Friday, 7 September 2012

Foley: Embracing the Ordinary

Michael Foley (2012) Embracing the Ordinary, Lessons from the Champions of Everyday Life Simon & Schuster, London; 336 pp.; ISBN 978-1-84983-912-9

This is a strange beast. Much of the book is about the works of James Joyce and Marcel Proust, especially their fascination with everyday life and its petty annoyances, fleeting moments of joy and ever-present absurdities. It is also a plea for all of us to be more attentive to the mundane and to admire its multiple facets and its aesthetic wonder. Finally, it allows Michael Foley to exercise some of his own skill in depicting daily life, something he does very well.

Foley argues that everyday life was largely neglected by philosophers and artists until the early 20th century, and sees Proust and Joyce as instrumental in re-directing people’s attention. His analysis ignores the works of sociology and anthropology, though these would have greatly strengthened his case. Instead he gives a lot of attention to psychology, with dubious interpretations of human motivations and drives and stereotypical views on human evolution. When he steps away from literature, Foley’s patchy research unnecessarily undermines the impact of what he has to say.

Foley covers many elements of daily life. His views on imagination are marred by his obsession with the dated idea of a left-brain versus right-brain dichotomy, something that ignores the integrated networking of the brain. He is better on comedy and the spiritual life, though there is little here that has not been said before. His discussions of people’s speech and how we present ourselves to others will hopefully stimulate readers to listen and observe the world about them more closely, but on the presentation of self he never reaches the eloquence of Erving Goffman.

Chapters on memory, snobbery and sex highlight neglected areas in the works of Joyce and Proust, and Foley covers them in an amusing style. But for me the best section of this book is Part 5, where Foley abandons theoretical analysis and writes from his own experience about the city, the office and the home. Here he gives free rein to expressing his pleasure in such things as graffiti, derelict buildings, weeds, pencils, staplers, swivel chairs, old wooden desks and the morning and evening rituals of home. It’s a lively and exuberant part of the book and made me wonder why he didn’t adopt this approach throughout.

The magic fades in the final chapter where Foley imagines an overnight conversation between Proust and Joyce. In fact the two men only met once, briefly, in Paris in 1922. Reports of the encounter differ markedly (a lot of alcohol was being consumed) but all say it was no great meeting of minds. Foley attempts to remedy this in a way that highlights the key themes in the book, but for me the exercise felt pointless and drawn out.

I had not read anything by Michael Foley before, but he has a dedicated following. In parts of Embracing the Ordinary he shows that he can write with imagination and skill, but for me too much of this book was not sufficiently coherent once Foley stepped outside his fields of expertise (he’s an IT specialist as well as a man of letters).

Many literature buffs love to twitter on about Joyce and Proust, though most have never taken the time to read their novels. It would be a champion result if Foley’s book encouraged more people to read the two authors, but sadly I don’t think it is going to do that.

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