An Exploration on the Subjectivity of Biography and History

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image via Tin House

Two days after finishing Jenn Shapland’s illuminating My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, I finished (after months of snail-paced and intermittent reading) Robert Caro’s The Path to Power, the first of his yet-to-be-completed five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. Caro’s biography is long, heavily sourced, expansive, authoritative, and novelistic. In its early description of the Lyndon’s notable ancestors and limestone-plagued soil they chose for their home, it has an ambition and style reminiscent of many of the early passages in Steinbeck’s masterpiece, East of Eden. Caro writes in the third person, practically omniscient. One gets the sense that if something is knowable about Johnson, Caro knows it, and if Caro knows it, he’s put it in his book. Caro’s disappearance into the book makes it hard for a layman to doubt or question him. There is no personality to critique. Whatever editorial decisions have been made are invisible. The writing does not disappoint the research, the book marches along, carrying the reader with it, through LBJ’s life and early-to-mid-twentieth century. …


On a funny doctor and Proust’s direct descriptions

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Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

The transition from the “Combray” section to “Swann in Love” signifies not only a break in subject but also, more subtly, in style. Though Swann’s section is still recognizably Proust, with the same observant narrator and his indulgent descriptions of hypotheses, a more typical plot reliant on sustained and consequential stakes emerges from Swann’s efforts to woo Odette. While we’ve jettisoned back in time, there are no obvious markers of period change, at least so far and at least to a reader like me for whom all of this is past. …


Effortlessness takes effort

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Photo by Karson on Unsplash

One striking feat of the “Combray” section is Proust’s foregrounding of so much what’s to come. When I first read In Search of Lost Time, the number of characters and the great degree of detail at times obscured characters’ future importance and caused me to forget just how early it is when we meet the principal players in the coming books. Before this week, we’d already met Marcel, his mother, his grandmother, Francoise, Charles Swann, Bloch, and Gilberte. …


The man’s genius in just two hundred pages and eight quotes.

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Photo by Eduardo Olszewski on Unsplash

Famously colossal and philosophical, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time has gained an unfair reputation for opaqueness and difficulty. People assume that it is like Joyce’s Ulysses — another work better known for its complexity than for its merit — that people read it because they feel they should not because they want to.

Contrary to popular opinion, In Search of Lost Time is not really any of those things. It’s fun. Like life, the novel is as much comedy as it is a tragedy, with too much of both to ever be either. A profound examination of the human world, particularly memory, love, art, and time, it is one that will remain relevant for as long as there are sentient creatures on this earth, seeking to expand their finite lives with dreams and ideas. …


On enwrapping others with our own notions

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Photo by SARAH GRANGER on Unsplash

After sighting Gilberte, Marcel continues to ponder romance, and as he lays out Combray’s geography and scenery, it puts him in the mood to “see appear before my eyes a peasant-girl whom I might clasp in my arms.” This desire adds “something more exalted to the charms of nature” which “in turn enlarged what I might have found too restricted in the charms of the woman.” This envisioned woman is “a necessary and natural product of this particular soil.” His extensive metaphors often have one object elevating the other, but here the two of them elevate each other. In our time, the woman as nature trope is tired. …


In a Proustian moment, vision overcomes sight

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Photo by Osman Rana on Unsplash

Proust and his family have two ways to walk from the Combray house: one is Guermantes and the other, Swann. Swann has remained a distant specter; he is the last visitor accepted by Marcel’s aunt (she is the last person he continues to visit in the house), but because of his marriage he remains outcast in Combray’s polite society. This ostracization extends to seeing him on the street, an event that Marcel’s family goes to considerable length to avoid. They do not walk his way, despite that there is a charming park in that direction and that it is occasionally the shorter route. …


On what Proust has to tell us about experiencing art

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Photo by Katya Austin on Unsplash

Proust does not write about art; he writes about his experiences of art, and in so doing elevates his own art and causes us to reflect on our experiences of art in general and his in particular. …


Read these for great frights and excellent prose

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Photo by Roman Denisenko on Unsplash

It’s Halloween time, and while there are many movies to watch, costumes to make, tricks to play, and treats to eat, there is also a great deal of good horror books to read. Horror stories are so ingrained in our culture that it’s easy to pretend like they’re all the same. Zombies, vampires, witches, ghosts, and demons. …


Mukasonga’s new book continues her project of salvaging lives from history…

Since 2014, Archipelago Books, the small but regularly noteworthy publisher of international literature, has been gifting us the writings of Scholastique Mukasonga, a Rwandan writer living in France since the early ’90s whose works have movingly chronicled her family and Rwanda, before, during, and after the Rwandan genocide. Translated from the French by Jordan Stump, Our Lady of the Nile, Cockroaches, The Barefoot Woman, and now Igifu have delivered a mixture of memoir and fiction that is not only significant for its documentation of the genocide but is also an exemplar for an unfortunately necessary genre: atrocity literature.

Exiled from Rwanda in 1973, Mukasonga was not present for the 1994 genocide, but she lives as both its survivor and victim. Not only did the anti-Tutsi sentiment lead to her expulsion from school and banishment from her country, but it left her as one of the few surviving members of her family. Thirty-seven relatives were killed in the genocide, including both parents and all but one sibling. Spared from this, she has written as mourner and refugee, producing books that are tangential to but intimately aware of the genocide. The books focus on the times before, when Mukasonga was still in Rwanda, on what augured the genocide, and after, when she returns to salvage and commemorate. …


Because nothing is more exciting than a book that breaks the rules

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Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

Walter Benjamin once said, “All great works of literature either invent or dissolve a genre.” This is as true today as it was when he said it.

Too often books are divided into useless, sometimes even harmful, categories that discourage readers from exploring literature that will change their lives. One of the more useless, and harmful, labels a book can have is “experimental,” which excites and interests some readers (who would have likely found those books anyway) and scares away other readers who think of “experimental” as difficult.

“Experimental” books have value because they broaden what the novel can do. It’d be no fun, or at least a lot less fun, if the books we read today were the same as the books written in the eighteenth century (Any Henry Fielding fans here?). We have “experimental” books to thank for the broadness of the literature we’re reading today. Authors like Dickens, Twain, Hemingway, and Woolf pushed boundaries and created new literature that is often considered normal now but wasn’t for the times. …

About

Sebastian S

Writing about my rereading of In Search of Lost Time, among other things, find my blog and newsletter over at twofoldtwilight.substack.com

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