Tag Archives: Novel

Proust Progress Report 13: La Prisonnière continue

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 5, La Prisonnière pages 1630–1723

This is my thirteenth blog post about À la recherche du temps perdu: 1723 pages read and 677 to go! I’m bearing up much better than my copy of the book, as seen on the left. I mostly read my three pages in bed in the morning, so the damage has been caused by ordinary wear and tear, not by any gross mistreatment.

A lot happens in this month’s reading. Here are some highlights, not necessarily in order. The violinist Morel continues to be an opportunistic scoundrel. Marcel (as the narrator has now been named, twice) listens to the sounds of the street in the early morning (those are lovely pages). He contemplates sending a dairymaid on an errand but changes his mind. He watches Albertine as she sleeps, and creepily drapes her unconscious arm around his neck. He watches her wake up. He takes us through his own process of waking up from a dream. He ruminates on the relationship between love, obsession (not his word) and jealousy. He talks Albertine out of going somewhere where he fears she might meet other Lesbians, and then realises that he has let her go to a performance by a notorious Lesbian. He plays the piano. He opens Albertine’s chemise and looks at her naked body:

Les deux petits seins haut remontés étaient si ronds qu’ils avaient moins l’air de faire partie intégrante de son corps que d’y avoir mûri comme deux fruits ; et son ventre (dissimulant la place qui chez l’homme s’enlaidit comme du crampon resté fiché dans une statue descellée) se refermait, à la jonction des cuisses, par deux valves d’une courbe aussi assoupie, aussi reposante, aussi claustrale que celle de l’horizon quand le soleil a disparu.

(Page 1661)

This is about as erotic as La recherche gets. But wait, I asked, wasn’t Proust Gay, or at least bisexual? What weirdness is this about men’s bodies? I looked up Scott Moncrieff’s translation. And there it is:

Her two little upstanding breasts were so round that they seemed not so much to be an integral part of her body as to have ripened there like two pieces of fruit; and her belly (concealing the place where a man’s is marred as though by an iron clamp left sticking in a statue that has been taken down from its niche) was closed, at the junction of her thighs, by two valves of a curve as hushed, as reposeful, as cloistral as that of the horizon after the sun has set.

This translation even softens the meaning a bit – I would have thought s’enlaidit was ‘becomes ugly’ rather than ‘is marred’.

Increasingly I understand why, at the end of fifteen years, when Clive James had finished reading this work in French, he needed to read an English translation so he’d know what he’d read.

The Book Group and Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men

Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men (Viking 2006)

When the Book Group met by zoom on 28 July, I had been away from home for a week or so, and my copy of the book had arrived after I left and was sitting in my mail box for five days, attracting the attention of snails. I had managed to read just five pages of a friend’s copy by the time we all logged in. I’m usually one of the swats who has read the whole book, so it was an interesting experience to come to the discussion in almost total ignorance.

At the meeting: We didn’t spend a lot of time catching up on one another’s lives, and spent no time at all eating and drinking. Once we’d managed to get ten of us on the screen (the sole absentee said he was too immersed in Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light to think about any other book), this book held our attention for pretty much the whole two hours.

Let’s see.

One chap said he found the book unreadable. He kept going back to his large-print library copy with good intentions and then falling asleep: he could tell that the young protagonist was enduring terrible things but just couldn’t feel anything for him or for any of the characters. When he said he gave up at about page 116, another chap said, ‘Ah well, I felt pretty much the same until page 108 and then it just took off.’ He then gave a spirited account of the book as a study in bad parenting: the protagonist, a young boy in Gaddafi’s Libya, feels a huge obligation to look after his mother, and for a child to feel that way his parents must have failed in their responsibilities. In this case, the mother was an alcoholic (in Muslim-dominant Libya!) and the father was some kind of half-baked revolutionary who went and got himself arrested and beaten up.

And we were off.

You can’t blame the parents when the society under Gaddafi was so dire. The book is a study in how an oppressive regime infiltrates and corrupts people’s minds and relationships, including those of parents and children. A good bit of the discussion was about how the boy exploits moments when he has the power to do harm, betraying in one example the only friend he has outside his family.

Someone who had read Hisham Matar’s The Return (which I also have – blog post at this link) spoke interestingly about the relationship between that memoir and this novel: the memoir deals with Matar’s permanent loss of his father by abduction when he was 19, and his attempt over years to find out what happened to him; the novel, written years earlier, returns the father, even though damaged, to a much younger son after just a few weeks, as if Matar wrote the novel to to explore what might have happened in his own life if things had gone differently.

After the meeting: I’d expected to sit in on the meeting, enjoy making contact, hear people’s news, laugh at their jokes, and then move on. I didn’t get much news, except that the window for commenting on the egregious plans for misspending billions of dollars on the Australian War Memorial was to close on 31 July, but the rest was as expected, except for the moving on: I decided that I had to read the book after all.

Life and other books got in the way but now at last I’ve read it, and even though the Group’s discussion had been full of spoilers, I was unprepared for the book’s the impact. It’s a tremendously powerful portrait of a woman’s experience of a virulent form of male domination, as seen through the eyes of her nine-year-old son Suleiman, who is in the process of being ‘trained’ to be such a man. True, she’s a terrible mother in many ways – but we discover that she was in effect trafficked by her family when she was fourteen years old, and got pregnant soon after as a result of marital rape, all socially condoned. Your heart breaks for the mother, the son and the father, all three.

