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The Plot Against America

As someone who was enthralled by the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (1933-2018) seemed like something I ought to put on my reading list. American Pastoral was exceptional, so I was willing to spend some more time this year with Roth before moving on to someone else. I picked up a copy of The Communist Manifesto on Audible before getting started, spent a couple hours with Karl Marx, and then started in to this alternative history “what-if” novel.

I’ll start by saying that, although I’m glad to have crossed off the Communist Manifesto from my to-read list, it was completely unnecessary for me to have read for The Plot Against America. For those of you whom do not recognize this title, here is what it is about: Famed aviator Charles A. Lindbergh is elected president of the United States of America in 1940 after his world-famous solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Though he does not outwardly support the Hitler’s regime in Germany, Lindbergh is a suspected Nazi. His anti-Semite views as a man in supreme political authority drive the themes and plot of The Plot Against America in contrast to a fractured Jewish family.

What’s real: Lindbergh was an outspoken racist. He was against the United States involvement in World War II. He did fly to Germany to receive a medal in person from the commander of Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, on behalf of Hitler. Charles was skyrocketed to fame when news of his successful flight hit the media, after which that admiration turned to robust sympathy in 1931 when his 20-month old son was nabbed from the Lindbergh family home and subsequently found murdered.

Everyone knew who Charles A. Lindbergh was, and from a standpoint of extreme popularity, I daresay it was possible that he could have won the presidency over Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, that’s the not real part.

The Plot Against America is about fear. The Lindbergh in the novel never speaks outright against the Jews. As they are announced to the populace, changes that are effected by his presidency are meant for the good of America as a whole though they are ridiculed by the elders of the Jewish faith. The younger individuals of the family believe in Lindbergh (to various degrees) and are at odds with their parents. What develops is the looming question of whether the reader is justified in suspecting conspiracy theories and unspoken motives.

I finished this novel a week ago and have been sitting with the idea of whether to write about it or not. I felt that the plot was oversimplified and lacked any real depth. It briefly brought to mind when George W. Bush became president in 2001, supported by the claim that politics is a religious vocation. I remember the fallout expressed by those religions that did not coincide with his, but also a certain kind of terror to think that the lines of church and state would be further blurred. Roth was afraid that the acceptance of Jews in the United States was conditional and precarious. Is that not true of any non-Christian faith?

To me, The Plot Against America (2004) lacked the insidiousness that was so beautiful (meaning so remarkably creepy and enthusiastically well done) in American Pastoral (1997). I noticed while doing some research though that HBO picked The Plot Against America up and made it into a series featuring John Turturro. Season one aired in 2020 and maybe the expertise of those behind it gave it the meat I felt was missing.

What more did I want, you might wonder?

Let’s jump authors for a moment and consider Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Here you have a cringe worthy protagonist that does not shy away from the thoughts and rationalizations that (for me) provoked a visceral reaction. I knew what Humbert was thinking and in knowing how his thoughts seemed perfectly normal to him, my emotional response to him had real weight. In The Plot Against America, Lindbergh wasn’t scary. He more of a placeholder than a person, and so it was difficult to attribute feelings towards him at all. The situation was disagreeable, but did not strike me as tragic. I started to care when a particular character died over halfway into the story and then it seemed like the novel lost momentum again.

If you haven’t read Philip Roth before, I wouldn’t judge him off of this book. I still have The Human Stain on my reading list, though it is the last of Roth I have in mind for now. Maybe it is because I’m reading Solzhenitsyn’s non-fiction work The Gulag Archipelago at the same time that the severity of experiences in The Plot Against America seems so trite. Or, maybe I shouldn’t start out with the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by an author if I intend to read more than just one of their repertoire.

The Gulag Archipelago: Volume One

I have not picked up a nonfiction so dense as The Gulag Archipelago since my genetics textbook. After two days of dedicated reading, I have made it 164 pages into volume one. (If this were Steven King, I’d have shelved over a thousand pages to my done pile, happily, and with an itch to replace the two books I read with new ones.) Much scarier than King though is this retelling of soviet life in the mid 1900s. Not that I don’t believe in things like cryptids and telekinesis mind you, but because the prevalence of terror and abuse in Russia was staggering.

I’ll avoid the details. Those of you whom would rather not shy away from it are more than welcome to pick up a copy and see it in Solzhenitsyn’s own words. After all, it was by the details that this author so severely undermined Stalin and the fascist regime of his home country. (Isn’t it weird how humans have to be shocked into paying attention?) If you are shy, but nonetheless curious, you can also try One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This short story was tame enough to make it passed the government censors, and was also written by Solzhenitsyn.

