Reading during one of those godawful endurance tests when works spills well beyond the professional bo...moreI am surprised by how much I enjoyed this book.
Reading during one of those godawful endurance tests when works spills well beyond the professional boundaries I've established long ago to keep my job's ruinous hands off the things that make life enjoyable almost always spells disaster for whatever unfortunate book is the victim of bad timing (and often absolutely no free time at all), as late nights and occupational frustration leave little brainpower and less desire to read things I'm not paid to attack with a red pen.
Furthermore, this book smelled of what I suspected to be, despite Jennifer Egan's decidedly admirable reputation, the much-maligned chick lit, a genre in which I have little interest and with which I have virtually no experience. A former model meets with a fiery car accident, with the resulting surgery transforming her into a still-beautiful but unrecognizable creature? A teenage girl is staring down the very experience that will finally propel her from childhood's idyllic innocence into the harsh realities of introductory adulthood? The onetime high-school football star who has embraced his natural place on the fringes of academia? A charmingly damaged private detective? The perennial exotic, mysterious stranger? I was prepared for the marathon eye-rolling sure to follow along with whatever parade of self-fulfilling fantasies was poised to shuffle across more than 400 pages of predictability and pageantry.
And then the book began with a quote from Ulysses, which threw me off entirely (spoiler alert: yeah, pretty sure it's not chick lit). And these characters almost immediately emerged as richly imagined, intricately complex and cautiously likable personalities illustrating a panoply of well-executed themes and generously supported messages that, as demonstrated by this cast embodying a dizzying range of temperaments and impulses, prove the commonality of the human condition, right on down to how closely we guard the private motivations that, were we to give voice to them, would draw us closer to one another in an understanding of recognition. This book, it turns out, has things to say. That are worth saying. And are said well.
It is often the case with nonexistent reading time, which means long lags between putting a book down and picking it up again, that I lose both details and interest that would otherwise be present in a more ideal reading pace, ultimately casting an unearned fog of forgetful disinterest over a story that sputteringly emerges in fits and irregular bursts. While this book is rather chock-full of tiny details that merge to form multidimensional characters at oddly familiar crossroads that result in even more recognizable moments of clarity, they're so well connected that it was difficult to lose track of who did what, what happened to whom, and how some subtle detail presented pages and weeks ago had propelled the story along its only logical trajectory. What's more, each long-overdue return to this book felt less like a desperate flurry of forced refamiliarization and more like being welcomed by patient acquaintances who knew exactly where we left off and resumed their narrative threads without either the confusion or faltering steps of gap-marked memory that so often happen when a book can start to feel abandoned.
There are times when characters seem to exist merely as vehicles for the plot, and there are times when plot exists simply to give the characters a reason to be written: This is the perfect middle ground between such off-putting extremes. Each of the main characters (and most of the supporting ones) continue to be fleshed out as the novel forges ahead, and each of their stories gradually interlock or refasten after being pulled apart long ago or make their way to a crescendo of connection. The parallels of growth and discovery in both the players and their plays create a not unpleasant sense of being overwhelmed by the places life takes us and the ups and downs of getting there, serving as a keen reminder that the destination is not a full stop but rather a shift in existence that needs to be taken into account and calls for an adjustment if it is to be allowed the awesome force of realization it is intended to be. Personal evolution doesn't just happen: It is the correct response to those predetermined moments that can either bring the needed change to thrive or swallow a person whole because they'd rather stand in place than take a chance on self-discovery.
It's not like change is easy, especially when it's a necessity of circumstance rather than a luxury of choice. Like bucking up and moving on from a tragedy, be it a self-contained one demanding physical recovery or the universally understood ache of young love (or soul-baring infatuation, as it so often truly is) that flees just as quickly as it descends, leaving behind a newly guarded heart sore with the implicit realization that things will never be the same again. The changes this novel's characters undergo highlight the ongoing battle of minimizing the divide between the Old Self and New Self, how every newly shed identity must find its place among all the outdated incarnations of the self to comprise a single ghost, how difficult it can be to honor the past without living in it so as not to stunt the growth of the present, and eventually future, self. The present is destined to join the composite of the past, which exists alongside every new self, and it is a thing we can never truly shed or hide because it is apparent in the memories that shape our resolute cores of being, regardless of whether we choose to embrace or deny the selves that were.
Most of all, as suggested by such an imploringly imperative title, this is a book about recognition. Whether a character's metamorphosis is sudden, violent, inevitable, an acceptance of maturity or a refusal to exist within the confines of one identity for too long, validation through another's affirmation is the only real measurement of a transformation's success. We can always recognize ourselves, even though we are the only ones aware of our most infinitesimal changes: It is through others that we see where and how well we fit, if at all, into the cogs of greater existence. (less)
As Sodom and Gomorrah began, our Narrator was struggling to understand the nature of homosexuals while I was alternating between reading his early-twe...moreAs Sodom and Gomorrah began, our Narrator was struggling to understand the nature of homosexuals while I was alternating between reading his early-twentieth-century musings and poring over sweetly triumphant images of same-sex couples rushing to "legitimize" their long-running relationships with celebratory midnight marriages. As the strange continent of "inverts" draws horticultural allusions and comparisons to covert societies in Proust's time, the LGBTQ community is finally being recognized in a way that signals the slow unravelling of ignorance and inequality in mine.
