Funny how time changes everything

Reblogged (and updated) from my earlier blog, The Ineluctable Bookshelf (originally posted May 10, 11, 2010)

Morley with his pipe

Morley with his pipe

Parnassus on Wheels (1917) and The Haunted Bookshop (1919), Christopher Morley

When I asked the dealer in the used bookshop about these books, he said they were “cute as a button,” and I can now safely say that the first one meets that description.

Adventure, love, and books: a nearly unbeatable combination, and Morley puts them together very neatly. Helen McGill, age 39, lives with her unappreciative brother, a farmer whose recent fame as an author causes him to neglect his farm. Then adventure, in the form of a horse-drawn bookstore (the Parnassus of the title), falls into her lap, and she heads out onto the byways of Connecticut preaching the “gospel of good books.”

ParnassusOnWheelsAs Roger Mifflin, the pipe-smoking man who sells the Parnassus to Helen, explains,

… when you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue–you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night–there’s all heaven and earth in a book ….

This is one of those stories where you guess fairly early on what’s going to happen to the heroine, but you enjoy watching her finally catch up with you.

The sequel, The Haunted Bookshop, moves away from Helen McGill to focus on three other characters–her husband, Roger Mifflin, now a second-hand bookseller in Brooklyn, and a young man and woman who meet cute in the bookshop and progress from there.

TheHauntedBookshopThere are some mysterious shenanigans with a copy of Carlyle’s Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches, some anti-war harangues by Mifflin (with great hope for the future as Wilson heads to the peace talks in Europe), and tons of references to high and low literature (Mifflin’s conceit is that his bookshop is “haunted by the ghosts of all great literature”). Mifflin thinks that good books can make a peaceful world, but 100 years later we can see how well that’s worked out. Yet I have to admit, the past century doesn’t actually disprove Mifflin’s argument. He’d say people just haven’t read enough of the books that would make the difference.

This is absolutely a bibliophile’s story, with book titles appearing on nearly every page. They make you want to run to your shelves and pull down stuff you’ve been meaning to get into for years.

Half of one chapter early in the book is a conversation among booksellers, wherein they argue the purposes of bookstores. Mifflin, of course, disagrees with anyone who says it’s just a business, to be run for profit, and it doesn’t matter what tripe you sell, as long as you make a profit. For him,

… the bookseller is a public servant. He ought to be pensioned by the state. The honour of his profession should compel him to do all he can to spread the distribution of good stuff.

Leaving aside issues of who decides which stuff is good, Mifflin’s goal of putting books into everyone’s hands is admirable. No doubt, he’d agree with Kafka, that a book must be “the ax for the frozen sea within us.”



Andreyev, by Ilya Repin

I was, by coincidence, rereading these books this weekend (in between bouts with The Education of Henry Adams, which Morely namechecks in his sequel) and came across this quote from Leonid Andreyev’s Confessions of a Little Man During Great Days:

   My anger has left me, my sadness returned, and once more the tears flow. Whom can I curse, whom can I judge, when we are all alike unfortunate? Suffering is universal; hands are outstretched to each other, and when they touch … the great solution will come. My heart is aglow, and I stretch out my hand and cry, “Come, let us join hands! I love you, I love you!”

Now I’m reading Andreyev’s novel of WWI, hoping for a tiny bit of sense in a senseless world.

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OK, so what’d I miss?

Smiley Face on Manhattan Bike Path

Smiley Face on Manhattan Bike Path

Two months since my last post? How did that happen? Oh, right. Work.

I’m at the tail end of my penultimate semester of teaching. My final school task this month is to grade a 3-inch stack of papers.

Isla Holbox

Isla Holbox

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading and writing, with a bit of travel thrown in. On a beach in Mexico I plowed through 150 pages of Proust — particularly apt, because this was the part about Marcel’s time at the beach resort in Balbec, where he first sees Albertine. More on this in a later post.

Other future posts: Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks series, Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series (many references to Proust), Ella Pontefract’s Yorkshire histories (dales and villages).

As for my writing, the good news is that I start a sabbatical in September, with the specific goal of readying at least two more manuscripts for submission. I’ll get a head start on these projects this summer. The even better news is that I was accepted for an Artist Residency at the Grunewald Guild for the month of December. It’ll be a time for me to do nothing but read and write. Expect some photos of the snowy Cascade Mountains in Washington.

