Monday, December 28, 2009

INDIGNATION by Philip Roth

"We are here to be insulted."--Philip Roth, in conversation with Harold Bloom

I suppose it's time to attempt a nutshelled overview of the career of Philip Roth. First comes the Apprenticeship, a trio of works (Goodbye Columbus, Letting Go, When She Was Good) that obey the rules for midcentury American fiction and establish Roth as an only moderately adventurous member of the School of Bellow. Then, in the Woodstockian year, came Portnoy the Wanker. With Portnoy's Complaint, another Roth emerges, a restless experimenter with no rules and few limits. He transforms a character into a gigantic mammary (The Breast), does a bitter Swiftian satire of the Nixon administration (Our Gang), produces a complex (and still underrated) work of autobiographical metafiction (My Life as a Man), and writes a linguistically exuberant baseball novel (The Great American Novel). The first Zuckerman trilogy (The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, and the epilogue novella The Prague Orgy) constitutes a triumphant synthesis of Roth's traditional and experimental impulses. In the late 1980s Roth inaugurates his second experimental phase, this time blending fiction and autobiography in a series of category-defying works (The Counterlife (the most formally experimental fiction of his career), The Facts, Patrimony, Deception, Operation Shylock). After this period culminated (and fizzled out) in Shylock, Roth shifted gears to produce a one-off, magisterial burst of far-beyond-Portnoyesque outrage, Sabbath's Theater (my candidate for Roth's greatest novel; The Ghost Writer is my candidate for his most perfect book). This is followed by the much-lauded 'American trilogy' (American Pastoral, I Married A Communist, The Human Stain) three Bellowesque novels that threatened to turn their author into a fatally respectable 'American literary treasure'. Roth responded to the threat with a delightfully lewd novella, The Dying Animal, that marked him as a writer less assimilable than his recent works had made him appear. It also inaugurated the phase of his career that we can now call 'the late novellas' (including Everyman, Exit Ghost, and the subject of this post, Indignation). The obvious joker leering up from the deck of this understanding of Roth's late career is The Plot Against America. It fits my scheme in neither size nor my scheme must be wrong. Time will tell, as it always does.

Roth has always written novellas (e.g. Goodbye Columbus and the first Zuckerman trilogy), so his late concentration on the form is not terribly surprising. In contrast to his earlier novellas, though, the late novellas are 'terminal' works, narrative meditations that circle obsessively around themes of decline, disease and death. Indignation, which begins in a lighter mode as a typically Rothian Newark coming-of-age narrative, soon reveals itself to be the recollections under morphine of a soldier dying in the Korean War. The story has a couple moments of instantly classic Rothian outrage (an interview with a college dean that ends with the protagonist spraying the office with vomit; a minor character who breaks into the narrator's dorm room and covers his belongings in semen), as well as some elements and scenes that are nothing short of masterful (the book's explicit intertextual relationship to Shakespeare's Twelfth Night; the collegiate snowball fight that becomes a campus version of Korea before modulating into a tamer (but more outrageous to the administrative powers that be) panty raid). Indignation is certainly not a bad book. It's better than the overrated Everyman, and I enjoyed it and found a lot to praise in it, but it is clearly one of Roth's lesser achievements. It doesn't approach his heights (The Ghost Writer, Portnoy, Sabbath), and even among the late novellas it's surpassed by Dying Animal and Exit Ghost. Roth's biggest problem here and in the late novellas generally might be something Aristotle could've diagnosed: Roth is trying to write tragedies as if they were comedies; he's telling tragic tales as though they were comic ones, and his style often jars against his subject matter. A good example of this is the long, ironic sentence in Indignation describing a minor character's death in a hellish automobile accident. The effect may well be deliberate (the dying or dead narrator's way of trivializing the death of an 'enemy'), but the irony sucks the tragedy out of this death--and, by implication, out of all death, surely not an authorially intended effect.

CONSIDER THE LOBSTER by David Foster Wallace

Color me surprised. After more than a decade of being disappointed by the works of David Foster Wallace, I've finally discovered one that I can, more or less enthusiastically, recommend. The quality of the nonfiction pieces collected in Consider the Lobster, along with those in his earlier collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, suggests that Wallace should probably have jettisoned his baggy and rather unoriginal fictional experiments in favor of the kind of original journalism and criticism exemplified here. In these occasional pieces (on the 'adult' film industry and its euphemisms; John Updike (whose name sounds like an adult film industry euphemism); dictionaries; Joseph Frank's monumental Dostoyevsky biography; the 2000 McCain campaign, etc.) Wallace was finally able to bring his prose up to the level of his thought--a considerable achievement, given that his previous works all left me with the impression of a guy who thinks better than he writes. Damned if I'm not starting to miss the dude now. He should've lived longer and written more.