Almost equally powerful is the account of what happened to dissidents under the Gaddafi regime, including Suleiman’s father and his friends. Confessions and executions are shown in television, and Hisham Matar doesn’t let us look away from the hideous emotional and physical detail. The nine year old sees and hears everything. He knows when he is being lied to, but understands very little of the politics. There’s a terrifying moment when he is about to give damning evidence of his father’s anti-Gaddafi activities to a manipulative member of the goon squad, oops, I mean the Revolutionary Committee, which creates a visceral sense of the deeply corrupting effects the regime has on even the most intimate relationships.

At a Sydney Writers Festival a couple of month’s after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Hisham Matar was on a panel entitled ‘Resist!’ with three US women writers. Referring his childhood years living under the Gaddafi regime, he said it was important to honour complexity, otherwise those who resist allow themselves to be defined by that which they are resisting. That could sound like a counsel of moderation. Among other things, this novel demonstrates that you can honour complexity, hate injustice with a passion, and write beautiful prose, all in the same book.

Proust Progress Report 12: Beginning La Prisonnière

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): the last pages of Book 4, Sodome et Gomorrhe, and the beginning of Book 5, La Prisonnière

This is my twelfth blog post about À la recherche du temps perdu. That means I’ve been at it for a whole year – and no end in sight.

Towards the end of Sodome et Gomorrhe, the narrator was about to dump Albertine because she was boring and no longer attractive. Then she told him something about herself that made him conclude she was Lesbian, and he immediately pivoted to decide to marry her. Now, in the early pages of the fifth book, La prisonnière / The Captive, she is living with him in his family home in Paris (in separate but adjacent rooms, with a stern rule that she is not to interrupt his privacy unbidden), and he is obsessively keeping tabs on her, in case she even exchanges glances with ‘the kind of woman I don’t like’.

Thanks to the Emerging Artist, I’ve currently had extracts from Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do read aloud to me. That book’s descriptions of coercive control could have the narrator’s relationship to Albertine in mind. À la recherche is looking less and less like a beautiful exploration of a luminous inner life, and more like something much uglier.

I had a 16-day holiday from Proust this month – we were away and À la recherche du temps perdu was too bulky to take along. But it does seem that once you’ve embarked on this book, it crops up regularly. Apart from the Jess Hill book, there was this from the Observer‘s Everyman Crossword Nº 3852 (link here):

Get rid of creative Frenchman! Get rid of Pierre Renoir for starters! (4)

More to the point, a friend told me about Anne Carson’s brilliant (and very funny) poem The Albertine Workout. The poem relates mainly to La Prisonnière, and it makes me expect that my repugnance at some of the narrator’s behaviour is only going to increase as I read on. His current imprisonment of Albertine, it seems, intensifies and keeps up for this whole 300+ pages.

But I am reading on, still in awe of Proust’s extraordinary sentences. Take this, which I read this morning:

Les brimborions de la parure causaient à Albertine de grands plaisirs. Je ne savais pas me refuser de lui en faire chaque jour un nouveau. Et chaque fois qu’elle m’avait parlé avec ravissement d’une écharpe, d’une étole, d’une ombrelle, que par la fenêtre, ou en passant dans la cour, de ses yeux qui distinguaient si vite tout ce qui se rapportait à l’élégance, elle avait vues au cou, sur les épaules, à la main de Mme de Guermantes, sachant que le goût naturellement difficile de la jeune fille (encore affiné par les leçons d’élégance que lui avait été la conversation d’Elstir) ne serait nullement satisfait par quelque simple à peu près, même d’une jolie chose, qui la remplace aux yeux du vulgaire, mais en diffère entièrement, j’allais en secret me faire expliquer par la duchesse où, comment, sur quel modèle, avait été confectionné ce qui avait plu à Albertine, comment je devais procéder pour obtenir exactement cela, en quoi consistait le secret du faiseur, le charme (ce qu’Albertine appelait « le chic », « le genre ») de sa manière, le nom précis – la beauté de la matière ayant son importance – et la qualité des étoffes dont je devais demander qu’on se servît.

You can read C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation below*, but I find that reading a translation is no substitute for untangling the flow of Proust’s sentences for myself. Here, after two simple sentences, the rest is just one complex sentence. Here’s the skeleton of that third sentence:

And every time she had spoken to me of something she’d seen the duchess wearing, knowing that she would accept no imitations, I would go and have the duchess tell me everything about the thing that had pleased Albertine, and how I could obtain the exact same thing.

That skeleton, to mix my metaphors, sends out sparks in many directions. There’s the wonderful word brimborions to start with. I had to look up a couple of dictionaries, but it almost doesn’t matter what brimborions de la parure means, it sounds so great. I’d translate it as ‘fripperies’ rather than Moncrieff’s more respectful ‘any sort of finery’, though I’m sure he had his reasons. There are lists – of bimborions, the parts of the body they adorn, the kinds of information needed to replicate the object of desire. There are parentheses – one to remind the reader of Albertine’s history from two books earlier, one to say how her vocabulary differs from the narrator’s, probably in ways that identify her as young and fashionable. There’s a hint of Proust’s abiding theme of snobisme, in a phrase distinguishing Albertine and himself from the vulgaire – hard to beat Moncrieff’s ‘the common herd’. And it doesn’t have one of Proust’s brilliant similes, where in the middle of a description of a frivolous dinner party, one finds oneself thinking of classical art, or contemporary medical science, or power politics.

I don’t know how a fluent French reader would go, but I enjoy the concentration it takes to keep track of all that.

