#7 War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

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If we were looking to crown One Classic to Rule Them All—the ultimate, quintessential, indisputable classic that comes to mind whenever we hear the word—War and Peace (1865–1867) would be a reasonable candidate. Classics don’t come much bigger, broader, bolder, or better than Tolstoy’s masterpiece of realism. It tops British readers’ literary wish lists and spawns relentless adaptations. It’s about literally everything. And it’s hailed, time and time again, as one of the Greatest Books of All Time.

Which is exactly why I’m here.

Tolstoy insisted that War and Peace

is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle.

But the latter comes, in many ways, closest to reality. Tolstoy wrote his 600 characters against the backdrop of the French invasion of Russia in the early 1800s. And, according to Shmoop,

Tolstoy’s research didn’t just involve reading some history books and calling it a day. No, he dove into the archives, getting his hands on actual letters sent by Napoleon and the Russian and French generals and figuring out the personalities involved from the way they wrote about their activities. Even more impressive, he traveled to the actual battlefields, compass and surveying tools in hand, to map out for himself where the troops were stationed and how they attacked and defended.

War and Peace, then, was Tolstoy’s attempt to rewrite history—and, hopefully, correct it. In his mind, history was a product of diverse forces across time and place, from the greatest general and the most decisive battle to the smallest, most “insignificant” contextual detail. People don’t make history; history makes history. What came before determines what comes after.

But Tolstoy’s version of the Napoleonic era is more than a little subjective, with more than a few fictional events and characters. The main cast is made up of:

  • Pierre Bezukhov, a socially inept party-boy-turned-heir-turned-Freemason-turned-politician-turned-prisoner who acts as a stand-in for Tolstoy himself
  • Natasha Rostov, an “enchanting” teenager-turned-fiancée-turned-adulteress-turned-wife-and-mother whose selfish streak shifts into a self-effacing one
  • Andrei Bolkonsky, an intellectually-minded soldier and father who almost marries Natasha despite being twice her age
  • Nikolai Rostov, brother to Natasha, soldier for Russia, and gambling disaster with a scalding temper
  • Marya Bolkonsky, Andrei’s sister, and frequent bully victim of her father and her circumstances
  • Hélène Kuragin, Pierre’s beautiful wife, who may or may not be an idiot but is definitely unfaithful

With an omniscient third-person narrator at the wheel, perspective turns on a dime. And while Tolstoy can be seen and felt in the philosophy of War and Peace, he is startlingly neutral in his character depictions. These are people who aren’t always likable, who make mistakes both large and small, and who often act without explanation. It’s disorienting, in my experience. But it’s equally intriguing, on a good day.

War and Peace is best known, of course, for its size. The edition I read was 1,215 pages. If we could make one collective request of Tolstoy, we’d probably ask him to get to the point a little bit quicker—and he probably could. In what outrageous literary universe does an author need a two-part epilogue? One is usually bad enough. Two is perverse and sadistic, if you’re a) me, and b) 99 books in to The 100 Greatest Books Challenge.

Excess and all, War and Peace is an extraordinary achievement, and it’s easy to see why it has stood the test of time. But if I’m being totally honest (and what else is this blog for), I preferred Anna Karenina. I preferred many books on The List, actually, to the illustrious War and Peace. I would go so far as to say I’m a little disappointed by it. If War and Peace is a panorama, then I prefer a close-up. If it’s a boundless, restless ocean, then I prefer a bath tub. And if Tolstoy asks me ever again to sit back, relax, and admire the glaze on the world’s tastiest doughnut, I’ll tell him No: I’d rather sink my teeth in.

Because that’s where things start to get really good.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time? 

War and Peace is Great with a capital G, but I didn’t Love it with a capital L.

Favorite Quotes:

War isn’t courtesy, it’s the vilest thing in the world, and we must understand that and not play at war. We must take this terrible necessity sternly and seriously. That’s the whole point: to cast off the lie, and if it’s war it’s war, and not a game. As it is, war is the favorite pastime of idle and light-minded people.

In captivity, in the shed, Pierre had learned, not with his mind, but with his whole being, his life, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfying of natural human needs, and that all unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity.

