Enthusiasms

Containing whatever I enthuse over

Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Literature except for poetry.

Victory: an Island Tale

Posted by clissold345 on November 21, 2008

Here are a few notes on Joseph Conrad’s novel Victory, which I have just finished reading.

When Heyst meets Lena it is her voice that captivates him:

“But her voice! It seduced Heyst by its amazing quality. It was a voice fit to utter the most exquisite things, a voice which would have made silly chatter supportable and the roughest talk fascinating. Heyst drank in its charm as one listens to the tone of some instrument without heeding the tune.” (Part 2, chapter 1)

I confess that Conrad’s exceptional writing style has much the effect on me as Lena’s voice on Heyst. Heyst is a very limited character but Conrad keeps me interested in him. Once Jones, Ricardo, and Pedro arrive on Samburan the novel descends into melodrama but Conrad (mostly) keeps me interested anyway.

The key chapters are perhaps Part 3 chapters 1 to 5, which cover Heyst’s and Lena’s relationship on Samburan before the arrival of the Threat from Outside (that is, Jones, Ricardo, and Pedro). Heyst is still repeating his father’s ideas, the ideas he has lived by for so many years:

“I only know that he who forms a tie is lost. The germ of corruption has entered into his soul.” (Part 3, chapter 3)

He doesn’t entirely realise that he has (partially) abandoned his father’s ideas:

“The girl he had come across, of whom he had possessed himself, to whose presence he was not yet accustomed, with whom he did not yet know how to live; that human being so near and still so strange, gave him a greater sense of his own reality than he had ever known in all his life.” (Part 3, chapter 3)

Heyst doesn’t entirely understand Lena, and Lena doesn’t entirely understand Heyst. She thinks of him as “a strange being without needs”, whereas in fact she is essential to him, he needs her. In the melodramatic climax to the novel Heyst and Lena, without checking with the other, decide on a plan to safeguard the other: Heyst orders Lena to flee while he distracts the villains and Lena decides that Heyst will be saved if she can somehow gain possession of the villains’ knife. Heyst acts to save Lena but he will not act if it is just himself who is in danger.

Jones, Ricardo, and Pedro are creatures of melodrama. They are instantly recognisable each time they reappear, Conrad’s descriptions of them are, by his high standards, (mostly) lazy and repetitive, they have little or no inner life. (However, Ricardo has more inner life than the other two.)

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The Extra-Temporal Being

Posted by clissold345 on October 13, 2007

Marcel tries to explain his great sense of happiness when he hears the spoon hit the plate or when he steps on the uneven paving or when he tastes the madeleine. There need not be any happiness in the remembered experience or in the present experience, so where does the happiness come from? Marcel claims that at such moments his impressions are generalised, derived from what is common to the remembered and present experience. The impressions are therefore (in a sense) outside time. A being, a new side of himself, exists at such moments and it is this being which, freed from time and anxieties about the future, experiences great happiness.

The passage I’m discussing above is from Time Regained:

Or, cette cause, je la devinais en comparant entre elles ces diverses impressions bienheureuses et qui avaient entre elles ceci de commun que je les éprouvais à la fois dans le moment actuel et dans un moment éloigné où le bruit de la cuiller sur l’assiette, l’inégalité des dalles, le goût de la madeleine allaient jusqu’à faire empiéter le passé sur le présent, à me faire hésiter à savoir dans lequel des deux je me trouvais ; au vrai, l’être qui alors goûtait en moi cette impression la goûtait en ce qu’elle avait de commun dans un jour ancien et maintenant, dans ce qu’elle avait d’extra-temporel, un être qui n’apparaissait que quand, par une de ces identités entre le présent et le passé, il pouvait se trouver dans le seul milieu où il pût vivre, jouir de l’essence des choses, c’est-à-dire en dehors du temps. (Page 13 of volume 15 of the Gallimard edition, Paris, 1946-47.)

The above passage roughly corresponds to the following passage from Hudson (who translated Time Regained after Moncrieff died):

And I began to discover the cause by comparing those varying happy impressions which had the common quality of being felt simultaneously at the actual moment and at a distance in time, because of which common quality the noise of the spoon upon the plate, the unevenness of the paving-stones, the taste of the madeleine, imposed the past upon the present and made me hesitate as to which time I was existing in. Of a truth, the being within me which sensed this impression, sensed what it had in common in former days and now, sensed its extra-temporal character, a being which only appeared when through the medium of the identity of present and past, it found itself in the only setting in which it could exist and enjoy the essence of things, that is, outside Time. That explained why my apprehensions on the subject of my death had ceased from the moment when I had unconsciously recognised the taste of the little madeleine because at that moment the being that I then had been was an extra-temporal being and in consequence indifferent to the vicissitudes of the future. That being had never come to me, had never manifested itself except when I was inactive and in a sphere beyond the enjoyment of the moment, that was my prevailing condition every time that analogical miracle had enabled me to escape from the present. Only that being had the power of enabling me to recapture former days, Time Lost, in the face of which all the efforts of my memory and of my intelligence came to nought.

