Sunday, December 1, 2013

Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Pleasure

A Review of Gabriele D’Annunzios Pleasure

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Winter 2013/2014

Gabriele D’Annunzio
translated by Lara Gochin Raffaelli
Penguin ($17)

The Italian writer and statesman Gabriele D’Annunzio largely gave up literature for politics when Italy entered into the First World War, and his books and reputation have never fully recovered. A fervent nationalist whom many—including Mussolini himself—saw as a forerunner of fascism, D’Annunzio was a larger-than-life figure whose importance now seems absurdly dated and whom modernity would simply prefer to forget. In the English-speaking world, his original impact has often seemed entirely baffling, because Victorian translations excised the seminal gist of his true contribution, leaving a refined shell whose brittleness quickly desiccated and disappeared from the larger literary consciousness. His first novel, Pleasure, shocked its original readers with a frank and even devious focus on sexual seduction, but its 1898 translation into English as The Child of Pleasure cut out all the sex, rendering the novel into a neutered virtuoso piece, leaving many readers—including myself—with the impression that D’Annunzio was just a pallid reflection of the English Aesthetic movement. The Child of Pleasure read like a frangible novelization of Walter Pater’s imitators, leaving very little pleasure in its narrative portrayal or in its effect on the reader, but arriving at the 150th anniversary of D’Annunzio’s birth, Lara Gochin Raffaelli’s new translation of Pleasure will perhaps single-handedly resuscitate D’Annunzio as a world writer and place this glimmering first novel in its key spot among Europe’s great works of Decadent literature.

The novel opens with the main character, Andrea Sperelli, a young aristocratic writer and artist, awaiting the return of an estranged lover in a room suffused with her memory. Pleasure then plunges the reader into a world of reminiscence and desire and longing, where objects take on the essences of the humans who touch them and where humans themselves serve as objects on which to play out the obsessive interior dramas lurking beneath the surface of each new interaction. Sperelli is a dissolute aesthete raised by a father who initiated him from a young age into the cult of beauty, indoctrinating him with the most spurious sophism and leaving him with no fundamental grounding at all. While Sperelli serves in part as a mirror of D’Annunzio himself, who took on much of his character’s persona in subsequent years, the play of the novel is in making the reader descend into this depravity at the closest range, perhaps a bit like Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert seducing us into the ultra-sophisticated world of his sickness, with the ironic distance only implied through extra-textual references. The exceptional Raffaelli provides generous notes to her translation to delineate some of these subtleties, but the overall thrust of Sperelli’s seductions is clear even without them.

With this new translation, the influence on the subsequent century’s literature is now shockingly apparent. Both Marcel Proust and James Joyce were great admirers of D’Annunzio’s work, and the influence especially on Proust’s In Search of Lost Time makes itself retrospectively evident on nearly every page. Both Sperelli and Proust’s narrator are monsters of obsessive narcissism, but even more strikingly, D’Annunzio’s mingling of art and objects and essences opens a key passageway into the infinitely interconnected world of Proust, where the sound of a spoon knocking against a plate or the feel of uneven stones beneath the narrator’s feet or the taste and smell of a madeleine cookie dipped in tea can call up a universe of internal associations. More than Proust, however, D’Annunzio immerses the reader in the material experience of making art—at least when not consumed with seduction and memory; the passages describing the thrillingly intricate processes of etching and printmaking outshine even the book’s most sensuous and associative passages, prefiguring the relentlessly detailed artistic methods described in William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, which also seems in this novel’s debt.

Yet while Pleasure may be a great precursor to many of the past century’s key works of literature, it fails in one respect. Rather than making Rome his own, or even absorbing ancient or medieval or renaissance Rome into his own personal iconography, D’Annunzio very much lived in the Rome of Goethe, which for writers of the nineteenth century was modern Rome. Goethe occupied a place in his age that not even Proust or Joyce occupy in our own, so the influence is understandable, but to have the narrative—and Sperelli himself—so constantly quote his German master is to make a terrific refusal to be original. Part of this is for effect—Goethe informs the narrative when Sperelli is with his main lover, Elena, which is most of the time, and when he’s with his secondary lover, Maria, it’s Shelley whose works fix the key—and it’s actually a pretty neat effect, but it leaves a huge void by living in the shadow of these towering high Romantics. D’Annunzio’s Sperelli is meant to strike for his age a figure as symbolic and representative as Goethe’s Werther was for his, and although he succeeded in making Sperelli a metonym for the age of Decadence, much like Jay Gatsby is for our own shoddier decadence in America, perhaps part of D’Annunzio’s desuetude lay in not creating a lasting foundation for himself—or in not transforming a classical myth into a modern one the way that Joyce did with The Odyssey and Fitzgerald did with The Satyricon. Still, Pleasure is truly a pleasure, and its potency is its own. D’Annunzio’s characters may be steeped in their age, but his methods and vision are strikingly original, and this novel confidently announces itself not just as a mere echo or harbinger, but as a fully fledged advent of its own.

