Proust's great experiment, his life's work, his vast exercise in remembrance, is perhaps the greatest and most extreme fight against oblivion and selfProust's great experiment, his life's work, his vast exercise in remembrance, is perhaps the greatest and most extreme fight against oblivion and self-dissipation in all of literature. Shut up in his room in Paris, blotting out the day and working through all of his nights, he focused his entire being on remembrance, on reaching out in every direction through the prism (and prison) of memory, against the darkness and the void of forgetfulness. Walter Benjamin suggests that it is indeed forgetfulness that shapes A la Recherche du temps perdu, for "when we awake each morning, we hold in our hands, usually weakly and loosely, but a few fringes of the tapestry of lived life, as loomed for us by forgetting." These fringes are what Proust so desperately sought to collect in entirety, to weave his life anew in the tapestry of the written word. I question his method, in the same way I adore Pessoa, but pity the man who thought all experience could be lived in a single office, or a single room, on the Rua dos Douradores in Lisbon. No matter the complexity of one's dialogue with one's self, no matter the heights of beauty one can reach through contemplation, the richness of the world and of a life lived is too tempting, at least to me, to ever renounce in order to become a martyr to literature. But one cannot deny the edifice, the great cathedral of words (with all its complexities of architecture, the lyrical balustrades, the ornamental arches, the stain glass windows throwing color on the altar, the steeple jutting against the magnificently described sky), that was the result of this Herculean effort of thought. An example:
"A few feet away, a strapping great fellow in livery stood musing, motionless, statuesque, useless, like that purely decorative warrior whom one sees in the most tumultuous of Mantegna's paintings, lost in thought, leaning upon his shield, while the people around him are rushing about slaughtering one another; detached from the group of his companions who were thronging about Swann, he seemed as determined to remain aloof from that scene, which he followed vaguely with his cruel, glaucous eyes, as if it had been the Massacre of the Innocents or the Martyrdom of St. James. He seemed precisely to have sprung from that vanished race- if, indeed, it ever existed, save in the reredos of San Zeno and the frescoes of the Eremitani, where Swann had come in contact with it, and where it still dreams- fruit of the impregnation of a classical statue by one of the Master's Paduan models or an Albrecht Durer Saxon. And the locks of his reddish hair, crinkled by nature but glued to his head by brilliantine, were treated broadly as they are in that Greek sculpture which the Mantuan painter never ceased to study, and which, if in its creator's purpose it represents but man, manages at least to extract from man's simple outlines such a variety of richness, borrowed, as it were, from the whole of animate nature, that a head of hair, by the glossy undulation and beak-like points of its curls, or in the superimposition of the florid triple diadem of its tresses, can suggest at once a bunch of seaweed, a brood of fledgling doves, a bed of hyacinths and a coil of snakes."
Mind you, this is one description, of one footman, at a single party Swann attends, and this character never recurs again in the book. This level of description is applied to everything, each strand of memory is elaborated in this fullness, and handled with this care and detail. It is at times exhausting, but it is never unrewarding, and the overwhelming self-absorption through which Proust recalls his life makes this undoubtedly one of the seminal works of literature, a touchstone for all modern novels to be placed beside. I may enjoy other writers, at times, more than Proust, but few of them can draw me so fully out of myself and into their creation, immerse me so totally in their impressions that I feel a kind of synthesis, or perhaps synesthesia, through words, with its creator....more
Reading Finnegans Wake is a vastly different experience than reading Ulysses but it does pull one's thoughts back, riverain, to this, perhaps the singReading Finnegans Wake is a vastly different experience than reading Ulysses but it does pull one's thoughts back, riverain, to this, perhaps the single richest and most rerereadable book in the English language. (Shakespeare's corpus is an analog; one can revisit it endlessly and dig and dig and continue to unearth the rarest minerals, gems, fossils, strange stones and fresh human bones; one can always feel the newness even after a dozen readings). Though I'm reading the Wake right now, I've been daydreaming again of Bloom and Dedalus and Molly and Blazes Boylan and the Citizen and Gerty MacDowell and Buck Mulligan and The Man in the Macintosh and the winds blowing through the offices of the Freeman's Journal and Circe's phantasmagoria and Hamlet and there have been rocks wandering and ships amast and Osip Mandelstam's "Insomnia. Homer. Taut Sails... To an alien land, like a phalanx of cranes- foam of the gods on the heads of the kings- where do you sail? what would the things of Troy be to you, Achaeans, without Helen?" (or Penelope or Molly or Anna Livia Plurabelle who haveth childers everywhere) or the sea or Homer all moves by love's glow and the black sea thundering its oratory- and lying down among rocks or submerging in shoals to ponder the visible and the invisible and the sun spinning round one infinite day only. Time halts. It's a shame so many people consider this book unreadable or unendurable or that there is not time for books such as these. Time is all laid out already and already everything has happened and will happen again, but still the moment of each meeting is sweet. Return to books like these, take on books like these and live with them; Homer is still alive and so is Joyce and life is too like these books to not read them while you are able. Say yes....more