I’ve noticed that being an interesting person is very convenient (I’m an interesting person now); people invite me and tell me about myself.

Pierre’s insanity consisted in the fact that he did not wait, as before, for personal reasons, which he called people’s merits, in order to love them, but love overflowed his heart, and, loving people without reason, he discovered the unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them.

Read: 2017

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The List’s Biggest Surprises

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In literature, as in life, our expectations don’t always align with reality. We’re all a little wary of books that seem over-hyped and/or universally praised, and we’ve all found ourselves reeling with pleasure from a book we had every intention of loathing.

The 100 Greatest Books of All Time are full of surprises—at least, in my experience—despite their (mostly) familiar names and (often) widespread reputations. And even when so-called “Great” books leave me feeling disappointed, I’m thrilled that after all this time they’re still, in a sense, waiting to be discovered… by me, and by anyone else willing to try them out for ourselves.

98 books later, these are the classics that most took me by surprise.

Books I Thought I’d Love and Didn’t:

Books I Thought I’d Hate and Didn’t:

Books I Assumed Would Be as Great as They Are Famous, and Weren’t:

Books I’d Never Heard of but Ended Up Loving:

Miscellaneous Surprises The Challenge Had in Store for Me: 

  • The animal narrators were animal badasses.

Gone are the days when I presumed animal narrators were synonymous with schmaltzy maudlit. The Wind in the Willows is a hilarious romp, but there’s wisdom and wonder in the Wild Wood, too. The Call of the Wild is starkly gorgeous and startlingly provocative. Animal Farm is, I’m convinced, how all history should be told—briefly, and in allegory. And Charlotte’s Web is a quiet assault on the emotions, profound in its simplicity.

  • The big, bad books used to terrify adolescents aren’t as tough as they’d like to think.

In Search of Lost Time is monstrously long, sure—but it’s more than readable if you’ve got the time. The same goes for Anna Karenina and MiddlemarchThe scariest classics are the ones you’ve never heard of, lurking in the shadows of our literary closets: Tristram Shandy comes to mind, as does Absalom, Absalom! and Malone Dies.

On the other hand, The Sound and the Fury, Ulysses, and Moby-Dick have earned their infamy (and then some).

  • To a certain extent, the classics are more alike than they are different.

Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and The Awakening all have essentially the same plot: Depressed woman has an affair and then kills herself. The suicide methods differ, at least. But if there’s a formula for “classic” status, I suspect it would look something like Social Criticism + Religious Criticism + Adultery + Suicide, with liberal references to other classics.

Gold, silver, and bronze medals for the Most Unique Classics go to Malone Dies, Things Fall Apart, and The Trial, respectively. Finnegans Wake wins first prize in Most WTF, a separate category in which Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is runner up.

And, finally, the Greatest surprise of all:

I didn’t think he had it in him.

If books this old and this well-known still manage to surprise me, I can’t wait to see what the rest of the lit world is waiting to reveal. Here’s to 98 books and many more surprises, for you and for me. Happy reading!

(Repost) The Book I’m Saving for Last—and Why

Reposting this soul-baring, teeth-gritting tell-all from April 2016 to mark my arrival on the doorstep of The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. Closing out Ulysses last Sunday means I’m just two books away from the end of my book-venture. It’s about to get all War and Peace up in here—my penultimate classic encounter—and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Happy Wednesday, and happy reading!

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For a long time now—years, actually—I’ve known exactly which classic I’ll be reading dead last for The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. And I swore to myself that, one day, I’d reveal the book I’m saving for banishing to #100—and why.

But first, I’m going to tell you about #99.

