Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Thomas Bernhard: Wittgenstein's Nephew

Wittgenstein's Nephew is an autobiographical short novel by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. I had first heard of him in one of the articles about the late German writer and one of my literary idols W G Sebald. Sebald considered him as an influence on his own writing although now after having read Wittgenstein's Nephew I can't imagine what could that influence be. They both share a deeply pessimistic worldview alright (like all Germanic writers I guess) but the sameness ends there (as far as I can extrapolate from reading this single book.) Sebald's melancholy resignation and a deep empathetic understanding of the human condition and the mysterious workings of the universe (Yes!) is replaced by a bitter and bilious fury in Bernhard. Their prose styles also couldn't be more different. Sebald's prose is classical and controlled while Bernhard believes in the sledgehammer approach, he drives home his point of view by repetition and rhetoric and the sheer fury of his anger and bitterness doesn't leave any room for any Sebaldian meditation or reflection. Bernhard also has little tolerance for cliches (not that Sebald is fond of them but he manages to avoid them completely) and one of the pleasures of reading Wittgenstein's Nephew is the way he makes fun of cliches by using them deliberately. Often many words and phrases are shown in italics or prefixed by qualifiers like "so-called" ("it was there that our friendship deepened".)

The novel is about the author-narrator's real life friendship with Paul Wittgenstein, the nephew of the famous philosopher of logic and language. Paul struggled with periodic bouts of madness and the author struggled with his lung disease throughout his life. In real life also Bernhard spent a couple of years in a sanatorium. Most of the book is about what Bernhard thinks of disease, both physical and mental. At one place in the book he divides the humanity into two mutually hostile and irreconcilable groups -- that of the healthy and the other of the sick. "The healthy never had the patience with the sick, nor, of course the sick ever had the patience with the healthy. This fact must not be forgotten."

He also gives some background about the life of Paul who, at least the author claims, was a distinguished thinker in his own right. Also, I didn't know that the Wittgenstein family was one of the richest in Vienna. And Paul like his illustrious uncle donated most of his fortune to others and himself led a life of penury and supported himself with the generosity of his relatives. Also the wiki article says, "His [Ludwig's] family also had a history of intense self-criticism, to the point of depression and suicidal tendencies. Three of his four brothers committed suicide." And actually it is this self-criticism that is I think the central subject of the book alongwith the madness that results from it.

What is most strange about the book is that often sympathetic accounts of his friend's illness are punctuated by author's own rants against, well, basically everything. This is the author railing against nature:

I know nothing about nature. I hate nature, because it is killing me. I live in the country only because the doctors have told me that I must live in the country if I want to survive--for no other reason. In fact I love everything except nature, which I find sinister; I have become familiar with the malignity and implacability of nature through the way it has dealt with my body and soul, and being unable to contemplate the beauties of nature without at the same time contemplating its malignity and implacability, I fear it and avoid it whenever I can.

He doesn't think of doctors, specially those in the psychiatry profession very highly too:
Like all other doctors, those who treated Paul continually entrenched themselves behind Latin terms, which in due course they built up into an insuperable and impenetrable fortification between themselves and the patient, as their predecessors had done for centuries, solely in order to conceal incompetence and cloak their charlatanry. From the very start of their treatment, which is known to employ the most inhuman, murderous, and deadly methods, Latin is set up as an invisible but uniquely impenetrable wall between themselves and their victims. Of all medical practitioners, psychiatrists are the most incompetent, having a closer affinity to the sex killers than to their science.

He then says that all his life he has "dreaded nothing so much as falling into their hands" and that they are "a law unto themselves." He reserves even more bitter and angry words for the Austrian government and the official literary establishment.
Accepting a prize is in itself an act of perversity, my friend told me at the time, but accepting a state prize is the greatest.
In real life also Bernhard is famous as a "nest-fouler" in his native country and had forbade the staging of all his plays in Austria in his will. He despises the Austrian theatre management, the Austrian actors, directors who mangle his plays. Surprisingly he praises the Swiss-German actor Bruno Ganz (Wings of Desire, Downfall) very highly. He says this after the theatre management refused to hire Ganz for the production of one of his plays:
Their opposition was prompted not only by existential dread, as it were, but by existential envy, for Bruno Ganz, a towering theatrical genius and the greatest actor Switzerland has ever produced, inspired the ensemble with what I would describe as the fear of artistic death. It still strikes me as a sad and sickening piece of perversity, and an episode in Viennese theater history too disgraceful to be lived down, that the actors of the Burgtheater should have attempted to prevent the appearance of Bruno Ganz, going so far as to draw up a written resolution and threaten the management, and that the attempt should have actually succeeded. For as long as the Viennese theater has existed, decisions have been made not by the theater director but by the actors. The theater director has no say, least of all at the Burgtheater, where all the decisions are made by the matinee idols, who can be unhesitatingly described as feebleminded -- on the one hand because they have no understanding of the theatrical art and on the other hand because they quite brazenly prostitute the theater, both to its own detriment and to that of the public -- though it has to be added that for decades, if not for centuries, the public has been prepared to put up with these Burgtheater prostitutes and allowed them to dish up the worst theater in the world.

He hates coffee-houses and the literary people who go there. Not surprisingly he likes reading Schopenhauer, perhaps the gloomiest philosopher who ever lived. In the end he movingly, though still maintaining his highly anti-sentimental tone, describes the last days of his friend and then cruelly narrates how he shunned his friend like everyone else during his last days because he was "afraid of a direct confrontation with death." He then says:

I had traced his dying over over a period of more than twelve years. And I had used Paul's dying for my own advantage, exploiting it for all I was worth. It seems to me that I was basically nothing but the twelve-year witness of his dying, who drew from his friend's dying much of the strength he needed for his own survival. It is not farfetched to say that this friend had to die in order to make my life more bearable and even, for long periods, possible.

Bernhard's bitter pessismism is curiously very entertaining and very addictive. Personally also I feel that if you can't drive away melancholy, at least be bitter and pissed off with everything. It is much better than Sebaldian passive resignation which is much more destructive and useless. Unfortunately these days I am in the Sebaldian mode, and even reading it didn't change my mental state. Anyway read it and decide for yourself.

And finally thanks to cheshire cat for recommending me the book! This looks like a nice site about his life and works.

Link for today...

Anurag is back from vacation and writes about his experiences and the discreet charms of life in a provincial small town. (I wonder if it is true only of UP and Bihar, that's the two of us!) "I don't like to insult my folks but they are much like the rest of the world," he says in his usual deadpan style. He also links to a nice Bhagat Singh letter, finds connections between Munnabhai and Afzal hanging, gets a great insight to Rang De Basanti from an eight year old cousin and lots of other things... Link here.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Ralph Fiennes Reading Auden and Impersonating Onegin!