What Proust was, and what In Search of Lost Time, when given the proper air and light, the proper attention, can instruct others to be, is an astute pWhat Proust was, and what In Search of Lost Time, when given the proper air and light, the proper attention, can instruct others to be, is an astute pupil of life. He was perhaps the most exacting and astute observer in modern literature, and his dedicated readers are, in essence, forced also to become as aware, as exacting, in their own perceptions, not only as they wade the ebb and flow of his tide of words, but beyond that, when the book is closed and put away. For as the sound of the ocean and the feeling of salt water and sun on skin lingers long into the night after one has been swimming all day (I am stealing images from Balbec), a patina forms on the surface of one's perceptions, when one has been so much immersed in and worked on by this immense novel, that lingers well after one's attentions are necessarily drawn back to life. And that is the magic of Proust. He dissembles and examines each experience, not so much like a scientist or a surgeon, but like one attempting to reduce a painting to the individual brushstrokes that compose the image, and more than that, he presents alternate colors, contradictory images, questions himself and the object of his observation, isolates and scrutinizes layer after layer of sensory experience in the hope of revealing a truth, an intent, a raw emotion, a lost memory; and this process, within his work, is life.
"There is a dual will to happiness, a dialectics of happiness: a hymnic and an elegiac form. The one is the unheard of, the unprecedented, the height of bliss; the other, the eternal repetition, the eternal restoration of the original, the first happiness. It is this elegiac idea of happiness- it could also be called Eleatic- which for Proust transforms existence into a preserve of memory." -Walter Benjamin
The happiness that Benjamin speaks of is rarely attained in actual experience by the narrator of In Search of Lost Time; he is more often confronted with a prolonged expectation of an event that almost universally fails to live up to his imaginings. So it is when he first goes to see Berma in Phaedra, or when he first meets his adored novelist Bergotte, or the entirety of his love for Gilberte, or his first visit to the Balbec cathedral (so lengthily imagined in Swann's Way), or his first night in the beach town, or his first actual conversations with Albertine. "First" is a necessary indicator here, for much time and many words are spent among Marcel's ruminations of what something or someone might be like from his initial, distant impressions or desires, and then the completely different and contradictory intellection formed when the experience is actually had, or the person actually comes to be known. Such might be expected with an imagination as active and vast as Marcel's, but it is also a technique of Proust the artist, another way of digging into the unique and individual nature of human thought; one confronts the reality behind his perceptions of the world, one is deceived, one must compensate, one seeks another truth in the wreckage of dashed expectations. After all these "firsts" that so often confound Marcel, a second, or a tertiary reality is formed from his "eternal restoration of the original"; it is from this churning and reworking of sensation and consciousness that Proust develops his suppositions and discovers his happiness.
Within A Budding Grove or In The Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, whichever title you prefer (the latter is a literal translation, the former a completely adequate descriptor), follows Marcel into his adolescence, and finds his thoughts more concerned with relationships, love, and one's place in society. He also begins to experience firsthand the world of artists and artistic expression. This is a consequence of Marcel's developing consciousness and his choice to become a writer (though in reality he mistrusts his own abilities and rarely ever sets pen to paper), and the new company he comes to know through Mme Swann's salon. Proust's satire of the aristocracy really begins to take shape and sharpens here, too; he derides the snobbery, hypocrisy, and dilettantism among the privileged classes in wonderful and lengthy dictations of banal salon conversations. But there is a more than disinterested curiosity underlying all of this, and his affection for Mme Swann is genuine, as is his admiration of the aesthetics of her house, her clothing, her world, not to mention her daughter. However, it is through a burgeoning artist's eyes that these are all taken in and adored. Each object, as viewed by Marcel, contains something of himself, is associated with a human being or an idea or an emotion; nothing under his gaze is permitted the useless existence of a mere possession or a trophy of wealth as it is to the middling bourgeoisie that he scorns. Or, more exactly, what he scorns is falseness, shallowness, stupidity attempting to mask itself in blind adherence to fleeting fashions, snobbery in position and wealth, a lack of understanding and pity for humanity. Marcel's love for Gilberte keeps him returning to these gatherings, but even that ends up more of a projection of his vivid longings and desires than any solid relationship. His last vision of Mme. Swann walking with her entourage along the Champs-Élysées feels like an elegy for that entire class of people who seemingly vanished after the Belle Époque faded into the realities of the new century, and I could not stop singing to myself, as I read and reread those passages, Schubert's Piano Trio No. 2 (that melancholy music from Kubrick's Barry Lyndon), which is exactly the feeling that last stroll of Mme Swann's evokes.
