Monday, July 31, 2006

All the Way to Combray

Having made it through Combray, several questions formed in reflection are eager to appear here, in the hope of finding answers to accompany them. We probably don't yet know the answers, but might hold these questions in mind as we continue our journey, witnessing Swann in Love.

When seven different people are asked to recall the details to a crime scene, there is usually seven different responses. A selective memory often allows one to make better sense of events. What evidence is there that Proust's narrator engages in autobiographical memory, remembering things with cognitive, emotional, or otherwise personal shadings that better coincide with his belief in himself than the actual events?

Though my father and mother owned a pink Cadillac before I was born, I remember riding in it. When a fantasy or lie is repeated and held so strongly, it often comes to resemble reality. What evidence is there that Proust's narrator holds false memories?

Involuntary memory is meant to signify recollections which come unbidden to mind. The heat of an emotional moment alone can sear an event into our memories. We can also store something as a memory on purpose, for example by repeating one's telephone number over and over. What evidence is there that Proust's narrator either intentionally or unintentionally remembered events?

Thousands of pages of memories are recalled by Proust's narrator involuntarily, enacted by a single sensory experience. What evidence is there that this involuntary memory is or is not fuller or more complete than a memory recalled by active effort?

The prominence of one sense over another leads to different forms of memory: space, image, taste, touch, smell, sound. Does Proust's narrator experience one form in preference over another? Is it possible to retain memories of each sensory experience to the same degree of completeness?

Can something which is forgotten be remembered later?

If there is such a thing as involuntary memory, is there also such a thing as voluntary forgetting?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Gardens in a Cup of Tea

My reading of Proust is progressing slower than a stroll along the Meseglise Way, and I feel like I'm falling behind here. Rather than wait until I am through Combray (about twenty-five more pages), I want to offer a couple initial thoughts.

I had the opportunity to browse a mega-chain bookstore a couple weeks ago, and picked up the new translation of Le Cote du Swann. I sat down and read the introduction which Stefanie has already discussed. Though it sounds as if a certain degree of collaboration went into the individual translations, I still don't like the idea of different people of different backgrounds working on pieces of a whole. And it sounds as if the Moncrieff version stays truer to the style and effect of the original, while the new versions try to give a more precise translation of the words. I'm a devoted fan of Moncrieff.

When the narrator and Mamma can't sleep, Mamma proposes they read. But no books are at hand. She says, "Would you like me to get out the books now that your grandmother is going to give you for your birthday?" Ah, the good old days, when books were given as birthday presents. Remember, books still make great gifts!

The narrator often thinks in his sleep of what he has just been reading. This has happened to me numerous times, when I am truly immersed in a book: I set it aside to go to sleep, and the story continues in the form of a lucid dream, so I become the author of what happens next. It occurs only when I first fall asleep, and I never cease to be astounded when I wake up and I am no longer holding a book.

The narrator has dreams of women who sometimes bear a resemblance to some woman he has met while awake. When dreams like this happen to me, I am left with an unsettling wonder about whether or not the person who has appeared in my dream has had the same dream, can see or sense the dream in me, or has somehow projected to me an unknown or hidden truth.

I feel as if I get lost in some of the passages of dialogue--lose myself along Swann's Way--but I am following the suggestion of others to plow ahead and gain the overall feeling of the work instead of trying to reread and gain a deeper understanding of each line. I did find the obtuse compliments paid to Swann quite amusing. Otherwise, the passages of narrative resonate with me better.

Finally, a great deal of this book centers around the phenomenon of involuntary memory. So far, and the general sense I have of it is, the experience is a positive one; the memories are fond. Is this always the way with involuntary memory? Do negative experiences become blocked in some way from being activated involuntarily? One passage on this point, or counterpoint, struck me as most interesting. The narrator was in the habit of making mental lists of the talents of actors
which I used to murmur to myself all day long: lists which in the end became petrified in my brain and were a source of annoyance to it, being irremovable.
The sense of being irremovable turns these into involuntary negative memories. I hope this side of the theme is explored further.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The nature of plain old boring conscious memory

Potential backtracking here, but as I was sitting here at work, a memory of a description I read in Swann's Way came floating into my mind from nowhere, like a palid, dyspeptic cousin of Proust's own powerful recollections. It was the image he ascribes to his old school memory of Combray, where there was a house, two floors connected by a staircase, his room, the dining room, the garden and the gate. And that was about all - islands of light floating in darkness, areas of recollection surrounded by a general and passive amnesia.