For the first three volumes, it was easy to lose any sense of cultural or chronological divide when faced with so many universal constants of humanity that all but waltzed off their pages and pages of lyrical metaphors; in S&G, we have a Narrator who recalls how the first time he saw an airplane overhead filled him with childlike wonder and lives in a time when it is apparently totally normal for a man to pick out his female companion's evening attire, which are but a few examples that, like unchecked homophobia, for the first time in my journey with Proust heralded a struggle to bridge the gap between when these volumes were written and when I'm reading them, bringing into stark reality just how much separates modernism from modern times, regardless of how well the common ground of so many other shared human experiences minimized the inevitable differences in eras and epochs. I finally felt the full extent of the distance -- literal and figurative, in time and physical distance, of the real and fictionally polished -- between the richly depicted, intricately crafted images Proust used to construct his Narrator's winding halls of memory and the world to which I belong. It was a jarring transition, for sure, but it was also a rather well-timed one: As the Narrator become increasingly aware of adult life's complicated emotions stirring inside and the societal politics constantly changing around him (not to mention the slow encroachment of technology, which does cast a shroud of smoky modernization on a world previously draped in pristine laces and cloud-soft velvets), I, too, got a taste of that irrevocable shift from a reasonably expected understanding to desperate reconsideration of an ever-shifting world.
This installment, sadly, is one I read in staccato bursts of precious free time. It is unfortunate because Proust is best savored like good wine rather than chugged like cheap beer, and I fear I spent more time drunk on his beautiful words than intoxicated by his narrative insight. In those exhausted but relieved hours at home, in those stolen wedges of at-work bookwormery, in whatever few minutes were spent in quiet solitude, I clung to Proust with the desperation of a booklover in the throes of both work-related burnout and the dreaded reader's slump. And while a frantic heart may not be the best way to approach words that are ideally enjoyed at a leisurely stroll, I do believe the Narrator's burgeoning sense of humor and need to slowly drink in his surroundings kept me grounded during chaotic times. While S&G may not have been my favorite installment, it is the one that affected me the deepest.
Among the revolving door of social obligations and self-indulgent observations that seem to occupy the majority of Fictional Marcel's abundant free time, I found myself most invested in his delayed reaction to his grandmother's death. Having never known the magnitude of a transgenerational love like that which Narrator shared with his maternal grandmother, I felt his palpable grief just as keenly as the slow-arriving but no less heartrending clarity of permanent absence that hit him upon revisiting a place that once played such an important role in demonstrating the fondness and compassion that can exist between a grandmother and her grandson. As the Narrator contemplates how different Balbec is without his beloved grandmother, as he muses on how much his own once-young mother has taken on the visage of her own mother now that the elder woman's death has left a role unfulfilled, as he retraces rooms that once were filled with his grandmother's presence, the concrete reality of past time being truly lost time came thundering down against a mostly familiar landscape that derives most of its changes from the players inhabiting it. It is odd that the grief is intense but short-lived, yes, but I couldn't help but write it off as the Narrator's decision to forge ahead with his life rather than mawkishly wallow in grief -- such are the intermittences of the heart, no?
I continue to find the romantic entanglements of these characters to be a high-school level of ridiculous. It seems like so few of the relationships presented thus far in ISOLT -- Swann and Odette; the Narrator and Gilberte (and also Albertine); Saint-Loup and Rachel -- are healthy, mutually affectionate ones, but it could also be that I have little patience for romances, even fictional ones, that are built on a foundation of obsession and possession rather than respect and genuine fondness. And, really, the affair between Morel and Charlus isn't anything laudable, I know, but I can't help but find it one of the most believable examples of heady lust in terms of its execution and its players' emotionally fueled behaviors. There is little else but pure attraction drawing Charlus helplessly toward Morel, who can't help but take advantage of (or be manipulated by, depending on your vantage point) the older gentleman's affections and gifts. Still, the greed with which Charlus tries to keep Morel to himself while all but undressing him in public, the satisfaction he derives just from coaxing the younger musician into his presence is…. okay, a bit much, yes, but also keenly evocative of an irrationally all-consuming, unrealistically intense first crush and the reluctant empathy of understanding such memories drag along in their wake.
Sodom and Gomorrah struck me as proof that the memories of our past can't help but be intertwined with memories of others, a reminder that there are always multiple perspectives at play -- and that, as the ending scenes with Bloch reinforce, not everyone's assessment of a situation will always be reliable or anything more than actions born of misunderstanding a sticky situation that was handled badly because there are no do-over options in real life and things only make sense when hindsight lays down the rest of the puzzle. ISOLT might be fictional, sure, but it is written as an account of life, and sometimes learning life's lessons means that truths can be as ugly as our lesser selves. (less)