Listen to Ralph Fiennes (link to mp3) reading W H Auden's words of wisdom to lovers in his poem "As I Walked Out One Evening." It isn't as good as I was expecting it to be, but check it out in any case. The whole poem here. (Link via)

Also I saw the British movie Onegin yesterday in which Fiennes plays the great romantic anti-hero of Pushkin's classic verse novel. It is not a masterpiece, it even flirts with cliches at many places, but Fiennes is absolutely mesmerising. His portrayal redeems the film, perhaps even makes it a work of art in its own right. I am now all excited about rereading Eugene Onegin now after I have his image in my mind. Liv Tyler in the role of Tatyana looks great, and very similar to the young beauties that abound in the Russian novels, but somehow her role doesn't really work, specially in the last act where she has to actually rise to the scene but fails to do so.

Here's the trailer of the movie. The movie is less hollywoodish and less philistine than the trailer makes it to be!

By the way, did you know about the super-talented Fiennes family? Ralph's sister Martha directed the film while his brother composed the music for it. The music is good though it doesn't leave any distinct impression of its own, which is little disappointing given that there is a famous opera by Tchaikovsky and many musical productions which have been inspired by the story. Another of his sister Sophie plays a small role in the movie too and who is a filmmaker of her own. She directed the recent Zizek documentary The Pervert's Guide to Cinema which I linked to a couple of posts back.

I am going to reread Eugene Onegin now. Will write in detail about the book and the movie later. Wiki entry of the book here. Contains links to complete text in English too.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Quiz Time and Thank You!!

Guess, who of the two is the author of the blog? (Who of the two is gloomier? )

By the way, the last post was 300th on the blog. So a quick note to thank you all for coming here. I hope your clicks were worth your time. I had never thought I would continue to blog for so long. It has been a great experience and thanks to Anurag again without whose proddings I would never have started blogging! And apologies to M. Proust for using his name as my internet URL. What an effrontery and a blasphemy! I assure you all Proust fans, it was a completely thoughtless decision.


Okay lots of gloom. Now time for some fun. Listen to Slavoj Zizek explaining why he thinks love is "evil" and "an extremely violent act." He also says things like, "it's not just nothing, there is something, things are out there and it means something went terribly wrong."

I missed watching this documentary when it came last year. Another Zizek documentary The Pervert's Guide to Cinema is getting released soon. In the documentary he travels to remade sets of movies like Blue Velvet, Psycho, Vertigo and others and explains and illustrates his philosophy of psychoanalysis and desire. Will check it out when it comes. Two long clips from the documentary here and here. If you haven't seen Blue Velvet or are faint of the heart, you may want to skip the first video. And here is Zizek in bed explaining what is philosophy and the mystery and ideology behind "chocolate laxatives." Speaking of David Lynch this scene from Mulholland Dr. never fails to cheer me up. Please don't click if you are underage! I have copied it on the browser because youtube requires login for age verification.

Friday, October 27, 2006


"And life for its part? Was it perhaps but an infectious disease of matter – just as that which we could call the ultimate origin of matter was perhaps merely a sickness, an irritable proliferation of the immaterial? Here was without doubt the very first step leading to evil, lust and death.... "
-- from The Magic Mountain

I am feeling unusually gloomy these days. A mild, disinterested sadness is my standard operating temperature but these days it is feeling like a major distraction. I don't know where does this contempt for money, power, career, even sex and in short, life itself, come from? Shouldn't have the genes responsible for this been eliminated generations ago according to the Darwinian logic? How could someone so "unfit" for life as me come into this world? Or may be it isn't the genes, it is the environment and the way I was brought up? Though that is obviously not what it is. I had the most normal childhood as it was possible to have. What is then the origin for this disgust for human company? I am wondering all this because I just made up some really wild excuses to decline an invitation to a harmless dinner party this evening just because I felt spending an hour with the chattering classes would push me on the verge of madness!

Anyway, two books that I am in the middle of these days aren't helping matters at all. Andrew Solomon's The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, a winner of National Book Award and a finalist for the Pulitzer prize, is an astonishing work of synthesis and scholarship. He blends together history, philosophy, medicine, science, literature, politics, economics, sociology, personal experiences, basically everything he could find on the subject of human sadness and melancholy and presents them in a lucid though oftentimes in a manner which becomes overwhelming. For example, in his chapter on suicide, he manages to bring in Marx, Durkheim, Schopenhauer and Dostoevsky, all in a single paragraph! One third of this book which is around 700 pages thick is devoted to just notes and bibliography! Fortunately there are no footnotes but only endnotes. Perhaps the most shockingly revealing part of the book is his chapter on Poverty because mental illness is generally thought to be the affliction of the leisure class. He shows why most of the social reform policies will remain ineffective and inadequte until we take the mental health of the homeless and the indigents into account. It is easy to pass judgments on poor people, people on the street, beggars, drug addicts, alcoholics, what is difficult is to understand what really goes on in their minds. What inhuman and devilish odds they are set-up against in their own minds! So far the book has made for an extremely grim reading. The last chapter is called "hope" which I haven't reached yet. May be there is hope after all this?

The other book, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia by French philosopher and feminist critic Julia Kristeva, is a little too dense and often impenetrable, at least for me, tome on melancholy. Kristeva approaches melancholy from the perspective of an abstruse philosophy of language and theoretical psychoanalysis. The gist of the book, as far as I could make out, is that Madness is a discourse and is just another name for "a failure of language" and "a loss of self." It is a state of extreme and radical subjectivity and is actually nothing but an epistemological isolation of one's consciousness. If you have a good background in the philosophy of language and theoretical ideas of Freud and Lacan, this book will prove to be irresistible.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Thomas Bernhard Review

The latest new york times book review also carries a review of Thomas Bernhard's first novel Frost which has just been translated into English for the first time.

Among 20th-century purveyors of gloom — think of Beckett, say, or Philip Larkin (“Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth”) — some of the most distinctively doom-ridden wrote in German, though not necessarily in Germany. The unnerving Austrian poet Georg Trakl, whom Wittgenstein so admired, dosed himself with narcotics to allay the horrors of the front in 1914. Kafka wove his nightmares in bureaucratic Prague. Canetti and Sebald, safe in England, remained haunted by the war-torn landscapes they had left behind. Of this saturnine company, Thomas Bernhard, who spent most of his life in Mozart’s city of Salzburg, may have had the darkest imagination of all.

I just finished reading my first Bernhard book Wittgenstein's Nephew and liked it a lot. I had read about how difficult and bleak his writing was but it was actually surprisingly easy to read. The tone of the book is very odd, it is bleak and cruel and yet in a strange way very sympathetic. Will write about it and copy a few quotes from the book later. Specially his tirade against the psychiatrists is worth quoting. It is quite funny.