—David Wiley

Italo Calvino’s Letters 1941–1985

A Review of Italo Calvinos Letters 1941–1985

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Winter 2013/2014

Letters 1941–1985
Italo Calvino
Translated by Martin McLaughlin
Selected and introduced by Michael Wood
Princeton ($39.50)

Although Italo Calvino was a deeply convicted artist and intellectual, he was not a man of great personal passions. His fiction, like that of his Argentine master Jorge Luis Borges, weaves dazzling conceptual fantasies that explore the mind and the universe and the written word in books that sometimes fall in on themselves to become their own central subject, but he leaves out all the lonely sadness of Borges—and foregoes altogether the fervor of his other, earlier master, Ernest Hemingway. He instead employs the cold codes of Hemingway as he plumbs the interior labyrinths of his imagined worlds and leaves blank the self-portrait that Borges suggested that his own creations outlined in intimate detail. Mirroring this aspect of his fiction, and in fact magnifying it, his personal and professional correspondence explores a world of art and ideas and politics almost entirely divorced from the human feelings that underlie them.

Selected by Calvino scholar Michael Wood from an Italian edition twice its size (which itself collects just a fraction of Calvino’s lifetime of correspondence), the English-language edition of Italo Calvino’s Letters 1941–1985 serves as a kind of intellectual and artistic biography of postwar Italy—of which Calvino was a prime representative—if not as a biography of Calvino himself. Translator Martin McLaughlin provides relentlessly informative notes to the letters, some of them translated from the original Italian edition and some of them his own work, tracking down in painstaking detail every political or artistic reference and noting the exact publication information of every book or article that Calvino discusses or refers to or is reacting to. It’s a seriously impressive piece of sleuthery, and it illuminates the texture of Calvino’s world almost as much as Calvino does with his own words.

Beginning when Calvino was eighteen and at college fearing conscription into Mussolini’s army, the letters follow him into hiding with the Resistance and then into a postwar environment in which he’s a devout Communist trying to keep his party relevant and still connected to the actual proletariat, a struggle that bitterly disappoints him as it increasingly fails. In tandem with his political involvement, Calvino’s literary career attempts to bridge two competing urges: the commitment to writing illustrative political works filled with types and goals and progress, and the overwhelming desire to follow his imagination into the ether. Ultimately, politics frustrate him and he quits the Communist Party in a drastic and unexpected letter that reads like the self-divestment of a priest stepping down from the church but still vowing utter faith to all of its fundamental tenets. His pen then largely unfettered by any programmatic fealty, his fiction takes off, and his letters document his evolving ideas and intentions and aesthetic interests.

Calvino was ever the public intellectual, however, and his correspondence records a mind still very much in thrall with the modish ideas of his time, and a great many of his letters read like incredibly tedious recitations of the latest theory or article of intellectual faith. Often new concepts will enter and inspire him, as when he applies semiotics to the universe for his Cosmicomics series of tales, but just as often he’s simply spinning his wheels. He also had to devote much of his energy to his job in publishing, and it’s both fascinating and depressing to see him expend so much attention on other people’s works and ideas and artistry.

Calvino’s interdisciplinary interests brought him in touch with some of the most cutting-edge creative minds of his time, including the filmmakers Michelangelo Antonioni and Pier Paulo Pasolini and the composers Luigi Nono and Luciano Berio, even working on a collaboration with the latter composer. In fact, some of Calvino’s most captivating letters describe his reactions to some of these artist’s work, such as his intense dislike of Pasolini’s films, and one letter finds him riffing brilliantly on the theme of sounds and silence in battle after hearing the debut of Nono’s great A floresta é jovem e cheja de vita.

