For some weeks now I’ve been inching my way through two weighty novels. The first is Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, and the second is Green Mars, the second volume of Kim Stanley Robinson’s outstanding sci-fi trilogy about the colonization of Mars. I’ve also read other, shorter, works during this period; but these two dense and amazing novels have been my constant throughout. Every day, three or four pages of the one, followed by four or five pages of the other.
Perhaps because I’m reading them in this manner, and because in Proust I’m now into the section “Swann in Love,” which delves in great depth into the psycho-social mores of French high society, the following passage from Green Mars that I read early this morning struck me as particularly “Proustian’:
Sax had noticed…in his student years…that there were people who would score high on any intelligence test, and were very good at their work, but who at the same time could walk into a room of people and within an hour have many of the occupants of that room laughing at them or even despising them. Which was not very smart. Indeed the most giddy of high school cheerleaders, say, managing to be friendly with everyone and therefore universally popular, seemed to Sax to be exercising an intelligence at least as powerful as any awkward brilliant mathematician’s—the calculus of human interaction being so much more subtle and variable than any physics, somewhat like the emerging field of math called cascading recombinant chaos, only less simple. So that there were at least two kinds of intelligence, and probably many more: spatial, aesthetic, moral or ethical, interactional, analytic, synthetic, and so forth. And it was those people who were intelligent in a number of different ways who were truly exceptional, who stood out as something special.
If we cast one of Robinson's cheerleaders in the role of Odette, Mars, it seems, is not so very different from Combray, after all.