Monday, April 06, 2015

Spring reading

I finished up my project to read all of Shakespeare by his birthday this month. I ended with Pericles, even though I realized right after I started it that I had read it in graduate school. Obviously, I didn't remember it very well. It's one of the "disputed" authorship plays -- probably taken over by Shakespeare at some point (it was not included in the First Folio). I think we read it in school primarily to illustrate the difference between the rather mediocre writer of the first part and the more assured second half, presumably when Will took over. There are clear echoes of The Tempest, and of Winter's Tale for the sheer implausibility of the plot. Another of the last ones on my list was The Merry Wives of Windsor, featuring the reappearance of the ever-popular Falstaff from the Henry IV plays. As a main character and butt of all the jokes, Falstaff is just kind of sad and pathetic, and none of the other characters really stand out in this farce. But there you go, they can't all be gems. Sometimes, a hard-working showbiz guy just has to churn out Fast and Furious XXIV.

What I learned from reading through Shakespeare was how entertaining the history plays are. I had never read King John, Henry VIII, or any of the Henry VI trilogy. The history plays feature great characters, beautiful speeches, and ruthless action. They are fascinating for their spin on history, particularly how H6 portrays the Wars of the Roses. It inspired me to read an excellent history of the time period by Dan Jones. The tangled politics, betrayals, and side-switching still make your head spin, but it will shed a little light on this brutal slice of England's history. It was also timely, as they just reburied Richard III after recently digging up his bones in a church parking lot. 

"Illiers-Combray" by Oxxo - Own work.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
While I was feeling all sassy from that literary milestone, I went ahead and jumped into another one, finally tackling the first leg of Marcel Proust's multi-volume Ă€ la recherche du temps perdu. Volume 1 includes the parts, Combray and Swann in Love.  (I read the updated translation of C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin by D. J. Enright.)

Combray is Proust's fictionalized memoir of his childhood, and if you've ever spent any time thinking about your own fragmented memories, particularly wondering why some small incidents or details stand out over all the rest, you'll be interested to see how Proust explores this phenomenon.

I've often puzzled over the weird little moments that have imprinted themselves on my mind -- and how the vast majority of moments over all those years have just disappeared into the fog of memory. Smells, tastes, feelings, visual impressions scatter like the downy seed of a dandelion head. Proust re-creates a world, literally in search of a lost time, built on nuances, putting into words things that we don't usually even try to capture because they are so elusive or so befuddling. For him, they include the delicate taste of madeleines dipped in tea, flowering hawthorns in spring, his mother's goodnight kiss, the limbo-land between sleeping and waking when you don't remember where you are or even who you are. Sentences unwind across pages and don't so much describe, as paint an impressionistic landscape of accruing details. If I were to try to do the same thing, I would be reconstructing a life from the smell of the riverbank, climbing a fence in my nightgown on a moonlit summer night, my grandpa's old black rotary phone, the terrible excitement of being small in a ferocious wind that felt like it could pick me up and carry me over the fields. These are the strange things that Proust will lay before you, whether or not your life resembles that of a turn-of-the-century Frenchman.

But for me it was enough if, in my own bed, my sleep was so heavy as completely to relax my consciousness; for then I lost all sense of the place in which I had gone to sleep, and when I awoke at midnight, not knowing where I was, I could not be sure at first who I was; I had only the most rudimentary sense of existence, such as may lurk and flicker in the depths of an animal's consciousness; I was more destitute of human qualities than the cave-dweller; but then the memory, not yet of the place in which I was, but of various other places where I had lived, and might now very possibly be, would come like a rope let down from heaven to draw me up out of the abyss of not-being, from which I could never have escaped by myself: in a flash I would traverse and surmount centuries of civilisation, and out of a half-visualised succession of oil-lamps, followed by shirts with turned-down collars, would put together by degrees the component parts of my ego. [Combray, Project Gutenberg] 

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