Monthly Archives: July 2007

Wittgenstein’s Mistress

I recently finished David Markson’s novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, and I thought the book was smart, beautiful, unique, and, at times, moving. At times I found it dull. As this novel is something I think I can safely call experimental, I’m not sure what this says about me as a reader. Or maybe I should leave the term “experimental” out of it, and just comment on the book itself and what the book tells me about my reading. This is probably the fairest thing to do.

So — I wouldn’t have minded if this book were a bit shorter, but I’m glad I read it anyway. It’s about a woman named Kate who either is, or thinks she is, the only person left on earth. Everyone has simply vanished, and all the animals have vanished too; houses and possessions are left just as they were before this vanishing happened, and cars are abandoned in the streets. Kate has taken possession of a house on the coast somewhere — we’re not told where — and she has begun writing. Markson’s novel is the manuscript she produces.

I’m tempted to say she has begun writing her story, but that’s not what she’s done at all; what she writes is what’s on her mind, with pieces of her story told now and then. We never learn all that much about her life before everyone disappeared, a few details about a husband and son are about it. What we learn is the contents of Kate’s mind — her thoughts about her surroundings, her travels (she has traveled all around the emptied-out world), her memories, and about the art she has seen, books she has read, and music she has heard.

But what’s really interesting about the book is Kate’s (Markson’s) writing. The novel is written in short, usually one-sentence, paragraphs, first of all, and these paragraphs cycle through a series of topics, moving from one to another to another, occasionally dropping some and introducing others. It’s repetition with slight changes each time — we get new information or sometimes contradictory information with each mention. It’s very hard to find an excerpt to give here because everything in the book depends on what came before to make any sense, but here’s a passage anyway, from near the beginning:

It was that winter during which I lived in the Louvre, I believe. Burning artifacts and picture frames for warmth, in a poorly ventilated room.

But then with the first signs of thaw, switching vehicles whenever I ran low on gas, started back across central Russia to make my way home again.

All of this being indisputably true, if as I say long ago. And if as I also say, I may well have been mad.

Then again I am not at all certain I was mad when I drove to Mexico, before that.

Possibly before that. To visit at the grave of a child I had lost, even longer ago than all of this, named Adam.

Why have I written that his name was Adam?

Simon is what my little boy was named.

The whole book is like this — it’s Kate’s mind pursuing thoughts until they lead her to other thoughts and then to other thoughts and others, and eventually around to the first thought again.

Nothing is certain in the book — Kate’s not sure if and when she was mad long ago, and the reader is not certain whether to trust Kate’s description of her world and her situation. Kate’s not sure of her memories and her facts; stories slip away and facts change shape. She’s trying to capture something certain in her writing, but instead she returns again and again to this lament:

What do any of us ever truly know, however?

Kate also writes about language and its strangeness; she frequently points out inaccuracies and ambiguities in everyday language:

Once, Turner had himself lashed to the mast of a ship for several hours, during a furious storm, so that he could later paint the storm.

Obviously, it was not the storm itself that Turner intended to paint. What he intended to paint was a representation of the storm.

One’s language is frequently imprecise in that manner, I have discovered.

And she writes about the relationship of objects outside the mind with representations we create of them inside the mind:

In fact the very way I was able to verify that I had ever even been to the other house, some few pages ago, was by saying that I could distinctly remember the poster.

On the wall.

Where was the poster when it was on the wall in my head but was not on the wall in the other house?

Where was my house, when all I was seeing was smoke but was thinking, there is my house?

A certain amount of this is almost beginning to worry me, to tell the truth.

So — and I think you could say that about many experimental novels, and certain about postmodern novels — this book is as much about language as it is about anything else. It’s about the way we depend on language to create our world for us, and the way language fails to deliver the kind of certainty and comfort we crave. But it’s also about the consolations of art — Kate is preoccupied with questions about art and history and ideas, and, of course, she turns to her own writing for comfort. We may in the end know very little about our world and ourselves, but we can find pleasure in exploring and experiencing the process of trying to find out.

The more I write about this book the more I like it. Have you experienced having your feelings about a book strengthened as you write about it — good feelings or bad ones? To echo what I said at the beginning, at times I wished the book were shorter, but I do recommend it for those of you interested in this kind of book or looking to try something like it — smart and philosophical and beautiful.

