Sunday, March 14, 2010

Time Lost


In the second half of 2006, I began reading Remembrance of Things Past, or what today commonly is titled In Search of Lost Time. Today I finished it. This is not to say that the title changed while I was reading it. But I didn't really recapture time, either.

I thought I had been reading for two years. Actually, I spent three and a half years reading this monumental novel. I did not spend every moment, nor even every day, with it. In truth, I cheated on it with many other books during that time. Not because it didn't satisfy me, but because I always am in the process of reading several books at any one time. Proust was especially good for Sunday mornings. But often, too, I picked up this novel and read myself to sleep, night after night. With a paperback edition of The Da Vinci Code, I might get through ten pages before my eyes fell shut. With Proust, it was more like two pages.

What I did not experience while reading, rather curiously, was the passage of time within the novel. Perhaps that is because so much actual time passed while I read. Perhaps I failed as a reader. This probably adversely affected my full appreciation of the end.

Some time ago, someone mentioned that the social gatherings recorded in the novel were usually boring, though accurately depicted. I found this to be true as well, and much of the novel is given to those occasions. I confess to gaining more insight, and taking more away from the novel, by reading commentary and criticism on these passages, rather than the novel itself.

Near the end, Proust notes that a reader will get out of a novel only what is within himself. This was certainly true for me, when I read the passage concerning Vermeer. I am a fan of the film All the Vermeers in New York, but I did not understand its connection to Proust's novel until I read the novel. At the end of the film is a voice-over that is wonderfully haunting. And the text of this I discovered to have come straight from Proust's pen. I read it, felt a chill of recognition, and then read it again, for the sheer enjoyment at it's beauty. It is one of the best passages in the novel.

Three sections I felt stood out from the rest and deserved special recognition. The least of these comes near the end, as Proust discourses on literature. Not only is this a general theory of literature, it is also the narrator's discoveries of his own powers and his own hopes for what he may achieve. It is an explanation and description of Proust's novel, as well as a gauge by which a reader may judge all novels.

The second of my favorite sections was diffused in earlier parts of the novel, and echoed in the end, concerning the actress Berma, and the narrator's impressions of her. Though the same theme is repeated in many instances throughout the novel, for me the message of disillusionment was conveyed best through this character.

My favorite section of the novel was the entire part titled "Swann's Way". The depiction of love, from its wonderful beginnings to its bitter endings, was brilliant. This, with all its attendant jealousy, was a major theme throughout the novel. The love between the narrator and Albertine, especially, echoed some of the same sentiments, but failed to rise to the same level. This early section shot me into the rest of the book, and really provided most of the foundation for the remainder of the novel.

I would definitely recommend reading the entire novel. If it wasn't so long, I would read it again, hoping for a more thorough appreciation of all the elements, having now also read the commentary. Was I to reread something, though, I would turn first to Thomas Hardy, who for me is much more accessible, and probably even more heart-wrenching. But given a limited amount of time, and a desire to sample Proust, one could not go wrong to read "Swann's Way" alone.


Friday, January 02, 2009

The End of the Guermantes Way

It has taken me over two years to finish the first volume of Moncrieff's translation. Of course I have read any number of books in between; not every minute was spent on Proust. But who reads a book for over two years?

The Guermantes Way was slow getting through. A great deal of it centered on the Dreyfuss case. The closing scene had a few great moments of humor, including one featuring a giant envelope. And along the way, Marcel continued to have his illusions shattered. Still, if I had to choose, I would take Swann's Way every time.

In order not to be content with completing the first volume, I picked up the second immediately. Titled, for whatever reason, Cities on the Plain, the first few pages contain a revelation about M. de Charlus, who makes a rather distasteful impression, not because of his practices, but because of his attitude. That should be enough to jump-start me for another two years.

Is anyone else still reading this monumental work?

Monday, August 20, 2007

On finishing In Search of Lost Time

I want to write just a few words about finishing Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; I don’t feel up to writing a big long summing-up post that tries to say smart things about what it all means, but I do want to say something. I am happy to have finished, but I do miss reading Proust a bit; I’ve been used to a near-daily dose of the narrator’s slow-moving, contemplative voice, and now I don’t have that.