A similar thing happens on a larger scale. For instance, that paragraph is itself something of a detour from the main flow of the narrative, or perhaps a return from a detour, it’s sometimes hard to tell. The narrator has been enjoying the glorious freedom of an Albertine-free day while she is out with one of his spies, and as the day come to an end he goes to ask Mme Guermantes for some choses de toilette for her. He then digresses for some narky comments on Mme Guermantes’ pretensions to poverty and reflections on the way he always sees her as bearing the invisible trappings of her aristocratic status. Then, after commenting that it’s as miraculous that he should speak to this etherial beauty about practical matters as it is that we should use a miraculous device like a telephone to order an ice cream, he switches to talk of brimborions and we are back with the story. Reading three pages a day, I’m pretty pleased with myself that I can keep track even as well as I do.


* Albertine delighted in any sort of finery. I could not deny myself the pleasure of giving her some new trifle every day. And whenever she had spoken to me with rapture of a scarf, a stole, a sunshade which, from the window or as they passed one another in the courtyard, her eyes that so quickly distinguished anything smart, had seen round the throat, over the shoulders, in the hand of Mme de Guermantes, knowing how the girl’s naturally fastidious taste (refined still further by the lessons in elegance of attire which Elstir’s conversation had been to her) would not be at all satisfied by any mere substitute, even of a pretty thing, such as fills its place in the eyes of the common herd, but differs from it entirely, I went in secret to make the Duchess explain to me where, how, from what model the article had been created that had taken Albertine’s fancy, how I should set about to obtain one exactly similar, in what the creator’s secret, the charm (what Albertine called the ‘chic‘ the ‘style’) of his manner, the precise name – the beauty of the material being of importance also – and quality of the stuffs that I was to insist upon their using.

William Gibson’s Agency

William Gibson, Agency (Viking 2020)

It’s more than a decade since I’ve read any William Gibson. Picking him up again has been a joy.

The book starts in San Francisco, in roughly our time. Verity Jane, our hero, has just come out of a period of hiding away from the tabloids after breaking up with a celebrity tech billionaire, and has got a job testing a cool new device. The device consists of a headset and glasses: when she puts them on, she is immediately in contact with an entity who identifies herself as Eunice, who sees through the glasses, has a great line of patter and a vast store of knowledge whose origin she herself doesn’t know. Eunice is pretty bossy. She shields her conversations with Verity from the surveillance of the company that owns her, amasses a fortune by playing on the internet, and has soon organised a network of agents who know her only as Verity’s PA. As the story develops we realise that this is a world where Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election, and Brexit didn’t happen, but things aren’t all roses: there’s a threat of imminent nuclear war over an incident in Turkey. Eunice is a miraculous new form of AI who may be on track to prevent the nuclear disaster.

Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, a group of characters in a weird, technologically advanced future (implanted phones, invisible flying driverless cars, animated tattoos, and un-described things with names like stub, peri, controller) go about their lives looking after babies and getting by in a society dominated by a group called the klept, with ‘the pandemics’ and ‘the jackpot’ mentioned as major past events. These characters are taking a godlike interest in Verity and Eunice.

That’s the set-up. It’s all told with an infectious delight in detailed invention,

Paragraph by paragraph, it’s witty, surprising, and inventive. The stakes are high, the humour is sly. The unexplained technologies and relationships are tantalising. As far as I was concerned nothing could go wrong.

And, though for great slabs there was a lot of colour and movement that didn’t amount to much, and some bits were complete nonsense, I loved every moment.

I was enthralled by Gibson’s first three books of dazzling and often incomprehensible science fiction, the Sprawl trilogy – Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). I was less thrilled by the Bridge trilogy, which came next – Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996) and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999). I read the first two books of the Blue Ant trilogy – Pattern Recognition (2003) and Spook Country (2007), and didn’t bother with Zero History (2010). These six books are also science fiction, but set in a time and on a planet very like ours with technology not that different from ours, with a lot of virtual reality, location-based art and social media.

It turns out that Agency, a birthday present from a friend, is the sequel to Gibson’s 2014 novel The Peripheral. If I’d read that book, the not completely unpleasant disorientation I felt in the first half of this one might have been mitigated, though – this being William Gibson – maybe not. I’m attached to these characters and to these (spoiler alert) bifurcating time lines. The Peripheral and whatever comes next are now on my to-be-read list.

Proust Progress Report 11: Luminous something of the inner life

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 4, Sodome et Gomorrhe, to near the end of Chapitre III

As I emerge from my eleventh month reading À la recherche, references to Proust crop up regularly, from crossword clues to conversations in bookshops. (Yay! Bookshops are here again, at least for now.) This month, in a podcast from the 2020 Sydney Writers’ Festival, someone spoke of ‘the luminous beauty of the inner life that Proust expresses so well’. Even though I have no desire to be in a Proust discussion group, I’m glad to have at least that much discussion: a throwaway line to bounce off. The novelist who said it has clearly read a different À la recherche from the one I think I’m reading.

I may wrong, as I’m mostly skipping words I don’t know, but my Proust is a meticulous, and longwinded, dissector of social behaviour, who pays minute attention to the workings of memory and the idiosyncrasies of language. He sometimes gets luminous when describing plants, young women, paintings or sunsets, but it’s the politics of the inner life rather than its beauty that exercises him.

I feel as if I’m finally getting the hang of the book. The narrator is remembering temps perdu, which means both ‘forgotten time’ and ‘wasted time’. In the first book, Proust makes a distinction between two kinds of memory: those that make up the narratives we tell about ourselves and the spontaneous, unbidden memories that are apparently trivial, but carry an emotional charge. When the narrator goes on in excruciating detail about dinner party conversation, he’s capturing a flood of detailed memories without sifting for significance. In the middle of a dramatic story he tells us that the lift operator coughed on him – and the reader has no way of knowing if this will turn out to be a key plot point or an aside that goes nowhere. Certainly things that I thought were passing observations in the earlier books turn out to have been laying the grounds for incidents in this one – someone makes a joke about an absent person’s name in Du côté de chez Swann, and that person turns up in Sodome et Gomorrhe, to have the joke repeated in a different, more explicit form; Albertine has taken three books to emerge as a significant character; and so on.

