After Proust, the Prelude?

Now that I’ve finished reading À la recherche du temps perdu, there’s an odd gap in my mornings. (I am aware of the irony of having Proust as part of a daily habit, given how much he had to say about the opposition between habit and full consciousness, but reading a couple of pages of his work was a habit all the same.) I want to take on something else.

A conversation last week with a 40ish friend helped me to think about criteria for the next reading project. My friend was raised without religious instruction and, realising that this had left a huge gap in his cultural knowledge, he had decided to read the Bible. Most of the way through Genesis he was disappointed, not only by the tedious begats, but by what he felt was poor storytelling. He singled out the story of Abraham’s interrupted sacrifice of Isaac as particularly nonsensical. I realised that those stories – Adam and Eve; Noah; Lot’s wife; Abraham, Sara and the angel; Isaac, Leah and Rachel; David dancing naked before the Ark of the Covenant – would seem very different if read cursorily for the first time rather than received with the force of canonicality (if that’s a word) behind them. I want to spend a couple of minutes each morning engaging with a substantial work of literature, not rushing it, not studying it, but letting each small portion settle for a day before I take on the next one.

Homer came to mind: I know people who have spent years reading the Iliad and the Odyssey as a group project. Or James Joyce: all those Bloomsday celebrations can’t be for nothing, and Finnegan’s Wake is at least as daunting as À la recherche. Byron’s Don Juan. The Epic of Gilgamesh. The Aeneid (though I did that, 20 lines a day, in my mid 20s, so it would be a repeat). Middlemarch (another repeat, but why not take it slow?).The Divina Commedia in Italian. Das Kapital (but not in German). It’s a long list of contenders.

Don’t ask me why because I don’t know, but I’ve decided to read Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’. In my time at Sydney University, the emphasis was on close reading. I’m grateful for what I learned in that way, but it meant that we got to read an excerpt from this long poem without being told anything about the poem itself, or encouraged to find out about it for ourselves. In fact, I didn’t know until I looked up the Wikipedia entry just now that Wordsworth began working on it in his late 20s and continued to do so all his life; that it was intended as the introduction to an epic, The Recluse, which he never finished. I believe that the version I’m about to read was published posthumously in 1850, the year Wordsworth died. I don’t expect references to it to crop up in movies, other poems, newspaper articles, the way references to Proust have in the last 22 months, and I’m not ruling out the possibility of abandoning ship, but I’ll start tomorrow morning, a page of blank verse a day, and I’ll blog about how it’s going in a month.

6 responses to “After Proust, the Prelude?

  1. Impressed! I’m reading Ordinary Men by Christopher R Browning about the first murder squads of Nazis unleashed on Jewish villages and quarters in towns – in eastern Poland – to move them out of their homes to nearby woods and murder/slaughter/massacre them. Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” – how men can become desensitised to the murder of men, women and children – and do it in brutal and sadistic ways too – or in fact not do it – figure ways to avoid it – request transfers or deaden it with alcohol or perform part of the actions (not the killing part) required later on as the trains moved thousands to Treblinka and Sobibor, etc. It was recommended by a friend in Berlin for whom the Nazi era s his PhD/further studies field. I am sorry to intrude on your gentler more philosophical observations of writing and translation meditations, Jonathan – and about which I am truly impressed – as I wrote at the start of this – but thinking about how a society becomes able to do what Hitler and Goebbels – and those who aided and abetted their rise and rise – made happen to Jews, Homosexuals, Socialists, Sindicalists, Roma, the Disabled – and looking at Morrison, Dutton and a host of uglies including Barnaby – thinking how quickly these unethical and immoral “leaders” clamber back into the driving seat and about what they may well unleash – and there are none more Ordinary than them now. Did you read the outline by John Hewson just the other day about how nasty this Morrison government is – well – from Howard/Downer onwards in fact! My thinking at the moment!

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    • Thanks, Jim. part of my motivation for taking on ‘gentler, more philosophical’ readings is so as to start the day with my attention on something other than ‘the host of uglies’, as you so eloquently put it. I’m glad Ordinary Men exists. Sadly I think books like that will need to be written, and read, for quite some time!

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  2. You’ve got it covered, J. I’ll try to emulate in some way your approach to the new day! Jim

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  3. There are parts of The Prelude I have returned to as a routine but it is decades since I read the whole. Look forward to seeing how you get on. “Fair seed-time”.

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    • I’m so glad to know that you’ve read it, Josie, and keep going back to it. It makes me realize it’s the museum piece I’ve been led to believe

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      • Parts of it became a touchstone for how I felt ( and still feel) about teaching. About the relationships between and amongst the teacher, the taught, and the subject matter. He wanted children to have

        “Knowledge not purchased by the loss of power!”
        – The Prelude Book V Line 425
        And I love his metaphor of the mother hen who is ready to protect her chicks if necessary – who catches up the earth for them – but who allows them to feed and forage for themselves.

        – “A race of real children; not too wise,
        Too learned, or too good”

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