Quote of the Week

Real life, life at last laid bare and illuminated—the only life in consequence which can be said to be really lived—is literature.

-Marcel Proust,  In Search of Lost Time

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Everything Proust Ever Said About Love…

…that I wrote down this year.

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Proust said a lot of things about a lot of things, possibly while wearing a monocle. One of those things was love. During my year-long journey across the ridges, slopes, and fertile fields of Proust terrain, I collected this series of quotes and excerpts on love and desire.

Some are definitions, some are confessions, some are reflections on the forms and stages of love and heartbreak. Some are hopeful, and others less so. Some even contradict each other.

But every one is true for somebody, or so I would imagine.

I share them here in the order they appear throughout the six volumes of In Search of Lost Time. Happy reading!

But at the time when I knew Gilberte, I believed that Love existed really outside ourselves; that, allowing us at most to set aside obstacles, it offered its joys within an order in which one was free to change nothing; it seemed to me that if I had, on my own initiative, replaced the sweetness of avowal by the pretence of indifference, I would not simply have lost the joys I most dreamed of, but that I would have fabricated arbitrarily an artificial and worthless love, unconnected to the true love, the mysterious and pre-existed paths of which I would have given up following.

Life is strewn with these miracles for which people who love can always hope.

There can be no peace of mind in love, since what one has obtained is never anything but a new starting-point for further desires.

When we are in love, our love is too big a thing for us to be able altogether to contain it within ourselves.

There is nothing like desire for preventing the things one says from bearing any resemblance to what one has in one’s mind.

Like everybody who is not in love, he imagined that one chooses the person one loves after endless deliberation and on the strength of diverse qualities and advantages.

Love is no more perhaps than the diffusion of those eddies which, in the wake of an emotion, stir the soul.

Love is an incurable malady.

In love, it is easier to relinquish a feeling than to give up a habit.

Love is space and time made perceptible to the heart.

We fall in love for a smile, a look, a shoulder. That is enough; then, in the long hours of hope or sorrow, we fabricate a person, we compose a character.

No doubt it is because memories are not always true that love is not eternal.

We think that we are in love with a girl, whereas we love in her, alas! only that dawn the glow of which is momentarily reflected on her face.

For even if one love has passed into oblivion, it may determine the form of the love that is to follow it.

We read the newspapers as we love, blindfold.

And then, as we have seen, the memories which two people preserve of each other, even in love, are not the same.

If in those early days, as we have seen, the idea of death had cast a shadow over my loves, for a long time now the remembrance of love had helped me not to fear death.

Reading Retrospective: 2016

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Howdy, folks. Sorry to be the bearer of old news, but I’m here to remind you of the not-so-distant yesteryear of 2016.

I decided to do a Reading Retrospective for 2016 not because my reading year was in any way exceptional, but because:

(a) I like making book recommendations,
(b) 2016 mostly sucked, except for my literary undertakings, and
(c) I might not get another chance—at least, not anytime soon. I’m on track to finish The List by April or May, at which point The Challenge (and this blog) will come to an end. Far from being sad about this, I am ecstatic to move on to other reading and writing projects and, hopefully, get a refund on my sanity.

So here it is: Your very own tour of My Year in Books, 2016 Edition. There were thrills and slogs and frolics and dawdles and everything in between, so plan your route carefully. God knows I didn’t.

First things first: I read a total of 57 books last year—unless, that is, you count In Search of Lost Time as six books instead of one. (I do.) (The List doesn’t.) Then I read 62.

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Me + books + sepia = ? (Not my bookshelf, BTW, but it might as well be.)

Here’s a breakdown of the 57 books that nudged their way into my 2016. Of those 57:

  • 17 were classics for The List (if ISoLT = 1)
  • 40 were purely for “pleasure” (at least, in theory)
  • 45 were works of fiction
  • 12 were non-fiction (of which 8 were memoirs)
  • 47 were first-time reads
  • 10 were rereads
  • 21 were audiobooks
  • 36 were paper books
  • 46 were “for adults”
  • 7 were “for young adults”
  • 4 were “for children”

Now for a summary of the books that stood out the most, in good ways or bad:

Best First-Time Reads:

  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. (Illuminating.)
  • Lady Susan by Jane Austen. (Playful.)
  • America Again: Re-Becoming The Greatness We Never Weren’t by Stephen Colbert. (Clever.)
  • We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (Penetrating.)
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. (Thought-provoking.)
  • Shrill by Lindy West. (Necessary.)
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain. (Validating.)