What’s disappointing is that these passages are the exceptions and not the rule. Calvino is not a writer who likes to regale his friends with his reactions to the wonders of his reading or listening or seeing, and when he occasionally reveals some of his vast erudition, it’s often surprising to see the names of authors and books come up, as if from hiding, when he’s never divulged any sort of initial revelation about having encountered them in the first place. These are simply not the letters of Keats or Kafka or Flannery O’Connor, where the reader takes a trip through the realms of gold with the author and marvels along with each new discovery. The personal element of these great letter-writers is entirely missing from Calvino’s correspondence too, with virtually no dramatis personae crowding in from either his or his correspondents’ lives. He only mentions his wife a handful of times, never telling the story of meeting her when he was in Cuba, and it’s nearly impossible to tell his correspondents apart from the way he writes to them. There’s no Kafka’s Felice or O’Connor’s “A” to be found anywhere in these letters. In the end, this volume will serve as a sourcebook for understanding Calvino’s works and days, and some of it is actually quite interesting and informative, but it will never count as having much intrinsic value as a collection itself.

—David Wiley

Friday, November 15, 2013

Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge

A Review of Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge

Originally published in the Minneapolis StarTribune
on November 15th, 2013

Bleeding Edge
Thomas Pynchon
The Penguin Press ($28.95)

Like his 1973 magnum opus, Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Bleeding Edge, takes place over approximately nine crucial months of world history and offers a more complex alternative to the typical “us and them” narrative that many have adopted as the official story. Focusing on the New York of 2001 and early 2002, Bleeding Edge is a new kind of historical novel, delving into the radical shifts in human consciousness brought about by the Internet, video games, quake films, digital espionage, cyber exploration, and other “bleeding-edge” technologies that just twelve years later now actually seem generations old. Hilarious references to Netscape and Final Fantasy abound, but 9/11 looms large, and the stakes here are real.

Maxine Tarnow is a fraud investigator in New York who’s lost her license and is working rogue, and when a colleague asks her to look into some cooked accounting in the books of Gabriel Ice and his giant Microsoft/Halliburton-style megafirm, her researches lead her into the Deep Web and back up again to a world where paranoia is the norm and where reality is often merely an avatar for the cyber systems that lay just a few clicks away. While the premise may be something of a rehash of Pynchon’s second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, the real-world consequences here are much more pressing, and the swirl of elusive meanings have an urgency that the earlier novel’s symbol-based conspiracies only play at.

Maxine and her family, friends, and colleagues are also surprisingly rich and well developed as individual characters who stand for something much more human than some of the cardboard cutouts of Pynchon’s early works. This new earnestness comes at an artistic cost, though, making this novel almost entirely conventional in terms of how it works and what it offers to the reader. Pynchon’s world is always complexly plotted, but the threads in this novel all make perfect sense and find relatively harmonious resolution in the end, and while the book offers us an alternate view of who we are in the new millennium, its answers to the problems it explores still seem simpler than they should be. Perhaps 9/11 has made Pynchon grow up, for better or worse.

That’s not to say that Pynchon has become dull at all. His prose is uproariously vibrant and compelling and is filled with relentless poetry and play, spouting outlandish neologisms and novel imagery at every turn. While the current state of Pynchon’s art may not be pushing the bleeding edge in the ways that Gravity’s Rainbow did, his comic vision is nearly as absurd as ever and is never satisfied unless it outdoes itself, and as a result Bleeding Edge is a seriously funny book that’s also deadly serious.

—David Wiley

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Jorge Luis Borges’ Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature

A Review of Jorge Luis Borges’

Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Fall 2013

Professor Borges
A Course on English Literature
Jorge Luis Borges
Edited by Martín Arias and Martín Hadis
Translated by Katherine Silver
New Directions ($24.95)

Someone should have had a tape recorder on Jorge Luis Borges at all times. Unlike his great contemporary, Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote out every word of his university lectures and insisted on composing all of his interviews in solitude, Borges had a great gift for conversation and for spontaneous connection with his readers and students. Two books of interviews attest to his simultaneously warm and dazzling engagement with ideas, with language, and with the people who flocked to his accessible and welcoming brilliance. The essay collection Seven Nights transcribes seven extraordinary lectures that he delivered without notes or preparation in 1977, and the book (and accompanying four-CD set) This Craft of Verse preserves a series of talks he gave on the art and craft of poetry. Each of these is a goldmine. With almost any other author, all of these posthumous publications would have caused a glut, but Borges’ library-of-babel erudition made it so that his every public utterance offered some invaluable insight or reflection worthy of scriptural copyists. The newest release, Professor Borges, transcribes an entire course he gave on English literature, and while some may scoff at the Borges industry for heaving more laundry lists and toenail clippings at his adoring public, this may be the most brilliant and revealing offering yet.

