01062013: With Proust and Franzen

Notes on The Discomfort Zone by Jonathan Franzen; and on Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, translated from the French by Lydia Davis.

I’ve had a rather triumphant week: I’ve been (*holds breath*) blogging regularly—mostly driven by chants of “It’s the principle of the thing, Sasha!”—plus the very thought of the rest of 2013 continues to inspire in me a hope that it’ll get better, reading-wise. (Life insists that it will look up as well, but I’ve heard that before.)

By the time this is published, I will be in a little farm approximately two hours’ drive away. I don’t think I’ll be getting any reading done, but old habits die hard: I’ll be bringing with me Jonathan Franzen’s slim book on his “personal history”; I’m still wondering why he didn’t just call it a freaking memoir.

I’ve been thinking that 2013 is the year of reading more Franzen, who I’m always aware is a rather divisive creature in the book-devouring world. A lot of people call him a relentless curmudgeon and, worse, a bore—and, well, I have to agree. But he’s my favorite grump, and though I have to sit and grumble through endless monologues about Siberian politics and goddamned finches, there’s a depth and unexpected heart in the stuff he writes. I love his essays, and I continue to love The Corrections—and his The Discomfort Zone, a series of essays detailing his life with his family (which, never mind his protests, is the basis of The Corrections) is definitely, so far, my cup of tea.



I continue to read Proust as well, though it’s been slow going. But I think that’s only right: Again, the prose is lovely and his painstaking attention to detail is exquisite—but both pose a challenge for me. In the middle of his sweeping paragraphs, I have to tell myself to give it the focus it deserves; do not be distracted by shiny things, girl!

I’m only at page 37 as I write this—maybe I’ll get some more Proust squeezed in before bed. I’ve seen Monsieur Swann, at last, although curiously through the eyes of a child not much concerned by him; Monsieur Swann is, in fact, a great enemy, the obstacle to one’s mother’s goodnight kiss. There’s an enigma to Swann, too, I’ve learned—specifically the conundrum that he unwittingly poses to a family so rigid in the dictates of a caste. [Only at page 37, sure, but I’m working on it!] Here’s a wonderful aside on Monsieur Swann’s father, a close friend of our narrator’s grandfather:

Suddenly the memory of his wife came back to him and, no doubt feeling it would be too complicated to try to understand how he could have yielded to an impulse of happiness at such a time, he confined himself, in a habitual gesture of his whenever a difficult question came to his mind, to passing his hand over his forehead, wiping his eyes and the lenses of his lorgnon. Yet he could not be consoled for the death of his wife, but, during the two years he survived her, would say to my grandfather: “It’s odd, I think of my poor wife often, but I can’t think of her for a long time.”

It bears saying that I know nothing of Swann’s Way going into this. I know only of its vaguest themes, I know of madeleines. That’s it, though. I had a suspicion that the prose would be lovely. I had a suspicion it would be of memory:

This was many years ago. The staircase wall on which I saw the rising glimmer of his candle has long since ceased to exist. In me, too, many things have been destroyed that I thought were bound to last forever and new ones have formed that have given birth to new sorrows and joys which I could not have foreseen then, just as the old ones have been difficult for me to understand. It was a very long time ago, too, that my father ceased to be able to say to Mama, “Go with the boy.” The possibility of such hours will never be reborn for me.

Well, that’s lovely. And more than a little sad.

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