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August 03, 2003|Susan Salter Reynolds

The Complete

Short Stories

of Marcel Proust

Translated from the French

by Joachim Neugroschel

Cooper Square Press:

202 pp., $16.95

"It is young with the youth of the author. Yet it is old with the oldness of the world," wrote Anatole France in his preface to this collection of stories, first printed in 1894. Marcel Proust was 23 at the time and the reviews were tolerant, if not glowing. "Elegant nothings," wrote one critic, and it's true; Proust tosses off these portraits of aristocratic dilettantes as if he were reciting the catechism. The story "Social Ambitions and Musical Tastes of Bouvard and Pecuchet" actually lists the requirements for entering high society and includes a summary of the fundamental attributes of each social niche. Social climbers, snobs, arrogant middle-class types incur the author's greatest scorn and are humiliated in a variety of ways. So the stories are rather nasty little nothings, except when the young Proust writes about love, a subject in which his wisdom preceded his talent. In "The Melancholy Summer of Madame de Breyves," Proust describes the obsessive fantasy love that a bored woman feels for an elusive man: "Monsieur de Laleande, who at this very moment must be leading a mediocre life and dreaming paltry dreams ... would be quite amazed to learn about his other life, the one in Madame de Breyves' soul, an existence so miraculously intense as to subjugate and annihilate everything else." Now that, as the poet says, is what I'm talkin' about.

*

Candy

Mian Mian

Translated from the Chinese

by Andrea Lingenfelter

Back Bay Books: 224 pp., $13.95

"I am in a ditch where the water has collected after the rain, my name is Mian Mian, and this story is not the story of my life. My life story will have to wait until I can write nakedly.... Right now, my writing just falls apart." This self-criticism arrives a few pages before the end of this novel of 1980s and '90s Shanghai, Paris of China, Left Bank of all Asia. Mian Mian is a little too old to be one of the Shanghai Babies, a group of increasingly international Chinese writers in their late teens and early 20s, but she hangs in their neighborhoods and writes about their problems. I'm going to take all the garbage in my life and make candy out of it, the narrator tells us, hence the book's title. The narrator is a chocoholic, alcoholic heroin addict who is 16 when the novel opens but ages quickly. After a friend commits suicide, she drops out of high school and works as a singer in nightclubs. She falls in love with a guy who knifes her on her first date (ah, young love!), goes to prison for slicing him back and spends the rest of the novel obsessing about him. Gang wars, shaved heads, rehab clinics -- there's a lot to turn into candy. The path to resurrection lies in writing: "the bright sky illuminates my devastation, illuminates my prayers, and I tell myself: You can be a naked writer." And I can be Bob Dylan.

*

Dvorak in America

In Search of the New World

Joseph Horowitz

Cricket Books: 158 pp.,

$17.95 paper

"It is the poor that I turn to for greatness in music.... I was myself the son of peasants.... The folk music is deep inside me. That is what American composers must also feel." These words, spoken by Dvorak to a reporter in 1893, explain what lies at the heart of this elegant book for young adults. Dvorak, fresh from Prague, already world famous, arrived in New York in 1892 and stayed for several years. He was inspired by the music of slaves and Native Americans and the singing of a young black student, Harry Burleigh, to write the "New World" Symphony, which was first performed in 1893 at Carnegie Hall. "The future music of the United States," he told the press, would be founded on "Negro melodies." Ragtime, jazz, rock 'n' roll, blues, hip-hop and rap: He appears to have been correct. Horowitz shows how Dvorak's visit opened the debate: "Who is an American?" and "What is America?"

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