The whole fete scene was really well done, but am I crazy for siding with Stepan Trofimovich’s speech about beauty being the most important thing in the world? I mean, yes, obviously people need food and shelter, I get that, but to not appreciate beauty, not appreciate art, to think only science and engineering is our fate, as if we are only worker bees seems – like the argument people would rather believe.
It’s rare Dostoevsky plays up much comedy, but the scene where everyone is trying to decide if their party is actually a (illegal) meeting or not was very funny. Typical of these kinds of people to not really have any idea what’s going on, even the ones, like the young lady, who are full of fervor but are totally unreliable. And Shigalyov’s idea of putting 90% of all Russians into absolute servitude is … absurd.
Stephan is kicked out, but he’s still getting a nice pension of 3000 rubles a year. Hard to complain about that, but I do feel bad for him, even if he never really accomplished anything and is, I believe fairly accused, of being a sponger.
More troubling was the lady in the group who needed to see the young man who had committed suicide because all other forms of “entertainment” bored her. The whole group was crass
The drunker he gets the more he questions what is the physical attraction, the desire for sex, for physical love with Justine, or perhaps with anybody for that matter. He equates sex with drunkenness as he stumbles around the city’s red-light district, a drug that everyone wants and needs and that drives everyone to mad extremes just to feel … something.
The scene where he finds that Nessim’s telescope had been pointed at him and Justine in the hut (and at the tossed aside copy of King Lear – now that’s a portent) was chilling. And then when Nessim comes barreling down the dune in the back of the car firing at the birds and then thundering off, and earlier writing the word ‘beware’ in Greek in the sand was madness. Then his memory of the army … violence is coming
The duel was funny – sad funny. We don’t know why Gaganov is so furious with Nikolai except it’s something that happened a few years ago which, though nobody knows about it, was a disgrace to his family and caused him to end his military career. Yet we know as much as Nikolai seems to care. But imagine being Gaganov and having Nikolai not even care about the duel even though it means so much to him. And he still lost
The point of view shifts a bit to look at Nessim as he goes about his day I’m assuming after he’s seen Justine cheating. It’s like we’re following him around like a PI. And I suppose all this is going to turn out bad for a lot of people based off the beautiful descriptions of how hot and arid everything is. First sickness, now a lack of water, yet Nessim is trying to build an oasis for a woman who does not love him.
Fascinating speech between Shatov and Nikolai about how each nation has their own God and a nation that does not have their own god but shares it with others is bound to fail. I can also see where the root of the ‘socialism leads to atheism’ argument comes from among nationalists and conservatives in how Shatov presents the idea. But is Nikolai that bad? Shatov is devastated, but which path is more dangerous?
So much illness everywhere in the novel, the people are sick, memories are ill, the city itself seems afflicted with a malady undetermined. Yet it is all so beautiful, such as how Clea paints the various lesions of the doctor’s patients. In fact you have to wonder how these sick people felt having this kindly woman deftly paint and pay attention to them and their ailments. Who wouldn’t want this attention at death?
Now some of this is making some sense, if in a convoluted way. The poor Marya thought she was married to Nikolai, and he even paid her an allowance, but this was stolen by her drunkard brother who beat her. I now wonder how much of her story of having a baby is true? She seemed to think it might be, but she also might have imagined it. Poor woman.
He spends so much time working that he has no time to pursue reading or any other artistic endeavors, just like most hard working people.
He is proud that he knows the cost of his home and has built every meter of it, and he bemoans ornament and over decoration, but most people are willing to pay a convenience to not be bothered with more labor than they can bear. Better to pay rent and have company than be isolated
He is very skeptical of all the “great” things humanity has built. He sees monuments as a waste of time, especially the Great Pyramids, and I suppose that’s one way to look at it, especially considering how much suffering and misery were laid upon the backs of the humans who actually lifted those stones. Yet as a species is it not remarkable that we are inclined to erect such structures purely on faith? Yes, hammering stone into ornament may be a waste from a practical point of view, but do all things have to be practical? How incredible is it that our ideas, our imaginations can exist as stone and monument?
And he frees the ox and horse from labor and carries the timber with his own muscles, but he has become only a laborer with no dream. What is the point of living if all one should do is lift a heavy load, dig a cellar, grow the potato, and shovel the snow? Is a person no better than the ox? Is the mind of a human filled with no more than what is in the mind of a fish?