In addition to heading Argentina’s National Library, Borges was a professor of English and North American literature at the University of Buenos Aires, despite never having received a university degree himself, and the present volume comes to us via students who taped and transcribed the lectures for a course he gave on English literature in 1966. The process of editing this book for print is like a Borges story in itself. While each transcription bore the religiously scholastic phrase “a faithful version” at its end, the students’ outrageous and often hilarious mishearings of author names and etymological discussions and foreign terms made for a truly Borgesian hunt on the part of editors Martín Arias and Martín Hadis in their quest to nail down a genuinely faithful text. So far-flung are Borges’ casual references that many of the students’ phonetic spellings led to unfathomable amounts of research in trying to come up with the correct medieval place-name or Anglo-Saxon kenning. The editors’ work serves the reader well, and they augment their faithful version with extremely helpful and fascinating endnotes, which will undoubtedly create very long reading-lists for even the most erudite of Borgesians.

Like almost all of the blind Borges’ talks, these twenty-five lectures were given without notes and simply followed the internal logic of Borges’ own curiosity that day. The first seven classes focus on the origins of English literature, starting with the Anglo-Saxons and Beowulf and progressing through Caedmon and the Christian poets and then to the Icelandic sagas and the Battle of Hastings. Given Borges’ special interest in Old English and Old Norse, these lectures are simply thrilling in their illumination of what Borges loves about each subject. He was possibly as great a talker as he was a writer, and his explications swerve from peak to peak and then swoop in to pause upon all the most poignant and mind-bending moments of literature and language and history, and all with a density of specific detail and reference that would outshine any composed narrative by any other imaginable scholar. Imagine Noam Chomsky as an epic poet singing a song of songs, and you have an idea.

After leaving King Harold dead on the battlefield with his discarded lover Edith Swaneshals (Edith “Swanneck”) searching to identify his body, Borges incomprehensibly leaps in a few swift paragraphs to Samuel Johnson, resuming the course with Rasselas and slowly making his way in the subsequent lectures from the late eighteenth century to around the time of his own birth in 1899. It’s not at all clear why Borges would skip the three greatest writers in the English language—Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, each of whom he loved profoundly and could explore and unfold to no end—let alone pass over the flowering of the English Renaissance and the Metaphysical Poets and the first English novelists, but such is the whim of a great mind. Perhaps some other professor covered those years.

Through Borges’ vivid and detail-filled lens, the reader encounters a Johnson and Boswell who are as rich and as full of life and as inextricably linked as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and then it’s on to the Romantics, who Borges treats as characters as much as he does as authors. As with modern readers’ conception of Borges himself, every author he talks about in these lectures has a unique drama that heightens the pleasure of the works, with Borges giving frank and forgiving assessments of each writer’s successes and failures, both artistic and personal. Coleridge in particular comes across as a lost soul, but Borges lovingly focuses on his few magical early works, leaving an impression on the reader that’s nearly as sharp and as affecting as the poems themselves.

The book bogs down a bit in the last third, however, with ten of the twenty-five lectures dedicated to the Victorians—and with five of those spent on just two of the Pre-Raphaelites. Borges’ close readings offer sparkling observations, but as he gets closer and closer to these minor writers’ work, the deep focus seems aimed in a direction that misses many much more profound riches. With Borges casually examining every intricate aspect of English literature that his mind comes across, these lectures could have gone in any direction, and here the reader wishes for that focus to have passed its eye across Paradise Lost or Gulliver’s Travels instead. Being born in 1899, the seemingly eternal Borges is here locked in his era, which itself is a lesson in literature. Even more than Seven Nights and This Craft of Verse, the lectures in Professor Borges give us the clearest picture yet of the man in his own words, because here he’s at his most deliberate and generous and lovingly idiosyncratic.