For my penultimate triumph in The Challenge, I’ve chosen War and Peace. My reasons range from the logical and practical to the emotional and whimsical:

  • I’ve been spreading out the longest reads from The List as I work my way through them, and War and Peace fell to the final rankings in my sloppy algorithm. But I refuse to end The Challenge on a notoriously long and inevitably gratuitous epilogue, so I tucked another book behind it.
  • War and Peace is known to be formidable, an Everest or a Moriarty of a book—but it’s also the most quintessential and iconic of classics. You don’t get any more classic than War and Peace. And as a classic among classics, War and Peace feels like a satisfactory climax to what has been a very long List indeed. (#100—I’ll get to it in a minute—will, I think, serve as a suitable denouement.)
  • Much to my surprise, I enjoyed Tolstoy the first time around and would like to honor him in parting with an (almost-)victory lap.
  • I’ve spent much of the Russian portion of The List with award-winning translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (a married couple—how cool is that?) and am finding it hard to say do svidaniya.
  • Given its reputation, I’m preeetty sure War and Peace is entitled to its shelf space among The 100 Greatest Books of All Time, and I want to end on (or near) a good note.

And, most essentially:

  • I have yet to buy a copy.

And so it is that War and Peace will bow humbly before me at #99. (Or maybe the other way around. The book does have six hundred characters, after all.)

And now, the Big Reveal. The Moment of Truth. The Unmasking of #100. Ladies and gentlemen: My very last book for The 100 Greatest Books Challenge, the crowning jewel on my classic library, just 11 books from now, will be…

Faust.

“Why Faust?” is a perfectly reasonable question with a slightly manic answer. If you’re already bored by this post, and/or disillusioned by what seems like an anticlimactic climax, I can sum up my rationale in one word:

GRUDGE.

For seven long years, I have sustained a heartfelt grudge against Faust. And now I’m here to tell you its origin story.

Many moons ago, a sparky young college student put on a new pair of Toms and walked to the first meeting of what would be her final Literature class ever.

At Purdue University, the class was known as Comparative Literature 267, or “World Literature from 1700 to Now.” It followed the previous semester’s CMPL 266 (“World Literature Until 1700”), taught by a wonderful and engaging grad student who said “Woof” every time his wit went over our heads. In CMPL 266, we read a total of five novels, all of them short, and wrote exactly three papers to finish out the semester. One of our favorite reads, naturally, was Inferno, because who doesn’t love rivers of boiling blood and cannibalistic torture?

Anyway, the class kicked ass.

CMPL 267 would be taught by another grad student—but a decidedly less engaging one. Marta (or so we’ll call her), on the first day of the new semester, greeted us all by passing out a syllabus. And as the syllabus arrived on my desktop, my jaw (I think it’s safe to say) literally dropped. It was the longest syllabus I had ever seen. It was ridiculously long, unfathomably long, unjustifiably long. Marta wanted us to read 500 pages of material every week, write up reflective essays for each class period, turn in analyses twice a month, take regular quizzes, give two oral presentations, and submit three 20-page research papers. In four months.

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At least, that’s how I remember it. But even if my memory has distorted the exact size of the workload expected by Marta in CMPL 267, the story’s preface boils down to this: It was my last semester of college, I had seen plenty of syllabi, and this one was a monster.

I had a mild heart attack in my new Toms, went home, reread the syllabus, and had another mild heart attack. It was impossible. It was absurd. It was inhumane, practically—at least, by the privileged standards of a middle class American college student. So the next time the class met, two days later, I raised my hand and asked Marta if the syllabus was negotiable. And when she asked what I had in mind, I told her. “Less… everything” was the gist of it.

And she said yes.

But my moment of #winning did not last long. Marta did lighten the workload by a tree or two, but that still left a hefty to-do list behind. I ground my way through it, reading what I could and writing what I had time for, but the effort was moot from a big-picture perspective. Between the overblown homework and Marta’s lack of teaching experience, the class and the reading material added very little substance to my long-term knowledge stockpile. The only reading assignments I recall from that fateful semester—out of dozens—are “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “A Madman’s Diary.”

Well, and Faust.

Marta assigned Faust on a Wednesday, to be read (and reflected upon, in 600-800 words, double-spaced, with one-inch margins) by Friday. But when I opened up The Norton Anthology of World Literature and saw Faust staring back at me, exhausting from just a cursory glance, I simply said No.

