Monsieur Proust’s Library by Anka Muhlstein takes us on a literary pathway through Marcel Proust’s great work, À la Recherche de Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). This slim volume (141 pages) is a printed in blue ink on high quality paper, with attractive illustrations at the beginning of each chapter.
I can’t say that I have finished reading Proust’s seven volume work despite its having been on my shelves for ten years or so. I have made several attempts but have only read three of the books so far and I am beginning to wonder if I will ever complete the set.
It is not that La Recherche isn’t fascinating but that reading it slows you down so much that it takes weeks to read it properly; Proust keeps bringing you to a halt, sentence by sentence, so much is there to think about on each page. As Anka Muhlstein says, Proust “is the master of long sentences with a grammatical foundation so refined that they accommodate themselves miraculously to all the meanderings of his thoughts”. What a job for a translator!
Despite the difficulty I have in reading the book, I would not like to be without it – the books sit there on the shelf both as a rebuke and an invitation, the ultimate reading challenge. But would reading it be enough? Proust’s work is so loaded with literary and artistic references you’d almost need to read an annotated version to understand fully what was going on in it.
I can only admire people like Anka Muhlstein who have not only read the book but have made it their own by absorbing it so much into their system that they can write books as clever as this one, making an in-depth analysis of the text so they can guide others through “Remembrance” and help them to understand it.
When I first saw this book, C. S. Lewis: a Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet I wondered why anyone would want to write another biography of C S Lewis. After all, George Sayer, A N Wilson, Roger Lancelyn Green, Walter Hooper have all published biographies of Lewis. Most Lewis fans will also be familiar with William Nicholson’s excellent biographical screenplay Shadowlands which has been produced on both stage and screen.
However, the highly qualified Alister McGrath (Professor of Theology and Ministry Kings College London and Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University) explains in the preface to his book, the huge significance of the publication of the collected letters of C S Lewis during 2000-2006 which has added 3,500 pages of source material to our knowledge of Lewis and provides a “continuous narrative backbone for an account of Lewis’s life” which was not available to earlier biographers.
I am now very pleased that I have read McGrath’s book for three reasons. Firstly, it reminded me of how important Lewis has become as a writer and thinker. Secondly, it definitely draws out some elements of Lewis’s life which I hadn’t fully understood before. Thirdly, it is a very readable biography, not over-long, nor too scholarly and full of interest throughout.
Earlier biographers were reluctant to cover some of the darker sides to Lewis’s character. McGrath’s new biography does not flinch from some of the more controversial sides to Lewis, such as his relationship (probably an “affair”) with a Mrs Moore which started when Mrs Moore’s son Paddy, a close friend of Lewis was killed in the First World War. Lewis had managed to serve in the same regiment as his best friend but was soon hospitalised with trench fever and later wounded by shrapnel, returning to Britain, while Paddy was lost in action. An intimate relationship soon developed between Lewis and Paddy’s mother and there is now a consensus among scholars that Lewis and Paddy’s mother continued as lovers for many years.
This book ticks a number of boxes for me:
– It describes the literary world of Paris in the 19th century;
– It homes in on Honore de Balzac, a writer I have been reading for the last two or three years;
– It describes the history of French cooking and eating-out;
– It’s very interesting and held my attention right to the end.
Sometimes you come to a book like this that seems to be an amusement rather than a serious work and you discover a huge amount of knowledge behind it, so vast in scale in fact that you wonder how the author managed to find out so much about the subject.
Not only has Anka Muhlstein researched the history of restaurants and the food people ate in them during the 19th century, her knowledge of Balzac’s vast number of books is little short of encyclopaedic. Balzac’s books are generally long, and contain so many characters, you wonder how she managed to hold them all in her head and keep quoting from them as she wrote (to give it’s full title Balzac’s Omelette: A Delicious Tour of French Food and Culture With Honoré de Balzac (Other Press, New York).
Perhaps I should expect nothing less from Anka Muhlstein. After all, she has published eleven books of biographies and essays and has been awarded the Goncourt prize of Biography, twice receiving the French Academy’s History Prize. Nevertheless the book is highly readable being full of anecdotes about Balzac and other writers of the time, short extracts from his books, and magnificent descriptions of meals and vastly long sittings at restaurant tables.
