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The Greatest Novel Ever Written?

Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1. The C. Scott Moncrieff Translation, Edited and Annotated by William C. Carter (1913; rpt. Yale University Press, 2013, 487 pp.)

“What are you reading these days, Stan?”

“Proust.”

Let’s face it, one of the best reasons for reading an author like Marcel Proust is being able to tell people that you’re reading an author like Marcel Proust. To get the full effect, you should be wearing a bow tie, adjusting your monocle, and holding a pipe.

While I was reading Proust, I had no less than three occasions to tell inquiring minds that I was reading Proust, just as if I’d tee’d it up myself. Even without the bow tie, monocle, or pipe the effect remained the same: the questioner seemed impressed, slightly bemused, or downright baffled by my choice of summer reading. Responses ranged from “Hmm, something heavy,” to “A little light reading, huh?” to “Who?”

My own response might be, “Why?”

The reason, of course, is that Proust is one of those writers, like James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Thomas Wolfe, that usually show up on the list of 20th-century authors who are “must-reads.” But are they really? You began to wonder once you start reading their books. Their writing can seem like trying to climb the literary Mount Everest–forbidding, daunting, and, yes, even unreadable. Who hasn’t cracked open Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and wondered, what the hell is even going on here?

In Search of Lost Time is made up of not one but seven volumes, of which Swann’s Way is the first. Proust published it at his own expense in 1913; he published two more volumes before his death in 1922 and the last four were published posthumously between 1923 and 1927.

“This is the longest first-rate novel ever written. Its difficulties, like its rewards, are vast. If you respond to it at all (many do not) you may feel quite justified in spending what time you can spare over the next five or ten years making it a part of your interior world.” So wrote Clifton Fadiman in his essay on Proust in The Lifetime Reading Plan nearly 60 years ago. The Encyclopedia Britannica calls it “one of the most profound achievements of the human imagination.” All of this is still true.

What is this book about? In 1909 Proust experienced a moment that perhaps you’ve shared: the involuntary recall of a childhood memory. It happened through the act of eating a piece of bread dipped in tea. Struck by the impact of it, he committed the rest of his life to writing a novel about recapturing lost time, the vanished past that gives our lives beauty and meaning. The novel was formerly referred to as Remembrance of Things Past.

Sometimes it’s heavy sledding, and sometimes not. The prose is famously beautiful, but, as Fadiman says, Proust can analyze “with intolerable exhaustiveness” and you may agree with him and other critics that the book is “less like a narrative than a symphony.” Proust could challenge Henry James for sentences that go on for days, but for all the underbrush, when you do come upon a clearance the views are indeed magnificent.

To say that there is a Proust cult would be an understatement. Shelby Foote–he of Civil War and Ken Burns fame–read all seven volumes at least nine times in his life and considered him second only to Shakespeare among writers. Alan Jacobs in The Pleasure of Reading in the Age of Distraction (Oxford, 2011) wrote that one of his high school teachers affirmed that she read the entire seven volumes every summer “because the book was so great, and so deep, and so subtle that she always found something new in it, always had more to learn about it and through it.” Yale University Press is in the midst of publishing new editions of the C. Scott Moncrieff translation, edited and annotated by the renowned Proust scholar and biographer William C. Carter.

There seem to be three schools of thought on this tome: that it’s the greatest novel in the world; that it’s unreadable; or, finally, that it’s mammoth but minor. To which of these do I subscribe after finishing the first volume?

I did not find it unreadable, though I can definitely say that at times I felt like the proverbial buyer who wanders in but is “just looking around”–I wasn’t always sure what was going on but I admired everything and just kept moving. At this point I wouldn’t call it the greatest novel ever written, but give me another year and I’ll be ready to tackle the next volume.

If Proust really is better than Dickens, Tolstoy, Austen, Hugo, Dumas, or a host of others, he will be a mountain well worth climbing.

Check back with me in about ten years.  

What I’m Reading Now: September 4, 2018

No Irish Exit, Just a Temporary Farewell

Last November, I attended a GHS historical marker dedication for former Savannah mayor Malcolm Maclean and afterwards an attendee approached and pulled me aside. Could she kindly make a suggestion? Of course, I replied, bracing for what might be next.