So why is it that someone who will consume a book like hot dogs at an eating challenge suddenly takes it slow? First off, I never realized how many different forms of secret police existed in Russia. I challenge you to Google “soviet secret police agencies”. It all started with the Cheka, or Vecheka, also known as the All-Russian Extraordinary Committee to Combat Counter-Revolution and Sabotage. Five years later the Cheka evolved into the GPU (State Political Directorate) which was part of the NKVD (People’s Commiserate for Internal Affairs). One year after that, the GPU became the OGPU (Joint State Political Directorate), and then the GUGB (Main Directorate for State Security). The GUGB of the NKVD is separated out to the NKGB (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs). The NKGB was merged back into the NKVD, then separated out, then merged, separated, merged, separated… from 1941 to 1946. There was the MGB, KI, MVD, and finally the KGB. I started a notebook and under “Secret Police”, jotted out a whole bunch of letter soup.

Second, there are terms used freely that had meanings I wasn’t familiar with: Organs and insects, for example. Organs were individuals employed by the secret police, as though it was a biological entity that was effecting its’ will throughout the populace by forming new growths. Insects were individuals whose alleged purpose was to subvert the government. This infestation of insects was the basis upon which many citizens were exterminated under Stalin’s rule. I had to learn that “wrecking” was an actual offense in the Soviet Union criminal code. “Wrecking” has been translated in English to mean sabotage, but also, inflicting damage, harm, and undermining. Plainly stated, it was a way to imprison anyone guilty of, suspected of, or even innocent of not embodying Stalin’s ideal.

“Things were said innocently, but they weren’t listened to innocently”

-The Gulag Archipelago

Learning new terms that were heretofore completely unfamiliar with was my third challenge.

Extrajudicial Reprisal: The same body is in charge of investigation, arrest, interrogation, prosecution, trial, and execution of the verdict.

Social Prophylaxis: Removal of the intelligentsia, or educated persons amidst the populace. (We don’t want anyone thinking that what the government is doing is wrong.)

Kulak: A term originally coined to mean a “miserly, dishonest, rural trader” which was manipulated to refer to all those whom hired workers (e.g. had some standing in society), and then further adulterated to mean “all strong peasants” in general. This has been one of my favorite terms, because I think it examples how tradition can be used to manipulate a population into conferring historical prejudice against a convenient new target. (Chinua Achebe addresses this concept in Things Fall Apart, in explaining how religious missionaries utilized tribal beliefs to convert the natives.)

Tenner: Ten years imprisonment.

Article 58: The RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) criminal code under which arrests were made.

Section 10: The section of Article 58 under which could be creatively applied to most any individual or circumstance, and referred to crimes regarding counterrevolutionary propaganda or agitation.

Unless you are an anti-government citizen, then it’s a tenner under Section 10 for you.

What I have found most intriguing about The Gulag Archipelago thus far are the euphemisms and the explanations of how this exposition of cruelty was allowed to commence. For instance, the verdict of “ten years without the right to correspond” meant that the accused was already dead. It would have been implacable to admit that an organ had shot a suspected insect whom was actually someone’s family member, so they found a different way to phrase why no letters would be forthcoming. Much of the beginning of Volume 1 is about uncertainty. After a tenner, maybe the accused didn’t write because they died in the gulag. Maybe they were exiled. Maybe they were set free, only to be sent to a different gulag. Nobody knew what tomorrow would bring. Solzhenitsyn describes it as a game of Solitaire where there are three piles in which to place any card: Arrest, Release, and Exile. To maintain imbalance, any given person could be randomly placed in any pile, at any time.

I couldn’t imagine living that way, though I believe that is Solzhenitsyn’s point.

A map of the Russian gulag system – There really were this many.

I will soon embark on chapter four (Yup, I’m only on four.) and learn more about the guards (or Bluecaps) of the gulag system. I’ll suspect that I will learn about how they were people too, placed in an impossible situation and struggling to find some way in which to survive the regime. I imagine their positions of authority will lead to further shady dealings. Solzhenitsyn states early on that he felt the time to cry out against injustice was at the very beginning. And yet, those whom did, died. Those who did not were carried away in a swift, deadly current of fate and circumstance. How much choice did any given individual have? What made the difference between a University student invited to NKVD school, and intelligentsia? How did anyone manage, when the constant stress and terror of being abducted in the middle of the night was not only plausible, but commonplace?

