domingo, 21 de agosto de 2011

Adventures in the Rocky Mountains

Adventures in the Rocky Mountains (Penguin Great Journeys, 2007)
by Isabella Bird
England, 1879

My own Rocky Mountains adventures having been limited to an infinitely less noteworthy occasion in which I once almost got snowed in at Denver International Airport for two weeks during a Boston-LAX layover, I first picked up Isabella Bird's late 19th century travelogue-in-letters (excerpted from her 1879 A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains) out of pure curiosity--looking for a change of pace from some heavy duty fiction I was reading at the time.  So imagine my surprise when less than 20 pages into the account of Bird's journey from San Francisco to the Colorado Territory in 1873, a stranger's anecdote about the Donner Party leads Bird to share a stomach-turning description of how the rescue party found "the German, holding a roasted human arm and hand, which he was greedily eating" (18).  Thanks a lot for the suggestion to read something lighter, Jill from Rhapsody in Books!  This grisly, "secondhand" moment aside, I should make clear that the rest of Bird's letters (written to her sister Henrietta in a style that's straightforward but animatedly attentive to local color) thankfully concentrate on what it was like for an intrepid single British lady to make her way through some wild and predominantly male-populated regions of  the U.S. West, mostly on horseback but occasionally by train, at a time of transition evident even to a foreigner.  There are many enthusiastic nature scenes for those who like that kind of stuff, some vivid accounts of local desperadoes who cross the plucky Bird's path, and--perhaps most interesting of all to this reader--a depressing analysis of one of the pressing public policy concerns of the time: "The Americans will never solve the Indian problem till the Indian is extinct.  They have treated them after a fashion which has intensified their treachery and 'devilry' as enemies, and as friends reduces them to a degraded pauperism, devoid of the very first elements of civilisation.  The only difference between the savage and the civilised Indian is that the latter carries firearms and gets drunk on whisky" (93-94).  (

Isabella Bird

Up for Grabs
My copy of this book, a very short read at 119 pages, is up for grabs to the first person who claims it via comment below.  Will ship worldwide.

domingo, 14 de agosto de 2011

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower #2

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower (À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs) (Penguin Classics, 2004)
by Marcel Proust [translated from the French by James Grieve]
France, 1919

Having left off my earlier post on/love letter to In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower with a nod to that extraordinarily lyrical scene where the narrator renders homage to the memory of Mme Swann sauntering along the Avenue du Bois-de-Boulogne one fine day in May, "at the glorious height of her own mellow and still-delectable summertime" (215), I thought it might be worthwhile to take an extended look at more of Proust on time and memory.  After all, that's one of the reasons we read the guy, right? Even though Part II begins with an off the cuff announcement by the narrator acknowledging his own dislocation in time due to the impact that painful memories of his happier days with Gilberte are having on his present day reality--"life being so unchronological, so anachronistic in its disordering of our days" (221)--one of the things that's so alluring about this parenthetical confession from an artistic standpoint is how it ties in with several other perspectives on time and memory and the literary representation of time and memory from various stages of the narrator's life.  Three examples of how this problem is creatively engaged in the text follow.

Going back to the early scene where his father essentially abandons encouraging him to pursue a diplomatic career so that young Marcel can take up a life in literature unimpeded by his family's opposition, for example, the narrator writes that this happy news nonetheless made him worry for two reasons.

The first was that, though I met each new day with the thought that I was now on the threshold of life, which still lay before me all unlived and was about to start the very next day, not only had my life in fact begun, but the years to come would not be very different from the years already elapsed.  The second, which was really only a variant of the first, was that I did not live outside Time but was subject to its laws, as completely as the fictional characters whose lives, for that very reason, had made me feel so sad when I read them of them at Combray, sitting inside my wickerwork shelter (55).

