!). This book is challenging enough in English. Based on what I've read, the previous translation by Scott Moncrieff (which is the one most people have read) was much more difficult because he actually lengthened the book when he translated it, among other things. I have avoided reading too much about Proust although it's hard to avoid thinking at least a little bit about what I do know of him. I hate to say he was a hypochondriac because maybe he was really sickly, but what little I know gives me that impression. But -- I'm not going to think about him :)

The only Wharton I've read so far is THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, which I really liked -- so sad and it appeals to that romantic notion I have about New York during that era.

I am scared sh*tless of Joyce, but I do have THE DUBLINERS here (which I'm told is the one to try first...and I recently ordered THE DEAD, so I do have him in mind for another challenging read...after I finish SWANN'S WAY And relax with a little Dr. Seuss!

Leslie, Well hello to you and thanks for stopping by.

Melissa Marsh said...

I could completely relate to the memory of reading as a child. Oh boy. I ALWAYS had a book in my hands and I used to spend hours and hours every day during the summer just reading. It was a delightful, carefree time. I would panic if I didn't have another book to read, so I'd beg my mom to go to the library. :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

Your story about reading as a youngster really brought home memories. It sounds much like my experience. I would read for so many hours sometimes I'd have to try out all kinds of new positions in the chair to give my butt a rest. And I used to sneak off to the barn or the woods to read all the time.

Denis said...

Proust! Brrrrrrrrrrrr.....

Lisa said...

Melissa, I was so proud when I got a library card and could walk there by myself (weird -- we went a lot of places at a very young age back in the olden days). I still remember the smell of the library and I can remember all the nooks and crannies I kid could find to curl up and read.

Charles, It seems to me that a lot of us must have had a hope that if we were off quietly reading, maybe they'd forget about us when it came time for chores -- I know I did.

Denis, I'm telling you -- not so bad!

LarramieG said...

Thank you, Lisa, for my blog mention, only one working week into it and such fun.

As for your literary undertaking, I DO admire you. But, in reading those passages, Id bet almost anything that Proust had never heard of "run-on sentences." ;)

Elizabeth said...

Lisa, I forgot to say that the painting at the top of the blog is beautiful. Is it one of your man's? Also, read The Dead right away. It's not difficult and one of the most evocative pieces of writing ever. Have you seen the movie?

And one more thing -- did you ever send that copy of The Marriage (I think that was what it was called?) that I "won.?" No worries if you didn't, but if you did, it's another instance of our incredibly bad mail lady losing our mail.

Lana Gramlich said...

That painting is AWESOME!
Ironically Proust's "Swann's Way" came up at work the other day. What are the odds?

Lisa said...

Larramie, You're welcome. I am really enjoying it and I've already had one of my wishes come true :)

Elizabeth, Why yes it is. It is called "Morning Coffee" and for the longest time, we had it in the house and it was the first NSF painting he ever kept around. Eventually, someone saw an image of it and wanted it and he agreed to sell it, I believe out of a gallery in Newburyport, Massachusetts and now it's...out there somewhere.

Thanks for the tip on "The Dead". It's apparently in a dead zone somewhere because I ordered it December 30th and it's not here yet and no, I haven't seen the movie either (I don't think).

And I am so so sorry! I ordered (I thought) two copies of MATRIMONY and sent them out in mid-December and I just checked and apparently I only thought I ordered two, but I had your name and address in the system and just ordered it and you should have it by Monday or Tuesday. I am so glad you asked!

Lana, Scott thanks you :) I loved that painting too. Actually -- not long after we met he saw me sitting out on the back deck reading and drinking coffee one morning and he took a picture. Then he set up his easel and he painted the whole thing in one day (which isn't typical). It was the first painting he did with me as the "model", so it's kind of a sentimental one. But...since you're an artist, I'm sure you know that when it's how you make a living, you can't get too attached and if there's a buyer...

I was going to be surprised that the book came up at your work until I remembered you work in a library!

pattinase (abbott) said...

I wonder if children today feel the luxury of children of past generations-pre-Internet and all of the other technology in terms of reading. I hope so.
I also am drawn to short books.

Riss said...

beautiful post as always. I tend to be drawn towards long books. I don't know why. I remember reading The Deed of Paksinarion when I was like, 15 or something...it's three books and it was like 2000 pages or something. Not huge by my standards now but it was enough. I have been thirsty for some old time writing lately. It seems to be in the air. I've been making myself wait though until I finish one of my non fiction books I'm reading. Anyway-good on you for taking the plunge into Proust. I read The Dead (to changes authors) and it was actually pretty good. I still have a copy of it from my writing class in college. If you want a funny short story find "I, the murderer". It's cute.

I like the way some of those words run off the tongue. I knew a few of them (like 3)...some of them are just neat to say!

Alrighty-happy reading. I'm off to finish painting. (c;

Travis Erwin said...

Thanks Lisa. This trying time has been made much easier by the support of all my friends, both in the cyberworld and right here in Amarillo, My entire family is tremendously grateful.

Lisa said...

Patti, It's tempting to say that I doubt it, but there are enough parents who love books to inspire that love of reading in their children that I think they must. It's just a shame that there are so many other things competing for their attention. Books were pretty close to the only form of entertainment (besides the handful of broadcast TV channels) that we had when we were alone, so it was pretty easy to fall in love with them.

Riss, Wow! 2000 pages is nothing to sneeze at, and thanks for the second thumbs-up for "The Dead" and the recommendation for "I, The Murderer".

The words! I'm with you, I think some of them are just fun to read, write and say, even if I won't remember what they mean next week!

Travis, I suppose it's times like this when we find out how many friends we really have. I have been thinking of you all so much and hoping that you are all coping with your losses. I know it's easy to say that it's just "stuff", but I think we all know that it runs deeper and there are things that can't be replaced. I imagine it has made you all appreciate each other that much more. Hang in there, my friend.

oh said...

I'm new here, led by a link on 51 Stories (Seachanges).
I'm hooked!

Lisa said...

Oh, I found you through Seachanges too and have subscribed to your feed. I'm looking forward to reading more from you. Thank you for stopping in!

steve said...

An ecuse to give you a poem about may soon-to-be former hometown:

Proust’s Madeleine
by Kenneth Rexroth


Somebody has given my
Baby daughter a box of
Old poker chips to play with.
Today she hands me one while
I am sitting with my tired
Brain at my desk. It is red.
On it is a picture of
An elk’s head and the letters
B.P.O.E.—a chip from
A small town Elks’ Club. I flip
It idly in the air and
Catch it and do a coin trick
To amuse my little girl.
Suddenly everything slips aside.
I see my father
Doing the very same thing,
Whistling “Beautiful Dreamer,”
His breath smelling richly
Of whiskey and cigars. I can
Hear him coming home drunk
From the Elks’ Club in Elkhart
Indiana, bumping the
Chairs in the dark. I can see
Him dying of cirrhosis
Of the liver and stomach
Ulcers and pneumonia,
Or, as he said on his deathbed, of
Crooked cards and straight whiskey,
Slow horses and fast women.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.


Virginia Woolf