How apt! That's how I remember cities, locations, even people. When I think of Barcelona, I recollect the Gaudi Cathedral (or more accurately, the marvelous facade), a few rooms in Picasso's house, the exterior of a bar at which I sat, all connected by a vague impression of cobbled streets lit by lamplight at dusk. And that's about it. A childhood home is but the series of cascading little pools in the front surrounded by ferns, a massive pool in the back, an impression of a brick-walled kitchen, and the steep road outside down which I would glide on my bike and labor back up every day.

Even friends seem so distilled - a few key memories, rich moments that are tied to faces and names. Though, to refine this a little, I find that my impression of friends, even long term friendships, the tone, if you will, is predicated by the previous few months experiences. With conscious effort I can summon our rich history, but casual thought brings to mind only the previous few encounters, the general sense and feeling I have directed towards them. Thus a friend that I've known for the previous ten years, if I am still in regular contact, is viewed through the lens of the past few months, while a friend I haven't seen in ages is viewed in a more casual, poor Proustian sense, composed of a few signatory memories that are statically keyed to my memory of them.

Has this made sense? My point is that Proust's recollection of his Combray world pre-madeleine is fantastically accurate as to how I visualize and recollect my past. Now I need me some madeleine-style memories to explode those fragments into submersive wholes!

For that matter, have any of you guys ever experienced a total sensory immersion memory experience Proustian extravaganza before? I'm going to try and recollect if I have, but the problem is that my memory of that moment of complete immersion is now fragmented by the imperfect nature of my experience and memory since! (Did that make sense as well?)

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Proust and art

Cross-posted at Of Books and Bicycles
I’m about 100 pages into Swann’s Way and noticing how often Proust talks about art, and how he even more often talks about reading. His descriptions of the experience of reading are among the best I’ve ever read. (I feel, as I’m reading this, that I find something blog-worthy on just about every page. How do people who try to write something large and definitive about this book do it?) When it comes to writing about Proust, what I most want to do is give you a quotation and say, isn’t that great? And then another quotation and another, and say, isn’t that just brilliant? Don’t you love it?

On the narrator’s grandmother and books:

Though she judged frivolous reading to be as unhealthy as sweets and pastries, it did not occur to her that a great breath of genius might have a more dangerous and less invigorating influence on the mind even of a child than would the open air and the sea breeze on his body.

That’s the wonder and the danger of books, isn’t it, that you just never know what effect they will have. Yes, children should read great works of genius, and, no, you absolutely cannot control how they read them or what they will learn. This lesson seems worth learning, though; again, about the grandmother:

In fact, she could never resign herself to buying anything from which one could not derive an intellectual profit, and especially that which beautiful things afford us by teaching us to seek our pleasure elsewhere than in the satisfactions of material comfort and vanity.
The novel describes a tension between art for the sake of beauty and art for the sake of moral edification. The tension appears in the grandmother’s attitude – she wants art to teach an anti-materialistic lesson and yet she thinks in terms of “intellectual profit.” The language of materialism is still there. Are we supposed to “gain something” from art? Or are we supposed to seek out beauty for beauty’s sake? Or, in seeking out beauty for beauty’s sake, do we gain something, perhaps unintentionally? The narrator (and presumably Proust) comes down on the side of art for art’s sake. This is about the narrator’s mother reading aloud from a George Sand novel; Sand’s prose:

always breathes that goodness, that moral distinction which mama had learned from my grandmother to consider superior to all else in life, and which I was to teach her only much later not to consider superior to all else in books too …

What the narrator wants is not moral distinction, but beauty. For him, any lessons to be learned from art begin with beauty, not with a moral sense.

The narrator often thinks in artistic terms, in terms of how a novelist or a painter might see the world. He thinks about his childhood view of Swann, so different from the Swann he knew as an adult, and says about the mistaken, childhood version of Swann that he “resembles less the other Swann than he resembles the other people I knew at the time, as though one’s life were like a museum in which all the portraits from one period have a family look about them, a single tonality.”

This reminds me of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie where every portrait Mr. Lloyd paints comes to look like Miss Jean Brodie rather than the ostensible subject. The artists in both examples see what they want to see, paint what they are really thinking about rather than what appears in front of them. The way people make sense of their lives, then, the things they are willing to see and the things they aren’t, what they choose to focus on and what they block out, is similar to the way artists take the materials they have around them and transform them to fit into their own vision. It’s all an act of interpretation, and we all do it, all the time.

This interpretation, this transformation of the everyday, can happen in conversation too. Describing the “lady in pink,” the narrator says:

She had taken some insignificant remark of my father’s, had worked it delicately, turned it, given it a precious appellation, and encasing it with one of her glances of the finest water, tinged with humility and gratitude, had given it back changed into an artistic jewel, into something “completely exquisite.”