Best Rereads:

  • You Had Me at Hello by Mhairi McFarlane. (Charming.)
  • How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. (Spot-on.)
  • Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. (Hilarious.)
  • The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. (Nostalgic.)
  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. (Witty.)

Worst Reads:

  • The Tin Drum by Günter Grass. (Twisted.)
  • An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. (Boring.)
  • Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. (Stupid.)
  • Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais. (Tedious.)
  • Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert. (Listless.)

Longest Book:

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. (At 6 volumes and 4,217 pages, it’s the longest book I’ve ever read. It’s one of the longest books anyone has ever read, if Wikipedia and the Guinness Book of World Records have anything to say about it. Proust and I were together, on and off, for all of 2016—and a little sick of each other by the end of it.)

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It’s possible Volume 3 spent too much time in the sun.

The longest single-volume book I read was The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, at 1,120 pages.

Shortest Book:

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. (It may be short, but it packs a thousand gut-punches.)

Wait. Now that I think about it, We Should All Be Feminists was probably shorter. And while we’re on the subject, it, too, packs a thousand gut-punches—but mostly to the patriarchy.

The moral of this story is Don’t Judge a Book by Its Size. (If you don’t make room for the little guy, he’ll just develop a complex.)

Pleasant-est Surprises:

  • Every Day by David Levithan. (Touching.)
  • The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey. (Compelling.)
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. (Arresting.)
  • Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg. (Revelatory.)

Biggest Disappointments:

  • Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding. (Mournful.)
  • Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson. (Self-aggrandizing.)
  • Naked by David Sedaris. (Creepy, I guess? Maybe he shouldn’t narrate his own audiobooks?)
  • Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. (Disappointing ONLY because nothing can outdo Beloved, which I knew before I started.)

Most Original Reads:

  • The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. (First novel, anyone?)
  • Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. (Seriously, WTF?)
  • The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul by Douglas Adams. (Absurd and unpredictable.)
  • In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. (Philosophical and eloquent.)
  • Matilda by Roald Dahl. (Empowering and literally magical.)

Sad Books I Hope to Repress ASAP:

  • Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. (Cue tears.)
  • Every Day by David Levithan. (Cue loud cries of “Noooo!”)
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. (Cue slow torture.)
  • Native Son by Richard Wright. (Cue outraged lectures directed at anyone willing to listen.)

Memorable Characters I Couldn’t Repress Even If I Wanted to:

  • Achilles, from The Iliad. (Crybaby.)
  • Lady Susan Vernon, from Lady Susan. (Devious.)
  • Ringer, from The 5th Wave. (Badass.)
  • Sergeant Dime, from Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. (Commanding.)
  • Tyler Durden, from Fight Club. (Misguided.)
  • Bernadette Fox, from Where’d You Go, Bernadette. (Misunderstood.)

Book-to-Film Adaptations I Scrambled to Read Just in Time:

  • Lady Susan by Jane Austen.
  • Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding.
  • The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey.
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

I loved all the films, for the record—especially Love and Friendship, based on Lady Susan.

Standard-Ass Classics That Left Little to No Impression:

  • As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.
  • Nostromo by Joseph Conrad.
  • Tom Jones by Henry Fielding.
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
  • U.S.A. by John Dos Passos.

Largely Unremarkable Memoirs (a.k.a. Why Do I Keep Reading Memoirs?):

  • I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley.
  • Sounds Like Me by Sara Bareilles.
  • The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer.
  • Naked by David Sedaris.

Miscellaneous Reads I Didn’t Love or Hate Enough to Fit Into Any of the Above Categories:

  • Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.
  • Who’s That Girl by Mhairi McFarlane.
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.
  • Paper Towns by John Green.

