The past two years of the pandemic left some of us with a lot of downtime. With commutes curtailed, fewer opportunities for socializing or travel, and even, at odd times, absolute lockdown, now was the time to catch up on TV or movies or novels. For me, in the spring and summer of 2021, this meant re-watching The Sopranos, and re-reading Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Somehow, the TV series and the novel worked together, and not just because they were massive in scale, immersive in their drop into characters’ lives, and with a weird combination of temporal specificity and distance. Not only do you see A.J. or Meadow grow up in The Sopranos, but you also have that memorable scene in the final volume of Proust where our narrator, Marcel, thinks he is seeing his friends in disguise as themselves as older people, until he realizes that they have, quite simply, aged.
When we spend so much time with a story, it becomes part of our life. So I can remember very well watching The Sopranos for the first time, over twenty years ago, and the viewing parties my brother had at his apartment in Mount Pleasant. Every Sunday night, a half dozen of us would gather, not always the same people, but Greg and his girlfriend Siobhan, our friends Luke and Mo, Connie, Richard, Colin. I guess this was part way into the show’s run: Greg and I had, a year or two earlier, rented the first few episodes from Season 1, but we didn’t get it. Some gangsters driving over the lawn in front of a suburban industrial park, giving a guy a beating — it didn’t seem realistic. But then it did, or we got into it, and the viewing parties would be thick with smoke (weed and tobacco), heavy in drinking, and explanations offered on the fly that people turn to social media for now. Two decades later, some of us have quit drinking, or endured bouts of cancer, and when my knee lets me I go for runs with Luke or Greg.
It’s not quite the same for reading Proust, although I first read the novel during the same period. In 2003, I was teaching at a local college and had an hour’s commute on transit. I picked up a two-volume edition, each with 1100 pages of super thin paper. It cost $40 dollars and was inscribed “Happy Birthday/Bill from Don/1949”. I like to think they were lovers, and that Bill made it through to the end. I knew I had to have a plan to make my way through it, and I set myself a schedule of ten pages a day. Five pages on the way to work, five pages homeward-bound. I would mark with a pencil where I had stopped — the marks are still there, like tidemarks on a ship’s bow, or a child’s growing measurements on a bedroom wall. In the first volume I have, for some reason, a program for song room, an art music series organized by the late Tom Cone, for which I performed with Luke, under his DJ moniker “Audiowhore,” in June 2006. But that chronology can’t be right, or at least I also remember reading the first volume as translated by Lydia Davis sometime in the late 1990s, having it on the bus with me when I went to Kerrisdale to meet George Bowering, when he blurbed my 1999 collection of short stories Airborne Photo. So I don’t know.
The beginnings of both texts are auspicious, notorious. In Michael Imperioli and Steve Schippira’s podcast about the show, “Talking about The Sopranos,” Imperioli, who played the feckless nephew to Tony, Christopher Moltisanto, said that he didn’t know how to drive when they filmed the pilot, which became the first episode, and featured him driving an SUV backwards over that industrial park lawn. Besides setting up the premise of the show – mobster goes to shrink — the pilot also had a great bit by Tony: “I’d been thinking. It’s good to be in something from the ground floor. And I came too late for that, I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.” I think I like that line — and you’ll think this is totally narcissistic of me, but so what — because it describes perfectly the position of the English professor in today’s world. Like a mobster, we have nothing to complain about if we’ve managed to secure a decent job, but it’s all a bit meh. The good times are over. Back in the ’70s and 80s (and I remember the ’80s, I was an undergraduate then), English was where the action was — people did theory, it was the cool stuff, and then all the political dimensions like feminism, queer theory, and postcolonialism came along as well. But now, enrolment in the humanities has tanked since the economic crisis of 2008. To which the other zinger from The Sopranos might apply, Tony’s regret that he teased his uncle for his sexual predilections: “Cunnilingus and psychiatry brought us to this.”