These are some of the questions I hope to gain answers to. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was exiled from Russia for his work, but also awarded the Nobel Prize because of it, I plan to work at it for as long as it takes.

À la recherche du temps perdu (Parts 1-4)

I would have thought that after over a hundred hours listening to In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust that starting a post about it would be easier. I seem to be most focused on how much closer I am to finishing. (For those keeping track along with me, I have 33 hours left and then book seven to read in paperback. I am currently paused before starting book five, The Captive.) If you include that I first listened to Swann’s Way and Within a Budding Grove last Winter, that’s slightly over 150 hours of Proust I’ve heard within the last year. It is not entirely about reaching the end. I am attempting to digest it all.

Paris, France

I can say that Swann’s Way made much more of an impact the second time around. Once I had a better idea of whom Marcel was growing up to be, revisiting his childhood made more of an impression. It almost seems worth it to read Time Regained (part VII) and then backtrack to V and VI. Is that some kind of heresy? Maybe not. I imagine that Proust had a fairly good idea on how his story was going to end before he got started, given his protagonist was loosely based upon himself. It may bring me closer to the sense of nostalgia that drove him to start writing in the first place.

I feel like I am currently paused at the silliest point in the protagonists’ life. For me, Marcel is not a very likeable as a young man. He’s obsessive, duplicitous, manipulative, and selfish. I am hoping that he will grow up and become more tolerable soon. For example, there is a moment where Marcel is traveling with his girlfriend Albertine. Also present in the scene are two male friends of his. One friend is asking him to step away from Albertine to greet his dying father, while the other is near enough that Albertine may be drawn into conversation with him while Marcel is away. Marcel does not trust either his friend or Albertine, so he declines the request. Marcel knows that refusing his friend will be hurtful. He knows that how the situation looks will cause the other man insult. However, Marcel snubs his friend with the aim of controlling his girlfriend, and decides it is better to let the friendship die than to find a way to explain his reticence.

To me, this means they were never actually friends as Marcel purports. It means that Marcel ought not be attached to Albertine, or the friend he trusts so little with her. These superficial relationships appear to be largely underscored by Marcel’s lack of confidence which he tries to shroud with indifference and pretense. What I await is for Marcel to apply his keen gift for insight upon himself. Why, when he feels certain that Albertine is at least bisexual, is he maddened with jealousy but also seriously considering leaving her for her friend Andrée? Why does he hop from clinging to his mother, his servant Françoise, his grandmother, to Gilberte, Bloch, Albertine, etc? Marcel will claim that he does just fine on his own once he’s been left to his own devices. However, he very clearly yearns to be fawned over, looked after, and admired.

What else is an aristocratic Frenchman to in the early 1900s to do?

I do like that Marcel’s insights into high society can be biting. After all, this scathing adroitness is why many people like reading Jonathan Swift. I’ve been enjoying Neville Jason as narrator. I’ve been saddened that this allegedly gay man (Marcel, protagonist) apparently felt the need to repress his true self in favor of the flippant dalliances society expected of him. I have been agitated twice now (part III and IV) that the pacing of these novels seems to malinger until the very end. (Swann’s Way, part one, is thus far the best paced of the first four parts in my opinion.)

Even so, there are countless moments that I have laughed aloud, smirked at shrewd remarks, and have even shared instances of particular amusement with others as I’ve listened along. Sometimes it is a matter of minutes between a chuckle and snort; Sometimes hours. I do feel as though it has been worth my time, even despite my reservations.

It has been quite the journey, reading À la recherche du temps perdu. I’d like to hope that maybe the experience has helped me to read people better. I imagine that when I approach the last three parts of this novel, it will be with this goal in mind. For now, I’m going to let parts one through four settle in my mind. (When “taking a breather” before the next part involves short stories by Dostoevsky, then its probably time to step back for a bit.)