An “artist” can be found anywhere, transforming the seemingly insignificant into something beautiful. I can see why Virginia Woolf admired Proust; this scene reminds me of Mrs. Ramsay and her dinner party; Mrs. Ramsay is another artist whose medium is people and conversation, an artist who can transform a meal – a thing that happens every day – into something exquisite and perfect.

I haven’t even gotten to the reading scene, so I must return to it later, or perhaps someone else will write about it. It is a wonderful description of the way the book, the mind, and the outside world blur when one is reading.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Literary Influences

I am almost done with Edmund White's Proust biography. I've been keeping track of Proust's literary and philosophical influences and I thought I'd share what I have thus far discovered.

Proust "intensely admired" George Eliot and was particularly fond of Middlemarch. He identified with Causobon who spent his life on one "great" work. Proust believed, as White puts it, "that life presents us but one book to write, the story of our own existence which we must merely 'translate.' " I imagine admiring a character who failed to complete his life's work was a reflection of Proust's concern about his own work. In his late 30s he was so ill with asthma he was always telling his friends that he expected to die soon. Yet he managed to live until he was 52.

Proust also admired, and was friends with, Anatole France. France wrote the preface to Proust's first book Pleasures and Days in 1896. Yet even he complained to his secretary, not to Proust, that Proust wrote "sentences interminable enough to make you consumptive." With friends like these...

Other authors Proust read and admired are Balzac, Shakespeare (I wonder what reading Shakespeare in another language is like?), Flaubert, and Goethe. He was especially admiring of Ruskin and translated two of his books, The Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies into French. Proust did not know much English though so he had his mother and an Enlishwoman, Marie Nordlinger, write a word-by-word translation for him which he then rewrote. Apparently he managed a translation that sounded very much like Ruskin. What Proust liked best about Ruskin were his aesthetic ideas. He didn't care a whit for Ruskin's ideas about reform. If anybody has read, or knows anything about Ruskin, a post about his ideas would be interesting (hint, hint).

Proust also read, and disagreed with Sainte-Beuve. In fact In Search of Lost Time was originally conceived as a short novel called Against Sainte-Beuve, Memories of a Morning. I know even less about Saint-Beuve than I do about Ruskin. I searched my library's catalog though and found what appears to be an essay Proust wrote about Sainte-Beuve. I say "appears" because for some reason, even though the books are in English, my library insists on listing their titles in French. I have requested it and will be sure to post about it if it turns out to be worthwhile.

Thursday, July 20, 2006


I had to turn on word verification for comments. I hate word verification. But two days in a row now we've gotten comment spam. Stupid spammers.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A mobile sense of self

I feel the same trepidation that Dorothy experienced when writing up her first post on Proust; what consoles me is that the rest of you will be not only understanding if my post rambles and fails to connect, but perhaps can even help me reach the conclusion I'm striving for!

I've just finished reading Part One, which terminated in the infamous and shockingly violent scene with the madeleine. Throughout those first sixty or so pages, I watched out for the interplay between memory, dreams and active thought, trying to codify their relationship to each other. Not sure I got very far, but here are my thoughts:

Involuntary memory isn't just activated by objects, but by any kind of external stimuli. In the very first paragraph, there's a fascinating line where the narrator actually identifies with the immediate subject of his book, becoming of all things a church or a quartet. Self, and one's sense of self, can be disarmed by the power of dreams, by memory, by any strong sense of dislocation resulting from either being ambushed by sleep, or by a sleep too deep or potent.

Check out this quote from page 4:
But for me it was enough if, in my own bed, my sleep was so heavy as completely to relax my consciousness; for then I lost all sense of the place in which I had gone to sleep, and when I awoke in the middle of the night, not knowing where I was, I could not even be sure at first who I was; I had only the most rudimentary sense of existence, such as my lurk and flicker in the depths of the cave-dweller; but then the memory - not yet of the place in which I was, but of the various other places where I had lived and might now very possibly be - would draw me up out of the abyss of not-being, from which I could never have escaped by myself; in a flash I would traverse centuries of civilization, and out of a blurred glimpse of oil-lamps, then of shirts with turned-down collars, would gradually piece together the original components of my ego.
Sense of self is clearly a fragile thing; it can be robbed by simply a deep sleep, or an engrossing dream, or as we later see, sent outside of time (in a sense) by an involuntary memory. When I read these first 60 pages the first time, I chalked up their effusive explorations of random stimuli and domestic memories to Proust's own excitement at starting his book, much like a thorough bred horse will stomp and prance as it seeks to leave the racing gate. But now, looking at it closer, I wonder if it is not all a setup of the themes Proust will explore throughout the rest of the novel.