Also the NYT review says that Frost is, "Possibly the bleakest of all Bernhard’s books, it is a sort of “Magic Mountain” without the magic, though it’s occasionally leavened by a quirky gallows humor." Strange, reading Wittgenstein's Nephew reminded me of Magic Mountain too. I had mentioned it in my post too!

NYT also has the first chapter from the book here.

The Last Laugh

The Last Laugh, the silent German film directed by F W Murnau in the early twenties
"Here our story should really end, for in actual life the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him, however, and provided quite an improbable epilogue."

Monday, October 23, 2006

More on Dawkins...

Have been busy replying to comments on my previous post on Dawkins...

In the meanwhile, The God Delusion remains on number two on Amazon bestsellers charts.

Also this week's New York Times Book Review has him on its cover. The review is mixed to negative. It seems Dawkins is really very angry about the state of the affairs.

I had written about the Dawkins documentary "The God Delusion" and "The Virus of Belief" earlier this year. The book I think grew out of that documentary.

This is another article which I liked a lot. More temperate than Dawkins but he is essentially saying the same thing.

If you are in the mood of something funnier and less solemn, here's something -- a crude caricature.

Sunday, October 22, 2006


How about spending the Diwali evening watching a 35mm print of L'Avventura, one of my favourite films ever, alone? And musing about the emptiness and desolation of the modern world? That's what I did yesterday!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Mourning and Melancholia

Isn't this painting fantastic? You can click it to enlarge. It was painted by Holbein the younger and it features his wife and two kids. I find it incredibly sad. I first found it on the cover of Julia Kristeva's Black Sun. It looks like an excellent book though my zero knowledge of Lacan and psychoanalysis in general means that I am not going to understand most of the stuff in it. The painting captures Freud's idea of the loss of "maternal object" resulting in mourning and melancholia very well.

Another famous Holbein painting is the image of the body of dead Christ. Incidentally I first came across it on the cover of the OUP edition of Dostoevsky's The Idiot. And Kristeva's book has chapters on Dostoevsky and Holbein too.

Richard Dawkins Lambasted...

Such is Dawkins’s unruffled scientific impartiality that in a book of almost four hundred pages, he can scarcely bring himself to concede that a single human benefit has flowed from religious faith, a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false. The countless millions who have devoted their lives selflessly to the service of others in the name of Christ or Buddha or Allah are wiped from human history – and this by a self-appointed crusader against bigotry. He is like a man who equates socialism with the Gulag. Like the puritan and sex, Dawkins sees God everywhere, even where he is self-evidently absent. He thinks, for example, that the ethno-political conflict in Northern Ireland would evaporate if religion did, which to someone like me, who lives there part of the time, betrays just how little he knows about it. He also thinks rather strangely that the terms Loyalist and Nationalist are ‘euphemisms’ for Protestant and Catholic, and clearly doesn’t know the difference between a Loyalist and a Unionist or a Nationalist and a Republican. He also holds, against a good deal of the available evidence, that Islamic terrorism is inspired by religion rather than politics.

Terry Eagleton reviewing Dawkins's The God Delusion in the LRB. His main point is that you should be an expert in the nitty gritties of theology before attacking religion. I am still trying to understand it. In the meanwhile you can visit the newly refurbished Dawkins website.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Beckett on Proust

It is difficult to imagine why Beckett would be interested in Proust. I can't think of two writers whose personalities are more different. (Of course I am talking only of their public personalities and people's perception here.) Beckett looks like a living embodiment of a hardened masculine stoicism, what with all those lines on his face and Proust, that ultra-sensitive, effete, Mommy's boy living in his famous cork-lined room! (In a way, Proust's novel is a great education in the virtues of stoicism too, that is after a lot of masochism :)) Also their writing style couldn't be more different. Proust, whose sentences go on and on and Beckett who completes even a short sentence reluctantly.

By the way, Beckett wrote this monograph on Proust when he was just 24. (A very precocious kid he was. He had already assisted Joyce in his composition of Finnegans Wake by then!) In his later life he dismissed this work as "youthful" and written in "fancy philosophical jargon." As for me I really couldn't make heads or tails of anything I read in the first three pages after which I left. I have to first find out what these philosophers really mean by the word "Being" before reading any more philosophy.

Here are some quotes from the first three pages of the book.

The Proustian equation is never simple. The unknown, choosing its weapons from a hoard of values is also the unknowable. [...]For the purposes of this synthesis it is convenient to adopt the inner chronology of the Proustian demonstration, and to examine in the first place the double headed monster of damnation and salvation - Time.


We are not merely more weary because of yesterday, we are other, no longer what we were before the calamity of yesterday. A calamitous day, but calamitous not necessarily in content. The good or evil disposition of the object has neither reality nor significance. The immediate joys and sorrows of the body and the intelligence are so many superfoetations.


But the poisonous ingenuity of Time in the science of affliction is not limited to its action on the subject, that action, as has been shown, resulting in an unceasing modification of his personality, whose permanent reality, if any, can only be apprehended as a retrospective hypothesis.


The creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day. Habit then is the generic term for the countless treaties concluded between the countless subjects that constitute the individual and their countless correlative objects. The periods of transition that separate consecutive adaptations represent the perilous zones in the life of the individual, dangerous, precarious, painful, mysterious and fertile, when for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being.

Stumbled on "superfoetation"? :)

A short summary of the book here. I couldn't get where Beckett says these about Proust's novel:
"Surely in the whole of literature, there is no study of that desert of loneliness and recrimination that men call love posed and developed with such diabolical unscrupulousness."

"Art is the apotheosis of solitude. There is no communication because there are no vehicles for communication."

Monday, October 16, 2006

You've Got Mail, from Werther!

If you have, like me, read and loved The Sorrows of Young Werther you will enjoy this. (Gosh! Can't believe I was railing against the evils of romanticism just a couple of posts back. Also pontificating on the virtues of stoic and ethical life as against an aesthetic life!! Scroll down on this post if interested...)

Anyway, you can register yourself on http://www.the-sorrows-of-young-werther.com/ and you will get emails filled with sorrow and philosophical musings from young Werther himself in your mail box daily! The original novel, for those who are not familiar, is written in an epistolary format, so this is actually meant to be read that way. Of course if you are impatient you can always read the whole novel here.

Here's one of Werther's musings as a sample:

That the life of man is but a dream, many a man has surmised heretofore; and I, too, am everywhere pursued by this feeling. When I consider the narrow limits within which our active and inquiring faculties are confined; when I see how all our energies are wasted in providing for mere necessities, which again have no further end than to prolong a wretched existence; and then that all our satisfaction concerning certain subjects of investigation ends in nothing better than a passive resignation, whilst we amuse ourselves painting our prison-walls with bright figures and brilliant landscapes, -- when I consider all this, Wilhelm, I am silent. I examine my own being, and find there a world, but a world rather of imagination and dim desires, than of distinctness and living power. Then everything swims before my senses, and I smile and dream while pursuing my way through the world.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Proust: The Comic Book!

