The “great American novel” is something that is often spoken of but rarely seen. Critics use that sobriquet far too often for books that don’t merit more than a passing glance. But occasionally, a novel appears that is a good candidate for that phrase. And it has just been republished in a new edition!
Raintree County, “which had no boundaries in time and space, where lurked musical and strange names and mythical and lost peoples, and which was itself only a name musical and strange,” by Ross Lockridge Jr., was published in 1948 to critical and popular acclaim. This 1,066-page novel attempted to translate the American experience to paper through the eyes and experiences of a seemingly banal character, John Wickliff Shawnessy, “pagan and Pilgrim, poet and poem, idealist and idea” (Charles Lee, writing in the New York Times in January, 1948). Over a period of 24 hours, as Waycross, Indiana, celebrates the Fourth of July, 1892, Shawnessy looks back on his life since 1844, through a series of flashbacks, interspersed with narrative of the celebratory day. He sees his youth, his first experience of pure feminine beauty, his first loves, then the great American tragedy: the Civil War. As the book goes on, we follow this Leopold Bloom of the Midwest through his peregrinations, until the past rejoins the present and the day ends.
It’s hard to sum up such a book. It’s the story of a quest; a quest for the sacred tree of life, the raintree. A quest for origins; for the origins of life and of one man’s life. It’s a story of a man accepting the fate of death, “But if we could only resign ourselves to death, complete death, how much happier we’d be!” It’s a story of a man and his family, his loves, his losses, the war (the Civil War) and how it forms his character.
Anyone reading this book will find that their life has a new milestone: a before- and after-Raintree Country. More than just the characters and narrative, what remains in the reader’s memory is the juxtaposition of the simple, idyllic life in Waycross, Indiana, the proverbial “Anytown, USA” and the chaos of the Civil War or the pandemonium of New York City. Lockridge was seeking simplicity, and showed how it did exist, somewhere in the world, in a place not on any map. It’s both a modernist and traditional novel – modernist in the way the book is structured, with flashbacks melding into present-day narrative, which, in turn, melds back into the past. But traditional in the way it is deeply human, the way its main subject is the life of a man. It has much of the Victorian novel, and is also a very Joycean novel. It belays influences as broad as Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner and Charles Dickens. Yet it is uniquely itself.
Unfortunately, it’s the only novel that Lockridge published; he committed suicide shortly after its publication, perhaps because of the unexpected fame that the book’s success brought him.
Update: Raintree County is finally available in ebook format, from Amazon and the iBookstore, so you don’t have to lug around the 1,100 page tome. I have two copies of it; one in hardcover, from 1948 (not a first edition, but close enough), and the paperback that was finally reissued in 2008. I’ve just bought the Kindle edition for a trip I’m taking, because this is a great book for a road trip, and one that I re-read every few years.
If you read ebooks as I do, you probably know that you are limited in the way you use them. If you buy an ebook from Apple, you can only read it on an Apple device. If you buy a Kindle, you can read it on a Kindle, or an Apple device (because of the Kindle app for iOS, and for OS X), but you’re still limited in what you do with the book. You can’t sell it or lend it, and you’re locked into a specific platform.
My latest Macworld article looks at this. I think that Apple should lead the way in getting rid of DRM on ebooks, the way the company spearheaded the drive to remove DRM from music.
It’s worth noting that my Take Control ebooks – including the just-out Take Control of LaunchBar – have no DRM, so you can read them on whatever device you want.
I like the idea of the Kindle, and the idea of the Kindle Paperwhite even more. Offering the ability to read both outdoors in sunlight, and indoors with a backlight, it seems like the best of both worlds.
Alas, having received a Kindle Paperwhite yesterday, I’m very disappointed. Not only is the backlight not very bright – not really bright enough to read indoors if there’s a lot of light – but it’s very uneven, with dark spots around the edges, especially at the bottom.