In Sodome et Gomorrhe, the baron de Charlus, develops from being a creepy minor character to the focus for Proust’s extended meditations on the nature of homosexuality, to a focus for biting observations about bourgeois titillation, to a pathetic, almost tragic sufferer from unrequited love. The other development in what I take to be the through line of the narrative is the narrator’s developing relationship with Albertine (which I gather is based on Proust’s relationship IRL with his male chauffeur, Alfred). It’s getting ugly: the narrator claims not to love her, but in effect to be in lust with her, and is intensely jealous, doing all he can to stop her from being out of his sight for even a moment with other men or women (he suspects she is lesbian). It’s deeply unpleasant, and I hope to be reading Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do in tandem with later books in the sequence.

The last page I read (page 1583) is a good example of much of the above: a social interaction observed at close quarters, then analysed for its broader significance. It’s part of a long section in which the narrator and Albertine are travelling regularly on the local train at Balbec, the place on the coast where they and many Parisians spend their summer. Among the many encounters that take place on these trips he and Albertine are chatting with the aristocratic Saint-Loup, a matter for some anxiety since Albertine has previously commented (innocently?) on Saint-Loup attractiveness, when the narrator’s old friend Bloch turns up and asks him to come chat to Bloch senior, who is waiting in a carriage nearby. The narrator’s absurd jealousy makes him unwilling to leave Albertine and Saint-Loup alone even for a couple of minutes, and he refuses. Bloch assumes that he does so because of snobbery – Saint-Loup is an aristocrat, while Bloch is not only bourgeois but a Jew. The narrator doesn’t clear up the misunderstanding because the truth is too humiliating. Bloch takes grave offence and that is the end of their friendship. There follows almost a page of reflections, teasing out the detailed politics of the incident. Here’s a taste:

Et d’ailleurs même sans expliquer à Bloch, puisque je ne le pouvais pas, la raison pour laquelle je ne l’avais pas accompagné, si je l’avais prié de ne pas être froissé je n’aurais fait que redoubler ce froissement en montrant que je m’en étais aperçu. Il n’y avait rien à faire qu’à s’incliner devant ce fatum qui avait voulu que la présence d’Albertine m’empêchât de le reconduire et qu’il pût croire que c’était au contraire celle de gens brillants, laquelle, l’eussent-ils été cent fois plus, n’aurait eu pour effet que de me faire occuper exclusivement de Bloch et réserver pour lui toute ma politesse. Il suffit de la sorte qu’accidentellement, absurdement, un incident (ici la mise en présence d’Albertine et de Saint-Loup) s’interpose entre deux destinées dont les lignes convergeaient l’une vers l’autre pour qu’elles soient déviées, s’écartent de plus en plus et ne se rapprochent jamais. Et il y a des amitiés plus belles que celle de Bloch pour moi, qui se sont trouvées détruites, sans que l’auteur involontaire de la brouille ait jamais pu expliquer au brouillé ce qui sans doute eût guéri son amour-propre et ramené sa sympathie fuyante.

In English, mainly from Moncrieff’s translation, of which incidentally I am now completely in awe, given the complex way Proust plays with the French language – though not so much in this bit:

Besides, even without my explaining to Bloch, since I could not, my reason for not going with him, if I had begged him not to be angry with me, I should only have increased his anger by shewing him that I had observed it. There was nothing to be done but to bow before the decree of fate which had willed that Albertine’s presence should prevent me from accompanying him, and that he should suppose that it was on the contrary the presence of people of distinction, the only effect of which, had they been a hundred times more distinguished, would have been to make me devote my attention exclusively to Bloch and reserve all my civility for him. It is sufficient that accidentally, absurdly, an incident (in this case the presence together of Albertine and Saint-Loup) be interposed between two destinies whose lines were converging towards one another, for them to be separated, to stretch farther and farther apart, and never come close again. And there are friendships more precious than Bloch’s was to me which have been destroyed without the unintentional author of the offence having any opportunity to explain to the offended party what would no doubt have healed the injury to his self-esteem and called back his fugitive affection.

For my first several months with Proust, I read this sort of thing as comedy. I suppose I still do, but I used to find it ridiculously obsessive, whereas now I read it almost as if Proust is looking at our species, himself included, under a completely unsentimental magnifying glass, and capturing a terrible pathos in the process.

Another week and I’ll have finished Sodome et Gomorrhe, and be on to Volume 5, La Prisonnière, which I’m told a world expert on Proust has described as the one volume of the novel that a time-pressed reader may safely and entirely skip. Wish me luck.

Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain

Mirandi Riwoe, Stone Sky Gold Mountain (University of Queensland Press 2020)

There are precious few books set in North Queensland. This is one. Its first epigraph is a quote from Taam Sze Pui, whose Innisfail department store, known as See Poy’s, was still going strong in my 1950s childhood, dominating the street corner opposite the gate to King George V Memorial Park. In honour of that epigraph, I’ve just retrieved from oblivion a couple of earlier posts that referred to Taam Sze Pui, here and here. It reads:

To search for gold was like trying to catch the moon at the bottom of the sea.

So Mirandi Riwoe had me at the epigraph. She kept me with her story-telling. A young Chinese woman Ying and her brother Lai Yue have come to the Palmer River goldfields in North Queensland in the mid 19th century, intending to return home when they have accumulated enough wealth to save their mother from poverty and buy their siblings back from servitude. Their story unfolds in triplets, each comprising a chapter from Ying’s point of view, a second from Lai Yue’s, and a third from the point of view of Meriem, a young white woman who is the maid to a sex worker in Maytown, a settlement close to the goldfield.