When the comic book adaptation of Proust's novel was published in France a few years ago, the literary establishment was predictably scandalized and horrified. Will the popular culture industry not leave even Proust alone? Will even Proust be commodified and sold in the market? Is the war between art and commerce over, as we are led to believe, and as all evidences from the popular culture prove? They must have wondered. Well, I think they needn't have worried. Having "read" it (isn't it interesting, how we don't have a word for what we "do" with a comic book), I find it positively harmless, even amusing at a lot of places, and I am saying this as a dedicated Proustian and an enthusiastic member of the Proust cult, though still mostly a newbie. It is not one of those illustrated classics, meant to entice children and young people, who like Lewis Caroll's Alice, don't like reading books which don't have images. In any case I don't think young people or people who always feel "young at heart" will ever appreciate Proust's message. They will find the novel, and even this comic book, long winded and pointless whining of someone who just had a lot of free time. Same for the readers of Proust too ("you don't have anything else to do? any thing else?"). You have to be past a certain age or at least you should see the world as a (truly) middle-aged man would, to "get" what Proust is really trying to say.

Now coming back to the book, I think a visual interpretation of Proust's novel is an excellent idea because though the book is mainly concerned with "the invisible", the "internal" life, the life of the mind and the flickering of individual consciousness under the effect of the external, material world, the novel is also a grand social comedy, populated by grotesque and lively characters and filled to brim with events and scenes. In fact long sections of the novel are devoted to painstaking descriptions of parties, social gatherings, the way people dress, behave and talk. In other words it is just like any other "realistic" nineteenth century novel. In fact Proust mentions Balzac and his collection of novels under the "human comedy" as an inspiration to the structure of his novel.

Now the sketches in this comic book are just like in any other comic book -- in other words they are cartoonish. There are not many lines on the faces and yet the author/illustrator somehow captures the feelings and gives those figures some complexity. It is specially visible in the sketch of the narrator as the little kid when he agonizes over his mother's kiss before going to sleep. Two dots for an eye, a hint of a nose and another dot for mouth, that's all, and yet you can feel his anguish. Was it because I had read the novel first and also because it is one of my favourite passages? I don't know, I can't say. Perhaps some Proust virgin might answer it more honestly.

The prose inside the balloons and descriptions are close approximations of the original, though it goes without saying that the author covers a very small ground as compared to the original. The book is around eighty pages while the "combray" chapter in the novel runs to almost three hundred pages. Still I think reading it is very evocative. Take a look at the following excerpts from the comic book and the original. Again it is one of the my favourite passages so I don't know if it can work in isolation. (I don't really know if it is meant to be read on its own or not.) The narrator is describing how the sight of a church steeple or similar shape in any remote town reminds him of the church steeple of Combray where he spent his childhood.

...whenever, in a large, provincial city or in a quarter of Paris I do not know well,

a passerby shows me in the distance this hospital belfry, or that steeple as a reference point....

However little my memory can find some obscure resemblance to that dear and vanished shape....

...immobile, trying to remember, feeling submerged within me lands conquered anew from the forgotten, drying out and rising up...

...I seek my path again.

I turn on to a street...

...but...it is within my heart...

These lines are separated by different images in the comic book. It shows through some kind of cinematic dissolve the narrator being transported back to his childhood and from where the story continues.

This is the original paragraph in the Scott Moncrieff translation:
And so even to-day in any large provincial town, or in a quarter of Paris which I do not know well, if a passer-by who is ‘putting me on the right road’ shews me from afar, as a point to aim at, some belfry of a hospital, or a convent steeple lifting the peak of its ecclesiastical cap at the corner of the street which I am to take, my memory need only find in it some dim resemblance to that dear and vanished outline, and the passer-by, should he turn round to make sure that I have not gone astray, would see me, to his astonishment, oblivious of the walk that I had planned to take or the place where I was obliged to call, standing still on the spot, before that steeple, for hours on end, motionless, trying to remember, feeling deep within myself a tract of soil reclaimed from the waters of Lethe slowly drying until the buildings rise on it again; and then no doubt, and then more uneasily than when, just now, I asked him for a direction, I will seek my way again, I will turn a corner... but... the goal is in my heart...

Proust is generally famous for his philosophy of how time and duration are experienced by us and how past is never really past because it is always bleeding into the present, by unexpected means through the faculty of involuntary memory, but in this passage (I have only excerpted a very small portion), and at many places elsewhere in the novel, he shows how our experiences of space and material objects are also subjective, how we are constantly negotiating our own relationship with the material world around us through our perception and that relationship is completely personal and defined completely by solitary and unique individual experience. The more attached you are to the world around you, the unique the experience will be. Of course, the narrator is at the extreme of sensitivity and attachment. He finds himself painfully attached to even the church steeple. He is always defining the streets, locations, houses, trees etc relative to his beloved steeple which is his, and only his, point of reference for everything around him. His experience of space is purely his, he can't share it with anyone else. Reading the passage in the comic book obviously won't doesn't say about all this and more. But perhaps it does give some hint. The publisher's page also previews images (excerpted above) from other famous scenes from the chapter. One in the beginning where the narrator muses philosophically on sleep, forgetting and self-knowledge and the other, the famous madeleine scene.

Overall as I said in the beginning, the book is quite harmless and any gloomy prognostications about the demise of art based on its existence are completely misplaced. Having said that, I am not too excited about reading the other volumes.

p.s I had written earlier about the movie adaptation of the last volume Time Regained too here.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Isabelle Huppert

Anurag writes about my favourite movie actress Isabelle Huppert.

I recently saw this book at a bookstore. It's a collection of her photographs taken by some world-famous photographers. These are some of the most beautiful and haunting portraits I have seen. From the description on Amazon:

This most mysterious of actresses likes to be photographed but she is not an easy subject. She offers herself to the eye of the camera yet remains secretive, almost absent. The great photographers of our time—Richard Avedon, Edouard Boubat, Guy Bourdin, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliot Erwitt, Lartigues, Annie Leibovitz, Steven Meisel, Helmut Newton, Sylvia Plachy, Marc Riboud, and Scavullo—took up the challenge. Huppert’s energy and strength are often shrouded behind a kind of melancholy, and these photographers have captured beautifully that contradictory quality. Not only a collection of gorgeous images, this haunting book also unveils the bond between the public image and the secret soul of this unique woman.

The book also contains essays by the late Susan Sontag (the book contains photographs by her friend and partner Annie Leibowitz too), Nobel laureate Elifriede Jelinek and Serge Toubina, who is the director of Paris Cinematheque and former editor-in-chief of cahiers du cinema.