A Study of Contrast

I am currently reading two of the greats: The (somewhat agreed upon) greatest work of fiction of all time and greatest non-fiction work of the twentieth-century (according to Time magazine). These two titles are À la Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust (1871-1922) and The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008). The first was written in France by an aristocrat. Proust strikes me as a man whom, for lack of the labor and distraction that a more robust individual might have undertaken, had plenty of time to read literature and study people. He had the ability to interpret small gestures, subtle inflections of voice and social motives with a level of skill recognized and admired to this day. Solzhenitsyn was a decorated captain in the Soviet Army during WWII. After the rise of Stalin, he suffered both imprisonment in the Russian gulag and exile for privately sharing his disfavor of The Red Tsar. He risked his life to tell a detailed truth about what was going on in Russia under Stalin’s rule, and was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize.

There is definitely no confusing one text for the other. I can listen to Proust while driving or doing chores about the farm. At my current place in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, the main character is currently discussing how social rank is evidenced by whose drawing rooms one has visited for tea. A few pages back, Saint-Loup was summarily ignored by hostess Mme. de Villeparisis upon his departure from her residence for having committed some unintentional faux pas. (I can’t say that I even noticed what it was he did; only her response and his attempt to save face.) Tragic? I paused in The Gulag Archipelago at the phrase “Do what you want without me; I want no part of it” in describing the feelings of university students who were being coaxed into NKVD school. (NKVD was the Soviet secret police in 1943, an acronym for the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs. Eg: Gulag interrogators) Apparently it was generally suspected among Russians of the day, if not officially known in detail, that pursuit of this particular career path would lead to a tangle of shady ethics. When I read The Gulag Archipelago, it is with a notebook, pen, and Google.

So why pursue these titles simultaneously? Primarily, I have nearly four months to finish reading six books to hit my 100 book goal for 2021. I have been clocking 5-14 titles a month, so I have time to embark on novels that are going to slow me down. Also, one of the best things about Proust so far is the confidence that nothing altogether bad is going to happen. (At least, by my personal thermostat. If someone pretended to fall asleep while I was in the room to avoid the nicety of saying goodbye to me? I wouldn’t care. I was never in the popular crowd.) In The Gulag Archipelago, there is constant incidence of despair, injustice and pain. In a way, they balance each other out.

There is a greater aspect to this though. I started thinking about Les Miserables by Victor Hugo during Within a Budding Grove (À la Recherche du Temps Perdu part two.) In Les Miserables, Hugo goes into what seems like a realistic description of how the French peasantry lived due to the economic factors that led to the June rebellion of 1832. (Let’s just say that there was quite a bit of dirt and cholera involved.) A major theme at the culmination of the novel is the relationship between the bourgeoisie and peasantry. Proust was born about forty years after the June revolution, but with each pretty new dress, tidy plate of cookies, or servant bell tinkle he mentions, I was envisioning the urchin Gavroche from Les Miserables was somewhere down the street starving. I started to wonder how askew the French imbalance of resources were in Marcel’s day. Should I feel entertained by Proust, or disturbed by the aristocracy?

In The Gulag Archipelago, the preamble to the novel itself describes that any effort to distribute resources equally amidst a population is doomed to failure. It describes that France was in serious consideration of moving to communism up until Gulag was released. I wondered: Why is equality considered to be so impossible while history has proven that extreme stratification is also unsustainable? What is it about the utopia ideal that is inherently fallible?

Is revolution inevitable?

Even in the extreme dissimilarity between these two novels, there is at least one ubiquitous theme: The lies. Though “I could not see you for dinner because I went to visit my sick grandma” is not the same quality of falsehood as sentencing a thief further charges for “subversion of the camp system” because they tried to run away, it is nevertheless equivalent that self-serving misrepresentations of truth are present in each society. I wonder, if it were simple to directly admit “I do not want to introduce you to my grandmother” instead of “She is boring, you wouldn’t like her” (Proust), maybe the truth of “We’re eradicating most of our population” (Solzhenitsyn) would be easier to say. It’s a thought.

Then again, we are creatures of our circumstances. I can’t imagine Marcel Proust as capable of surviving what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did. As Virginia Woolf once posited though, a woman would not have been able to write War and Peace because at the time, women were not soldiers. Solzhenitsyn admits that the lifestyle he enjoyed as a military official was far removed from that of basic training, and that he derived a rather perverse satisfaction in the use of his power after he had earned his stars. As his circumstances changed, so did he. Who is to say that Proust would not have made it through a soviet gulag, that Solzhenitsyn might have snubbed a plate of fluffy cookies to irritate a contemporary, or if Virginia Woolf would have made a great war captain? It’s just not how things turned out.

