Friday, January 04, 2008

Fleeting thoughts on holiday reading

We traveled to California for Christmas, and contrary to normal practice, I took only two books with me for the flights and the four-day visit. I was already a third of the way into Cees Nooteboom's All Souls' Day, so that was book one. But reading proved difficult. People talk, and I have a hard time tuning them out. No doubt the problem is basically mine, and yet it still seems to me that the middle-aged guy rocking out to classic rock, easily audible through his headphones and my earplugs, was a little unnecessary. And then the Denver airport: CNN surely pays airports and waiting rooms to keep the channel on all day long, right? No one watches. There is no avoiding it.

From late in All Souls' Day: "Mindless chatter, slot machines, a blaring TV. What did you have to do to escape the world's vulgarity?"

I often feel an odd nostalgia for a time I never knew. A time when there was quiet, when I might have been able to walk into a coffee shop, order a drink, and sit and read without having to hear music, any kind of music, or see the flickering light of a television. An airport? I must be joking. Invariably, I envision the scheduled hours spent waiting, and invariably I foolishly imagine time spent reading. But I never seem to think of the constant noise, the announcements, the people, the overhead televisions. . .

In All Souls’ Day, Arthur Daane, a documentary filmmaker and a cameraman for hire, spends his free time taking film of those things, those times, that go undocumented, thinking about lost time: his, his friends', history's. He seeks out the times of day that don't provide the kind of light normally needed for decent shots. Twilight; early morning. Or, as he sees in a friend's photo collection, in which "all the pictures . . . seemed to deal with things that had almost vanished but had been caught just in the nick of time." A picture of cloud patterns:
That one irretrievable cloud drifted through the air, moving slowly over the landscape like a zeppelin, watched by people who were long dead. Yet because of the photograph, that cloud had become all clouds, that nameless mass of water particles, which had been there from the beginning of time, long before mankind had arrived on the scene, had turned into those scudding formations, the stuff of poems and proverbs, usually taken for granted, until one day a photographer came along and gave this most transient of phenomena a paradoxical kind of permanence, and made you realize that a world without clouds is unthinkable and that every cloud, no matter when or where, represents all of the clouds that we have never seen and never will. Pointless thoughts, which nevertheless went through his mind because those photographs, and the effect the photographer was hoping to achieve, had something to do with what he himself was trying to achieve--to save things that didn't need to be saved because they were always there.
Even with the noise, I did complete All Souls' Day on the trip out, leaving me with an opportunity to get a good start on book two during the visit and on the return trip: Swann's Way. But I had trouble. Aimée's father and step-mother live in what is in many ways a quiet neighborhood, but which is also pretty close to a highway. Traffic is usually clearly audible. This often proved enough of a distraction to prevent me from getting any traction with the book. It's true, I should be able to tune out what is essentially white noise. Clearly I have some attention problems. But still, I ask, is it too much to hope for, a quiet room?

Even so, I begin Swann's Way. Things are familiar. I am amused, again, that the Narrator takes his sweet time. It takes sixty pages before the famous madeleine makes its appearance, just after he has introduced the idea of "voluntary memory, the memory of the intellect":
It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture [our own past]: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) of which we have no inkling. And it depends on chance whether or not we come upon this object before we ourselves must die.
Later on, in the middle of the "Combray" section, he recalls his room, his adventures reading, and his grandfather asking him to go outside:
And as I did not wish to interrupt my reading, I would go on with it in the garden, under the chestnut-tree, in a hooded chair of wicker and canvas in the depths of which I used to sit and feel that I was hidden from the eyes of anyone who might be coming to call upon the family.
And my own mind wandered. How I longed for such a garden, away from traffic and television and music and prying eyes! I imagined myself in the scene, that very garden, under that very tree--there, surely, I could find the quiet place I desired; there, surely, I could sit and read Proust, without bother. Then I imagined the Narrator, as a boy in that garden, imagined that the book he was reading was the very book I was trying to read, that is, Swann's Way. But of course, the boy in that garden could not have read Proust: Proust did not exist for him. I pondered the idea, that Proust himself did not, could not, have the experience of reading Proust. The writer reads his own words, of course, re-writes, edits, approves for publication. But this is not the same. Just as we will inevitably miss out on reading much in our lives and necessarily be unable to read books that appear after our death, the writer cannot enjoy the experience that others experience reading his or her own work. Possibly a point not worth making, but my mind remained fixed on it. It seemed sad, somehow, that the great writers--who are also great readers--lacked the experience of reading themselves. My mind wondered what Beckett would think of Beckett! Would Kafka have wanted Kafka's writings destroyed if he himself were not Kafka? A ridiculous question!

Interestingly, these books share some similar concerns: the retrieval or preservation of elusive moments, of lost moments, the problems of memory. Arthur Daane, in some ways, is trying to escape, or ignore, the memory of his wife and child, who had died in a crash years before. But they re-emerge, unwonted, seeming just as real as they ever did. And then they're gone. Perhaps as a way to sidestep this question, he ruminates instead on history itself, in this case the history of Germany. He ponders the scars left by history, by the War, by the Wall, by the now-eliminated division between West and East. And he shoots his film, capturing those interstitial moments that no one notices, no one else records. Proust's Narrator, of course, is recreating an entire lost world, of which the ability to remember he locates not in the intellect, or in sight, or even touch:
But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.
I like this idea, that taste and smell don't really awaken a memory within us, but rather they lie dormant, "waiting, hoping" to unleash the memory upon us. Having tasted the madeleine, he is aware that a memory was jostled, was trying to come to the fore, but was gone, a "fleeting sensation", before it all comes flooding back to him.

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