Here is a small photo gallery. Thank You, Anurag.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Thoughts on the Booker Prize and Some Reading Updates

So Kiran Desai has won the booker prize. Honestly from the reviews it was the only book that I had found interesting. It will anyway take a lot of time for me to get around to reading that book. I managed to get hold of last year's superhit, but scandalously not even shortlisted, Saturday by Ian McEwan, only a few months back. I loved it, but with reservations about the last act, where McEwan tries to turn the novel into some sort of medical thriller. I was even more ambivalent about Kazuo Ishiguro's Never let me go. If only he had done even a quarter of research as McEwan must have done for his novel! It felt like he had read a few news articles in the newspapers on cloning and decided to write a novel on the subject. Still overall I felt both novels were quite good.

These days I am trying to read more of literary essays, biographies and in general books which deal in some contextual analysis. The best I have read so far is Isaiah Berlin's brilliant collection of essays titled Russian Thinkers. It is an absolutely thrilling work of intellectual history, literary criticism and political philosophy. If you are even moderately interested in nineteenth century Russian Literature, which is almost same as saying that if you are interested in literature at all, you can't afford to miss the essays in this volume. These are scholarly essays, not off the cuff book reviews, indeed many of them were first published in journals like Slavic Review or Journal of Slavic Studies, and the average length of the essays would be somewhere around thirty to forty pages, but they are extremely readable, even for someone as deficient on history education as myself. The way Berlin makes even comparatively obscure figures like Herzen and Belinsky come alive on pages and makes a case for their relevance not just for a historical understanding but also for contemporary debates about role of intellectuals in society, the idea of historical progress, social change and literature's role in bringing about that social change, is absolutely marvellous. It is one of the best non-fiction books I have read in a long time.

I am currently in the middle of Mario Vargas Llosa's Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. I am surprised to find that it is not what I was expecting it to be. I was thinking that it would be similar to Dostoevsky's The Possessed, a denunciation of the revolutionary impulse by some obscure psychologising about the evils of human nature. Not that I am criticising The Possessed, but Llosa certainly is no Dostoevsky, who was a genius even though his politics was vile, reactionary and repugnant. Llosa's book is an extremely sympathetic analysis, though not without gloom and despair, of the revolutionary impulse and a great portrait of the Latin American left and the decaying contemporary Peru. I have a few reservations about it but will write about it after finishing the book in a separate post.

Next on the list are Thomas Bernhard's Wittgenstein's Nephew and (hold your breath here!) a comic book adaptation of Proust (of the Combray section of Swann's Way). Will post about them later. The Bernhard book, at least from the first twenty or so pages, looks like The Magic Mountain, only more readable and even funny at places and of course quite short. Not that I have read Magic Mountain (I have left the book at around fity pages three times) just that I had the feeling.

Update: I also wanted to point out to the terribly sad news of the murder of the Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Obituary from The Times and a report on the funeral from BBC. Another reminder of how more things change, they remain the same. It is depressing to read about the persecution of intellectuals in Czarist Russia in a book of history and then read this news story the next day and see how little things have changed.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

NYFF Update

Actually no updates. I was hoping against hope to get the tickets of Inland Empire but no such luck. I begged them and told them I will stand at the door or sit on the floor but no, they didn't budge. Actually there were people more desperate than me. A couple of them even had small placards saying, "I need tickets" or something like that. Anyway, I think this is what happens when you are not proactive. Isn't it one of the seven habits of highly effective people?

Anyway, after the disappointment at the Alice Tully Hall, I made a move to the adjacent Walter Reade theatre which is holding the annual "views from avant-garde" film festival. There was a screening of some short experimental and abstract films by Ernie Gehr, whose name I hadn't heard before. The filmmaker was in attendance too. There was a brief introduction and a question answer session followed the screening. Gehr said that he finds things like "space", "movement" and "geometrical shapes" more interesting than human figures and faces. I really wanted to admire him for this but I had a mild headache and was lost somewhere else. Anyway, here is something I found on the internet about the director. It seems the film center booklet copied the same content.

Also, next month there is a retrospective of Hungarian cinema (minus Bela Tarr) at the film center. The occasion is the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution which was crushed by the Soviet invasion. I was surprised today to see a giant billboard at the Times Square advertising this, sponsored by the Hungarian cultural center. One of them says, "Our revolution was not a movie." Here is the website they are advertising. And an article on Hungarian cinema from the guardian. I think the same retrospective is happening in London too.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Flaubert Turgenev Letters

Flaubert's correspondences have long been considered to be a part of the canon of French literature. Julian Barnes wrote an entire novel (Flaubert's Parrot), a minor masterpiece in itself, mostly by quoting and annotating his letters. And the excellent introduction to this volume of his exchanges with Turgenev informs me that Andre Gide kept the volume of his letters at his bedside "in place of the bible, for five years, gaining from its reading 'a reservoir of energy.'" The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa is a great fan too. In his book on Madame Bovary, The Perpetual Orgy, he says that the first thing he did with the money that he got from the publication of his first novel (at the age of twenty four!) was to buy the complete set of Flaubert's letters!

Actually Flaubert's letters to his mistress Louise Colet, which he wrote while writing Madame Bovary, are the most famous of all. They are considered essential for a good understanding of the novel. I had read Madame Bovary a few years ago. That was the time when I thought Wuthering Heights was the greatest novel ever written. I read it just like a story. Frankly I wasn't particularly impressed, and was even bored. The final death scene shook me but I only felt disgusted. Specially disgusted with the idea of sexual love. The final few lines where Flaubert cold heartedly informs that young Berthe now works in a mill and that Homais, easily one of the most contemptuous characters ever created, has been awarded the legion of honour made the book one of the bleakest I had ever read. I have since then read a lot about Flaubert (though mostly brief essays, no full fledged book) and how he is admired, specially by novelists. I have always wanted to reread Madame Bovary but haven't been able to do it so far. Flaubert is generally considered a quintessential novelist's novelist.

Anyway my local library doesn't have his letters to Louise Colet. And since I have been reading about Turgenev and the Russians for the last couple of months I decided to pick up this volume. I feel happy now to have read it. It gives you a great portrait of both writers, which is not possible to get by reading just biographical essays. Specially the account of their last decades, when they struggled with various ailments and illnesses, deaths of friends and family, their muses which seemed to have abandoned them, loneliness and coldness of old age(both remained unmarried), all these make for a deeply moving reading.

I won't give a complete account of the book. The New York Times has a very good review of the book here.

