Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: pettiness

Why Write? by William Gass

Getting even is one great reason for writing. The precise statement of the motive is tricky, but the clearest expression of my of my unwholesome nature and my mean motives (apart from trying to write well) appears in a line I like in “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” The character says, “I want to rise so high that when I shit I won’t miss anybody.” But maybe I say it’s a motive because I like the line. Anyway, my work proceeds almost always from a sense of aggression. And usually I am in my best working mood when I am, on the page, very combative, very hostile. That’s true even when I write to praise, as is often the case. If I write about Colette, as I am now, my appreciation will be shaped by the sap-tongued idiots who don’t perceive her excellence. I also take considerable pleasure in giving obnoxious ideas the best expression I can. But getting even isn’t necessarily vicious. There are two ways of getting even: one is destructive and the other is restorative. It depends on how the scales are weighted. Justice, I think, is the word I want.

William Gass, Interview with Paris Review

Perhaps unfortunately, I feel least like this and most magnanimous when writing, similar to how Salinger supposedly loved his Glass family more than anyone in real life.

3.1.2 Saint-Loup

To return to a quote from last time, having left this for a few months:

Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success.

I don’t know if Proust is referring to Wordsworth here, but it’s the Wordsworth of Tintern Abbey that this passage brings up for me, and how he implies an almost inviolate integrity of the self and its memories, one which Proust has already systematically destroyed in Swann’s Way and is now extending to social networks themselves. Very little happens in the entirety of The Guermantes Way; the main plot points are his grandmother’s death and his eventual disenchantment with the Guermantes (on this point, Marcel is a lot more patient than I would have been), and the final revelation at the end of the volume, which I’ll mention later. The main function of the book is to establish how tenuous Marcel’s images of people are, and how the brightest things that he saw earlier have faded or have been completely replaced.
Saint-Loup was one of the most likable characters in Within a Budding Grove, and he’s still likable here: his basic goodness, politeness, and generosity contrast favorably with the pettiness and amorality of most of the other high society characters. But he is a Guermantes, and to the extent that the book is an indictment of the Guermantes way (which, believe me, it is), Saint-Loup is included. He still comes off as the best of the lot, not least for his steadfast anti-Dreyfusism, which appears to come from a genuine moral stance rather than simple trendiness. Yet the conclusion on him is, I think, that his inability to be critical damns him to complicity.
His good side is on display at a party:

It occurred to me on one of these evenings to tell a mildly amusing story about Mme Blandais, but I stopped at once, remembering that Saint-Loup knew it already, and that when I had started to tell it to him the day after my arrival he had interrupted me with: “You told me that before, at Balbec.” I was surprised, therefore, to find him begging me to go on and assuring me that he did not know the story and that it would amuse him immensely‚ĶAnd throughout the story he kept his feverish and enraptured gaze fixed alternately on myself and on his friends. I realized only after I had finished, amid general laughter, that it had struck him that this story would give his comrades a good idea of my wit, and that it was for this reason that he had pretended nto to know it. Such is the stuff of friendship. (103)

The story about Mme Blandais is never mentioned; it’s not important. Marcel’s affection for Saint-Loup here is nearly unmatched. So it comes as a disappointment shortly after Saint-Loup appropriates one of Marcel’s trite conclusions about the world:

I had reckoned without the reverse side of Robert’s cordial admiration for myself and certain other people. That admiration was complemented by so an entire an assimilation of their ideas that after a day or two, he would have completely forgotten that those ideas were not his own. And so, in the matter of my modest thesis, Saint-Loup, for all the world as though it had always dwelt in his own brain, and though I was merely poaching on his preserves, felt it incumbent upon him to greet my discovery with warm approval…
He paused for a moment, with the satisfied smile of one who had digested his dinner, dropped his monocle, and, fixing me with a gimlet-like stare, said to me challengingly:
“All men with similar ideas are alike.”
No doubt he had completely for gotten that I myself had said to him only a few days earlier what on the other hand he had remembered so well. (119)

This gesture is as significant as the last. Saint-Loup is not a malicious person, but he possesses a certain thoughtlessness that, while generating moments of friendship, just as soon alienates Marcel when Saint-Loup treats those around him as sources from which to draw elaborations of his personality. Not that Saint-Loup himself doesn’t suffer. When he gets involved with Rachel, the prostitute that Marcel and Bloch met in the previous volume, he is completely oblivious to her nature:

Robert was ignorant of almost all the infidelities of his mistress, and tormented himself over what were mere nothings compared with the real life of Rachel, a life which began every day only after he had left her. He was ignorant of almost all these infidelities. One could have told him of them without shaking his confidence in Rachel. For it is a charming law of nature, which manifests itself in the heart of the most complex social organisms, that we live in perfect ignorance of those we love. (292)

Proust generalizes Saint-Loup’s behavior to the world at large, but Saint-Loup’s is a particularly extreme case, somewhat like that of Swann but different in that Saint-Loup does not seem to go through the extreme mood swings that Swann did with Odette. He is merely happily oblivious, and pleased to defend that attitude. And for Proust at least, it blunts Saint-Loup’s virtue.

