Multitudinous selves

Day two
From our second day in Paris; magical mini-canal in some park.

(It’s the most cliché thing, but re-reading Proust makes me feel like I should live in Paris. We should all live in Paris. It’s the only city, right?)

Totally blissed out, throwing so much shade #gsdofinstagram #germanshepherd #doglife #shade
Eden, on Saturday.

I think about dogs a lot; probably 30% of my waking life is thinking about dogs. And I have two extremely high-maintenance dogs who are constantly underfoot, and I write a dog blog, and YET, whenever I see photos of dogs in a news story or a live dog walking down the street, my first thought, every single time, is: I need MORE dogs in my life. I inherited this brokenness from my father. I asked him once why he thought we were both so obsessed with dogs, to an almost debilitating degree. And he answered quickly, without thinking: “It’s probably because our parents didn’t love us enough.”

Walt Whitman lived at peace with the fact that he contradicted himself. He said that he contained multitudes. Proust asks the next question. How much of one’s multitudinous self can a person reveal or embody at one time? The first answer is plain common sense; it all depends. It depends on many things, from chance and volition to memory and forgetting. The second answer is categorical. No matter how we go about it, we cannot be all of ourselves all at once. Narrow light beams of perception and of recollection illuminate the present and the past in vivid fragments. The clarity of those fragments is sometimes very great. They may even overlap and reinforce one another. However, to summon our entire self into simultaneous existence lies beyond our powers. We live by synecdoche, by cycles of being. More profoundly than any other novelist, Proust perceived this state of things and worked as an economist of the personality.

— Proust’s Way, Roger Shattuck

Discussing Swann’s Way with my book club next week, and I am doing an unnecessary amount of prep to lead the discussion, but I love it so much; I love being steeped in it.

I feel really happy and hopeful and distractible. I am trying to write more, and it is going mostly badly, but I feel free about it. And maybe that, that sense of liberty, has been the goal all along.

All that exists seduces

Front yard, Aug. 2016
Happy hostas and hydrangea in the front yard.

Life, my love, is a great seduction in which all that exists seduces.

— Clarice Lispector, The Passion According to G.H. 

(It’s going to be very Clarice-y around here until I finish The Passion According to G.H.)

I haven’t thought about Trump for days. I am at peace. I am looking forward to not thinking about him ever again for years upon years.

I am forcing my book club to read Swann’s Way, and I am so looking forward to talking with them about it. I re-read it (the glorious Lydia Davis* translation) this summer, mostly sprawled in an uncomfortable armchair in our London flat, and was continually hushed and inspired. I think I may start reading a volume a year again.

*Lydia Davis, QUEEN OF MY HEART, is a visiting fellow at the University of Virginia this semester, and I am going to every event she does here. Every one. My goal is for her to leave Charlottesville and be all, Who was that curly-haired goon who sat in the front row of all my lectures?

Oh, Paris! How could I forget Paris?

Apparently, I forgot to do a Paris recap. It is worth doing to me only because of my strong need for consistency in a series. Like comma usage or list styling. The week must be documented.

So, with all of our luggage in tow, we went to Paris for a week before we came home. And it was grand. It lived up to all of my (already extremely high) expectations. The thing I’ve been telling people, when they ask about my impressions of Paris, is that it felt simultaneously a lot dirtier/grittier and a lot more beautiful than London. Perhaps it is not fair to compare cities so directly, but this comparison kept rushing to mind as we strolled along the Seine and stepped in feces. It seems to always be both, in Paris: beauty and excrement.

Photos, commence!

ParisParisParisParisDay one in ParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParisParis selfiesA day trip to the utter madness that is Versailles:

VersaillesVersaillesVersaillesVersailles

Whew. What a magical city. Merci beaucoup, Paris; let’s meet again soon.
Last day in Paris

Persona

Sky upon leaving work
We watched Ingmar Bergman’s riveting/terrifying film Persona last night. Aside from inspiring feelings of disunity and morbid fear, the film renewed my unending love of Scandinavian interior design. And the perfection of minimalist (primarily black and white) clothing. And how adorable Nordic languages sound when spoken by women. And how marvelous and unusual it is to watch a film in which 95% of the screen time is focused on women. Men have the minor background roles for once. (This never seems to happen anymore. Not even in independent films. We watch film after film that is about, told from the perspective of, and entirely focused on men.)