To my surprise, her suggestion was about my blog. Being somewhat technologically challenged, as she put it, she requested more written content and less of my podcast. Podcasts were all well and good, but she missed the essays about history and books and hoped that I’d get back to those.

I thought about her request when I started this column nearly six months ago, intending to see if I could meet the demands of a weekly deadline while at the same time having fun writing about whatever I was reading. The idea came last spring while perusing through back issues of the Saturday Review of Literature, the venerable weekly that was published between 1924 and 1971 that carried a similar essay.

My goal was to keep it short—less than 500 words—and to devote no more than an hour to writing it every week. Alas, I almost always exceeded the word limit and sometimes felt like the preacher Abraham Lincoln famously told a story about. He could have written shorter sermons, the parson confessed, but once he started writing he was too lazy to stop. The truth is, despite what you may believe, it’s much harder and takes more discipline to write 500 words about something you’re interested in than it is to write 1,000. But since I set the rules for this blog, I saw no problem in occasionally breaking them. You, dear reader, were the one who had to pay the price. I also usually spent more than the allotted time, but it was always and always fun.

Why, you ask, am I telling you all of this? This marks my 25th offering over nearly six months, and with this entry, “What I’m Reading Now” will go on a temporary sabbatical to make way for the second season of Off the Deaton Path podcasts. This will no doubt be a great relief to many long-suffering readers who will be spared this weekly agony, while horrifying others who dread the prospect of hearing my voice. Just remember, you’ve been warned.

My other goal here was to see if I could pass along even a fraction of the great passion I have for the printed word and the singular joy that comes from reading a good book. If I’ve succeeded in doing either of those things—even for just one person—then mission accomplished. We’ll lift a glass and declare victory. To quote my old friend Mr. Pickwick: “If I have done but little good, I trust I have done less harm.”

I hope the column will appear intermittently over the next six months as time and other duties allow. To everyone who took a moment to read a few words or who provided feedback, I hope you’ll stay for the podcast and come back for more next spring.

To one and all, a heartfelt and sincere Thank You.

What I’m Reading Now: August 14, 2018

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962, Penguin Books, 277 pp.)

John Steinbeck is considered to be one of the foremost authors of the 20th century, keeping company with Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald. Most of us make our first (and perhaps only) contact with Steinbeck in Of Mice and Men (1937) in high school, or in The Grapes of Wrath (1939), for which he won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

In 1962 he won the Nobel Prize for literature, though many thought his best work was decades behind him. He died in New York five days before Christmas in 1968, nearly 50 years ago, at age 66.

Long before “On the Road” with Charles Kuralt, and three years following Jack Kerouac’s novel of the same name, Steinbeck set out in the fall of 1960 to re-connect with America and its people. Having lived and worked for so long in New York, he felt he’d lost touch with “real” Americans.

In order to travel anonymously as much as possible so that people would talk freely with him, Steinbeck bought a three-quarter-ton pickup truck, had a camper built for its bed, christened it “Rocinante” after Don Quixote’s famous steed, and set out on the highway with his French poodle Charley on a trek that took him from Maine to California. The camper kept him from signing hotel registers, and he claims never to have been recognized by sight.

Along the way he met and talked with ordinary people, slept in Rocinante under the stars and found that the America of his youth and that he had always believed in was still out there. He visited New Hampshire farmers and Yellowstone National Park, always with Charley as his faithful companion: “It is my experience that in some areas Charley is more intelligent than I am, but in others he is abysmally ignorant. He can’t read, can’t drive a car, and has no grasp of mathematics. But in his own field of endeavor, the slow, imperial smelling over and anointing of an area, he has no peer. Of course his horizons are limited, but how wide are mine?”

He published the results in 1962 as a work of non-fiction, and critics raved that it was his best work in years. It’s great fun to read, and you can still see the truck and Rocinante at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California.