And now, before I say my final “Thank you and good night”Fuck off forever” to the atrocity that was last year, here’s a quick glimpse at all the high points of my 2016. I hope you join me up here sometime; the view’s fantastic.

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Best Quotes of 2016:

Americans are incredibly polite as long as they get what they want.

-Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a Man of his age!—just old enough to be formal, ungovernable and to have the Gout—too old to be agreeable, and too young to die.

-Jane Austen, Lady Susan

Boredom may well be the very essence of evil.

-Günter Grass, The Tin Drum

Social media is a great tool for all of us introverts and decent people alike as it speeds up the time between thinking someone is great and realizing they’re the worst.

-Amy Schumer, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo

But by far the worst thing we do to males — by making them feel they have to be hard — is that we leave them with very fragile egos. The harder a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is.
And then we do a much greater disservice to girls, because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of males.

-Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists

Then they gave us heartfelt advice: if we wanted to rise in the courts of great noblemen, to be as economical as possible of the truth.

-François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel

“That’s right,” she told the girls. “You are bored. And I’m going to let you in on a little secret about life. You think it’s boring now? Well, it only gets more boring. The sooner you learn it’s on you to make life interesting, the better off you’ll be.”

-Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Long ago, I learned how to be brave, how to go forward always.

-Homer, The Iliad

I want women to have more of the world, not just because it would be fairer, but because it would be better.

-Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman

Women matter. Women are half of us. When you raise every woman to believe that we are insignificant, that we are broken, that we are sick, that the only cure is starvation and restraint and smallness; when you pit women against one another, keep us shackled by shame and hunger, obsessing over our flaws rather than our power and potential; when you leverage all of that to sap our money and our time—that moves the rudder of the world. It steers humanity toward conservatism and walls and the narrow interests of men, and it keeps us adrift in waters where women’s safety and humanity are secondary to men’s pleasure and convenience.

-Lindy West, Shrill

“I once slept with this guy who had an ENORMOUS penis. Like, it was a problem. The condoms wouldn’t even fit. I was so overwhelmed that I accidentally laughed at it. And then it shrunk. He was not pleased.”
“That should be a comic book. Penis giganticus is his superpower, and women laughing at it is his kryptonite.”

-Jenny Lawson, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

I am the one not running, not staying, but facing.
Because if I am the last one, then I am humanity.
And if this is humanity’s last war, then I am the battlefield.

-Rick Yancey, The 5th Wave

Life is strewn with these miracles for which people who love can always hope.

-Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

Bloody fucking dog pig black-livered bastard from hell. I hope his face gets put on a porcupine.

-Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

Stories are important, the monster said. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.

-Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls

There will never come a dawn when you do not have my heart.

-Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji

Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage. We live here. On this planet, in this nation, in this country right here. Nowhere else! We got a home in this rock, don’t you see! Nobody starving in my home; nobody crying in my home, and if I got a home you got one too! Grab it. Grab this land! Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on—can you hear me? Pass it on!

-Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

If you stare at the center of the universe, there is a coldness there. A blankness. Ultimately, the universe doesn’t care about us. Time doesn’t care about us.
That’s why we have to care about each other.

-David Levithan, Every Day

A very happy New Year to you all. And, as always, happy reading!

#8 In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust

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Proust: The writer who would rather die than edit

Guys, I did it. I finished Proust. All six volumes and 4,217 pages of him. I did it.

And it didn’t comprehensively suck.

Some of it sucked, I’ll admit. Proust is a true test of reader stamina, especially when he veers into complex and (occasionally) nonsensical musings on philosophy and social interaction. In Search of Lost Time (1913–1927) is dense, and abstract, and low on both action and dialogue.

But it’s also thoughtful, and insightful, and extraordinarily crafted. And when Proust veers into relatable and (thankfully) sensical musings on philosophy and social interaction, it’s mesmerizing in a way I had never encountered before.