Another line leaps out at me:

Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves and not anything else; by the immobility of our conception of them.
Could you somehow reverse this? Perhaps the apparent immobility of our sense of self is forced upon us by the conviction that we are ourselves and not anything else; by the immobility of our self-conception? Could Proust perhaps be seeking to explode this immobility through his recounting of his nocturnal experiences, and demonstrate just how mercurial our sense of self is, liable to be affected not just by our dreams, but by people's perception of whom we are, a la Swann? Thus a thigh can create a woman, a room can dictate our sense of time, and a madeleine can take us back, beyond normal memory, so that we seem to wholly exist within a town of our childhood.

Long Sentences

I have read in various places that Proust's long sentences are intimidating for a majority of people. I can't say that I have ever been intimidated by a sentence before. The accumulation of sentences, yes, but not the individual sentence. Proust's sentences may be long, but wow, they contain so much! Apparently Proust spoke in long sentences too. According to Edmund White in his little Proust biography,
Proust's complicated way of talking was dubbed by his friends with the French made-up verb proustifier, "to Proustify."
I find this a highly amusing tidbit. It is good to know that Proust is consistent in speech and print and I now have a new verb for when someone starts getting complicated and long-winded.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Voluntary and Involuntary Memory

Dorothy highlighted a passage from the madeleine scene yesterday in which memory is portrayed as something beyond the reach of the intellect and rests mainly in the realm of chance. The madeleine is an example of involuntary memory. What I find most curious about Proust's idea is that he places the key to memory in objects. The taste or smell or feel of an object can unlock a memory in such a way that one is transported back in time to relive it. But finding the key is purely chance, if we don't encounter the right object before we die, then we will never experience whatever memory that object is the key to. We don't even know what the keys look like though so we can't even search for them.

This makes me feel sad. I know our memories are not perfect, all I have to do is talk to me sister about our childhood and it is abundantly clear that I remember things she doesn't, she remembers things I don't and if we both remember the same thing we each remember it differently. What makes me sad is the idea that there are things I could remember if only the right key came along. I am tempted to dredge my mind for childhood objects--sea shells, rubber flip-flops, Hostess Cupcakes, pecans--which I might acquire to wake up a memory or two. But then I wonder, do I want to remember? Why should I care? Will reliving a summer's day at the beach or a particular day when I walked to school make much difference to me in the here and now? Proust is currently silent on why or if it matters. Perhaps this will be revealed later.

Involuntary memory is set in opposition to voluntary memory. Voluntary memory is "the memory of the intelligence." Because of the origin of a voluntary memory, Proust sees it as being dead: "the information it gives about the past preserves nothing of the past itself." Is this true? I recall moments at will and remember feelings and details, close my eyes and am there. Am I just fooling myself, allowing my imagination to fill in the details rather than actually remembering? Which leads me to another question. If I experience an involuntary memory of say, a hike in the mountains, can I then recall it at will, or does that turn it into a voluntary memory? Or would I need to use the key if I wanted to experience the memory again? And would it work?

So much to think about. Maybe someone who knows Proust better than I has a few answers, or maybe the answers will arrive as I read. If nothing else, Proust is giving me a lesson in patience.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Reading Proust

Cross-posted at Of Books and Bicycles

Writing about Proust makes me nervous, just like the thought of reading him once did. But now I’ve read enough to know the reading is not so very, very difficult. And now’s the time to learn that writing about him isn’t so very, very difficult either.

For me, the trick to reading Proust is patience; I can’t read too many pages at once, or I’ll feel like I’ve got too much to absorb. What this means is that I’ll be reading Proust forever, which, at this early point at least, I’m thinking isn’t so bad. Because what a companion the narrator is turning out to be! I love following his thoughts wherever they lead, and they do lead all over the place, from one time to another, one story to another.

