In Search of Lost Remembrance

This blog post contains spoilers for In Search of Lost Time. If that’s a thing.

Back at the very tail end of 2012, I decided that my 2013 reading project would be Marcel Proust’s elephantine seven-volume masterpiece, A la recherche du temps perdu, known in English as either Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time – the title, as I would find, not being the only thing about it that’s difficult to get hold of. At the point of embarking on the first volume, Swann’s Way, my knowledge of the work was restricted to ‘something about cakes’ and the Monty Python sketch featuring the All-England Summarise Proust Competition. But I plunged in, intending to finish the whole lot by the end of the year.

Last weekend, I finally finished reading the final volume, Time Regained. So that’s only 7 ½ months behind schedule, which, considering how long it took Proust to write (13 years, and he wasn’t done with it when he died) ain’t bad going. And now, I can officially join the club of People Who Have Read Proust, the literary equivalent of completing the Ironman, but much less sweaty.

What’s the verdict? Well, mixed. Proust has his moments, for sure: his elegiac imagery, his memorable character portraits, his musings on such themes of memory, mortality, and the essential impossibility of truly knowing the mind of another. But boy, could he have used a swingeing edit. The seven-part novel is not only extremely long – over 1.2 million words in the original French – it’s also rambling, repetitive, and hopelessly self-indulgent. Better readers than I have given up in frustration when they realise that, yes, fifty pages later, he’s still going on about his bedroom ceiling. The narrator/main character – who is basically Proust himself – is not terribly sympathetic: whiny, lazy, self-absorbed and extremely jealous, he spends all his time stalking women or young girls, complaining (ironically) about writer’s block, and trying to worm his way into high society. The concept of doing anything actually useful with his life doesn’t occur to him until the final volume, and even then it’s only to capture his flashes of involuntary memory caused by madeleines and uneven paving slabs for the benefit of posterity. I spent much of Books 4 & 5 hoping that his girlfriend, the long-suffering Albertine, would give him a slap round the face and tell him to get over himself. Sadly, she never does.

Much more sympathetic is Charles Swann, father of the narrator’s first love, and hero of his own novella included within the first volume. A wealthy assimilated Jew who has made an unwise marriage, his position is both exalted and insecure, especially once the Dreyfus Affair exposes the tensions and underlying antisemitism in French society. The scene near the end of Book 3 where he, terminally ill and passionate about politics, is contrasted with his friends the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes, caring only about the party they’re going to, is probably the most affecting in the entire novel. In many ways his is a much more interesting story than the narrator’s, and if you want to read it, I recommend The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, which is both excellent and quite short.

In Search of Lost Time is easy to make fun of, less easy to read. As a book, it makes no concessions to the reader, expecting you to keep up with the narrator’s endless asides, and remember every detail about a character you last met a thousand pages ago. The plot proceeds at a pace of about one event per volume. It’s not what you’d call a page-turner. But having got to the end, I can say that I’m glad I’ve read it, experienced a unique voice, a key work in world literature and the development of the modern novel. I probably won’t ever read it again, but I think certain images and moments will stay with me forever. So I’ll drink a lime-blossom tea to that, and proceed with the next reading challenge.

In a fortnight’s time, I’ll be at the Fantasy Convention in York, so I’ll be updating this blog on Monday 8th September with my latest thoughts…

Wikipedia on the Dreyfus Affair: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dreyfus_affair

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Smells like…?

So… those developments I mentioned last week, which I was hoping would have developed by now… they still haven’t developed. Oh well. That’ll teach me to tempt fate. So I’m writing about smells instead.

Last weekend I went on a hen do, down in Birmingham, which was extremely exciting as it was the first time I’ve managed to get out to an actual nightclub since BMBWB (Before My Back Went Bad). The only negative was that I struggled to sleep, finding the pillows in the rented apartment too hard. So when I got home on Sunday, the first thing I did was flop onto my bed and let my head sink into my own deliciously soft pillow. And the funny thing was, I immediately noticed the smell: after two nights on synthetic bedding, my feather pillow had a distinctively organic odour. Now I hasten to clarify that my bedroom does not smell like a farmyard. But after spending the weekend away, there was definitely a detectable aroma welcoming me back to my own bed. Smells like home.