The book is firmly within an Australian tradition. There are echoes of Henry Handel Richardson in the descriptions of goldfields hardships; of Joseph Furphy in the woman disguised as a boy to survive in the harsh male world; of Henry Lawson in the man going quietly desperately mad in a lonely shepherd’s hut; of Barbara Baynton in the brutal violence endured by Meriem’s employer. But that tradition expands before our eyes as Chinese characters take centre stage, dealing with harsh oppression as well as the generally harsh conditions, escaping into an opium haze, negotiating issues around language and names (‘Jimmy’ or ‘Wui Hing’), reaching tentatively and sometimes tenderly across the racial divide, communing with the ghosts of those left behind, balancing the yearning for home against the appeal of the freedoms in the new land.

The Chinese characters are not absolved of complicity in the violent dispossession of First Nations people, and I was relieved when the possibility of romance was raised only to be sorrowfully dismissed. The story moves along so smoothly that you hardly notice how much of this is new in an Australian historical novel, and how much you trust that it’s underpinned by solid research.

Thanks, Mirandi Riwoe, for adding so elegantly to the slender stock of books about the place I came from.


Stone Sky Gold Mountain is the eleventh book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

My Brilliant Friend at the Book Group

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (translated by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions 2012)
Elena Ferrante, L’amica geniale (e-book, Edizioni e/o 2011)

Before the Book Group meeting: This month’s Chooser nominated My Brilliant Friend in response to an interest in translation expressed at our last meeting (about Hwang Sok-yong’s At Dusk, blog post here). Given the years of buzz about Elena Ferrante and her series The Neapolitan Novels, it’s amazing that none of us had read this until now. This was a chance to find out what the fuss was about.

As I imagine everyone knows, this is the story of the friendship between two girls in a poor neighbourhood of Naples, starting when they are both in the first year of primary school and ending at the marriage of one of them. Though there is a kind of resolution at the end, this is clearly the first instalment of a long story, and a brief prologue in which the sixty-something narrator speaks to the forty-year-old son of her friend offers tantalising hints about where the narrative will go.

The narrator is Elena Greco, daughter of a porter. Her friend is Lila Cerullo, whose father is a shoe repairer. From the beginning, Lila is unpredictable, moody, a little dangerous, and, well, brilliant. Elena is more conventional, is in awe of Lila, and is also, in a more socially-approved way, brilliant. They both do well at school, until Lila drops out because she is needed at home, but then it turns out that Lila is keeping up with what Elena is learning by borrowing books from a library: she gives Elena hints about how to translate from Greek that help her excel in the classroom.

Elena is constantly in competition with Lila, now happy to know she is ahead of her (in schoolwork, in having her periods), now wretched when Lila excels (in her grasp of school subjects she is learning from books, in her attractiveness to men). It’s a striking rendition of a friendship that includes intense affection, resentment, irritation, envy and devotion.

The social environment of post-war Naples is graphically realised. Though the city is on the coast, the little girls have never seen the sea, and when they decide to go there the adventure comes to nothing. There’s a marvellous scene when a group of teenagers decide to visit a posh part of town, and it’s like being on another planet. In the coming of age process, Elena gradually learns about history – about Fascism, the war and war profiteering. At the very end of the novel, she’s sixteen years old and realises that if she starts to read newspapers and journals, beyond the novels that are all she has read until then, she will learn about how the world works.

I enjoyed the novel, but am successfully quelling any urge to get hold of the second book in the series, The Story of a New Name / Storia del nuovo cognome.

I bought a digital copy in the original Italian, so as to put at least some attention to the translation.

My high school Latin teacher once wrote ‘Good attempt’ on a translation of mine, and then was at pains to explain that this was high praise. All anyone can do is attempt to translate: it’s impossible to find an exact equivalent in one language for something written in another. ‘Traduttore traditore,’ he said, ‘Translator, traitor.’ I can’t comment on the accuracy of Ann Goldstein’s translation. I can see that her frequent run-on sentences are faithful to the original, for example, but I have no idea whether they are as irritating in Italian as they are in English.

One thing that snagged my attention is the title. In Italian it’s L’amica geniale, literally The brilliant friend. Why the change from the to my, I wondered, especially as the only time the phrase occurs in the book it’s used by Lila to describe the narrator. The Italian title leaves room for either of the friends to be the brilliant one. The English, sadly in my opinion, removes any ambiguity.

The other thing that struck me is a kind of clunkiness in the English –adverbs in an unusual order, and other places where the language doesn’t feel like that of a native English speaker. I was surprised to discover not only that Ann Goldstein is an English speaker, but that she learned Italian as an adult and works for The New Yorker, which is notoriously sticklerish for correct American English usage.

Look at this, the death of Don Achille, who was a kind of Godfather figure to the neighbourhood:

He was in the kitchen, and had just opened the window to let in the rain-freshened air. He had got up from bed to do so, interrupting his nap. He had on worn blue pajamas, and on his feet only socks of a yellowish color, blackened at the heels. As soon as he opened the window a gust of rain struck his face and someone plunged a knife into the right side of his neck, halfway between the jaw and the clavicle.

(Page 83)

Something about that last sentence felt awkward and anticlimactic on first reading. I read on, of course, but some corner of my mind marked the place. Just now, I looked up the Italian:

Era in cucina, aveva appena aperto la finestra per far entrare l’aria fresca della poggia. S’era alzato dal letto apposta, interrompendo la controra. Indossava un pigiama celeste molto usurato, ai piedi aveva solo calzini d’un colore gialliccio annerito ai calcagni. Appena aprì la finestra gli arrivò in faccia uno sbuffo di poggia e sul late destro del collo, proprio a mezza strada tra la mandibola e la clavicola, un colpo di coltello.

