December 1, 2011
Having finished the third novel of Anthony Powell’s 12-volume A Dance to the Music of Time, I am trying to have some feeling for the series and where Powell is going with it. These are books which, like the great Victorian novels and like Proust’s meditations on time, don’t want to get there too fast. Middle-class Victorians were literate and had servants to give them some free time, but had no radio or television or Internet or 24-hour shopping malls. They wanted mileage from a book, for those long evenings when someone read aloud. Like them, Powell wants to slow us down. He seems to be saying that as we move through time we cannot really know what we have experienced until time has moved us along, past the experience.
And we cannot experience as other than we are. Mrs. Erdleigh, the fortune teller, explains this to Jenkins.
‘You expect too much, and yet you are also too resigned. You must try to understand life.’
Somewhat awed by this searching, even severe analysis, I promised I would do better in future.
‘People can only be themselves,’ she said. ‘If they possessed the qualities you desire in them, they would be different people.’
‘That is what I should like them to be.’
Jenkins tries, he does try to understand but cannot rise above his distaste for the ambitious Widmerpools of this world. His failure to understand is part of the story. Proust — and here too I have not moved beyond the first quarter or so of his oeuvre — who also seeks to understand people seems rather broader in his range. Proust is more of a sensualist. Jenkins eats and drinks but we have little sense of the experience itself, only of the effects. One may be drunk, but what did it taste like? With Proust you know; Powell does not ask the question.
December 31, 2009
A good month for reading:
Lyn Hamilton, The Orkney Scroll – mystery and geography in the Orkney Islands
Alfred Kazin, A Walker in The City – a boy’s memories of Brooklyn
Virgil, The Aeneid – bloody adventure
Louisa May Alcott, Work - a novel about 19th century women’s work
M. I. Finley, Early Greece: the Bronze and Archaic Ages – what we know and don’t know, based on both history and archaeology
Magaret Atwood, Surfacing - going down and coming back up, wet and wounded
Alain de Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life - lessons from literature
Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point - how social changes happen
Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger – the captive tiger breaks free
George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss – growing up female in rural England
I have posts on all these books except the Finley and Gladwell. Farewell to 2009. I am going to mark the transition by dropping the word “thousand.” Instead of two-thousand-nine, it’s going to be twenty-ten.
December 24, 2009
This is a strangely juiceless book. The premise is promising — how examples from Proust’s life and the experiences of the characters in À la recherche du temps perdu — can guide you in your own life. Alain de Botton explains, with topics such as How to Open Your Eyes, How to Express Your Emotions, How to Be Happy in Love, How to Suffer Successfully. All of this sounds like vital self-help stuff, yet I read it completely unmoved. In How to Open Your Eyes, for example,
Why don’t we appreciate things more fully? The problem goes beyond inattention or laziness. It may also stem from insufficient exposure to images of beauty, which are close enough to our own world in order to guide and inspire us. The young man in Proust’s essay was dissatisfied because he only knew Veronese, Claude and Van Dyck, who did not depict worlds akin to his own, and his knowledge of art history failed to include Chardin….
Excuse me! This is interesting, even perceptive stuff, but has little to do with appreciation of beauty, even after overcoming the root question of what is beauty. Again and again, de Botton sees problems with pleasure or friendship or suffering or love as problems of knowledge or understanding. No one ever had a pain in his understanding.
Previous to How Proust Can Change Your Life, I did enjoy de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy. This book also follows the self help pattern with sections on Unpopularity, Not Having Enough Money, Frustration and so forth. For each topic de Botton explores the experiences and opinions of a philosopher, for example, using Socrates to stand for unpopularity. The approach works much better than combing through Proust’s life and work to find useful advice. I did, however, enjoy his insights into Proust the man. Having wandered myself through hundreds of pages with Swan and others, I could use a guide.