I suppose the aim from here will be to decide whether or not I can appreciate Proust for all the dilettantes, snobbishness and pretense while deciding whether Solzhenitsyn was right. If it prevents the whole lot of them from getting shot or sent into exile, is it then okay for the upper crust to dine while cholera washes away the rest? I’m going to let the dichotomy play out for now.

1984

I admittedly spend quite a bit of time browsing new titles on Audible. As my focus tends to be in literature and the classics, I have come to notice the myriad of selections when it comes to George Orwell’s 1984. It seems like every few months there is a new production of it available. Currently a myriad is 12, something akin to looking for a copy of the Iliad or Odyssey by Homer, or most titles by Jane Austen. There are choices to be had.

But why shouldn’t we be preoccupied with this novel? As a society we are replete with machinations and motivations. As the universe falls towards entropy, we are none of us perfect and all of us possessed of some desire to have our individual wills met. Who among us has a contentment with their location in life without the niggling fear that something might rout us from our jobs, our relationships, our health, or families, or even just the ability to enjoy our coffee while it’s still hot?

Is Big Brother watching us through our laptop cameras? Is he tracking our phone signatures? Are the little strips in paper money anything more than a simple security measure against counterfeit? The seizing aspect of 1984 is the insipid idea that somebody is watching us. Somebody is always overhearing, gossiping, or running to tattle should we choose to turn a blind eye to custom or leave dirty dishes in the sink.

1984 is about rigidity. Structure. Control. Don’t think outside of the box. Don’t read. Don’t develop a passion for art, or new thoughts, or ideas. Don’t trust your government. Don’t trust your neighbor. Live in fear. Accept misery as part of your daily life and do not dare let it slip that the act of giving-in is a facade. Do not step outside the lines of convention or challenge generalized thinking.

1984 was especially poignant to me. I haven’t read it since 1995, though I feel I still remember it well. Whenever a situation starts to seem oppressive and uncertain, my thoughts drift back to Winston Smith, protagonist. Poor Winston, so well played by John Hurt in the movie. Angry. Lost. Secretive. Duplicitous for the sake of survival, because sometimes they (whomever they may be) are out to get you.

“Out to get you.” A vague term nonetheless capable of generating a sensation of dread that the old black and white horror films could convey by simply fading out the scene. Yet, obsessing over other people and what drives their behaviors will often make a situation worse. I know it’s not just me who has experienced this. For surely there are people who can be trusted just as there are those whom cannot and everyone knows someone from each camp.

This suffocating, chilling, adroit novel was never one of my favorites. It is a sticky sweet sap that entices ideas of mistrust and then traps the mind from considering there might be a positive outcome when things are looking bleak. I am both glad that I read it and wish it had never been written. Keep your head low. Don’t speak up. Just keep shuffling.

The concept that Orwell presents as shrinking the vocabulary so that people have less to say to each other in an ever more humble manner is an excruciating thought to me. How else do we reach out and ask if we are the only ones who feel a certain way? How do we reassure our friends, families and co-workers that they are not alone? We are in this together.

Not the I won’t rat on you if you don’t rat on me together, but the acceptance that we all have some kind of fear. We’re all scared about something. In our failings we are never alone. Why do we offer each other ridicule instead of compassion? Because we all understand a feeling means that we are tied inextricably to everyone else. Pain. Anxiety. Surrender. These are not foreign sensations to any of us.

It was interesting to me in 1984 how everyone wore the same thing, ate the same thing and said the same thing. They feared the same things, surely thought the same things, and yet were kept solitary and unable to connect with anyone else in a meaningful way. They were unified in their isolation. That is 1984. Ever more interesting to me is how we impart a similar seclusion to ourselves. Humans don’t actually need Big Brother to refrain from admitting “I’m scared.”

“I hurt.”

“I’m hungry.”

“I don’t know what to do.”

Most often enough, everything looks fine on the outside. So maybe we ought to have a little more love for each other. Maybe we ought to revel in our differences even if we fail to agree. In my High School, the threat of wearing uniforms was presented to try and preclude members from one gang from being able to identify and subsequently harm those belonging to another. I can’t help but wonder that, if we were capable of adopting more of a live and let live outlook, maybe generating order wouldn’t require us all to be the same.

A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf was the bane of my existence in High School. I was required to read To the Lighthouse over the summer of ’95, while this was my first memorable expedition into stream of consciousness writing. It took me the whole summer to get through 209 pages and I had nothing nice to say about it.