The first two sentences are straightforward (though ‘had on worn blue pyjamas’ is clumsy – why not ‘was wearing threadbare pyjamas’?). They establish a mundane domestic setting for the shock that is to come. But then the translation makes three choices in the final sentence that diminish that shock. First, why translate clavicola with the technical ‘clavicle’ rather than the everyday ‘collarbone’, especially when, thankfully, mandibola becomes ‘jaw’ rather than ‘mandible’? Second, the Italian language’s flexibility with word order allows the action to become apparent only in the last three words of the sentence (colpo di cotello = ‘knife-blow’), an effect lost in translation. Third, while the structure of the Italian sentence pairs the knife-blow with the gust of rain – so two things came at Don Achille through the window, one mundane and the other deadly – the English introduces ‘someone’ and ruins the parallel. Something like this would be truer to the original:

As soon as he opened the window, there came a gust of rain to his face, and to the right side of his neck, halfway between jaw and collarbone, a knife-blow.

My impression is that a lot of the translation is like that: sometimes keeping too close to the Italian rather than using a more natural English equivalent, sometimes departing too far from the Italian and losing rhetorical or dramatic effects.

I’m starting to sound like Brother Gerard, my Latin and French teacher from nearly 60 years ago. So, even though I cherish his memory, I guess that means it’s time to stop.

After the meeting: There was a brief online debate about whether we should meet in person or on screens, Screens won out, for now.

My NBN connection isn’t robust enough for zoom meeting in the evening, and I ended up joining the meeting on my phone. Next time I’ll do it on the computer using the phone’s hotspot to connect, but this time that didn’t want to work either, so I spent the two hours squinting at four faces at a time out of the eleven participants, and I expect my hand-held image wobbled annoyingly. But I won’t complain about zoom: it brought us the lovely moment when one chap said he had a son and a daughter, and a young face joined his on the screen, saying ‘I’m the daughter!’

Most of the chaps, many sporting scrappy Corona beards, loved the book. My complaints about clunkiness and quibbles about the translation were mostly received without sympathy. The simple solution to discontent with translation from Italian, I was told, was not to know Italian.

I was the second least enthusiastic. The least enthusiastic remained silent for a long time, and then, when prompted, said he had only kept reading out of love for the rest of us. He also said that as he listened to the discussion, he could see why he should have enjoyed the book, which is pretty much how I felt. I enjoyed it, but I never got invested in it. Others got really involved: remembering the politics of their own childhood communities, reflecting on male violence, recalling their own visits to Naples, being swept along by the story and experiencing shocks of recognition, even – at least one chap said – falling in love with Lila.

More than one had started reading the second book, and next meeting’s Chooser said he’ll be nominating the fourth book. I’m hoping it was a joke-threat.

Proust Progress Report 10:

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): continuing Book 4, Sodome et Gomorrhe

I’ve now been reading À la recherche du temps perdu for ten months. One unexpected feature of this project is that Proust and this work keep turning up elsewhere. It’s happened least twice this month.

First, on a recent episode of the ABC’s Conversations podcast, the guest Maira Kalman told Sarah Kanowski about a ‘Proust group’ – eight people who read the whole of ‘Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time‘ over seven years, a year for each volume. They read 50 pages a month, and met monthly to discuss and read aloud to each other:

It put the world in order in all of its madness, and such beauty that it was incomprehensible.

The group has moved on to other things, but will return to Proust because ‘it’s not a good thing not to have him in your life’. You can listen to the whole Conversation at this link (the Proust discussion is at about 2:30 minutes).

Then, in the latest season of the US policier Bosch, the Haitian crime boss is seen reading a suspiciously slender hardback with À la recherche du temps perdu emblazoned on its cover.

I’m reading quite a bit faster than Ms Kalman’s group, though I’m evidently enjoying it a lot less than them. And since I read it in the morning before getting out of bed, I don’t get to flaunt it as a sign that I’m more than just another evil thug.

There’s still a lot about the politics of salons, dinners and at-homes, still a lot about unconventional sexual practices, which I’ve just realised might be meant to be read with an ooh-la-la inflexion, still a lot of laboriously explained wordplay, still a lot of rhapsodic descriptions of scenery. There’s also still a lot that’s left brilliantly unsaid, much silliness, an occasional flash of self-mockery, and then observation that cuts right to the reader’s heart.

There are shocking moments, too. For example, in the middle of some gossip about the aggressively vulgar Mme Verdurin there’s this, about a Princess who had taken up her cause with people of high society (le monde):

Elle avait même prononcé son nom au cours d’une visite de condoléances qu’elle avait faite à Mme Swann après la mort du mari de celle-ci, et lui avait demandé si elle les connaissait. 

She had even mentioned her name [that is, Mme Verdurin’s name] in the course of a visit of condolence which she had paid to Mme. Swann after the death of her husband, and had asked whether she knew them [the Verdurins]. 

Unless I’ve missed something, that throwaway line is the first – and, so far, the only – mention of the death of Swann, who has been so significant in the narrator’s life and whose mortal illness has been achingly observed earlier in the book. Blink and you miss it.