I like this sequence for at least a couple of reasons, the first having to do with the somewhat unfortunate reminder that I was once so young myself that I surely considered myself on "the threshold of life" without realizing my life had already begun.  A nice--if bittersweet--touch, that!  I also appreciate it for the way that the adult narrator merges his then-youthful awakening to the concept of not living outside Time in a way that draws attention to the character's sentimental regard for the fate of the fictional characters encountered in his wickerwork shelter.  This conflation of a person's reading life with one's emotional life outside of literature is something I can rather pathetically relate to, of course, so suffice it to say that the writing really got my attention when the correspondance was extended to a larger concern with mortality in the lines that immediately follow.

Theoretically, we are aware that the earth is spinning, but in reality we do not notice it: the ground we walk on seems to be stationary and gives no cause for alarm.  The same happens with Time.  To make its passing perceptible, novelists have to turn the hands of the clock at dizzying speed, to make the reader live through ten, twenty, thirty years in two minutes.  At the top of a page, we have been with a lover full of hope; at the foot of the following one, we see him again, already an octogenarian, hobbling his painful daily way round the courtyard of an old-people's home, barely acknowledging greetings, remembering nothing of his past.  When my father said, "He's not a child anymore, he's not going to change his mind," etc., he suddenly showed me myself living inside Time; and he filled me with sadness, as though I was not quite the senile inmate of the poorhouse, but one of those heroes dismissed by the writer in the final chapter with a turn of phrase that is cruel in its indifference: "He has taken to absenting himself less and less from the countryside.  He has eventually settled down there for good," etc. (55-56)

While any novel called In Search of Lost Time might be expected to deal such with themes, this treatment of time in a text organized in part as a written suspension of time has a lot to say about what's possible from a temporal standpoint when representing "reality" in literature.  This is one of the philosophical sides of Proust the thinker that really gets to me just as much as Proust the wordsmith or Proust the visually evocative portraitist of Mme Swann.

In a much later scene, at a time in which the love-hungry Marcel is now fixated on making the acquaintance of Albertine Simonet and the other young girls in flower in her inner circle of Balbec friends and companions, the looming shadows of mortality from the earlier episode seem to have dissipated in the salty seaside air.  Still, there's another striking analysis of how our attempts to try and fix a moment in time are often disturbed by the emotions of the moment.  In this passage, Marcel speaks of the various things that form the mundane build-up to his much-anticipated introduction to his future love interest at a party given by the painter Elstir:

Being obliged, in order to come eventually to a chat with Mlle Simonet, to follow a route that was not of my own design, which reached a first destination in front of Elstir, before leading me to on other groups of guests, to whom I was introduced, then along the buffet, where I was handed, and where I ate, strawberry tarts, while pausing to listen to music that had just begun to be played, I found myself giving to these various episodes the same importance as to my introduction to Mlle Simonet, which was only one among their sequence, and which I had by now completely forgotten had been, a few minutes before, the sole object of my presence there.  Does not the same happen, in busy everyday life, to our truest joys and greatest sorrows?  We stand among other people, and the woman we adore gives us the answer, favorable or fatal, that we have been awaiting for a year: we must go on chatting; ideas lead to other ideas, making a surface beneath which, rising only from time to time, barely perceptible, lies the knowledge, very deep but acute, that calamity has struck.  Or, if it is happiness rather than calamity, we may not remember till years later that the most momentous event of our emotional life happened in a way that gives us no time to pay attention to it, or even to be aware of it almost, during a fashionable reception, say, despite the fact that it was in expectation of some such event that we had gone to it (450-451).

In this snapshot of the "momentous" event that is about to take place for the narrator and of an event where the narrator's fate will largely be determined by forces beyond his control, we have--in contrast to the ethereal details we might expect from such an obvious romantic--a rather non-romantic description of the everyday moments that surround the high and low points in our lives.  The scene is almost pedestrian, in fact--except for the attention that is drawn to how we replay such moments in our memories, overlooking the details not having to do with fortune or calamity.  However, pointing out the way in which the scene feels true or false to the reader from a realistic perspective is only part of the equation as what takes place in our minds is just as much reality as what takes place in front of our eyes in many respects.  This, at least, is what I think Proust's narrator is getting at here when he writes about his introduction to Albertine and says that "the pleasure, of course, I did not experience till a little later, back at the hotel, when, having been alone for a while, I was myself again.  Pleasures are like photographs: in the presence of the person we love, we take only negatives, which we develop later, at home, when we have at our disposal once more in our inner darkroom, the door of which it is strictly forbidden to open while others are present" (451).

