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. …


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. …


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. …


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. …


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. …


What is the grass?

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“I would lay my cheeks gently against the comfortable cheeks of my pillow…sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.” (pg. 2–65 of MKE)

People tend to want to pin down what they encounter, within and without. One possible hope that drives this act is the hope that by doing so, the object, person, or thought will be forever findable. It needn’t matter that it leaves one’s line of sight, that one abandons or forgets it, because once it’s pinned down it will not change, will not move, and one can retrieve it upon a whim. Many admirable artists produce art that gains its plaudits for its seeming ability to pin down, or, if you prefer a different figuration, to reveal. Many admirable artists produce art that gains its plaudits for its seeming ability to reveal, to show something for what it really. Proust might be such an artist, and often the narrator discusses scales falling from his eyes and him seeing something for what it truly is, but the narrator, Marcel let’s call him, might not be seeing the full truth, and such plaudits miss much of what makes In Search of Lost Time magnificent: its tendency to accept the transience, shiftiness, and mutability of any individual object. …

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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