The main thing I learned is that the best time to read (or reread) this classic is during Lent. Who knew?
Like the rest of the Commedia, the poem is meThe main thing I learned is that the best time to read (or reread) this classic is during Lent. Who knew?
Like the rest of the Commedia, the poem is meticulously structured. The three parts are the arrival at Mount Purgatory (the only landmass opposite the inhabited continents of the known Earth), then the climb up the mountain around the seven cornices of purification, then the allegorical pageant of the blessed in the Earthly Paradise. Unlike the descent into Hell, Dante and Virgil complete their ascent over the course of a few days after Easter AD 1300, and because they may not make upward progress while the Sun is down, there are enforced rest (and dream) periods. This time when Dante interviews the souls they have an orientation toward Heaven; they are already saved, and submit to their trials voluntarily, as a sort of ultimate self-improvement. The stories are sometimes quite similar to what we saw in Inferno, with the addition of a sincere repentance and absolution at the end. At the same time, Dante the pilgrim is changing, having his sins erased from his brow as he grows lighter and lighter on his trip up the mountain. The way Dante understands what he sees when he arrives in Eden is Scholastic, not psychological, and it takes a fair amount of exertion to get into the proper frame of mind to appreciate the symbols and allusions packed into these scenes. This kind of work is not for everyone, probably, but there are moments of great beauty for the reader who can make the journey. ...more
I think it's good to read this every ten years or so, to marvel at Dante's inventiveness at the miseries these souls (heavily weighted toward those whI think it's good to read this every ten years or so, to marvel at Dante's inventiveness at the miseries these souls (heavily weighted toward those who were his contemporaries) have made for themselves, and how he makes himself so perfectly clueless about the very cosmology he devised. I paid particular attention to how as the author and his guide descend into Hell the sense of fantastic horror increases in a way that I don't think existed before. It felt like the aim was to burn out all vice in the Dante character so that he could re-emerge on the other side ready to take the path back toward heaven, maybe because of all the strife and tumult he'd experienced in his very political life up till then. Reading the whole book in a month, about one canto a day, it just the right pace to allow one to study the endnotes. Most of the individual stories he crams in here I'd already forgotten from the previous times I've read the book. Of course many of these have now been adopted by other artists, but there are lots of others whom we know only through a couple of lines of verse seven centuries after they lived. This is the second time I've read Pinsky's translation. I like it, but maybe not as much as John Ciardi's which seems more graceful, less brutal in places. The poem is a terrible beauty, studded with those amazing metaphors Dante was so fond of....more
I’m writing this with a wretched cold I caught on Christmas Eve day, the same day I finished the work by one of the most famous chronic invalids in liI’m writing this with a wretched cold I caught on Christmas Eve day, the same day I finished the work by one of the most famous chronic invalids in literature, Marcel Proust. Over a million words into this set of books you get the feeling that anything you can say will seem ridiculously insufficient in the face of Proust's conception with its multiple intertwined themes, dozens of characters major and minor (some of the most important of whom undergoing three or four names changes over the work) the recurring motifs such as the famous one of involuntary memory that bookends all the rest, and it's too much for a reviewer to hope for an original insight. I enjoyed reading those elements in this last volume which the author might have covered differently if it had come out during his lifetime with all the risks they would have entailed. The author’s voice is aloof and satiric, wistful at times when recalling past experiences both happy and unpleasant. There's a section devoted to life during wartime, a party where past acquaintances are transformed by the years to the point of unrecognizability, and a surreal scene of homosexual bondage. This sadism scene recaptured the horror of the World War so close to Paris in microcosm. Ghosts of the Narrator's grandmother, of his friend Saint-Loup, of Charles Swann whose obsessive love dominated much of the first volume, and of Albertine to whom the Narrator clung to the point of madness but has long ceased caring about haunt the pages as much as the shells of those who still lived. I was trying to think of any other novelist who has depicted time ravaging characters we have grown to know and care about quite the way Proust has here. Besides the loss of beauty, the physical infirmities, there had been humiliating declines in status along with challenges to the exclusivity of the noble class from the bourgeoisie. What was cherished by the preceding generation fades from memory of the one that follows unless an artist can devote a lifetime to capturing them. This is as explicit a moment of identification between the Narrator of the story with Proust himself as we have been given....more
Although this is the one volume some have advised the casual reader of Proust to skip entirely when dipping into the series, it plays an important rolAlthough this is the one volume some have advised the casual reader of Proust to skip entirely when dipping into the series, it plays an important role in showing the Narrator sink to his lowest level. He has adopted all the mores of the upper classes while simultaneously engaging in activities they forbid. Deciding to live with Albertine was the one serious choice he made, at the end of Cities of the Plain, and now when obsessive jealousy and an atmosphere of secrets destroyed the basis of that relationship. When the sudden disappearance of his mistress Albertine becomes permanent, he sinks down into himself and is eft with emptiness. He has not been equipped to know where to look for something or someone that will give back to his life any kind of meaning in this world he no longer controls. In this state of mind, he observes the life changes of those in his circle, abrupt changes in fortune and status, and while he knows what they mean according to the code of the ancien régime, on another level he can also sense too keenly how insubstantial is their underlying foundation.