Studiously avoiding the fact that I don't really know where I'm going with all this nor know whether Proust has left us an Einstein-like general theory on time anywhere in his extended novel, I have to say that I'm finding reading In Search of Lost Time its own reward and writing about In Search of Lost Time at least partially rewarding in terms of publicly revisiting certain favorite scenes.  On that note, I'd like to bid farewell to this post on Proust on time and memory with a fragment from a scene that harkens back to an earlier such scene in Swann's Way.  For late in In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, walking along a lane in the direction of Les Creuniers with the beautiful Andrée, the narrator discovers something that takes his mind off his plan to win himself a spot in Albertine's affections by showering her with praises to her friend and possible rival:

Then, halfway down the little lane, I stood still, as the soft flutter of a childhood memory brushed my heart: I had just recognized, from the indentations of the shiny leaves overhanging the threshold, a hawthorn bush, which since the end of spring, alas, had been bare of all blossom.  A fragrance of forgotten months of Mary and long-lost Sunday afternoons, beliefs, and fallacies surrounded me.  I wished I could grasp it as it passed.  Andrée, seeing me pause, showed her charming gift of insight by letting me commune for a moment with the leaves of the little tree: I asked after its blossom, hawthorn flowers like blithe young girls, a little silly, flirtatious, and faithful.  "Those young ladies left long ago," said the leaves, possibly reflecting that, for someone who professed to be such a close friend, I was very uninformed about their habits.  I was a close friend, though one who, despite his promises, had lost touch with them for many years.  Yet, just as Gilberte had been my first sweetheart among the girls, they had been my first among the flowers.  "Yes, I know," I replied, "they go away about the middle of June.  But it's a pleasure to see the spot here where they lived.  My mother brought them up to see me in my bedroom at Combray, when I was ill.  And we used to meet in church on Saturday evenings during the month of Mary.  Are they allowed to go here too?"  "Of course!  My young ladies are actually much in demand at the nearest parish church, Saint-Denis-du-Désert."  "One can see them now, you mean?"  "No, no, not till the month of May next year."  "And can I be sure they'll be there?"  "Every year, without fail."  "I'm just not sure I can find my way back to this exact spot..."  "Of course you will!  My young ladies are so gay, they never stop laughing, except to sing hymns--you can't mistake them, you'll recognize their perfume from the end of the lane" (500).

So much to love here in this little conversation between man and hawthorn bush!  The rich prose, fragrant with poetry.  The wish to latch onto something tangible in the evanescent.  The commingling of an aesthetics of beauty with a sort of sensuous spirituality or mysticism.  The eternal faithfulness of old friends.  Proust is great at having his narrator reflect on time and memory through the lenses of novelists and darkroom photographers.  But he's even better when Marcel reflects on time and memory through the lens of his own life story.  Now approaching the 100-page mark in The Guermantes Way, I'm loving this novel like you wouldn't believe.  (

martes, 9 de agosto de 2011

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower #1

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower [À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs] (Penguin Classics, 2004)
by Marcel Proust [translated from the French by James Grieve]
France, 1919