This perception remained true for over twenty years, until I had reason to read Mrs. Dalloway. I had listened to Virginia Woolf in 90 minutes by Paul Strathern in preparation, and was somewhat won over by aspects of her personality I was not aware of before. She was a pretty interesting lady. I added Orlando to my reading list and decided at long last to give her a break. That my teenage mind wasn’t ready to grasp what she was trying to say at age 59 was my problem, not hers.

I picked up A Room of One’s Own from a used bookstore thinking that the time it would take me to read 114 pages and re-evaluate how I felt about Virginia Woolf was a reasonable expense. What I discovered was an appreciation for this author whom I previously loathed. Woolf seemed to have a sense of the psychology of the author. She writes of sensing anger, hesitation, fear and confidence from the way words are used and organized. Focusing on this undercurrent of emotion she is somehow able to categorize a writer whom is attempting to follow convention from one whom is following what she calls “reality”, and to what degree of success. A fearful writer may hold back, while an uncertain author may have fits and starts in the progression of their novel. The concept evoked a way of perceiving beneath the words that I had yet to consider between author and creation. For example, here’s an excerpt where she is envisioning a scholar from earlier times:

“His expression suggested that he was labouring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on the paper as if he were killing some noxious insect as he wrote, but even when he had killed it that did not satisfy him; he must go on killing it; and even so, some cause for anger and irritation remained.”

I gathered several quotes along the way which I am still cogitating on. Here are my favorites:

“Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.”

“For books continue each other, in spite of our habit of judging them separately. “

“For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcomes of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.”

And, in speaking of women (which is primarily the point of this essay):

Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history.”

Virginia died in 1941. The world was struggling to change from the circumstances which required Jane Austen to hide the fact that she was writing novels or for Mary Ann Evans to publish as George Eliot. I think that she would have loved Finding the Grain by Wynn Malone and perhaps have been fascinated by the current of LGBTQ authors that are now finding voice. I think to call her a feminist is an oversimplification, especially with the conclusion of her essay fresh in my mind.

A Room of One’s Own was definitely worth my time. It took me less than a day to get through and can already tell that it has impacted how I will approach future reads. If you have not read any of Woolf’s works, then Mrs. Dalloway is entertaining. The characters are realistic and they way that they relate to each other I thought was the best part of the novel. I got more out of A Room of One’s Own. I’ll likely take some time in the future to read The Waves. Maybe (and yes this is a personal statement) just don’t start with To the Lighthouse.

Marcel Proust

It was only after I embarked upon my quest to read the Greatest Books top 100 novels of all time that I was aware of Proust. Marcel Proust, born 1871 and died 1922 was a French author responsible for penning À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Depending on the translator, Charles K. Scott-Moncrieff or Terence Kilmartin, this works out to be Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time, respectively. À la Recherche du Temps Perdu is an ambling 4,438-page masterpiece loosely framed against Proust’s own lifetime and tops the Greatest Books list at number one. Even after I abandoned the last 30% of that list to curate my own, I decided that the top contender was not a title I should pass up.

Last December I started collecting the volumes of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu on audiobook. Naxos audio put out a 7-part recording of the unabridged novel with acclaimed actor/narrator Neville Jason. The first six parts of this recording, Swann’s Way, Within a Budding Grove, Guermantes Way, Sodom and Gomorrah, The Captive and The Fugitive are available on Audible. The seventh book, due to copyright restrictions, is not due to hit the United States until January 1, 2023. If you are patient and wait, this is 150 hours of listening that took Jason six years to record.

In 2020, I made it through both Swann’s Way and Within a Budding Grove. (I then shifted gears to read the entirety of the Harry Potter series for the first time, which if you include The Cursed Child, is very nearly the same length as À la Recherche du Temps Perdu from start to finish.) This August, I started from the beginning of Proust’s’ masterwork again. Though I remembered the overall plot of the first two parts, the subtleties and insights from the very beginning of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu were worth revisiting.

I like the way that Nevile Jason describes Prousts’ writing. He cites a minuteness of observation, depth of psychological understanding, and vivid descriptive powers. Jason describes the main character as having keen powers of observation that pierce through the urbane exteriors of the people he meets, so to expose the pretention and hypocrisy that lies beneath. In his words, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu is one of “the most poetic and magical works in all literature.”