It’s hard to see how a 3,000-page book without all that much plot, relatively speaking, could cohere, but I think it does. I found the ending, say, that last couple hundred pages, really did wrap things up; it provides an answer to the question that has haunted the whole book — will Marcel ever write his masterpiece? This is a question that has lingered from the very first volume when it becomes clear that Marcel has an interest in, and perhaps a talent for, writing. The answer the book provides is satisfying, and realistic, given everything that has happened up until that point.

My favorite volumes were the first two and the last one; the third and fourth, The Guermantes Way and Sodom and Gomorrah, got a little long, but then the fifth volume, which contains The Prisoner and The Fugitive begins to pick up a bit in preparation for the grand ending. It’s the long party scenes in some of the middle volumes that got tiresome. What I loved about the book are the insights into the mind, art, time, and love, but the novel is also obsessed with society and rank and how people behave at parties, topics that didn’t thrill me quite as much. But even here there are things to interest; Proust captures snobbery and hypocrisy and the deadness that can lie behind the glittering masks of high society beautifully well.

But mostly this novel is worth reading because of what it can teach about observing the world around you and in you. Proust has a meticulous eye for how the mind perceives input from the world around it and for how we make sense of our experiences, and, of course, he has a beautiful way with a sentence to capture all that insight. I love how there can be so much wisdom and experience in one of those long sentences — how they can take in so much.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Proust on Art

I just came across some wonderful passages in Proust; I’m about 150 pages from end, determined to finish it and Don Quixote by the end of the summer. The narrator has just had a series of experiences of involuntary memory, where something in his present — a sound or taste or sight — will trigger a memory that recreates in his mind whole sections of his past that he had previously forgotten. The madeleine scene from Swann’s Way is the most famous of these, although there are many. Immediately before these memories come to the narrator, he despairs of ever becoming a writer; he has spent years and years of his life wasting time, avoiding doing the writing he has always wanted to do. The memories start the process of bringing him back to his vocation, and they set him off on a long meditation on literature, writing, and the relationship of art and life. I thought I’d share some short sections:

Real life, life finally uncovered and clarified, the only life in consequence lived to the full, is literature. Life in this sense dwells within all ordinary people as much as in the artist. But they do not see it because they are not trying to shed light on it. And so their past is cluttered with countless photographic negatives, which continue to be useless because their intellect has never “developed” them … it is only through art that we can escape from ourselves and know how another person sees a universe which is not the same as our own and whose landscapes would otherwise have remained as unknown as any there may be on the moon.

I love the idea that we all have the materials of art within us; the difference between artists and everyone else is that artists learn how to make use of those materials. Proust calls art “translation” — taking our experiences, whatever they are, and plumbing the depths of them to find meaning and to transform that meaning into something beautiful. And he says it requires courage. We like to live with certain illusions about ourselves; we whitewash our darker characteristics and cover over our failings, but the artist will look for the truth, no matter how difficult it is to face.

Here’s another passage on art and life, this time about imagination and sensitivity:

It may well be that, for the creation of a work of literature, imagination and sensitivity are interchangeable qualities, and that the second may without any great disadvantage be substituted for the first, in the same way as people whose stomach is incapable of digesting pass that function over to the intestine. A man born sensitive but with no imagination might none the less write admirable novels. The suffering that other people cause him, his efforts to prevent it, the conflicts that it and the cruel other person created, all of this, interpreted by the intelligence, might make the raw material of a book … as beautiful as it would have been if it had been imagined …

So making art isn’t the same thing as making things up. I’ve never liked the idea that imagination is as simple as making things up; to me, it has more to do with putting ideas together, making connections, seeing what’s in front of you in a new way. So in my way of thinking, the sensitivity Proust is talking about, combined with intelligence, is actually a certain kind of imagination.