THE NAME OF THE WORLD by Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson's short and rather forgettable academic novella The Name of the World is, surprisingly, not a bad book. It has its good moments: a wonderfully observed dinner party; a departmental coffee klatsch during which the protagonist learns, via a farewell toast, that his contract will not be renewed; a wonderfully concise and devastating brief description of an academic Marxist (sic) conference ca.1990; and Johnson does provide an unexpected denouement to his variation on the horribly overused 'middle-aged-male-professor-and-young-female-student' scenario. But it's still a decidedly minor performance. Only rarely, in a few isolated passages scattered through the book, does it approach the excellence of the best moments of the touchstone Johnson work, Jesus' Son.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Is Hamlet's Flesh Solid or Sullied?

Here's a Mindful Pleasures first: an entire post about a single word. The word is 'solid' or 'sullied' or even 'sallied,' and it occurs in Hamlet, act one, scene two, line 129:

O, that this too too {solid/sallied/sullied} flesh would melt...

The First Folio reads 'solid,' which seems straightforward enough, but the early quartos read 'sallied,' a word that doesn't seem to make any sense at all in this context but that editors understand as a variant of 'sullied.' I've always recoiled at the 'sullied' reading. I find it too clever by half (in its too blatant and too early sounding of the note of fleshly corruption that permeates Hamlet's ruminations) and, more importantly, it's an editorial imposition that sullies a reading the First Folio seems to have gotten entirely right. 'Solid' is the only word of the three that fits naturally into the metaphorical texture of the lines:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew...

The flesh, being too solid rather than too sullied, will not easily turn to liquid and annihilate itself in a vaporous dew. Again, this is a very straightforward, self-evident reading, and the imposition of 'sullied' merely introduces further unnecessary complications into the interpretation of the line. By Occam's Razor, the First Folio and Kenneth Branagh are right: it's 'solid.'

And there's also the possibility that solid/sallied/sullied is not a variant at all but a Shakespearean pun variously rendered. Perhaps the words 'solid' and 'sullied,' similar sounding even today, were homophonically close in Elizabethan London. If so, the Shakespearean 'solid' would have carried a double significance akin to that of the truly Finnegans Wake-ish a dew/adieu pun that 'resolves' the sentence. Either way, 'solid' must be the primary signifier, as it's the only logical choice to initiate the figure that undergirds the lines: flesh likened to water in its various states. The 'solid' reading is solid. Don't sully it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

EVEN MORE NOTES ON PROUST -- SWANN'S WAY, "Swann in Love," "Place Names..."

The beginning of the Swann-Odette relationship (and perhaps its entirety) reveals Jacques Lacan’s enormous debt to Proust. Swann’s initial attraction to Odette, a woman famously "not his type," is rooted not in his desire for her but in her desire–for whatever reasons–for him. His desire desires her desire. Or as Proust puts it, "the feeling that he possesses a woman’s heart may be enough to make him fall in love with her." The other’s desire creates a desire for that desire.

"Swann in Love" is, among much else, a parable about how art can change our lives–for the worse. Swann is an aesthete, a member of that generation of French and English aesthetes (Walter Pater was another) who ‘rediscovered’ Vermeer and Botticelli, a generation from which Proust learned much. Whenever an art object–Vermeer’s paintings, Vinteuil’s sonata–becomes an object of Swann’s desire, he wishes to know everything about it, a characteristically scholarly desire that functions well within the confines of the archive and the art museum but that becomes disastrous when transferred to the erotic realm. Since Odette is not Swann’s type, he rationalizes his attraction to her by mentally comparing her to a Botticelli he loves, despite the fact that "his desires had always run counter to his aesthetic taste." Odette aestheticized then becomes an object of obsessive research. Swann must know everything about her, regardless of how much the knowledge will torture him. (Recall also how Vinteuil’s little phrase 'liberates' Swann’s mind so he can more readily chain himself to Odette.)