And then, in the midst of an interminable recount of a dinner party, where conversations overlap and intersect like in an Altman movie, the narrator will rhapsodise about a beautiful sunset, will take a letter from his pocket and criticise the quirks of its writer, of will plunge without warning into melancholy reflections on lost loves of youth, like this one which reminds us sharply that the narrator is in terrible health, looking back at the events he describes, and also reminds us of his frankness about sexual maters (sorry, it’s a bit long):

On peut quelquefois retrouver un être, mais non abolir le temps. Tout cela jusqu’au jour imprévu et triste comme une nuit d’hiver, où on ne cherche plus cette jeune fille-là, ni aucune autre, où trouver vous effraierait même. Car on ne se sent plus assez d’attraits pour plaire, ni de force pour aimer. Non pas bien entendu qu’on soit, au sens propre du mot, impuissant. Et quant à aimer, on aimerait plus que jamais. Mais on sent que c’est une trop grande entreprise pour le peu de forces qu’on garde. Le repos éternel a déjà mis des intervalles où l’on ne peut sortir, ni parler. Mettre un pied sur la marche qu’il faut, c’est une réussite comme de ne pas manquer le saut périlleux. Être vu dans cet état par une jeune fille qu’on aime, même si l’on a gardé son visage et tous ses cheveux blonds de jeune homme ! On ne peut plus assumer la fatigue de se mettre au pas de la jeunesse. Tant pis si le désir charnel redouble au lieu de s’amortir ! On fait venir pour lui une femme à qui l’on ne se souciera pas de plaire, qui ne partagera qu’un soir votre couche et qu’on ne reverra jamais.

(page 1422)

 We can sometimes find a person again, but we cannot abolish time. And so on until the unforeseen day, gloomy as a winter night, when we no longer seek for that girl, or for any other, when to find her would actually frighten us. For we no longer feel that we have sufficient attraction to appeal to her, or strength to love her. Not, of course, that we are, in the strict sense of the word, impotent. And as for loving, we should love her more than ever. But we feel that it is too big an undertaking for the little strength that we have left. Eternal rest has already fixed intervals where we can neither make a move or speak. To set a foot on the necessary step is an achievement like not missing the perilous leap. To be seen in such a state by a girl we love, even if we have kept the features and all the golden locks of our youth! We can no longer undertake the strain of keeping pace with youth. All the worse if our carnal desire increases instead of failing! We procure for it a woman whom we need make no effort to attract, who will share our couch for one night only and whom we shall never see again.

I’m finally just gong with the flow as I read this book, and just today realised that I look forward to my daily 20 minutes or so. I’ve also started looking up some of the unfamiliar words. Sometimes it turns out that the general meaning had been obvious even if the English word hadn’t leapt to mind; at other times, the dictionary translation of a word is no help at all. When aa boy is described as coqueluche de toutes les dames, I could tell from the context that it meant he was the darling of all the ladies, which sure enough is how Moncrieff translates it. But the dictionary tells me that coqueluche is whooping cough. I do my best attempt at a Gallic shrug and read on.

Other times, the dictionary is more fun. As in these from the last week or so, pretty much all in the context of a Thursday evening chez Mme Verdurin:

  • gourgandine hussy
  • gredin crook, wrongdoer
  • astucieusement slickly, diplomatically
  • escarmouche skirmish
  • débandade stampede

That’s it until next month.

Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light (Fourth Estate 2020)

Now we live in an age of coercion, where the king’s will is an instrument reshaped each morning, as if by a master-forger: sharp-pointed. biting, it spirals deep into our crooked age.

(Page 65)

This is the third novel in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy: my blog posts of the first two are here and here. When the first novel was published in 2009, the idea of Donald Trump as President of the USA was a barely-remembered joke from Back to the Future II (1989). Yet now that we’ve reached the third volume her portrait of Henry VIII as a flashy, erratic, concupiscent, self-serving despot has taken on sharp contemporary relevance. Henry had more wives than Donald. and treated them a lot worse, but on the other hand he believed in God and his sense of his own importance, for good or ill, was bound up with that belief.

How we could wish for a principled, pragmatic and effective Thomas Cromwell in the White House of our own crooked age!

Somewhere – or Nowhere, perhaps – there is a society ruled by philosophers. They have clean hands and pure hearts. But even in the metropolis of light there are middens and manure-heaps, swarming with flies. Even in the republic of virtue you need a man who will shovel up the shit, and somewhere it is written that Cromwell is his name.

(Page 435)

Ten years ago I thought of Thomas More as a saint, a model of integrity and courage, and Cromwell as corrupt, venal and murderous wielder of power. Now I think of the former as a vicious, misogynistic ideologue, and Cromwell as a basically decent man who, though not above murderous vengefulness, wasn’t afraid to get shit on his shoes or dirt on his hands in order to preserve social order and peace.

What to say about this huge (882 pages) book?

It’s beautifully written: someone told me his partner was reading a couple of pages of it to him each night, and I can see what a joy that would be.

It’s meticulously researched: it’s five decades since I studied Reformation History, so I’m no judge on its accuracy, but every time I checked a detail it turned out to be there in the record.

It’s spellbinding: even though you know in advance – or could do – that the main character is executed at the order of the king he serves and whose favour he enjoys, that conclusion seems both impossible and inevitable as events move inexorably towards it.

Though the resonances with Donald Trump’s presidency are strong, the book isn’t a thinly- or even thickly-veiled analogy for our times. One feels at every moment that Hilary Mantel has steeped her imagination in the England of the late 1530s. The food, the clothes, the specifics of patriarchy, the religious complexities, the lurking presence of the plague: all come startlingly alive. The bewildering array of characters that my generation of Australians learnt about in school – Henry VIII and his six wives, Thomas More, Cromwell himself, the bishops Cranmer, Pole and Latimer – are here as scheming and schemed against, sweet-talking, threatening, manoeuvring and grasping for survival, and in the middle of it all somewhere grappling with matters of principle.