He believes the student would be better mining the ore that makes up his pen knife than studying metallurgy with a professor, and he is right that this sort of first-hand knowledge would prevent the student from cutting his finger, but is the mind to only be filled with the things that the hand can touch and by put to use? Are not the moons of Neptune as wondrous as the slushy water upon a half frozen lake in New England?
Thoreau’s vision is very narrow and he sees only what is right in front of him. He lacks a certain imagination, he is insensitive to the desire of people who want to look good simply because to wear a fine suit feels good. Not all people who dress up or get a good education do so at the expense of someone who can’t or won’t; life isn’t always about other people.
The scene when the furrier – Melissa’s old lover – dying in the hospital is heartbreaking. Imagine being the kind of man he is (was), someone who did terrible things, and then on your deathbed have the lover of your lover come in and talk with you as you die. The amount of disappointment, of realizing how bad you fucked up in life, and how futile it all will be for is overwhelming.
Someone once told me that Dostoevsky would have been a very good playwright and I agree with that. He’s all about dialogue (though everyone talks in long speeches) and it always seems as if every scene takes place in a stuffy, dusty, airless room in which everyone is poor and miserable, except for one character who has money but is even more miserable (at least morally).
I still have no idea what’s going on, however.
There a wonderful comment on Goodreads from someone also reading this novel that says simply, ” Voy a paso de tortuga”. Me too, Natalia. Me too.
End of part 1
“I feel as if heaven lay close upon the earth and I between them both, breathing through the eye of a needle.” He was alive but no longer existed: this is the dream state, the strange ether the book takes place in, a fever city of fumbling passion and crime and filth and people looking for love but having no idea what that even is and so they refuse to fall in love.
And now he an Justine have had sex
The book by Jacob which describes Justine, but is renamed for the book (yet he still reads as Justine), is fascinating because we are reading a book about an author remembering his time with Justine and then comes upon a book written by someone else who also knew her and so we get a mirror-world of a man looking at his life though someone else’s words. It has the effect of understanding her distance from them both.
The description of Justine’s childhood from her diary and the neighborhood she grew up in are extraordinary. The children’s hand prints on the walls (to keep the evil spirits away), the killing of the exhausted camel, “A house with an earthen floor alive with rats, dim with wicks floating upon oil”, “and everywhere the the veils, the screaming, the mad giggle under the pepper-trees, the insanity and the lepers.”
I did not plan on reading this on top of everything else, but this book (in fact the whole tetralogy) was recommended to me by Irwin at the bookstore. And I’m surprised how absorbed I am by it because I normally don’t go in for this sort of thing, but my goodness it’s beautifully written and he can create such fascinating characters with just a few words, such as the poor old furrier who lost Melissa.
While everyone is somewhat mean and cruel to each other, I never get the impression that Dostoevsky is mean or cruel to them, he’s only showing us how these people live, and it’s about what you’d expect if you looked in on a lot of people’s lives: bickering, petty intrigue, half-baked ideas, affairs, generalizations about politics and society. But the point is that he wants us to care about these people.
I’m starting over because I want to deal with this book at a deeper, more philosophical level and make sure I’m giving it a fair shake.
I still stand by my position that he is very privileged to be able to “get away” from society. That might seem an odd sort of privilege since he was living in abject poverty, but think about how difficult that would be for us to give up our responsibilities and go live in the woods? Much is made of the parable that Jesus taught about the man who gives up everything to follow him – many people think that that is fundamentally an easy thing to do, but it is very, very hard to just give up our lives, even if they are good lives and go with God.
He is not wrong to show how a simple life can be more fulfilling – I agree with him – but his disdain for society, a disdain that he hints at stemming from his townspeople not accepting him as part of their inner circle, is a little too harsh. Is man really so much the worse to live in a house he does not own made from materials that come from a factory? Are man’s activities that take place in the home so far from the “natural good man” that he is worse off than the “savage”? Thoreau may live closer to God in nature, but his use of the word savage betrays his sense of kinship with his fellow man. He seems to see savages everywhere, not just in the American Indian, but especially there he does not possess the empathetic spirit that comes from people who have spent many hours in their homes thinking about how their action might negatively affect others. A man who has to get his meat on the hunt will have no time to worry if he is hurting anyone’s feelings, yet the man who lives in comfort is well aware how lucky he is and (should) attempt to extend that privilege to everyone.
