Thursday, 29 December 2011

Proust (re-visited) via Hesperus Press

If, for entirely understandable reasons, (it apparently goes on for ever; style is labyrinthine; plot, in so far as there is one, slow to virtually stationary….) you are reluctant to read even a page by Marcel Proust, but at the same time have a slightly guilty feeling that somehow as a serious reader you ought to do so, I'd like to suggest a possible way in. Hesperus Press (, whose motto is ‘Et remotissima prope (to bring near what is far), publish "works by illustrious authors, often unjustly neglected or simply little known in the English-speaking world.” The books are beautifully-designed little paper-backs and Proust’s Pleasures and Days, originally published in 1896 as Les Plaisirs et Les Jours, and here translated by Andrew Brown, is one of them. It is a series of sketches and short stories depicting the lives, loves, manners and motivations of an eclectic variety of characters; their amorous entanglements, idle vanities, feigned morality and, above all, their snobbery – Proust is very strong on snobbery.

The cover blurb reads: “A stunning volume of philosophical reflections, short narratives and poems", offering us “ an early glimpse into Proust’s literary genius, and revealing him as both a remarkable chronicler of metropolitan life and a compassionate recorder of the most poignant sensations and recollections.”

There is an excellent Forward by A.N. Wilson, where we learn that Proust completed these stories, poems and fragments before he was 23 years old. (One can only be awed by the knowingness, the psychological perspicacity displayed by one so young.) "What will immediately strike any reader of this volume of short stories is how surely, from the first, Proust knew his theme." And Wilson helps us to understand the literary import of Proust’s style: “The complex syntax, those long sentences with their coiling clauses that he was already practising in the Pleasures, is deployed in The Search (i.e. In Search of Lost Time ) to make us slowdown and take the time to notice the world and the richness of its interconnections.”

Of course, if you have never even dipped your toe into A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, whether in French or in translation, that last remark won’t mean much to you, but Pleasures and and Days will give you an authentic introduction to the Proustian style and themes so that, who knows?- you may be tempted to launch forth on the great work itself!

From Pleasures and Days:

Here is the 23-year old Proust describing the bleak and lonely last days of the young Baldassare Silvande,Viscount of Sylvania:
‘ He turned his head away from the happy image of the pleasures that he had passionately loved and would never enjoy again. He looked at the harbour: a three-master was setting sail.

"It's the ship leaving for India" said Jean Galeas.

Baldassare could not make out the people standing on the deck waving their handkerchiefs, but he could guess at the thirst for the unknown that filled their eyes with longing; they still had so much to experience, to know, and to feel. The anchor was weighed, a cry went up, and the boat moved out over the sombre sea to the West, where, in a golden haze, the light mingled the small boats together with clouds and murmured irresistible and vague promises to the travellers.'

As I read those words, I was haunted by echoes of Theophile Gautiere’s poem, L’Isle Inconnu, memorably set to music by Berlioz:

Dites, la jeune belle,
Où voulez-vous aller?
La voile enfle son aile,
La brise va souffler.

L’aviron est d’ivoire,
Le pavillon de moire,
Le gouvernail d’or fin.
J’ai pour lest une orange,
Pour voile une aile d’ange,
Pour mousse un séraphin.

Dites, la jeune belle,
Où voulez-vous aller?
La voile enfle son aile,
La brise va souffler.

Est-ce dans la Baltique?
Dans la mer Pacifique?
Dans l’île de Java?
Ou bien est-ce en Norvège,
Cueillir la fleur de neige,
Ou la fleur d’Angsoka?

Dites, la jeune belle,
Où voulez-vous aller?

'Menez-moi', dit la belle,
'A la rive fidèle
Où l’on aime toujours'.
Cette rive, ma chère,
On ne la connaît guère
Au pays des amours.

Où voulez-vous aller?
La brise va souffler.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Cracked Bell. America and the Afflictions of Liberty

The Cracked Bell
America and the Afflictions of Liberty
by Tristram Riley-Smith

In an engrossing, eminently readable book, Tristram Riley-Smith examines all the contradictions and complexities inherent in the concept of 'liberty' and describes the ways in which America’s notion of itself as the ‘Land of the Free’ has become mythologised to such an extent that it has become 'inflated and unstable.' His background as a social anthropologist is reflected in his method of arguing from practical examples, which not only enlivens the text but provides persuasive evidence for the points he makes. He pin-points the many hypocrisies and contradictions in modern American, and no aspects of social or political attitudes and customs are left unexamined.

Riley-Smith’s book ends on an optimistic note. His final opinion is that all is not lost, that there are ‘sources of illumination’ whereby the ‘cracked bell’ can be re-cast. But I had a problem understanding how these sources of illumination can be translated into actual policies.

He says that, as an anthropologist, he is ‘sceptical about the ability of one individual to change culture.’

Yes, I’d agree there. But then, while I was reading, something from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was hovering at the back of my mind:

 “Programs of a political nature are important end products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if the individual values are right. The place to improve the world is first in one's heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there. ”

This is the dilemma: if one accepts Pirsig’s thesis, cultural change has got to begin with individuals but that takes us into the realms of education – and imagination. It’s in those areas that it seems so difficult to effect meaningful changes that would lead to social and cultural change on anything like the grand scale which our current malaise demands.  I don’t have much idea of how well, or not, the American public educational system educates the majority of pupils to be critical, imaginative and informed thinkers. But I do know that the UK system as exemplified in the majority of our state-run schools is, largely, a failure in that respect. Two articles in the current issue of the London Review of Books have direct bearing on this point. They set out clearly the decline of our universities from centres of learning for its own sake into factories designed to turn out people skilled and knowledgeable only in specific areas, those areas solely validated by their practical, monetary value. This educational system is not designed to produce the sort of people likely to effect radical change in social culture.

Riley-Smith clearly sees Barack Obama as a man with the understanding and vision to help to re-cast the Cracked Bell. David Hackett Fischer, in his book, Champlain’s Dream, about the life of Samuel de Champlain, French navigator, cartographer, draughtsman, soldier, explorer, geographer, ethnologist, diplomat, and chronicler, founder of New France and Quebec City, describes the qualities which made Champlain a great leader. On his death in 1635, although his achievements were celebrated, he was mostly remembered for the manner in which he treated others and that he served purposes that were larger than himself. Champlain was a man of his time whose thinking was far removed from ours today; as Fischer says: ‘He lacked the sense of individualism and individual autonomy which is so strong in North American culture to day.’ Fischer concludes the chapter in which he describes Champlain’s final days, and explains why he was honored as a great leader, as follows:

There was nothing of equality, democracy or republicanism in Champlain’s thinking. Champlain was raised in a European world where everyone had a rank and station. Like most of his European contemporaries, he was a confirmed monarchist. More than that, he firmly believed hierarchy and hegemony were fundamental to order, which he valued in an era of violence and deep disorder.

Champlain’s ideals were distant from ours in many ways, but some of our most cherished values have grown from his. We share his belief in principled action, even if our principles are not the same. Most of us are raised to his ideal of responsibility and leadership in a large cause. We have inherited his idea of humanity even as we have transformed it in many ways. And we are dreamers too, nearly all of us.

 Obama is certainly a man or principle and his writings show that he has the imagination to dream of a better way forward. But what must he do to translate principles and dreams into the policies which could begin the re-casting of the Cracked Bell?

Robert PIRSIG Zen and and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values William Morrow and Co 1984

David Hackett Fischer Champlain’s Dream Random House 2008