Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust

Proust’s great literary classic À la recherche du temps perdu is well-known among those who haven’t read it for two things: first, that it is really fucking long (who is Tom Perdue, and why is it going to take 7 books to find him?), and second, that the enormous hundred-odd-page recollection at the beginning is set in motion by the narrator dipping a madeleine in tea and eating it (I have trains of thought like that too, but I don’t write them down). Among a certain class of intellectual in a certain generation (neither of which I belong to, I think), reading Proust or at least pretending to have read Proust was compulsory. So I borrowed a copy of Swann’s Way (in the Moncrieff-Kilmartin-Enright translation) and set off to be blown away by an extraordinary work of literary genius.

Six hundred pages later, I’m a bit torn. At this point I have no particular desire to read the other six volumes, for reasons which will probably become abundantly clear, but I can appreciate the craft. One thing I can definitely appreciate is Proust’s command of language, which I imagine even comes through well in translation: the structure at both the sentence and multi-sentence level is evocative and well-handles (despite a multitiude of subclauses which often muddles the grammatical structure and makes the reader slow down). On technical issues, this is a beautiful work in a superb translation, rich in sensory detail and in expository whimsy. That’s the sort of thing I like. My problem with it is that this this display of mastery is in the service of very little indeed.

For Swann’s Way (and, as I am given to understand it, the entirety of In Searth of Lost Time) has no actual plot to speak of, but is cast on flotsam and jetsam of memories. The first chapter, “Combray”, was almost intolerable, because it seemed to go nowhere. Things much improved in the second and third sections, “Swann in Love” and “Place Names/The Name”, both of which had a cohesive strand running through them. i’m afraid the rest of the volumes probably more resemble the first section, and its dreamy, pointless ramble through memory. But the last two chapters were very enjoyable indeed.

You might argue that I’m inconsistent: I pan “Combray” for its lack of cohesiveness, and enjoyed The Mezzanine for largely the same reason! That maybe gets to the point of how this book can be enjoyable to people who are not me; those who prefer a ramble through childhood memories of nature and family circles to musings about shoelaces and milk cartons might feel completely opposite to my impression. However, I found disentanging (and trying to derive meaning from) Proust’s memoryscapes to be exhausting. Some of that might be subject matter, some might be the complexity of the sentance and phrasal structure, some might simply be how extraordinarily long the work was. I didn’t find the first chapter enjoyable at all, but I could appreciate the craft.

And, really, the second and third sections are well worth the read.

See also: Wikipedia.

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Father Goriot, by Honoré de Balzac

This is a work perhaps of a very specific historical context, and coming from outside of that context I may perhaps misjudge key points. The setting is very firmly early nineteenth century Paris, with attendant social structures and conventions. On the outside looking in, it appears to be a culture of vastly misplaced priorities; that’s not the barrier to understanding which it might seem to be, though, since Balzac seems to basically concur with that assessment. Nonetheless, it is difficult to know what to make of the major characters: while Goriot’s blind devotion to his daughters can still be read as fundamentally teetering between farce and tragedy, I found it difficult to know what to make of Rastignac’s character. It’s still quite early in the story when he applies to his family for the means to ascend the aristocracy, a loan which he cannot realistically hope to repay; social status, it is apparent to the reader (and should be apparent to Rastignac) is not remunerative. It seems like there ought to be a parallel between Rastignac’s financial dependency and Goriot’s daughters’, but this theme is not actually explored, and indeed after the initial application for funding, this seeming stain on Rastignac’s character is never mentioned again.

That presumption that Rastignac had incurred a financial obligation to his family colored my entire impression of the book. The engineered match with Victorine, although arguably unethical on entirely different grounds, seems to be all-to-easily discarded: Rastignac’s ostensible purpose in his social climbing is a financially favorable alliance, which would be indeed fulfilled by marriage to Victorine; by my reading he has a familial obligation to make a greater effort in this direction (yes, I may be unromantic). It is entirely possible I am misreading the extent and manner of family expectations in the nineteenth century, but in a way this crucial character issue undercuts a primary theme of the book. Although the book draws a picture of naiveté slowly turned by the corruption of Paris to cynicism, I’d contend that Rastignac is in fact already corrupt, and in almost the exact same way as the world around him which he has ceased to respect, living high and comfortable on the suffering of those closest to him. Perhaps that hypocrisy was intentional, but I didn’t get an indication of it from the story.

To move on from the themes which I found troubling, the work is stylistically well-crafted, with a delightful mastery of rhetoric, even in translation, and a strong sense of mood and minute eye for detail. Our characters and locations, particularly Vauquer’s boarding house and its residents, are drawn with a deft hand towards their appearance and manners. The aristocrats are paradoxically less well-drawn (which is perhaps another reason why I find Rastignac’s unvirtuous obsession with Delphine troublesome; there’s just not a lot to her character), which may be an intentional means towards exhibiting the shallow vapidity of their characters.

Definitely there is a delicious viciousness to this book, but as the previous paragraphs suggest, I’m unclear on how effectively it’s directed. If we’re meant to identify with the social climber, why is he so unsympathetic? If we’re meant to condemn him, doesn’t that somewhat mitigate the extent to which we can give merit to his own disgust?

See also: Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg.