Here’s a photo I took of the Kindle Paperwhite next to the iPad mini, the latter showing a book in the Kindle app. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)
As you can see, even in this small photo, the lighting is uneven at the bottom of the Kindle, and there is a very large difference in brightness (both devices are set to maximal brightness in the photo above). While the iPad mini won’t work in bright light – such as outdoors – I have a Kindle Touch for that. So that Paperwhite is being returned. It’s a good idea, but it’s just a bit cheap and poorly designed. Amazon should really do better with a device like this.
The Story of the Grail, by Chrétien de Troyes, is one of the greatest literary works of all time. Written in the second half of the twelfth century, this poem tells the story of Perceval, a teenager raised in a forest by his mother, who encounters some knights, then sees, by chance, a grail in a castle. Not understanding the significance of this, he misses the chance to find out the true nature of the grail by not asking about it. He then wanders in the hopes of finding it again.
The story is both that of Perceval’s coming of age and his quest. The first part shows how this teenager, after being raised in a forest with no father, discovers the ways of the world: he discovers knights and kings, tastes the pleasures of love and the pain of combat. Naïve at first, he slowly adapts to his world, yet never really fits in. After he sees the grail in a castle that he came upon by chance, he then starts learning more about who he is and what the significance of this event might have been. He goes in search of the grail, yet, the text being unfinished, the reader can only speculate on the result of this quest.
While there are many versions of the story, the one by Chrétien de Troyes, the first one written, is psychologically the most powerful and is one of the great myths of the western world. There are several translations available of the Conte du Graal, probably read mostly by college students studying medieval literature. Yet I believe that this story deserves its rightful place as one of the classics of literature, and one of the most powerful myths in the West.
My goal in this translation is not to make a philological translation (although it is based on the authoritative edition of the Old French text and is as faithful as possible). There are scholars who have done so, but their translations often read like scholarly translations: boring, heavy, and stylistically flawed. I am trying to make a translation that can be read with the same lightness that I experienced when I read a modern French translation. This is not a boring story; far from it. But the translations that exist are not made for the average reader looking for a spiritual classic. My translation will also be, in part, a Jungian reading of the text. The symbolism of the Grail legend is extraordinary, and, as Jung and von Franz have shown, this legend can be seen as a paradigm of the process of individuation. I would like that to come through, and I would hope that the readers would be reading this text in part for its symbolic richness.
Individuation can be seen as the realization of self. It is the coming to terms with our inner world, and its unification with our conscious self. And it is the realization that as individuals we are different from the world around us, and that we can become unique. The Grail quest is a search for that indescribable uniqueness that is within all of us. Whether one sees it as the inner Christ, Buddha nature, or the Tao, it is all the same. Many people have an idea that something exists deep within them, but few can follow the path and seek it. Even fewer actually find it.
The Story of the Grail, or the Romance of Perceval, by Chrétien de Troyes
The following are links to PDFs of my translations, together with the original Old French.
When reading any text from the 19th century, it is hard to put oneself in the appropriate context, making it difficult to fully appreciate or even understand what the author is saying. When reading fiction, this lack of context means that, for example, imagining two people sitting in a parlor talking, the reader may not realize that, at the time, this could mean that they were cold (if it were winter), or very hot (if it were summer). That women were very uncomfortable in their corsets, and men in their stiff collars. Or that there were social issues that regulated how members of the opposite sex could meet and converse, and that these subtle contextual elements had a subconscious presence in the minds of contemporary readers.
With non-fiction – a term not used at the time – such as Emerson’s essays, the context covers a very broad political, social and religious spectrum. Words have meanings beyond their simple dictionary definitions (their connotations), and we readers, more than 150 years after the fact, are unaware of these.
On an extreme level, you can look back at Shakespeare’s works. Very few readers of Hamlet, King Lear or Much Ado about Nothing (do you know what “nothing” meant in Elizabethan slang?) would approach these texts without notes, and even those notes and annotations – along with definitions of words whose meanings were different at the time – cannot fully put the reader in the context of these works.
