Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Marcel Proust's The Fugitive

Proust’s The Fugitive (or The Sweet Cheat Gone) continues Marcel’s fascination with Albertine and the possibility that Albertine has been unfaithful with women. Marcel has essentially driven her from his home – which we must remember is also his mother’s home – and then immediately thinks he wants her back. He ponders his situation, thinking that he both wants her back and wants her gone, realizing at times that he doesn’t really understand his feelings. He is riven with indecision both about his own feelings and his concern for having Albertine return.

None of his feelings are clarified by the news that Albertine has been killed in an accident with a horse. The sense of finality that should be his is not really acceptable to him. He even goes to a seance in an effort to know what Albertine feels about him. He gets a letter from her that says she still loves him and would return to him if he asked, and this does not make his sense of himself any more intelligible to him.

Aime’s two letters to him from Combray insist that Albertine was involved in a lesbian relationship with women in the baths, that she brought women from Balbec with her, and often appeared with younger girls and frequently met a woman in gray. All this made Marcel convinced that all his anguish earlier had roots in the truth of Albertine’s inclination toward a lesbian lifestyle. On the other hand Andree, who admits her own lesbian leanings, suggests that if that were true, Albertine had given it all up for Marcel while they were together.

Again, Marcel is unsettled about his relationship with Albertine. Meanwhile, his old friend Gilberte inherits so much money that she is the richest heiress in France. She is Mlle de Forcheville and attracts Robert St. Loup, who eventually marries her only to make her unhappy. St. Loup takes up with Charles Morel, once Morel is free of Palamede de Charlus. Thus, St. Loup reveals his inclination toward homosexuality and parallels the relationship of Marcel and Albertine. All this functions to reveal the complexities of sexuality and love and marriage. Near the end, Proust says, “Homosexuals would be the best husbands in the world if they did not pretend that they loved women.”

Throughout all this volume, the theme of the multiplicity of selves is constantly before us. Every important character seems to have several selves depending on whom they are with and what they are doing. Marcel is himself several selves, all essentially unaware of each other.

The volume ends with Marcel finally making his trip to Venice – the trip that he longed for in The Captive, but for which he substituted a visit to Versailles with Albertine. Now, his trip to Venice is with Mama, who essentially directs their travels and their attention. When Mama is ready to leave, Marcel is attracted to the Baroness Putbus and decides to stay, but after making his declaration and sending Mama away, he relents and rushes to the train station to go home with her.

Ironically, the novel ends with the realization with Gilberte that the Guermantes Way and the Meseglise Way are one and the same way.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

John Steinbeck East of Eden

John Steinbeck had not yet won the Nobel Prize for Literature (1962) when he published East of Eden (1955). But he had amassed a remarkable number of important works and had established himself as one of America’s great writers. He considered East of Eden his magnum opus and said that he felt destined to have written it. The reviews at the time were not as encouraging as one would have expected, given his reputation and the confidence he had in publishing the work.

In short, the narrative or story line of the book is built on a biblical armature: the story of Cain and Abel. But beneath that armature lies the essential issue of Original Sin and the presence of evil in the world. The purposes of the book are moral in nature, as Steinbeck himself said, and with that come the emphases on good and evil at work in the world. The problem that Steinbeck could not solve is how to populate such a novel with characters who seem to be three-dimensional and self-directed. The essential problem is that Steinbeck knows what his characters must do from the moment he begins writing, and as a result some of the sense of natural behavior is completely missing from the novel. The characters must, by definition, follow the pattern set for them by the biblical armature.

Some novels, like Light in August, can use the figure of Christ, say, and make the story still seem to be natural and the characters developed and interesting in their own right. But most of the time that is not true of East of Eden. We have two sets of brothers, Charles and Adam Trask, whose father was a con man of sorts, and then Caleb and Aron Trask, children of Charles, but unknowingly raised by Adam. Steinbeck includes Cathy Ames, a monster of evil behavior who is totally unredeemed throughout her life. She is the mother of Caleb and Aron, but she abandons them as soon as she is healthy enough to do so, and in leaving Adam she shoots him so that he will understand how dreadful she is and how devoid of human emotion. She becomes a madam in a nearby town and is known for sadistic sexual practices – in other words, Steinbeck makes her as irredeemable as possible, the very essence of evil.

Then, the problem Caleb feels is the burden of an inheritance of sin. He is the first of the children to find and understand his mother, and he is the only one who can still function in face of such horror. When, in a fit of anger, he brings Aron to see his mother, Aron is incapable of facing life. He runs off underage and joins the army fighting in France. Caleb’s action indirectly kills Aron, thus bearing out the Cain and Abel theme.

The most improbable character in the novel is Lee, a Chinese servant who works for Adam almost all his life. He is college educated and melds the east with the west and interprets all the story of Cain and Abel after having learned Hebrew with a Chinese study group. It is he who unravels the Hebrew word Timshel, translated in the standard bible as “you must,” while Lee has divined that it really means “you may,” and thus opens the way for Caleb to choose not to be evil. He has choice and the novel ends with the promise that Caleb and Aron’s first girlfriend, Abra, will go off and live reasonable lives after all.

The very alterity of evil in the novel suggests that Steinbeck was fighting a rear-guard action against the new secular thinking that dominated the late 1940s and the mid 1950s. Evil was out of fashion then, with the new arrival of genetic studies and the flowering of Freudian and other modern psychological models. Going back to the bible was Steinbeck’s way of confirming his life’s commitments and his fundamental beliefs in a conventional religion. The problem with the novel, however, is that his characters seem to have little life except as they represent the counters that are established for them in the first few chapters of Genesis.