Monday, 8 August 2011

A Strange Juxtaposition

I don't have much time to read at the moment as I'm working really hard, but I never stop reading completely, and in the last few days I found myself reading two completely different books at once.

The books were A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust, and The Rules, by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider.

A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu (OK, who'm I trying to kid? Let's call it Remembrance of Things Past. I'm reading it in English, obviously) is a masterpiece. It's probably best-known for being extremely long: it's somewhere around a million words, I think - I'm on page 829, which is near the end of the first volume of three... But it's also well-known for being brilliant. Proust is an amazing observer, dry and quietly witty and beautifully incisive, saying things about human behaviour and emotions that are true, and surprising, and surprising because they are surprising. There's more wisdom about memory and friendship and pleasure and unrequited love than you can shake a stick at. Not to mention writing and success and failure and... well, you get the idea. All the subjects that are close to my heart. I would recommend it to everyone. (Or at least the first 829 pages. I don't know about the rest yet.)

The Rules, on the other hand, is an abomination. I requested it from the library because I'd come across it on Wikipedia and thought it sounded interesting in a distasteful sort of way. I now feel - literally - dirty.

The Rules is a "self-help" (I'm sorry, but those quotation marks are necessary) book which, by its own admission, is designed to help women capture the heart - sorry, the engagement ring - of "Mr. Right". It is a guide to "playing hard to get" and consists entirely of gems like "always hang up first", "never accept a date for Saturday after Wednesday" and "don't sleep with him on the first date". I started off by feeling amused and superior. As I persevered I started to feel queasy. "We are feminists," the introduction announces, "but men and women are biologically and emotionally different. Men are the aggressors." There is so much wrong with this statement that I don't know where to start. (Here might be good, actually.)

The authors of The Rules are deeply smug about their "success stories". Cherry and Marilyn and Paige have all, apparently, done really well in their quest to get married (notice the lack of indirect object in that phrase). Thanks to The Rules. And you know what? I can see why, if you're already the sort of person who would do The Rules, doing The Rules might help you. If you need The Rules, you are probably the kind of person who will do better in the "quest for Mr. Right" if you hide the real you. (Actually, I think I feel sorrier for the "Mr. Right"s.)

I also couldn't help posing the question of what happens when, having got that all-important engagement ring, you finally let your fiance see the real you. This had obviously occurred to the previous readers of The Rules, since in this new updated edition the authors had explained that you don't stop doing The Rules just because you're married! Oh no! You go on with The Rules, because if you don't want to be single or divorced you have to make sure your man feels good about himself and goes on feeling that he's the aggressor he naturally, biologically is.

I wonder what Proust would have made of all this. Unlike Fein and Schneider, he probably wouldn't have claimed to be a feminist. And he might well have acknowledged the power that delay and frustration have on desire. But I like to think that he would have been quietly contemptuous of their sexual politics, their smugness, their evangelical desperation. And, indeed, their prose style.

Then again, I haven't finished Remembrance of Things Past yet. For all I know, the next 2,200 pages could be filled entirely with dating advice.

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