Then, in the opening chapter of Proust, of the first volume (Swann’s Way), there are fantastic memories — Marcel as a child waiting for his mother to leave her dinner party and say goodnight to him, his conflicts with his father over same, the light from lamps or windows on his bedroom wall, and the famous “involuntary memory” occasioned by the taste of tea and a madeleine cookie. By now, it is unlikely that anyone reading Proust for the first time has not heard of these moments — especially the memories brought about by the madeleine. That is, Marcel’s narration, in the final pages of the first section of Swann’s Way — of how, when his mother offers him tea, which he at first refuses and then agrees to drink, and she adds the cookie, which, dunked in the tea, gives him an inexplicable pleasure that then diminishes with each successive sip, pleasure he cannot understand. Until he remembers his grandmother used to serve him the same delicacy, and “so now all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lilies of the Vivonne, and the good people of the village and their little dwellings and the church and all of Combray and its surroundings, all of this which is acquiring form and solidity, emerged, town and garden alike, from my cup of tea.”
And who, also, watching The Sopranos for the first time, won’t feel a slight deflation when they hear Tony utter those words about feeling like he’s coming in at the end of things. For now, it applies as much to the audience as it does to the mobster — and not just to this particular, self-obsessed lit prof. When the TV show first came along in the late 1990s, so-called “quality television” was a new thing — and, indeed, most people certainly did not have HBO (I didn’t have a TV, let alone cable, hence decamping to my brother’s place on Sunday nights). What was new was not so much the premise of the series: mobster sees shrink. That was more like a matter of the zeitgeist: the Robert De Niro/Billy Crystal movie Analyze This was released in March 1999, two months after The Sopranos debut in January. What was new was not even its abundance of casual funny violence, strippers dancing at the Bada Bing, or the ethnographically thick depiction of New Jersey Italian culture, down to accents, foodways, and lots of driving. What was new, we can now see retroactively, was such a desirable cultural commodity. The attraction crossed demographics, as popular culture is wont to do. I remember visiting a gay colleague in Calgary in spring 2000, and, hanging up my jacket in his closet, seeing home VHS tapes of Sopranos episodes. One no longer has to hide one’s sexuality, but perhaps one’s predilection for American gangster television has to stay in the closet.
But both cultural texts comment on their distribution. On the one hand, The Sopranos already had embedded in its stories the ways in which the entertainment industry is open to criminality, from stolen DVD players and big screen TVs to DVDs themselves — consider the FBI warning that appears more than once before films, including when the mafia wives are having a girl’s movie night. Edmund White notes, in his short biography of Proust, the French author was not above his own kind of bribery. Proust won the Prix Goncourt in 1919 for Within a Budding Grove, “although not without,” White tells us, “actively courting the judges with expensive presents and fine meals.”
Two major connections between The Sopranos and Proust. In the 2001, Season 3 episode “Fortunate Son,” Tony makes a psychoanalytic breakthrough when he is reminiscing about meat his father used to bring home, and his psychiatrist, Jennifer Melfi, compares this to Proust’s madeleine, elaborating: “Marcel Proust wrote a seven-volume classic: Remembrance of Things Past. He took a bite of a madeleine, it’s kind of a tea cookie he used to have when he was a child, and that one bite unleashed a tide of memories of his entire childhood and ultimately of his entire life.” Predictably, Tony says “This sounds very gay, I hope you’re not saying that.” This exchange works on two or three levels. First of all, it is the occasion of an already much-lauded television show comparing itself to one of the most canonical works of modern literature. All of Tony’s panic attacks, his gangsterish memories of a violent father and shrewish mother, can be compared to Proust’s sublime mechanism of involuntary memory. Then, Tony’s homophobic response is a sort of defense mechanism of the show (we don’t take ourselves too seriously) that only works for audience members who know that Proust was gay. Similarly, those same viewers can simultaneously congratulate themselves on knowing the reference but, whether or not they have the same homophobic response, disavow their own cultural capital. Finally, it is worth noting that The Sopranos, as part of its pandemic popularity, was only this past summer declared to be a queer touchstone. In the hilarious — but also troubling for straight viewers — article “The Sopranos belongs to the gays now,” Australian critic Chingy Nea talks about how Adriane’s tiger-forward fashion, the Italian machismo of two-cheek kissing, Vito’s leather daddy character and Tony’s deep emotional vulnerability all make the show the latest vehicle for camp appropriation.