Scholar Jeffrey Cramer has published several volumes of Henry David Thoreau’s works annotated (such as this Walden), and I had long wondered why no one had done the same for Emerson.
Well, now we have such a volume, The Annotated Emerson, by David Mikics. This large book – 9.7 x 9.3 inches, on heavy paper – takes a selection of Emerson’s works and adds notes. Some of these notes merely define words, or explain their usage in Emerson’s time; some explain who certain people mentioned in Emerson’s essays are; and others make links with different works by Emerson, either essays, lectures, or even journal entries.
This is not an exhaustive work; it does not annotate all of Emerson’s essays, nor even a specific collection of them. Rather it chooses some of his most famous works, the ones people will be most likely to read. These include Nature, The American Scholar, The Divinity School Address, Self-Reliance, Circles, The Poet, Experience and New England Reformers. Two of his essays from Representative Men – those on Montaigne and Shakespeare, perhaps the two writers that Emerson most appreciated – are included. But there are also political writings: Emerson’s letter to president Martin van Buren about the plight of the Cherokees and his essay on John Brown from 1860, after Brown’s failed raid on Harper’s Ferry. Emerson’s laudatory essay on his friend Henry David Thoreau is included, as are a number of poems. In more than 500 pages, this collection is a fine overview of Emerson’s varied writings, though it contains nothing from his journals.
In addition to the textual notes – it’s worth pointing out the excellent layout, with the notes in the outside margins of the pages – there are dozens of illustrations, many in color, giving more contextual background, and also showing some of the people mentioned in the writings, as well as Emerson himself.
In addition to being a fine text, this is also an attractive book, and its size is more that of a coffee-table book than a collection of essays. (This does make it a trifle harder to read, of course, as it is fairly heavy.)
I can think of no better book for those interested in Emerson to understand more about his writings and his times. Learning more about what Emerson was referring to gives a much richer picture of the extent of his writing, and a better feeling of where he came from.
As regular readers of Kirkville probably know, I’m a fan of Marcel Proust. I recently started re-reading A la recherche du temps perdu, but was sidetracked by moving house. Some time ago, I listened to the entire work, on a French audio recording. But not all Proustians are French speakers. Proust actually has quite a following in the US and England, and his popularity is such that Naxos Audiobooks has recently released the first part of a complete, unabridged recording of Remembrance of Things Past (also know as In Search of Lost Time).
The narrator, Neville Jason, has one of those smooth, soft English accents that lulls and entrances you. His reading is leisurely and relaxed. He takes his time, allowing you to absorb the work comfortably, without speaking too slowly, as is sometimes the case on older audiobook readings. Jason’s reading is a performance, but it also sounds like he’s sitting by your side, reading from the book, like a friend. In addition, his French accent is quite good, and when he speaks the names of French people or towns, it sounds as it should.
Swann’s Way is more than 21 hours long, and is only the first of seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past. Naxos will be releasing each volume individually, and will most likely offer a box set with the entire text – which will be more than 120 hours – when all the titles have been released.
If you want to listen to Proust, and don’t speak French, Neville Jason’s recordings are excellent. For now, this is the only complete recording in the works. Simon Vance, who is also another wonderful narrator, has recorded Swann’s Way, but it doesn’t look like this will be a complete recording of all seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past, as this recording was released in September, 2010, and no follow-up has yet been released.
Dogen’s Shobogenzo is the most profound and perplexing work of the Zen canon. Written in the 13th century by the founder of the Soto school of Zen, the Shobogenzo is a collection of texts written over a long period of time that examine the concepts and practices of Zen.
This edition is a milestone, representing a complete English translation of the Shobogenzo, in an extremely attractive set of books. The two volumes are, while a bit expensive, very well produced. The paper is thick and opaque, the font is very readable, and the binding will last one or more lifetimes. Volume one has introductory matter about Dogen’s life and the composition of the Shobogenzo, and the first part of the texts (fascicles 1-47). (For a more thorough discussion of Dogen’s life and career, as well as an analysis of his thought, see Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, by Hee-Jin Kim.) The second volume contains the remainder of the texts (fascicles 48-95 plus a 96th fascicle not included in the original edition of the Shobogenzo), and an extensive glossary explaining the terms used in the books.