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Bigamous reading

When I haven’t the energy to read Proust, I read something else. In that respect, I’m no different from anyone else. But the other day my daughter commented on how strange it was that I was sitting on the couch reading one book while another lay at my side — after reading one for a few minutes, I would switch to the other, and after a while back again to the first. This went on for some time. I suspect this reading habit isn’t unusual either.

811wT2-uD8Lhyperbole-and-a-half-book-coverI can’t explain the thinking that forces the switch, nor even my choice of which books to read simultaneously. When my daughter made her comment, I was tag-reading Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half. Perhaps it was the yellow covers (but only Sloan’s book glows in the dark). Perhaps it was because I’d just picked up both at one of my local Little Free Libraries (there are 4 within a 5-minute walk of my apartment). Each book is an easy and enjoyable read, but I found Brosh’s work much more profound, despite her purposefully childish drawings. Brosh’s memoir began as a blog (still available here); for the book she created some new episodes but also included her immensely famous stories about her 18-month bout with depression. Rightfully hailed as one of the best depictions of this terrible ailment, Brosh’s book ought to be required reading for everyone.

Mr. Penumbra‘s appearance was fortuitous, for I had just added it to my list of books to find and read. I was disappointed by the ending, but not the way that Kat, the Googler, is. (I’m trying not to include any spoilers here). It just seemed like a shaggy dog tale — a lot of build-up to a nearly anticlimactic ending. But I’m still keeping the book (the cover glows in the dark!). And I wouldn’t mind finding a bookstore like Mr. Penumbra’s, and if a group like the Unbroken Spine offered me membership, I’d grab it. A love of books and reading and puzzles is clear throughout this weird little mystery.

51y81wu1+-L._SX350_BO1,204,203,200_51PXWhxQxlL._SX396_BO1,204,203,200_Another pairing: a compendium of P. G. Wodehouse golf tales with an obscure history of a village in Provence, again both picked up at my Little Free Library. Peattie’s Immortal Village tells of the city of Vence, from pre-historic times to the late-1920s. Botanist and author of a range of books, Peattie fell in love with Vence when he lived there for a few years. Before leaving the little city, he was inspired to write this book, which was then privately printed in France. In 1945, in response to the ravages of WWII, he brought out this American edition, with Paul Landacre’s gorgeous woodblock illustrations. He hoped it would teach readers, as they considered the aftermath of war, that

it is not insignificant to learn that this little Provençal town, once situated on a dangerous frontier, was destroyed again and again by barbarians and torn by internecine quarrel, and yet it was rebuilt. It is worth while to remember that nothing material is indestructible, but the spirit in man is.

Peattie’s writing reveals a 1920s racial sensibility, and the mishmash of kings, queens, nobility, invaders and townspeople in the Middle Ages is a challenge to keep track of. Yet there can be no confusion about Peattie’s appreciation for the people and environment in this “forgotten corner of Provence”.

About Wodehouse, I will say only that I never expected to laugh so often while reading a book of stories whose connecting thread was a love for the game of golf, about which I agree with whoever quipped “a good walk spoiled”.

Posted in Adventure, Graphic Novel, History, Humorous, Little Free Library, Mystery, reading, Travel book | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments


Gustave Moreau, Jupiter and Semele

Gustave Moreau, Jupiter and Semele (1896)

Within a Budding Grove, pp. 528-533.

I still have the 5-year-old notes for these pages, but to ease the task of getting back into reading Proust himself (rather than just my old blog posts and some books about his novel) I’ve backtracked. Re-entry completed.

I’m sure that somewhere there’s an annotated edition of Proust’s RTP, no doubt with more annotations than text. (Shattuck refers to a recent French edition of 7500 pages, which includes all Proust’s drafts and rejected materials, as well as critical essays, etc. etc. Shattuck rightly posits that if it wasn’t good enough for Proust to include in the published version, then we probably don’t need to know about it.)