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Books for Me to Read

Posted by clissold345 on September 15, 2007

Loving by Henry Green

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Black Boy by Richard Wright

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Pisan Cantos by Ezra Pound

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Failure of Compassion

Posted by clissold345 on September 6, 2007

Swann reveals to the Duchess that he is dying. At her parties, in her own set, she always knows exactly how to behave, but here (for the first time in her life says Proust) she is momentarily lost, she doesn’t know which of two actions to choose. Her solution is to deny that there is a choice. Proust is perhaps unfair to the Duchess here. She does show some compassion for Swann but it is soon set aside as she prepares to leave (to dine out at Mme de Saint-Euverte’s).

The passage I’m discussing above is from The Guermantes Way:

Placée pour la première fois de sa vie entre deux devoirs aussi différents que monter dans sa voiture pour aller dîner en ville, et témoigner de la pitié à un homme qui va mourir, elle ne voyait rien dans le code des convenances qui lui indiquât la jurisprudence à suivre et, ne sachant auquel donner la préférence, elle crut devoir faire semblant de ne pas croire que la seconde alternative eût à se poser, de façon à obéir à la première qui demandait en ce moment moins d’efforts, et pensa que la meilleure manière de résoudre le conflit était de le nier. (Page 349 of volume 8 of the Gallimard edition, Paris, 1946-47.)

Moncrieff translates as follows:

Placed for the first time in her life between two duties as incompatible as getting into her carriage to go out to dinner and shewing pity for a man who was about to die, she could find nothing in the code of conventions that indicated the right line to follow, and, not knowing which to choose, felt it better to make a show of not believing that the latter alternative need be seriously considered, so as to follow the first, which demanded of her at the moment less effort, and thought that the best way of settling the conflict would be to deny that any existed.

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Mme de Guermantes

Posted by clissold345 on September 6, 2007

Initially Marcel is fascinated by the character and status of the Duchess. He likens her to an out-of-date and incomplete library in a country house. This library is of no use for giving us a rounded education, but if we read enough of the volumes in it, we are sure to find fine passages, so fine that we will always remember where we first read them.

The passage I’m discussing above is from The Guermantes Way:

Pour toutes ces raisons, les causeries avec la duchesse ressemblaient à ces connaissances qu’on puise dans une bibliothèque de château, surannée, incomplète, incapable de former une intelligence, dépourvue de presque tout ce que nous aimons, mais nous offrant parfois quelque renseignement curieux, voire la citation d’une belle page que nous ne connaissions pas, et dont nous sommes heureux dans la suite de nous rappeler que nous en devons la connaissance à une magnifique demeure seigneuriale. (Page 274 of volume 8 of the Gallimard edition, Paris, 1946-47.)

Moncrieff translates as follows:

For all these reasons, conversations with the Duchess resembled the discoveries that we make in the library of a country house, out of date, incomplete, incapable of forming a mind, lacking in almost everything that we value, but offering us now and then some curious scrap of information, for instance the quotation of a fine passage which we did not know and as to which we are glad to remember in after years that we owe our knowledge of it to a stately mansion of the great.

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Knowledge of Others

Posted by clissold345 on August 30, 2007

Even if we recognise the errors in our first impressions of a person, it is still not possible to gain exact knowledge of the person, since, even as we clarify our impressions, we are merely clarifying out-of-date impressions.

The passage I’m discussing above is from In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower:

Ainsi ce n’est qu’après avoir reconnu non sans tâtonnements les erreurs d’optique du début qu’on pourrait arriver à la connaissance exacte d’un être si cette connaissance était possible. Mais elle ne l’est pas ; car tandis que se rectifie la vision que nous avons de lui, lui-même qui n’est pas un objectif inerte change pour son compte, nous pensons le rattraper, il se déplace, et, croyant le voir enfin plus clairement, ce n’est que les images anciennes que nous en avions prises que nous avons réussi à éclaircir, mais qui ne le représentent plus. (Page 177 of volume 5 of the Gallimard edition, Paris, 1946-47.)

Moncrieff translates as follows:

Thus it can be only after one has recognised, not without having had to feel one’s way, the optical illusions of one’s first impression that one can arrive at an exact knowledge of another person, supposing such knowledge to be ever possible. But it is not; for while our original impression of him undergoes correction, the person himself, not being an inanimate object, changes in himself, we think that we have caught him, he moves, and, when we imagine that at last we are seeing him clearly, it is only the old impressions which we had already formed of him that we have succeeded in making clearer, when they no longer represent him.

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Imagination

Posted by clissold345 on August 30, 2007

Proust likens the tables in the restaurant to planets (each planet attracting the planets around it). The waiters revolve around the tables (like stars?). Proust’s analogy is perhaps far-fetched but I share his pity for any diners who are unable – even for an instant – to see beyond the customary appearance of things.

