French, Marcel Proust & Justice Stephen Breyer

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer recently gave an interview to the French literary journal  La Revue des Deux Mondes (a review that Proust once wrote for) where he revealed his love of French literature and how he learned French by reading Marcel Proust‘s In Search of Lost Time in the original:

“I read the Recherche when I was working as a legal intern at an American law firm in Paris. I was trying to learn French, so I read all seven volumes in French. Every night I drew up vocabulary index cards with lists of the new words that I’d learned from Proust. But luckily I found that the lists became shorter and shorter as I made my way deeper into the book!”

A English translation of the interview was published in The New York Review of Books.

Literature with an Agenda

There is an essay on the site Bookslut by Josh Cook that examines “literature with an agenda.” Cook does a good job of defending such books, and faults the influence of MFA programs (which focus strictly on craft) and early 20th Century communist propaganda as reasons why there is resistance today to books with “a message.”

Super Josif
Creative Commons License photo credit: Amio Cajander.

I would also add that many contemporary writers are no longer conversant and/or comfortable with the bedrock works of western civilization: classical Greek and Roman literature and the Bible. This ignorance about the “great conversations” poets and philosophers have been having for 2,500 years is one reason “our national discourse is essentially idea-free” as Cook puts it.

And while I agree with the general direction of Cook’s essay, I disagree with one of his assertions. He writes:

“Literature with an agenda, however, can succeed with sub-par craft, as in much of Philip K. Dick’s work (and even some of Vonnegut’s), if the agenda is compelling, original, and important enough.”

I would argue exactly the opposite. It is writers with poor craft (whether Dick deserves this designation is an entirely different matter) who, by their very nature, write books where artless preaching rudely awakens the reader from the narrative spell.

Cook cites Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time as a successful work with an agenda; Proust was a student of the French philosopher Henri Bergson and in his monumental novels he incorporated Bergson’s idea of “the subordination of mere reason to the genius of inner inspiration and the consideration of art as the only reality in the world,” as Nabokov wrote (now that’s a big-time agenda!).

While Proust’s ambition was light-years beyond the simplistic-agenda of a Soviet party hack, any writer who wants to work artfully with ideas must possess the skills to make his efforts invisible (as Proust does).

Cook’s essay opens an interesting dialogue. I hope more readers and writers will chime in across the Internet. Read the full essay here.