I really liked the introduction by the editor of the volume who also annotates the letters very well. She gives a brief biographical background and compares their style, influences, philosophical background and worldviews. It becomes clear that they were such close friends only because they could find so much common intellectual ground between the two of them. I specially liked this paragraph where she analyzes their pessimism:

It would be unrealistic to think of either Flaubert or Turgenev as a 'happy' man. Although happiness is a theme they explored a good deal in their works, they were for the most part obliged to conclude that this ideal was unobtainable, not only for themselves, but for mankind in general, and this in both private and public spheres of existence. As life progressed these sentiments were to become intensified and crystallise into a pessimism which they were to take with them to the grave, and which is amply echoed in the letters they exchanged in the last decade of their lives.

Early contact with romantic literature's melancholy heroes pursued by fate, yet unlike the Romantics unable to find pastoral consolations in nature; disappointment in love at an early age; progressive disillusionment with the political scene; such were the elements that contributed to the formation of this bleak outlook.

Actually, this thing about nature reminds me. This is from a letter Flaubert wrote from Switzerland, one of those rare occasions when he moved out of his home at Croisset, Rouen (he is also nicknamed the "hermit of Croisset"):

I came here as an act of obedience, because everyone said that the pure mountain air would decongest me and calm my nerves. Amen to that. But so far, I only feel completely bored, owing to the solitude and idleness; and then I am not a child of nature;'her wonders' move me less than those of the Arts. She crushes me without inspiring any 'great thoughts' in me. I feel like saying to her inside myself: 'It's all very fine. I came from you just a while ago, in a few moments I shall return thence; leave me alone, I need other amusements.'

The Alps, moreover, are out of proportion of man's being. They're too big to be of any use. This is the third time they have provoked an unpleasant reaction in me. I hope it's the last. And then my companions, my dear fellow, these foreigners in the hotel! All German or English, armed with walking-sticks or eye-glasses. Yesterday I very nearly embraced three calves I met in a meadow through fellow-feeling and the need to let myself go.

And this from Turgenev's reply:
You don't sound as if you're enjoying yourself very much on those sublime peaks, celebrated by Rousseau! One must admit that those who live constantly in the sight of those sublimities - I mean the Swiss - are the most boring and least gifted peopple I know. 'Where does this anomaly spring from?' a philosopher would ask. Or perhaps it isn't an anomaly at all?

Some more extracts from a few of Flaubert's letters:

You must find me rather ridiculous with my hatred of Prussia? It's that especially that makes me angry: it has inspired in me the sentiments of a twelfth century barbarian. But what to do about it? Do you think that in other ages men of letters, doctors, behaved like savages?

I spent the whole of last week in Paris. There is something more pitiful than the ruins, it's the mentality of the population. People are hovering between cretinism and raging madness. This is no exaggeration.

Ah! I would like to forget about France, my contemporaries and humanity! All of that makes me heave with disgust. I'm saddened to the very depth of my being; and now that I've seen Paris, I find it very hard to work.

The thought that I shall see you this winter quite at leisure delights me like the promise of an oasis. The comparison is the right one, if only you knew how isolated I am! Who is there to talk to now? Who is there in our wretched country who still 'cares about literature'? Perhaps one single man? Me! The wreckage of a lost world, an old fossil of romanticism! You will revive me, you'll do me good.

My business affairs have caused me a lot of anxiety. Are you like me? I prefer to let myself be robbed, rather than act in self-defence, it's not that I am not interested but it all bores and wearies me. When it's a question of money, disgust and rage seize hold of me and I go almost out of my mind. I mean this very seriously.

It's hard to talk in Paris. The noise from the street and the nearness of Other People deprive one of any peace. Come to my old homestead then. We shall be completely alone and we'll have a good chat.

The bourgeoisie is so stunned that it no longer even has the instinct of self-preservation; and what will follow will be worse! I feel the same sadness experienced by Roman patricians in the fourth century. I feel a wave of relentless Barbarism, rising up from below the ground. I hope to be dead before all is swept away. But in the meantime, it is no joke. Never have the affairs of the mind counted for less. Never have hatred of everything that is great, contempt for all that is beautiful, abhorrence for literature so manifest.

I have always tried to live in an ivory tower; but a sea of shit is beating up against its walls, it's enough to bring it down.

How are you? I am not so well. I feel ill, but can not locate it to any particular organ, and I'm sad enough to die.

And some from Turgenev's. His are more gentle, filled with resignation. Even when he complains about his persistent gout (which is always), he is always philosophical about it...

Old age, my dear friend, is a great dull cloud that envelops the future, the present and even the past, which it makes more melancholy, covering our memories with fine cracks, like old porcelain. (I'm afraid I am expressing myself badly, but never mind.) We must defend ourselves against this cloud! I think you don't do so enough.

No my friend; it's not that that's difficult to bear at our age; it's the general tedium vitae, the boredom and disgust with all human activity; it's nothing to do with politics, which after all is no more than a game; it's the sadness of one's fiftieth year. And that's why I admire Mme Sand: such serenity, such simplicity, such an interest in everything, such goodness!

I have just turned 60, my dear fellow...This is the start of the tail-end of life. A Spanish proverb says that the tail is the hardest part to flay. At the same time it's the part that gives least pleasure and satisfaction. Life becomes completely self-centred--a defensive struggle with death; and this exaggeration of the personality means that it ceases to be of interest, even to the person in question. But you are already not very cheerful--without me adding the lugubrious note; pretend I said nothing.

Link to the NYT review.

Veil Fetishism?

There is a very lively debate on comment is free. Jack Straw felt that veils impede communication and wrote a column about it. "I felt uneasy talking to someone I couldn't see", he said. Perfectly sensible I think. He wasn't proposing any legislation or anything like that.

Now people are up in arms against his racist and orientalist judgments and views. A veil (or a scarf?) wearing girl responds here. More responses here and here.

Lenin pours some sarcasm on Straw as well and points to some other links and also finds out that veil fetishism is on the rise! Ah well! I like veils too (not the burka, mind you, which is hideous). Of course, I am talking purely in aesthetic terms! No politics. No normative views.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Inland Empire

This is a nice profile and interview of David Lynch from the new york times. I feel annoyed of not getting the tickets for Inland Empire. All the screenings (which means two screenings in total) were sold out in the first few days itself. Ditto for Volver. Almodovar's movie is going to get a wide and mainstream release soon but can't say the same about Lynch's. The film doesn't have any distributor yet and there are no dates, no publicity campaign, no website, nothing at all. Which means that it will perhaps not be released anytime soon, if at all it gets released.

New York, supposedly the film capital of the world, at least after Paris, why can't its premier film festival have more screenings? Is it something to do with being "insanely selective" (I hope you saw the promotional ad for the nyff here), about the audience I mean?

By the way on the same topic, here's a great essay on Twin Peaks, at least that's what it looks like since I haven't read it yet. It goes really deep and wide about it (invoking Dante!).

