Nellie Oleson Destroyed Western Civilization
Our North Carolina literary correspondent provides us with perspectives on our contemporary world from the pages of literature.
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My online Scrabble game just told me that, no, I cannot put an “L” on “outhunt.” I rather liked the (non) word: louthunt. Let’s have one!
People around here (rural N.C.) are not, in any sense of the word, readers. It took a while when we first moved back here, to realize that, “What have you read lately?” was not a conversation starter. More of an ender, actually.
Twice in the past two weeks, I have had two very uncomfortable/embarrassing encounters with local men over the cover on the volume of Proust I am currently reading. (N.b., one was one of my drs, and one was a pharmacy delivery man (see plural of doctor)).
Proust can be found mainly in three formats: the huge, huge 1100+ page 2 volume set, translated by Scott Moncrieff, published in the early 1930s; a much more modern approach in 3 volumes, and a set of each of the 6 volumes printed separately, either with different translators, or with a sort of “modernization” of Moncrieff. Far more manageable.
Anyway, I am reading Vol. 5, The Captive and The Fugitive (Moncrieff: “The Prisoner” and “The Sweet Cheat Gone”). We’re sort of in medeas res here, but I can say quickly that this volume concerns the epic relationship between the Narrator and Albertine.
Now, these volumes are—as you probably know—classics of world literature. But for some reason, the paperback I am reading has a photograph of a (very trim) woman’s thigh, angled out 90 degrees, w/ a sort of filmy lingerie covering the crotch. Truthfully? I had never paid much attention to it. But here’s what happened.
I was in my doctor’s examining room. When he came in he glanced at the book and said, “What’s that you’re reading?”
Now, this man is no dummy; when I began to (innocently)(I thought he was actually interested in what I was reading) discuss Proust and some of his ramifications, he got the point and we fell to talking of other things.
The second encounter came just at supper and I was, as usual, reading while I ate. The pharmacy delivery guy saw the book on the table and asked what I was reading. Now, this guy has delivered meds here dozens of times while I was eating/cooking with a book to hand, and NEVER asked about it. It was the damn thigh. And he asked the question in a rather gurgly, all over-ish voice. I sort of exploded, “For God’s sake!” I cried, (by now I’d realized about the thigh). “It’s a classic of world literature!” And the fool continued to simper, “Is it about a love affair?” “No, Goddammit, it’s about one man’s search for his identity as an artist, and how that relates to the passage of time, and to memory.”
I mean, really. And, truthfully? I didn’t say that last sentence…it came to me (as much does) only later.
And I wondered—as I have for many years—who the hell does the artwork/photos for book jackets? It has always seemed to me that most of them have nothing to do with the book they’re on. Is it some kind of sweatshop thing, where a poor starving artist is given 50 books to do as piecework?
Later. I finished Vol. 5 and have begun Vol. 6, Time Regained. And am feeling thankful that this volume’s photo cover is of a man’s hard, formal (detachable) shirt collar from the early 20th century. Which has about as much to do with the contents as the alluring thigh does for Vol. 5.