But is it really non-fiction? A few years ago a dedicated researcher uncovered that most of it wasn’t, that Steinbeck slept many nights not in Rocinante but in luxury hotels, that the characters and dialogue were largely fiction, and that not only Charley but also his wife Elaine accompanied him much of the way.

This may all be true, but I’m not sure it really matters. What Steinbeck describes—and what he claims that he found universally among the people he met along the way—is a longing and a desire to get away from where we are, to go elsewhere, to be somewhere, anywhere, rather than where we are. “They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something.”

That still seems as true now—for us an individuals and maybe for the country as a whole—as when Steinbeck wrote it nearly 60 years ago. Even as I read, I fell into the trap of thinking that the early 1960s seemed preferable to the times in which we live, that Steinbeck’s America wasn’t filled with hyper-wired know-it-alls who are divided hopelessly into partisan tribes.

But of course I know better. The past always looks seductively more understandable and simple than our own times, just as another geographic space seems to offer more or less, depending on what you want, than where we stand now.

Travels with Charley—be it fiction or non-fiction—confirms that humans as individuals and as nations are universally restless and unsatisfied, that we always want to go someplace else—in time and/or space—that promises either to bring something back that’s missing or to offer a more fulfilling life than the one we live now. Isn’t this why I play the lottery every week?

As Steinbeck wrote and acknowledged himself, “our capacity for self-delusion is boundless.”

 

What I’m Reading Now: July 3, 2018

All Heaven and Earth in a Bookstore

This week we take a break from discussing current reading to talk about another favorite book-related topic: the joys of the used book store.

Long-suffering readers of this blog have read about the wonders of the used book sale, which usually only happens once a year. A great used bookstore brings that wonder all the year round.

Like the brick and mortar retail bookstores, used bookstores are an endangered species. There used to be one in nearly every town, but not so anymore.

I have written before about the legendary Oxford Too in Atlanta’s Peachtree Battle shopping center, which like its parent Oxford Books closed in 1997. The Old New York Book Shop in Atlanta, owned by Cliff Graubert, was another favorite, as was Smythe Books in Dunwoody, owned by my friend Jim Strawn. Both of the latter two are still operated out of the basements of the homes of their owners, and you can call them and peruse their wares by appointment, or find them on the Internet.

As an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, I well remember discovering Jackson Street Books in Athens after it opened in 1984. Their history and biography section was a gold mine for an aspiring historian, as so many of the UGA faculty disposed of unwanted books there. Alas, the store closed in 2016 after 32 years in business.

There are still some great used bookstores around Georgia, however. This is by no means a complete list, just three of my favorites: the Golden Bough in Macon if you’re traveling on I-75, E. Quinn Booksellers in Blue Ridge when you’re up in the mountains (say hello to Mike when you go), and our very own Book Lady right here in Savannah.

A few years ago I made a quick trip to New York and ran out of time before I could visit the Strand, the mecca of all used bookstores at Broadway and 12th. But when in Boston I did visit Commonwealth Books and the Brattle Book Shop in Boston, two legendary venues as well.

Back in 2009 I was planning a business trip to Washington, D.C., and was going to have an entire day free in the middle of the week. Readers of this blog know I’m a huge fan of Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda. I sent him an email at the Post and asked what used bookstores he’d recommend in the D.C. area, figuring he wouldn’t write back.

He did, immediately, and sent me a complete list of his favorites, including Second Story Books, a cavernous book warehouse out in Rockville, Maryland, where he lives. When my free day came, I took the Metro Red Line to the penultimate stop in Rockville, just before Shady Grove, walked a mile to the warehouse, and spent several blissful hours perusing the stacks. I had to ship everything home, but it was worth every penny.

Just yesterday I spent a rainy afternoon in my friend Joni’s Book Lady Bookstore on Liberty Street, and found several treasures.

My first pickup was The Golden Argosy: A Collection of the Most Celebrated Short Stories in the English Language (1955), which contains such classics as Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King,” and Thomas Wolfe’s “Chickamauga.” I’ve been looking for this one for years, and there it was, for only $7.50.