Donald Trump keeps proving, again and again, that the GOP electorate has unending tolerance for racism, bigotry, and ignorance. I am ashamed of my nation.

I am currently reading Lawrence Wright’s superbly researched book about the rise of al-Qaeda, The Looming Tower. (It won the Pulitzer when it came out in 2006.) Though now rather old, it gives much-needed context to the current, terrifying rise of ISIS (Da’esh), and the history told here clarifies that, really, this is nothing new; this is just an extension of what has come before. We reap what we sow, and little seems to change.

But I am also reading, in a lighter way, The Sweet Cheat Gone, aka The Fugitive book from À la recherche du temps perdu. I found a beautiful red cloth-bound old copy at the library book sale, and I am so happy to be once again bowled over by Proust.

Top 10 books I read in 2013

And here are the top 10 best books I read in 2013 (comprising novels, short stories, poetry, and plays).

1. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina

This is my second time with Anna Karenina but my first time with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s lauded translation — and my first time to read this novel as an adult. I was pleased to discover that I love this novel as much now as I did when I first read it, when I was probably 16 or 17. And I feel that I love it in a deeper, sincerer way now. Because this is not a novel about an adulterous woman or about rich Russian people from the mid-19th-century. No. This is a novel about what it’s like to be human. That’s why it will never wither or fade, and that’s why I will always love it.

2. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest

This book broke me. After I finished it, closing the back cover on the 1,079th page, I felt like weeping — and like running away. I didn’t read any fiction for months after I finished Infinite Jest. In a creepy way, it was almost as if the film of its title produced a similar effect on me as a reader as it did on its fictional viewers: I was so completely engrossed by the pleasure and complexity of Infinite Jest that I was dead to everything else thereafter. I don’t really know what to say about it, except two things: 1) This is a book for people in their twenties, and it could be utterly meaningless to you if you’re not, and 2) This is one of the most important novels I’ve ever read.

I won’t say anything more, except to close with the words of John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing about David Foster Wallace in GQ:

When they say that he was a generational writer, that he “spoke for a generation,” there’s a sense in which it’s almost scientifically true. Everything we know about the way literature gets made suggests there’s some connection between the individual talent and the society that produces it, the social organism. Cultures extrude geniuses the way a beehive will make a new queen when its old one dies, and it’s possible now to see Wallace as one of those. I remember well enough to know it’s not a trick of hindsight, hearing about and reading Infinite Jest for the first time, as a 20-year-old, and the immediate sense of: This is it. One of us is going to try it. The “it” being all of it, to capture the sensation of being alive in a fractured superpower at the end of the twentieth century. Someone had come along with an intellect potentially strong enough to mirror the spectacle and a moral seriousness deep enough to want to in the first place. About none of his contemporaries—even those who in terms of ability could compete with him—can one say that they risked as great a failure as Wallace did.

It’s important. And I think I will still consider Infinite Jest important, even when I’m no longer young and have neither the spirit nor the energy to re-read it.

3. The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner

The Sound and the Fury

2013 was a year of re-reading greats for me, because this was my second visit with The Sound and the Fury. I first read it as a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill, and I rushed through it and ended up deciding that I just couldn’t ever get into Faulkner. Then, last year, Absalom, Absalom! changed my life and the way I looked at literature, and I became a Faulkner fan. And so I decided a reattempt of The Sound and the Fury was in order. Faulkner wrote, in a later introduction to the novel, that he was always writing “to escape and to indict” the South and that in The Sound and the Fury, he felt that he had finally accomplished both. Quentin’s section was still my favorite, but this time around, I was especially struck by the women in the novel. Faulkner is sensitive to them, and shows you how horribly, horribly trapped they are, and how their lives are shown such scant mercy. It’s moving and dark and beautiful, and I am thankful that I returned to it.