In the so-called "listless interlude" that forms the second volume of Proust's In Search of Lost Time amid that which might more aptly be called an expanding universe of richly-textured memories, emotions, and dramatis personae orbiting Marcel's teenage years and thereabouts, our young narrator manages to fall in and out of love with Gilberte, to lose his virginity to a woman he doesn't care for, and to fall head over heels in love yet again--not quite reciprocated to this point--with future girlfriend Albertine: a  journey of initiation that chronicles the agonies and ecstasies of love from Paris to Balbec with astonishing humor, insight and detail.  Sheer bliss.  While there's just too much for me to talk about here to even know where to begin, I suppose there's no harm in sharing a grab bag of personal highlights with you tonight and returning for something maybe a little more structured later in the week.  To begin with, I continue to be an easy mark for the narrator's catty but ever-observant humor.  Writing about the union between the aristocratic Swann and the ex-courtesan Odette that had taken place against all expectations since the events in Swann's Way had transpired, the narrator tells us that "in general, marriages that degrade one of the partners are the worthiest of all, because they entail the sacrifice of a more or less flattering situation to a purely private satisfaction--and, of course, marrying for money must be excluded from the notion of a degrading match, as no couple of whom one partner has been sold to the other has ever failed to be admitted in the end to good society, given the weight of tradition, the done thing, and the need to avoid having double standards."  A typical (and not all that humorous) observation with a fair amount to say about the superficiality of the circles these characters move in, gender relations at that time in France, the pressures of conformity, and so on.  What takes this to the genius level on the comedic and the descriptive fronts, though, is the sentence or the dagger that follows with such impeccable timing: "In any case, the idea of engaging in one of those crossbreedings common to Mendelian experiments and Greek mythology, and of joining with a creature of a different race, an archduchess, or a good-time girl, someone of blue blood or no blood at all, might well have titillated the artist, if not the pervert, in Swann" (42).  A second thing I loved about In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower is how, despite the almost ubiquitous humor and the biting observations that are also present as if for adult consumption, Proust manages to tenderly and realistically evoke that teenaged daydreamer's feeling that falling in love with just about any girl is not only possible but maybe even desirable.  While the text is nearly perfect at capturing the young protagonist's mood swings between boundless optimism and utter desperation in this regard, I particularly liked this passage where the narrator talks about those moments in his life "when I was not in love but wished I was"--a fragrant time when:

the ideal of physical beauty I carried about with me--which, as has been seen, I could recognize in a distant glimpse of any passing stranger who was far enough away for the imprecision of her features not to impede that recognition--was partnered by the emotional shadow, ever ready to be brought to real life, of the woman who was going to fall in love with me and step straight into the part already written for her in the comedy of fondness and passion that had been awaiting her since my childhood, and for which every young girl I met, as long as she had a pleasant disposition and some of the physical characteristics required by the role, appeared eager to be auditioned.  In this play, whoever it was I cast as the new star or her understudy for this part of leading lady, the outline of the plot, the main scenes, and even the words to be spoken had long since taken the form of a definitive edition (469).

Finally, in thinking about the narrative tension between the ideal and the real in love and how that frontier is constantly shifting in our memories and imaginations to the point that it's possible to confuse the real object of desire with its "emotional shadow" at times, I have to say that the end of the At Mme Swann's part of this novel--with its focus on Marcel's friendship with Mme Swann rather than his traumatizing break-up with her daughter Gilberte--touched me enormously.  Can a scene from a novel be considered poetic merely by virtue of the force of its words and the power of its images?  I'll let you decide.

From all sides now, through the liquid transparency and glossy luminosity of the shadow cast on her by the sunshade, Mme Swann was being recognized and greeted by the last of the late riders, who looked as though filmed at a canter against the white midday shimmer of the avenue, members of fashionable clubs, whose names--Antoine de Castellane, Adalbert de Montmorency, and many more--famous to the public mind, were to Mme Swann the familiar names of her friends.  So it is that the average life expectancy, the relative longevity, of memories being much greater for those that commemorate poetic sensation than for those left by the pains of love, the heartbreak I suffered at that time because of Gilberte has faded forever, and has been outlived by the pleasure I derive, whenever I want to read off from a sundial of remembrance the minutes between a quarter past twelve and one o'clock on a fine day in May, from a glimpse of myself chatting with Mme Swann, sharing her sunshade as though standing with her in the pale glow of an arbor of wisteria (217).