Keith Oatley is a novelist and professor of cognitive psychology at the Univeristy of Toronto. He has some remakable things to say about the act of reading. His book, Such Stuff as Dreams suggests that when we read, our brains interpret social interactions in a work of fiction as the real thing – as far as our brains are concerned we experience real human contact and are as affected by the experience as though we were actually present with the characters in the novel.
Oatley has been quoted in the magazine Scientific American Mind (article Fiction Hones Social Skills) as saying, Reading “can hone your social brain, so that when you put your book down you may be better prepared for camaraderie, collaboration, even love.”
Most readers know how deeply they can be affected by the books they read. What they didn’t know before is that when they get involved with a fictional character, they tend to follow their actions as though they were participating in them and develop a deep empathy with their motives and feelings. Oatley suggests that reading is a form of mind-training – a course in how humans behave and react to each other. Readers tend to have better social skills because they are better aquainted with the way other people think and they are more familiar with the huge variety of human behaviour than non-readers.
Despite stealing the byline for this website from her (“he reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others”), I am not generally a great fan of Virginia Woolf’s writings. But living where I do in East Sussex, we are surrounded by Woolf places, including only a few miles from here the village of Rodmell where she ended her life by drowning herself in the River Ouse and where you can go and visit the National Trust property Monks House, the Woolf’s country retreat.
However, I am interested in the Bloomsbury set as a whole and any new biography is worth a look. This new one by Elizabeth Wright is an ideal introduction to Woolf’s life, while also providing some interesting discussion of her relationships with her fellow-Bloomsburys. It also acts as a useful literary history because it covers her personal circumstances as she wrote each of her books and articles – including references to her many breakdowns and times of “mania”. And at 112 pages, its not going to take very long to read.
Elif Batuman’s book of essays, The Possessed, loosely based on the joys of reading classic Russian literature, turns out to be a bit of a hodge-podge of travel-writing, literary criticism and a personal reading history, enlivened by a butterfly mind that flutters from one subject to another without really landing for too long on any particular theme.
This gives the book a distinct lack of unity – sure, some of it is clever, but at other times, this reader at least thought, yes, but this isn’t really why I came here. The book is subtitled “Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them”, and in a loose way, I suppose that’s fair enough, but I expected more unity of purpose, with more material written specifically for this book rather than a a collection of previously published lectures and articles (although occasionally enhanced for this volume).
I’ve no problem with bringing together collections of previously published material, but I do think the publishers should make this clear on the cover because in this case, I could find quite a bit of the book online and find out whether it was something I wanted to read. As it is, the book is very selective in its appraisal of Russian books and the people who read them and hardly serves the purpose of its subtitle at all.
I wanted more of what it says on the tin – a book about reading Russian literature, something more comprehensive, with a bit of planning behind it. I got instead large chunks about Batuman’s intellectual and academic development including tortuous stories of how she ended up learning the Uzbek language, or how she moved from one course to another while at college – or even tales about her various boyfriends (an uninspiring bunch to say the least!). Dare I say, that some of it seemed remarkably self-congratulatory – a sort of “look how clever I am”, but maybe that’s my English perceptions getting in the way – American reviewers seem not to have picked up on this at all.
This content of this article was revised and updated in November 2011 and all links were updated in December 2015. It is much longer than my usual articles and is more of a study guide than a review and definitely contains “spoilers”.
Sebald – an oblique vision
The books of W G Sebald have interested me for many years now and unlike most other books, I find myself coming back to them over and over again, quickly becoming absorbed in the images and impressions they create in my own mind.
Sebald’s way of travel, and his way of looking at the places he visits have influenced my own way of seeing, causing me to think in an oblique way about the cities and towns I go to, trying to read the intuitive messages communicated by the built environment I find myself in.
All Sebald’s books are what might be called “difficult”, but Austerlitz (now available in a new edition with a forward by James Wood) is perhaps the most enigmatic and the one which presents some hefty problems of interpretation. Just reading the book can be a challenge, not least because of paragraphs that run on for many pages and even sentences that seem never to end. Fortunately, the new 2011 edition is greatly improved by the addition of a lengthy introductory article by James Wood. I haven’t read it myself but assume that it is not unlike the article “Sent East” which he wrote for the London Review of Books in the 6 October 2011 edition.