Recovering Your Story: Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Morrison

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9781400060948: Recovering Your Story: Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Morrison
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“Great art discovers for us who we are,” writes eminent literature professor and critic Arnold Weinstein in this magisterial new book about how we can better uncover and understand our own stories by reading five major modern writers. Professor Weinstein, author of the highly acclaimed A Scream Goes Through the House, has spent a lifetime guiding students through the work of great writers, and in a volume that crowns his career, Weinstein invites us to discover ourselves–our perceptions, our dreams, our own elusive, deepest stories–in the masterpieces of modernist fiction.
Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner: the very names sound intimidating. Yet as Weinstein argues with wit and passion, the works of these authors, and of their contemporary heir Toni Morrison, are in fact shimmering mirrors of our own inner world and most intimate thoughts. Novels such as Remembrance of Things Past, Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, and Beloved allow us to explore the inner worlds of human feeling and bring us face-to-face with our own deepest selves and desires. Weinstein decodes these great novels, and he shows how to read them to understand human beings–the way our minds and hearts actually work. This is what Weinstein means by “recovering your story.”
Weinstein illuminates the complex pleasures woven into these peerless narratives. Beneath the slow, sensual cadences of Proust he finds an edgy erotic tension as well as a remarkably crisp depiction of the timeless world inside the self. Joyce’s Ulysses, in Weinstein’s brilliantly original reading, is a protean linguistic experiment that forces us to view both our bodies and our minds in a radically new–and hilariously funny–light. His analysis of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse circles back again and again on Woolf’s depiction of the importance of relationships in knowing the self. Faulkner, argues Weinstein, is at once our greatest tragedian and our darkest comedian, a novelist who captures both the agony and absurdity of consciousness in a time of social and moral disintegration. Finally, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Weinstein explores the legacy of modernism in a contemporary novel, as Morrison brings the body into the literary picture, confronting how the body affects not only our fundamental concept of self, but also consciousness itself.
In this magnificent work of literary appreciation and exploration, Weinstein makes the astonishing discovery of the self as a part of the joy of reading great modernist fiction, even as he makes these powerful works understandable, accessible, indeed imperative for all adventurous readers.

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About the Author:

Arnold Weinstein is the Edna and Richard Salomon Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at Brown University and the author of Vision and Response in Modern Fiction; Fictions of the Self: 1550-1800; The Fiction of Relationship; Nobody’s Home: Speech, Self, and Place in American Fiction from Hawthorne to DeLillo; and A Scream Goes Through the House: What Literature Teaches Us About Life. His audio and video lectures on world literature are produced by The Teaching Company. Professor Weinstein divides his time between Brown University, Block Island, Stockholm, and Brittany.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

marcel

proust

remembrance of things past

the world is the self

Marcel Proust's great classic, Remembrance of Things Past, is one of the longest novels ever published, comprising more than three thousand pages in the large-format, three-volume Random House edition. It weighs several pounds. You are not likely to carry it to the beach. When you open it up and start reading, you encounter a dense prose style, with lengthy sentences, ambitious metaphors, and little discernible plot. It appears to describe, in great detail, a bygone world: French society of the early twentieth century. For these reasons, you might well imagine that this book-whatever fame may be ascribed to it-is likely to be an arduous read, a massive project devoted to distant things, an impersonal act of labor.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Proust's epic novel actually resembles those exploration narratives of the Renaissance in which entire new worlds came into view, the accounts of Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Cortés, and others. But the New World coming into view here is you. And the energies that fuel this long book, page after page, are truly colonizing energies: They are out to lay bare the landscape of self, the new cartography of the human interior. Whereas the conquest of the New World was filled with blood and tears and racial conflict, Marcel Proust's grand exploration-larded though it is with scenes of incomprehension or jealousy-offers its readers a profound pleasure: the enlargement of oneself, the discovery of one's actual but never suspected contours and depths. And with this discovery comes a still greater second pleasure: a recovery, a possession of that which must be counted our very greatest good: our own life. Not some afterlife, but our life itself. There is nothing moralistic or judgmental about Proust's tidings, inasmuch as he does not indict the flesh or material things as such, in the name of some higher spiritual realm. On the contrary, the ringing, even frightening challenge of Proust's work is more insidious, for it says: We do not know ourselves, we do not possess our own estate, we do not grasp our own story. Against this absolute loss, all of our so-called possessions-wealth, career, even relationships-come across as weightless, as mirage-like. Remembrance of Things Past is dedicated to the pursuit of ultimate richness and treasure: our own life.

Therefore this long and heavy book is worth its weight in gold. It has an epic scope to it, yes, but, then, so too does your own existence. If you are able to read my prose, then you have been living for many many years already. Can you recall these years? Are they "yours"? And if you do have their outline still clear-dates, events, perhaps snapshots and scattered memories-can you access the pulsing feelings that went into them, that constituted their very life, your very life? If not-and for most of us, I think the answer is negative: We cannot retrieve this living past-where has it all gone? Is life just an hourglass in which all our doings and strivings simply-fatally-disappear into the bottom, sink into oblivion, never to return? If so, then you could say that the condition of living is that of being buried alive: of having the pith and marrow of life stolen from us by time itself, exiling us into a thin and unechoing present from which there is no reprieve.

