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  • Reading Proust with Daniel Mendelsohn
  • Daniel T. O’Hara (bio)
Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate
Daniel Mendelsohn
University of Virginia Press 128 Pages; Cloth, $19.95

On page 102 of this self-advertised “genre-defying book” (front flap) one reads this: “It is as if there, at the beginning of the Odyssey, Homer were dreaming of Sebald.” The reversal of temporal order, what is present now appears at the origin, what was original now speaks of the latest, is the perfect definition and instance of transumption, the poetic trope of tropes in Harold Bloom’s work throughout most of his career. A few days before he died on October 14, 2018, he wrote to me joke-complaining that “You are a Valentinian Gnostic, Dan, always wanting to redeem all the dead.” For him, the technique of transumption is the major weapon in the arsenal of endless agon between present-day poets and their self-chosen precursors, regardless of who may be the biological ones. The fight for him was never-ending, unless his own end.

My interest in Daniel Mendelsohn, a classicist, a contributing editor to The New York Review of Books, and an author of three previous contributions to the contemporary hybridic genre of memoir is not centered immediately on Bloom, however, but in a more playful question: Why introduce into a book-long discussion, albeit a small book, of the narrative technique of ring composition — nesting stories within stories a la Russian dolls or Chinese boxes — the trope of transumption ten pages from the end of it? What is the reader to make of the book’s retelling and interweaving in this tale of exile, narrative, and fate, the lives and major works of Erich Auerbach, Francois Fenelon, and W. G. Sebald, in the context of Mendelsohn’s sense of self-exile from his creative power to write, that is, his own pathos-ridden story of aporia, being caught in the dilemma of choosing between the so-called sunny Greek way of narration in which, however tragic, all becomes visible and known in the end for renewed ordering purposes and the Hebraic way of narration with its hovering darkness out of which either destruction or deliverance may at any moment appear, so that meanwhile little imaginative creation can arise sublimely paralyzed — pathos toppling power. And why does Mendelsohn, at the heart of the book, spend so much time in analyzing Proust’s alleged mastery — by our author, among others — of both ways? This is the ring upon ring of critical questions to explore as I pursue my general study — no doubt rather Quixotic now — of the value of reading literature closely.

My proposed answer to this nesting questions is simply that Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (1913) is the ultimate precursor text that looms largest for Mendelsohn and this is why his reading of it here is so pregnant with meaning, especially future meaning, as I would prophesy that his next major text will be a novel in the Proustian mode.

Be that as it may, since I received enormous pleasure reading critically what Mendelsohn has to say in Part 2 “The Education of Young Girls” of Three Rings about Proust, I will focus my remarks there. This section discusses Fenelon and his wildly successful “spin-off” of Homer’s Odyssey, an ur-bildungsroman about Telemachus that he wrote largely for those young girls he teaches per the Sun King’s policy to enlighten young women, without their losing their innocence about the world. Fenelon wins the éclat of the public, including his “girls,” but for his thinly disguised critical portrait seriously angers Louis XIV, who consequently has him exiled to a northern most archbishopric in Balbec, which Proust will fictionalize as Cambrai in his great novel, the place by the sea where Marcel, his narrator, claims he first fell in love with Albertine, the adolescent girl, who will make his life a living hell.

Meanwhile, Mendelsohn discusses how the Greek Way of narration in which in the end, however complicated or tragic it might be, leads to the...


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