All of Proust’s gardens have serpents. Even within the Debussy-esque loveliness of Vinteuil’s sonata is hidden a snake–as the dimwitted Forcheville’s "sonata-snake" pun reveals. Swann’s way contains no unproblematic pastorals.

While Swann is a sort of Romantic rationalist, the aesthete as researcher (rechercheur), Odette’s aesthetic tastes are more fashionably decadent. Her preference for orchids and chrysanthemums, flowers that look artificial, powerfully echoes the tastes of that uber-decadent, Huysmans’s Des Esseintes.

In "Swann in Love" the desire "to possess exclusively," the desire for monogamy, is portrayed as the ultimate perversion, a form of obsessive jealousy that we have been taught to call ‘love.’ In this vast roman fleuve of lesbian, gay and sadomasochistic sexualities, the heterosexual relationship between Swann and Odette (and the relationship it prefigures, that between Marcel and Albertine) may be the most perverse of all.

When Proust writes of "the act of physical possession (in which, paradoxically, the possessor possesses nothing)"(p.281), he magisterially throws off in a dependent clause a phrase that suggests an entire erotic psychology. It would take at least an essay and probably an entire book to unpack the implications of this ‘little phrase.’

The writing motif from the Combray ‘overture’ returns in "Place Names: The Name" with a significant variation: Gilberte has replaced Maman as the addressee of Marcel’s texts. It begins with Marcel doing what millions of young lovers have done, writing the beloved’s name repeatedly in his school exercise book, an activity Proust implicitly figures as a form of masturbation. His verb "traçais" should remind the reader of the "trace naturelle" of semen on the currant branch in "Combray." Likewise Marcel’s own description of this writing as "something purely personal, unreal, tedious and ineffectual." A few pages later, satisfaction comes in the form of a letter sent by Marcel to Gilberte. When she shows it to him and he sees her name written in his hand now obscured beneath postal marks and notations, he feels a rising exaltation far beyond anything a used envelope should cause. His writing, the artificial trace of his desire, his substitute for the substitute of masturbation, has now passed into Gilberte’s hands, and even the traces of the mundane system that delivered it now shine out with an erotic glow.

MORE NOTES ON PROUST -- SWANN'S WAY, "Combray," part two

I pause for a moment over the perfect and perfectly beautiful sentence that begins part two of ‘Combray.’ The image of the village seen from a distance looking like a flock of sheep crowded around a shepherdess-steeple brings to mind Apollinaire’s contemporaneous "Zone" with its similar metaphor for the Eiffel Tower. But where Apollinaire’s metaphor modernizes an archaic convention, Proust’s takes an already old-fashioned place and pastoralizes it, a tendency underscored by the archaizing and literally medievalizing comparison of Combray to "a little town in a primitive painting." The problematic modern pastoral tendency that dominates the entire section–the problem of Romantic nature in a Modern world--begins here.

It’s impossible (for me, anyway) to read of the invalidism of Marcel’s great-aunt (she who gives him the madeleine and sets the memory machine in motion) without thinking of it as an ironic and deliberate self-portrait of the invalid author. This adds an extra chill to the scene in which Marcel spies on her as she has a (comic) nightmare.

The long description of the church at Combray shows the obvious influence of Ruskin, whom Proust translated and whose influence on late 19th century thought was more widespread than most people realize today, but the Ruskin of the Recherche is Ruskin Proustified: eroticized and paganized. In other words, it’s Ruskin Pater-ized, a sublime synthesis of the two opposing currents in late Victorian aestheticism. (It also rings out gloriously against the Curé’s later philistinism about his own church.)

The great description of reading in ‘Combray’ (pp.97-103) includes Proust’s answer to Hamlet’s essential question on the power of art, art and emotion, actor and audience, text and reader: "What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,/ That he should weep for her?" (Proust’s answer, which both attracts and repels me, comes in the passage that begins with the sentence starting "The novelist’s happy discovery...") This entire ‘reading at Combray’ episode is one of Proust’s moments of nearly blinding brilliance. While reading it I feel that I’m being taken to a horizon of art, as far as language can go. It’s a reflection on reading that causes the reader to reflect on reading (including his readings of himself). It’s also the focus of Paul de Man’s essay on Proust in Allegories of Reading, an essay well worth reading even though it does seem ultimately to be an exercise in not seeing the forest for the trees.

On p.107 Proust describes that distinctly Parisian intellectual condition, the mal de Foucault, when he speaks of "the age [at] which one believes that one gives a thing real existence by giving it a name." This is an age Michel Foucault never entirely outgrew.