I’m having fun, however, creating my own annotations. Moreau’s art work (left) is a case in point. Only a detour through the Wikiverse allowed me to fully appreciate how a fleeting reference to this painting works. Still at Balbec, Marcel sees his grandmother’s friend, Mme de Villeparisis, showing concern for Marcel’s father, in a way that “shewed her this one man so large among all the rest quite small, like that Jupiter to whom Gustave Moreau gave, when he portrayed him by the side of a weak mortal, a superhuman stature.” Behind this reference to Roman mythology lie jealousy, betrayal, murder. But what’s more interesting to me is that Moreau’s painting dates from AFTER Marcel’s visit to Balbec (Marcel Sprinker* places the Balbec visit as sometime between 1894 and 1896-7), thus reminding me of the importance of differentiating between the young Marcel and the older Narrator. Each tells a portion of RTP, but the line between them is so smooth as to be almost invisible.

The quote about Moreau, for instance, comes at the end of the paragraph below. Can you pinpoint where Marcel’s voice changes to the Narrator’s?

I asked myself by what strange accident, in the impartial glass through which Mme. de Villeparisis considered, from a safe distance, the bustling, tiny, purposeless agitation of the crowd of people whom she knew, there had come to be inserted at the spot through which she observed my father a fragment of prodigious magnifying power which made her see in such high relief and in the fullest detail everything that there was attractive about him, the contingencies that were obliging him to return home, his difficulties with the customs, his admiration for El Greco, and, altering the scale of her vision, shewed her this one man so large among all the rest quite small, like that Jupiter to whom Gustave Moreau gave, when he portrayed him by the side of a weak mortal, a superhuman stature.

That sentence appears to begin with Marcel’s POV (“I asked myself”); he’s astonished that such a great lady should be aware of his father. Yet almost immediately the language takes on the detailed complexity of the Narrator’s long-after-the-fact memory. The Jupiter reference finally confirms that a shift has occurred (how could Marcel have known about a painting not yet or only recently completed, and therefore not exhibited?).

Why is noting these shifts important, especially when Proust disguises them so well? It has to do with what I reported in an earlier post — the many selves. The much older Narrator is clearly not the same person as Marcel. It also has to do with the entire point of the novel, which I’ll write about when I get to the end of it myself (sometime in December of this year, if all goes well).

A final note about Proust’s titles: Moncrieff translated À la recherche du temps perdu as “A Remembrance of Things Past” (from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30), but not everyone has been happy with that. In fact, I think most experts dislike it immensely. A preferred version is the more literal “In Search of Time Lost”, although I don’t like how this drops the rhythm of”recherche”, as well as its implied meaning of “searching again”. Montcrieff at least holds on to that subtle prefix, re-.

For the second volume’s À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, which ought to be “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower”, Montcrieff gave us “Within a Budding Grove”. Was Proust’s appreciation of young girls flowering into puberty too creepy for Montcrieff? What to do? I’m taking the easy route by sticking to the version I have, Montcrieff’s original (1924), with all its flaws. It’ll do.

*Michael Sprinker, History and Ideology in Proust (1998), p. 96.

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The center of attention

The final reblogging from 5 years ago. 

Within a Budding Grove, 514-528

Queen Ranavalo III of Madagascar

Queen Ranavalo III of Madagascar

One of the perks of reading Proust is finding out about obscure personages. Although his main characters are his own creations (albeit based on real people), he sprinkles his stories with references to historical figures, references that seem arbitrary — perhaps the author’s version of “Tell Sparta people”.

Queen Ranavalona is one — an obscure ruler of Madascar when the French colonized the island; they eventually deposed her in 1897. She was exiled to Algeria but spent part of each year in Paris.