Now, Faust is not long. It’s actually quite short—under 200 pages. But it is long enough to be a preposterous overnight reading assignment. It invalidated my conscious efforts to maintain a healthy work-life balance, and it felt like a slap in the face to the hardworking student I was and always had been. Haven’t I done enough? I thought. Haven’t I devoted much more time and energy to this silly, introductory-level Literature class than reason warrants?

I had. I had. So I refused, on principle alone, to read Faust that night. I didn’t read it the next night, either, and come Friday, I left The Norton Anthology of World Literature at home. I marched to class in my Toms, and I took the 0 for the reflective essay I didn’t write for the play I didn’t read. And I thought that would be the end of it.

But Faust came back to haunt me. Questions about Goethe’s famous drama cropped up on quizzes for the rest of the semester. The subject of each literary analysis was, inevitably, a comparison between Faust and “Bartleby the Scrivener,” or Faust and “A Madman’s Diary,” or Faust and… whatever else we read for Marta. I really can’t remember. We were expected to include references to Faust in two of our three major research papers. Our oral presentations were—you guessed it, you clever thing—Faust-focused.

Still, I refused. Marta couldn’t make me read Faust, not if I didn’t want to, and I DID NOT WANT TO. My stubborn and childish streaks expanded to military stripes, and I wore them proudly. I read just enough of Faust—excerpts here and there—to write my papers and give my presentations. But a grudge was born that bygone semester, never to give up its ghost if I had anything to say about it.

It was only a year or so later that I decided to take on The 100 Greatest Books Challenge and saw, hovering at #94 just inside the bottom rankings, Goethe’s fierce and unforgiving Faust. The grudge is obviously mutual. And while committing myself to The Challenge leaves no room for compromise, I can still relegate it to last place. So even if that means Faust triumphs in the end, at least—at the very same moment—I will, too.

Also, it is pretty short. On the heels of War and Peace, reading Faust will be as easy as selling my soul to the devil.

Oh, wait…

#13 One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

Happy Thursday, everyone! I hope you’re in the mood for a Quote-tacular Quote-a-palooza, because that’s what you’re getting today.

I’m not going to do a long-form review of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) for three reasons: 

  1. The book follows multiple generations of the Buendía family in their fictional hometown of Macondo, and many of them share the same name. Writing a brief and/or coherent plot summary would be impossible (or adjacent to it).
  2. It’s full of strange themes and stranger events, and I wouldn’t want any of these to sound off-putting. One Hundred Years of Solitude is INCREDIBLE, and you owe it a read.
  3. My attempt at a review would probably come out like a garbled chain of superlatives, leaving no room for wit and no time for insight. (In other words, what’s the point?)

So instead of going the traditional route, I’m simply going to copy in all my favorite quotes. This way, you can taste a few delicious morsels or dip one of your wrinkly toes in. This way, you’ll get a sense of Márquez’s style, his timelessness, his surrealism, and his magic. This way, you’ll catch a glimpse of genius undiluted by my rambling.

This way, we all win.

Here we go. Happy reading!

That was the way he always was, alien to the existence of his sons, partly because he considered childhood as a period of mental insufficiency.

Normality was precisely the most fearful part of that infinite war.

In the shattered schoolhouse where for the first time he had felt the security of power, a few feet from the room where he had come to know the uncertainty of love, Arcadio found the formality of death ridiculous.

He started writing again. For many hours, balancing on the edge of the surprises of a war with no future, in rhymed verse he resolved his experience on the shores of death.

“You have taken this horrible game very seriously and you have done well because you are doing your duty,” she told the members of the court. “But don’t forget that as long as God gives us life we will still be mothers and no matter how revolutionary you may be, we have the right to pull down your pants and give you a whipping at the first sign of disrespect.”

He had reached the end of all hope, beyond glory and the nostalgia of glory.

[Her] actions had been a mortal struggle between a measureless love and an invincible cowardice.

Death really did not matter to him but life did, and therefore the sensation he felt when they gave their decision was not a feeling of fear but of nostalgia. 

The locked room, about which the spiritual life of the house revolved in former times, was known from that time on as the “chamberpot room.” 

He could not understand why he had needed so many words to explain what he felt in war because one was enough: fear. 