4. Time Regained, by Marcel Proust

Time Regained (In Search of Lost Time, #7)

2013 was also an important year in reading for me, because this was the year that I finished my beloved In Search of Lost Time. It’s hard to believe I’ve been reading Proust for six years now and hard to believe that he has passed from my life — but never completely. Because once you’ve gotten into Proust, he never really leaves you. His words and descriptions and incomparable insights haunt your life — your real life, your life with dirty cereal bowls and Twitter and road rage — like a joyful specter. I did actually cry when I finished Time Regained, because I am very emotional about books, one, and two, because Proust had become a companion, an annual visitor I looked forward to every summer. But enough of that. I’ll let Proust tell you what this 6,000-page novel was about:

And then a new light, less dazzling, no doubt, than that other illumination which had made me perceive that the work of art was the sole means of rediscovering Lost Time, shone suddenly within me. And I understood that all these materials for a work of literature were simply my past life; I understood that they had come to me, in frivolous pleasures, in indolence, in tenderness, in unhappiness, and that I had stored them up without divining the purpose for which they were destined or even their continued existence any more than a seed does when it forms within itself a reserve of all the nutritious substances from which it will feed a plant. Like the seed, I should be able to die once the plant had developed and I began to perceive that I had lived for the sake of the plant without knowing it, without ever realising that my life needed to come into contact with those books which I had wanted to write and for which, when in the past I had sat down at my table to begin, I had been unable to find a subject. And thus my whole life up to the present day might and yet might not have been summed up under the title: A Vocation.

And what a good and true and inspiring vocation, indeed. I’ll always love you, Marcel.

5. Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar

Memoirs of Hadrian

I begin to discern the profile of my death.

I’m flabbergasted by this novel — mainly that more people don’t talk about it or haven’t read it. Marguerite Yourcenar spent nearly 30 years writing this quiet masterpiece. It is serious, pitch perfect, and exquisitely researched. The Emperor Hadrian is nearing death, and here he reflects on his life, his accomplishments, and all that he has seen and learned in a letter of sorts to his successor. Her writing! Oh, it is gorgeous. Like this passage from Hadrian:

Keep one’s own shadow out of the picture; leave the mirror clean of the mist of one’s own breath; take only what is most essential and durable in us, in the emotions aroused by the senses or in the operations of the mind, as our point of contact with those men who, like us, nibbled olives and drank wine, or gummed their fingers with honey, who fought bitter winds and blinding rain, or in summer sought the plane tree’s shade; who took their pleasures, thought their own thoughts, grew old, and died.

I particularly enjoyed the appendices, especially Yourcenar’s collection of notes and asides from while she was writing and organizing the book. As Yourcenar writes about the novel and the challenge of good historical fiction (in a subtle compliment to herself for her laborious work), “Whatever one does, one always rebuilds the monument in his own way. But it is already something gained to have used only the original stones.”

6. Tenth of December, by George Saunders

Tenth of December

People are not kidding when they talk about how wonderful George Saunders is. This collection of short stories is the first thing I’d read from him (aside from a totally amazing/obscene rip on Ayn Rand in the New Yorker; I love anything that mercilessly mocks Rand), and it just blew me away. The stories are deeply funny and weird, and each one is wholly unlike the next. In some ways, Saunders made me think of a modern Mark Twain, but somehow a touch darker and touch closer to the specific strangeness that permeates all of our lives. It’s so good. I want to re-read these stories all over again right now.

7. Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky

Suite Francaise

Irène Némirovsky died at Auschwitz before she could finish this novel, but the book that she left us is beautiful. In general, I dislike war novels, but this book is about people — not war. Suite Française does not dwell on the violence and trauma of war but rather on the lives of the people who had to endure such violence and trauma in their daily lives. The book is filled with complex, engaging characters who deal with WWII in their own ways during the German occupation of Paris. It’s gorgeously written and enchanting. I hope to revisit it in the years to come.

8. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, by Tennessee Williams

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

You have to read this play. You just have to. Even if you’ve seen the excellent film adaptation with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. You have to read it. Tennessee Williams is an incomparable master, and one of the few playwrights whose work is as deeply enjoyable to read as it is to see performed. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is thrilling to read, and it sizzles with heat, emotional treachery, and complexity. It’s heart-rending and complicated in all of the right ways. You put it down and still wonder, With whom does my allegiance lie?

9. The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Idiot

God knows what’s locked away in these drunken and weak hearts.