Then Marcel travels with his Grandmother to Balbec (the seaside resort city he so desired to visit at the end of Swann's Way, where he dreamt of witnessing the spectacle of thunderstorms over the ocean) for a 430 page summer. Here his senses expand in relation to the span of the sea and the unexpected brightness and play of the sunlight, his anxieties and sicknesses are seemingly tempered by the fresh air and the new relations he acquires there, and he quickly forgets thunderstorms and unrequited feelings for Gilberte. Marcel's sensitivity to place and instance are peaked at the seashore, and there are endless brilliant descriptions of sea, sun, and landscape. Three examples of the sea as seen from his window:
"...I returned to the window to have another look at that vast, dazzling, mountainous amphitheatre, and at the snowy crests of its emerald waves, here and there polished and translucent, which with a placid violence and leonine frown, to which the sun added a faceless smile, allowed their crumbling slopes to topple down at last."
"...in the greenish glass which it distended with the curve of its rounded waves, the sea, set between the iron uprights of my casement window like a piece of stained glass in its leads, ravelled out over all the deep rocky border of the bay little plumed triangles of motionless foam etched with the delicacy of a feather or a downy breast from Pisanello's pencil, and fixed in that white, unvarying, creamy enamel which is used to depict fallen snow in Galle's glass."
"...at the moment when I entered the room the violet sky seemed branded with the stiff, geometrical, fleeting, effulgent figure of the sun (like the representation of some miraculous sign, of some mystical apparition) lowering over the sea on the edge of the horizon like a sacred picture over a high altar, while the different parts of the western sky exposed in the glass fronts of the low mahogany bookcases that ran along the walls, which I carried back in my mind to the marvelous painting from which they had been detached..."
It is on people no less than nature that Proust fixates his exacting eye. At Balbec Marcel befriends Robert de Saint-Loup, an unselfconscious aristocrat who plays a larger role in the next volumes of the novel, M. de Charlus (who's advances are only confusing and vague to Marcel), the painter Elstir (who I believe was modeled after Monet, and there are incredible digressions on painting and the role of the artist, too long to quote here, that take place within his studio), and the "little band" of girls, among them Albertine, who, after labyrinthine digressions Marcel comes to love. Proust considered this volume of In Search of Lost Time to be a transitional piece, and it does do more setting up of expectations than presenting resolutions. But the brilliance of this book is in the minutiae of observation, the delicate, painterly prose that gives each thing life and particularity, the continual renewal and surprise of perception that is the ever present magic in Proust's art. And especially during his summer at Balbec, Proust allows Marcel to possess moments of that rare substance, happiness, the desperate seeking of which could be said to be the impetus for the whole composition of In Search of Lost Time:
"Stretched out on the cliff I would see before me nothing but grassy meadows and beyond them not the seven heavens of the Christian cosmogony but two stages only, one of a deeper blue, the sea, and above it another, paler one. We ate our food, and if I had brought with me also some little keepsake which might appeal to one or other of my friends, joy sprang with such sudden violence into their translucent faces, flushed in an instant, that their lips had not the strength to hold it in, and, to allow it to escape, parted in a burst of laughter. They were gathered close round me, and between their faces, which were not far apart, the air that separated them traced azure pathways such as might have been cut by a gardener wishing to create a little space so as to be able himself to move freely through a thicket of roses."...more
I never had much interest in Sartre, but after reading this I am rather in awe of his intellect. I may even find myself bored enough someday to read "I never had much interest in Sartre, but after reading this I am rather in awe of his intellect. I may even find myself bored enough someday to read "Nausea"....more