Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

October 20, 2016
by jenniferpuryear

Guest Post by Laura Cooper: Marcel Proust, That Great Southern Writer.


You can always count on Laura Cooper to elevate the Bacon conversation!  Today, she thinks about the South, our “Garden and Gun moment” in national culture – and Marcel Proust.

From Laura:  Last week, Nashville hosted Bonnaroo for book lovers (otherwise known as the Southern Festival of Books). The Southern Festival of Books isn’t only about Southern books. But this Nashville tradition reminds me how essential writers – and writing – are to the South’s self-image as a profoundly distinctive culture, not just another subregion on the map. Without Southern literature, we’d hold a very different view of ourselves as Southerners, and of “the South” itself, that “sphinx on the American land.”

I doubt I’m the only one who learned who I’m supposed to be by reading Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor, Williams, Twain, Harper Lee: learned the Southerner’s passions and loyalties, our resolute eccentricities, our taste for the off-kilter and the wryly gothic. Who better than Wolfe or Capote, Walker Percy or Willie Morris, to kindle then name the chronic restless homesickness that drives us away from the South, then back again? Who better than Alice Walker, Kate Chopin, or Zora Neale Hurston, who better than Robert Penn Warren or Roy Blount, Jr… But I’ll stop there; you have your own list.


Eudora Welty, by Joy Halstead

For every revered Southern writer, there’s a theory about what makes Southern writing – and Southerners – so distinctive. Eudora Welty thought it came from the cultural habit of tight, specific focus, on the land and the people close at hand:

The Southerner is a local person – to a degree unknown in other sections of the United States. The Southerner always thinks of himself as being from somewhere, as belonging to some spot of earth.

Roy Blount agreed: “The North isn’t a place. It’s just a direction out of the South.”

la-et-jc-flannery-oconnor-usps-stamp-20150526-001Then there’s our collective past, what Willie Morris called the “burden of memory and [the] burden of history” we all carry “in our bones.” We’re the writers we are, O’Connor explained, because

we have had our Fall. We have gone into the modern world with an inburnt knowledge of human limitations and with a sense of mystery which could not have developed in our first state of innocence – as it has not sufficiently developed in the rest of our country.

In Walker Percy’s blunter terms, Southerners write like we do because “we lost the War.”

True; all true as ever. But sometimes I think these long-hallowed truths about classic Southern writing might actually ruin new Southern writing. The literature’s most profound emblems – the wayward heir, unbalanced cousin, poignant quirky child and beloved dog, the hard eating and hard drinking, the fierce race and class violence – don’t necessarily make a story profound. Or a good read, for that matter. Like Pat Conroy’s mother, I worry one day “Southern literature [will] be summed up in these words: On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.”

And now that “the South” is having what, as shorthand, I’ll call our Garden and Gun moment, I wonder – echoing a wise Mississippi friend – if we’ll soon jump the shark, altogether.

If you’ve thought that too, here’s an idea.

This past summer, for the first time in years, I spent weeks at home in Warm Springs, Virginia, in the Alleghany Highlands west of the Shenandoah Valley.









Warm Springs, the county seat of Bath County, has a courthouse, a library, a post office, an inn and restaurant, a handful of old houses, and a population of 123. It’s known for its medicinal mineral springs, where you can still take the waters in octagonal wooden pool houses first built in 1761. And it’s five miles from The Homestead, which celebrates its 250th birthday this year.

There’s nothing more Virginian than Warm Springs in July. The days are lush green and quiet, the nights full of stars and lightening bugs. We had five deep, shady porches, and a creek out back. But no cable, no internet, and feeble cell service. After a day or two pacing the lane to find Verizon bars – sweeping the phone like dowsing for water – I gave up and pretty much left it turned off. Friends and family came and went. We cooked, we swam, we tried skeet shooting and golf. We retraced old favorite paths through the countryside. We played Scrabble. We read.









As it happened, the book I’d brought with me was Lydia Davis’s 2002 translation of Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust, first published in 1913 (and financed by Proust himself after the Paris publishers rejected him), and the first of the seven volumes in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). I’ll confess, I’d tackled Proust before, only to be daunted by the convoluted sentences, the gauzy psychological ramblings, the creakingly slow pace; the odd tension between the book’s modernist structure and the almost flowery language of the 1922 Moncrieff translation, the only standard English translation before now. It’s not easy even to define what the book is: Proust himself called it a novel but hedged, warning “the novel form is the form from which it departs least.”

