The last couple of weeks left me pooped, so here goes with me trying to turn the blogging wheel once again.
A fellow I know on Goodreads recently finished reading Proust's In Search Of Lost Time, and mostly had negative things to say about it. Many of his objections, I agree with: the book is mainly about a character with little to like, whose chief qualities are his narcissism and solipsism, and who is depicted by an author who disdains dramatic development to the point of self-parody. But I also got the feeling (as I've read a fair amount of the cycle myself now) that none of this was an affectation, that Proust wrote the book this way because he felt he had no choice — that he was putting himself on the page, for better or worse. What's new to me, though, is the sense that any lessons we learn from such singular, idiosyncratic works are not necessarily positive ones.
I liked reading Proust because it was fun to get lost in his sentences and wander around, the way he himself must have wandered through his own memories to draw endless connections between things. But there's nothing about such a book that I would ever want to emulate — not the aimlessness, not the mistaking of sentiment for profundity, not much of anything really. By the time I'd read enough of him to know what he was all about, I knew I didn't want to read him to emulate him, but just to know what was possible under his banner.
I had some fun imagining what one might put at the other end of a spectrum from Proust. Maybe Simenon — short, to the point, also psychologically astute, but utterly unsentimental. Maybe some expansive, outward-looking author like Dumas père. Ther more singular the author, the easier it is to find things that stand in opposition or contrast to them, than it is to find brothers or even cousins to their work.
One can learn plenty from an author you don't ever plan to follow. Sometimes the lessons you learn from authors you admire are harder to follow properly, because they come in the form of slavish devotion or forensic mimicry rather than taking the few things that you need to learn and applying them in your own way. Proust had a few things I wanted to try emulating, but absolutely not in his way. But so did Alfred Bester, and Ousmane Sembene, and Doris Lessing, and "James Tiptree, Jr." (Alice Sheldon), and so on. What was harder with such authors was learning the right lessons from them instead of feeling compelled to copy them wholesale. It's tempting to write just like your idols, but then you unwittingly inherit all their flaws and limitations as well as their transcendent qualities. With someone you admire at arm's length, it's easier to learn only what you need.