booknotes

“Guermantes Way” – Proust

9789176053393_200In 2016, after stalling out in Chapter 1 of novel 3 (of In Search of Lost Times), I came back to re-visit and am getting into it again.  I’ll need to go back and re-read that first chapter. Sometime.

But for now, I started where my bookmark was, and that’s Chapter 2. Young man Marcel is now out on his own in Paris, mostly in pursuit of young women. He has enough status and station to arrange to see women by formal letter and then sends for a carriage to bring them to his room. Or in Albertine’s case, he’s around when she pops in unexpectedly. The liaisons are described in slow, tedious actions. We are to assume that Marcel is still green and tentative.  His romantic interactions with Albertine (the boisterous girl from Balbec in beachy novel 2), despite the eloquence of his accounts, seem childish. While she is frank and forthcoming, he lacks the confidence and candor to be an effective lover.

We see a repeating syndrome. Marcel has a thing for an older female aristocrat, as he did as a boy with Swann’s wife the courtesan Odette (and later her daughter Gilberte too). This time his object of desire is the Duchess Guermantes, who as depicted, is a powerful and beautiful woman who could drink a man’s blood like wine. She is separating from her husband and at long last returns some attention to the once-adoring Marcel. He now, and this may change in later pages,  apparently has other conquests on his mind. His numb reactions to her invitations are pitiful and cringe-worthy.  He doesn’t seem to have his values in order. Hovering around him as a reminder of his impetuous behavior is the omnipresent moral enforcer the housekeeper Francoise.  As yet, I am not understanding his friendships with pals Bloch, Robert, and Charlus.

Stay tuned for more of this report.  Novel 4, Cities of the Plain, is under the same book cover. That should be fun,  Only a few hundred more pages to go.

“Lake Success” by Gary Shteyngart

 

At the turning point in his journey of misery and discovery, protagonist Barry Cohen daydreams of Lake Success, NY. It’s like looking for a rope when drowning. A Manhattan mega-capitalist who has spun out of the fast lane, he imagines it’s a safe landing spot, a more peaceful suburban life, replete with healthy sons and matching sinks and domestic bliss. Lake Success is a place of zero madness, he seems to believe, a nostalgic town of anonymity and normalcy.  It is perhaps no ironic accident on the author’s part that this real town was once the location of the United Nations HQ (the book is an international POC extravaganza, most of whom get along) and Sperry-Rand’s gyroscope engineering center (stability, anyone?)

“Lake Success” is an intelligent, piercing, and often humorous look at the Manhattan rich and the American not-so-rich and all the woes befallen to both. It’s set in 2016, the advent of the surprising and, to many, nauseating era of Donald Trump.

We get the added benefit of Shteyngart’s’s ability to write travelog, as he takes his main character by bus from NYC to Richmond to Atlanta to El Paso-Juarez (the author nails the fear of the place perfectly), and at last to San Diego to see his father’s grave.

For all the trouble Barry Cohen creates for himself, he comes out at the end, escaping ignominy and insolvency (he has 35 million left). He re-gathers accomplices in the land of ruthless hedge-fund players and goes on with his life, now single. It couldn’t be any other way. He is an unlikeable character from the start, and often his failures are well deserved. Only his magnetic charm and deep pockets save the day.

He does have a certain Holden Caulfield innocence once away from the trappings of Wall Street, and for this we can say he’s a likable jerk. He loves kids and passionately tries to change the lives of two of them. He dislikes phoniness, begins to realize the danger of designing women. He seeks the heart of the world, stripped down and pitiful, having run away from The Top – and at considerable risk to family and self. Sometimes we worry more about his black Mastercard or his prized watch collection.

It can get ugly.  Barry huffs crack and gets pathetically physical with a man behind a bus station. On another occasion he hooks up with a beautiful black girl seated next to him on the bus. After they have sex in a hotel room, Barry thinks she has stolen his things (she actually put them in the room safe). Both events are gratuitous and kind of creepy. Characters eat each other in this book like cannibals, capitalist ones.

In the Big Ending, we are preconditioned to feel warm and take out our hankies over his autistic son’s dramatic bar mitzvah. It’s difficult to feel much empathy or joy, considering the place of wealth and privilege Barry rented out so the kid can become a man.  Yet one concludes this too is consistent with the story.  Money is what he ultimately knows. Barry Cohen is, after all, still a  very rich asshole who can buy and settle for another kind of “Success.”

“Wapshot Scandal” by John Cheever

wapshotA 1960s novel, today it reads fresh and powerful.  Parts of it describe material that was likely shocking fifty years ago, but now is folded well into our huge complicated mix of what is socially and/or morally acceptable – or more cynically, what isn’t?

Cheever’s narrative about domestic America is like Updike on weed. It’s wild and often sad and then entertaining and always visionary. The glowing introduction by Dave Eggers describes Cheever’s fictional skills and mentions how much humor can be found in his scenes. Any randomly picked Cheever sentence can be a trove of insight, clever turn of phrase, or vivid imagery.