The spirit of her invincible heart guided her through the shadows.

Once again she shuddered with the evidence that time was not passing, as she had just admitted, but that it was turning in a circle. 

Her heart of compressed ash, which had resisted the most telling blows of daily reality without strain, fell apart with the first waves of nostalgia.

Both of them remained floating in an empty universe where the only everyday and eternal reality was love.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time? 

I WILL NOT DIGNIFY THIS WITH AN ANSWER.

Read: 2014

#11 The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

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There’s no time like the holidays to remind us that it’s rough, having siblings. Family, in general, is just one huge tree of problems. The branches multiply every year, and the leaves come and go with the seasons, and when the apples fall—near or far—they rot.

Just ask the Karamazovs.

Start with Alexei (better known as Alyosha). He’ll find a way to tell you about his family and withhold the bitter cynicism. A fresh-faced and humble young novice, Alyosha would tell you that families aren’t perfect—but they stick together in the tough times, and they cherish each other even when they don’t show it. Then he would listen politely while you talked for 10 pages hours about your family.

Cool and clever Ivan, his older brother, will give a sarcastic laugh at the very notion of family. Then he will launch into a rambling monologue about the nature of good and evil, and the ways families bring out both. During your tea break, he may hallucinate conversations with the devil. Don’t be alarmed.

Or do, because that’s reasonable.

Dmitri (Mitya), the stormy and passionate eldest brother, will alternately beg, weep, and shout that family is as essential as air—or the very grounds of deceit and betrayal. It depends entirely on his mood.

And while there’s really no telling what their father, Fyodor Pavlovich, will say, you can bet your last ruble that it will be loud, it will be rude, and it will cause a scene.

“Dysfunctional” doesn’t even begin to cover it with this family. “Self-destructive” would be more accurate. The consequences of an inheritance dispute (and a romantic dispute) between Mitya and Fyodor Pavlovich are as numerous as they are dramatic: Fyodor Pavlovich, notably, winds up dead, and Mitya’s unbridled spirit lands him in a steaming heap of trouble. Also jail.

We spend much of the novel following the Karamazovs around town meeting all of the characters tied to the fate(s) of this unruly brood. But the Karamazovs themselves are only half the story—the other half being wrapped up in philosophical questions about God, free will, human nature, morality, and happiness.

All of this takes place in the 1860s in a town called Skotoprigonyevsk. (…Yeah.) Russia was, at the time, a nation distracted by social and political upheaval: Serfdom had just been abolished, Western European culture was quickly invading, and radicalism reared its ugly head in more ways than one. Is the tempestuous Karamazov family a metaphor for Russia’s volatility, as witnessed by Dostoevsky himself?

I dunno. But that sounds insightful, so let’s go with YES.

Some fun grim facts about Fyodor Dostoevsky:

  • Dostoevsky’s father was thought to have been murdered by his own serfs.
  • Dostoevsky himself was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death by firing squad for illegally distributing socialist propaganda. The execution was all a ruse, however—intended by the authorities as a psychological punishment. His physical punishment followed: four years at a Siberian labor camp and four years of military service.
  • While in prison, Dostoevsky began suffering from epileptic seizures. The seizures affected him for the rest of his life; he had four in March of 1877 alone.

So if you suspect that Dostoevsky had a preoccupation with criminal justice (he also authored a little-known beach read by the name of Crime and Punishment), just know that the rest of the jury reached that verdict a long time ago.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

The Brothers Karamazov is as ambitious as they come. But if anyone could pull it off, it’s Dostoevsky.

Favorite Quotes:

The world stands on absurdities, and without them perhaps nothing at all would happen. 

I recently read a comment by a foreigner, a German, who used to live in Russia, about our young students these days. “Show a Russian schoolboy a chart of the heavens,” he writes, “of which hitherto he had no idea at all, and the next day he will return the chart to you with corrections.” No knowledge and boundless conceit—that’s what the German meant to say about the Russian schoolboy.

A woman—devil knows what a woman is.