If The Sopranos is very Proustian then perhaps, too, Proust is quite gangsta. Walter Benjamin, the German Marxist critic, was an early translator and promoter of Proust’s novel, and in his 1929 essay “On the Image of Proust,” he writes: “There was something of the detective in Proust’s curiosity. The upper ten thousand were to him a clan of criminals, a band of conspirators beyond compare: the Camorra of consumers. It excludes from its world everything that has a part in production, or at least demands that this part be gracefully and bashfully concealed behind the kind of manner that is sported by the polished professionals of consumption.” Now, Benjamin had visited and written about Naples in ’25, which is probably why he referenced their mafia (the Camorra — and the Sopranos crew similarly visits Naples in Season 2) as a comparison for the French aristocracy or “upper ten thousand.” In both cases, the ruling class — be it a mafia capo or an ancient duke — lives as a parasite on the work of others.
Indeed, these motifs of crime, gangsterism, and the like, which we think of as characteristic of The Sopranos, are to be found throughout Proust. Here we can think of how the narrator keeps Albertine prisoner in his house for much of the volume with that title, or his discussions with Albertine of Dostoevsky and murder, or repeated references to “torture” both metaphorical and actual (“By love, I mean here a kind of mutual torture.”), or discussions of policemen and snitches — “There is no better police informer than a retired thief or spy than a subject of the nation we wish to conquer.”). And even the crassest of humour – think of the fart joke in The Sopranos, where Tony refers to farting under the sheets as a “hot box” or “Dutch oven” — traverses our texts, and so the Baron in Proust inquires, “When you finish a violin solo at my house, have you ever been rewarded with a fart?”
Wealth is an immensely important signifier in Proust. Consider this description of M. de Norpois, from the second volume (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower): “like all rentiers, he saw money as a desirable thing but deemed it tactful to restrict his compliments on what anyone owned to a veiled glance of understanding; as well as which, being himself hugely wealthy, he believed good taste required him to appear impressed by the lesser incomes of others while enjoying a quiet reminder of the superiority of his own.” This analysis is one of the reasons bona fide Marxists like Benjamin, Michael Sprinker, and Fredric Jameson deem Proust so important. Readers of Thomas Piketty’s Capital will remember how he references Jane Austen and Balzac for their frank discussion of characters’ incomes and worth. More dialectically, Proust shows how the function of wealth lies in part in its dissembling, “gracefully and bashfully concealed,” as Benjamin pointed out.
The Soprano Sessions, a season-by-season breakdown by newspaper critics Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall, lays a finger on the class conundrums of the show and its audience in a discussion of the discomfit many viewers and critics had with the “University” episode from Season 3. Here Meadow Soprano’s travails at Columbia are juxtaposed with the brutal murder of Tracee, a pole dancer at the Bada Bing. Audience misgivings, Seitz and Sepinwall argue, “stemmed not just from scenes involving mobsters and dancers, but their juxtaposition with the lives of the kind of people who subscribe to HBO and send their children to private colleges and would get Dr. Melfi’s madeleine reference in ‘Fortunate Son’,” adding in a footnote, “Where they might major in communications and perhaps write a paper on The Sopranos.” Ouch.
Class elements pop up in more subtle ways in both texts. Take the malapropisms common to both Tony and Little Carmine (who calls himself the “hair apparent,”) and, in Proust, to the hotel manager on the one hand, and the servant François on the other. Mispronunciations by characters on film, like references to Proust, obviously only work if the viewer is in on the joke.