Yet this time, in Virginia in July, Proust finally reached me. That’s partly because of Lydia Davis – a MacArthur genius grant winner for her own fiction and a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres for other translations. Critics have praised Davis for returning Proust to his own sensibility, to a kind of clean understatement, a smooth rhythmic plainness, that feels very fresh and modern. I agree. This Proust is beautiful, and delicious to read.


But even more, there in Warm Springs in July, I read Proust as a Virginian and a Southerner, read it at a moment when I was leading with that part of my head and my heart; when those paths were open and foremost. And what I discovered is that Swann’s Way – Proust’s slow meditation on the compelling this-ness of home, family, and desire – embodies what is best and most profound in classic Southern literature. Yes, Proust, that great Southern writer.

Photo by Roger Viollet/Geddy

Photo by Roger Viollet/Geddy

Swann’s Way tells two stories in three long chapters. In “Combray,” the (autobiographical) narrator recounts the peaceful routines he lived as a child at his grandfather’s Loire Valley country house, the rich and complex memories so famously triggered, years later, by a spoonful of madeleine crumbs soaked in tea – that “Proustian” moment we all recognize even without reading Proust. “Swann in Love” and “Place Names: The Name” describe the tumultuous love affair between the high-society Charles Swann and his inappropriate wife, the courtesan Odette, a woman of “amorous notoriety.” Threading throughout is the narrator’s own infatuation with Swann’s daughter, Gilberte.

Despite the novel’s reputation as a difficult modernist work, these stories are remarkably simple and ordinary, just humans being awkwardly human. The narrator’s beloved Combray is no romantic vision. Instead,

To live in, Combray was a little dreary, like its streets, whose houses, built of blackish stones of the countryside . . . capped with gables that cast shadows down before them, were so dark that once the daylight began to fade one had to draw back the curtains in the “formal rooms[.]”

The walled town, and the “two ways” to walk out in the countryside around it (Swann’s way – past his estate, off limits after his scandalous marriage – and a second walk along the river), seduce the young narrator not because they are guidebook-beautiful, but because he habitually experiences them on their most concrete, specific level: nasturtiums, periwinkle, pink hawthorns, lilacs (fresh and decayed); this wall, that lane, that gate back into town.

And Proust’s family, so deeply loved, are neither grand nor especially noble. His aunts, his mother and father, their cook Françoise – they all have everyday faults. They gossip; they judge (and yes, there’s startling anti-Semitism); they lose patience with children. They get miffed and hold long, heartbreaking grudges. One is a diva hypochondriac. Even the town’s bona fide aristocrat, the Duchesse de Guermantes – her family “Glorious since Charlemagne” – turns out to have “a red face” and “a little pimple at the edge of” her “prominent nose” when she finally makes an appearance.

The family are all anxious to proclaim and preserve their upper-bourgeois place in the world, a drive confounded by the disarming Swann: he’s a son of their own class, an expert but lazy art historian, who’s mysteriously joined the highest social circles in Paris, yet whose wife can’t be welcomed to the house in Combray. When Swann shows up for dinner, letting himself in like a cat through the garden gate, the family titters and frets: Will they try too hard to please him? Will they please him enough? Who are they themselves, if they can no longer place him with confidence? Swann brings the confusing modern world in with him to peaceful Combray, to the family’s beguiled consternation.

Proust writes them all as comic, yet dear. Flawed, yet loved. Linked to a place and a past, a family and a history, that can make the future hard to negotiate.

Very Proustian. And very Southern, that deep “belonging to some spot of earth.”

Once I felt this resonance, there on the porch in Warm Springs, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Thomas Wolfe discovered Proust at Harvard in the early 1920s, and Faulkner so admired A la Recherche du Temps Perdu that he declared, “I wish I had written it myself.”

William Faulkner/Photo by Ralph Thompson

William Faulkner/Photo by Ralph Thompson

I know, academics link Proust and Faulkner mostly for how they both disrupt narrative time, shift points of view, and manipulate dreams and memory; all high-end modernist fireworks. Still, and modestly, I suggest that Swann’s Way embodies something more fundamentally Southern, just stripped (refreshingly) of the clichéd emblems of the American “South”: Proust’s loyal rootedness to a real, flawed place and to a real, flawed people – often justly reproached, but always loved.

The heart of the best Southern literature.


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For more from Laura, check out her blog at and other Bacon pieces on The Little Red Chairs, A Little Life, and My Brilliant Friend, among others.

