On Henry James and Proust, Finally

I have mentioned a few times a fondness for this poem by Ezra Pound--

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman -
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root -
Let there be commerce between us.

--despite liking neither Ezra Pound nor Walt Whitman, for capturing the feeling of maturing taste. Pound once hated Whitman for being too close to what he himself wanted to do, and thus making him the thing to rebel against in order to assert his own identity. It's not a rejection of his old attitude towards Whitman, just a recognition that Pound's own situation is different now, and he recognizes he should act and feel differently.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I have, finally with some measure of success, started in on Henry James and Proust. I have no difficulty, when reading either, identifying those components that made me reject them when I was younger. James is perfectly happy to write eight long sentences around a situation without ever bothering to describe it directly; Proust finds his own thoughts fascinating and follows them without seeming care to edit. In both, nothing much happens at the page or approximate-chapter level.

And yet. Ever since tackling 2666 back in 2009, I have been reading longer, more complex novels, where the action subsides in favor of Proustian digressions and Jamesian sentences. With each thing I have read where one or the other author--or both--are mentioned as points of comparison, I have drawn closer. A half-read of Turn of the Screw two years ago affirmed the point--"I will like this, but now's not the time to read it," and we've finally opened up enough reading space to bring it about.

In books, in movies, in music, there's too early and too late. I would've hated Pavement at 18, but loved them at 28; I could've gotten into Jean Cocteau's movies much earlier, but had I waited any longer for Woody Allen, or even Ingmar Bergman, they would've passed me by. My attempt to read The Fellowship of the Ring in grad school fell flat--by then I could only see the flaws in the story, which are many.*

Too early is a special kind of pleasure, though: assuming the experience with James goes well, there are a dozen or two novels waiting out there for me; assuming Proust goes well, a few thousand pages of enjoyment. Nick Hornby wrote once about discovering Jackson Browne in his middle age--a guy with a long a pretty good recording career whom he had never listened to, and could approach new--new being that rarest of things for someone who professionally listened. Reading is an adventure, a lifelong adventure for those who take it seriously. If you read quickly and seriously, the question always remains what's next. And, at least for now, I know.

*Which is not to denigrate the love or respect that other people have for it as a fictional work. I merely assert that it has considerable flaws: starting out with 50 or so pages of historical backstory, for example, before introducing characters or a plot. If one reads it with charity--which is to say, with love--then these are not flaws but essential components of the whole. That sort of reading isn't possible for me--it's not the right sort of book, and I'm not the right sort of person. But if it makes you, dear reader, feel better, I can assure you I thought equally poorly of the grand excursus on history that ended War and Peace.

1 comment:

Katherine said...

I have found, as I have gotten older, that "new" enthusiasms are quite the tonic. I recently fell in love with TCM and all those B&W movies I so easily dismissed previously. It was a wonderful way to pass an otherwise grueling winter.

The world is a rich and varied place and, if you're bored, you're just not paying attention.