Her name comes up as Marcel talks about his and his grandmother’s position at the hotel in Balbeque. Recall, from another post, that the hotel’s guests are rather snobbish and eager to comment on everyone else’s status and behavior. Marcel is dissatisfied with his position at the bottom of the heap and misses the notice of people like M and Mme Swann. And then,

… mere chance put into our hands, my grandmother’s and mine, the means of giving ourselves an immediate distinction in the eyes of all the other occupants of the hotel. On that first afternoon, at the moment when the old lady came downstairs from her room, producing, thanks to the footman who preceded her, the maid who came running after her with a book and a rug that had been left behind, a marked effect upon all who beheld her and arousing in each of them a curiosity from which it was evident that none was so little immune as M. de Stermaria, the manager leaned across to my grandmother and, from pure kindness of heart (as one might point out the Shah, or Queen Ranavalo to an obscure onlooker who could obviously have no sort of connexion with so mighty a potentate, but might be interested, all the same, to know that he had been standing within a few feet of one) whispered in her ear, “The Marquise de Villeparisis!” while at the same moment the old lady, catching sight of my grandmother, could not repress a start of pleased surprise. (p. 519)

Of course Marcel’s grandmother and the Marquise know each other, but for complicated reasons they pretend not to, and Marcel must continue to squirm at the low end of the esteem scale. His chance to gain notice must pass, and he seethes with frustration. Oh, the ignominy!

The Narrator gives it all a spin so funny, I actually laughed out loud. Marcel is so self-conscious, as he walks among these people, that he can’t stop thinking about them not thinking about him:

Alas for my peace of mind, I had none of the detachment that all these people shewed. To many of them I gave constant thought; I should have liked not to pass unobserved by a man with a receding brow and eyes that dodged between the blinkers of his prejudices and his education … (p. 517)

Marcel can’t bear that he doesn’t stand out in this crowd of blinkered people with their low brows and low educations, and he is pleased when his grandmother and the Marquise finally deign to recognize and speak to each other. You can almost hear Marcel’s sigh of pleasure. Now people will look at him and think, “He must be somebody!”

I hope that most people, upon reaching adulthood, are relieved to discover that they can pass through the world for the most part unnoticed. How perceptive of Proust to make the young Marcel so self-conscious that he’s actually uncomfortable if people aren’t looking at him (with admiration and envy, of course) — as if his very existence depended on their noting his actions and wondering, “Who could that intelligent, sophisticated, handsome, well-dressed young man be?”

As Maurice Chevalier sings in Gigi, “I’m so glad that I’m not young anymore.”

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I’m such a demanding reader

Back in 2010-11, while working my way through 500+ pages of tiny print (I’ve just counted — 48 lines per page), I complained a bit about the lack of illustrations in some other books. I’m amused now that I never had that thought regarding Proust, and even now I can’t imagine how it might be illustrated without interrupting the experience of reading.

At any rate, my complaints paid off with a useful tip from a reader, as you’ll find out. This post was originally titled, “Why aren’t there more illustrations?”

Charles Ephrussi, by Jean Patricot, 1905

Charles Ephrussi, by Jean Patricot, 1905, courtesy Wikipedia

When I first moved to NYC, in the mid-1970s, a neighbor pulled out a recently published edition of The American Heritage Dictionary and asked me what its one drawback was. I’ve always loved how the editors had designed that dictionary, and I could see nothing wrong with it: etymologies, definitions, usage guidance, breakdown of shades of meaning among synonyms (example: break, crack, fracturerupture, burst, split, splinter, shatter, shiver, smash, and crush, all carefully delineated in a brief paragraph). So much information in one book. It seemed perfect to me.

My friend’s complaint? Not enough pictures. The margins of a page could hold as many of four photos or diagrams, but many have only one and too many have none at all.

I can’t look at a dictionary now without thinking of my erstwhile neighbor, and a non-fiction book with a stingy few illustrations makes me wonder why more weren’t included.

Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes is one such book. I’m loving it, although as the netsuke de Waal is following move to Vienna we have to leave Charles Swann/Ephrussi in Paris, and I was so enjoying all those overlaps.

Towards the end of the chapter on Charles, de Waal describes Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party and says that the top-hatted man at the rear, with his back to us, is his great uncle Charles Ephrussi! Well, Edmund? Why didn’t you include a reproduction? Why must I go through my art books hoping that one would have included it? (I was lucky and found one.)

Titian, Woman with a Mirror

Titian, Woman with a Mirror

Yes, yes, I know. Illustrations add to the expense of a book and better images than most books can produce are just a few clicks away on the web. If I could be more satisfied with each author’s descriptions of these pictures, I’d be a happier reader all around. But my mind wants to “see”, and so I pause in my reading to look something up.