In this he lacks a portion of empathy for his fellow individual man while at the same time he does love humanity writ large.
Kirillov’s philosophy that man is only free once he no longer fears death is interesting and threatening. He sounds like someone who wants to not have anything left to lose in order to make some sort of grand statement (though he probably doesn’t know what). Either way he seems very dissatisfied and I like how it’s pointed out to him that his desire to blow everything up will cost him his job of building a bridge.
When he talks about writers whose ideas have run out and younger generations have all forgotten I wonder who he had in mind when he wrote that.
I’m still having a hard time wondering what the point of all this is, and to be honest I probably would have stopped reading were it written by nearly anyone else. Basically there ins’t really a plot driving anything forward, it’s all domestic squabbling which is depressing
I’m still a little unclear what is going on, but it seems Varvara wants to marry off Darya to Stepan because she thinks something was going on with Darya and her own son, Nikolai. It’s all vague and I’m honestly having a hard time trying to find a reason to care about these characters, but there is something unseemly about these people that is sort of fascinating to watch.
I like the odd relationship between Stepan and Varvara; their bickering is funny to listen to. It’s odd to think that these people have the means to not have to work because they don’t act like they have much class – they’re almost low class in their scheming and behavior, yet they have land and money and leisure to act – well I wouldn’t say horribly, but they aren’t the sort of people I’d want to spend time with.
Of all the novels I have read, this one comes the closest to reading poetry. And I’m not just saying that because the language is beautiful, but rather because each line – sometimes extending for nearly an entire paragraph or even the whole page – is far denser than the line in a typical novel. Here the mere mention of a sip of tea at the end of the novel recalls entire passages of memory from earlier i the novel, each image and expression carries far more weight and does far more work than normal prose. And I also get the impression that I missed a lot as I read and that were I to go back and reread the novel I would discover whole oceans of thought that I failed to explore the first time around. In short this is a remarkable novel, but it’s also a remarkable experiment in modernism in that the author is trying to convey a way of thinking and feeling by playing with how language can communicate to us. I was not expecting a novel that deals so often with nostalgia for a lost time to be so radically modern.
Proust also explores something even more radical in this experiment, though perhaps without even realizing it. Years later the ideas of Saussure would create the foundation for structuralism, specifically the ideas of the signified and signifier. Proust seems to have intuited this concept and his image of the cup of tea causing a flood of memories to come flowing back into his mind is a perfect example of what Saussure was trying to explain. Yet Proust takes it even further (in the sort of direction the philosopher Bergson would be familiar with) by vitalizing the connection between signified and signifier as the essence of human experience which gives the real meaning to things. True, signifiers (mere words) are arbitrary and basically meaningless on their own, but it is we who give them their meaning, even if each of us has a different definition for what, say, a cup of tea might mean. We are, after all, creatures of language and the whole of our existence is a construct of language, so wouldn’t it be true that such a reality is only real because of how each of us experiences the universe, even if we’re all doing it differently?
There are multiple instances in the novel when Proust describes a person’s glance and then describes an observer interpreting what that glance means. Proust devotes pages and pages to just Odette moving her eyes a few millimeters, and Odette may have meant absolutely nothing by the way she moved her eyes, but for Swann (and us), there is more meaning in such a glance than could be contained by the Library of Alexandria. Meaning – meaningful meaning – is created by each of us in our own way, and often, as with Swann, can go too far, but it is the essence and vitality of our lives which we are creating every moment. Every glance, every word contains multitudes (Whitman) and our reality consists of parsing these meanings into something we can understand – or when it goes wrong we wind up like King Leontes in The Winter’s Tale who have lost our common social connection with other people and thus go mad.
And like Bergson debating with Einstein about the nature of time, time for Proust is like an erosion that alters the past, and seems to work deeper the more time that passes. Events that were as clear to us as our playmates when we were children are almost unrecognizable when we are older. How did time do this? Why does time alter our memory? Why are we never fixed in any place or time, like Proust not wanting to ever leave Paris? Are we always trapped in that separation between Saussure’s signified and the signifier? Is the human experience a necessary part of the universe (as Bergson believed) or do our experiences remain forever relative and without “True” meaning (as Eisenstein believed)?