In the final volume of his novel, Proust (er, “the Narrator”) famously arrives at the conclusion that his life up to then has been preparation for art, for writing that very novel. To do so, however, it seems necessary to criticize the mere connoisseur (what we would now call a “fan” or even “stan”). The most famous art lover in the novel is Swann, for which the following passive-aggressive trashing no doubt applies: “And so this barren music-lover spends his life going from one concert to the next, embittered and unsatisfied as his hair turns grey and he enters an unfruitful old age, the celibate bachelor of art, as it were. Yet there is something almost touching about this most unlikeable breed, though they reek of worthiness and though they have not received anything like their due share of contentment, because they are the first half-formed products of the need to pass from the shifting objects of intellectual pleasure to its permanent organ.” I thought of this passage looking through the social media for the Sopranos Con, an event that took place in New Jersey in July 2021, and which showed a couple in full cosplay: the man was dressed as the chef Artie Buco after his hand had been burned by an angry gangster — the fan is in full chef’s whites, with one hand wrapped in bandages. The woman was dressed as a rabbit, carrying a Zip-Loc bag of seeds. Their get-up refers to a scene where Artie shot a rabbit in his backyard for eating his greens (“I brought those arugula seeds all the way back from Italy in my shaving kit!”). What “cosplay” — when fans dress up in the costumes of their favourite characters for a convention — points to, in a very postmodern way, is how the object of their veneration — the anime or film, the TV show or musician — is already a performance. This is why Robert De Niro claims he doesn’t watch The Sopranos — the TV show exposes not only the cosplay inherent in the American gangster film, from Little Caesar to The Godfather and Goodfellas — but, indeed, in gangsters themselves, whose delight with The Godfather suggests they are themselves only Baudrillardian simulacra (copies with no original) or, as we say these days, LARPing (live-action role-playing).
I want to close with two final thoughts: a speculation as to why the recent Sopranos movie (The Many Saints of Newark) is so terrible, and a return to my opening comments on binge-watching and -reading during the pandemic. These two factors are related. First, what David Chase, the writer of the film, doesn’t understand is what David Chase the showrunner of the TV series knew very well: the appeal of The Sopranos lay in its longue durée, the season-long arc of characters and plot. The “psychiatry and cunnilingus” bon mot came at the end of Season 1, after episode and episode of Junior being praised for his oral technique by his girlfriend, of more than a dozen scenes with Tony in Dr. Melfi’s analyst office. We had time to get to know these characters, to see the nuance, time and nuance that is well-nigh impossible in a film that tries to jam characters and plot and historical references (Newark riots, black-white violence, too on-the-nose set deck) into a two-hour flick.
And it is precisely this longue durée that accounts for why we are reading long novels and binge-watching TV during the pandemic — which is why these cultural forms are the addiction of choice for the moneyed class. That is, the pandemic turn to bingeing was surely only an exacerbation of what was already — as the Gang of Four put it so wittily forty years ago — “The problem of leisure/What to do for pleasure?” Fredric Jameson has commented recently on how “entertainment sells time as such, the time of distraction,” adding that the “Kindle machines, indeed, tell you how many reading hours you have left in a given text.” Think, on one hand, of the handwringing over Tik-Tok or Twitter as short form (or the note at the beginning of click-bait: “5-minute read”) while, at the same time, our contemporary moment includes such massive, immersive reads and watches as the Harry Potter and Game of Thrones novels and film/series, the Karl Knausgaard six-volume and Elena Ferrante four-volume autofiction. This is to say, “both are worse”: on the one hand, our culture of distraction means we seek ever longer forms to better endure this late-capitalist pandemic, and on the other hand, even those we cannot abide, so we put down Proust, turn off The Sopranos, and pick up our phones. »
From Issue #90.Back to top