By this point (and really by the beginning of The Captive), Proust is almost completely done with introducing important characters, which I appreciated. Instead of the whirl of names at the salons and on trains and carriages earlier, he brings in a completely new setting in a country we haven’t visited before. It is effective, particularly during an episode where a mistransmitted telegram is mistaken for an apparent message from the dead woman.
At the end of this book we have the strange motif that Proust uses of having a turn toward homosexuality or bisexuality encapsulate the idea of a character’s ruination. The only exception is the Narrator himself, who remains steadfastly straight. This feels like a ground rule that Proust set up and refuses to break, making it hard to support a strictly autobiographical reading of the series.
There are also some fine stretches of writing here including some of the biting wit we have seen before. But the sections which spoke to me the most were the Narrator’s musings on what it is like to continue after the death of someone who once meant a lot to him. What does it say about our lives if friends become unrecognizable, if even love can die in one’s heart?...more
I finished this book a week ago but it's taken me this long to start to organize my thoughts and feelings about this part of the seven volume saga. OuI finished this book a week ago but it's taken me this long to start to organize my thoughts and feelings about this part of the seven volume saga. Our Narrator has learned certain lessons from his years among the smart society and when he acts on them he experiences first-hand how much real unhappiness they can bring. All the characters at the salon (in this book, the one hosted by the Verdurins, but also those which occupied central place in the previous volumes) are touched by insincerity in one way or another, making it plausible for the Narrator to do the same himself. At the same time he witnesses in the example of the Baron de Charlus how powerless an individual who is in the grip of this sort of life can be.
The relationship between the Narrator and Albertine is heavy on ambivalence, where he alternately lavishes expensive gifts on her and gives in to extreme fits of jealousy made worse by ambiguous things she says that can be interpreted as lies. The plot points are simple: a lazy morning spent contemplating his mistress with a mixture of boredom and obsession, a manipulative conversation, a trip to a salon to understand the attraction it has for Albertine, a quarrel. And yet underneath the collection of hidden motives, of mistrust, of emotions concealed and misrepresented, these are what give the story heft. It is hard to understand why he even cares what kinds of things Albertine does apart from himself, except from an insane kind of possessiveness.
These sketches of the story of Albertine actually go all the way back to the early part of Proust's writing life, but were only published after his death without benefit of a final edit by him. It still stands as a remarkable series of episodes where the main character's folly is made clear to the reader but not to himself. There are echoes throughout on themes and images we have seen before as preoccupations of this era before the first World War, which had already begun to fade into the past when this was published in 1922....more
This book is more complex than the three that went before. It feels like Proust is finally getting down to the essential theme of the series with theThis book is more complex than the three that went before. It feels like Proust is finally getting down to the essential theme of the series with the tempestuous relationship between the Baron de Charlus and his violinist paramour Charlie Morel being set against the one between the Narrator and Albertine, whom he passes off as his cousin while in society, all with the specters of death (the Narrator's grandmother and Charles Swann notably) not far in the background. It strikes me as nearly plotless, with dozens of pages devoted to conversations in a single short railway journey, but one element of the story that is noticeable is the way the very first section (the Baron and Jupien's homosexual encounter) and the very last section (the Narrator grows agitated by suspicions of Albertine's homosexual activity) bookend the rest, symbolically the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and their inhabitants. Maybe 90% of the book is about the Baron and his odd behaviors, but the part I liked the best did not involve him but focuses on the inner life of the Narrator directly. It's odd how the Narrator closely observes the details of everyone's behavior but is often out of touch with his own quirks, or while recognizing them, is helpless to change them. Proust doesn't say it but my guess is that the amount of self-medication this character has been engaging in has really caught up with him and affected his personality on a deep level. My guess is that it's going to take three more books before he gains the self-awareness he badly needs. This book has splendid passages where Proust casts a spotlight onto some of his most vivid characters: Charlus, Mme. Verdurin, Morel, the lift boy, the younger Mme. de Cambremer, with just Françoise being left out of the mix. The contrast with Albertine, who remains mostly a cipher, is stark, and I'll be looking to see whether this remains the case in the next book or whether she remains an enigma throughout this entire fraught relationship....more
This volume was harder to finish than the first two, because I am not naturally a fan of stories fascinated with silly celebrities. The nobles here arThis volume was harder to finish than the first two, because I am not naturally a fan of stories fascinated with silly celebrities. The nobles here are people known not so much for anything they think or do than for the antiquity of their genealogy and the extent of their fortunes. The Narrator character grows more and more fascinated with them for what they represent, taking a break from the obsessive attraction he's shown toward certain girls in the past. The second chapter starts out with a visit from Albertine, a middle-class girl who figured prominently in the last volume, but she scarcely makes any impact here. Even lower down the class ladder is when Saint-Loup's mistress Rachel is portrayed in the first part of the book, another object of obsession but one not shared by the Narrator. Contrast these with the Narrator's stalkerish pursuit of the Duchess of Guermantes early on, one that he tires of just about the time when he happens to be accepted into her circle. There is starting to be a recurring pattern where disillusionment takes place at the same time as pointed satire aimed at pretensions and deceits laid bare.