I also found Peter Ackroyd’s The Life of Thomas More (1998), The Church & The Age of Reason, 1648-1789 by Gerald R. Cragg, Jonathan Green’s Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made (1996), and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s massive Robert Kennedy and His Times, the 1978 doorstop that weighs in at well over 1,000 pages, just in time for me to read at the 50th anniversary of RFK’s death. In hardback, yet. Five books at $46 total: taint bad, Magee.

Well, you say, used bookstores are okay, but I can buy anything I need, used or new, on the Internet—or better yet, I can download almost any book immediately to my Kindle. And so you can.

But if you truly love the printed word, there is nothing like the serendipity of browsing the stacks of a used bookstore. As a book collector, and truly, as a reader, the hours I’ve spent in these vanishing guardians of literary gold have been among some of the happiest of my life.

Christopher Morley said it best, in his great homage to the book, Parnassus on Wheels: “When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humor and ships at sea by night – there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean.”

I agree.

What I’m Reading Now: June 19, 2018

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribner, 1925, 180 pp.)

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald is one of those artists whose tragic life has become in some ways more famous than his creations.

He was a founding member of the Lost Generation of (mostly) expatriate writers who flourished in the 1920s and ’30s, and who have been endlessly romanticized and criticized, particularly in Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

Fitzgerald’s meteoric rise after the publication of This Side of Paradise in 1920, his stormy marriage to Zelda and her descent into madness, his rocky friendship with Hemingway, his close partnership with editor Maxwell Perkins, his alcoholism and depression, and his last frantic scriptwriting hack days in Hollywood are all well-known and well-documented. When he died of a heart attack four days before Christmas in 1940 (at age 44, like Robert Louis Stevenson), with his last novel only half-finished, he considered himself a literary failure who would quickly be forgotten.

But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity. His third novel, The Great Gatsby, had never sold particularly well in his own lifetime—in the first year Scribner’s sold only 20,000 copies—and was considered nothing more than a 1920’s period piece. Then during World War II the paperback version became enormously popular with soldiers stationed abroad, and in the post-war years it was added to high-school curricula across the country. Suddenly it was re-evaluated as a towering classic of American 20th-century fiction, and sales skyrocketed. It has now sold over 25 million copies (including about half a million worldwide annually) and remains Scribner’s most popular title. If only Fitzgerald had lived to see even a bit of it.

Mercifully, I was never required to read it in high school, because if I had, I would have brought a 17-year-old’s sensibilities to a great piece of literature, and it would have been wasted on me. Now was my time to read it. Harrumph alert: It irritates me to no end when I hear grown, mature adults wave off reading a great book because “I read it in high school,” or, when I tell them what I’m reading, ask “Didn’t you read that in high school?”

The Encyclopedia Britannica calls Gatsby “the most profoundly American novel of its time.” The Modern Library in 1998 voted it the 20th century’s best American novel and the century’s second-best English-language novel, behind only—if you can believe it—Ulysses.

Is Gatsby worthy of all the praise? In the immortal words of James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr., “oh my yes.”

It’s a novel that works on and in you, that will continue to make you ponder just what was going on in it for a good long while after you’ve put it back on the shelf. I just finished it, and I’d like to re-read it already, and that’s not something I say very often. If I were writing a novel, I’d study it and use it as a model for what a writer can do with plot, a few characters (and there aren’t many) and pacing, using spare, lean language that says more than you think it does, all in 180 pages.

The book was written when Fitzgerald was just 29 years old . One can only marvel at his felicity with language at so young an age:

“The bored haughty face that she turned to the world concealed something—most affectations conceal something eventually, even though they don’t in the beginning—and one day I found out what it was.”

“There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.”

“The evening had made me light-headed and happy; I think I walked into a deep sleep as I entered my front door.”

“No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

“There is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind.”

It was a literary feat that proved hard to live up to, much less repeat. Fitzgerald spent the last sloshy 15 years of his life pitifully trying to recreate the magic. He did not know that he had already achieved literary immortality:

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Finally: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Those last words adorn Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s grave in Baltimore, a fitting literary blanket under which to slumber, marking two lives that ended much too soon.