This glossary in volume two is essential to the reading and study of this work. Readers will need to look up terms to get a better understanding of what they really mean. Often a single word, or a short phrase, may seem obscure when reading, but the glossary goes into detail to explain it better. In addition, the glossary serves as an index, with references to where the terms are used.
But the glossary is a bit problematic. At more than 200 pages, this is a big chunk of the text, and it is, of course, only available in the second volume. If you are reading the first volume, you still need to have this glossary handy, so you’ll need to have both books. I wish that Shambhala had included the glossary as a separate volume – perhaps a paperback – so it could be more easily consulted. Or, if they could provide an e-book version, popping it on an iPad would make reading and consulting it more practical.
This doesn’t detract from the overall work, which is, I must say, an amazing feat of translation that has taken decades. The text is beautifully rendered, and, while just one interpretation, it certainly has the weight of experience both of the translators as translators and as practitioners. This set is a monument to the work of Dogen.
Note: the original two-volume edition is out of print, but there is a one-volume edition (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) that has replaced it. I haven’t seen it, but it apparently has much thinner paper. There’s also a Kindle edition (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) which is great for reading on the go, since the book is so heavy, but the glossary is essentially unusable on the Kindle.
In 1981, when a revised English translation of Remembrance of Things Past was published in hardcover in the United States, I bought a massive, three-volume set of what was said to be the greatest novel ever written. (And also the longest.) A friend of mine had been reading it in an older edition around that time, and I was tempted to discover this work that so enthralled him. I remember lugging the huge, black-bound volumes, each of more than 1,000 pages, with me to and from work, and reading on the subway and bus. I had a long subway ride – from 179th St. in Queens to midtown Manhattan – and to come home I would sometimes take an express bus, which took a bit longer, but at least let me read by daylight. It took a very long time to read the entire work – I don’t remember exactly how long – but since the work’s theme is time, this was fitting.
Reading Proust got me interested in French culture. I had already read a number of French authors, such as Camus and Sartre, and Beckett (if you count him as French), and I decided that I wanted to learn French to read them in the original. (I had studied French in high school, so I had some background.) Proust’s writing is more complex than that of many other French authors, so while, at the time, I thought I wanted learn French to read Proust in the original, I never thought that would actually come true. I took some French lessons, then, a few years later, saved up enough money to move to France for a year, and ended up staying.
I came to France in the fall of 1984, where I had rented a house for a year, in the southwest of the country, with the same friend who had introduced me to Proust, and with two others would would come and go during the year. Stopping by Paris first, I visited some bookstores, and my first purchase was the three-volume Pléiade edition of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. (The Pléiade editions are unique. They are small, pocket-sized leather-bound books printed on bible paper, which generally contain complete works of great authors, often in multiple volumes, with from 1,000 to 2,000 pages each. Published by Gallimard, this series is considered to be a pantheon of great writers.) This was the then definitive edition of the novel, published in 1954, and given its compact size, you could have probably fit a half-dozen of them in the huge box that held the English translation.
I would repeat my initial Proustian experience a couple of years later in Paris, when my French, and my vocabulary, did, indeed, reach the level required to read the novel. (I recall reading a book about Proust at some point, in a Paris library, which said that Proust used 18,322 different words in his long novel. Vocabulary was therefore essential.) I carried these smaller volumes with me on the metro and busses in Paris as I went to and from work. At the time, I was teaching English to French executives, and I would always have a book handy to read during my commutes, and when waiting for classes to begin. As I look at these well-worn volumes now, I recall that period with a certain nostalgia; one could say a Proustian nostalgia.
