These days I’ve been avoiding Proust like the plague, in which sense I probably join an old and obvious tradition – I think I have come across more people groaning about the idea of reading Proust than actually talking about, you know, the fact of reading him.
And yes, I did tell you that I plan to read the entirety of In Remembrance of Things Past by the end of 2015, and I do still intend to do that (despite all evidence to the contrary, because frankly I’d better get a move on, and quick!), but – but, but, but.
It’s just, see, sometimes the collected non-fiction of Ursula Le Guin looks so mighty tempting, you know? Or I get carried away, and I end up checking out the collected stories of Grace Paley from the library and I decide to read that, instead of working on finishing Volume II of BigdamnProustbook, which is how I will be referring to Proust’s magnum opus from now on in this letter.
So, instead of finishing Volume II and moving on to Volume III (and thus keeping up with my Proust-reading schedule), I have read The Wave in the Mind by Ursula Le Guin! And I’m halfway through the collected Grace Paley, and also I read Weetzie Bat for the first time on a whim, and I’ve generally been dipping in and out of various assorted books and things just to avoid having to deal with yet another paragraph-long sentence about somebody pining for the love of somebody else while flowers bloom in the background or whatever.
Proustian sentences… They are very nice sentences… says I, in the tone of a mother looking at the abomination her child cooked up in the kitchen while her back was turned, “These Play Doh-filled pastries are very nice, sweetheart… and almost edible…“
But I’m not actually here to make fun of BigdamnProustbook, though making fun of it is a great coping mechanism for getting through the dry spells in Proust’s prose. Actually, the reason I’m writing is because I recently encountered the character of Bergotte, with his curled snail-shell of a nose – and on the subway home, I was recalling that part where the narrator’s idealized conception of Bergotte-the-beautiful-writer collides nastily with Bergotte-the-loudmouthed-and-greasy-fingered-human-being.
It made me remember, for instance, the shock of hearing an audio recording of Prokofiev talking about something or other, and thinking, my God, I know people like this, people with this particular Russian intonation and self-satisfied tone – I’ve had to sit through endless dinners with them at the table, for goodness sake – and it would never have occurred to me that one of them could be a Prokofiev.
Or, more charmingly, I remember my delight when seeing a taped interview with Ursula Le Guin. That realization, very sudden, that of course Ursula Le Guin and Julia Child would have a sort of similar intonation and speaking pattern, because after all they were born within seventeen years of each other and both grew up on the West Coast of America.
I think what I am thinking of is less a dissonance between an idealized expectation and a reality, and more a realization that what I see as a certain type of person, a type of person usually bound by a certain outlook and by a certain set of hobbies and ideals – is really just a superficial type, and not always so bound.
I have met, for instance, Greer Gilman. I have also met a girl who is very like Greer Gilman in mannerism, speech, and even to some degree appearance – there is a similar cast to the face. And yet, while a book by Greer Gilman sits on my bookshelf and I read any essays by her with great interest, this Gilmanesque girl was perhaps the very antithesis of Greer Gilman. I have seldom met someone so extraordinarily pigheaded, deliberately obtuse, and unpleasant.
It reminds me, you know, of how James Tiptree Jr. wrote about her military service in WWII, and how she encountered a Nazi officer who looked and sounded so precisely like her father that the memory of it continued to haunt her for the rest of her life – the notion that all it took to separate someone she saw as moral and noble, and someone who was a Nazi officer, was simply a certain upbringing, a fluency in German, a smart Nazi uniform.
ONION, we have a coworker, you know, who speaks in the same intonation as the characters in Clueless – actually, we have several, so you might even be thinking of someone different than the person I have in mind – and this coworker uses this Clueless form of intonation a lot, and especially when in a cheerful or playful mood. And I’d be an idiot to assume things by it, because she is [a] extraordinarily good at her job, [b] very sharp, and [c] frankly I think she sometimes deliberately exaggerates the playfulness in that style of speech in order to defuse tension in meetings and ensure cooperation in a corporate setting. I have seen it used to relax people and get them to lower their guard. I respect it as a skill I do not have.
And actually, that is a point being made by Clueless. It is also a point being made by Legally Blonde. Being “like’” a lawyer, acting “like” a lawyer, did absolutely nothing to make Warren a functional lawyer. (And I’m very proud of myself for remembering his name without having to look it up! I haven’t seen Legally Blonde in years…) Elle, on the other hand, tries to play the appearance game that everyone else is playing and she realizes by the end that – screw appearances, screw dressing like a drab dowager countess – she can waltz into the courtroom in head-to-toe pink and talk as ditzy as she likes, and still smash the case home and win the trial for her client because she’s fucking good at it.
With all due respect to Agatha Christie and her Miss Marple books: mannerisms are not a window into a person’s soul. People may share mannerisms, demonstrate identical intonations of speech, and even have an extremely similar facial cast, but so what? I have met three women with near-identical mannerisms, speech, and faces, and one of them was a biology professor who moonlighted as a guitarist in a death-metal band or something like that; one of them was a stylish and sassy editor who wore the best shoes I have ever seen in a real-life setting; and one of them was a paranoid and spoiled brat who was an aspiring animator and who was also just not very bright. I really wanted to like her too – she reminded me so much of the first two. When she sat down next to me on the plane, I thought I was about to meet someone excellent. Instead I kept my nose carefully buried in my book and listened, with increasing alarm, to the insane monologue she was feeding her other seat-mate.
(And if I find six more women of this type, I can write a non-fiction book titled The Lives of ______! Except Diana Wynne Jones already did that, sort of. She also already made the point, especially in Charmed Life, that someone can look and act and talk so very much like another person, to the point of being their literal double – and be, of course, a very different person.)
Someone can look and act like a 1980s yuppie and still be an immensely talented and innovative composer.
Someone can look and act like a passive-aggressive uber-WASP and still be a writer of empathy and curiosity.
And, when I attended that gallery showing of Anne Bachelier’s paintings and encountered half a dozen young artiste types with dour faces and all-black clothing and highly stylized haircuts – I couldn’t help but think, “you do know that looking and acting like your out-of-date idea of an artist won’t actually make your nonsense-bullshit art any good?”
So here is the reminder to me: someone who looks and acts exactly like that could – actually – be very, very good.
ONION, this is an old and obvious thought. I mean, hey, here I am encountering a century-old version of it in BigdamnProustbook, what with Bergotte’s rude bourgeois ways and his curled snail-shell of a nose, and yet his transcendent, glowing garden of prose…
I guess it’s just the sort of thought that’s worth repeating every now and then (with occasional variation) because we seem so excellent at forgetting it.
And on that note, I’m off to, like, invite the Haitians to my totally excellent party!
*theme music playing cheerfully,*