Trying to describe this sensation to my husband, I was struck by the paucity of the English language to describe smells. And then I saw a post on tumblr, gently mocking the cliches of fan fiction: “he inhaled his scent. he smelled of (ingredient 1), (ingredient 2) and something undefinable, that was uniquely (name of buttsex partner).” * This made me laugh out loud, because it’s so true – not just for amateur slash, but for professional writing. I recently read a book in which the heroine was described as smelling of strawberries and cut grass. Now I’ve never met anyone who smelled of either strawberries or cut grass, unless they’d been eating the one and rolling around in the other, so I didn’t find this terribly convincing, but, as anyone who has ever borrowed clothes from someone they fancy will tell you, people DO have a unique scent.

But there are only a few words – sour, fresh – which actually describe odours, and fewer still – musky, heady – that specifically refer to smell. Hence resorting to claiming that someone smells like cinnamon and honeysuckle when they clearly don’t (it’s curious that these descriptions are nearly always of sweet things, when humans are surely more likely to smell like, well, meat). Compare that with the myriad number of ways we have to describe the way something looks. I’m not sure whether other languages are similarly poorly equipped, but I have noticed that Proust, the master of sensory evocation – the taste of madeleines, the sound of a piano sonata, the sight of the sea or of the sunlight playing on a bedroom ceiling – doesn’t dwell much on scent, which suggests that either French isn’t much better, or he was too consumed with hay fever to smell very much.

This all presents a problem for the writer, trying to evoke this most elusive of the senses. But then, that is perhaps the joy of smell: even in an age of Yankee Candles which claim to capture the scent of anything from fresh cut roses to camouflage, it isn’t easy to pin down. It bypasses the more rational parts of the mind and plunges us straight into a sensation, whether a long-forgotten memory from childhood, gut-wrenching repulsion, hopeless lust, or that deeply joyous feeling of coming home.

* in case you’re wondering, yes, quite a lot of fan fiction really is like that, as I’ve previously chronicled: https://ruthdehaas.wordpress.com/2014/01/17/fan-fiction-under-the-rock/

 

Peony

The smell of a garden after rain…

A Roundup of Randomness

It’s been quite a tiring couple of weeks. After almost 5 months of severe back pain, my activities largely restricted to walking round the park, drinking cups of tea, and watching old music videos and Game of Thrones teasers on YouTube, last Monday I finally went back to work. The pain hasn’t gone, but it’s sufficiently under control to start a phased return to the office, trying to remember what on earth I’m supposed to be doing (something to do with overhaul of jet engines, I think). I’ve been doing just two hours a day so far, but it’s astonishing how drained I feel afterwards. Still, this week was much better than last week, so it’s progress, and I was genuinely touched by how happy all my colleagues are to see me back. So, in the absence of more significant inspiration, I figure it’s time for a quick roundup of my latest thoughts and deeds.

1) Game of Thrones season 4 has started. This is, quite literally, the most exciting thing to happen to me in the last six months. My favourite bit – apart from Arya and The Hound, obvs – is the opening credits: although I have to confess that my heart sank just a little bit when Meereen showed up, I do love the way they’ve made The Dreadfort look like meat tenderisers. The Dreadfort, for those who don’t have the same encyclopaedic knowledge of Westeros as me, is the seat of Roose Bolton, who isn’t a terribly nice guy, even by GoT’s bloodthirsty standards. Incidentally, he looks just like Vladimir Putin.

2) I’ve been listening to a lot of Team Rock Radio lately, a station which promises no adverts, although it does spend a lot of time telling you all about what’s in the latest issue of Classic Rock Magazine. Clearly an underhand marketing tactic which won’t work on me. So in the latest issue, I’ve been reading all about KISS. God, they’re rubbish. But I salute their stroke of genius in adopting that crazy face-paint look back in the 70s, thus ensuring that: a) nobody would find out how ugly they all were; b) nobody would recognise them off-stage; c) they could replace band members without anyone noticing; and d) in forty years’ time, when their pretty-boy rivals’ faces had all melted, they would still look exactly the same.