– David Wiley

Friday, June 28, 2013

Thomas Heise’s Moth; or how I came to be with you again

A Review of Thomas Heise’s

Moth; or how I came to be with you again

Originally published in the Minneapolis StarTribune on June 28th, 2013

Moth; or how I came to be with you again
Thomas Heise
Sarabande Books ($15.95)

Poet and academic critic Thomas Heise’s new novel, Moth; or how to be with you again, follows an idiosyncratic and deeply self-involved aesthetic program that could easily have led it far astray, but instead the book reads like a dream. Composed in densely lyrical sections of two to six pages, Moth flutters through the narrator’s life and memory to impart a highly imagistic vision of his intermingling past and present. The novel’s exoskeleton is spare, with little definite information about who the narrator is or what quotidian elements make up his life, focusing instead on his ever-unfolding interior existence, employing a shimmering web of words to weave together the disparate aspects of his memories and reflections.

As the book progresses, the reader slowly gleans a few facts about the narrator’s parents, about his childhood abandonment and subsequent time in an orphanage, and about his difficulty connecting to life as an adult, but the real substance of the novel is in the texture of the words themselves. Heise has a gift for creating an airy, floating sense in the reader that defers meanings and expectations while at the same time making each line as clear and palpable and memorable as possible. Heise’s imagery is extremely precise, and his language is sharp and tactile, offering much for the reader to absorb and creating an interior logic that feels as satisfying as any concrete narrative.

While there’s not much in terms of plot for the reader to tease out or piece together, the book’s design itself yields rich pleasures to unfold and decode. The various sections all utilize different sorts of imagery and narrative strategies and densities of language, and at first these differences simply seem to follow the arbitrary, wandering path of each section’s flutterings, but as section follows section, symmetries begin to come clear. Many of the sections are headed with a place-name and date that would ordinarily signal where and when the action takes place but that here seems to have almost no bearing at all on the story. Instead the headings draw lines of connectedness to other similarly structured sections, creating an elegant game of pattern and repetition, as with a lepidopterist tracing arrangements of mimicry on moths’ wings.

For all the pleasures that Moth affords through its innovation, its major missing element is the characterization and human interaction that a more traditional narrative might provide. At a certain point, the reader wishes for a conversation, or for a kiss. But at just 160 pages, Moth fills its contents with enough riches that it’s over long before it gets old. This is a book that will haunt and intrigue and will almost certainly inspire an immediate second reading.

—David Wiley

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Vladimir Nabokov’s The Tragedy of Mister Morn

A Review of Vladimir Nabokov’s

The Tragedy of Mister Morn

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Summer 2013

Vladimir Nabokov
Translated by Thomas Karshan and Anastasia Tolstoy
Knopf ($26)

In a 1941 lecture entitled “The Tragedy of Tragedy,” Vladimir Nabokov posed the idea to students at Stanford University that the theater as we know it is severely hampered by nearly ineradicable conventions that prevent any innovation that could lead to artistic transcendence: “The highest achievements in poetry, prose, painting, showmanship are characterized by the irrational and illogical, by that spirit of free will that snaps its rainbow fingers in the face of smug causality. But where is the corresponding development in drama?” He points to a few magical plays, notably Hamlet and King Lear, which he calls “dream-tragedies” and which he declares are the rare exceptions that can be named alongside “the numberless glories of novels and short stories and verse produced during these last three or four centuries.” Nabokov always opted for complete artistic freedom, which he found and exploited to amazing effect in the modern novel, while his forays into the theater achieved and encompassed significantly less. He also famously disliked novels with a lot of dialogue, favoring in his own works to have the narrative tunnel its way through outrageous labyrinths that no character could ever actually say, and with drama being virtually all dialogue, it’s no wonder that he found the theater encumbered by its own form.

Nabokov had two periods of involvement with the Russian émigré theater, the first in the mid-1920s, when he was still largely a poet and had not yet begun writing novels, and the second in the late 1930s, soon before he abandoned Russian and began writing in English. These were times of transition for Nabokov, and in each of the plays from these periods the reader can sense a yearning for connection—to Russia, to his fellow émigrés, to the audience, to the dramatic form itself—that’s much less present in his other work. Only in his screenplay for the film version of Lolita does he seem the supremely confident artist enjoying his complete faculties, even though the script is much more of a literary creation than it is a feasible dramatic work (which may be why director Stanley Kubrick completely ignored it, simply using Nabokov’s name as the screenwriter to add prestige to the film). Nabokov the playwright is always surprisingly self-conscious and gimmicky, and this tentativeness may be why he only allowed one of his plays to be translated into English during his lifetime: the 1938 political farce The Waltz Invention, which was translated in 1966 by Nabokov’s son, Dmitri. Seven years after Nabokov’s death Dmitri translated a collection of four plays entitled The Man from the USSR and Other Plays, leaving only a few early plays untranslated, most notably the five-act verse drama The Tragedy of Mister Morn, which only exists in incomplete form in two slightly different copies. Leaving almost no Nabokov unpublished, however, Knopf has finally edited and released this missing work in English, lacunae and all.