In Search of Lost Time is, at its core, a reflection on the nature of time and memory. One of Proust’s central themes is what he calls “involuntary memory,” a phenomenon in which an everyday object or activity evokes a specific memory of the past. (Involuntary memory occurs in contrast with voluntary memory, or the deliberate recollection of past events.) The most famous scene of the novel occurs early on, when the narrator dips a madeleine into his tea and suddenly remembers doing so years earlier, as a child, at his family’s country home in Combray.

But there’s much more, of course, filling up Proust’s 4,000+ pages. Proust ruminates, alternately, on snobbery, jealousy, deceit, grief, art, identity, and homosexuality. His tone is intensely intimate and immersive—a sort of six-volume showcase of introversion and introspection. For all that, though, Proust’s style is largely accessible; it’s the sheer length of the average sentence, and the work as a whole, that poses the greatest challenge.

Because, yes, In Search of Lost Time is mercilessly long. Proust died, apparently, not before he finished writing it, but before he finished revising it—otherwise he might have seen, and fixed, some of those “tl;dr” notes his editor surely left in the margins. ISoLT contains one of the longest sentences in literature, at over 900 words, and Proust doesn’t hesitate to spend the better part of an entire volume on just one or two scenes.

So, yeah—it’s long. It’s slow. It’s the opposite of a Tweet, or a meme, or a soundbite, or really anything we love about 21st-century communication. I spent a year reading it, off and on, charging through two volumes in 2-3 months and then taking a much-needed breather before diving back in to the next two. Take it from me that your ROI will be disappointing unless you’re prepared to sit down with it, in a quiet space short on distractions, where your thoughts and Proust’s can mingle freely, over and over and over again. This is not a book to take on the subway, or squeeze into the odd spare moment. (Believe me; I’ve tried.)

But if you’re patient with it, and persevere, and unplug, and give it the time and energy it’s due, it just might be worth it. (You might still hate it, of course, but at least you made a legit attempt.)

As I mentioned, there’s not much plot in ISoLT, but here are a few highlights of Proust’s masterpiece of anti-plot:

  • The narrator recalls his anxiety when, as a child, his mother couldn’t come upstairs to kiss him goodnight.
  • The narrator eats a madeleine dipped in tea and experiences his first “involuntary memory.”
  • The narrator learns that a family friend, Swann, married the “unsuitable” Odette.
  • The narrator, as a teenager, falls in love with Swann and Odette’s daughter, Gilberte.
  • The narrator, suspecting Gilberte does not love him back, pretends to fall out of love with her, and then actually does.
  • The narrator befriends Robert de Saint-Loup, the nephew of another family friend.
  • The narrator falls in love with Albertine during a summer holiday on the coast of Normandy.
  • The narrator stalks Madame de Guermantes, a member of the aristocracy with whom he is fascinated.
  • Everyone discusses the Dreyfus Affair.
  • The narrator attends various social gatherings characterized by incessant gossip.
  • The narrator’s grandmother dies.
  • Swann dies.
  • The narrator brings Albertine to live in his family’s Paris apartment.
  • The narrator alternates between boredom with Albertine and jealous suspicion over her lesbian love affairs.
  • The narrator pretends to break up with Albertine, then backpedals, only to find her gone in the morning.
  • The narrator contrives ways to persuade Albertine to return of her own accord, fails, and eventually falls out of love with her too.
  • The narrator discovers the truth about Albertine (that is, that she’s a lesbian, which was obvious from the beginning).
  • The narrator visits Venice with his mother.
  • Gilberte, the narrator’s first love, announces her engagement to his friend Robert de Saint-Loup.
  • World War I happens (the narrator spends most of it in a sanatorium for his health).
  • The narrator returns to Paris, attends a party, barely recognizes anyone, and realizes he is old.
  • The narrator finally finds the inspiration and motivation to write his novel/life story.

I felt largely neutral toward the narrator in the early volumes, but came to loathe him in the later ones. He is narcissistic, manipulative, obsessive, and judgmental, not to mention a bit of a whiner. He repeatedly finds himself “unable to write,” despite his ambition to become a writer and the necessity of actually writing something in order to do so. He is also psychotically controlling of Albertine even when he’s bored with her, keeping her prisoner in his apartment and then complaining that she’s there. MAKE UP YOUR MIND, DIPSHIT. MARRY HER OR MOVE ON, AND ALSO STFU.