And finally, here’s a passage on criticism:

[Criticism] hails a writer as a prophet, on account of his peremptory tone and his very public scorn for the school that preceded him, when in fact he has absolutely nothing new to say. These aberrations on the part of criticism are so constant that a writer might almost prefer to be judged by the general public …. For there is a closer analogy between the instinctive life of the public and the talent of a great writer, which is no more than an instinct religiously listened to while imposing silence on everything else, an instinct perfected and understood, than between it and the superficial verbiage and shifting criteria of the recognized arbiters of judgment.

Apparently Proust isn’t so fond of critics. (Although he’s not so fond of the general public either — to shorten the quotation I took out a parenthesis on how the general public generally doesn’t understand what an artist is doing.) He gives an interesting definition of art here, doesn’t he, that it’s “instinct religiously listened to”? And I do buy his argument that critics often get it wrong, that they take loud voices for true ones and newness for greatness.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Back to Proust

Cross posted at So Many Books

After a Proust hiatus I have finally jumped back in and it's like I never left. I'm on The Guermantes Way now, that's book three, and reading the new translation by Mark Treharne. Treharne's introduction was one of the worst I've ever read, but thankfully, his translating is very good. When I first decided to read the new translations I was a bit worried that there wouldn't be a consistency between books, that each book would "sound" different somehow. But much to my relief and pleasure, this has not been the case. Maybe it's the power of Proust.

One of the things I am enjoying most about In Search of Lost Time is how Proust takes his time. The narrative arc definitely moves forward but we are constantly going from the present to the past to the future and back to the present. Then there are the ideas and themes. They start as a passing mention you hardly notice. Then a little while later an idea returns and Proust dwells on it a little longer before moving on. But then sometime later it returns again and Proust adds more layers.

One of his ideas that I have had flitting around in my brain regards names. In Swann's Way we have an entire section devoted to names. In it, Marcel, the young narrator, becomes enamored of lots of names--Venice, the seaside town of Balbec, Swann, Odette, Bergot, Guermantes. But other than some brief experiences with Swann, he doesn't know anything about anything. He is free to let his imagination create people and places to go with the names.

In the second book, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, there is also a section about names. Marcel spends quite a lot of time with Swann and Odette and the writer Bergot. He spends so much time with them that his imagination has to, at times, be painfully adjusted to the reality. The narrator also gets to finally go to Balbec. Of course Balbec is not what he imagined, but it ends up being an enjoyable place nonetheless where he gets to meet some of the members of the Guermantes family. Still, Marcel is not intimate enough with the family for the name to lose its mythical status.

Now, at the very beginning of Guermantes Way we are brought back to names again. Whereas in the previous two books most of the name theme was implied or episodic, Proust comes right out and says what he is about at the very beginning:
At the age when Names, offering us the image of the unknowable that we have invested in them and simultaneously designating a real place for us, force us accordingly to identify the one with the other, to a point where we go off to a city to seek out a soul that it cannot contain but which we no longer have the power to expel from its nature, it is not only to cities and ruins that they give an individuality, as do allegorical paintings, nor is it only the physical world that they spangle with differences and people with marvels, it is the social world as well: so every historic house, every famous residence or palace, has its lady or its fairy, as forests have their spirits and rivers their deities.
Marcel's family have moved from their former house in Combray to an apartment in the Hôtel de Guermantes. In one of the apartments also lives Mme de Guermantes. Our narrator is about to slowly be disabused of his ideas about the family. Proust even warns us:
But after these earliest years, I can find a succession of seven or eight different figures spanning the time this name inhabited me; the first ones were the finest: gradually my dream, forced by reality to abandon a position that was no longer tenable, took up its position afresh, a little further back, until it was obliged to retreat further. And as Mme de Guermantes changed, so did her dwelling place, itself born from a that name fertilized from year to year by hearing some word or other that modified my dreams of it [...].
Isn't this whole name thing interesting, and true? And I love the way Proust says the name "inhabited" him. Who hasn't had a similar experience, imagining what a favorite author must be like or that a certain place--Paris maybe--must be filled with romance and intellectuals arguing in cafes and art everywhere not to mention the food and wine. Then we get to actually meet the author and we are startled by how different s/he is from what we imagined. Or we get to go to Paris and we find it to be a bit grungy, the coffee is terrible and no one but the tourists hang out in the cafes, not to mention the wine gives us headaches and the food is so rich we suffer from indigestion the whole time.