I learned about the English Reformation from a Catholic perspective, and my childhood contempt for a clergy who modified their doctrines to suit the whims of a lusty king wasn’t changed much by my university studies. But this book, while it leaves me with even less respect for Henry, has given me a profound respect and admiration for the champions of the gospel around him.

In one reading, patriarchy remains intact and unchallenged in this book. There is no hint that both of Henry’s daughters would one day rule England – though women, including Mary, cold cause terrible trouble by marrying against the king’s wishes. Women are seen largely as pawns in the dangerous game of royal succession: will this one please the ageing king enough for him to ‘do the deed’, will she get pregnant, will the child be a boy, will the boy survive childhood? But there are hints that elsewhere women can have different kinds of power. Some women inspire the heretics and papists who rise up against Henry. Thomas’s witnessing a Lollard woman burned at the stake is one of the formative horrors of his childhood. And in the short chapter in which Jane Seymour gives birth to a son the narration moves away from Thomas’s point of view, and we are taken for a moment into a whole different world. Here not only do women have significant agency, but also the lore and wisdom inextricably bound up with the old Catholic religion comes into its own. Our sympathies are thoroughly with Cromwell the protestant, but Mantel’s imagination transcends anything like one-sided advocacy. A short quotation may help show what I mean:

When Mary gave birth to her Saviour and ours, did she suffer as other mothers do? The divines have sundry opinions, but women think she did. They think she shared their queasy, trembling hours, even though she was a virgin when she conceived, a virgin when she carried: even a virgin when redemption burst out of her, in an unholy gush of fluids. Afterwards, Mary was sealed up again, caulked tight against man’s incursions. And yet she became the fountain from which the whole world drinks. She protects against plague, and teaches the hard-hearted how to feel, the dry-eyed to drop a tear. She pities the sailor tossed on the salt wave, and saves even thieves and fornicators from punishment. She comes to us when we have only an hour to live, to warn us to say our prayers.
But all over England virgins are crumbling. Our Lady of Ipswich must go down. Our Lady of Walsingham, which we call Falsingham, must be taken away in a cart. Our Lady of Worcester is stripped of her coat and her silver shoes. The vessels containing her breast-milk are smashed, and found to contain chalk. And where her eyes move, and weep tears of blood, we know now that the blood is animal blood and her eyes are worked on wires.

From behind the papist virgin with her silver shoes there creeps another woman, poor, her feet bare and calloused, her swarthy face plastered with the dust of the road. Her belly is heavy with salvation and the weight drags and makes her back ache. When night comes she draws warmth not from ermine or sable but from the hide and hair of farm animals, as she squats among them in the straw; she suffers the first pangs of labour on a night of cutting cold, under a sky pierced by white stars.

(page 508, 510)

I finished this book with a sense of having witnessed a miracle.

Oh one last thing: earlier in the trilogy, Hilary Mantel got stuck into Thomas More and made Robert Bolt’s Man for all Seasons into a villain for our times, in this book Thomas Becket, the martyr hero of T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral gets a similarly persuasive demotion. Is nothing sacred? I cry. To which Hilary Mantel apparently responds in the negative.

Proust Progress Report 9:

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): continuing Book 4, Sodome et Gomorrhe

I’ve been reading À la recherche du temps perdu for nine months now. Part way through this month, I decided to reduce my daily quota of five pages. Three pages were fun, and then the next two were a slog. So I’m now aiming for three pages a day, and expect to be reading Proust – still mostly without a dictionary and still with limited comprehension – well into 2021.

At about page 1320 I nearly threw in the towel – exasperated by the interminable salons and garden parties, the meticulous charting of the rivalries of various duchesses, princesses and other ladies, the intrigues of the idle rich and their shifting allegiances related to the Dreyfus case and antisemitism. If I wanted to read something in French, maybe I should shift to Montaigne … or Jules Verne, where something happens.

Then the narrator goes for a second time to the seaside resort of Balbec, and after an encounter with the manager whose malapropisms amuse him enormously and are carefully explained, he is knocked sideways by memories of his beloved grandmother, who was his companion on his earlier visit. He feels her loss intensely, and is stupefied by grief. Worse, a number of people – workers at the hotel, his mother, his servant Françoise – tell him of sacrifices his grandmother was making for him at a time when he was oblivious to her suffering. This whole section is just brilliant. Though Proust is as much the meticulous analyst of emotional processes as ever, here it feels like vivisection.

And then we’re back with tales of lust and disgust and linguistic oddities. The early parts of this book dealt with the world of Sodom, of male homosexuality. At Balbec, in the part I’m now reading, the narrator becomes obsessed with Gomorrah, the world of Lesbians In particular, he suspects Albertine of Sapphic desires. So far, there’s nothing more graphic than public kissing, tittering and indecent shouts:

elles passèrent enlacées, ne cessant de s’embrasser, et … poussèrent des gloussements, des rires, des cris indécents.

(page 1397)

This must be the kind of thing that gave French literature a reputation for being as good as pornographic in the early 20th century.

I the middle of all this there are a couple of pages where the narrator tells us about a couple of sisters from the country who are employed as messengers by a wealthy woman at the hotel. Having somehow – he doesn’t explain how – struck up a friendship with them, he gives us a blow by blow account of a conversation in his bedroom one morning where they mock him mercilessly. My impression is that a native French speaker would find great joy in their rustic language, but I enjoyed it a lot without that advantage. These two women, Céleste and Marie, are full of vitality and have no respect at all for the narrator’s poor health, social ambitions or writerly distinction. There have been other moments where Proust has taken the mickey, but this one shines.

I’m soldiering on.