During my summer Colorado, I went hiking with a guy who was reading The Idiot. On our lunch break on an icy boulder, he read aloud to my friend Sonya and me, and I remember saying, “This is surprisingly hilarious.” And it is. I finally got around to reading The Idiot this year, my second book of 2013 that was translated by the great Pevear and Volokhonsky. In his introduction to the novel, Pevear writes: “The Idiot is built on that eschatological sense of time. It is the desolate time of Holy Saturday, when Christ is buried, the disciples are scattered — and worse than that — abandoned.” Yes, it is a dark book, maybe one of Dostoyevsky’s darkest, and it is also a funny book. Dostoyevsky wonders what it would be like if we knew a person who was as pure of heart, noble, and good as Jesus Christ. How would he live in the modern world? How would we regard him? Like Prince Myshkin, we would probably just call him an Idiot.

10. The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton

The Complete Poems

These are not poems for the faint of heart. Anne Sexton is the real deal. I went through this phase last year in which her name kept popping up everywhere, and I felt that I finally had to commit and get to know her, and so I went and bought her complete works. I appreciated reading this giant volume, as it provided a fuller picture of the artist and her transformation over time. The anger and darkness grow as the years pass, but Sexton never loses her focus and courage. And for that she is remembered and cherished.

Honorable Mentions

  1. On Love, Alain de Botton
  2. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
  3. The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov
  4. The Aleph and Other Stories, Jorge Luis Borges
  5. The Chaneysville Incident, David Bradley
  6. Totem, Gregory Pardlo
  7. Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson
  8. Eugénie Grandet, Honoré de Balzac
  9. The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith
  10. The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa
  11. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
  12. Laughter in the Dark, Vladimir Nabokov

Previously: The top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2013.

What about you? What were your favorite books you read this year? I’m always looking for hearty recommendations.

Top 10 books I read in 2012: The Captive and the Fugitive (#2)

The Captive & The Fugitive (In Search of Lost Time, #5-6)

The Captive and The Fugitive

MARCEL PROUST
Modern Library, 1999; 957 pages. Translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin; revised by D.J. Enright.

This year marked my fifth consecutive summer of Proust. I read The Captive and The Fugitive (which Modern Library combines into what it calls vol. 5). The Captive was initially published in 1923 and The Fugitive came out two years later, but since they are the shortest installments of In Search of Lost Time, many publishers have included them in one volume. As always, these books were the perfect way to begin my summer.

The Captive and The Fugitive involve the narrator and Albertine, his live-in girlfriend, and their increasingly rocky relationship, which is conducted almost entirely within the confines of his mother’s flat. Begging the question: Is she the captive? Is he? Their relationship is simultaneously irritating and engrossing. True to form, Proust keeps your loyalties in flux between the narrator and Albertine. Who really deserves our sympathy and attention?

If I had to say, I believe the books primarily concern this question: How is it that people can persist in our minds and memories differently from how we actually knew them, how they actually present themselves in reality? The implications of this question are amplified when Albertine supposedly dies in a riding accident. Now the narrator must determine whether he loved her at all in the first place. What form will his grief and enduring jealousy take? (Well, they will take about 900 pages of self-reflection and doubt, but that’s to be expected.)

These books seemed to include more reflection and a more ready expression of aphorism and interpersonal philosophy than previous volumes. The books were also much darker and reflective than the earlier, lighter society tomes. A sampling:

Don’t bear grudges or judge people.

For one thing the knowledge would have brought me more rapidly to the idea that we ought never to bear a grudge against people, ought never to judge them by some memory of an unkind action, for we do not know all the good that, at other moments, their hearts may have sincerely desired and realized. And thus, even simply from the point of view of prediction, one is mistaken. For doubtless the evil aspect which we have noted once and for all will recur; but the heart is richer than that, has many other aspects which will recur also in the same person and which we refuse to acknowledge because of his earlier bad behavior.

We are all entirely self-absorbed.

The bonds between ourselves and another person exist only in our minds. Memory as it grows fainter loosens them, and notwithstanding the illusion by which we want to be duped and with which, out of love, friendship, politeness, deference, duty, we dupe other people, we exist alone. Man is the creature who cannot escape from himself, who knows other people only in himself, and when he asserts the contrary, he is lying.

Memory mixes everything up in the end.

