Friday, November 12, 2010

Peter Trachtenberg, On Reading

"In the morning I feed the cats, make a pot of coffee and sit down on the sofa and open a volume of Remembrance of Things Past, in the Montcrieff Kilmartin translation. At the moment, I’m on The Guermantes Way, just after Marcel unexpectedly succeeds in kissing Albertine; he reflects on how inadequate the lips are for kissing. I read for an hour, almost as slowly as if I were reading in French. Sometimes I feel like I am reading in French. To navigate the topiary maze of Proust’s sentences, which can twine and undulate for an entire page, often requires reading out loud. The challenge is not just to follow those sentences’ syntax but also their turns of mood:
On certain days, thin, with a gray complexion, a sullen air, a violet transparency slanting across her eyes such as we notice sometimes on the sea, she seemed to be feeling the sorrows of exile. On other days her face, smoother and glossier, drew one’s desires on to its varnished surface and prevented them from going further; unless I caught a sudden glimpse of her from the side, for her matt cheeks, like white wax on the surface, were visibly pink beneath, which was what made one so long to kiss them, to reach that different tint which was so elusive. At other times, happiness bathed her cheeks with a clarity so mobile that the skin, grown fluid and vague, gave passage to a sort of subcutaneous gaze, which made it appear to be of another colour but not of another substance than her eyes; sometimes, without thinking, when one looked at her face punctuated with tiny brown marks among which floated what were simply two larger, bluer stains, it was as though one were looking at a goldfinch’s egg, or perhaps at an opalescent agate cut and polished in two places only, where, at the heart of the brown stone, there shone like the transparent wings of a skyblue butterfly, her eyes, those features in which the flesh becomes a mirror and gives us the illusion that it allows us, more than through other parts of the body, to approach the soul. (1009)
As much pleasure as my morning reading gives me, it’s also a struggle. This isn’t because of the difficulties of Proust’s style, which, to be honest, is part of the pleasure of reading him--how often do you get to experience a sense of accomplishment while sitting on your ass in your bathrobe? It’s because I came into the kitchen with my Blackberry. If describing a Blackberry for a visitor from the last century--say for Marcel Proust, had he been somehow plucked off the Boulevard Hausmann in 1916and deposited, gasping and palpitating, in the eastern U.S. in 2010--I’d say it was about the size of a small cigarette box. That might connote its addictive properties. But it’s more like a black hole, a phenomenon that no one even imagined until decades after Proust’s death in 1922, a black hole that sucks up not matter but attention. I can’t go ten minutes without looking at it. If no new e-mail shows up in my message box--announced by a tiny red and white explosion that might be made by a tiny bomb--I use the Web browser to read the Times. Often I become so engrossed in an article--or, more often, in the clever or boneheaded but usually vituperative reader comments about an article--that fifteen minutes race by before I think of horny, hyper-aesthetic Marcel and his circle, and when I return, the spell they cast on me is broken. I open the book and it’s just words, lots of them. Too many.

Is the competition between Proust and the Blackberry a competition between literature and news? I don’t think so. If it were an actual newspaper on the sofa beside me, a paper one, I wouldn’t bother looking at it until I’d read at least ten pages of the Recherche. The competition is one between reading and something that resembles reading but is really a hybrid mode in which the familiar work of decoding clusters of tiny strokes and squiggles and extracting a world from them is a front for the hypnotic activity of pushing buttons and staring at a light-filled screen. The Blackberry allows its users to think of themselves as human while doing what lab rats do, except lab rats get rewarded with pellets of food. The reward of the Blackberry is the buttons and the screen."

Peter Trachtenberg is the author of 7 Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh and The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning. For more information, visit his blog here.}


  1. lovely.

    On a slightly different tack,
    I am about to read two sections from Nietzsche's birth of tragedy on my ipad - I will think about whether its seductive illumination and my jabbing finger (a once rude use of hands for pointing and demanding is now the means for opening all doors) are barriers to my understanding and enjoying this work. Perhaps the medium is all wrong for it. Perhaps its seductive qualities will keep me spell-bound.

    Thank you, too, for the Proust.


  2. Excellent moment. Reminded me--and you compare the size of the Crackberry to a cigarette pack--that I heard someone say that Blackberry hits had replaced cigarettes in his life.

  3. A beautiful, inspiring way to start the day!
    But the big question is: why do you bring your Blackberry with you to read Proust? Turn it off and leave it in your bag. I'm convinced this obsessive behavior with smart phones, etc., is promulgated to make people never, at least mentally, stop working. It's equivalent to the big bosses replacing the workers' beer pails at lunch with tea during the Industrial Revolution.

  4. Thank you for this. Like all good essays, it brings up all sorts of questions, not least on the space between the satisfaction of arousal and satisfaction itself. It often seems to me that we are getting increasingly entangled in the former at the expense of the latter. I still haven't managed anything like all of Proust, but I managed the entire Stieg Larson trilogy. When I think about this it makes me want to enter a monastery.

  5. pl read calvino's "adventures of a reader" in Difficult Loves. that's another competition between reading proust and something else (won't tell you what).

  6. I just got an old copy of Proust's Remembrance of things past. Wondering how and when I am going to finish that. But I would give it a try.

  7. Hello Peter. I sure do miss talking to you. I don't own a blackberry, I phone, I pad or I anything else. I still read books in paper form and have way too many of them, but often not enough. I belong to two paperback swap clubs and have to WAIT until another member is ready to mail me a book that I want. I find this sufficient in my busy life. I use a basic cell phone for the sole reason of contacting my kids. I do not miss the devices I don't own, and am not planning to own any of them soon. Good luck reading Proust.
    Regards and Love,
    Gillian Katz

  8. I just read your Recherche from the comfort of my blackberry while waiting at Raleigh-Durham airport. When you bring up the newspaper vs. reading news on the blackberry, I think of the archetypal image of the 20th century remote father/husband hiding behind the newspaper at breakfast or dinner flows neatly into the blackberry-obsessed friend.
    A smart phone addiction surely beats a cigarette habit.
    That's a great Proust quote filled with something I miss: obsessive longing, which leaves all other obsessions behind in the dust. Obsessive Longing elevated lust to a transcendent level is not only about the beauty of the love object but the inspiration of the obsessed to be a better person.