Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Cold Day in New Mexico

Proust and Karl Ove Knausgaard and Thank You


A lovely snowy day here in the high desert--just now the sky is clearing, but it has been snowing on and off since last night.  The mountains to the east of the city--the Sandias--are a bright and shimmering white and beginning just now (late in the afternoon) to shift in color--from glaring white to dull orange to shades of gray, a range of colors that varies with the angle of the sun and therefore with the day of the year.  It's getting cold, mid-20's Fahrenheit, and the snow that fell earlier--a wet mix of icy crystals--blötsnö in Swedish--is freezing on the branches of the Apache plume outside my window.  A nice time to read a couple of three-thousand-page books.

A month or so ago I entered into a pact with a good friend of mine to reread all of Proust--I'm into volume two now, reading the Terence Kilmartin revision of C.K. Scott Moncrieff's original version of Within a Budding Grove, which is a very loose rendering of Proust's far more poetic, A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs--it's difficult to see how one could drop the "young girls" from the title since they are the point, Gilberte especially, but then while Moncrieff's genius as a translator can't be doubted, his tendency to employ Wordsworthian idioms in place of Proust's own has required some reconsideration and redaction.   I bought my original two-volume Englished Proust in Chicago in 1969; I went there for a demonstration against the Vietnam War and left with a book that changed my life.  That same year I read most of it in French, in the corrupt Pléiade edition, and since then I have read Swann's Way and certain sections from the other novels again.  But not the entire novel--the full one and one-half million words.  I began this rereading project a year ago but disliked the highly regarded Lydia Davis version of Swann and gave up after Combray. Kilmartain/Moncrieff seems to me a nice compromise with Proust's difficult language.  I won't be writing a review of this, the greatest novel ever written, but merely wish to observe that as one ages, the brilliance of Marcel's ruminations on the meanings of time, love, art, and loneliness only gain in power.  If you undertake Proust, give yourself a year.  Not only is Remembrance of Things Past (or, better, The Search for Lost Time) a long book, it is by turns demanding and tedious; in any case, it requires thoughtful reading.  If you can, read it with a friend and exchange confidences regarding your sense of what Swann really thinks of Odette, or of what Marcel finds lacking in Berma and attractive in Gilberte.  Nothing in Proust is earth-shattering; all he has to offer is life itself. 

And so does the Norwegian literary sensation Karl Uve Knausgaard.  I won't lie, I've only just started reading My Struggle.   Zadie Smith, whom I admire, mentioned that she was reading Knausgaard in an essay I happened upon in the New York Review of Books.  I started volume two (A Man in Love) a week ago and have been reading it obsessively (which is one reason I haven't been writing much here).  Peter Nash and I had a long talk about KUK yesterday--he isn't sold on the notion that My Struggle is Proustian, nor am I, but I do think that the idea of a writer using his (average) powers of observation, training them on (average) events and reporting them in what is, at least in translation, flat, uninflected, and pretty boring prose is oddly fascinating.  It's as if Knausgaard was the Cartesian soul, perched in the pineal gland, recording the slightly incomprehensible actions of himself, his children, and his long-suffering wife.  One is eavesdropping, but that's true of all memoirs; the difference is that memoirs never feel truthful to me in the way that My Struggle feels truthful.  I am a husband and a father myself, and most of my life is as mundane and boring as Knausgaard's life--like him I spend hours a day wishing I could write instead of attending to the chores of adult life.  Proust had no nappies to change, no arguments with a spouse to fret over, no children's birthday parties to attend.  One can no more imagine Marcel playing hide and seek in an amusement park with his daughters than one can imagine him not adoring Odette.  Knausgaard gives us life without art--artless life.  And his books aren't documentaries either; they have no point to make, no message, no ideological ax to grind (I can't find a deeply felt opinion, political or otherwise, in what I've read so far).  Knausgaard isn't Proust, but how could he be?  Perhaps his books have been praised more than they deserve, but, as with Galworthy's Forsyte Saga or Scott's The Jewel in the Crown, if this is soap opera, so what?  I plan to read all six volumes, in parallel with Proust--7000 pages--and maybe then I'll take on Trollope.   

That's the last page of The Past Recaptured.

This is not the last page of Talented Reader.  Peter and I wanted to thank our readers for their interest and for their support.  This blog began almost a year ago with the recognition that, at least in the popular press, many fine works of fiction and much great poetry goes unrecognized.   Our goal is to arouse interest in writers who otherwise might not be known to our readers.  Over the past year Peter and I have read a lot, talked a lot about books, and written over one-hundred-twenty-five posts on at least that many fine books.  It's been a blast.  As I wrote at the outset, neither Peter nor I are professional reviewers, nor are we on anyone's payroll, nor are we obliged to any publisher, or committed to any type of fiction.  We love good books and hope to share this love with you.  Thanks for reading. 

George Ovitt (12/5/13)

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