Bound to Please: Michael Dirda

Did you know Susan Sontag considered Beckett the sexiest man she'd ever met (in case you have never seen Beckett's remarkable visage, click here)? Or that, when Natalya Goncharova finally accepted his offer of Marriage, Pushkin confided in a letter to a friend that she would be his 113th love? Amusing facts and trivia like this abound in Bound to Please, a collection of book reviews and columns by the Washington Post book critic, and a winner of Pulitzer prize no less, Michael Dirda. These book reviews are not literary criticism and he says it frankly in the introduction:

By only the loosest definition then can the contents of Bound to Please be regarded as criticism. Instead, think of these articles as old-fashioned appreciations, a fan's notes, good talk. My primary goal is to describe the work accurately, to quote frequently when sentences are clever or memorable, and to convey something of each book's particular magic, strength or excitement.

Which is exactly what a book review in a daily newspaper is meant to be, unlike say, in TLS or New York Review of Books which are not meant to be read casually. So this volume may not be of interest to serious students of literature but for amateur readers who are bored of their current reading lists and want to find out some unexplored areas, this book has plenty to offer. Also as the title indicates this is entirely a collection of positive and enthusiastic reviews. The reviews are all about facts and anecdotes, written in a lively tone and voice with infectious enthusiasm. The anecdotes and trivia are often very funny, like this review of Pushkin's biography (whole review here):
Almost universally acknowledged as the supreme Russian poet, the author of Eugene Onegin and "The Bronze Horseman" also displayed, with equal mastery, nearly every youthful failing. He drank like a frat boy, treated and spoke of women as whores, alternately rebelled against and toadied to the tsar, reduced his family to penury by addictive gambling, and typically allowed his usually dirty fingernails to grow long and claw-like. Once he arrived at a formal dinner "wearing muslin trousers, transparent, without any underwear." He could be utterly thoughtless of others' feelings but was himself "morbidly sensitive to . . . appearing comic" and quickly roused to anger, jealousy and spite. Though he could be courageous and witty, and though he valued honor above all, it's no exaggeration to say that Pushkin all too often conducted himself like a lout and a vulgarian.
Or this rather scandalous life of Rilke (you can read the entire review here, well worth a read):
A tricky question.Yet Life of a Poet makes clear that this hollow-eyed communer with angels, Greek torsos and death was not merely a selfish snob; he was also an anti-Semite, a coward, a psychic vampire, a crybaby. He was a son who refused to go to his dying father's bedside, a husband who exploited and abandoned his wife, a father who almost never saw his daughter and who even stole from a special fund for her education to pay for his first-class hotel rooms. He was a seducer of other men's wives, a pampered intellectual gigolo, and a virtual parody of the soulful artiste who deems himself superior to ordinary people because he is so tenderly sensitive, a delicate blossom easily punished by a passing breeze or sudden frost.
Not all poets get the short shrift though. After recounting the tragic events from the life of German poet Paul Celan, Dirda wonders (again the entire review here):
Surprisingly little of this personal matter is reflected in Celan's poetry, yet I would have welcomed more information about his day-to-day life. Did he ever laugh? What did his students think of him? Is it true that his only son, Eric, became a magician? Such details would have humanized a saintly figure who seems almost too anguished to be quite real.
Perhaps the best essay in the book is in the introduction itself titled, Reading beyond the bestseller list: A polemic and a plea, although I think the title should have been a lament and a plea. His style is not really suited to a polemic. He rightly says that the problem is not that people don't spend time reading but rather they spend too much time on worthless books, books propelled to bestseller-dom by media spin, books of the passing moment. And then he makes this plea:
Corny as it sounds, I believe that unless we try to familiarize ourselves with the best that human beings have thought and accomplished, we doom ourselves to be little more that mindless consumer-wraiths, docile sheep waiting to be shorn by corporation or government, sad and confused dwellers on the threshold of a palace we never enter.

Long ago, Thoreau said we should read the best books first, or we might simply never get the chance to read them. Life's days go by very quickly. Thoreau himself died at fourty-four. Carpe diem is thus good advice for readers as well as hedonists (not, by the way, mutually exclusive categories).
My favourite section was the section devoted to comparatively obscure Europeans (that's what I want to read more of). Introducing few books set in the last days of Austro-Hungarian empire he says (and this made me laugh):
To be a man of the world is, in my mind, to be a courtly, music-loving intellectual living in Vienna or Prague during the final days of Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is the last glimmering of a now vanished era where you could still find yourself on the field of honour with a raised pistol, or attending a masked ball where the mistress of the
emperor, her eyes wide, her breasts heaving, might squeeze your hand and whisper "tonight."
After reading this section my reading list now contains Joseph Roth (Austria), Sandor Marai (Hungary), Lempedusa (Italy), Thomas Bernhard (Austria) and Isaac Babel (Russia) ("here is a
book that will last, that you will reread all your life and then pass on to your grandchildren. Or ask to be buried with.") And yes, Paul Celan too. None of these writers I have read before. There is also a section on writers who write in a genre. Dirda calls them "serious entertainers." Except for Terry Pratchett, I hadn't heard of any other name (Algernon Blackwood, Vernon Lee...).

And yes this quote from the Proust review:
Reading the 3000 pages of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is always a surprisingly personal adventure. Even now, the memory of autumn more than thirty years ago, during which I first lost and found myself in Proust, can still overwhelm me with an unassuaged yearning. For what? For an impossible love, for happiness and success, for something out of life that has always passed, unseen. Back then, I discovered in this most seductive of great novels an image of my own interior self.[...]Did I not daydream, like the Narrator, of awakening some morning a real writer? Was I not burdened, even at twenty, with an inescapable feeling of disillusionment, never quite satisfied with the present, always nostalgic for a rosy past or eager for an even rosier future?
Actually I have omitted a sentence where he compares himself to Swann and his first crush to Odette. It sounded corny to me. I mean I like personal touch in a review, but only to an extent :)

Link to publisher's page.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Oblomov and A Journey in Bed

This is the funniest thing I have read in a long while. An absolute must-read. It's an "essay" on the nineteenth century Russian novel Oblomov, which is a satire about laziness. I recently read a longish excerpt from the novel in a Russian literature anthology and have been meaning to read it ever since. Now I have to absolutely go get it. Lately, I have been feeling more and more like Oblomov too, oppressed by a profound and spiritual kind of laziness. Will it help me understand what is going on?