After a certain age our memories are so intertwined with one another that what we are thinking of, the book we are reading, scarcely matters anymore. We have put something of ourselves everywhere, everything is fertile, everything is dangerous, and we can make discoveries no less precious than in Pascal’s Pensees in an advertisement for soap.

As always, you won’t find a better or more thorough exploration of love, memory, desire, and internal conflict than you will in Proust. He has never disappointed me yet. I almost dread next summer, because I will read the last volume. Say it isn’t so! I will say, however, that this enormous novel’s influence on me has been so profound that I doubt I will ever really be done with Proust.

And this is why we don’t bear grudges

Click for source.

For one thing the knowledge would have brought me more rapidly to the idea that we ought never to bear a grudge against people, ought never to judge them by some memory of an unkind action, for we do not know all the good that, at other moments, their hearts may have sincerely desired and realized. And thus, even simply from the point of view of prediction, one is mistaken. For doubtless the evil aspect which we have noted once and for all will recur; but the heart is richer than that, has many other aspects which will recur also in the same person and which we refuse to acknowledge because of his earlier bad behavior.

— Marcel Proust, The Captive and The Fugitive, vols. 5 and 6 of À la recherche du temps perdu

Happy weekend, everyone! I am looking forward to mine very much.

Weekend heat

My new reading spot.

We had a wonderfully productive and busy weekend. We spend too much money at Lowe’s, now that we have this prodigious garden, but it always feels justified somehow. (More things need to be grown! Grow all the things!) We bought those bright red chairs on Saturday and they were worth every penny; that’s my new summer reading spot. Pyrrha seems to like the chairs, too, even though they look suspiciously tasty.

We went to this event with Pyrrha’s rescue at a local vineyard on Sunday and sat under a hot tent and sweated with a pack of 10 or more German shepherds. What is it about seeing a bunch of dogs of the same breed together that is so thrilling? I don’t know, but it was fun and Pyrrha seemed to recognize her former foster pack.

P. is also starting to fall in love with Guion, too. It took her some time, but I think they will be inseparable very soon. (Just so long as he doesn’t replace me in her hierarchy of affections, I’m cool with it.)

Cuties. Guion and Pyrrha at Keswick Vineyards.

In my annual summer tradition, I’ve started the fifth and sixth volumes of Proust, The Captive and The Fugitive. It’s a little hard to believe that this is my fifth year with Proust and that I shall nobly lay him aside next year. (What will happen in years seven and eight? Infinite Jest and then The Pale King. Why, yes, I do like to plan ahead.) I like to talk about Proust a lot, especially in the summers when he is thick in my brain, but I shouldn’t. He’s easily the most pretentious author to name-drop. He’s almost never appropriate conversational fodder. Poor Prousty. (Meanwhile, I think “Marcel” would be a nice name for a bi-color or all-black German shepherd. Next dog?)

Lifting the spirits

Pyrrha, rolling around in the yard.

Pyrrha has found an excellent remedy to lift the spirits: Roll around in the grass! Preferably on a slug or something equally stinky! It will do wonders for your complexion and countenance!

Hope you have a peaceful, productive, and relaxing weekend. I’ll be spending mine with Guion, the dog, the yard, Proust, and D.H. Lawrence. Oh, and doing lots of calligraphy. Lots and lots of calligraphy. I need to stop overbooking myself with these calligraphy jobs; it makes my evenings so busy that I am tempted to follow Pyrrha’s dubious method of stress relief…

Top 10 books I’d want on a desert island

Screenshot from "LOST."

The ol’ desert island conundrum! Ten books is pretty lavish. If my husband and a dog were a given, here are the top 10 books I’d request that Charles Widmore send me on the island:

  1. The Bible. Naturally.
  2. In Search of Lost Time–all of it! You could read it for the rest of your life. (Marcel Proust)
  3. Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy).
  4. To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf). It will always be new to me.
  5. Complete short stories of Anton Chekhov. Meditations on the human spirit when I am isolated from humans?
  6. Complete works of Shakespeare. We could perform on the beach!
  7. Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace). I haven’t read it yet, but I know it’s a magnificent tome, so it suits the other members of this list.
  8. Middlemarch (George Eliot).
  9. The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen).
  10. East of Eden (John Steinbeck).

You?