The passage I’m discussing above is from In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower:

Et je plaignais un peu tous les dîneurs parce que je sentais que pour eux les tables rondes n’étaient pas des planètes et qu’ils n’avaient pas pratiqué dans les choses un sectionnement qui nous débarrasse de leur apparence coutumière et nous permet d’apercevoir des analogies. Ils pensaient qu’ils dînaient avec telle ou telle personne, que le repas coûterait à peu près tant et qu’ils recommenceraient le lendemain. (Page 75 of volume 5 of the Gallimard edition, Paris, 1946-47.)

Moncrieff translates as follows:

And I rather pitied all the diners because I felt that for them the round tables were not planets and that they had not cut through the scheme of things one of those sections which deliver us from the bondage of appearances and enable us to perceive analogies. They thought that they were dining with this or that person, that the dinner would cost roughly so much, and that to-morrow they would begin all over again.

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Habit

Posted by clissold345 on August 30, 2007

The impressions that we consciously retain of a person (no matter how vivid initially) weaken as time passes. The impressions that we have forgotten lose none of their vividness as time passes. So, once we recall these impressions, they can bring a person vividly before us.

The passage I’m discussing above is from In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower:

Comme celle-ci [l’habitude] affaiblit tout, ce qui nous rappelle le mieux un être, c’est justement ce que nous avions oublié (parce que c’était insignifiant et que nous lui avions ainsi laissé toute sa force). C’est pourquoi la meilleure part de notre mémoire est hors de nous, dans un souffle pluvieux, dans l’odeur de renfermé d’une chambre ou dans l’odeur d’une première flambée, partout où nous retrouvons de nous-même ce que notre intelligence, n’en ayant pas l’emploi, avait dédaigné, la dernière réserve du passé, la meilleure, celle qui quand toutes nos larmes semblent taries, sait nous faire pleurer encore. (Page 69 of volume 4 of the Gallimard edition, Paris, 1946-47.)

Moncrieff translates as follows:

And as Habit weakens every impression, what a person recalls to us most vividly is precisely what we had forgotten, because it was of no importance, and had therefore left in full possession of its strength. That is why the better part of our memory exists outside ourselves, in a blatter of rain, in the smell of an unaired room or of the first crackling brushwood fire in a cold grate: wherever, in short, we happen upon what our mind, having no use for it, had rejected, the last treasure that the past has in store, the richest, that which when all our flow of tears seems to have dried at the source can make us weep again.

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Three Trees

Posted by clissold345 on August 23, 2007

Marcel feels profound bliss at the sight of three trees. He’s had this feeling occasionally in the past. The feeling is so vivid that his life seems insignificant without it. He’s unable to grasp the meaning behind the feeling and he imagines the trees telling him off for missing an opportunity that will never return.

The passage I’m discussing above is from In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower:

Je vis les arbres s’éloigner en agitant leurs bras désespérés, semblant me dire : ce que tu n’apprends pas de nous aujourd’hui, tu ne le sauras jamais. Si tu nous laisses retomber au fond de ce chemin d’où nous cherchions à nous hisser jusqu’à toi, toute une partie de toi-même que nous t’apportions tombera pour jamais au néant. (Page 195 of volume 4 of the Gallimard edition, Paris, 1946-47.)

Moncrieff translates as follows:

I watched the trees gradually withdraw, waving their despairing arms, seeming to say to me: “What you fail to learn from us to-day, you will never know. If you allow us to drop back into the hollow of this road from which we sought to raise ourselves up to you, a whole part of yourself which we were bringing to you will fall for ever into the abyss.”

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Beneath the Surface

Posted by clissold345 on August 23, 2007

I admire Proust for his insights (perhaps I should say he sometimes makes thoughts sound like insights). For example, the insight that sometimes the trivial and tragic continue hand in hand. In front of others we continue to talk as if nothing crucial has happened, our thoughts even follow the conversation. However, at times we are also aware very strongly that we’ve had the crucial answer, the answer we’ve been waiting for for a year, and that misfortune has struck us down.

The passage I’m discussing above is from In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower:

Au milieu d’autres personnes, nous recevons de celle que nous aimons la réponse favorable ou mortelle que nous attendions depuis une année. Mais il faut continuer à causer, les idées s’ajoutent les unes aux autres, développant une surface sous laquelle c’est à peine si de temps à autre vient sourdement affleurer le souvenir autrement profond, mais fort étroit, que le malheur est venu pour nous. (Page 172 of volume 5 of the Gallimard edition, Paris, 1946-47.)

Moncrieff translates as follows:

In a room full of other people we receive from her whom we love the answer, propitious or fatal, which we have been awaiting for the last year. But we must go on talking, ideas come, one after another, forming a smooth surface which is pricked, at the very most, now and then by a dull throb from within of the memory, deep-rooted enough but of very slender growth, that misfortune has come upon us.

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