Category Archives: In Search of Lost Time

Summer 2019: Reading and Reflections

Last year was the most difficult in my 20+ year teaching career.  I was burned out and exhausted by June and decided that, except for a quick trip to Boston, I wasn’t going to do any traveling over the summer.  In order to recharge and refocus I spent my time at home sitting in my garden which has a beautiful view and I alternated between reading, getting some sun, and swimming.

I began the summer by reading Virginia Woolf’s The Waves which I brought with me on my long weekend to Boston in late June.  Of all her books this one seems to get the least attention, but I enjoyed it, in a different way of course, as much as any of her other novels I’ve read.  One can see the beginnings of her stream-of-consciousness style for which she is so well-know.  The story is heart wrenching and tragic and not an easy read, but so worth the effort.  It’s not surprising, now that I look back on the summer, that I chose Horace’s Carpe Diem poem, Ode 2.11  to translate and spend some time with after reading The Waves:  “Why would you exhaust your soul making plans for the future, a soul that is not up to the task?”

After this I was in the mood for more Tolstoy, especially after I saw @levistahl post on Twitter that Hadji Murat was one of his favorite summer reads.  (Levi is great to follow, by the way,  if you like books, cats, dogs, baseball, 70’s movies and Columbo.)  Tolstoy is one of those authors whose writings I savor and am rationing the few remaining books of his I have left.  J.L. Carr’s novella, A Month in the Country was also on Levi’s list and I read the book and saw the film.  Carr’s story was the perfect book for the summer setting in my garden.

I spent all of July reading Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities I was so happy to connect with @genese_grill on Twitter who has translated Musil and who had wonderful insights into this enigmatic magnum opus.  (Genese is also great to follow on Twitter for books, literature and translation.)  The Man without Qualities, both Volumes I and II , were the most challenging books I have ever read.  I’ve seen them described as philosophical novels and the combination of Musil’s complex sentences and thought demanded my focus and concentration.  Reading Musil’s Diaries alongside the novels also provided valuable insights into some of the threads that run throughout his narrative.

My final summer reading was spent on the first three volumes of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.   On Friday night I finished Volume III, The Guermantes Way,  which felt like it ended on a sad note.  The narrator finally gains admittance into the Guermantes’ inner circle and, like many other things, is disappointed by what he finds.  The petty gossip and the shallowness of the characters he meets are sad and pathetic.  I’ve been thinking a lot about indifference, which word Proust uses continually throughout all three books in a variety of contexts.  If I can pull my thoughts together I might write something about this after I finish all six volume. Needless to say, this is one of the most intense, illuminating, pleasurable reads I’ve ever had.  It was a wonderful summer, indeed, and I feel refreshed and recharged and ready to inspire my new classes to appreciate an ancient language.  Wish me luck!

For the rest of this year I will be occupied with finishing Proust and would also like to finish Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets which I’ve gotten half way through.

(By the way, Henry, my black and white cat, who is quite annoyed that I’ve gone back to work, insisted on sticking his nose into my book photo.)

 

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Filed under British Literature, German Literature, In Search of Lost Time, New York Review of Books, Novella, Proust

The Resurrection of the Voice: Proust on Sound

When we are away from those we love, our senses of touch and sight suffer the greatest deprivation. But in The Guermantes Way, Proust reminds us that our sense of sound, hearing someone’s voice, or not hearing that voice in a period of complete silence is equally as striking. The narrator decides to leave Paris for several weeks and visit his friend Robert who lives in an army barracks at Doncieres. As he stands alone in Robert’s barracks he contemplates the wildly different effects that sound have on us depending on time of day, mood, season, etc:

Only yesterday the incessant noise in our ears, by describing to us in a continuous narrative all that was happening in the street and in the house, succeeded at length in sending us to sleep like a boring book; today, on the surface of silence spread over our sleep, a shock louder than the rest manages to make itself heard, gentle as a sigh, unrelated to any other sound, mysterious; and the demand for an explanation which it exhales is sufficient to awaken us. On the other hand, take away for a moment from the sick man the cotton -wool that has been stopping his ears and in a flash the broad daylight, the dazzling sun of sound dawns afresh, blinding him, is born again in the universe; the bultitude of exiled sounds comes hastening back; we are present, as though ti were the chanting of choirs of angels, at the resurrection of the voice.

It is through sound that we attempt to understand and connect with others:

The withdrawal of sound, its dilution, rob it of all its aggressive power; alarmed a moment ago by hammer-blows which seemed to be shattering the ceiling above our head, we take pleasure nwo in receiving them, light, caressing, distant, like the murmur of leaves playing by the roadside with the passing breeze. We play games of patience with cards which we do not hear, so much so that we imaging that we have not touched them, that they are moving of their own accord, and, anticipating our desire to play with them, have begun to play with us. And in this connexion we may wonder whether, in the case of love (to which we may even add the love of life and the love of fame, since there are, it appears, persons who are acquainted with these latter sentiments), we shouldn’t act like those who, when a noise disturbs them, instead of praying that it may cease, stop their ears; and, in emulation of them, bring our attention, our defences, to bear on ourselves, give them as an object to subdue not the external being whom we love, but our capacity for suffering through that being.

I’ve always been prone towards quiet and solitude; I like to read and think and even sleep in complete silence, But, as is typical with Proust, he made me think of silence is a different way:

It has been said that silence is strength; in a quite different sense it is a terrible strength in the hands of those who are loved. It increases the anxiety of the one who waits. Nothing so tempts us to approach another person as what is keeping us apart; and what barrier is so insurmountable as silence? It has been said also that silence is torture, capable of goading to madness the man who is condemned to it in a prison cell. But what an even greater torture than that of having to keep silence it is to have to endure the silence of a person one loves!

And as stunning all of these passages on sound and silence are, the one that had the most impact on me was that in which Proust describes talking on the telephone for the first time and the person to whom he speaks is his beloved grandmother. The shock of hearing her voice without seeing her elicits an unexpected emotional response:

And because that voice appeared to me to have altered in its proportions from the moment that it was a whole, and reached me thus alone and without the accompaniment of her face and features, I discovered for the first time how sweet that voice was; perhaps indeed it had never been so sweet as it was now, for my grandmother, thinking of me as being far away and unhappy, felt that she might abandon herself to an outpouring of tenderness which, in accordance with her principles of upbringing, she usually restrained and kept hidden. It was sweet, but also how sad it was, first of all, on account of its very sweetness, a sweetness drained almost—more than any but a few human voices can ever have been—of every element of hardness, of resistance to others, of selfishness! Fragile by reason of its delicacy, it seemed constantly on the verge of breaking, of expiring in a pure flow of tears; then, too, having it alone beside me, seen without the mask of her face, I noticed it for the first time the sorrows that had cracked it in the course of a lifetime.

After this phone conversation the narrator immediately packs his things and runs how to his grandmother. When she is sick, he understands the severity of her illness when her voice changes and he can no longer understand her.

I keep thinking about this last paragraph I quoted and the fact that we don’t talk on the phone very often anymore. In the age of texts, DMs, PM.,etc. those long conversations, hearing the voice of someone we miss, are no more. I’m sitting in my garden listening to the birdsong, the ducks splashing on the pond and trying to remember how the voices sound of those lost voices…

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Filed under French Literature, In Search of Lost Time, Proust