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Image of Eudora Welty by Joy Halstead at College of Charleston, The College Today.

The South as that “sphinx on the American land”:  courtesy of historian David Potter.

October 18, 2016
by jenniferpuryear

Two New Books and Three Great Truths from the Southern Festival of Books


I brought home two new books and three great truths from the Southern Festival of Books.  More on the books later.  On the truths: these aren’t showstopper truths or brand new truths.  They are humble and quiet; you’ve met them before.  I was glad they gently tapped me on the shoulder this weekend, and I’m sending you their greetings today.

1. Words from a stranger can be a lifeline.  I was having a hard Sunday – swimming in my own special sea of anxieties – and was soon to introduce the lovely and smart actress and author Kimberly Williams-Paisley (Where the Light Gets In: Losing My Mother Only to Find Her Again).  “How pretty your hair looks!” an older woman said to me on her way into the room.  She could not of course know that I was suffering from acute hair anxiety following a recent hatchet job.  The woman’s words were soothing to my agitated spirit.  “Maybe it’s not as bad as I think!” I thought (though actually it is).  No matter.  Her words gave me an infusion of courage and confidence when I needed it.  Reminder: Compliment strangers.  Kind words have such power.

Kimberly signing books after her reading

Kimberly signing books after her reading

2. Calm words have great power, too.  There is usually a solution if you don’t lose your cool.  Due to an errant email from me, Kimberly Williams-Paisley was set to arrive for her session at 3 pm on Sunday.  Unfortunately, her session was actually supposed to begin an hour earlier.  I completely lost my cool in the privacy of my own home and then – barely coherent with worry – called the Festival organizer, Serenity Gerbman.  Within 15 minutes, without missing a beat, she had a plan.  The smart people at Humanities Tennessee and the Library worked together to adjust, and all ended well.  Kimberly gave an inspired talk to a large, enthusiastic group.  You would never have known there had been any kind of logistical emergency.  Reminder: stay in the saddle when confronted with bad facts.

3. Kimberly’s acting teacher had some great advice: “Ride the horse in the direction that it’s going,” she said. “Instead of wishing for things to be different, choose to embrace the life in front of you,” Kimberly writes in her moving memoir about her mother’s early onset dementia.  “When I let go of my tight grip on expectation, I found I could still have some kind of relationship with my mother.  I could share love with her in a beautiful new way.”


Caveat:  Ride the horse in the direction it’s going – until, you know, it’s time to get off.  This element of the truth smacked me in the face on Friday, watching authors Brad Watson (Miss Jane) and Donald Ray Pollock (The Heavenly Table) share the stage.


The men were a study in contrasts, sharing only their late starts as writers of fiction.  Pollock seems a straight arrow, serious and careful in demeanor.  He went to work at the union mill after high school graduation and worked there until age 50, taking the biggest chance of his life when he left his job and went to grad school.  Watson, on the other hand: that fella was trouble from an early age, you can tell, and he’s still got the swagger.  He had to do some hard time in Hollywood (as a garbage collector, among other things) before finding his way to writing.  When asked about getting a late start as a writer, Watson reminded us to consider author Harriet Doerr, who published her first novel, Stones for Ibarra, at age 73.  It went on to win the National Book Award (then the American Book Award for First Work of Fiction) in 1984.  Doerr died in 2002 at age 92.

From her obituary in the LA Times:

Asked what was the worst possible sin, she alternately named deliberate cruelty to another being and the failure to use one’s talent.  She believed that education could restore tolerance and sanity to the world.  She despised euphemism, pretension, phoniness, and hypocrisy.  She most valued kindness, curiosity, a sense of humor and the ridiculous, provocative ideas, and beautiful language.  In an interview for the Los Angeles Times, she said, “I do believe that, during your life, everything you do, and everyone you meet, rubs off in some way.  Some bit of everything that you experience stays with everyone you’ve ever known, and nothing is lost.  That’s what’s eternal, these little specks of experience in a great, enormous river that has no end.”  Or, as she wrote of one of her characters, she believed that “the tree still held all the birds that ever sang there.”

4. (Bonus Truth). Harriet Doerr reminded me:  It’s never too late.  But it’s always later than you think.

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Other highlights of the Festival:

Better than a backpack:


Beautiful friends at Authors in the Round dinner:








Books I brought home:

And the book I’m going to read because Robert Olen Butler recommended it:


Evening at Authors in the Round: