Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Monday, November 19, 2012

All she asked was to have something more stable than love to lean upon.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Madame Bovary is a story of unrequited love, affairs, passions of the heart, and an omnipresent and confounding sense of gloom.  Charles Bovary is a country doctor, in the time just before doctors are really sure of what they're doing (botched club foot surgery = amputation - ACK!).  After an unsuccessful first marriage that ends in his wife's untimely death, Charles marries Emma Rouault, the daughter of a country farmer and former patient of Monsieur Bovary. Emma quickly realizes that she does not love Charles; Charles falls head over heels for Emma. Emma is very unhappy, and they eventually move to a small town, Yonville, where Emma gives birth to a daughter, Berthe. (Emma wanted a son.) From here, the story devolves into a series of Emma's affairs with unhappy endings.  She quickly runs Charles into the ground financially by spending extravagantly on her affairs and desires, and manages to keep it a secret until the property in their house is priced to be put up for auction. After some disastrous groveling at the feet of old lovers, local lawyers, and near prostitution, Emma forces her way into the local pharmacy and eats some arsenic. She dies a slow and highly unpleasant death.  Charles is bereft. After many years, Charles eventually finds Emma's old love letters, but can't even bring himself to be angry about her affairs. A haggard, grieving widower, he dies alone in the garden. Berthe is sent to live with an aunt and is forced to work at a cotton mill to earn a living.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Whew! Aren't you feeling so Happy after that one? I liked Flaubert's descriptive writing, and the plot points were interesting, but I found Emma to be a pretty unlovable character. She felt like a less-likable Anna Karenina (and that's Saying something because Anna K was no charmer). All in all, I can't say you should go run out and grab it. Maybe stroll over and contemplate it. Or take it off a 'free books' shelf.

My thoughts, in no special order:
  • On naming their daughter Berthe - I can't say all my associations with the name are negative (I think many of my readers know a very special centenarian named Bertha ;) but in French, it's pretty much the ugliest sound I can think of. Bearrr-ttt-uhhh. It sounds a bit like I'm vomiting when I say it. I guess it's apt, considering how her parents feel about her and how little pen-service Flaubert pays her.
  • Monsieur Rouault, in a letter to Emma - "It grieves me that I have not yet seen my beloved granddaughter Berthe Bovary.  I planted a plum tree for her in the garden under your window, and I won't let anybody touch it except to make preserves for her later on, and I'll keep them in the cupboard for her, for when she comes here." Old Monsieur Rouault was one of the only lovable characters in the book. So of course he ends up paralyzed.
  • The apricot break-up - Definitely my favorite scene in the novel, though it typified the callousness of Emma's lovers.  Rodolphe Boulanger, Emma's second (or first) affair (depending on how you count them), breaks up with her the day they're supposed to run off together. And how does he send her the message? He writes her a letter and puts it under a pile of apricots in a lovely basket and sends a servant over to her house with it. CLASSY, Rodolphe. Reallll classy.
  • Emma and Léon (affair #1 and/or #3) - Léon was sort of nice at first, and they had a good thing going for a while.  Then Emma sort of ruined it and so did he. But anyway, I liked this bit during their stolen moments together: "It was storming, and they talked under an umbrella, by lightning flashes." Romantic! Hazardous. Dangerous. Life-threatening, yes. But romantic! It reminded me of "my mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning)."Oh, Humbert. 
  • On Emma's pervasive unhappiness - "It made no difference. She was not happy, and had never been.  Whence, then, came this insufficiency on the part of life, this instantaneous decay of things upon which she leaned?" I think the saddest part of this book wasn't even Emma's suicide at the end. She was so clearly miserable during the rest of the novel that it seemed almost a relief for her to take the final step. But it wasn't the kind of deep depression or funk that some characters sit, and almost revel in, for whole books (Holden, Raskolnikov, Javert); it was more an unexplained feeling, a sense that all was not quite right. And most likely never would be. 
  • The other title I mulled over for this post was "Early remedies are not what I need." Poor Emma -  even she didn't know quite what it was that she wanted, or how to attain it. And poor Charles for loving her so much (even though she absoLutely did not deserve it). And poor Berthe, for having negligent parents who had to go off and die to leave her working a cotton mill. With that awful, awful name.
Passages I particularly liked:

-- "But now he possessed for life that lovely woman whom he adored. The universe, for him, was no more than the silky ripple of her petticoat." Charles, on marrying Emma

-- "But eagerness for a change of conditions, or perhaps the irritation caused by that man's presence, had been enough to convince her that she at last possessed that great passion which until then had hovered like a great pink-plumaged bird soaring in the splendor of poetic skies - and now she was unable to believe that the tranquility in which she was living was the happiness of which she had dreamed."  Emma, on marrying Charles

-- "They led the sort of existence in which the heart dilates, the senses expand. But life for her was cold as an attic whose window faces north, and boredom, a silent spider, spun its webs in the shadow of every corner of her heart."

-- "Little by little love was extinguished by absence, regret smothered by habit; and that fiery glow which had washed her pale skies with purple sank away into shadow and was gradually obliterated."

-- "For pleasures, like students in a school yard, had so trampled his heart that no green thing grew there, and those who passed that way, more heedless than children, did not even leave their names scratched into the wall as they did."

-- "It was like the sky when a gust of wind drives away the clouds.  The cumulus of sorrowful thoughts which had been darkening them seemed to be withdrawn from her blue eyes; her whole face glowed."

Onwards to better (and hopefully brighter!) things. Thanksgiving, turkeys, pies, Chex Mix, and an adventure with Her Light Elements. Yes. I'm 100% sure I got it this time. ;)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Right now we are here, and nothing can mar our perfection.

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This is the "love story" of Henry and Clare. Henry travels through time (against his will and beyond his control) and Clare is his all-consuming true love. They have a long path to getting together (she knows him well before he knows her - it's confusing, trust me) but then they are together and they are happy, blissfully happy. And then they are miserable. Well, technically they're still mostly happy, but a lot of terrible things happen to them, and then Henry dies. But not before he has his feet amputated. They manage to have a child, Alba, who is also a time traveler, and Alba continues to see Henry (though it is the pre-dead Henry, not a futuristic ghost) in her time travels. Clare continues to exist and sees Henry one last time when she is super-duper old.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Okay, so first of all, my apologies to those of you who may have read this book and really enjoyed it. To be fair, I was with you the first time around. It's rare that I like a book less the second time I read it (while I am a discerning reader, there are often tidbits I miss on the first take) but this was one of those rare cases.

My thoughts - my apologies that it's rather negative:

-Too one-dimensional
It's highly possible that I'm biased here, because I've never been in love. But I like to think that I exist as a person before this potential epic love, and I like to think that I'll exist after I'm part of a duo. Henry and Clare sort of just don't exist outside of each other, and I found that, frankly, boring. I didn't really believe in the side characters (Gomez, Charisse, Ingrid, etc) because I never got any background on them and never felt their thoughts or feelings. Which basically made the entire book ride on Henry and Clare, and for me, that made it flop.

-Clare defined as "not-Henry"
I don't consider myself an ardent feminist, but I have told many of my friends and family that I have no wish to be defined as Mrs. Someone Else. I must admit that titling the book, "The Time Traveler's Wife", felt a bit like calling it "Clare, the anti-heroine". It's supposedly from her perspective, but we get equal narration from Henry and Clare's point of view, and in the end, even though according to the quote on the jacket it's "A soaring celebration of the victory of love over time" (Thanks, Chicago Tribune - feel free to let me know what copy You were reading) Clare basically sits around waiting for Henry to return. For forty years. This doesn't seem much like giving Clare a chance at her own identity.

-The relationship between Henry and Henry
Just to mix things up, this is one of the parts of the book I really liked. (Although I could have done without the "isn't it so great that we can do you-know-what when we're with each other as adolescents" section.) It gave me a chance to see Henry build a relationship with someone OTHER than Clare, although ironically, it isn't really a relationship with someone else since it's actually Himself.

-Too depressing
-SPOILER ALERT: I know I'm supposed to do this part up above, but here's a list of just a few of the things that happen in this book: Henry's mom is decapitated in front of him when he is 6, Clare's mom's manic depressive and later dies of pancreatic cancer, Henry's dad's an alcoholic, Henry's ex-girlfriend commits suicide in front of him, Henry loses his feet (as in they are amputated, not misplaced), Henry knows he will die ahead of time, Clare has 5 miscarriages, all of which are disturbing and graphic, Clare ends up left behind when Henry dies. And that's NOT a complete list. I firmly believe that a book has no requirement to be happy to be of good quality, but there IS such a thing as too much tragedy.

-Reads like a screenplay
This book put it all on the table.  It didn't leave any mystery, any hint of wonder. Maybe this bothered me so much because it came on the heels of Heart of Darkness, a book that's sort of about nothing and everything all at once. It colored in all the lines and didn't leave any space to imagine or question.

-Stilted dialogue
If you want to have a book that's dialogue-heavy, the dialogue has be to be genuine. I have to believe that the characters would talk like that (I have to believe Anyone would talk like that) and I just didn't. There were inconsistencies, and a lot of the classic "people don't really talk like that" lines. I found it off-putting.

-Not careful enough with details
Again, I'm biased here because I happen to be a cellist and have a long history in stringed instruments. But if you're going to make instrumentalists semi-major characters (Alicia, Clare's sister, is a cellist; Henry's dad is a professional violinist) then at least get your facts straight. At one point, Henry suggests that he wouldn't give Alicia's tape to his dad because his dad doesn't really teach. But this makes no sense because Henry's dad is a violinist, and I've never known a violinist to teach a cellist. Violinists who teach violists/vice versa, maybe. But at the highest levels of string training? Nope. A cellist teaches a cellist.

-I don't believe you as Clare and I don't believe you as Henry
The book is told in dual narration from Clare and Henry. But going along with the dialogue comments above, I just don't find them believable. It's very hard to write as a man if you're a woman, and I don't think the author really pulled it off. I also didn't get the sense that we had any special window into Clare (even though the book was ostensibly Her Story).

-On need to conceive to be "normal"
I found it REALLY frustrating that the second half of the book's Tragic storyline is all about Clare's miscarriages. Not because miscarriages are not tragic - they 100% are. But in the case of Henry and Clare, when Henry asks if she will consider adoption after another violent and life-threatening miscarriage of Clare's, she demands that she wants at least One Normal Thing in her life, and is that really too much to ask. I just don't think that every Normal woman gets to conceive like that - snap your fingers, and ta da! Plenty of women have to use multiple rounds of in vitro, or supplemental hormones, or have missed their biological window and/or choose to adopt. Some of my very best friends are adopted and I think their mothers would be highly offended to hear Clare's depiction of its "abnormality". Biological conception is only "normal" because we say so; it isn't the only way to a loving family.

-Quotes as a crutch
Lots of writers (especially newer ones) like to use quotations, and I completely understand the draw. I write a whole blog about my favorite lines in books and I know what it's like to fall in love with a sentence, or a phrase, or a poem. In Watership Down, Richard Adams chooses quotes with a razor-like precision. He finds just the right line between foreshadowing and mystery, and he uses them before every chapter. Here, the quotes felt like a crutch - I found more beauty in the words Niffenegger chose than in the words she wrote herself.

-Suzuki crack
I was already starting to build a mental list of concerns I had at this point in the book, but the last straw was when Henry's dad makes a crack about letting a Suzuki "idiot" teach Alba to play violin. Most of my Devoted Readers know that I learned to play from the Suzuki method, as did my two older sisters. I have many fond memories of Suzuki tape sing-alongs and still carry the books in my cello case. My teachers from Suzuki camp still loom large in my mind, and while learning to read music came after memorization, the skills I gained from Suzuki and the communal joy of playing that it afforded me were well worth the wait.

I hate to be a Debbie Downer here, but I went through the whole book and there isn't a single "sentence I particularly liked". You could argue that by inciting such a vitriolic response, the book came closer to earning a spot as a classic than The Da Vinci Code. Or you could not.

Forward to Monsieur Chauzalier. C'est ça, n'est-ce pas? Non. Peut-être c'est Mademoiselle Laidevienty. Je ne sais pas!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Ah, but it was something at least to have a choice of nightmares.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Heart of Darkness is about Marlowe's adventures in a new land and the mysteries that lie behind the shadows.  Marlowe relates the story of his trip from Britain to Africa to his fellow sailors one night at sea. He is ostensibly sent on a mission to find ivory, but he finds the "Company" to be quite disorganized, and his trip turns into a manhunt/rescue mission to find the elusive Mr. Kurtz. Mr. Kurtz worked for the Company, and was infamous both for his queerness and his ability to find enormous amounts of ivory. Marlowe takes a rickety steamboat into the heart of the jungle and narrowly escapes death (a few times) to bring Mr. Kurtz out from his hideaway. Kurtz has a mysterious power over the natives and the British seamen, and he's worshipped as a sort of idol. He is reluctantly "rescued" from his jungle hut, but he is very ill, and he dies on the steamer's return trip up the river. Marlowe feels a kinship with Kurtz, though even he doesn't entirely understand why. He protects Kurtz's things and takes them back to England. Marlowe's last act in the story is to visit Kurtz's intended, who is still in mourning for Kurtz though it's been nearly a year since his death. Marlowe gives her some of Kurtz's belongings and tells her that he loved her to the last, calling out her name in his last breath. In reality, Kurtz had whispered quietly to the darkness, "The horror! The horror!"
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I really enjoyed reading this one. At first, I thought it was a very eloquent horror story, but as my friend Laura suggested, its effect sort of grew on me. It's a short one - practically a novella - my copy is a mere 76 pages, barely enough space for a good character description for Proust ;) If you're looking for a spooky but stimulating pre-Halloween read, go grab a copy!

Some of my ponderings, in no particular order:

-So obviously I have concerns with imperialists coming to change/steal from the native lands, but I will admit that his descriptions of what it's like to come upon a land that feels as if it is entirely new are breathtaking.
--"Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings." 
We can't go back to an untouched world, but what must it be like to travel in places (few and far between though they may be now) like this that still exist? It makes me think of the Amazon, or pockets of islands with few (if any) inhabitants. There's a certain majesty to it.

--Before Marlowe undertakes his expedition to Africa, the doctor doing his physical asks matter-of-factly, "Ever any madness in your family?" The doctor points out that madness tends to follow men into and back from Africa and he likes to study it. Marlowe thinks this is an odd question at the time, but I love that when he starts to feel a little crazy, he comments to his fellow sailors to whom he's tell the story, "I felt I was becoming scientifically interesting."

--Kurtz is a fascinating character, and I loved this retrospective comment from Marlowe:
"True, he had made that last stride, he had stepped over the edge, while I had been permitted to draw back my hesitating foot. And perhaps in this is the whole difference; perhaps all the wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the invisible." --What happens when we cross this threshold? Is madness all we can expect to find?

--I'm currently taking an "Ethics in Public Policy" class, and one of my recent posts was on whether we needed to explicitly outlaw cannibalism, or whether we could assume that existing laws against harming humans/desecrating bodies would cover our bases. We talked through how differently we feel about cases like the Meiwes situation in Germany of "voluntary cannibalism" vs. a rugby team that gets trapped in the Andes mountain and are forced to eat their fallen teammates to survive. Conrad has, I think, a very perceptive take on it:
"No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is, and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze. Don't you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its sombre and brooding ferocity?

-I wanted to throw in a smattering of phrases about Kurtz to give you a better picture of him.
--"The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own."
--"He was an insoluble problem."
--"He came to them with thunder and lightning."
--"He hated all this and somehow he couldn't get away."
--"The wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion...it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude - and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating."

-My favorite moment in the book is when Kurtz appears on a stretcher and Marlowe first sees him:
"I saw him open his mouth wide - it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him." -I pictured Munch's The Scream.

-When Marlowe goes back to Britain, he finds the banality difficult to stomach. He watches people "dream their insignificant and silly dreams", and he "felt sure they could not possibly know the things I know". I feel this way sometimes about people who don't understand how bad some of our schools are. After spending two years at Fels and seeing how miserable a school can be, I have a hard time expressing to people who haven't been in schools that are fundamentally broken how terrible they are. Not terrible in the sense that the students are monsters or the teachers don't care, but that there can be places that are so forgotten, so thrown away, that everyone skims over them when they think about "urban schools" or "inner-city schools".  Two thousand schools produce 51% of the nation's 1 million dropouts each year. Two thousand Fels's full of children. It hurts my heart.
I also imagine that in a very different sense this is how some returned veterans feel; both a sense of relief to be back but a simmering rage at the seeming insignificance of the "problems" they find in the world to which they return. It's difficult to reconcile these emotions.

Sentences I particularly liked:
--"We looked at the venerable stream not in the vivid flush of a short day that comes and departs for ever but in the august light of abiding memories."

--"What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth?"

--"There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies." 

--"I don't like work - no man does - but I like what is in the work - the chance to find yourself. Your own reality - for yourself - not for others - what no other man can ever know."

--"The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine."

--"It made me hold my breath in expectation of hearing the wilderness burst into a prodigious peal of laughter that would shake the fixed stars in their places."

I'll end with one of my other favorite lines:
"We live in the flicker - may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling!"

Onwards to a contempo-classic (a generous use of the word classic, perhaps) and The Wormhole-Jumper's Uncle. Hrmm . . . did I get that right?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

To rabbits, everything unknown is dangerous.

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Watership Down is a story about the unusual flight of a small group of rabbits from their home and the many adventures they encounter along the way. Hazel is a young rabbit who trusts his friend Fiver’s eery premonitions of danger.  He tries to warn their Threarah (chief rabbit) but the Threarah dismisses them as upstarts.  Hazel and Fiver decide they must leave their warren (a community of rabbits) and a few other rabbits decide to join them. They are threatened with arrest, but manage to escape with the help of Bigwig, a former member of the Owsla (rabbit police).  They come upon another warren where the rabbits are hearty and the holes are spacious, but the rabbits are a bit queer.  It becomes clear that Hazel and his friends are stuck in this new warren, and to their horror, they discover that the rabbits are given plenty of food by men with the condition that occasionally they are snared and killed. After Bigwig is ensnared and nearly killed, Hazel and his friends make an escape.

They make a new home at Watership Down, a good ways from the strange warren and far from their original home.  One night, the rabbits are surprised to discover Captain Holly and Bluebell, two rabbits from their home, Sandleford warren. They tell a terrible story of men coming to stop up the warren’s holes and shooting any rabbits that escaped from the ground. Captain Holly and Bluebell were the only two to make it out, and he praises Hazel’s wise decision to trust Fiver after all. The rabbits settle in nicely at Watership Down, and are almost content, but they realize they have no does (female rabbits who can bear offspring). Hazel befriends a bird, Kehaar, when it is wounded and needs protection from elil (enemies). They strike an unlikely bond, and in spying for Hazel, Kehaar discovers another warren that is large and seems to have plenty of does.  Hazel sends Captain Holly off to this new warren (Efrafa) to ask if they might bring some of their extra does to Watership Down. Meanwhile, Hazel launches a somewhat hare-brained (ha.ha.) idea to free a few does from a hutch at a nearby farm that Kehaar had also seen in his flights. Hazel’s plan is dangerous, and while he frees a few does, he gets shot in the process, and but for Fiver’s second sight, would never have been found and brought back to Watership Down. Captain Holly and his crew are imprisoned at Efrafa, which turns out to be a militant-style warren where General Woundwort reigns supreme and all rabbits live a regimented and punishment-laden life. Captain Holly and the group only just manage to escape one night, and after they return to tell their story, Hazel pitches the unpopular idea that a group of them return to Efrafa to steal some does.

Bigwig becomes a spy for Hazel, allowing himself to be captured by the rabbits at Efrafa and quickly rising as an officer in their warren. He befriends a group of does and plans an escape aligned with Hazel’s forces on the outside. The escape doesn’t exactly go off as planned, and while the rabbits hatch a clever plan to hitch a ride on a boat sitting on a nearby river, General Woundwort is out for blood. Hazel and his friends are too clever for the General and they succeed in their plan, but he vows to find Bigwig and murder him personally. The rabbits eventually make it back to Watership Down and settle back to their lives of comfort, until one day Efrafan rabbits are spotted near the edge of the warren. Frantic, Hazel and the others bury themselves in their warren and await almost certain death. General Woundwort makes his way in and battles with Bigwig, but Bigwig’s cleverness and power are almost too much for the general. Hazel, with the help of Fiver, realizes he must run to the nearby farm and let loose the dog, leading the dog back to the warren and General Woundwort for his prey. The plan succeeds, but Hazel is caught by the farm’s cat and is only saved by Lucy, the farmer’s daughter. She wants to keep it, but the friendly neighborhood doctor tells her it needs to be free, and so she sets it loose and Hazel is discovered and brought back home to Watership Down. The does have many litters, Watership Down eventually sends some of its extra rabbits to build a new warren halfway between Efrafa and Watership Down, the two warrens begin to blend and forget their past grievances, and they all live hoppily ever after. (yep. That just happened.)
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. If you’re looking for a cross between a light read and something a bit more serious, and you don’t mind animals as protagonists (and antagonists), then I’d definitely suggest you go grab a copy and dig in!

My thoughts, in no particular oder:
  • Adams uses quotes to start of each chapter, which at first I wasn’t sure I liked, but they’re so well chosen that they perfectly marry foreshadowing and intrigue. Here’s the quote from the chapter on the “queer” rabbit warren:
In the afternoon they came unto a land

In which it seemed always afternoon.

All round the coast the languid air did swoon,

Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.

                                                Tennyson, The Lotus-Eaters
  • Adams also throws in some of his own rabbit language (Lapine, as he calls it). My favorite (and my mom’s favorite) is hrududu, which means any sort of man-made machine. Hazel is returned to Watership Down in one with Lucy and the doctor, and Bigwig refuses to believe that Hazel actually rode in a hrududu.
  • Adams also claims that the does can take their litters back into their bodies if there are too many rabbits, or the climate isn’t right for them to be born. I found this idea very strange. It’s not abortion, it’s absorption!
  • Kehaar was hands down one of my favorite characters. Apparently, he doesn’t speak Lapine (the rabbit language) but they can converse in a sort of meta-language. Here’s my favorite exchange between Hazel and Kehaar:
Hazel slyly suggests that the warren will die off without does.

Kehaar:   Ving, ‘e better. I fly. I fly for you. Find plenty mudders, tell you vere dey are, ya?”

Hazel expresses sadness that Kehaar can’t fly south because of his injury.

Kehaar:  “Nudder time I get mudder. Now I fly for you.”
  • Bigwig wants to get a message to Kehaar, but he can’t let Captain Chervil (of Efrafa) know what’s happening, so he tells him an old rhyme to send the bird away. This hilarity ensues:
“Let’s have a go. If it doesn’t work, we’re none the worse. Well, you run like this. Now you have to hop to this side, then to the other side, scratch with your legs, that’s right, splendid – cock your ears and then go straight on until-ah! Here we are; now then:

                “O fly away, great bird so white,

                And don’t come back until tonight.”

“There you are, you see. It did work. I think there’s more than we know to some of these old rhymes and spells.”

“Probably all that prancing about as we came up to it,” said Chervil sourly. “We must have looked completely mad.”

Passages I particularly liked:
-- “Along the western horizon the lower clouds formed a single purple mass, against which distant trees stood out minute and sharp. The upper edges rose into the light, a far land of wild mountains. Copper-colored, weightless and motionless, they suggested a glassy fragility like that of frost. Surely, when the thunder struck them again they would vibrate, tremble, and shatter, till warm shards, sharp as icicles, fell flashing from the ruins.”
--Fiver, to one of the captains of Efrafa when they attack Watership Down:
“I am sorry for you with all my heart. But you cannot blame us, for you came to kill us if you could.” This reminds me of when the Buggers tell Ender that they did not mean to murder, and when they knew, they did not come again.

Nothing fights grad school senioritis like The Liver of Insanity! Hrm, that’s not it. Perhaps it’s the Kidney of Light?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The most noble title any child can have is Third.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Ender's Game is a story of how a young boy came to save humanity, and how dearly it cost him. Ender is a rare third child in a futuristic world where families are permitted only 2 children. The government has sanctioned his birth because they are searching for a commander to fight the next war with "the buggers", an insect-like alien life force that nearly wiped out Earth roughly 50 years ago. Ender's older brother Peter is brilliant, but ruthless, and his sister Valentine is equally intelligent, but too compassionate to command in a violent war. Ender is, as the government had hoped, a perfect blend of Peter and Valentine.

At just 6 years old, Ender is sent to Battle School in outer space, ripped from his family. He struggles at first, but quickly rises faster than any other student, moving from an army of other "launchies" (kids his own age) to being placed in an army of older students under the command of the ruthless Bonzo Madrid. Ender continues to lead practices in his "free play" time with his "launchy" friends, quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with despite his age and size. Though he is tested frequently by the special treatment he receives from the adults, he makes it all the way to commander.  With an army of novices, Ender manages to revolutionize strategies and defeat all of the armies at the school.

Meanwhile, Valentine and Peter hatch a plan to write philosophy/political commentary on adult discussion groups under pseudonyms, gaining such fame that they become a part of the Earth-side conflicts at the highest level. Valentine is asked twice to intervene to motivate Ender, as his treatment by the adults takes a heavy toll mentally and physically. After his success at Battle School, Ender is transferred and taken first to Earth (for 3 months, to fall in love with the planet so that he can desire to defend it) and then to IF Command, where he is mentored by Mazer Rackham, the commander who defeated the buggers in the last invasion. Ender is given a fleet to command (made up of his best comrades and friends from Battle School) and after successfully defeating the simulations, they begin to face Mazer himself, who controls the enemy in the simulator. They fight many battles, some easy, some hard, but Ender never loses. He gets more and more demoralized until he is nearly broken. During what Ender believes is his "final exam", Ender wins the battle with a shocking twist, only to discover that in fact, his fleet's battles had been with real buggers, not Mazer Rackham.  Unknowingly, Ender has led the 3rd invasion and wiped out the buggers.

Ender is shocked and horrified, never intending to kill (and still only eleven years old). Earth breaks out into conflict, Peter rises to the top of the ranks, and Valentine abandons her pseudonym, Demosthenes, to move to a "colony" on one of the now empty bugger planets where humans are encouraged to have as many children as they'd like. She convinces Ender to join her (as he cannot return to Earth without falling under Peter's control) and he governs the new colony as she writes a history of the 3rd invasion. While exploring a new potential planet colony, Ender discovers that the buggers have created a planet out of his video game from Battle School. He follows the journey of the game and discovers a larva of a queen bugger (they have discovered they work in a hive colony formation). She shares (through thought) the history of the buggers, and reveals that they didn't realize the humans had thought, and once they knew, they didn't plan to attack again. She begs Ender to keep her alive so that she can rebuild the bugger population, but he explains it's too unsafe right now.

He returns to his colony and writes a history of the buggers from the Queen's perspective, calling it Speaker for the Dead. He begins a tradition of having a person speak for another human at their funeral, sharing their best and worst qualities, a complete history. He does so for Peter, who dies back on Earth, but only after sharing his whole history with Ender via "ansible", an interplanetary communication device. As things settle down at the colony, Ender and Valentine set off to travel the galaxy, moving from planet to planet telling stories and speaking for the dead. Ender keeps the queen's larva with him, waiting for the time to come to rebuild.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

If you haven't read this book, you should. Its target audience is young boys, but the message and the plot are accessible to everyone, and it's a great read. You can borrow my copy if you want - but you have to wait until my roommate Laura finishes it. :0)

-- This book definitely felt like it had the makings of a series -- I think there is a sequel, but technically only this one was on my list, so I decided not to read it. I also thought that having a dual story line to follow Valentine and Peter was really fascinating. All three children are brilliant, but their minds work in totally different ways, and they each play a huge role in shaping the world (or I guess, the universe). It made me think about the differences and similarities between me and my sisters.

-- The master manipulating heads of IF Command tell Ender that he had to think it was a game:
"But somebody with that much compassion could never be the killer we needed. Could never go into battle willing to win at all costs. If you knew, you couldn't do it."
  I thought this was fascinating. Do the best military commanders bury their compassion, or suspend it, while they lead vicious battles? Do they lose it completely? So often we see people come out of the military with a different personality, a changed perspective. Is there a way to prevent it? Is that even desirable? Killing as if you were in a game, but murdering in reality. It's a lot to think about.

-- Ender loves life on Earth (the 3 months he chills at a small house on a lake) and when he tells Valentine he would be happy "just living", just existing, she can't agree.
"She tried to imagine herself being like the other girls at school. Tried to imagine life if she didn't feel responsible for the future of the world. 'It would be so dull.' None of us could be happy for long, doing nothing."
  This is how I feel most of the time. I think maybe I'd like to find some small, idyllic town, set up a bookstore/bakery, and just revel in the mundanity of it. But then I remember that there are bigger things, wider concerns, and while no "bugger war" lurks, there are oh-so-many analogous conflicts that do. I can't help but feel that some of the responsibility for the future of the world rests on me. It rests on all of us.

-- Proust wrote that the best writers aren't the ones that tell the best stories; they're the ones whose stories do the best job at reflecting ourselves back to us. The classics that last are the best mirrors; they show us our truest, rawest selves, in ways that we couldn't see on our own.

   I loved this book. It's one of my new all-time favorites. It's not the most spectacular prose I've ever read, and it's pretty plot-driven as far as literature goes. But it's an incredible mirror, and one that we will always need to remember. Ender reminded me of so many protagonists -- like Frodo, like Holden Caulfield, like Harry Potter, at a young age he was thrust into a complex world of good and evil. With barely enough time to build his own morality, he is asked not just to take part in, but to lead an epic war. And when it's all over, he doesn't know how to exist.
   I always cry at the end of the Lord of the Rings because Frodo is too broken to just live out his days peacefully at the Shire. I know he goes on to the Grey Havens, which are basically a sort of heaven, but there's such a palpable sadness in the idea that the world he's struggled to save from destruction is not his anymore.

When Ender and Valentine have lived for many years on the colony planet, Ender approaches Valentine one day and says they have to go:

Ender:         "We have to go. I'm almost happy here."
Valentine:   "So stay."
Ender:         "I've lived too long with pain. I won't know who I am without it."

This just tears my heart out. But there's truth in the idea that once the pain creeps in, once we understand how the world works and how others suffer, there's no going back. Like the Giver, we've been blessed and cursed with knowledge. We share the burden of what we do with that wisdom.

Favorite passages:
  •  Conversation between head officials at the Battle School:
  "I went back through some of the tapes. I can't help it. I like the kid. I think we're going to screw him up." 
"Of course we are. It's our job. We're the wicked witch. We promise gingerbread, but we eat the little bastards alive."
  • "Human beings are free except when humanity needs them."
  • Slang speech from Dink, a brilliant student who has refused to rise through Battle School's ranks:   
"I be crazy too, little buddy, but at least when I be craziest, I be floating all alone in space and the crazy, she float out of me, she soak into the walls, and she don't come out till there be battles and little boys bump into the wall and squish out de crazy."
  • Ender -- "What difference does it make if I hate the part of me that you most need?"
  •  Queen of the buggers, to Ender
"We did not mean to murder, and when we understood, we never came again."
In closing, I will say simply this. Like Ender, I am a Third. And I have never been prouder in my life.

To rabbits, exploration, and Aircanoe Up!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Our legs and our arms are full of torpid memories.

In Search of Lost Time, Volume VII -- Time Regained by Marcel Proust

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary

And now for the THRILLING CONCLUSION. Okay, so it's not that heavy on plot points actually, but here's the basic gist. World War I hits, Paris changes, society changes, people change. YBN spends some time in a sanatorium (2 separate stints), Robert de St-Loup goes off to war with the other men, and eventually dies a valiant death. (I know! I loved him.) In another voyeuristic scene, YBN witnesses Charlus with some pretty intense S & M action that his pal Jupien cooked up for him, involving chains, whips, and some young men who pretend to be "thugs". Social circles are re-arranged, both because of the war and because of passing generations. Odette becomes the Duke de Guermantes' latest mistress (even though he's in his 80's and she's no spring chicken!), St-Loup's old lady of ill repute mistress Rachel becomes a famous actress, Mme Verdurin marries the Prince of Guermantes after the Princess passes, Charlus has a stroke, and YBN's life and memories all come together at last and he prepares to begin his epic novel, realizing that his subject matter (his life) has been in front of his eyes all this time.

Spoiler Over: Continue Here

-- When WWI hits and everything gets rationed, Mme Verdurin gets a prescription for croissants, claiming they cure her headaches when she dips them in her morning coffee. I have headaches sometimes! Can I get a prescription for croissants, please?

-- Sorry to throw a spoiler in again, but St-Loup was one of those epic characters in literature, and even though his character faded a bit in importance throughout the volumes, I was sad to see him go. YBN, after hearing of St-Loup's death:
   "I recalled his arrival the first time at Balbec, when, in an almost white suit, with his eyes greenish    and mobile like the waves, he had crossed the hall adjoining the great dining-room whose windows    gave on the sea."

-- The passage is a bit long-winded to include here, but you can search for the words "Revolving the gloomy thoughts which I have just recorded..." and it will pop up. Proust discovers these flashes of memory (like the madeleine from volume 1) in this book that help him to reset, so to speak. They reveal powerful memories that reignite his literary fire and he realizes he needs to find these triggers (and record them) in order to write his epic work. This one is just him stepping between two uneven stones. Think of the million moments in life when you smell or feel or hear something that transports you to a specific instant from your past. The smell of a city (often sewage mixed with exhaust, in fact) puts my feet back on the cobblestones of Nantes; strains of Shostakovich throw my fingers up the neck of my cello; trains, hooting in the night, slide me under the covers in my childhood bunk bed, under my sister who slept above me. What memories transport you?

-- My favorite part of this volume was when Proust discussed writing itself. In speaking of this work, he writes, "it would be my book, but with its help I would furnish them with the means of reading what lay inside themselves."

-- Towards the very end, Proust starts to worry about dying before finishing. (In fact, he's worried about dying before starting, as he's only just really settled on beginning at the end.) A few of my favorite lines:
-- "I bore within me as by something fragile and precious which had been entrusted to me and which I should have liked to deliver intact into the hands of those for whom it was intended, hands which were not my own."
--"No doubt my books too, like my fleshly being, would in the end one day die. But death is a thing that we must resign ourselves to. We accept the thought that in ten years we ourselves, in a hundred years our books, will have ceased to exist. Eternal duration is promised no more to men's work than to men." Proust died after the publication of "Sodom & Gomorrhah". He'd written the final volumes, but they were fragmentary, somewhat rough drafts. His brother Robert edited them and published them.
-- I was so touched by Proust's self-awareness as a writer. Now that he's finally found the germ of his great work, he writes, "But for me was there still time? Was it not too late?"
He writes that he had become indifferent to death, but when he realizes that he's to write this epic novel, he starts to worry that death will snatch him before he has time to write it.

-- Best line: "For neither our greatest fears nor our greatest hopes are beyond the limits of our strength - we are able in the end both to dominate the first and to achieve the second."

Sentences I particularly liked:

  • "The death of unknown millions is felt by us as the most insignificant of sensations, hardly even as disagreeable as a draught."on wars where the "front" is distanced from the civilian population
  • "Excuses have no place in art and intentions count for nothing."
  • "A name read long ago in a book contains within its syllables the strong wind and brilliant sunshine that prevailed while we were reading it."
  • "Through art alone we are able to emerge from ourselves."
  • "Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists, worlds more different one from the other than those which revolve in infinite space, worlds which, centuries after the extinction of the fire from which their light first emanated, whether it is called Rembrandt or Vermeer, send us still each one its special radiance."
  • "The internal timepieces which are allotted to different human beings are by no means synchronized."

3,123 pages. I've completed a journey that not many will undertake, but at roughly the 100 year mark from Swann's Way's publication, I'll do my part to advocate that these books aren't dead yet.

I'm always sad when I finish a really great novel. A little because it's over, and if I've really enjoyed it, I  wanted more. But I think a little, too, because writing raw truths and careful prose takes not just intelligence and hard work, but true guts. Proust may have flitted from one party to the next for a few years, but he spent the better part of his life writing this novel, and that kind of dedication to art is so rare these days. There's a reason why this one's a classic.

Now appropriately I move to a different time and perhaps a different dimension, beginning far from the beginning.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Good-bye: I leave you with the best part of myself.

In Search of Lost Time, Volume VI -- The Sweet Cheat Gone (or, The Fugitive) by Marcel Proust

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary

Ready? The last volume ended with Albertine's departure. After a series of letters, lies, and melodramatic gestures are exchanged between Albertine and YBN, Albertine is thrown from a horse and dies. YBN is informed by letter, and enters into a period he calls "Grief and Oblivion". After learning of her death, YBN receives her last 2 letters, in which she promises to return and reconciles herself with YBN.  He proceeds to grieve, obsess over whether or not she was in fact a lesbian, throw himself at little girls (getting him into a spot of trouble, understandably) and find out several truths about Albertine, none of which we are entirely sure of. In the end, it appears that Albertine was a rather active lover, and in fact had a great many affairs, most particularly with her good friend Andrée. At first YBN is horrified, then scandalized, then intrigued (he doesn't mind as long as he can sleep with Andrée, too -- which he does) and then indifferent. Albertine was apparently also in love with Mme Verdurin's nephew, and was possibly going to marry him! Oh, and Morel helped her to "ensnare innocent virgin girls" (are you creeped out? Because I WAS.) Then YBN encounters a women he thinks is a prostitute Robert told him about who turns out to be none other than... GILBERTE! His boyhood pal! He goes to Venice with his Mamma, gets a telegram that he thinks is from Albertine, saying she wants to talk about marriage and that she's not dead (I know, WHAAAT?) but it turns out he misread it and read what he thought he wanted to read and it was really from Gilberte. YBN gets a letter on the train home from Gilberte, informing him that she's going to marry... dun dun Dun.... Robert de Saint-Loup! YBN's old bestie! Also, apparently one of the Cambremers is going to marry Jupien's niece (which we only sort of care about). Gilberte's status in society goes THROUGH THE ROOF, and the last scandal we uncover is that Robert de Saint-Loup is gay gay Gay, and he's having an affair with.... can you guess? Morel! The Baron de Charlus (St-Loup's uncle)'s old lover! Wow. Can. You. Say. Incestuous? These people really need to expand their social circle. Gilberte and YBN start hanging out again (just as friends) but she reveals that she loved him too (mostly not when he was in love with her) and starts to reveal a secret regret but then the volume is OVER. Cliff. Hanger.

Spoiler Over: Continue Here

OK, so honesty time. This was not my favorite volume, by a long shot. All the Proustian grief philosophizing and Albertine obsessing got a bit long-winded for my taste, and there were a few moments where I just had no idea what was going on (Gilberte is a prostitute? Albertine's not dead? Oh wait a minute... that's not right...) But, it moved the plot line forward, so I'm still excited to see what happens in THE VERY LAST VOLUME, volume #7.

-- My used copy of this book included notes by someone who simply identified as "SAHR" (I'm thinking middle-aged married woman based on handwriting, comments, and 4 initials). She also commented in the book, and I alternated between (A) not being able to read her comments (not very neat handwriting, as it were) (2) agreeing with her comments and writing the equivalent of "Amen, Sister" in several places and (D) completely disagreeing with her comments and feeling the need to write my comments in next to (and sometimes over) hers.

-- YBN makes up all SORTS of lies when he's writing to Albertine to get her back, but my favorite is that he pretends he has bought her a Rolls Royce and a yacht and that now he's stuck with them. At first he says she'll have to buy them off of him (which he knows she of course cannot do, since she is quite poor) but then he comes back and writes, "No, I prefer to keep the Rolls and even the yacht." HA!
   Also, during their period of estrangement, he sends St-Loup to "discreetly" buy Albertine back by offering election campaign funds to her aunt. When Albertine references this rather ungentleman-like behavior, YBN replies:
     "P.S. I make no reference to what you tell me of the alleged suggestions which Saint-Loup (whom I            do not for a moment believe to be in Touraine) may have made to your aunt. It is just like a Sherlock Holmes story. For what do you take me?" Tee hee hee.

-- In several places, particularly the ones that involve Albertine or Morel, my comments look like this: "oh. Oh! OHH MY!"  hee hee hee. Proust is many things, but lacking scandal he is not!

-- YBN decides he's not going to go back on the train from Venice to Paris with his mother (because he wants to find a lady-love to bring home with him. I know. Eye roll.) but he totally can't go through with it. He sits there on the patio and orders "a cool drink" and he's all, this is going to be SO GREAT. And then five minutes later he freaks out and high-tails it to the train station just in time to catch the train. Oh, YBN. :0)

Sentences I particularly enjoyed:

  • "It seemed to me that my life was stained with a double murder from which only the cowardice of the world could absolve me."
  • "The thought that we must die is more painful than the act of dying, but less painful than the thought that another person is dead." (I would say this is quite apt, except of course in cases where one is unfortunate enough to die rather a painful death. Slow or quick.)
  • "Days in the past cover up little by little those that preceded them and are themselves buried beneath those that follow them. But each past day has remained deposited in us, as, in a vast library in which there are older books, a volume which, doubtless, nobody will ever ask to see."
  • "It is the tragedy of other people that they are to us merely showcases for the very perishable collections of our own mind." (It's okay. I don't get it either. But I like the way it Sounds!)
  • "In spite of everything it was for me the actual point of contact between reality and dreams."
By the by, the title is a line from Albertine's letter when she leaves YBN. 

Now that I've finished the penultimate Proust, now it's time for the terminal Proust. Whee!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Beneath any carnal attraction which is at all profound, there is the permanent possibility of danger.

In Search of Lost Time, Volume V -- The Captive by Marcel Proust

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary

This volume focuses primarily on YBN and Albertine's relationship. You may remember from the previous post that YBN asked Albertine to come stay with him in Paris (basically because he was worried she was going to start dating girls left and right). They play house for most of the novel (in secret - YBN doesn't want to tell his pals she's there because he's worried they'll FALL IN LOVE WITH HER) and YBN spends most of the time alternating between feeling like she's keeping him from greater loves and greater adventures and falling into astoundingly severe fits of jealousy about her and other women. Morel and Charlus continue their relationship, but after Charlus hosts a party at Mme Verdurin's featuring Morel performing on the violin, Mme Verdurin hatches a plot to drive a permanent rift between them because she's blind with rage from the way Charlus and his snobby pals treated her at his party at Her House. The same night as this tumultuous falling out between Morel and Charlus, YBN goes home to Albertine and tells her that they're done and he has no further use for her. She gets upset, he gets upset, and they decide It's Not Over Yet! They keep on keeping on for a few more days, but YBN starts to sense something is wrong when Albertine stops kissing him goodnight. He reaches a point of comfort nonetheless, and decides again that it's time to call it quits, but just when he's getting ready to peace out for Venice, Françoise informs him that Albertine has slipped away in the wee hours of the morning. YBN is DISTRAUGHT.

Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I really am enjoying Proust, I'm a bit surprised to admit. The books are following the trajectory (from what I can tell from the brief bios in my books) of Proust's life, if not in precise events, at least in a mimicry of time and space. It definitely requires some serious headspace (and a time commitment, depending on how fast you read sentences that are as long as paragraphs, and occasionally, pages) but in my opinion, it's definitely worth it.

-- Typical Proust. Typical, typical Proust. We've gone 5 volumes with nameless YBN, and then all of a sudden, out of the blue, Proust writes, "And then Albertine and I were exchanging sweet nothings and I was all, "my dearest Albertine" and she was all, "my dearest ___", which if we were giving the narrator the author's name, would be "my dearest Marcel." And then I was like, WELL ARE WE? Are we calling YBN Marcel? Is that YBN's name? Or are you just making an example? Typical.

-- YBN writes a lot about love, but one of the lines that really stuck out to me was this one -- "love, to me, was, first and foremost, a sedative." I found this really intriguing. We've all known some couple like Albertine and YBN (maybe not with the whole worried about her being a lesbian thing) -- a couple who loves passionately but fights often, whose jealousy can eclipse all other aspects of their relationship. But what I think is really fascinating about YBN is that he really just wants someone there in the morning when he wakes up and at night when he goes to bed. When he has her, he mostly feels this overwhelming need to break free; but when he's worried she won't be there, he's inconsolable. Clearly not healthy, but I think eminently understandable.

-- Proust (like any good Frenchman) is a philosopher. Some of my favorite moments are his ponderings about waking and dreaming:

-- "But are there perhaps other worlds more real than the waking world?
-- "Often we have before us, in those first minutes in which we allow ourself to slip into the waking state, a truth composed of different realities among which we imagine that we can choose, as among a pack of cards." -- I love this idea that there are other worlds, ones we could choose from. It makes me think of Tinkerbell's line in Hook -- "Do you know the place between sleep and awake? That place where you still remember dreaming? That's where I'll be waiting, Peter."

-- I regret to inform you that Swann dies in this novel, without ceremony and without comment. YBN's life has moved away from Swann's at this point, and he is admittedly distressed by it, but I was sad to see Swann go.

-- There is a truly exquisite passage in this volume about music, where Proust likens composers to natives of unknown countries, and as they approach their greatness, they get closer and closer to that unknown country. It's far too long and drawn out to detail completely here, but Proust describes music (as a listener and as a performer -- YBN plays the piano occasionally) in a way that is truly unparalleled. Here's a tasty tidbit -- (Vinteuil is a composer in the novel and Elstir is a painter):

"The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, or a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is; and this we can contrive with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with men like these we do really fly from star to star."

-- Even though Charlus can be quite a jerk, and he really shouldn't have played Mme Verdurin the way he did, I felt genuinely sorry for him when Mme Verdurin poisoned Morel against him with vicious lies and crazy accusations. YBN remarks that Charlus, usually one to retaliate with vehement fury, looks rather on the brink of tears. His friend, the Queen of Naples (who was the only one of his friends to be nice to Mme Verdurin at the party) returns because she's forgotten her fan. Mme Verdurin thinks they're going to have a nice chat and tries to bring over Morel to introduce him to her (for Charlus had been planning to do so as a gift to Morel earlier, since Morel is of a much lower class and would stand to benefit greatly from the introduction). But the Queen takes one look at her friend Charlus and immediately ignores Mme Verdurin and Morel, offering Charlus her arm and escorting him haughtily from the room.

Sentences I particularly enjoyed:

  • "A glance from one, understood at once by the other, brings the two famished souls in contact."
  • "...oh girls, oh recurrent ray in the swirl wherein we throb with emotion upon seeing you reappear while barely recognising you, in the dizzy velocity of light."
  • "Love is an incurable malady."
  • "She caused my calamities, like a deity that remains invisible."
  • "All round her hissed the blue and polished sea."
  • "As a man who at first had no serious reason for losing his temper, becomes completely intoxicated by the sound of his own voice, and lets himself be carried away by a fury engendered not by his grievance but by his anger which itself is steadily growing, so I was falling ever faster and faster down the slope of my wretchedness, towards an ever more profound despair, and with the inertia of a man who feels the cold grip him, makes no effort to resist it and even finds a sort of pleasure in shivering."
  • "Life in its changing course makes realities of our fables."
Presently, I shall persevere -- onwards to the penultimate Proust!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

These Wednesdays were works of art.

In Search of Lost Time, Volume IV -- Cities of the Plain by Marcel Proust
[It's helpful to note here that this volume is also translated as Sodom & Gomorrhah]

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary

This one was a bit racy! I must say, if people steer clear of Proust because they think he's dull, then boy are they wrong! We start off with YBN witnessing some amours between Jupien (the dressmaker/tailor for the area - relevantly, a man) and M. de Charlus (you may remember him from the previous hat-stomping scene in Volume III). YBN describes the world of gay men that exists in France at the time (mostly they're aware of each other, but all of their connections are made through secret or covert acts, and a lot of them are older aristocratic men with younger lovers from lower classes) and we learn about Baron de Charlus's status as a member of the group. YBN attends a party at the Princesse de Guermantes' house, where he sees Swann for what may be the last time. Then YBN heads back to Balbec (the seaside resort) where he falls back in with Albertine and becomes accepted into Swann's previous "little clan" at Mme Verdurin's. M. de Charlus also becomes one of Mme Verdurin's "faithful" and YBN passes a great many Wednesdays there (for that is the day that the Verdurins accept guests) with the little clan and M. de Charlus. M. de Charlus becomes obsessed with Morel, the violinist for the clan and son of YBN's family's former servant, and they have a tumultuous courtship (which everyone sort of knows about but doesn't talk about - Morel's a guy, in case you hadn't picked that up). YBN becomes obsessed with whether or not Albertine is gay (for his friend Dr. Cottard points out how close she is with her intimate group, and YBN is also aware that a scene exists for lesbians as well, though, like for the gay men, it's underground) and proceeds to spend every waking moment with her in an attempt to keep her from ever coming into contact with other women. (I know, FOOLPROOF STRATEGY, right?) After a time, YBN decides he's finally over Albertine, and even starts to break up with her on the train, but she mentions she's going on vacation with a few girlfriends (whom YBN suspects are of the lesbian variety).  In a fit of horror, he begs her to return to Paris with him (even making up a fake girlfriend who he's supposedly been courting all summer) and tells his mother he plans to marry Albertine.

Spoiler Over: Continue Here

- Please add the game of "Telephone" to the list of things Proust invented. Swann describes it precisely in reference to a rumor spread about him at the Princesse de Guermantes' party. (Air-quotes and now this? We are clearly indebted to the man.)

-YBN doesn't really miss his grandmother until he gets back to Balbec and remembers how she used to comfort him when they first came by knocking on the wall between their rooms:
"I asked nothing better of God, if a Paradise exists, than to be able, there, to knock upon that wall the three little raps which my grandmother would know among a thousand, and to which she would reply with those other raps which said, "Don't be alarmed, little mouse, I know you are impatient, but I am just coming," and that He would let me remain with her throughout eternity which would not be too long for us." [How many people do you wish you could call back with three little raps?]

-The lift-boy at Balbec constantly refers to the Marquise de Cambremer as the Marquise de Camembert, which is hilarious once you know that Camembert is a kind of stinky cheese in France. He seems to have misheard the name somewhere, and YBN tries to correct him, but the lift-boy is confident that he's the only one saying it right. [Camembert is my favorite stinky cheese, as it were, and I used to buy a wheel a week and smear it on a baguette picked up from the closest boulangerie. Too bad it's pasteurized here and doesn't taste the same!]

-There is a hilarious discussion of a M. Nissim Bernard, who apparently fell for two twin young men, both of whom had heads which unfortunately resembled a tomato.  According to YBN, he often mixed the men up quite frequently, and since one was into men (and one was not) he got quite a few slaps to the face. This apparently turned him off tomatoes for life, and it became his habit not only not to order them at Balbec, but to tell others (after he'd heard them order tomatoes) that the tomatoes were stale that day, and that they should order something else. Tee hee hee.

-When YBN first arrives at Mme Verdurin's, Princess Sherbatoff finds YBN "very enthusiastic". Dr. Cottard replies that YBN is "too emotional, requires sedatives, and ought to take to knitting." Tee hee hee. I think I agree with both of them!

-The lift-boy gets whooping cough but insists on staying at work and "soldiering on", which results in the following:
"I told him that I preferred to walk upstairs, by which I meant, without putting it in so many words, that I preferred not to catch whooping-cough. But with a cordial and contagious burst of coughing the boy thrust me back into the lift." [Hahgahghag. But seriously folks, whooping cough is on the rise again. Get vaccinated. It's no laughing matter.]

-YBN, in pondering how different his 2nd trip to Balbec is from his first, remarks that the train stops, which used to represent fabulous unknown adventures, now represent a series of acquaintances, which he finds delightfully comforting. In coming to and from the Verdurins, he passes not through stops, but "friendships which from beginning to end of the journey formed a long chain." [Wouldn't it be nice if you could get on a train every day and pick up all your friends along the way? I'd like that.]

Sentences I particularly liked:

  • "Our goodness, our meanness, our name, our social relations do not disclose themselves to the eye, we carry them hidden within us."
  • "There would be no more entertaining if one was obliged to make friends with all the dying people." (callous, but just a little bit funny -- from the Duchesse de Guermantes)
  • "People would be cured for ever of romanticism if they could make up their minds, in thinking of the girl they love, to try to be the man they will be when they are no longer in love with her." (ah, yes. so META, Proust. Exaactly.)
  • "Illness is the doctor to whom we pay most heed: to kindness, to knowledge, we make promises only; pain we obey."
  • "There is no reason why, existing outside ourselves, a real place should conform to the pictures in our memory rather than to those in our dreams. And besides, a fresh reality will perhaps make us forget, detest even, the desires that led us forth upon our journey."
  • "I had long since given up trying to extract from a woman as it might be the square root of her unknown quantity, the mystery of which a mere introduction was generally enough to dispel."
  • "We can sometimes find a person again, but we cannot abolish time."
  • "Gradually, the lifeless sky took fire."

I am Crushing Proust. 4 volumes down, 2 (or 3 depending who you ask) to go. Have to find out if the next one's as racy as this one!

Monday, August 6, 2012

These people belong to a different race, they can't help it with a thousand years of feudalism in their blood.

In Search of Lost Time, Volume III -- The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This volume begins with YBN's family moving to live in part of the Hôtel de Guermantes in Paris. This proximity to the Duke and Duchess Guermantes leads our lovely YBN (who, I'm sorry to report, has still not been granted a name) to obsess over the comings and goings of the once mystical family. He starts to stalk Mme de Guermantes, scheduling morning walks at a particular hour just to be able to accidentally wave at her, as if he just HAPPENED to be there at that specific time. Naturally, she begins to resent said stalking, and he eventually decides it isn't getting him any closer to meeting her for realz, so he goes off to stay with her nephew, Robert de Saint-Loup, at Saint-Loup's barracks. Saint-Loup and YBN develop a lovely friendship, and all in all, YBN is very happy during his time there. Saint-Loup has some run-ins with his mistress, Rachel (aka Zézette), who YBN immediately recognizes as a whore he has slept with in a brothel. He does not tell Saint-Loup, because they are besties. And who really wants to know that? YBN's grandmother falls ill, has a stroke while walking in the Champs-Élysées with YBN, and eventually dies.  YBN and family are understandably distraught. YBN has a weird pseudo-fling with Albertine, a girl he'd known and flirted with when he was at Balbec (Remember?).  M. de Charlus, the Duc de Guermantes' cousin, offers to take YBN under his wing as his protégé, but his family starts acting super-sketch around YBN and then Charlus yells at YBN and tells him he's messed up his chances (and YBN, utterly confused, ends up stomping on Charlus' hat and leaving). Charlus' motives are still extremely unclear. Dreyfusism is discussed throughout, and everyone takes sides (it was a widely publicized trial of a Jewish soldier (Dreyfus) who was wrongly accused -- brought out a streak of Anti-Semitism in France, apparently, as well as a great deal of social battles over who was and wasn't a "Dreyfusard").  Swann and Saint-Loup are the only strong-minded Dreyfusards in our côterie, which causes problems here and there. Swann, who is absent from most of this book, and mentioned only tangentially until the very end, reveals to his good friend the Duchess of Guermantes (and YBN, who happens to be visiting) that he is very ill and will most likely die within the year. This announcement closes out the second installment.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I assume (OF COURSE) that the lack of comments on my post from the first two volumes is merely a stunned silence in the face of my brilliance and ability to tackle Proust, and NOT the result of summer-induced lassitude on the part of my devoted readership. Never fear: the third volume, while enjoyable, was not nearly so stunning as the first (in my opinion) and therefore I shall have less to report.

-- Doncières -- tenderness of YBN-- tutoyering
This was my favorite section of the volume. We find out how tender YBN is, and Saint-Loup is so kind and pleasant and sweet to him. After several days of their intimate kinship, they decide to start "tutoyering", which is the French verb for using the informal "you". It was really cute.

-- Grandma -- the phone, the deathbed waiting, the book Chartreuse
YBN's relationship with his grandma felt very close to me. Most of you know my grandmother passed a way a little over a year ago, and his family's close watch over their grandmother, the unexpected suddenness of her stroke and quick decline, their assumption that she was merely anxious and a hypochondriac, rather than really ill, it all felt very near to me. When YBN calls his grandmother (the telephone having only recently come into being) he feels how different her voice sounds, and simultaneously how good it is to hear and how much he's reminded of the distance between them. Of all the things I miss about my grandmother, I think I miss her voice most. The last phone call we ever had was about this blog, actually, now that I think of it. She used to leave these adorable voicemails, and they always started with "Halloo?! It's... your Grandma!" So cute. :) And they reference a book called Chartreuse, which made me giggle. (Grandma, to Dennis: You're wearing my favorite color! Dennis: Lime green? Grandma: NO! CharTREUSE!)

-- Zézette
Zézette was the name of the 3rd bird that my French host family owned. Their previous pair of birds were Lulu and Fifi. Lulu fell off her perch and DIED one day at dinner, to which my host father said calmly, "Je suppose que Lulu est morte."[I think Lulu just kicked it] And my host mom said, "Oui, elle était malade ce matin."[Yeah, she didn't look so hot this morning] Lulu was quickly replaced by an ENOrmously fat look alike, who was named... Zézette.

-- YBN's description of Rachel, clearly the origin of the "Amber's a total Monet" line in Clueless 
"Rachel had one of those faces that distance - and not necessarily that between the auditorium and the stage, the world itself in this respect being merely a larger theater - throws into sharp outline, and which, seen close up, crumble to dust."

Favorite passages
--YBN, on passing the second night at Doncières, alone in his hotel
- "After that first night, I had to sleep at the hotel. And I knew beforehand that I was doomed to find it miserable. The sadness was like an unbreathable aroma, which every unfamiliar bedroom - that is to say, every bedroom - had exhaled for me for as long as I could remember: in my usual bedroom I was not really there; my mind stayed behind somewhere else and sent mere Habit to take its place. But I could not expect this less mindful servant to look after my needs in a new place, where I had arrived in advance of him, alone, and where I had to face the world with a "self" that I encountered only after years of absence, but which was always the same, the self that had never grown up since Combray, since my first arrival at Balbec, weeping inconsolably as it sat on the corner of an unpacked trunk."

--On why we wake up each morning as ourselves and no one else
- "So how, then, searching for our thoughts, our identities, as we search for lost objects, do we eventually recover our own self rather than any other? Why, when we regain consciousness, is it not an identity other than the one we had previously that is embodied in us? It is not clear what dictates the choice, or why, among the millions of human beings we might be, it is the being we were the day before that we unerringly grasp."

-- "We constantly strive to give our life its form, but by copying, in spite of ourselves, like a drawing, the features of the person we are, not the person we should like to be." How can we make the switch?

-- "It is illness that makes us recognize that we do not live in isolation but are chained to a being from a different realm, worlds apart from us, with no knowledge of us, and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body."

-- "Feel comfortable to be called a neurotic. Everything we think of as great has come to us from neurotics. They and they alone are the ones who have founded religions and created great works of art. The world will never realize how much it is indebted to them, particularly how much they have suffered in order to present it with their gifts." As a self-proclaimed neurotic, I found this reassuring. ;)

Onwards to Proust, Proust, and MORE Proust! Half-done is well begun! See you later for Volume IV. I'm 99% sure I know which one that is...

I was only unhappy for one day at a time.

In Search of Lost Time, Volume II -- In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower by Marcel Proust

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Picking up where we left off in Swann's Way, YBN gets a chance to see La Berma, a famous actress, perform at the local theatre, and GUESS WHAT? He's disappointed. This is going to be a bit of a theme for the next few volumes -- YBN gets to meet someone he's dreamed about and idolized, and it's a BIG FAT ginormous Letdown. With a capital L. I guess it's your classic case of disillusionment, but I found it a bit tiresome after a while. The same thing happens with his fave author, Bergotte. He becomes completely enraptured with Gilberte, Swann's daughter, and starts getting accepted to the Swann's house for tea parties, which of course, Delights him. Swann has married Odette, his lady obsession from the first novel, but of course, he's not in love with her anymore, and she's not in love with him, either. So it's a PERFECT time to get married! YBN looooves Madame Swann, and even when he starts having tempestuous quarrels with Gilberte, Mme Swann and he stay besties. YBN's friend Bloch takes him to a brothel to introduce him to the land of ladies (as all good friends should) and YBN takes a shine to one he calls "Rachel" (it's a Biblical reference to whores. he's iROnic.) YBN has a big fight with Gilberte and refuses to see her anymore. He hopes she'll beg to have him back, but when she does, he doesn't want her anymore and he maintains his friendship with her mama.

ACT II of this novel takes place in Balbec, a seaside resort where YBN travels with his grandmère. They do a whole lot of schmoozing and a whole lot of nothing while they're there -- YBN meets his new bestie, Robert de St-Loup, a nephew of one of the women related to the famed Guermantes clan. YBN has a few awkward interactions with Robert's uncle, Monsieur de Charlus, which leave us as readers feeling a bit confused and uncomfortable. Because YBN can't go long without a ladylove to stalk, he starts obsessing over a pack of early 20th century mean girls, and falls for the erstwhile Regina, Albertine. She confesses she likes him, but after misreading some signals, YBN ends up rebuffed after trying to kiss her in bed at night alone in her hotel room! SCANDALOUS! YBN also makes friends with a painter, Elstir, who's buddy buddy with the mean girls pack. YBN has a falling out with Albertine, shifts his affections to Andrée, another girl in the pack, and then shifts back to Albertine. The volume ends with the girls leaving and YBN and his grandmère getting ready to return home from the seaside resort.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Wasn't that fun? Like I said in my previous post, I accidentally read volumes II and III out of order (because Proust's time sequencing is SO CLEAR) so now that I've finished volume II, I'm posting for both. So no skipping! Just because I went out of order doesn't mean you can!

NEW SECTION: Words Proust taught me (well, technically Proust's translator taught me) and which you should use with your friends to show off your fantastic brilliance:
sesquipedalian - long-winded, polysyllabic

ukase (yoo-kas or yoo-kaz) - an edict; an arbitrary command

equerry - an officer of the king

suzerain (soo-zeh-rin; soo-zeh-ran) - a sovereign; a feudal overlord

jejune - naïve, superficial; dry, uninteresting

fustian - thick cloth; pompous or pretentious speech or writing

peccadilloes - small sins or offenses (maybe it's because of the first syllable, but I always thought this was a bad word!)

Moments I liked:
--Françoise, during her interactions in the kitchen with YBN
"I had been down to the kitchen before her, having earlier extracted from Françoise, the bloodthirsty pacifist, a promise not to inflict too much pain on the rabbit she had had to kill, and wishing to know how it had met its death. Françoise assured me that everything had gone off perfectly, very quickly. 'I have never seen any animal like that. It just died without saying a single word. Maybe it was dumb...' Unversed in the speech habits of animals, I suggested that perhaps rabbits do not screech quite like chickens. 'Oh, what a thing to say!' Françoise gasped in indignation at such ignorance. 'As if a rabbit wouldn't screech as loud as a chicken! They've actually got much louder voices!"

--YBN's affection for Madame Swann really is quite romantically adorable
"So it is that the average life expectancy, the relative longevity of memories being much greater for those that commemorate poetic sensation than for those left by the pains of love, the heartbreak I suffered at that time because of Gilberte has faded forever, and has been outlived by the pleasure I derive, whenever I want to read off from a sundial of remembrance the minutes between a quarter past twelve and one o'clock on a fine day in May, from a glimpse of myself chatting with Mme Swann, sharing her sunshade as though standing with her in the pale glow of an arbor of wisteria.

--YBN on traveling
"The specific pleasure of traveling is not that it enables one to stop when tired or to stay somewhere along the way; it is that it can make the difference between departure and arrival not as unnoticeable as possible, but as profound as possible." this is why I prefer driving over flying, when possible

--Poor YBN on spending his first night in a new place (here, Balbec)
"Deprived of my universe, evicted from my room, with my very tenancy of my body jeopardized by the enemies about me, infiltrated to the bone by fever, I was alone and wished I could die." his grandmère sets up a system of knocking between their rooms to help him settle in.

--On photography
"Photography acquires a certain dignity, which it does not normally have, when it is not just a reproduction of reality but can show us things that no longer exist."

--On why we should allow ourselves an imagination
"What monotony and boredom color the lives of those who, from laziness or timidity, drive directly to the houses of friends whom they have come to know, without first having imagined them, without ever daring to dally along the way with what they desire!"

Sentences/passages I particularly enjoyed:
--"Theoretically, we are aware that the earth is spinning, but in reality we do not notice it: the ground we walk on seems to be stationary and gives no cause for alarm." -- deep, Prousty. deep.

--"Swann would usher me into his study and speak to me for an hour about things that my state of emotional turmoil prevented me from understanding a single word of, and to which I could reply only with stammerings, diffident dumbness, and sudden daring outbursts of short-winded incoherence."

--"With intelligent people, three-quarters of the things they suffer from come from their intelligence. The thing they can't do without is a doctor who's aware of that form of illness."

--"If we are to make reality endurable, we must all nourish a fantasy or two."

--On courtesans (aka prostitutes) -- "The climax of her day is not the moment when she dresses for society, but when she undresses for a man."

--"How preferable the malleable memory of her seems: instead of the real meeting with her, in your solitude you can dramatize a dream in which the girl who is not in love with you assures you that she is!"

--"Glowing in the glory of the morning, her face was pinker than the sky."

The quote for this blog's title is YBN -- are you surprised? Because I'M NOT. Take a break, Have a Nap, then come back and read my post for Volume III! x's and o's!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

So, they really should put numbers on these volumes.

Dear readers,

I want you all to know that I'm diligently attacking Proust. In my fervor, it's possible that I just accidentally read the third volume directly after the first volume, bypassing the second completely. Whoops!

Expect two posts in quick succession, but not for some time.

One step forward, two steps back....

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

He would be greeted by the little phrase from the sonata, played in the garden on the restaurant piano.

In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1 -- Swann's Way by Marcel Proust

NB: Advance warning: this post is substantial. Meaty, some might say. I am reading Proust, after all - you should expect nothing less! To be fair, there's hardly a page in my 606-page copy without a note or an underline, so I did a great deal of trimming to get it down to this. Now don't say I didn't warn you! Trust me, it's worth it.

NB2: I literally had to dig my copy of this volume out from under my bed and brush off the dust. It seems that when I was interrupted flipping through to take notes for my blog, it made a run for it! Don't think you'll get away so easily, Swann's Way!

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This first volume centers on three main stories: the first takes place in Combray, a young boy's country home there, and his relationship with his parents, his aunts and uncles, and his boyhood obsession with his mother's goodnight kiss. It introduces us to the quirky cast of characters that is his family, and brings us in touch tangentially to M. Swann, the subject of the second story. Swann lives next to the young boy's family, but while Swann is permitted to visit them, they do not visit Swann at his home, because he has made what is seen socially as an 'unfit' marriage. The family goes on two walks in the countryside: "the Méséglise way", which they sometimes call "Swann's way", because it passes onto the outskirts of Swann's property, and "the Guermantes way", which leads toward the ancestral home of the aristocratic Guermantes family. The second story focuses on Swann's courtship and obsession with Odette de Crécy, who we find out in the third story does, in fact, become his wife and the mother of his child, a daughter named Gilberte. Swann falls in and out of favor in various circles (particularly the nouveau-riches Verdurins, at whose home he first met Odette), and his feelings for Odette take him on a wild roller coaster ride of love, hatred, indifference, feigned indifference, and downright stalkerness. By the end of the section, he decides he's over her, but the evidence in the third story seems to nullify that assertion. The third story brings us back to the young boy narrator (I'd give him a name IF HE HAD ONE; ahem. pet peeve. from here on, let's call him YBN for short.) and his... SURPRISE! obsession with Gilberte, Swann's daughter. He had spent a great deal of time thinking about her and imagining her at Combray, but in Paris he meets her FOR REALZ and pulls a total Swann. We find out that Odette is in fact Mme Swann, and then the YBN morphs into a wistful older version of himself, looking back and wishing he could hold onto those moments and memories. (Get it? in search of lost time?)
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I decided to blog on each of these volumes separately (there are 6 - or 7 - depending on who you ask) both because (a) I didn't think anyone but my TRULY DEVOTED readers would read a post on the entire novel all at once and (b) I have far too much to say to keep it bottled until I finish the other 6 volumes (and who KNOWS when that will be?) So here goes!!

-- YBN's great-aunt, to YBN, whose nose is happily stuck in a book whenever possible:
"What! still amusing yourself with a book? It isn't Sunday, you know!" Tee hee. It would take me YEARS to get through Proust if I could only read him on Sundays!

-- YBN's grandfather was friends with Swann's father (aka "old Swann") and in discussing old Swann's late wife, old Swann tells YBN's grandfather that he can only think of her in brief bits, because it hurts too much otherwise. YBN's grandfather starts saying the phrase, "Often, but a little at a time, like poor old Swann." I thought this was a perfect metaphor for how I'm going to read Proust -- Often, but a little at a time.

-- Narrator on reading/writing:
"After which it matters not that the actions, the feelings of this new order of creatures appear to us in the guise of truth, since we have made them our own, since it is in ourselves that they are happening, that they are holding in thrall, as we feverishly turn over the pages of the book, our quickened breath and staring eyes.  And once the novelist has brought us to this state, in which, as in all purely mental states, every emotion is multiplied ten-fold, into which his book comes to disturb us as might a dream, but a dream more lucid and more abiding than those which come to us in sleep, why then, for the space of an hour he sets free within us all the joys and sorrows in the world, a few of which only we should have to spend years of our actual life in getting to know, and the most intense of which would never be revealed to us because the slow course of their development prevents us from perceiving them."

I couldn't ask for a better affirmation for this blog, or a better testament to the benefits of reading.

-- My favorite line in the book, from the early days of Swann and Odette's courtship:
"Swann had left his cigarette-case at her house. 'If only', she wrote, 'you had also forgotten your heart! I should never have let you have that back.'"

-- Did you know that Proust originated air-quotes? Seriously. Tell me if that isn't what you think this sounds like:
"'I see no objection to its being old,' the Princess answered dryly, 'but whatever else it is it's not euphonious,' she went on, isolating the word euphonious as though between inverted commas, a little affectation to which the Guermantes set were addicted."

-- Fabulous description of the inequality of days:
"And besides, even from the point of view of mere quantity, in our lives the days are not all equal.  To get through each day, natures that are at all highly strung, as was mine, are equipped, like motor-cars, with different gears. There are mountainous, arduous days, up which one takes an infinite time to climb, and downward-sloping days which one can descend at full tilt, singing as one goes."

Today was a mountainous day. Let's hope tomorrow I can descend at full tilt, singing as I go!

-- YBN to his beloved Gilberte, when she arrives extremely late to the Champs-Élysées where they play together:
"'I had so many things to ask you,' I said to her. 'I thought that today was going to mean so much in our friendship. And no sooner have you come than you go away! Try to come early tomorrow, so that I can talk to you.'"

Tee hee hee. Little lovestruck boys are so cute. :)

Favorite passages/sentences:
-- "Its memory, the composite memory of its ribs, its knees, its shoulder-blades, offered it a series of rooms in which it had at one time or another slept, while the unseen walls, shifting and adapting themselves to the shape of each successive room that it remembered, whirled round it in the dark." -- YBN, on waking up in the night and his body remembering where he is

-- "I was convinced of the hostility of the violet curtains and of the insolent indifference of a clock that chattered on at the top of its voice as though I were not there."

-- "But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection." -- this is the lead-in to the classic madeleines passage

-- "a smile of joy, of pious thanksgiving to God who is pleased to grant that life shall be less cruel than our dreams." -- on waking from a nightmare

-- "In my heart of hearts I care for nothing in the world now but a few churches, two or three books and pictures, and the light of the moon when the fresh breeze of your youth wafts to my nostrils the scent of gardens whose flowers my old eyes can no longer distinguish."

-- "From time to time, oppressed by boredom, a carp would heave itself out of the water with an anxious gasp." -- particularly amusing since I recently had "red-neck fishing" described to me by some friends from Kentucky ;)

-- "When, on a summer evening, the melodious sky growls like a tawny lion, and everyone is complaining of the storm, it is the memory of the Méséglise way that makes me stand alone in ecstasy, inhaling, through the noise of the falling rain, the lingering scent of invisible lilacs." -- I remember when we used to pick lilacs at the house next door when we lived at 419 E. Pine Street. I used to love crawling through the hedge to clip at the lilac bushes wildly, bringing fistfuls back to the house to stuff into vases. Mom, do you remember?

-- Mme Verdurin, asserting herself:
"'I say, aren't you going to do any work this evening?' she screamed suddenly to the young pianist, seeing an opportunity for displaying, before a newcomer of Forcheville's importance, at once her unfailing wit and her despotic power over the 'faithful'."

-- "Beneath the restless tremolos of the violin part which protected it with their throbbing sostenuto two octaves above it - and as in a mountainous country, behind the seeming immobility of a vertiginous waterfall, one descries, two hundred feet below, the tiny form of a woman walking in the valley - the little phrase had just appeared, distant, graceful, protected by the long, gradual unfurling of its transparent, incessant, and sonorous curtain."

-- It's too long to detail here, but the scene with the Marquise de Cambremer and the Vicomtesse de Franquetot is absolutely fantastic. If you want to read it, you can go to this link: http://www.freefictionbooks.org/books/s/2734-swanns-way-by-marcel-proust?start=220

-- "She had learned in her girlhood to fondle and cherish those long sinuous phrases of Chopin, so free, so flexible, so tactile, which begin by reaching out and exploring far outside and away from the direction in which they started, far beyond the point which one might have expected their notes to reach, and which divert themselves in those byways of fantasy only to return more deliberately - with a more premeditated reprise, with more precision, as on a crystal bowl that reverberates to the point of making you cry out - to strike at your heart."-- I don't think I've ever read anyone who writes about music more beautifully than Proust does.

-- "I longed for nothing more than to behold a stormy sea." -- YBN, a somewhat sickly child, who gets so excited about the prospect of traveling to Italy that he gets sick and is banned from traveling for a year. Poor dear!

-- "Now, don't start whispering! How would you like to come into a house and find everyone muttering to themselves?" -- YBN's great-aunt, on why whispering is impolite

-- "I hear that things worked out badly again today, Léonie; you had all your friends here at once." -- YBN's mother commiserating with his great-aunt, who detested having her priest and her gossip informant/friend Eulalie arrive at the same time on the ONLY day she deigned to accept visitors from her self-appointed sick room.

-- "But it is preeminently as the deepest layer of my mental soil, as the firm ground on which I still stand, that I regard the Méséglise and Guermantes ways. It is because I believed in things and in people while I walked along those paths that the things and the people they made known to me are the only ones that I still take seriously and that still bring me joy."

-- "And this malady which Swann's love had become had so proliferated, was so closely interwoven with all his habits, with all his actions, with his thoughts, his health, his sleep, his life, even with what he hoped for after his death, was so utterly inseparable from him, that it would have been impossible to eradicate it without almost entirely destroying him; as surgeons say, his love was no longer operable."

Félicitations if you've made it this far! By the by, the title is in reference to a theme from a sonata that becomes Odette and Swann's love motif.

Onwards to the second installment, the Guermantes way. Wish me luck!