He felt, as I picture it to myself, something similar to what a criminal feels on his way to execution, to the gallows: he still has to go down a long, long street, and at a slow pace, past thousands of people, then turn down another street, and only at the end of that other street—the terrible square! I precisely think that at the start of the procession the condemned man, sitting in the cart of shame, must feel precisely that there is still an endless life ahead of him.

I am writing a curse, yet I adore you! I hear it in my heart. One string is left, and it sings.

Truly each of us is guilty before everyone and for everyone, only people do not know it, and if they knew it, the world would at once become paradise.

We will fight. But love—oh, I will love her infinitely.

Read: 2015

#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

#61 The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu

The earliest illustrated handscroll of The Tale of Genji (12th century)

The Tale of Genji takes us back—way back—to 11th century Japan, where the men have all the power and the women have all the problems. “Shining Genji,” son (but not heir) to the Emperor, is the star of the show, and a good two-thirds of this sweeping Tale are spent trailing his personal and political life. We chase him through bedroom after bedroom in town after town, and even into exile and back.

Then, oddly, our leading man dies, and a whole new cast of characters sees us through to the final curtain.

There’s a special sort of satisfaction to be had in following a character—any character—from birth to death. But to follow Genji’s life is also, for modern readers, to follow him into a profoundly unique setting. Heian Japan was marked by rigid political hierarchy, strict social customs, polygamy, and poetry—to name but a few features of this fascinating cultural landscape.

Poetry is, of course, the most welcome fixture of Genji’s world, serving as a primary vehicle of communication (especially in the context of courtship) among the various characters. One exchange sees two lovers invoking love beyond death:

When the end has come, and from my smoldering pyre smoke rises at last,
I know this undying flame even then will burn for you. 

I would rise with you, yes, and vanish forever, that your smoke and mine
might decide which one of us burns with the greater sorrows. 

Though I turn to smoke and forever melt away into the wide sky,
I shall never leave your side, who remain all my desire. 

Other poems rely on nature metaphors and wordplay that make a faithful and lucid Genji translation nearly impossible to render.

17th-century Genji illustrations

For us, though, the biggest challenge of Genji is not the book’s (somewhat excessive) length, but its huge lineup of characters. Few are actually referred to by name, in keeping with the courtly etiquette of the Heian era. Instead, we are given titles, functions, and honorifics… all of which can change throughout a given character’s life/career. Genji, for example, goes from Captain to Consultant to Commander to Counselor to Chancellor, and more. At times he is simply “His Grace.”

Just below this (in terms of challenges) is the sheer feminist fatigue that today’s readers are likely to suffer as they hike the hills and valleys of Genji’s broad lifespan. The women of the Tale are, at every turn, damned if they do and damned if they don’t. They are bestowed as objects, relegated to the domestic sphere, shamed, blamed, coerced, and raped. They live, often, in anxiety, neglect, jealousy, and fear that they are unable to voice, and their only refuge from the whims of men is to become a nun.

Genji’s beloved, Lady Murasaki, says it best shortly before her death:

Ah, she reflected, there is nothing so pitifully confined and constricted as a woman.

Nevertheless, Genji‘s author, Murasaki Shikibu—a lady-in-waiting to Empress Shōshi—proved to be Japan’s own Homer, Shakespeare, or Proust. Her work has spawned movies, plays, operas, and, of course, manga. But the ancient language in which she wrote the Tale around 1000 AD was already unintelligible a mere century later, and it took until 1913 for a modern Japanese translation to be published. No original manuscript survives.

It is to Shikibu’s extraordinary credit, then, that Genji’s legacy lingers on. Limitless in scope, rich in detail, and steady in pace, The Tale of Genji is so many worlds apart from the modern novel that we might as well call it another universe. And yet the myriad emotions and perspectives that make up its bulk remain thoroughly relatable today.

This, then, is Genji’s secret, told for centuries across the world:

Nothing is more real than fiction. 

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Adventures in love and loss among the aristocracy—what more could you ask for?

Favorite Quotes:

It has been her destiny to be caught betwixt and between. 

The heart goes its own way sometimes.

O seer who roams the vastness of the heavens, go and find for me a soul I now seek in vain even when I chance to dream.

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

Read: 2016