Now, as I read Proust, I’ll be able to see Charles Ephrussi (and imagine Louise Cahen D’Anvers, for I’ve been unable to find any online drawing or painting of her; the closest available is Titian’s Woman with a Mirror).

L Cahen d'Anvers, by Bonnat, Courtesy

L Cahen d’Anvers, by Bonnat, Courtesy

BTW: the Getty Museum blog has a post about de Waal’s memoir.

And then, thanks to a follower, I was able to find a portrait of Louise Cahen d’Anvers, one possible model for Mme Swann. Oh, Odette, you look so very sweet here. Is this the image Marcel (and the Narrator) carried of you for so long? Does this innocent profile mask a colorful and notorious history?

Renoir, Portrait of Irene Cahen dAn

Renoir, Little Irene

But wait. There’s much more information these days on the internet (it’s impossible to keep up). Louise and her husband Louis commissioned Renoir to paint a portrait of their daughter, Irène. Evidently, her parents were so unhappy with the painting that they hung it in the servants’ quarters and paid only 1500 francs. Renoir called the family “stingy”. If you’re curious, you can learn more about Louise and Irene hereI’m satisfied that this portrait reveals Gilberte, its background of shrubbery dappled with light looking like the gardens where Marcel first met Mme Swann’s daughter.

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Proust brought forward

One last detour on my journey through past Proust posts, to a novel whose title reveals its relevance.

21snwxk3wal-_aa160_Madame Proust and the Kosher Kitchen (2003), Kate Taylor, 457 pp.

This novel, set in three time periods, is about women and how they cope with frustrated love, parenting, artistic creation, and, most importantly, anti-semitism — echoing Proust’s themes, but from the viewpoint of, say, Gilberte or Marcel’s mother.

Alfred Dreyfus

Alfred Dreyfus

Marie Prevost, the main character, is a Canadian translator reading through Madame Proust’s journals and suffering from unrequited love — the object of her desire is Max, son of Sarah, daughter of parents killed at Auschwitz (and also distantly related to Mme Proust). Through Marie, we learn about Mme Proust, who worries about the bohemian life of her odd son, Marcel, at a time when all of France is arguing the case of Dreyfus. It is also through Marie that we learn about Sarah, sent from Paris to foster parents in Canada, saving her from the death camps but causing an anomie no one seems able to break through.

The parallels in the three stories are ingenious (causing comparison to Michael Cunningham’s The Hours), some you might guess right away and others only as they carefully unfold in the plot.

Marcel Proust, seated

Marcel Proust, seated

Taylor jolts us back and forth between three time periods. We see late 19th- and early 20th century Paris through Mme Proust’s journals (Taylor’s own creation, and so well done I can’t believe they don’t sit somewhere in a French archive). Anyone at all familiar with Marcel’s great work will note the clues to its genesis.  For instance, at one point, as the 19th century is drawing to a close, Mme Proust writes in her journal:

Marcel was pointing out that when you are a child waiting for father to come home and lunch to be served, time seems to drag on forever, but when you are an adult, and want to write a letter, and see a friend, and buy new gloves all in the same afternoon, it rushes by, and there is never enough of it. “How does the year or the century make any difference to how we perceive the time to pass?”

In the Jewish neighborhoods of mid-20th-century Toronto, reeling from WWII and the horrors of the concentration camps, we find Sarah, unable to connect to anyone, for decades suffering the shock of the separation from her parents. The modern setting gives us Marie’s life in Toronto and her journey to Paris, where she has to confront her own disappointments.

It’s as though Taylor is allowing us to put together a jigsaw puzzle, handing us just a few pieces at a time. At first, none of the pieces fit, but eventually patterns emerge, and at the end we have a detailed picture of lives that feed into each other. Some might argue that the links are too neat, too coincidental — but this is the author’s prerogative. Life often is coincidental, dependent on the daily accidents of crossed paths and shared desires.

Père Lachaise

Père Lachaise

This novel is a beautiful homage to Proust’s epic, to love and memory, to desire and loss. It begins and ends at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, a must-see for any fan of literature visiting Paris. (In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain calls it “the honored resting-place of some of [France’s] greatest and best children.”) You’ll want to go there after reading this book. If you do, take a few pebbles to place on the graves you visit.

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