The book calls for a second reading in the future, a writer’s examination of technique. First time around, the read was for story, which seemed like a chain of episodes filled with human error, sexual misdirection, alcoholism, and misery. The events involve characters from the Boston-like suburb of “St. Botolphs.”

The centerline of the narrative is often without clear direction, and what begins as a focused report about this small community later breaks apart and rambles into tangential sub-stories occurring in distant cities and countries. In Chapter 31, the loop comes back to start when a train again arrives. It’s Christmas time and people begin to return home. A central figure is dying. Circles are closing. The sentences are sublime; someone is showing us how to end a novel. Angels come to the gates.

As an aside, I haven’t read (nor plan to) the prequel “Wapshot Chronicle,” which covers the St. Botolphs folks in their earlier years.

 

Lucia Berlin

luica berlinThis is a collection of short stories I was led to by a comment from Thomas McGuane on NewYorker.com, who names her as his favorite short story writer. I’d never heard of her (she is gone now, 1936- 2004). I wonder again, as with Joy Williams, how I ever missed her stories.

She was writing back in the Sixties and is a child of the Sixties and the Seventies and Eighties as well. She was a visionary, writing into the early 21st century, who never compromised her simple and realistic phrasing and eye for character detail.

Her picaresque life took her all over the world, though most of her sensibilities are primarily Southwest USA with a tablespoon of Mexico and Chile. She flew under the radar until finally getting published in national magazines. She was a sensation and a confirmation of what could be called honest art. In her lifetime, her reputation soared only among those in the know. So it’s good to see her books re-released so all readers can enjoy, as I have, the amazement of discovering terrific, unsung writers of our time.

 

Proust’s “Within a Budding Grove”

The second novel in the series of seven has plenty of slog areas – tedious sections of rumination and digression. In automotive terms, the dwell angle – the delay between firing points – is immense at times. We pause and deliberate, feeling the delay and the opposing expectation of our own reader habit to keep moving on with the story. I felt a sense of repetition, of being caught in a day-after-day loop. Meanwhile Marcel dishes on the aristocrats and has muted experiences at a beachside hotel in Balbec. The effect, likely intentional, is almost as if I too were staying there, alienated and unhappy over the duration of my visit.

I am not sure we can say this lengthy book is all about seeking young girls in flower or budding romance. It’s more about Marcel’s previous big romantic flop in Paris with his first love Gilberte and his subsequent train & beach trip with grandmama to the Normandy coast. There’s a lot of description about isolation, discomfort, and other complaints. As is the tendency with Proust, we are given golden gifts of insight and wisdom amidst the unhappiness, as if that is the prime circumstance for producing such reflections.

Best early section is the actual train trip to Balbec. Best late section is the last block of a hundred pages that include Marcel’s encounters with Albertine and the “gang.”  The last fifty pages are thematically strong (pastries, memory, love, hawthorn leaves). The writing is genius.

At the seaside hotel (which takes up the middle book) the narrative is largely about society – see and be seen. The In-Crowd is often on display at dress-up time in the dining room, a room the narrator depicts as a giant fish tank. Inside they act out their privileged games while everyday folk pass by outside, pause and look in blank wonder through the glass.

Things are not always so stuffy. In the peak of summer, the hotel opens its windows and the guests step in and out on way to the terrace or beach. Marcel does not do the beach. His grandma places him on an upper floor VIP suite lined with glass bookcases that reflect the sunny sea. Marcel dislikes it. He is sickly and cautious.

Eventually some friends (Bloch, Robert, and Charlus) stir him loose. Marcel’s instinctive yearning for romance and sex gets him on the prowl. The object of his affection turns out to be Albertine, who he spots on the boardwalk. We only see her in the last hundred pages or so.

Proust ups the tempo. Things get interesting when our narrator befriends painter Elistir and finally hooks up with the girl he’s been obsessed with, the one from the cadre of girls cruising the beach boulevard. Albertine proves to be outspoken, charming and frank. Her middle-class dialog is a long-awaited breath of fresh air to an otherwise stultifying cast of aristocrats. We get a detailed examination of the games young lovers play, and the turn of Marcel from naive admirer (in the past with Gilberte) to male predator (of Albertine), still holding to childish love fantasies but acting (often not so subtly) with cunning and manipulation. As it develops, she is not that different, just more honest.

proustbook1I switched midbook from the newer Penguin translation to the older 1982 Vintage Press volume (the silver and black set by Moncrief and Kilmartin). Larry McMurtry’s use of this older set led me to it. It reads more majestically and to me sounds better tonally. It is not plagued by 21st century colloquials and clipped phrases. The print and typesetting is far easier on the eyes.

The McMurtry formula for reading Proust: ten pages a day for a year equals over 3500 pages, the approximate total length of all seven novels. I read at a slower pace.

Number three is next: the Guermantes novel.  Meanwhile, I got a copy of the movie “Time Regained,” which is summary-like and weird, but a nice visual accompaniment. It’s based on the book of the same name, the last novel in the series. Not all parts are understandable at this point. There is a powerful scene of Marcel recalling his memories of Swann’s wife Odette when a certain piano concerto is performed.

*My modest report on the first novel “Swann’s Way” is here.