Friday, October 25, 2013

Swann - Romantic fool

It is just not getting any easier going through Swann's Way.  There are occasional flashes of insight, but really nothing much more profound than "familiarity breeds contempt" or "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of" (Pascal).  And the length is just killing me.  Plus the fact that page after page is just a solid wall of text with no dialogue breaks.  I am not enjoying this much at all, and I don't see it getting any better.  Rationally, I know I should just cut my losses and move on, but it has just about moved into that category of an endurance test -- and I do hate to fail one of those.  I guarantee you if I do manage to finish Proust, I will never ever be tempted to crack its pages again; this is a one-time performance.  Furthermore, if I do stop, I will not finish; it is a make-or-break decision, which I don't take lightly.  What's vaguely amusing is that while I was quite daunted by Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy and put off starting it for a year, it wasn't so bad once I actually cracked Palace Walk and I finished the whole thing in 2-3 weeks (I really should put my thoughts on that down soon).  Even things that should be of some interest in Swann's Way -- Swann finding himself desperately in love with Odette who grew bored of him after he was "hooked" -- are written in a way that drains them of any dramatic interest.  Frankly, it is an old, old story that generally is only of interest when you put in the fights, verbal or physical.  Here it is a one-sided account of an amour fou, with the man keeping as much inside as possible, yet still coming across as querulous to Odette and even some of his friends.

Well, I have been there in my early 20s, getting into an impossible desire situation -- and then boring my friends with it, even losing one or two in the process.  But even I don't want to read this going on in Proust, especially since it has even less surface drama than my buttoned-down escapades.  (Still, definitely something to watch for in that still-gestating novel -- I plan to keep the "frustrated love" storyline to only about 1/3 of the novel before moving into slightly more manic adventures in Toronto.) 

I am particularly struggling to find Swann to be an interesting character to begin with.  The Narrator really seemed to build him up as someone who was a bit of a straight-shooter (though as far as I can tell the extent of it was that he refused to hedge his opinions with socially acceptable phrases*).  Perhaps this is actually supposed to be more layered (and ironic) that I am reading into it, and we see just how low Swann can fall -- and really how boorish he is in some of the things he says to Odette.  It is kind of hard to see why he was so esteemed in some of the circles he moved in, apparently having easy access to the nobility (when was Swann in Love supposedly set anyway? -- it reads more like the Russian nobility than one finds in Tolstoy than what one would expect in post-Napoleonic France -- perhaps it is supposed to be in the 1860s when Napoleon III resurrected the French empire). Once he is finally stung by Cupid, he spends an inordinate amount of time setting up situations where he may run into her (once he is finally forbidden to turn up at the Verdurins' evening salons).  This does exasperate his friends (and the Narrator's grandfather simply refuses to get involved in this pursuit or any of Swann's previous less fraught entanglements), but doesn't seem to lead to a break with any of them.  Still, he shows a shocking lack of self-awareness and loses the ironic view on life that apparently had made him such an amusing companion.  While that is partly the point of this part of the book (that love makes one lose one's head), whenever you actually hear Swann's actual words, he comes across as a self-serious bore; it is hard to believe he was such an interesting fellow prior to falling for Odette.

I would hope that I never lose at least a bit of self-awareness and ironic detachment, no matter the situation.  Or at least in anything I commit to paper...

So I will close with a link to an interesting (but very long by internet standards) essay by Richard Katrovas, talking about, among many other things, the worst restaurant in Prague and perhaps the Free World.  I stumbled across this while trying to learn more about Katrovas' poetry collection Prague Winter.  I'm often intrigued by poets writing about Prague. (For instance, Ken Norris's poems on Prague in Limbo Road are among the best in that collection.)  I suspect that I won't actually like the poems in Prague Winter that much, as Katrovas largely writes formal (and even rhyming) poetry, which I actually find fairly off-putting, particularly if it was written in the past 25 years.  But he seems like a pretty good prose writer.

Anyway, this essay talks quite a bit about the Prague Summer (Writing) Program** run out of Western Michigan University, since Katrovas is the Director of the program and his ex-wife also is involved.  But Katrovas is a lot more knowing and ironic in describing how he navigates the shoals of dealing with (indeed working with) someone with whom you were once romantically engaged than Swann is in Swann's Way.  What is curious about this essay (an extract from Katrovas's Raising Girls in Bohemia) is that it is plastered on the Prague Summer Program website, which may be just a bit too much sharing than I would be comfortable with (do the students really need to know quite so much about what his ex-wife thinks about difficult writers?).  However, one could also take comfort that Katrovas says that with few exceptions, he hasn't brought any difficult writers on board -- it is those other writers not affiliated with PSP that are so hard to deal with, not you...  In any event, it appears that his ex-wife has moved on (since the writing of that essay), and it is his oldest daughter who has taken her place as Program Coordinator.  Perhaps in the end it was too hard for him to work with an ex-wife, ironic outlook notwithstanding.

* Really the equivalent of the Pointy-Haired Boss (from Dilbert) accepting any insult, as long as it was preceded by "With all due respect." Swann, however, refuses to start off by saying "With all due respect" and that annoys his more bourgeois hosts.  To me, this hardly makes him a hero or a paragon of virtue, though it seems to be something that the Narrator admired.

** This actually looks like a lot of fun, if a bit of a cash-cow from WMU's perspective.  And some of the associated faculty, including Stuart Dybek and Patricia Hampl, are quite respectable figures.  But it's something I should have done 20 or more years ago (not that I would have had the money readily available).  And indeed, I did something along similar lines (the New England Literature Program through U Michigan), though that focused on reading/exploring literature and not nearly as much on writing.  I guess I'll just have to time it so that I have a novel or book of memoirs come out once the kids are grown, so I can go off on these junkets as an invited writer and not as a paying guest.  

Thinking about these kind of programs triggered the memory of a play I had seen in Chicago.  After a bit of digging I pulled out the title: Some Americans Abroad by Richard Nelson.  It does a good job of telling the story of the various overseas programs that so many universities run now, but from the perspective of the (fairly cynical and/or careerist) professors and staff who run them, not from the perspective of the dewy-eyed naifs who pay to soak in European culture (and be a bit pampered) on these programs.

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