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Notes on Proust

I’m reading and enjoying Roger Shattuck’s book Proust’s Way, but I found myself puzzled and amused by part of one chapter where he complains bitterly and at length about how awful the 1989 Pléiade edition of Proust’s novel is. He quotes himself on the subject at one point, inserting part of a talk he gave at a conference into his text (this practice of quoting himself strikes me as odd — why not just rewrite the idea so it will make sense in the new context?):

I propose that we boycott the overblown, misconceived, and over-priced new Pléiade edition. It saps and traduces Proust’s life-long devotion to a single work … Let us not yield to the temptation to accept unthinkingly the prestige of the Pléiade collection.

Why the religious language of temptation here? The problem with the Pléiade edition Shattuck hates so much (the earlier 1954 version is acceptable) is that it includes extensive notes, early drafts, and variants, so that Proust’s 3,000 page novel swells to 7,300 pages — and that this edition isn’t meant to be a scholarly one. It’s not just that he can’t stand all the textual apparatus, but that the textual apparatus, especially the drafts of the novel, isn’t confined to a book produced solely for scholars. The general reader, he thinks, should have only the novel itself with just the essential footnotes.

He’s making an argument against “genetic criticism”: “the study of the evolution of a work out of earlier outlines and drafts and sketches into its (presumably) final state.” According to Shattuck, the editor of the Pléiade edition, Jean-Yves Tadié, is a practitioner of this form, and Shattuck sees his 7,300-page edition of Proust as an embodied argument for this form of reading and study.

Shattuck hates this. He wants to see the author’s final version, and that’s it:

The genetic critics, particularly when led by so disciplined and informed a figure as Jean-Yves Tadié, were able to do something that deconstructionists never succeeded in accomplishing. They unmade a work of literature. Intending to carry In Search of Lost Time to its final apotheosis in their sumptuous 7,300-page edition, Tadié and his associates have in effect buried Proust’s novel in trappings and distractions and commentary. The volumes honor scholars’ decisions about what to include more than they honor Proust’s decisions about what to exclude … [the edition] shrouds and demeans the author’s work.

Am I the only one who thinks this is going a bit too far? I don’t see how all the textual apparatus could demean an author’s work. Shattuck seems entirely too worshipful of Proust and of authorship generally. I do see that there’s a theory of reading built into the way an edition is shaped (and I find that an interesting idea), but I don’t agree with Shattuck’s argument that this particular way of reading is a bad one.  I think having the early drafts and variants is valuable. Why not have a multiplicity of ways of reading Proust?  If the Pléiade edition were the only one available, I might see his point, but that’s not the case.

He’s careful to say that he thinks all the apparatus ought to be available — but available only in scholarly editions. I don’t like this idea at all — I’m not likely to want to read early drafts of Proust’s novel, but why assume that only Proust scholars would be interested? His argument strikes me as an insult to the general reader.

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Final Diagnosis

One more health update, and then maybe I can stop writing about it for a while. I found out today that I have Graves’ disease, an auto-immune disorder that affects the thyroid. My endocrinologist thought this is what I’d turn out to have, once she heard that I have rheumatoid arthritis in my family, another auto-immune disorder. I’m not sure how it works, but I guess having one auto-immune disorder in my family makes me susceptible to catching others. I also suspect I’ve had this disease for a while, just in a really mild form that I didn’t notice. I’ve had some of the symptoms, such as nervousness, heart palpitations, sweating, and a huge appetite for a long time. Irritability is another of my symptoms, but that may just be my personality. In fact, it’s hard to tell if these were symptoms of a disease, or just the way I am.

So now I’ll be taking methimazole to get my thyroid under control, and it should make me feel better pretty soon.

I had all kinds of fun yesterday when the guy who would be doing my thyroid scan called me to say the equipment he’d be using was broken and he might not be able to do the scan. If he couldn’t do the scan, I would have to wait another month to have it done because the pill they gave me (I think it’s an iodine pill and then they scan how much iodine my thyroid absorbed) would have to work its way out of my system until I could take another one. I kind of freaked out on him when he said that. And then he managed to get the equipment in an hour or so, just in time; he said he had to order a part from out of state. I don’t know how he did it so fast, but I sure am grateful.

Okay, I’m on my way to getting better!

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Reading and school

I would guess most readers have books and authors that school has ruined for them, probably because of a disliked teacher or a bad classroom experience. For me, whenever I come across Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of An Author, I can’t help but think about this one teacher I had who could take the most interesting experimental play and say the most bland things about it. He’d make sure to find a positive message in the darkest, most despairing play we read, and he’d be sure to make the positive message sound as cliché as possible. I always wondered how someone so drawn to sermonizing and uplift came to teach 20th-century experimental drama.

When I took a class in the Romantic period I didn’t have a bad experience, exactly, but something about the class turned me off. Maybe it was a combination of a not-terribly inspiring teacher and a semester of poetry that I had a hard time getting into. We read a Jane Austen novel and Frankenstein, but other than that, it was the six major Romantic poets (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats) and that’s it. I suspect a lot of Romanticism classes are like this, and I felt at the time like I’d had enough. Romanticism wasn’t for me.

But in grad school I needed to take a course in the 19C, and Romanticism it was. This time, however, I learned that there’s more to Romanticism than those six major poets — we did read some of those, but that included plays as well as poetry (Shelley’s The Cenci, for example). And we read other people like the poet and novelist Charlotte Smith and the playwright Joanna Baillie. I learned that there are all kinds of interesting novelists from the time period like William Godwin and Elizabeth Inchbald. I got excited about Romanticism and read as much as I could in the area.

And now I find myself wanting to return to those six major poets again, to see if I feel differently about them out of the context of that first class I took. Authors and books often have a completely different feel to them when we read them for fun instead of for class, don’t they? Shelley for class struck me as inscrutable; Shelley for fun is a lot more exciting. Also, reading for class is often so rushed. I want to read poetry at my own pace now, rather than trying to get through as many poems as I can before class.

So I’m reading some Keats and finding it amazingly beautiful. I’ve only gotten as far as some of his early sonnets, but I am inspired to read more and more, and I’d like to get a collection of his letters also, as I’ve heard he was an excellent letter writer. I feel like I’m giving Keats a better chance to move and impress me than I ever have before. I do sometimes like to give authors a second chance, if they didn’t reach me the first time.

Here’s a piece of his poem Endymion, with a famous first line:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old, and young sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
‘Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
And endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.

Nor do we merely feel these essences
For one short hour; no, even as the trees
That whisper round a temple become soon
Dear as the temple’s self, so does the moon,
The passion poesy, glories infinite,
Haunt us till they become a cheering light
Unto our souls, and bound to us so fast,
That, whether there be shine, or gloom o’ercast,
They alway must be with us, or we die.

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Updates

I have just a quick post today to say that I enjoyed Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love very much, and now have to decide if I want to read Love in a Cold Climate, in the same volume, or move on to something else.  (And if I move on to something else, what will it be???  I’m not sure ….)  The novel is light, breezy, and amusing.  It’s about the Radlett’s, a large country family, and their exploits as the children grow up and make their way through the world.  The narrator is a Radlett cousin whose mother has abandoned her, and so she stays with her relatives; she focuses her story on her cousin Linda, a high-spirited, romantic character, and her attempts to find true love.  Although the novel ends during World War II, it never loses its brightness; the family gathers in the country once again and spiritedly takes up the challenge of dealing with rations and the possibility of invasion.

And for a health update: I don’t know yet exactly what is wrong with me — I should find that out in a couple days — but I do know I won’t be riding for a couple months.  The endocrinologist said — depending on what I actually have — that I’ll probably need a month or two of medication to get back to normal again, although I should begin to improve right away.  So, it’s time to take up yoga more seriously perhaps.  And once I feel a bit better I can probably handle strolls in the woods.  But no strenuous exercise for a while, alas.

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Sigrid Nunez and other things

Right now I’m intensely aware of how changeable I am; last night when I wrote my post about wanting comfort reads I really, really meant it, but shortly after I wrote about that desire I read a post on the book Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture over at The Existence Machine that inspired me to want to read difficult things again. Blood Relations sounds like a fascinating book, and I may read it at some point, by my point right now is that thinking about this book made me want to read more history and science and philosophy, and I got to thinking about how it would be so cool to re-read some of the philosophy I studied in college, and I was off on this plan to begin a philosophy project like the one Stefanie has been doing. Chances are I won’t actually do this, but it’s fun to think about.

