Reading Catch-Up: Proust Update & John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids

Odette in Swann's Way looks like Boticelli's Zipporah:  one must admit she's gorgeous.

Odette in Swann’s Way looks like Botticelli’s Zipporah.

I’ve been reading like a bookseller, fast, felicitously, and not quite finished with all I plan to hold forth on.  A bookseller once told me he had 16 books going at once because he could not sell a book without knowing whether it would interest his patrons.  He finished the best books, but rejected many after reading half or two-thirds.

I, too, have several books going at once.  Here’s an update on two of the best:  the Proust obviously is still in progress.

Proust’s Swann’s Way: Proust’s In Search of Lost Time explores feelings and memory. His long sentences may be convoluted, but it is not the sentences that defeat his readers.  To appreciate the evocative beauty of Proust’s labyrinthine stream-of-consciousness, you cannot be afraid to feel.

In “Swann in Love,” the second part of Swann’s Way, a traditional narrative tucked in the middle of the book, I empathize with Swann when Odette cheats on him.  She is not Swann’s type, and indeed he is having an affair with a seamstress when he first begins to flirt with Odette.  He is amused by Odette, who is  uneducated and very different from his upper-class circles.  She doesn’t care about art:  she hates the 18th-century decor of a friend’s home because it is so plain, and doesn’t see much in poetry.  But she looks like Botticelli’s Zipporah ( beautiful, but he doesn’t quite like the cheekbones).  In the end, the Botticelli resemblance makes the difference.

The vague feeling of sympathy which attracts one to a work of art, now that he knew the original in flesh and blood of Jethro’s daughter, became a desire which Odette’s physical charms had at first failed to inspire in him. When he had sat for a long time gazing at the Botticelli, he would think of his own living Botticelli, who seemed even lovelier still, and as he drew towards him the photograph of Zipporah he would imagine that he was holding Odette against his heart.”

Proust draws a portrait of the genesis of Swann’s obsession with Odette.  It is erotic, familiar, and painful. Swann  is careful not to spend too much time with Odette, so she will continue to value him.  Yet he becomes more and more intrigued  as he spends evenings with her in the salon of her great friends, the Verdurins.   One night when he is late, Odette has already left to go to a cafe for hot chocolate.  Swann and his coachman search Paris cafes for her. In an erotic scene in the coach after he finds her, he seduces her by first rearranging the flowers on her dress.

There are some charming scenes in which he flirts with Odette.  She plays the piano “vilely,” but he makes her play his favorite phrase from a sonata over and over while he kisses and caresses her.  Though Odette seems empty-headed, we can see her charm for him.  In fact, Proust is the only writer who has ever made me imagine a shallow, pretty woman from a man’s point of view.  Usually I am incredulous, like most of my women friends of my generation.  (We bluestockings came of age in a time when “hotness” was less of a factor in love.)

Odette herself is quite a flirt.

Then she would pretend to stop, saying:  “How do you expect me to play when you keep on holding me?  I can’t do everything at once.  Mae up your mind what you want am I to play the phrase or play with you?”

After she begins to cheat on him with Forcheville,  Swann is in denial, then he tries to catch her.  He  is depressed and would like to go to the country, but  cannot “summon up the courage to leave Paris, even for a day, while Odette was there.”

Poor Swann!  One’s pain over a lover’s infidelity is in direct proportion to the amount of love one feels for the betrayer.  When one is deeply in love, a partner’s infidelity is devastating. It happens to all of us, no?

John Wyndham's The Chrysalids 91OJ24mZT8L._SL1500_John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids.  Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids is one of my favorite science fiction books.   In a postapocalyptic future, a brilliant flash of light blinds most of the people on Earth, and walking plants called triffids, once farmed for oil, have escaped from their corporate greenhouses and are  killing people.  Many categorize this novel a “cozy catastrophe,” because the main characters do manage to survive.

Wyndham’s 1955 novel, The Chrysalis, is overall a simpler novel, though science fiction writer M. John Harrison, in the introduction to the Penguin Decades edition, denies that this Cold War response to the threat of nuclear destruction was a “cozy catastrophes.”  He writes, “…the post-disaster novel was in itself a feature of its times, a response not just to the immediate terrors of the nuclear age, but to the vastly accelerated rate of social, economic and technological change in Britain following World War II.”

In The Chrysalids, the narrator, David, is the son of a landowner -preacher who fanatically tries to stamp out mutations.  One thousand years after a nuclear apocalypse, the government in Labrador has laws decreeing that mutant animals must be destroyed, and mutant humans sterilized and exiled to a wild area known as the Fringes.

What does it mean to be human?  Any kind of difference is suspect.

The character Sophie says, “To be any kind of deviant is to be hurt, always.”

The novel follows the narrator, David, from childhood until he is almost 20.  As a young boy, David first begins to understand how minor the mutations can be when he wanders off alone and meets Sophie.  After sliding down a slope into a sandy gully, her left foot gets jammed between two stones.  David has to remove her shoe to get her foot loose, though she begs him not to.  She has six toes on one foot; he barely notices. But when he takes her back to her mother, she stresses that he must never tell anyone.  Sophie does not have a certificate saying she is human.

David and eight other children, too, are deviant, because they have a special ability:  they can send “thought shapes”and communicate silently.  Uncle Axel, who comes upon David while he is in the process, stresses that silence and secrecy are of the utmost importance.

David’s father’s, Joseph Strom, is obsessed with offences and blasphemies.

Many of them were still obscure to me; others I had learnt something about.  Offences, for instance.  That was because the occurrence of an Offence was sometimes quite an impressive occasion.  Usually the first sign that something had happened was that my father came home in a bad temper.  Then, in the evening, he would call us all together, including everyone who worked on the farm.  We would all kneel while he proclaimed our repentance and led prayers for forgiveness….  As the sun rose we would sing a hymn while my father ceremoniously slaughtered the two-headed calf, four-legged chicken, or whatever kind of Offence it happened to be.  Sometimes it would be a much queerer thing than those…

Eventually their telepathy is detected because of the strength of his younger sister Petra’s ability.  All of them are in danger.

This beautifully-written novel is much more complex and sophisticated than the recent crop of Y.A. dystopian novels, which apparently are equally popular with adolescents and adults.  But the ending of The Chrysalids is simplistic, and it is because of this simplicity that it could also be marketed as a children’s or Y.A. book.

After a decade or so  of “junk” dystopian Y.A. novels, literary writers are now again adding to the genre.  This year Howard Jacobson’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, J;  Edan Lepucki’s well-reviewed California, and Emily St. John Mandel’s National Book Award-shortlisted Station Eleven are praised by reviewers.

For now I’ll stick with The Day of the Triffids.

2 thoughts on “Reading Catch-Up: Proust Update & John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids

  1. While I enjoy ‘The Day of the Triffids’ for me ‘The Crysalids’ is the better book. I agree that the ending is simplistic, but I find the premise behind the plot and the behaviour of the people left so traumatised by what has happened far more believable. In fact, you’ve reminded me just how long it is since I re-read this and I’m seriously thinking of putting it on one of my book group lists just so that I can justify getting my copy out again.

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  2. The Chrysalids is either a classic, or almost a classic, I couldn’t quite decide. The Chrysalids and The Day of the Triffids both share a certain optimism, though the dangers of society and the new earth defeat some of the best of them Oddly, it is the characterization of the rescuers in The Chrysalids, particularly the woman who made contact, that suggested to me there might be less happiness in the future than we might initially think. But that is doubtless a post-modern reading…

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