Cyrano de Bergerac

[Screenshot]I rather like the text of Cyrano de Bergerac, although I’ve never seen a stage performance of it, so this will have to do. It even uses the same translation I read (Brian Hooker’s). There are bits, particularly wordplay-intensive bits, whose omission I missed, but that’s ever the curse of an adaptation. Mostly this worked; there’s significant hamminess in a lot of the scenes, but, hey, it’s a hammy play, and Jose Ferrer is particularly well-placed, full of swagger and bravado and just the right amount of tragedy. Mala Powers’s Roxanne is a bit indifferent and unconvincing, but they can’t all be winners.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia, Internet Archive (free download).

The Exquisite Short Films of Kihachiro Kawamoto

[Screenshot]Experimental animation is kind of hit-or-miss for me. I’ve figured out that I like Švankmajer more than Brothers Quay, and that surreal cel or computer animation doesn’t work for me. Kawamoto’s work somewhat falls into the second category, I’m afraid: it’s stop-motion, but largely with flat cutouts, and I found his particular brand of surreal often impenetrable. The first film in this collection, “Breaking of Branches is Forbidden” went on way too long for a story with no sound: there was a narrative, but it was ultimately flat and had trouble carrying the story purely with largely unexpressive puppets. The next several were more successful, in no small part because they were shorter. Both “Anthropocynical Farce” and “The Trip” were rather static in their cinematic composition, but interestingly enough designed to hold my attention. “A Poet’s Life” was an unqualified success, compositionally and plotwise, and “House of Flame” and “Dojiji Temple” were both authentically skillful and intriguingly transcended the limitations of stop-motion.

This is a mixed bag, like any collection of disparite works. I’m afraid I soured on the whole thing to a certain extent because the weakest material was first. That’s surely a function of its chronological ordering. I’d probably give “Breaking of Branches” a miss but the rest are worth the time spent on them.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe

There’s something to be said for being in the right place at the right time. With clever political placement, even an indifferent novel such as this one can be guaranteed an eternal place in history (and good sales in the short term, too). At its best, it’s vivid in depicting the evils of slavery, but unfortunately the visceral and effective bits are broken up by awful treacley sermons. There are good things to be said about it, most of them relevant to its political impact: some of the obvious objections to abolition were foreseen and addressed, so that even the rarity of a “good master” is presented as at best a temporary respite against inevitable evil. Unfortunately, the whole obsession with depicting particular agents as good and evil undermines the characters horribly. There are no shades of gray in characterization. There are evil slave-abusers, good masters who respect slaves, pious slaves who are good, and unsaved slaves who range from unthinking brutality to mischievousness until they’re saved with all the subtlety of a Chick Tract conversion.

It’s also a moderately uncomfortable book to read today. As the above list of characteristics demonstrates, these are not subtle nuanced characters but broad stereotypes. One can read stereotypical good masters and bad masters and slave traders and abolitionists without a twinge, but the stereotypical representations of the slaves are more often than not embarassing, bound up as they are in persistant stereotypes about black people (has a school board banned it yet? It uses the word “nigger” at least as many times as Huckleberry Finn, and uses far more familiar racial stereotypes).

There are parts of it that are enjoyable. Eliza’s flight to Canada mostly works, since it’s long on action and short on sermons. Tom’s stumbling into Christian allegory and martyrdom is somewhat the other way around, and more sentimental than authentically affecting.

See also: Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré

Le Carré is a luminary of a generation past. He was the master espionage-thriller writer of the Cold War, and Tinker, Tailor, with its sequels, is generally regarded as among his most exemplary works. Like Graham Greene, he himself had served as an agent of the British Secret Service, and knew whereof he wrote. In some ways this is a disadvantage: he gets astonishingly bogged down in operational and organizational details. These are, admitedly, integral to the tangled plot he’s weaving, but at times it’s a rough slog getting to the actual meat of a narrative episode, through reams of jargon and the huge number of incidental characters. Given the huge cast, it’s actually surprising how effectively le Carré characterizes most of the characters: they’re drawn in quick brush-strokes but faithful to their established characterizations and mannerisms. The central mystery of the story is engrossing but unevenly presented: information arrives in fits and starts, and it’s easy for an unwary reader to get through a block of reminiscences and still miss the vital clues. This story is very much one that doesn’t hold the reader’s hand: the revelations are clear to George Smiley, and might be clear to a reader on the second time through, but on many occasions I found myself missing the vital conclusion drawn from a particular narrative segment.

See also: Wikipedia.

The Last Chronicle of Barset, by Anthony Trollope

As mentioned when I reviewed that book, The Small House at Allington left some narrative threads hanging. The Last Chronicle seeks to tie these up, as well as gathering up any plotlines left over from the four previous books and extend them a bit. In addition, it introduces two entirely new plots. In short, it is one huge-ass book with a lot of different narrative strands. Most of the ongoing plots find themselves tied at some point into the central Crawley-family narrative, but the entire Dalrymple/Broughton/Musselboro/van Siever storyline is essentially irrelevant and could be skipped over without damaging the book’s integrity.

Unlike Barchester Towers, the other long book in the Barchester series, The Last Chronicle is not much of a standalone read; most of its enjoyability is as an addendum to already-established characters and their ongoing stories. It is an essentially satisfactory conclusion to these stories, most of which were fairly satisfactorily concluded before, but to which the amendment is not unwelcome (the Proudies and Mr. Harding get particularly interesting story-extensions). It’s perhaps a necessary followup, however, to Small House, if only to get that whole Lily Dale story to something of an adequate conclusion.

See also: Project Gutenberg, Wikipedia