I'll have more to share from In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower in a day or two.  Not sure what I want to touch on next, but I'm not ready to say farewell to this volume just yet.  No, not yet.  (

Marcel Proust

sábado, 6 de agosto de 2011

Life of Black Hawk, or Mà-ka-tai-me-she-kià-kiàk

Life of Black Hawk, or Mà-Ka-tai-me-she-kià-kiàk (Penguin Classics, 2008)
by Black Hawk
USA, 1833

"If another prophet had come to our village in those days, and told us what has since taken place, none of our people would have believed him!  What! to be driven from our village and hunting grounds, and not even permitted to visit the graves of our forefathers, our relations, and friends?"
(Life of Black Hawk, 46)

In an effort to get my Native American studies reading project back on track with a more unmediated native voice this time around, I decided to take a look at the 1833 Life of Black Hawk, or Mà-ka-tai-me-she-kià-kiàk, which is said to have been "dictated by himself," interpreted or translated by Antoine LeClaire, and finally transcribed by newspaperman John B. Patterson--a collaborative venture that with its uncertain English verb tenses and jarring use of non-autochthonous abbreviations like viz. makes one wonder how unmediated it really is despite the author's alleged approval of the final text as read back to him before publication.  That cautionary note on the transmission of the Life of Black Hawk aside, though, perhaps one of the main reasons to read this oral history/"autobiography" of the elderly Sauk war leader (c. 1767-1838) is for the lasting novelty of what J. Gerald Kennedy calls attention to in his introduction to the work: "never before had an Indian addressed the reading public as the survivor of a war of extermination waged by American forces" (vii).  So what was on the recently defeated Black Hawk's mind?  During the course of nearly 100 pages of plainspoken prose, the proud warrior repeatedly attempts to characterize his military actions during the just concluded 1832 Black Hawk War as a defensive attempt to maintain traditional tribal lands in and around Rock Island in present day Illinois by claiming that they were stolen by, rather than ceded to, the U.S. in the so-called Treaty of St. Louis of 1804 (see Wikipedia image below for the area in question).  While it's not clear whom in particular Black Hawk hoped to reach or sway with this appeal to the American conscience, one of the things that's most interesting about all this is that the vanquished Sauk leader, forcibly resettled on the other side of the Mississippi in Iowa at war's end, seemed to want the U.S. reading public to understand his intentions despite his realization that the former days were gone in his acknowledgement that "the tomahawk is buried forever!" (98).  It's the land, always the land, that seems to claim his attention and to position itself in the foreground of his memory.  In any event, below you'll find three examples of Black Hawk's reflections on his former homeland from pages 56, 87, and 89-90 of his Life to give you at least a sliver of an idea of why the work that bears his name will likely have a continuing appeal for those interested in the "other side" of the history of this continent and of its peoples.  (

Sauk lands (in yellow) "ceded"/stolen by the 1804 St. Louis Treaty
(author: Kmusser, courtesy of a Creative Commons license for the image)

My reason teaches me that land cannot be sold.  The Great Spirit gave it to his children to live upon, and cultivate, as far as is necessary for their subsistence; and so long as they occupy and cultivate it, they have the right to the soil--but if they voluntarily leave it, then any other people have a right to settle upon it.  Nothing can be sold, but such things as can be carried away.

On our way down [the river, on a steamboat right after his surrender in 1832], I surveyed the country that had cost us so much trouble, anxiety, and blood, and that now caused me to be a prisoner of war.  I reflected upon the ingratitude of the whites, when I saw their fine houses, rich harvests, and every thing desirable around them; and recollected that all this land had been ours, for which me and my people had never received a dollar, and that the whites were not satisfied until they took our village and our grave-yards from us, and removed us across the Mississippi.

[On the surprisingly large number of inhabitants of the mountainous stretches of the Cumberland or National Road, observed by Black Hawk during his captivity tour before being relocated to his new home across the Mississippi]  I have often thought of them since my return to my own people; and am happy to think that they prefer living in their own country, to coming out to ours, and driving us from it, that they might live upon and enjoy it--as many of the whites have already done.  I think, with them, that wherever the Great Spirit places his people, they ought to be satisfied to remain, and thankful for what He has given them; and not drive others from the country He has given them, because it happens to be better than theirs!  This is contrary to our way of thinking; and from my intercourse with the whites, I have learned that one great principle of their religion is, "to do unto others as you wish them to do unto you!"  Those people in the mountains seem to act upon this principle, but the settlers on our frontiers and on our lands, seem never to think of it, if we are to judge by their actions.