As in the preceding works, the prose is lavish, the plot is virtually absent, and action takes a backseat to spectacle. This volume affords few opportunities to portray the natural world, for a change, and the salons and ballrooms where scenes play out are barely described in any detail. The names and titles come at the reader by the dozen, and even with the help of a guide to the characters it is nearly impossible to keep all the relationships straight. The one exception is the brief interlude when the Narrator's grandmother is shown in her final illness, every impression drawn so clearly without sentiment or illusions clouding the scene making this section stand out even more against the rest of the book, up till the very end, where Swann shows up again, also close to death. This volume doesn't try to stand on its own, but it feels like a crucial turning point in the overall arc....more
This second volume in Proust's In Search of Lost Time is another sprawling, stream of consciousness work with a plot which is very much in the backgroThis second volume in Proust's In Search of Lost Time is another sprawling, stream of consciousness work with a plot which is very much in the background. The Narrator's eye focuses on a person or object which seems to have symbolic importance, yet the meaning of the symbol is not made immediately apparent. Throughout there is a free-floating sense of time and of space, in which scenes go off on tangents and are never fully resolved, and memories and expectations intrude upon the mental image, often displacing what is immediately in front of his eyes. Similar to the motif set up in Swann's Way regarding memories retold in a moment of recollection. Sometimes the retelling takes place long after the events have taken place and sometimes not: for instance, almost immediately after the first meeting between the Narrator and Albertine he describes the way they would talk about their impressions of that first day.
The beginning and the end of the book are propelled by the pursuit of the two objects of the Narrator's romantic obsession: Gilberte Swann and Albertine Simonet. They are typically portrayed in a sketch like fashion - their hair, skin, hands, a few things they say or do - and not in a way that gives the reader a very clear picture of what makes them so fascinating. Facile as he is with words, it seems as though the Narrator may simply be unable to explain his drive to captivate these young women to the reader.
I don't think there are many true stock characters among all the ones who make an appearance. These are complex people, with secrets and the capacity to surprise. Part of it is the strength of reputation and family which sets up preconceptions about how a person is expected to comport him or herself, which frequently conflicts with the urgings of the heart.
The book ends in a quiet, reflective fashion, with the Narrator in bed almost the same way the first volume started out. If he is aware of how his words and actions have moved him in a direction that feels likely to lead to unhappiness, he doesn't appear to show it....more
(The last word in the title should be "Freindship" actually.) The story takes all sorts of crazy turns, as if the young author's restlessness and into(The last word in the title should be "Freindship" actually.) The story takes all sorts of crazy turns, as if the young author's restlessness and intoxication with invention were showing through. It was certainly fun to experience how fearlessly she would dispatch characters left and right as if on a whim. If her writing career didn't progress any further than this nobody would give a second thought to this bit of fluff, but it serves as a useful starting place to see the development of Austen's style and themes....more
This book is redeemed by the final sections which make a sort of novella-length work of their own. I think the author probably does earn the charges oThis book is redeemed by the final sections which make a sort of novella-length work of their own. I think the author probably does earn the charges of misogyny leveled against him, yet he does succeed in depicting some nicely three-dimensional female characters in a believable fashion....more
By the end I was thinking that the book should have been named Kostya Levin instead of Anna Karenina, since it seemed like Tolstoy had more sympathy fBy the end I was thinking that the book should have been named Kostya Levin instead of Anna Karenina, since it seemed like Tolstoy had more sympathy for that second main character really. It sprawls with the best of nineteenth century novels, not the way books are constructed nowadays, but in its leisure it is able to hit all the lovely telling scenes that might be missed if it were more straightforward about getting to the point....more
I read The Pearl many years ago. Recently I read Of Mice and Men and I think I can see some theatrical/cinematic influence on the writing. I think I mI read The Pearl many years ago. Recently I read Of Mice and Men and I think I can see some theatrical/cinematic influence on the writing. I think I might want to pick up Cannery Row next at some point, thinking back to a visit we made a while back to the John Steinbeck museum in Salinas....more