Tag Archives: Memory

135 Journals Book Club: Notes on the journey of reading Proust (The First Six Percent)

25 Apr


Marcel Proust at age 15 (1887). I am so digging the bowtie. Definitely know what to give my boys for Christmas now. From Wikimedia.

Guess what I have on my Kindle Fire? That’s right, seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s strange and magnificent Remembrance of Things Past, or as it is now more accurately known, In Search of Lost Time (active, not passive, get it?).  I got it for free, and as it has long been one of my ambitions to find out what is so important about eating madeleines and to understand what the BFD is about M. Proust, I am actually starting to read it. This is going to take a while. I have read approximately a kajillion pages and my Kindle informs me that I have read six percent of the Seven Volume set, and only have 36 hours and 15 minutes to go. You would think that someone who had read six percent of something would not feel qualified to write a review. That is true. I am writing a qualified review. Because even at six percent, I feel as if I have learned a lot of things about writing, thinking, and the importance of detail.

 Fight now I will tell you what I’ve learned. The play-by-play, as it were. The narrator of the first book, Swann’s Way, is a high-strung, sensitive boy who dreams of being a writer, but doesn’t know what he wants to write. The first scene of the book is about his intense desire to have his mother give him a good-night kiss while she is busy entertaining their sophisticated and wealthy neighbor, M. Charles Swann. M. Swann has had an “unfortunate marriage” and the narrator’s family haven’t seen much of him recently, certainly not with his wife and daughter (especially because the wife is having an affair with someone else). But he is a lovely and generous man. The boy, remembered by the man he becomes, is semi-aware of the goings-on of the wealthier members of the town of Combray, the country village where the family has their second home, and where all of the action in the first six percent of the book takes place. A number of other characters are introduced—sickly Aunt Leonie, who enjoys lime-flower tisanes (and the narrator loves watching the lime expand in the water), the regal Guermantes family, an earthy and devoted maid, Francoise, and others. Throughout the pages, the narrator wonders about the nature of memory, the importance of small and specific moments. He includes lengthy descriptions of how


This is not a conventional book. His pages are not filled with dialog. But there is something compelling about this delicate boy who is constantly seized by violent awareness and sensation. He is almost skinless. The play of wind, the sight of flowers, afflict and attract him with an exquisiteness that is also painful. So do his own imaginings.


The power of beautiful things afflicts him. But it is those remembered things that have the most power. He says that nothing in the present can ever be as beautiful as those remembered things. That no flower will ever be as beautiful as the flowers he saw when he went on walks around the village of Combray with his father. And even then, at least on one occasion, he finds a kind of desperate relief from this sensitivity and observation by writing.


The memories of the past make me think. They make me want to write. It makes me want to remember exquisite moments.


The second part is about Charles Swann’s rather seedy romance with a floozy named Odette. Can’t say this stretch is giving me goosebumps the same way the first part did. But I have faith that things will come together.


And in the meantime, I will try to remember that even the most simple moments can seize you with a kind of violent beauty when they are remembered.


Writing Prompt: Oh please. You know what this is going to be. What is a haunting, excruciating moment you remember from your childhood?

The Thirty Years’ War and Our Composted Knowledge

16 Jan


A stupid battle where the Swedes unsuccessfully battled somebody for something in Brno during the 30 Stupid Years War. (Wikimedia Commons).


Since I have actual things to do, an irrelevant thought struck me: What was the name of that Swedish guy in the 30 Year’s War? And who was that guy on the other side—Wallington? No. Wallenberg. And what was that stupid war about anyway?


One of the luckiest accidents of my life is discovering that I like to write for young people. And so I have. Most of what I have written is non-fiction, though I am working on my second novel. But like most of the working writers I know, I have had the good fortune—and the necessity—to learn about all kinds of subjects very quickly. One day, it’s the history of Seattle. Another day it’s Ancient Egypt. Another day it’s Forces.


One of my most useful jobs was as a book editor, putting together books for young people and adults that were created from an encyclopedia. Different bits and pieces of the encyclopedia were melded together in a sensible way to create a usable book for someone who didn’t want to leaf through 26 or so heavy volumes. Every week or other week, I had some subject that would be vastly different from the last one. And usually I was juggling 5 to 7 books at once on various subjects. I might be working on an outline about Ancient Chinese art while editing a book about mathematics and finding photos for another book about mammals (with a few more thrown in). I had a wonderful boss at that job. She and I marveled at how passionate we would be about a subject when we were working on it, but that after the book was gone, all of this hard-won knowledge of the Jurassic Era or the biochemistry of mushrooms or whatever would just disappear. She said, “Actually, I think it gets composted.” This is a much more comforting idea and I agree. I think that the things we learned are still there, even if they are crushed down by other knowledge and other things that require much more immediate attention—like the spaghetti sauce that is about to burn if I don’t stir it. One way I know that the knowledge is still there is because I have a general sense of when things are wrong. For instance, with history in particular, about which I have done a LOT of writing, I feel as if I have a giant grid in my head. My sense is that I generally know what happened before something else major.


That is not to say that I can always remember the details of the 30 Year’s War (without checking, I think it was basically about whether everyone in a certain political unit should have the same religion as its ruler and that it was in the, um, 1680s? Or was it 1580s? It was definitely after Martin Luther’s time because one of the aspects was about the battle between Protestants and Catholics for supremacy. But it was before the 18th Century and its “Age of Reason.” There was a Swedish king who was a powerful force in this war for a long time but Sweden was never a world player after he got killed . .. and maybe it had something to do with the Siege of Vienna, which was the time when the Ottoman Empire started to decline, but wait, that was 1648 I think, and a lot of the war took place in Germany, and it had different phases, and Okay, now I’m going to check.)


Here’s what Wikipidia has to say. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirty_Years%27_War

“The Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) was a series of wars principally fought in Central Europe, involving most of the countries of Europe.. . . Initially, religion was a motivation for war as Protestant and Catholic states battled it out even though they all were inside the Holy Roman Empire. Changing the relative balance of power within the Empire was at issue. . . rulers of the 224 German states could choose the religion (Lutheranism or Catholicism) of their realms according to their consciences, and compel their subjects to follow that faith (the principle of cuius regio, eius religio). .  . the Swedes, led by King Gustavus Adolphus, had successfully invaded the Holy Roman Empire and turned the tables on the Catholics. . .”


Okay, so I got the dates wrong, but the idea kind of right. I did remember the idea of the “cuius regio, eius religio,” which means, more or less, “His realm, his religion” because I thought it was one of the most pathetic ideas about how to find a way to make room for both Protestants and Catholics in a new world that had both that I could imagine. It certainly made a mockery of individuals’ rights to worship according to their own consciences. But of course the reason I can sit here on my high horse feeling morally superior to the fools who came up with that not-worth-30-years-of-brutal-bloodshed nonsense is that people back then figured out (in the worst possible way) that it didn’t work. That’s one idea we can put aside forever and ever, I hope. It was at least a step in the direction of individual human rights. And we are all the beneficiaries of that. I can’t help wondering what wonders the world could have achieved if they could have turned all that destructive energy into something more positive, just let everybody go to whatever church—or synagogue—or whatever—they wanted, and lived in peace.


Writing Prompt: What is some piece of knowledge you’ve “composted?” Think of what you might have learned in a college course or at a job or even elementary school. Without peeking, just write down what you remember. Especially try to remember “the main idea” of what you learned. Then check an encyclopedia or other sources and see if what you remember is right.