Heavily influenced by Monet, Proust wanted his work to evoke an impressionist painting. Some critics have likened it to a symphony. And it is, no doubt, an unprecedented depiction of the minutiae of social life and the natural environment.

I disagree, however, with Graham Greene’s veneration of Proust as “the greatest novelist of the twentieth century”—not just because it’s silly to quantify or rank something as subjective and abstract as “greatness,” but also because I don’t think of Proust as a novelist. I think of him more as a literary philosopher, less concerned with character and plot than with theories and their contemplation. (A routine perusal of SparkNotes actually proved me right on this, at least in part: Proust himself, apparently, “had trouble deciding whether Swann’s Way should be a fictional account or an explicit discussion about his philosophical interests.”)

Still. Whether fiction or philosophy, In Search of Lost Time is indisputably the work of a master. A master with way too much time on his hands, mommy issues, and a criminal streak of snobbery, yes—but let’s forgive him where he never forgave us.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Yes.

(See, Proust? It is possible to express an idea in a single word.)

Favorite Quotes:

Swann’s Way

In his younger days a man dreams of possessing the heart of the woman whom he loves; later, the feeling that he possesses the heart of a woman may be enough to make him fall in love with her.

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower

In a world thronged with monsters and with gods, we know little peace of mind.

My intelligence might have told me the opposite. But the characteristic feature of the ridiculous age I was going through—awkward indeed but by no means infertile—is that we do not consult our intelligence.

Life is strewn with these miracles for which people who love can always hope.

The Guermantes Way

He admitted the possibility that she did not love him. No doubt the general malady called love must have forced him—as it forces all men—to believe at times that she did.

“In fact, it was drolatic,” put in M. de Guermantes, whose odd vocabulary enabled society people to declare that he was no fool and literary people, at the same time, to regard him as a complete imbecile.

But we shall see how certain fugitive and fortuitous impressions carry us back even more effectively to the past, with a more delicate precision, with a more light-winged, more immaterial, more headlong, more unerring, more immortal flight.

Sodom and Gomorrah

It is, no doubt, the existence of our body, which we may compare to a vase enclosing our spiritual nature, that induces us to suppose that all our inner wealth, our past joys, all our sorrows, are perpetually in our possession.

That sorrow tried to reconstruct itself in my heart, threw up vast pillars there; but my heart was doubtless too small for it.

The Prisoner and the Fugitive

Love is no more perhaps than the diffusion of those eddies which, in the wake of an emotion, stir the soul.

It is terrible to have the life of another person attached to one’s own like a bomb which one holds in one’s hands, unable to get rid of it without committing a crime.

The truth is the most cunning of enemies.

When I was young, people used to tell me that one had to put up with a bit of boredom, so I made an effort; but now, ah! no, I just can’t help it, I’m old enough to do as I please, life’s too short. Allow myself to be bored stiff, listen to idiots, smile, pretend to think them intelligent—no, I simply can’t do it.

It was as though, reincarnate, the composer lived for all time in his music.

We picture the future as a reflexion of the present projected into an empty space, whereas it is the result, often almost immediate, of causes which for the most part escape our notice.

Art is not alone in imparting charm and mystery to the most insignificant things; pain is endowed with the same power.

Let us leave pretty women to men with no imagination.

Even if one love has passed into oblivion, it may determine the form of the love that is to follow it.

Time Regained

So rarely do we meet either with easy success or with irreversible defeat.

People away from the front imagine that the war is no more than a gigantic boxing match, of which, thanks to the newspapers, they are spectators at a comfortable distance. But it is nothing of the sort. It is an illness which, when it seems to have been defeated at one point, returns at another.

The creation of the world did not take place once and for all, you said, it is, of necessity, taking place every day.

Real life, life at last laid bare and illuminated—the only life in consequence which can be said to be really lived—is literature.

Time, colourless and inapprehensible Time, so that I was almost able to see it and touch it, had materialised itself in this girl, moulding her into a masterpiece.

Read: 2015–2016