Jul. 10, 2009
To A High School Senior
Don't go. Don't stay.
Daughter. Morning after afternoon
the last year slips away.
Singing all the old songs, you will go
(ambivalence of moon, certainty of sun)
only half of what we are.
The earth is earth to us, star
if apprehended far enough away.
Daughter – don't go.
It's the birthday of a man whose entire reputation is built on one novel that is more than 3,000 pages long: Marcel Proust, (books by this author) born in Auteuil, France (1871). His parents were well off — his father had been born poor but had worked his way up to become a respected doctor. Marcel was a sickly child, prone to asthma attacks, and he was in and out of school. He studied law and philosophy, but he was most interested in writing and in his own social ambitions.
He published stories and essays in literary magazines, and he started work on a long novel, but after writing several thousand pages he was frustrated and gave it up.
He continued to live with his brother and parents in their apartment. Finally, his father insisted that he get a job, so he found work as a volunteer and almost immediately applied for sick leave, and never went back to work.
But then, within a couple of years, his brother got married and moved away from home, and both his parents died. After his mother's death, he spent awhile recovering in a sanatorium. When he got out, he started to write again — supported by a large inheritance left him by his mother — and he set out to write his great novel.
And he spent the rest of his life working on The Remembrance of Things Past, which is sometimes titled In Search of Lost Time, a more accurate translation of the French.
In one of the most famous scenes in the novel, the narrator, Marcel, tastes some cake with tea:
I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?
It's the birthday of the short-story writer Alice Munro, (books by this author) born in Wingham, Ontario (1931). She grew up on a farm, and she said, "Reading was an indulgence that you didn't go in for if there was physical work to be done." Women were only supposed to read on Sundays, because on every other day of the week they had no excuse to be reading when they could be knitting instead. So as a kid, she was always telling herself stories, and when she didn't like the endings — like in Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" — she would make up new ones.
She went to college, hoping to become a writer, but she dropped out to get married and have three children. She got divorced and went back to her hometown to take care of her sick father, and she was amazed at how much material there was there. She said, "What I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together — radiant, everlasting." And she took those things, and turned them into short stories.
She has written 11 books of short stories, and a new collection, Too Much Happiness, which comes out later this year. In May, Alice Munro won the Man Booker International Prize.
She said: "It's not possible to advise a young writer because every young writer is so different. You might say, 'Read,' but a writer can read too much and be paralyzed. Or, 'Don't read, don't think, just write,' and the result could be a mountain of drivel. If you're going to be a writer you'll probably take a lot of wrong turns and then one day just end up writing something you have to write, then getting it better and better just because you want it to be better, and even when you get old and think 'There must be something else people do,' you won't quite be able to quit."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®