Proust seems very much in the camp of favoring the human experience, and so do I.
Looking back on some of my favorite books it seems I really enjoy stories about people who long for a time that will never return, such as Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, Elspeth Huxley’s The Flame Trees of Thika, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, and now this. Maybe it’s because the older I get the more I can relate to characters whose interior life consists more and more of memory than it does of ambition for the future or because as time goes on each of us becomes more and more painfully aware of how much the world doesn’t actually make any sense at all unlike when we were young and everything seemed so simple.
It’s been awhile since I’ve read Dostoevsky, which is a problem because it always takes awhile to get into gear with his novels. The only other author I feel this way about is Shakespeare because whenever I start one of his plays I always feel lost until about Act 3 or 4. This novel is starting off the same way with a huge list of (unusual) characters but with no plot to attach them to. But I’m sure I’ll love this.
It’s heartbreaking to be left out of a social situation, especially when you really have nobody else to blame but yourself. Still, even though I don’t really fault Odette, she is quite well aware that she is still in good graces while he is not and she is enjoying maintaining her position. I’m sure she also knows how much pain Swann is in. But by the end he believes he’s moved on … I don’t believe him.
Would I be revealing too much about myself when I say that I identify with Swann just a little too much? When he’s talking himself into tapping on her window or oscillating between love and then is just as quickly thrown into anger and resentment when he can’t get what he wants I admitted to having these feelings myself – and it’s uncomfortable to experience it. Maybe everyone has felt like this but nobody admits it?
Odette only goes as far as Swann is willing to go, she never forces the issue. He pushes the flower in and she lets him.
I like his diver, Remi; he’s the only one being sensible.
You can feel Swann going out of control as he searches for Odette. He doesn’t have to do this, it’s just one night he didn’t see her, but he’s obsessed and he seems to actually enjoy the experience of putting himself through this pain.
I’m trying to wrap my brain around Swann. He’s got red hair and green eyes so his looks probably cause him to stand out a little. He’s idle, but he’s always holding back and I get the feeling everyone else senses there is more to him then he lets on and this adds to his charm. Madame Verdurin is interesting as ring leader, but for some reason I feel sort of sad for her. Cottard is funny, but would be a bore to know.
This concludes the Combray section. The final image of his room going out (or coming into) focus, his recalling Hawthorns when running into a friend, his longing to be kissed by his mother and his despondency at not being kissed: his foundation of memory, a language individual to the mind. I love how he mistakes the brass curtain rod for daylight and how we remember the invalid at the start who longs for company.
He has an almost sexual reaction to the hawthorn flowers in the church and then again when he’s in Swann’s park when he sees Gilberte who is holding a spade. Is this a death image? Is there a Freudian meaning here? At least now I know why it’s called Swann’s Way because of which door they exit when they go on a walk all together while Francoise is probably killing another chicken “filthy creature”.
I love how the deeper I get into the novel the more it feels I am living with this family. I look forward to his grandmother’s walks in the rain, his Aunt’s disappointment with having too many visitors at once, or knowing how a scene is repeated as when he didn’t look at his uncle, an event which was never reconciled, to when his father thinks he ignored on the street by someone he knew and we feel the pain of it.
Sometimes we know we’re reading a great book when the author says something we’ve always intuited but were never able to put into words. Often this happens once, maybe twice in a really great novel. When it happens more than twice, such as in War and Peace or Ulysses or reading Emily Dickinson or George Oppen, we know we’re inside the realm of pure genius. But when it happens page after page, it’s almost terrifying.
I was thinking about how when you’re a child the days last forever – time is so much more stretched out and rich when everything is new. Proust recreates that sensation, he luxuriates in the smallest details, and all the details connect: a leaf in the moonlight, the smell of the varnish, the sound of the bells, and the taste of cake dipped in tea. This feels like what Bergson was trying to say to Einstein about time.
The doctor is satirized because he isn’t actually doing any real healing, he’s a scam unlike good Arab doctors. He’s also in cahoots with the apothecary because he can just prescribe some drug concoction (cordial) and get a kickback of that sale from the apothecary. Just like today with how drug companies pay (influence) doctors to prescribe expensive drugs and pain killers. Things never change.