Take the idea that human nature has yet to change over the course of hundreds of years (even though the culture has) and what you have is a vast collection of observations as to how people relate to each other. In the portion of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu I have listened to so far, there have been several times where I have been guilty of an observation Proust makes about people. Many more instances have I observed in others. I am an American born almost sixty years after Marcel died. I feel that in this way, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu is timeless.

Other aspects of this novel that might interest a reader include a taste of Freudian philosophy. Proust understood that the past influences the present. He knew that developing an understanding of whom he was as a child would confer an understanding of whom he had become as an adult. There are also references to Shakespeare, in that “nothing is, but thinking makes it so.” Characters are not wholly who the protagonist thinks they are, despite his keen observational skills, but often whom he makes them out to be. He falls in love instantly with Gilberte, whom he has only seen once. His world is rattled when he realizes the face shown to him by his housekeeper is not the same that she shares with her romantic interest. There are nuances and complexities in every moment of this work.

I still have a way to go. I am only three hours into Guermantes Way. My extracurricular reading about À la Recherche du Temps Perdu informs me that I will see replaying themes of second chances as the story progresses. Nothing seems to happen very quickly, and the level of detail included in each scene can make this read feel unrelenting at times. However, it is this same minutia that develops the realism of the story. One of the most referenced moments in Swann’s Way is about nothing more than the taste of a cookie. There is a beauty in it.

Cabourg, France (aka Balbec) beachfront restaurant & hotel

I imagine that I’ll be through with the entirety of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu with a feeling of surprise. (Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield was a bit that way for me. I knew it was going to be a long story as every bildungsroman tends to be, but then by the end I was amazed that it was over. Richard Armitage is exceptional in his rendition of David Copperfield by the way, while it is a free listen on Audible for members. I highly recommend it.) Even though Prousts’ work is quite a bit longer, I anticipate a similar sensation. There is an alacrity to the novel rather than tedium. Even though I am not remotely close to the end, I already suspect À la Recherche du Temps Perdu may be something I end up reading again.

V for Vendetta

“Remember remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot. I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.”

I picked up a copy of the graphic novel V for Vendetta by Alan Moore (& David Lloyd) partly because I was so satisfied with Watchmen (Moore), and partly because a key moment in the 2005 film confused me. As it is so often the case, I figured the text would offer more explanation about what was going on. It did, though sixteen years of life experience might have played a hand in that as well.

What was most surprising for me about V for Vendetta was the numerous references to art and literature. Most of the books illustrated in this graphic novel had titles on them, and so I researched these whenever I failed to recognize one. I am a huge fan of reading referenced literature. I imagine the author must have been so impressed upon by what they read that they wanted to include those titles in their own creations. If there’s some aspect of that reference that is going to help me understand the material in more depth, then all the better. (For instance, I can’t imagine having read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt without having seen an image of the painting by Carel Fabritius to which it refers.)

The Goldfinch

Faust, Arabian Nights, Hard Times, Don Quixote, Essays of Elia, Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Golden Bough, Shakespeare, Ivanhoe, Divine Comedy, I Am Legend, and To Russia with Love are all titles that appear on V’s bookshelf. On another bookshelf appears Mein Kampf, Utopia, and Capital. V is actively reading V. by Thomas Pynchon at one point in the novel. He reads The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton to Evey in part one, while Mr Finch is reading The Roots of Coincidence by Arthur Koestler at the end of part two.

I felt that these references tell us about who the characters are and what the current climate of the setting is. I’ve yet to read V., The Magic Faraway Tree, or The Roots of Coincidence, but I can point out that Evey’s character was remarkably immature when V read to her from The Magic Faraway Tree. (And, after she grew up, he started calling her Eve.) I’ve read some of Gravity’s Rainbow (Pynchon) and all of Darkness at Noon (Koestler), but I probably ought to give these other two a go.

There are several movie bill posters and paintings that appear in the Shadow Gallery; Shakespearean quotes littered throughout; a reference to Evita and the image of Cosette from Les Miserables that appears later on. I was only able to root out The Three Graces by Raphael among the artwork so apparently my art history days are further behind me than I realized. Nevertheless, it was clear that V reveled in having a well curated gallery of art and literature from pre-fascist England. “Art washes away from the soul the dust of every day life,” as Picasso once said.

It was in trying to catch all the references that the insidiousness of the politics in V for Vendetta struck home. I have the luxury of Google to at least try and research painters from nearly every century. I have the freedom to hop on Amazon and buy myself a copy of Faust. (Or George by Alex Gino, the most censored book of 2020 according to the American Library Association.) At least I have read some Dickens, Cervantes, Shelley, Alighieri and Matheson. I could write my own book, or paint my own painting, independent of any party line.