3) Last Christmas I decided that my 2013 reading challenge would be ‘In Search of Lost Time’. I managed about half of it, so I’ve decided it’s actually a 2013 and 2014 reading challenge, and I’m currently working my way – slowly – through volume 4, ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’. I’ve also baked some madeleines, which I think counts as further progress.

4) On Monday evening I jointly led a session at my writing group, Derby Scribes, on the topic of submissions to agencies, magazines, and anthologies. At one point the discussion turned to font choices, and it struck me that you can always tell a true writer by how impassioned they are on the topic of serifs vs sans, Courier vs Times New Roman, or Verdana vs Calibri. We even had a couple of people sticking up for that most reviled of all fonts, Comic Sans. FWIW, my personal font of choice is Palatino Linotype.

5) My friend Tamsin has roped me into doing a 10k walk, starting at 10pm, to raise money for Treetops Hospice. It’s called the Moonlight Walk, but it’s actually scheduled for the night of the new moon, so clearly we need all the help we can get. Our team is called The Tea Ladies, and if we make our donations target, I’ll do the walk wearing my English breakfast tea cosy on my head. http://www.justgiving.com/the-tea-ladies/?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=fundraisingpage&utm_content=the-tea-ladies&utm_campaign=pfp-share

Image

I will wear this on my head if you donate enough money to our cause

 

Book Club

I’ve realised lately that, for somebody who professes to love literature, I don’t read nearly enough books. Partly it’s the fault of the myriad other demands on my time, of course, but it’s also partly internet addiction, for which there’s really no excuse. I’m trying to tweet less and read more, both in and out of my chosen genre of fantasy. So here I am, on the, er, internet, to share with you a quick review of some of my recent reads.

1) Within a Budding Grove, by Marcel Proust (Vol. 2 of In Search of Lost Time)

My 2013 reading project is to work my way through this colossus of literature, one of the longest novels ever written. I got through volume 1, Swann’s Way, fairly quickly, but I have to admit to struggling with the second book (different translation, which may not have helped). It’s not a book which makes it easy for the reader. There are many passages of wonderfully evocative description waiting for you – if you can wade through the endless pages of repetition as the procrastinating protagonist agonises over afternoon tea. Meanwhile the plot progresses at a pace best described as geological. Think I may take a break before tackling volume 3.

2) One Day, by David Nicholls

I haven’t finished this one yet but I’m very much enjoying it so far – the first book in a long time I’ve felt compelled to continue reading whilst walking up the stairs. Not perhaps the most original tale, although the structure of showing a snapshot of the main characters’ lives on every 15th July over the course of twenty years is pretty neat. But originality doesn’t matter so much when you’ve got such a well-written and sharply observed story, and it’s one of those rare books that makes you feel you actually know the characters. It’s like I could invite Emma and Dexter out to the pub tomorrow night; I’d get annoyed at some of their foibles but I’d still be happy they were my friends.

Edit: I finished reading it. Devastated.

 

3) World War Z, by Max Brooks

So I could have illustrated World War Z with a picture of a rotting zombie. But, well, you know...

I could have used a picture of a rotting zombie. But, well, you know…

Second time of reading this one: the first time round I devoured it greedily, like the living dead on some glistening entrails. This time I’m reading it more slowly and savouring the saltiness of the satire. I love the way Brooks uses the device of the zombocalypse to poke fun at just about every nation on earth (the Israelis with their huge anti-zombie fence, the South Africans dusting off their dodgy apartheid-era emergency plans) and mercilessly lampoon modern life. There’s a sequence comparing the jobs people did before and after the titular war which is a bit too close to the bone: the man who previously did a meaningless corporate job now gets more satisfaction from sweeping chimneys. Not sure what I’m going to make of the movie but the original book comes highly recommended.