And the name thing is only a small piece of the whole, because it contributes to a bigger idea, the interplay between imagination and reality, examples of which are on nearly every page. It's nice to be back into Proust.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Generalized Impressions

I have so many thoughts swirling around about In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower that I'm not sure where to start. I'm sure there will be more than one post, so perhaps I will just begin with general impressions.

I loved the first part of the book, "At Madame Swann's." The luscious detail of dress, the dinner and tea parties, I could picture it all in my mind. I felt bad for our young narrator when his love for Gilberte didn't work out, but I also understood Gilberte and why she was annoyed with him. Marcel showing up all the time unannounced and her mother making her give up plans in order to stay with him. That would make me mad too. Marcel's first love is one of a rather clinging sort that sometimes eerily paralleled Swann's for Odette.

Part two has so many layers, so many beautiful moments. Themes that stand out for me are love, habit, art, and beauty. The descriptions I liked best in this section were when Proust is describing the dining room at the Hotel and at Rivebelle. He twice describes the room as an aquarium and the diners as fish, fist at Balbec (pg 260) with the working classes pressed against the windows looking in at the "strange fish and mollusks." Then later at Rivebelle he describes the ladies taking tea in the narrow, glassed gallery (pg 394), "the place looked like a tank of a creel that a fisherman has filled with his shiny catch, some of the fish being half out of the water, their sheen glistening and changing under glossy lights."

I also loved the description of his first dinner at Rivebelle with Saint Loup when the dining room becomes a solar system, the tables heavenly bodies exerting a sort of gravitational pull on other tables as they all kept looking at each other, and "the incessant revolutions" of the wait staff who moved "in a higher realm." And I laughed at this:
Like a pair of witches, sitting behind a great floral decoration, two ghastly cashiers, endlessly busy with their arithmetic, seemed engage in astrological calculations of the upheavals that might on occasion disrupt life in this planetary system, designed in accordance with the science of the Middle Ages.
Again in part two the narrator falls in love. This time it is with the gang of girls and more specifically with Albertine. The whole bedroom scene when Marcel thinks Albertine has invited him to her room because she wants to have sex with him because that's what all girls really want is both funny and dismaying. But Albertine has a good head on her shoulders and a strong bell rope so Marcel didn't even get a kiss. As baffled as Marcel is about why Albertine won't even let him kiss her, Albertine is almost as equally astonished about how he could not understand why she wouldn't. Maybe they could use a copy of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

I had a hard time following how old Marcel is supposed to be through the whole book. Sometimes he seems like he could be twelve, playing with Gilberte, following the directions of his Grandmother. At other times he is walking out with a cane, dapper as any gentleman, or attending Odette's visiting time and he seems he must be at least 20. I tried not to think about it too much, but sometimes it was disconcerting.

There's my first impression. More specifics in a day or two.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

More Place-Names

I've made it into the Balbec section now, after a bit of a slow-down. The good thing is I don't seem ready to give up--in fact, the more I read, the more I want to finish the entire book. The bad thing, at this point, is the beginning of this section is a bit dull. Coming off Marcel's love/hate for Gilberte, it's easy to feel disappointed. Proust has shown himself, with Swann/Odette and Marcel/Gilberte, to possess a profound and compelling talent. A volume that was originally intended to be mere filler has been, so far, as good as the best of the first volume. It's exciting to know that Marcel and Albertine are yet to come, and the focus on them will become tighter as the novel progresses.

Marcel seemed to have a bit of an unconscious crush on Odette. And the disillusions for him continue. I wonder what Swann ingredients and what Odette ingredients have gone in to make Gilberte. Though each male has gone from love to hate for their corresponding female, how do the females compare? Odette seemed to be more active in her beguiling of Swann, more knowing, but she also seemed to have more compassion than Gilberte had for Marcel. Who is the more cruel: Odette, for allowing Swann to marry her; or Gilberte, for shutting Marcel out completely? And what exactly is Odette's interest in Marcel?