Thinking this way is what gets me caught up in big projects like reading In Search of Lost Time. It’s so fun to begin a big reading project, although it’s a lot harder to keep it going, and my changeability causes problems almost right away, because as soon as serious reading gets the slightest bit dull, I’m wanting something comforting again. It’s back and forth and back and forth for me, I’m afraid.

Okay, but I’ve been meaning to write about Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Last of Her Kind. It’s about two friends, Georgette, known to many as George, and Ann, who meet at Barnard in 1968. Ann comes from a rich family from Connecticut and George comes from a poor town in upstate New York, so the first part of the book is about how they negotiate their differences and survive as roommates. The story moves on from there to follow their lives through middle age.

Ann has always been sensitive and idealistic, hating her parents for their wealth and privilege, so it’s no surprise that she becomes involved in the counterculture, organizing and protesting and marching. George is the first-person narrator and, as well as telling her own story of making her way into adulthood, she follows Ann as her life takes off in a very unexpected direction (I read the inside flap of my hardcover copy which gave away this plot event — you might want to be careful not to do the same). George is much more ambivalent about the ideals of the 60s, and, specifically, Ann’s ideals, and so she recounts Ann’s actions with a sometimes admiring, sometimes impatient tone.

The novel is the story of their friendship, but even more so, it’s the story of changing times, as the 60s and 70s give way to the 80s and 90s, and the dreams and aspirations of the earlier time period come to seem hopelessly naive and slightly ridiculous. I loved reading about that earlier time period, and, although I’m not sure I’d want to live through it, exactly, it made me lament the way so many young people seem so politically apathetic these days.

I found much of this book deeply absorbing, but there were parts that slowed, particularly in the second half. Nunez is covering an awful lot of years and an awful lot of events, and at times I felt she rushed through her material a bit. The changes that were happening to the characters didn’t always feel believable, or rather, the characters started to feel alien to me, even though earlier I’d felt like I could have known them.

But this is a small quibble about what was an enjoyable read, especially worth reading if you’re interested in the legacy of the 60s.

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Comfort reading

The best cure for getting a little bit tired of reading is, of course, a trip to the bookstore. Hobgoblin and I went on Friday night and I didn’t find anything I liked, being a bit too tired to enjoy myself, but today we checked out one of the used bookstores in town and I had better luck.

The problem with the books that I have on hand, I’ve recently realized, is that I tend to collect books in an optimistic and ambitious frame of mind, thinking that I’ll always have the energy and the interest to read long novels, difficult novels, experimental novels, classics, dense nonfiction, difficult poetry, philosophical treatises, etc. What I neglect to collect is the lighter, comfort read. But of course, I do need lighter, easier books now and then, as most people do, I think.

I’m in the middle of David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which I think you could call an experimental novel, and I’m liking it quite a bit and will be sure to post on it later, but I’m not finding it quite what I want to spend hours and hours with. I prefer it in shorter chunks. So yesterday I picked up one of the books I have on hand that did strike me as something I could spend hours with: Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, and, if I like it well enough, I can go on to read Love in a Cold Climate, which is published in the same volume. I’m about halfway through and enjoying it immensely; it’s satire of the English gentry from between the world wars, complete with blustering squires and hunting and balls and class conflict. It’s fun.

And today at the bookstore I picked up two new books that looked good: Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, which I remember hearing good things about on blogs somewhere, although I can’t remember where, and a Virago book, Antonia White’s Frost in May. I don’t know much about White, but I trust the books published by Virago, and the description sounded good:

The Convent of the Five Wounds, where Nanda Grey is sent when she is nine, is on the edge of London — but in 1908 it is a world unto itself. For the young girls receiving a Catholic education behind its walls, religion is a nationality, conformity an entire way of life. In this intense, trouble atmosphere — caught to perfection by a superb writer — passionate friendships are the only deviation. Nanda is thirteen, a normal, quick-witted, spirited girl, when, catastrophically, she breaks the rules and pays too large a price for her transgression.

Interesting, yes? Maybe I should make it a habit to pick up “comfort reads” more often, to balance out my collection a bit. Not a bad excuse to buy more books, is it?

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