Written in the winter of 1923/4, when Nabokov was only twenty-four, The Tragedy of Mister Morn finds Nabokov at his most mimetic. Channeling Shakespeare almost shamelessly, The Tragedy of Mister Morn is a semi-fantastical political drama in which the personal machinations of a few warped individuals play out on the stage of an unnamed and idealized kingdom. Morn is a mysterious and benevolent monarch who rules behind a mask and mixes with his subjects as an ordinary man, and Tremens is a brutal revolutionary who yearns much more for destruction than for positive change, and when Morn falls into a not very believable dispute with Ganus, another would-be revolutionary, over his wife, Midia, the stage is set for Tremens to strike. Written in a much stricter iambic pentameter than Shakespeare ever employed (and translated into loose and readable five-stress lines by Anastasia Tolstoy and Thomas Karshan), the play’s five acts work around the clock to emulate their Shakespearean model. Each interaction is a chance for Nabokov’s characters to mouth soul-stirring conceits, and even the most walk-on characters have something profound to say about the human condition. At the end of Act II, Scene I, a servant cleaning up after the other characters ends his eleven-line mumblings with these thoughts on aging:

O, how my bones ache, how they ache! Cook
shoved some ointment at me,—says, try it,
rub some on . . . Try arguing . . . That’s all I need . . .
Old age isn’t some ugly mug daubed on
a fence, you can’t just paint over it.

There are some lovely observations jammed into these characters’ speeches, but Nabokov often forces the profundity to the point of accidental comedy. His stagy masques also amuse with their overt playness, and while his Shakespearean referents (especially Othello) are very well woven into the drama, he’s just way too overawed by his British master, which is all to be expected in a young and inexperienced playwright trying to find his voice.

Prefiguring the personal/political nightmares of his later novels Invitation to a Beheading, Bend Sinister, and Pale Fire, The Tragedy of Mister Morn finds Nabokov already transforming his lost Russia into a dreamscape overcome by madness. While Morn’s benevolence may be a bit too facile and uncomplicated for real tragedy, and with Tremens’s brutal nihilism strangely echoing the dismissive way that Dostoyevsky portrays Raskolnikov’s revolutionary ideas in Crime and Punishment (a comparison that Nabokov would doubtless reject outright), The Tragedy of Mister Morn doesn’t serve as a very sophisticated examination of power, but like the Lolita screenplay, it is a very good piece of writing. Like Iago, Tremens has no motive for his atrocities other than criminal mischief, and while this works less for Nabokov than it does for Shakespeare, the density and lyricism of Nabokov’s verse work far better here than it does in his lyric poetry. Nabokov needed a larger and more forward-moving vehicle for his poetic ideas at the time, and because he idolized Shakespeare so much, verse-drama was a natural progression for him. Thankfully he soon moved on to the novel, which in his fifty-year career he took to a nearly unmatched poetic level.

—David Wiley

Marcel Proust’s Collected Poems

A Review of Marcel Prousts

The Collected Poems

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Summer 2013

Marcel Proust
Penguin ($25)

In a century when the novel supplanted the epic poem as the major vehicle for literary artists reaching for the highest level of accomplishment, Marcel Proust stands alongside perhaps only James Joyce as the modern writer who comes the closest to achieving the scope of Homer, the fineness of Vergil, and the encompassing vision of Dante. Proust’s great work, In Search of Lost Time, is like nothing else in literature, with a structure that attains to the most extraordinary works of music, a visual and symbolic order comparable to the aesthetic of the gothic cathedral, and featuring a cast of characters as rich and memorable and multifaceted as that of Shakespeare, who’s probably the only writer who created a larger and more vivid world. It took Proust decades to discover both his voice and his genre, however, and in his early years he was considered by friends and enemies alike to be little more than a talented dilettante, a frivolous dandy casting words about in stories, essays, parodies, pastiches, and occasional poetry in what seems in retrospect like a halfhearted attempt to make his sparkling personal genius substitute for real literary effort. His great work makes his lesser work interesting by reflection, though, and as 2013 marks the centenary of the publication of Swann’s Way, the astonishing first volume of his magnum opus, Penguin Books has released The Collected Poems to ply the ever-consuming appetite of the Proustian reader with yet more marginalia.