I read La recherche a few more times after that. In the late 1980s, a new Pléiade edition was issued – it contains four volumes, costs more than twice as much as the old edition, and has twice as many pages, as each volume contains huge swaths of “variants,” or drafts that Proust wrote. I haven’t read these variants, in part because they are in tiny type (the Pléiade volumes already use a small font, but the back-of-the-book material is even smaller), and in part because there’s enough to read without going into the variants. I listened to the work once in an audiobook recording of 128 hours, which is a magnificent way to discover Proust. And I’ve just started reading this work again.
Proust has a reputation for being difficult. The novel is long – initially published in seven volumes, it comes to 3,000 to 4,000 pages, depending on the edition and font size. His writing can be hard to follow at times; Proust is known for writing long sentences, one of which is 847 words long. (I append that sentence, in French, at the end of this article for the curious.) And his work contains dozens of major characters and hundreds of minor characters, which can be hard to follow. Nevertheless, his writing is easy to read, not hard. He’s no James Joyce, and he’s no proponent of the nouveau roman. Proust’s writing flows smoothly, lyrically, as if he was speaking to the reader. (All but the Swann in Love – Un amour de Swann – section is written in the first person, so he is actually speaking to you and me.) The important discovery I made about Proust’s style occurred, in fact, when I listened to an audiobook version of La recherche in French. It became immediately apparent that Proust’s style was simply spoken French written down on paper. His long, sinuous, rambling sentences were simply the way people spoke when they went on and digressed. With this understanding, Proust’s style became nearly transparent. (I say “nearly,” because you still have to pay attention when a sentence goes on for a long time; however, if you get lost, just start over and read it out loud.)
Proust’s novel is about time. The first English title, Remembrance of Things Past, was chosen by the translator who had only read the first volume, and who didn’t know where the work was going. It was taken from a sonnet by Shakespeare, and, while it does wax poetic, it is far from the simplicity of the actual title of the work: In Search of Lost Time, or A la recherche du temps perdu. (It’s important to note that, in French, this title is slightly more ambiguous than in English; “temps perdu” is both lost time and wasted time. (An aside: French toast, in French, is “pain perdu,” or lost/wasted bread.)) The first book begins with the word “Longtemps,” or “For a long time,” and the last book ends with the word “temps,” or “time.” The entire story is about the changes that time causes on people, how people react to the passage of time, and the desire, sometimes, to get back the time that has passed.
Readers today have a much easier time with Proust than I did at first, as there are a number of books that can help you on your journey. Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life is a sometimes serious, sometimes humorous look at Proust, his work, and his way of viewing the world; this is a good introduction to the work. William C. Carter’s Marcel Proust: A Life, sadly out of print, is the best English-language biography of Proust, who famously claimed that one shouldn’t concern oneself with an author’s life when reading their works. Roger Shattuck’s Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time is another useful guidebook, as is Malcolm Bowie’s Proust Among the Stars. Offering less analysis than the previous books, Patrick Alexander’s Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time: A Reader’s Guide to The Remembrance of Things Past is a cheat-sheet for readers: it contains a plot summary, a cast of characters, and more useful information to keep you from getting lost. Finally, a wonderful series of video lectures by William C. Carter, Proust scholar and biographer, provides an excellent “course” in Proust. This web site, available on a one-payment lifetime subscription basis, includes lectures and regular Q&A sessions via webcam, as well as a forum. (If you join, you’ll see me on the forum; I’ve volunteered to help moderate and administer it.)
So, where do you begin if you want to read Proust? You should simply dive in and start with the first volume, Swann’s Way, in a recent translation, or Du côté de chez Swann, in the Folio paperback edition, if you read French. The nice leather-bound Pléiade edition is attractive, but the books are too long, in my opinion (much longer than the older edition that I carried around in my Paris days), and at that price, I don’t want to read them in the bathtub. But there are a number of different editions in French: there’s a 2,400-page one-volume edition, which is too bulky to read comfortably, and another edition in two 1,500-page volumes, which is a bit easier to handle. Other French publishers have released their own editions in paperback, since the work went into the public domain.
