Friday, April 10, 2009

Reading Update: Bloody Proust

So here is the deal with me and Marcel Proust. I've worked out that it's impossible to discuss anything about him without seeming incredibly pretentious. I have a suspicion that the reputation of the French people, their philosophers and writers in particular, as effete, snobbish, pretentious, self-absorbed twits is based on the reputation of Marcel Proust. I actually find the books themselves quite engaging, even if his attention to detail is so meticulous as to become obsessive compulsive.

I'm just over halfway through the second volume, the embarrassingly titled Within a Budding Grove. I think it was titled that way to avoid the more sexual connotations of the French title, À l'Ombre de Jeunes Filles en Fleurs, or In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. Throughout this book, the teenaged narrator periodically lusts after a variety of women his age, most notably Swann's daughter Gilberte, and Albertine, though I haven't gotten to the Albertine sections of the book yet.

However, the incredible detail of description and slow pace of the story doesn't detract from how I've become involved with these characters, smug, self-centred, and idiotic that they are. So many of these characters, protagonists included, are thoroughly absorbed in their own bullshit, whether it's about how intelligent, genteel, or noble they are, or their constant frettings and nervousness about trivialities. Watching the insanely drawn out process of the narrator breaking up with Gilberte Swann for no reason other than that she seems to take him for granted saw me yelling at the book as I read it. This man was torturing himself over his relationship, and it would have all come to an end if he had the guts to speak his mind instead of playing games of visiting her house only when he knew she wasn't there, writing her passive-aggressive letters, and hanging out with her mom Odette more often than Gilberte herself.

Overall, it's a positive experience, though. I certainly consider myself intimately connected with these characters. In a book so detailed in its prose, it's easy to write so densely that one completely loses sight of the characters. It's to the credit of this massive narrative that the protagonists never disappear into their own voluminous descriptions. Its long, winding sentences exhibit a hypnotism that can draw an attentive reader in for hours. Of course, at its size, hours spent reading still only chip slowly through the whole work.

I think I've taken the longest break in terms of writing my own novel since I started. I've been marking papers for my first year course, finishing my courses for the term, in particular the painful editing of a philosophy of mind paper such that all of what I thought were the best ideas were excised. And season three of The Venture Bros arrived last week, so I've been working through those episodes, and the commentary, which is always delightfully self-deprecating and absurd.

I want to finish A Small Man's Town this month. Really, I think I have to. There is only one scene left, and its introduction, where the protagonist Joseph arrives in Toronto for the first time, has been written. But this scene is a reunion of Joseph and the woman he hasn't seen in almost five years, the woman he used to love and who has become a successful human rights activist. The very next sentence, which I haven't written yet, is when he sees her walking into the room, and if I get this reunion and their conversation wrong, then I've pretty much wasted the last 17 months of my writing.

The scale of my project has also dawned on me. I have never spent this long working on a single project in my life. I have done other things while this is ongoing, but even my MA thesis didn't take quite this long. The basic idea for the book, or at least the basic idea that's turned into this book, I worked out in late 2005. It was another two years before I actually started writing, and now I'm on the verge of finishing it. Next will come the job, even harder in this economy, of getting the thing published and selling in a moderately successful number.

I don't think I've ever been this uncertain about my career, because this is the first time in my life that a writing career is actually staring me in the face. It's going to be hard enough getting a job in philosophy, because academic philosophy doesn't want the innovative ideas I try to craft in my work. Academic philosophy wants people who argue according to the established debates; not people who want to shake up the scene and spark people into thinking about traditional problems differently. I'm pretty sure now that no industry actually wants creative people at all, that we're an aberration, a weird presence, what no one normal knows how to handle.

It was very easy to dream about shaking up the world of philosophy and writing when I was 22 years old and finishing my undergraduate degree. It's much harder to hold onto your ambitions when you depend for your livelihood on whether an editor, an agent, or a reviewer looks at your work, sees that it's out of the ordinary, and rejects it because he doesn't understand it. In fact, I'm getting used to the idea that no matter how hard I work, I'll never be successful, because I simply cannot write or live like a normal person. And I doubt I can continually be lucky enough to stumble onto an agent or a patron who sees genuine innovation and not a crackpot. While I'm pretty sure I'll be a failure financially and that no one will read or find my work, I know I'll never stop doing the work I want to do. It's more painful to me to write like a normal person than to have my attempted innovations rejected.

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