The Little Demon, Fyodor Sologub

The obvious comparison that jumps out is to Gogol. There is a similar dark humor, and a similar cynicism, but those affinities are mostly superficial. While Gogol had larger than life archetypes as characters (the pathetic bureaucrat, the obsessive gamesman, the skinflint), Sologub’s characters are resolutely small and detailed. They hardly succeed at signifying anything other than their own pettiness. The Little Demon was written in 1907, but has nothing of the upcoming Russian futurists about it (though his poetry sure does), nor the power of premonition of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, nor the contemporary feeling of Andrei Bely’s Petersburg. It is more parochial than Gorky. The Little Demon has the claustrophobia of a hellish vision of a small village beyond which no one’s thoughts ever go.

The hero, Peredonov, is a nasty little man, an abusive schoolteacher whose ambition is to become inspector of schools, through the connections of his fiancee Varvara. Unfortunately, Varvara, terrified of Peredonov dumping her for a less repellent woman, has been in league with the old spinster Grushina and has fabricated her connections. Grushina forges letters from a princess in St. Petersburg to Peredonov. Varvara keeps up the charade with increasingly unbelievable antics until Peredonov marries her, by which point Peredonov is quite paranoid, and partly with reason, since most of the people around him really do loathe him and gossip about his peccadilloes. But by the end, he has become completely crazy, unwilling to believe what everyone else knows–that the letters are fakes–and instead chasing after fabricated plots, setting fire to ballrooms, and eventually turning on his dense friend Volodin and slitting his throat, all the while spurred on by the “petty demon” of the title, which taunts him and eggs him on. The hallucinations and unreality is similar to that of Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman,” but there is no redemption, no moment of clarity, only oblivious dark.

In the context of the surroundings, stripped of any nobility, Peredonov occupies a role in his environment similar to that of Pechorin in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, written in 1840, seemingly as a rebuff to Pushkin’s more romantic view of Russia. Pechorin was the cynical, brash opportunist who was no more moral than the pompous nobles around him, but is incredibly successful at exploting them. Lermontov implied that the logical end of Pechorin’s mindset was an ennui-laden fatalism, but Sologub seems to have another answer: paranoia and compulsive scheming can arise just as easily when those around you are too dumb to even act predictably in their own self-interest.

Sologub fills up the book with other grotesquely picaresque anecdotes, which aren’t as shocking as they might be because the characters are so flat. Three shrill sisters, a pompous windbag headmaster, a succession of increasingly dull officials. But one story stands out and nearly takes over the book, though it’s only tangentially connected with Peredonov’s tale, and that’s the story of Lyudmilla and Sasha. Sasha is a young, persecuted student who Peredonov, in another incomprehensible scheme for promotion and fame, attempts to claim is a girl, and Lyudmilla is a shallow, nasty woman who becomes infatuated with him, driven by dreams of being the queen of a palace full of boys whipping each other. Lyudmilla dresses him up in girl’s clothes, pinches him, induces him to foot-worship, and eventually seduces him. Unlike Peredonov, Lyudmilla manages to completely cover up the affair when his aunt hears about it, with Sasha playing along perfectly.

The material is unnerving if not shocking; it’s of such a base nature that Peredonov’s insanity looks fuzzy in comparison. And Sologub seems to relish it more than the rest of the plot, devoting more and more time to the details of their meetings. (That and the general misogyny, misanthropy, and prurience suggest that Sologub was not a nice man.) Lyudmilla even picks up some pagan pretenses that she initially uses to justify her perversions to Sasha. It could be trash, but Sologub goes a ways towards justifying it by painting them in opposition to Peredonov. While Peredonov runs amok, Sasha and Lyudmilla maintain (or even, in Sasha’s case, establish) their public decency by falling back on a secret vice. The implication is that Peredonov failed because his addiction was public achievement. Sasha and Lyudmilla are undoubtedly doomed as well, but they are doomed in the way that Frank Norris’s McTeague was doomed: tolerated if not respected, they’ll go along until their private life destroys their public life. McTeague eventually abandons his dentistry practice for the promise of gold, but Sologub is a bit lighter than Norris. Sologub gives his characters their private pleasure, while in McTeague, there is clenched-teeth misery only let loose when a young boy urinates in public and humiliates his whole family, in an expression of unbelievably repressed (and oppressed) rage.

That’s not to say that Sologub is sanguine, but the two main plots of Peredonov and Sasha/Lyudmilla strengthen each other. Peredonov would just be a madmen amongst dullards, and Sasha and Lyudmilla would just be perverse caricatures, but each is a reaction to the other, as Charles Bovary’s failures make Emma’s futile dreams deeper. I will not go into detail about how the two aspects, one public and deranged, one private and devious, reinforce each other and how that might apply to the past and future history of Russia, but I’d say there’s something there.

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