It was not being able to differentiate between anarchy and chaos that caused me to stumble in my understanding of V for Vendetta before. Something else Picasso said puts it more succinctly:

Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.”

Now I think I get it. For Eve, it was about forgetting how powerless young waifs were supposed to be in her society. In her expectation to live a mediocre life of degradation despite her fears, she was trapped. Schooling ourselves means breaking down the walls of who we think we are and what we think we’re supposed to be. In destroying these expectations, we have the room to decide whom we want to be without constraint.

Time Enough

Someone told me yesterday that I was going though my reading list at such a pace that it wouldn’t be long before I had read everything worth reading. To be fair, I make pretty good time between Audible listens and a constantly refreshed stack of paperbacks. I will achieve my goal to read 100 books in 2021. There are but 17 books left before I have accomplished this and I’ll probably check off Life of Pi by Yann Martel or I Always Find You by John Ajvide Lindqvist in the next three days. Considering that I started Life of Pi yesterday morning, this is much to the chagrin of some of my friends. I started I Always Find You seven days ago and have yet to hit page 100, so I actually feel like I’m slacking.

I do not keep notes. I do research authors and their backgrounds. I have watched documentaries and listened to lectures on certain titles. I read blogs by other readers and watch YouTube book reviews. I use sparknotes and Stanford and read the novels that other novels reference.

When I started reading again in 2019, it was with The Greatest Books list of the best 100 novels of all time. I decided that I was going to read everything on that list. There are 29 books that I still have not read, one of which I am 30% the way through. (In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust is one of the longest works ever written, so it is going to take a bit longer than a few afternoons.) My friends were reading modern fiction and telling me about novels that were not on my list, and I got to worrying.

When was I ever going to make it to books from this millennium? Last years’ novels? This year, even? What about all the award winners? The Booker Prizes, Pulitzer Prizes, National, Newbury, and Hugo Award winners? I started a small journal in which I was writing down the top 100 from BBC Culture, The Times, Penguin and Modern Library. I assure you reader, the titles included from these different sources are not the same. My to-read list was multiplying like rabbits in Australia, and it was sparking the same kind of dread.

My current approach is this: If I’ve put something down then it is time to pick something else up. If I need a moment to absorb what I just read, then I take it. I take it and then move on. If I sit bewildered at the goals I’m setting, then I consider it time wasted. I’m happy with what I have achieved so far and would not want to risk triggering myself into thinking there will never be time enough. When I feel overwhelmed, I delete practically everything off of my to-read list figuring that if I really need to read a particular title, then it will find its’ way back to me.

Part of the journey has been a discovery of who I am. I’m not a big Jane Austen fan though I enjoy Charles Dickens. I was sad to discover that the end of Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol is lost to history. I’ve learned how to put a book down if I think its bad. I’ve found that it is interesting to accept recommendations from other people’s favorite books lists in order to get to know them better. I believe there is something about a beloved book that speaks to the character of those whom love it. I think it is important to read the books that maybe nobody loves, if the message is sound.

Yet the questioning remains: Should I read everything by my favorite authors, or at least a little from every author that seems interesting? How do I make time for the best in all of the genres I like? Who decides which ones are the best? Do I agree with them? Should I make a plan and follow it, knowing that the time it will take to finish that plan will leave those books written in the meanwhile untouched? I have no real answers. Part of me wants to consult my fortune to get an idea of how many years I have left so that I can decide how to schedule for it.

I want to finish Proust and the Culture series by Iain M. Banks before I die. I want to read The Walking Dead graphic novels since I love the show so much, and more Nabokov. I’ve considered deciding to read all of the Pulitzer Prize winners. (I have only 5 of the novels that have won since 1970 under my belt, though several more are on my to-read list even if I don’t get to them all.) I’d like to be able to recognize all the authors that charm and inspire my friends and family, and have a feel for what sort of stories those storytellers create. It’s a pretty glorious thing considering there was a time when I struggled to have excitement for anything.

Thank you Twilight Zone, for him.

It is going to take decades and that’s okay. I will leave time for the new authors and take time for the classics I have yet to get to. (Jane Austen’s’ Mansfield Park, Charles Dicken’s Bleak House, and Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy to name a few.) For those of you who in a similar position, I wish you time enough as well.