On p.144, Proust’s gorgeous, painterly description of asparagus culminates appropriately with what must be the most lyrical description of shit in all of Western lit: "I felt that these celestial hues indicated a presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form....all night long, after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting like one of Shakespeare’s fairies) at transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume." This passage and the image of the semen-smeared currant branch show us in a very direct way how much Jean Genet owed to Proust.

The masturbation scene in the "little room" is the logical culmination (the climax, as it were) of this section’s ultra-Romantic eroticization of nature and landscape (recall Marcel caressing the hawthorn blossoms). Through the window of the little room, Marcel also sees one of the church steeples that are the phallic master motif of this section from its first sentence to its end, where Marcel’s birth as a writer occurs with a composition inspired by a vision of steeples. (The circularity here is beautiful, and it repeats in relative miniature the circular form of the entire Recherche, a vast narrative that ends with its narrator resolving to begin it.)

The Montjouvain sadism scene is a crucial moment of anti-pastoral (Sadism is just one of the serpents in Proust’s Garden of Love) as well as a first sharp sounding of the notes of lesbianism and voyeurism that will become increasingly important in the later volumes. The ritualized black mass of parental profanation directed at Vinteuil’s photo is a photonegative of the narrator’s cult of Maman, hence his immediate understanding of it. Marcel’s voyeurism here also rhymes with the crucial scene thousands of pages in the future (in the final volume) where Marcel spies on Charlus as he’s beaten by a hustler in Jupien’s brothel.

A thought on the section’s two ways: "Swann’s way" is an erotic labyrinth in which explorers are trapped; the "Guermantes way" reveals writing as a way not out but in–to the self. But more than this, I think, writing is shown as a technique that can objectify the trap so it can be scientifically investigated. As Charles Swann will eventually learn, however, knowledge only gives us the illusion of power.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


I'm reading Swann's Way again and finding it, as on my previous readings, an even richer, more complex and more beautiful book than I remembered. I began the day reading Middlemarch, but after 50 pages I returned its world of Protestant rectitude to the shelf and dove immediately into Proust's oceanic pool of decadent catholicity. Robert Hughes in The Shock of the New compares Proust's prose to the leaping, spiralling, organically multiplying forms of art nouveau architecture, a comparison that hits several bullseyes (formal and social historical, most obviously). Before the glories of Proustian prose even George Eliot, a writer of often startling nuance and ironic perception, seems something of a primitive. Indeed, the only Victorian novelist who seriously competes with Proust in this area would be late Henry James, but at this point in my life I prefer Marcel (and even margarita) to the Master.

Rather than attempt any kind of summary treatment--a mug's game with a work this massive--I'm going to take a more fragmented approach in this and the next few posts, presenting some notes and thoughts that came to me as I read:

"Longtemps, je me suis couche de bonne heure."
"For a long time, I went to bed early."
A flat, banal, uninteresting sentence. (I'm surely overstating its vapidity.) Has a novel this brilliant ever begun less auspiciously? It's an instantly forgettable first line that we remember only because its blandness sticks out of Proust's bejewelled prose like a lump of coal among diamonds. Great, enormous novels should begin with lines like "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" or " 'Eh bien, mon prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now no more than family estates of the Bonapartes' " or even "Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress." Prior to Proust, Flaubert's Sentimental Education takes the palm with a first paragraph that reads like the opening of a not very interesting newspaper item. All the same, Proust's is a perfectly and ironically straightforward first line for this labyrinthine 3000+ page novel.

Every time I reread Swann's Way or any of the other volumes in the Recherche, I'm impressed anew at the way Proust states or implies almost all the major and minor themes of the entire work in the seemingly desultory opening section. Love, memory, death, jealousy, desire, frustration, even a brief misdirecting mention of Charlus that implies (rather than explicitly states) the theme of homosexuality. It's all here in the overture at Combray. And the early paragraph that begins "These shifting and confused gusts of memory..." implicitly positions the narrator as a scientist of consciousness and writing as his technology, the stop-motion camera with which he will analyse the social equivalents of the race horse's galloping run.