This is the wiki entry of the book by the way. The wiki article has this horrifying (to me:)) quote by Lenin:

Russia has made three revolutions, and still the Oblomovs have remained ... and he must be washed, cleaned, pulled about, and flogged for a long time before any kind of sense will emerge.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Edmund White on Proust

Edmund White's book on Proust is an excellent introduction to Proust's life. It is more like a biographical essay than a full fledged biography, which is all the more preferable if you are pressed of time, as we all invariably are. White being a gay author himself gives prominence to Proust's sexual identity as the centerpiece of the narrative of his life and convinces us of his decision by giving numerous evidences and cogent arguments. He is also very comfortable and on very intimate terms with the social life in turn of century Paris. He gives detailed accounts and portraits of famous people in Proust's society who (at least some of them) later became characters in his books. It turns out that all the major characters in his novel -- Charles Swann, Odette, Baron de Charlus, Duchess de Guermantes, Madame Verdurin, Bergotte and others -- were all based on real life figures. He gets into some gossipy asides too. For example he informs us that Laure Hayman, on which he based the character of Odette, was courted by both his father and his uncle. He also makes a scandalous claim, rather convincingly so, that the disturbing scene involving the two lesbians in the the Combray chapter of Swann's Way might have some biographical basis in Proust's own fantasies and sexual practices. There are many other details which I will omit so as not to destroy the prim and prudish reputation of this blog!

What disappoints about the book is that White only touches the surface of Proust's literary and intellectual influences. He doesn't give anything knew which is not known to anyone who is even cursorily familiar with his life. He mentions his encounters with French philosopher Henri Bergson, with whom he had some disagreements, and his admiration for the English art critic and moralist John Ruskin. Proust admired Balzac and wrote an essay defending Flaubert's style. He disagreed vehemently with the literary critic Saint-Beuve about the precise role of autobiographical elements in works of art. In fact a long section in the second volume of the novel is devoted to countering his arguments. This is the section when the narrator finally gets to meet the writer Bergotte who he has idealized since his childhood and is sorely disappointed to see how different he is from what he had imagined him to be. Interestingly, White also positions Proust in the philosophical tradition of Idealism, although of a more instinctual and anti-intellectual kind. I wanted to read more on this topic but he doesn't go very far on it.

One of the most important part of the book is his analysis of the character Albertine. He explains that critics and readers have found Proust's portrait of Albertine ambiguous, contradictory and overall unsatisfactory because the female character was actually based on Proust's experience with his male lovers. In that sense it is not only a gender-inverted but also a composite character. Albertine also figures prominently whenever there is a discussion of Proust's views on gender and sexual identity. It is here that he most convincingly challenges the "essentialist" theories of gender and sexuality, much favoured by the practitioners of currently favourable branch of evolutionary psychology. White obviously knows a great deal about it and is very sympathetic to his ideas, it's a pity that the book is too short and he doesn't get into more theoretical and philosophical ideas of gender. I was really intrigued and wanted to know more about it. This also reminds me, I should pick up Foucault's book on history of sexuality.

There is also lots of stuff of general historical interest in the book. White devotes a few long and very interesting paragraphs on the Dreyfus Affair for example, which also figures prominently in his novel. Several of the famous characters in the novel are Jews (including Swann and the Bloch family) and Proust himself was half-jew, from his mother's side. White also gives a nice account of how homosexuals were viewed and treated in those times and speculates on reasons why Proust always went so far to deny his sexual inclinations and his decision to remain in the closet, even though everyone he knew were aware of his homosexuality. For example there are lots of trivia like the following in the book:

Proust himself dated the introduction of the term "homosexuality" into the French language from the time of this scandal, although as a medical term it had existed in German since 1869, when it had first been introduced by a Hungarian doctor; previously the usual term in France had been inverti("invert"), or to use Balzac's slangier word, tante (literally "auntie," the equivalent to "queen" in English)

Proust was also an enthusiastic stock investor, though he didn't make a lot of money in the market. Not surprising, since he made his investing decisions based less on cold, material facts than the "poetic" names of the companies. "The Taganyika Railway", for example, was one of the stocks he chose!

White doesn't go into the literary qualities and style of the novel in detail much, though he makes some interesting points. For example this passage, where he compares Proust with Dickens and Henry James:
Proust invented a way of showing a character such as Charlus in Dickensian bold relief at any given moment--Charlus as the enraged queen or, later, Charlus as the shattered King Lear. Yet, by building up a slow composite of images through time, Proust achieves the same complexity that James had aimed at, although far more memorably. It's like the old dispute among painters as to the primacy of line or of shading. Dickens could draw with a firm bounding line but used so little shading he gave no sense of perspective. James was all shading and depth, but (specially in his late novels) nothing vigorous distinguished the profile of one character from another. Proust succeeded in rendering characters with the same startling simplicity as Dickens but generated a lifelike subtlety and motion by giving successive "takes" over hundreds of pages.

Here is an excerpt from the concluding chapter which I really liked:

Proust may be more available to readers today than in the past because as his life recedes in time and the history of his period goes out of focus, he is read more as a fabulist than a chronicler, as a maker of myths rather than the valedictorian of the Belle Epoque. Under this new dispensation, Proust emerges as the supreme symphonist of the spirit. We no longer measure his accounts against a reality we know. Instead we read his fables of caste and lust, of family virtue and social vice, of the depredations of jealousy and the consolations of art not as reports but as fairy tales. He is our Scheherzade.

Of course Proust is also popular because he writes about glamour--rich people, nobles, artists. And he wrote about love. It doesn't seem to matter that he came to despise love, that he exploded it, reduced it to shabbiest, most mechanical, even hydraulic terms, by which I mean he not only demystified love, he also dehumanized it, turning it into something merely Pavlovian.

[...] Modern readers are responsive to Proust's tireless and brilliant analyses of love because we, too, no longer take love for granted. Readers today are always making the personal public, the intimate political, the instinctual philosophical.

Proust may have attacked love, but he did know a lot about it. Like us, he took nothing for granted. [and I really like this line] He was not on smug, cozy terms with his own experience. We read Proust because he knows so much about the links between childhood anguish and adult passion. We read Proust because, despite his intelligence, he holds reasoned evaluations in contempt and knows that only the gnarled knowledge that suffering brings us is of any real use.

[...]Proust may be telling us that love is a chimera, a projection of rich fantasies onto an indifferent, certainly mysterious surface, but nevertheless those fantasies are undeniably beautiful, intimations of paradise -- the artificial paradise of art.

Overall this is an excellent book. Indispensable for anyone interested in Proust, specially for the neophytes (like me). I have also been reading the new penguin translation of his novel. I read fifty or so pages of The Guermantes Way, in the middle of the book where I left of last time, feeling irrecoverably suicidal, and it's a revelation. It is remarkably easy to read! I am not intellectually capable to judge it in linguistic and artistic terms but on the scale of readability it really scores way above the Scott Moncrieff version. Although I don't think I am going to continue reading. I am already feeling seriously stuck in the deepest mires of indecision, doubts, isolation, boredom, melancholy etc and I would rather do with some self-help than spend time with Proust.