Turning the pages – Stephen King and Marcel Proust (and Michel Butor)

I find myself – as someone who always has at least two books on the go – currently reading both the second volume of Proust’s A la recherche… and Stephen King’s latest blockbuster, 11.22.63.   If I say that these present two very different reading experiences, an ironic ‘who knew?’ would be a reasonable response.  However, I invariably find that the things I’m reading in parallel, however different they may be in genre, register, subject matter or anything else, create intriguing connections and trigger, at the very least, random ruminations on the various topics that preoccupy me.

Proust is actually immensely readable, if you let yourself go, let yourself float along on his endless sentences, absorbing it all rather than worrying about what is happening (not a huge amount, in general, it’s not about external events as much as internal processes – the process by which the narrator becomes indifferent to Gilberte with whom he has been in love, for example).   One doesn’t pick the book up with the sense of urgency that Stephen King can generate, and one is unlikely to be tempted to skip mealtimes or be late for appointments, or to miss out on sleep in order to read just one more chapter.  But you can lose yourself in it, immersed in his world – and it’s also funnier than one might have expected.  Obviously Proust is hugely influential on 20th century fiction, not just in France.  Butor certainly shows the influence of his style in his labyrinthine sentences – bizarrely, he was criticised for this by the literary establishment, on the basis that the French language demands short sentences.  Understandably he referred them to Proust, only to be told, well, Proust is Proust.   Taking the view that Butor is Butor, he dumped the draft with the short, pithy sentences for the one that draws you in and takes you on a hypnotic journey where the phrases loop around and around so that the key words and images accumulate more and more power as they resonate with each other.

If everyone agrees that Proust is a great writer, not many have actually read any, let alone all, of his great oeuvre.  Stephen King is read by millions, but disparaged by many, even if his critical standing is better than it used to be.  He now gets reviews in the quality press, even if most still start with a defence of the coverage being given to this kind of book.  It wasn’t always so, and the change is reflected in the book covers – early editions looked tacky, whilst more recent reissues and new titles, have a generally classier look.   The schlock-horror image put me off for a long time, and I only read King because a friend told me I must, and lent me The Stand.  I didn’t expect to like it.  But within a page, I was hooked, and read it straight through, twice.  That’s one of his great gifts; right from the start he makes you want – need – to know what happens and, very importantly, makes you care about the people he introduces, so that the compulsion to read on is not just curiosity but an emotional connection.

He’s a hugely talented writer, who can transcend genre, but who for the most part is happy to work within it; a horror writer who can go for the gross-out but whose power resides in his ability to make you connect with his characters, and in his ability to make goodness as compelling as evil.  Not all of King’s books are great, but none are less than readable, and many will repay re-reading.   He uses the classic horror writer’s trick, of starting with the everyday, the familiar, and introducing something that’s just that bit off key, unsettling.  Often this is done by the narrator forewarning us that this apparently mundane event is far from it – in 11.22.63 the trigger is a teacher reading the work of a pupil in his adult learners’ creative writing class.  We don’t know how or why this will change everything, but we know that it will do so, and everything thereafter is imbued with this disquiet – a sense of the uncanny, das unheimliche, to use Freud’s term.  It’s a cognitive dissonance – something is both familiar and foreign, and so one is at the same time attracted and repelled.

One thing King does very powerfully is to create a bad place.   Derry, Maine, is one such – a town that just isn’t quite right, where this disquiet is manifested in the mutual mistrust of the locals, the desire of visitors to get the hell out as soon as they can, and a feeling that bad things have happened, may be still happening, and are probably just around the next corner.   It’s part of King’s fictional geography of Maine, his home state, a trinity to match Lovecraft‘s Massachusetts trinity (Derry, Castle Rock and Salem’s Lot on the one hand, Innsmouth, Arkham and Dunwich on the other) and we visit it in many of his novels – he references the plots and characters of those earlier novels often too, so the reader who’s familiar with the opus has an added weight of unease.   Interesting in this context to see the new Topophobia exhibition and publication, on fear of place in contemporary art.

I thought of that aspect of King quite often when reading L’Emploi du temps.   Butor’s narrator arrives in a northern industrial city, his train is late, and he’s lost his letter of introduction with details of the firm he’ll be working for or his hotel,  so on his first evening in the city he gets lost, and ends up sleeping on a bench in the 3rd class waiting room.   Obviously this is an inauspicious start, but right from these first pages, there’s the sense that it’s more than that.   Jacques Revel is afraid.  He’s ‘seized with sudden panic…. for one endless second… overwhelmed by an absurd wish to draw back, to give it all up, to escape’ (Passing Time, p. 8).  Later, a colleague, who’s never left the city, tells him ‘there’s something peculiar about this place, something which I’ve never seen satisfactorily described in any story set elsewhere, a sort of permanent dread’ (p. 89).  Just like Derry, Bleston is a place where we are in suspense, waiting for the bad things to which everything is leading, and which everything is attempting to conceal, and where ‘even at midday the few passers-by hurry, hugging the walls, humming to themselves with lowered heads as if it were black night’ (p. 90).   Something is wrong with Bleston, but unlike King, Butor does not require us to accept a supernatural explanation for this.   We’re potentially in the realm of Todorov’s ‘fantastic uncanny’, where the apparently supernatural is subsequently explained as illusion (through dreams, drugs, madness), but we are ultimately left with uncertainty, as the book ends with the narrator’s departure, and his acknowledgement of the lacunae in his narrative.   The Turn of the Screw is perhaps the classic example of this – the reader is left to ponder whether the governess is delusional,  and nothing supernatural has actually happened, or whether the laws of reality have changed as she believes.  The French have a higher regard for fantastic literature than we have.  Poe and Lovecraft are held in much higher esteem there, and both are present in Butor’s Bleston – Poe’s short story ‘The Man of the Crowd‘ has intriguing echoes in not only the supernatural but the detective story aspects of the book, and we also find the Lovecraftian motif of a place where every route out leads back to the place one is attempting to escape – see Ramsay Campbell‘s story ‘The Church in High Street’ for a more recent hommage to Lovecraft in this respect.  To quote Revel’s colleague again: ‘Perhaps you’ve already tried to escape, but in that case you’ve only just made a beginning, M. Revel … you’ll be losing more than your way’ (p. 89-90).

Michel Butor, Passing Time, translated by Jean Stewart (London: John Calder, 1965)

Ramsay Campbell, ‘The Church in High Street’, Cold Print (London: Grafton Books, 1985)

Helene Cixous, ‘Fiction and its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud’s “Das Unheimliche (The “Uncanny”)”’, New Literary History, 7, 3 (1976), 525-48

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, 1898 (London: Penguin, 1986)

Stephen King, 11.22.63 (Hodder & Stoughton, 2011)

H P Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature, 1927 (NY: Dover, 1973)

H P Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (London: Penguin, 1999)

Edgar Allan Poe, Selected Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Marcel Proust, A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, 1918(Paris: Gallimard, 1988)

Tzvetan Todorov,  Introduction à la littérature fantastique (Paris: Seuil, 1976)

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