Embarrassment is a topic which comes up from time time in conversations with an old friend who often visits Best of Now. He used to admit to frequent embarrassment. I used to claim never to experience it. I can no longer make that claim. Embarrassment has caught up with me over the years.
A recent instance: I come across in the Oxfam second hand bookshop a book called Avec Marcel Proust by Jaques Benoit-Méchin. It sounds intriguing. The author met Proust as a very young man, when he asked to be allowed to translate A la Recherche du temps perdu into German. This was in 1922, and Proust, his great work just about complete, granted the young man's request and suggested that he write an essay on the novel into the bargain. Six months later Proust died and the book, which I have just acquired, is I find based on the essay which Benoist-Mechin would have written at the time, but did not publish until 1977. Its value is reinforced by a handwritten note to the previous owner on the frontispiece which says : "I have been told by those that have read it that it is quite marvellous."
I have as yet barely opened it myself, but curious about the author, I google for a minute or two to discover that the author was a well known Nazi collaborator and was imprisoned at the end of World War 2. It will not deter me from reading the book but I cannot help feeling, even if it as good as it sounds, that I will not enjoy it as much as I would have done, if I had remained ignorant of the author's inclinations. Embarrassed? Yes, a little because I was intially so pleased with my discovery.
In the Grove, four or five teenage boys and girls climb into a tree and cluster among the branches. Now they hang upside down on the swinging boughs with their legs, now they
hug the trunk with their arms . As I watch them I see the arboreal animals from which we are all descended at play, and imagine that I hear the voice of David Attenborough, describing their antics.
The French at that time were told to collaborate by their own government. Few didn't, despite claims of resistance after the war. There's always more to any story.
Re: the book - It isn't for me to say, certainly, but I like the word chagrin for circumstances such as this, which, in French, means sorrow, I believe.
Long after I became a fan of Wagner's operas, I learned of his anti-Semitism and Hitler's obsession with the man and his music. I was then presented with a quandry of conscience. Now, when I listen to my favorite passages, my enjoyment is tarnished a bit by that later discovery. I feel a sorrow beneath the joy.
That's quite a rarefied kind of embarrassment, not like hurting someone's feelings or humiliating oneself in public.
I think your reading of the essay will be differently informed and possibly more interesting for your knowledge about its author now. How, for example, will he treat, or avoid treating, the question of Proust's own Jewishness, and the amibivalent and ironic representation of the Jewish characters in the book, and the recurrent theme of the Dreyfus affair? In much of the dialogue about that, I feel one can perceive the seeds of Nazism, and how easily they sprouted and took hold in society later, how little it was resisted. Reading even the limited number of different critiques and commentaries I have, it strikes me what an elusive and protean thing the book is in the eyes of different readers.
I wonder if you'll wish you'd found out afterwards when you read it, or feel better that you knew first?
Z I am reluctant to condemn people who during the war may have too easily collaborated with the occupying forces. It is often a question of degree. This man seems to have been very active and militant.
Crow: Chagrin. Just right. I thought of Wagner too. It would be a shame to miss his music because of his views. I agree.But there is somehow a justifiable feeling of regret that anyone capable of producing great music or, for that matter, well crafted prose, should have allowed hatred which is one of the features of the Faschist mentality, to pollute their view of life and corrode their creative energy.
L It's a short book so there is not much room for exposition. Proust's account of the Jewish chracters in his book at first surprised me, but on reflection I realize that it ironic, sometimes funny and usually accurate. It is certainly often cruel. But it should not escape the reader that Bloch is and remains a friend of the narrator.
We know, too, that Proust as a young man, himself indulged in the high-flown Homeric language which he attributes to the youthful Bloch, and that to some extent borrowed aspects of his own character in describing Bloch's. We should not forget that Proust and the narrator in A la recherch were pro rather than anti Dreyfus in the great controversy that divided France so deeply and for so long.
I wrestle continually with the Jews as a special case. Woody Allen, the wildly successful American TV series "Seinfeld" and its equally successful successor "Curb your enthusiasm" all include teasing, flirtatious stories where Jews come off worst. But then all the creative people involved are Jews. If one believes in free speech then the goyim should be accorded the same opportunities. But they are not.
As to prominent people with clay feet (though anti-semitism is perhaps a more profound failing than this phrase suggests) I am reminded of this every time I see a wild-life feature on TV. One recent episode was devoted to the tranquillising and transportation of rhinos to some other place where their survival would be more assured. I watched the dangerous work, thinking only of what Hemingway's attitude towards a rhino would have been. Perhaps we are lucky that his books are somewhat out of fashion and therefore the contradiction is not so acute. But Hemingway also contributed an admirable style of writing which has been adopted by many others. Is that tainted by his Bwana safaris? Autre temps, autre moeurs?.
I try to imagine Proust's attitude towards this writer, for Proust was truly observant. The problem is that a Nazi sympathiser needn't necessarily have been an anti-semite beforehand. And yet, admiring Proust as I do, I want him to have been aware of these latent failings and to have granted the youth's request for some other labyrinthine Proustian reason. Gosh, this is a can of worms.
Lucy: "rarefied kind of embarrassment". Absolutely the worst kind.
Brief follow-up: In the 29 Sep 09 edition of the NYT is an article on the flap surrounding Polanski's romp with a 13-year-old in the late 70s. The article discusses separating art from the reprehensible behaviors of the artists. I thought of Joe's book and this ensuing discussion.
(Sorry I don't know how to embed a direct link.)
As usual, I was looking for something else, and was hooked by the Polanski rumble, which I remember clearly from that time.
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