Collecting 104 of Proust’s poems, including six poems not published in Francis and Gontier’s Cahiers Marcel Proust: Poèmes,  this volume is now the most complete collection of Proust’s poetry in any language. Edited by Harold Augenbraum, the founder of the Proust Society of America, The Collected Poems includes parallel French and English text rendered by nearly twenty different translators, including the exceptional Lydia Davis, and features almost one hundred pages of exhaustively Proustian end-notes provided by the fascinating and idiosyncratic Augenbraum. At the beginning of the notes, there’s a quote from Proust’s friend Robert Dreyfus that says, “Marcel Proust read footnotes,” and it’s in fact in this section of the book where the reader finds the most insight into Proust’s creative and personal world. Like most writers of fin-de-siècle France, Proust was engaged in a constantly evolving public discourse that raged in literary journals, in salons, and in loaded and coded correspondence—a discourse whose referents and meanings were commonly understood and therefore often left unspoken—and so Augenbraum’s notes supply a large percentage of both the information and the pleasure to this volume. For instance, take poem 49 (“Chanson”):

Bigger than the whale
            And the narwhal
Is the belly, the belly
            Of Bréval!
Despite a sentence too severe
            By a singing rival
For her talent my signature
            Rattles its rifle.
History! God what an eyeful.
Such love bequeathed to A.B.:
Daudet, Lautier, Pol Neveu, Leygue,
And the chaste author of Ferval.
The very love of Pierre Lalo
            O Meretrice
Makes your brow like a halo
            From Berenice.

Proust wrote this poem in August of 1906 and included it in a letter to his bosom friend Reynaldo Hahn, who was intended to be its sole audience and who was instructed to burn both the poem and the letter. Like a large portion of Proust’s poems, “Chanson” assumes a common understanding with the reader, using proper names (and sometimes just initials) rather than poetic language to convey meaning and imagery, and so it really only works if you’re friends with Proust. Augenbraum’s nearly three pages of notes to the poem tell some of the back story, which is full of intrigue and interest, with the dramatis personae of Proust’s life crowding into this volume with the interconnectedness of In Search of Lost Time, but on its own there’s little to catch hold of in the naked lines themselves.

The shorthand references Proust uses so often in his poetry serve as a stark contrast to the mature method of his novel. In Search of Lost Time is a work so wholly imagined and conveyed that even its most arcane aspects come to light somewhere within its endlessly generous pages. It’s a work that holds all of its own keys, and so when for instance the character Odette is described as looking like Zipporah in Botticelli’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, the reader can visualize the painting from the book’s descriptions rather than the other way around. Proust the poet simply mentions a painting and lets the reader fill in the details, but Proust the novelist has learned that this is insufficient and that the work must be its own world.

This is not to say that Proust’s poetry is bad. It’s just that the poems mostly serve as a series of rejoinders among friends and colleagues, and taken as such they’re often amusing and enlightening, if not exactly moving or meaningful or startling as works themselves. As a poetaster who hadn’t seriously studied prosodic form or ensconced himself in the real work of forging a poetic identity, Proust the poet mostly sounds like an echo of his times, which means that he sounds a bit like Baudelaire in some of his imagery and subject matter, but with none of the originality and none of the sense that he’s pushing forward any kind of artistic project, which is hardly the Proust we know from his novel, which is an entire literary movement in itself. For readers of In Search of Lost Time, these poems (and their notes) will delight when they engage the people that Proust would later take up in fictional form, such as his beloved maid Céleste Albaret, to whom a late scrawled poem of appreciation is addressed. Not exactly gems, these poems are more like relics that the Proustian faithful will read volumes into, and if you’re not someone who’s already immersed in Proust’s world, The Collected Poems is not for you and is certainly not the place to get started. If you’ve never read Proust, skip this book and go for the real thing.

—David Wiley