Reading Proust is a long process; one that never ends. If you “get” Proust, you’ll realize that when you get to the end of the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, you’ll want to start over. Not right away, of course, but the aftertaste of lost time will linger, and a few years later, you’ll get the itch to read it again. For me, this itch sneaks up on me every five years or so, and with each reading I understand more of the vision of this unique author who managed to write in such a way as the reader can learn to see the world differently. It’s the voyage of a lifetime, and you can start any time.
This weekend, I’m re-reading a little book that I’ve found very enjoyable: How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton. De Botton is a Swiss writer who lives in the UK and writes in English; I consider him to be a “popular philosopher.” He has written books about philosophy, travel, business and work, our perceptions of status, and much more. In this 1997 books, de Botton examines the life and work of Marcel Proust, and shows us how reading this work can help us understand, as Proust said, that, “The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
Proust is perhaps one of the most daunting of authors. He didn’t write separate novels, but one long work, A la Recherche du temps perdu, or, In Search of Lost Time. This work covers thousands of pages, and follows its protagonist (the “narrator”) from his childhood through his adult years as he discovers aristocratic society in France. With long sentences, florid descriptions, and acerbic characterization, Proust presents a portrait of a society that, behind the glossy surface, is wicked and deceitful. Yet in spite of the length of the work, In Search of Lost Time is funny, strange, and a delight to read. Proust’s style is verbose, but his writing is musical.
I first read Proust in 1982, when a revised edition of an earlier English translation was released. In three large, hardcover volumes, this book was quite heavy, and I read it on the subway and bus as I went to and from work in New York City. When I moved to France in 1984, the first book(s) I bought was a three-volume Pléiade edition of the work (now superseded by a later four-volume edition; the extra girth is made up of notes, sketches and variants). I’ve since read Proust twice in French, and once in audio. Every few years, I get an itching to read him again, and this often starts by reading a book like de Botton’s or a biography of the author’s life.
But even if you haven’t read Proust, or don’t plan too, this little book about Proust can delight you and give you some interesting lessons about life and literature. Proust can change your life, if you take the time. Read this book to find out how.
Interestingly, this book tends to get filed in the “self held” or “self development” category, in addition to being put on the “literature” shelves. I guess it is, in some ways, a guide to living, but, then again, isn’t all great literature?
I’m a fan of audiobooks, and I was tempted to buy this in audio to listen to when walking. But seeing it at $20 (on the iTunes Store) quickly dissuaded me. Paying twice as much for an audiobook is ludicrous, especially as I know how much audiobooks cost to produce. It’s a shame, because a book like this at $10 would probably sell a lot better.
Cramer’s latest Thoreau collection is The Quotable Thoreau, described as containing “more than 2,000 memorable passages from this iconoclastic American author, social reformer, environmentalist, and self-reliant thinker.” This small hardcover book – roughly the size of a DVD case, or more correctly, a season of Lost – contains a wealth of selections from Thoreau’s varied works. Divided into sections on different topics, such as Beauty, Conservation, Day and Night, Simplicity, Society, and Solitude, each excerpt is from a few words to a few sentences, and contains an attribution specifying which text it is taken from.
Fans of Thoreau will find this an excellent book to keep by their bedsides, to flip through and read nuggets of Thoreauvian wisdom as they please. Those who have never read Thoreau will find a book containing the heart of Henry’s works, in small, easily digestible pieces. (Hopefully, after sampling the appetizers in this book, they’ll go on to the main course of Henry’s full works.)
While any such florilegium of an author’s work is, by necessity, a series of bits and pieces taken out of context, one thing this book does is offer a broader spectrum of Thoreau’s works, and shows how much his writing was all part and parcel of the same set of ideas.
If you’re curious about Thoreau’s writing, this is the ideal book to get to whet your appetite for his larger works, such as Walden. If you’re already a Thoreauvian, you’ll certainly enjoy flipping through this book and finding so many of those sentences and paragraphs that you’ve enjoyed as you’ve read through Henry’s books.