The "little room" at the top of the house in Combray is mentioned early (on page 12 in my edition) and associated with the narrator's "sensual pleasure," but only on page 189 does Proust give us the long-delayed money shot. (He must've been a great lover.) Only after almost 200 pages do we return to the little room and see the track of Marcel's semen on the leaves of the currant branch that thrusts phallically through the room's window. The semen--"une trace naturelle" in the original French, a phrase that Jacques Derrida would've found pregnant with nonmeaning--is compared to the track of slime left by the passage of a snail, suggesting that Marcel doesn't ejaculate directly onto the leaves but rather wipes his hands on them after masturbating.

A minor matter of translation that has always bothered me: When Francoise mentions that Swann has dined with a princess, Marcel's aunt replies (in the original) "Oui, chez une princesse du demi-monde!" The best translation would be the most literal: 'a princess of the demimonde' or 'a princess of courtesans'. Scott Moncrieff and his revisors, however, choose the much less direct and more sarcastic "a nice sort of princess." I don't understand why. If this was because of the era of censorship during which the Moncrieff translation was originally published, it should have been corrected when the Moncreiff was "revised and updated." This brings up the issue of translations and editions. I'm a Scott Moncrieff partisan. I consider the translation of the Recherche by C K. Scott Moncrieff, as revised by Terence Kilmartin (in 1981) and D.J. Enright (1992) to be by far the most beautiful edition currently available in English. Moncrieff's Proustian prose is so intoxicatingly beautiful that it deserves to be considered a high-point of 20th-century English literature. This is the translation most easily purchased in the six-volume Modern Library trade paperback format, sold on Amazon as the "Proust six-pack" (and a pretty good deal at under $50). My page numbers in these posts might vary from the Mod. Lib. edition since I'm reading a Vintage UK trade paperback edition of the same translation. (Now that we're all sufficiently confused, let's move on.)

The scene in which Marcel sends his mother a note requesting a bedtime kiss is a marvelous example of writing as presence in absence and as a technique of desire, the "exquisite thread" of ink that joins mother and son, carries the son's desire to the mother, and is so cruelly snipped when she refuses to answer. This refusal precipitates what I think is the novel's first gender crossing, when Marcel compares his distraught self to a 'poor girl' receiving a similar message from a powerful man. This 'exquisite thread' of writing will become one of the major motifs both of this volume and of the entire work.

Little Marcel's 'one night stand' with Maman, his temporary and unforeseen Oedipal victory, has as its first fruit Marcel's absolution via the Medical Word. He is no longer responsible for his unhappiness, because it has now been verbally 'inscribed' into the discourse of medicine as a "nervous condition." The Catholic discourse placed alongside the medical in this passage has the effect of ironizing both, a strategy of rhetorical collision that is one of the defining characteristics of Modernism, beginning (if we must choose an arbitrary origin) in the paintings of Manet (Olympia, Luncheon on the Grass).

Walter Benjamin, a great reader of Proust, was surely influenced by Marcel's grandmother's theories on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, as described on pages 45-47. Indeed, we should probably read Benjamin's most widely anthologized (but by no means best) essay as an extended meditation on this passage of Proust.

One of my favorite moments in Scott Moncrieff's translation comes on page 47 when Proust writes of "those old forms of speech in which we can still see traces of a metaphor whose fine point has been worn away by the rough usage of our modern tongue." It's a wonderfully witty moment in which the concept of concealed metaphor is exemplified by the construction of a concealed metaphor for concealed metaphors (the hidden metaphor is implicitly likened to the nib of a pen worn away by hard use--and this isn't the only implied metaphor in the passage). It's great, and most of it is Moncrieff. The French passage reads: "les vieilles manieres de dire ou nous voyons une metaphore, effacee, dans notre moderne langage, par l'usure de l'habitude." So it seems that Moncrieff's "fine point" is his own invention, a translator's teasing out of the implications of Proust's word 'effacee,' which carries the meanings 'effaced, erased, worn away.' I suppose there are two ways to look at this: either accuse Moncrieff of taking unnecessary liberties, or conclude that Proust was very lucky in his translator. I'm of the latter opinion.

On the petit madeleine and Marcel's rush of memory: Just as the taste of madeleine brings Marcel's Combray childhood rushing back to him, the word "Madeleine" might have had the same effect on Marcel's creator. For Proust's childhood home in Paris (9 Blvd Malesherbes) was just a short walk from the church of the Madeleine, that imposing Napoleonic Parthenon that stares down its boulevard at the Place de la Concorde. Proust would probably have passed the church every day on his walks to and from the Champs-Elysee; it would've been the major monumental architectural presence in his Parisian childhood.