One of Adrienne Rich's poems is entitled "Diving into the Wreck"; it is a Proustian title inasmuch as everyone's past is a wreck that needs diving into, is a cemetery of past lives that need resurrecting. Proust's utterly secular book is about that resurrection, that act of ultimate retrieval whereby we achieve our longitudinal form, our actual contours, our true measure. Here is a drama as passionate and significant as the great fables of the Bible and Shakespeare. How does Proust do this? In the pages ahead, I want to explore this great novel by bringing us further and further into it. As we penetrate into this fictional world, we shall see that we are also going further and further into the looking glass, and that the reaches and riches coming to light and life are our own.

proust upfront

Since I am attempting to map nothing less than a fictional universe, and since explorers need guidebooks, a preview of what is coming may prove of use. The first note struck is Proustian plenitude: a view of self that is not only huge but often despotic. The remarkable volume of things in this novel is at once amazing and counterintuitive, since whole worlds can emerge from tiny precincts, as is the case with the famous episode of the madeleine, which leads to the resurrection of the narrator's past, coming out of a teacup. What is despotic is the sheer egocentrism of the book, its principled willingness to explore to the outer limits what the world looks like when we can never get clear of ourselves, when we are always locked into our own perceptual system. It is not hard to imagine the ethical implications of such a philosophy.

Yet this massive project of portraiture turns out to be brazenly subversive, especially when it comes to negotiating Proustian prose; it all looks familiar and readable and clear-no narrative high jinks here-but in fact it is devious and riddled with surprises, requiring that readers be wary, but also rewarding them richly for their efforts. I term such writing "false-bottomed" in order to point out how dependent we are on "bottoms," on knowing what the truth is. Our focus on issues of perception and transformation-issues beautifully materialized in Proustian prose with its stunning metaphors and figurative logic-will lead into the more heated and explosive area of sexuality: its peculiar praxis in Proust, as well as its remarkable narrative presentation. Given that all surfaces in Proust end up being coats of many colors, it is not surprising that sexual behavior follows suit. What is surprising is the way in which these matters open up the fictional world, making it into something rich and strange; and the unsettling payoff of such a view derives from the challenge it metes out to our fixed assumptions, our complacent sense that we understand what is in front of our eyes. In Proust's work we begin to grasp the insidious effects of habit, the ways in which our take on life is pre-scripted and blinding; and we also learn about the kinds of surprises and horrors that can jump out of the box when habit is routed, when familiar things leap out of their skins, when perception gets clear of preconception.

Proust is never merely descriptive, and hence we need to measure the emotional and ethical ramifications of his worldview. Lying will be seen as a central activity, both in public and in private, leading to incessant deceptions, both large and small. But the familiar gambit of social climbing and societal charade pales in color and in vehemence when we ponder the human consequences of lying in the intimate sphere of erotic ties, and Proust emerges as one of the supreme theorists of jealousy: its pain, but also its odd grandeur, its outright novelistic character. The very possibility of love-at least of sustainable and reciprocal love-is on the docket in this long novel, as the narrator's ongoing relationship with Albertine richly illustrates. One often feels that Proustian psychology and Proustian diagnosis are withering and unflinching in their ceaseless exposure of illusion and naive belief, leaving us with a straitened and narrower picture of our affairs.

Yet we shall see that the polar opposite is true: Proust explodes the small notions we have about life-about our own lives-by illuminating our fuller reach and dimensionality, by recovering the longitudinal scale of human existence. To see ourselves and others in time is a mighty challenge, for it means transcending the snapshot images that daily life offers us, and it means factoring not only memory but also death into our equation. Nonetheless, this plenary vision is exhilarating rather than morbid, for it restores richness to our affairs, to our own story. Proust shows us what a long shadow we cast, and in doing so, he exposes the "cheat" of ordinary perception, suggesting that our conventional way of going about life constitutes a set of blinders, robs us of our treasure, misconceives the real shape of our fellows, substitutes false coins for true ones. It will surprise no one that Art is called upon to make good on this revolutionary project, but the art in question has little to do with some pantheon of great creators; on the contrary, every human being is embarked on the sole work of art that matters: possessing one's own life. Proust saw his work as a mirror for the reader, an opportunity to discover one's indigenous lines of force, one's untold psychic and emotional history, one's evolving form. Let us begin.

the madeleine

The most radical, magic moment in modern fiction occurs when a tired, middle-aged man dips a pastry, what the French call a "madeleine," into his cup of tea, and thereby recovers his past. This justly celebrated passage, recognized by many readers throughout the world (whether or not they have ever read Proust), epitomizes the French novelist's astonishing breakthrough, his revolutionary new conception of what a novel is, and why we might read it. Everything that the realist nineteenth-century novel stands for, is upended here, stood on its head. New vistas, on the order of new planets, are coming into view.

Consider, for a moment, what the great novels of the nineteenth century offer us: a form of historical portraiture. Balzac chronicles the "new" capitalist order in his Le Père Goriot of 1835, in which the traditional allegiances of family and ...

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