Most of the first section is taken up with the narrator’s memories of his childhood, and especially his childhood attempts to claim his mother’s attention – specifically, to make sure she gives him his goodnight kiss. The pain he feels when he can’t have her attention is overwhelming – I feel his despair and sadness very strongly. It reminds me that children, with very little experience of the world, have no larger context with which to understand their sufferings. The narrator as a child has nothing else in his life but his family; they are his universe, and when the universe doesn’t follow its regular patterns, it is, truly, a catastrophe. The novel begins with the narrator as an adult looking back on his childhood; this structure leads us to wonder what the true meaning of this childhood suffering is. Is it really that the child lacks a larger context with which to make sense of pain and loss, and when he gains one, this suffering at his mother’s absence will subside? Or does gaining a larger context change nothing, so that one’s childhood sufferings really become the defining moments of one’s life? This passage leads me to think it is the latter:

But for a little while now, I have begun to hear again very clearly, if I take care to listen, the sobs that I was strong enough to contain in front of my father and that broke out only when I found myself alone again with Mama. They have never really stopped; and it is only because life is now becoming quieter around me that I can hear them again, like those convent bells covered so well by the clamor of the town during the day that one would think they had ceased altogether but which begin sounding again in the silence of the evening.
In the midst of the child’s suffering, however, I found humorous scenes, particularly of the narrator’s great-aunts. When Swann gives the family a case of wine (for those of you not familiar with the novel, Swann is a friend of the narrator’s parents, and a frequent visitor at their house), the aunts thank him in a manner so obscure Swann could never recognize the thank you for what it was, but the aunts are confident they have done their social duty. They comically refuse to recognize Swann’s true social status, much higher than they give him credit for. One of the great-aunts:

Had him push the piano around and turn the pages on the evenings when my grandmother’s sister sang, handling this creature, who was elsewhere so sought after, with the naïve roughness of a child who plays with a collector’s curio no more carefully than with some object of little value.

This mistake leads the narrator to consider the uncertainty of identity:

None of us constitutes a material whole, identical for everyone, which a person has only to go look up as though we were a book of specifications or a last testament; our social personality is a creation of the minds of others. Even the very simple act that we call “seeing a person we know” is in part an intellectual one. We fill the physical appearance of the individual we see with all the notions we have about him, and of the total picture that we form for ourselves, these notions certainly occupy the greater part.

The “Swann” that the narrator’s family sees is very much their own construction – they see only parts of him, the parts they are comfortable with and that make sense to them – and the “Swann” that other people see will be very different.

Not only is our perception of other people incomplete, contingent, shaped by what we are willing and able to see in them and not what is really “there, ” but our perception of ourselves is equally uncertain. It is this idea that introduces the famous “madeleine” scene. About our relationship with our own past, the narrator says:

It is a waste of effort for us to try to summon it, all the exertions of our intelligence are useless. The past is hidden outside the realm of our intelligence and beyond its reach, in some material object (in the sensation that this material object would give us) which we do not suspect. It depends on chance whether we encounter this object before we die, or do not encounter it.
The narrator then goes on to discuss the madeleine dipped in tea and the memories this suddenly and unexpectedly invokes in him. He has no control over these memories; they are involuntary, coming to him without any foreknowledge or effort on his part. Because of the tea and the madeleine, consumed at just the right time, memories flood him, memories that, as I understand it, he will spend many of the following pages describing. But he might possibly have missed this experience entirely; it is chance that allows us to access our own pasts, our chance encounters with objects that can suddenly unlock memories held unknowingly in our minds. When the objects that surround us do speak to us in this way, telling us something about who we are, then we can only accept it as a gift we are giving to ourselves – a gift of ourselves to ourselves.


I've read up to the end of the first part of "Combray" and I must say I am enjoying Proust very much. It strikes me that he writes in a sort of literary hyperlink where you have this guy in bed with insomnia and you get to the part about laying a certain way and there is a link and you click on it and it takes you to Combray where little Marcel can't sleep because he did not get a kiss from his Mama.

At Combray we meet quite a cast of characters. The family cracks me up. Grandma taking a walk in the garden no matter the weather and her reconnaisance missions when someone rings the doorbell. The aunts who want to thank Swann for the wine and think that by saying some neighbors are really good they are being so very clever and Swann will take the compliment and think them so witty. Grandpa, who also has trouble saying what he means, trying to manipulate Swann to talk about a certain subject. And the whole family thinking they are above Swann in social standing and those, but not them, who associate with Swann drop a little lower in their view. But in reality Swann has a higher social standing than the family does and he is the one paying them a compliment rather than the other way around. Hilarious, with such subtlety. The way Proust develops these characters with the use of choice detail is enjoyable. I can see the family sitting in the garden, know who they are, what they like and don't like without having more than a few descriptive things said about them.

There is much in these first pages to talk about, but I had to bring up the pleasure the quirky characters provide before getting to the more serious stuff.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Heading for the finish line!

Okay, folks, wish me well this weekend: I am going to sprint the last 100 pages of "Swann's Way" before I head off to Yosemite next week.

General comment about the experience: Terrific. Loved it. Absolutely crazy over the Combray half of the book. Swann's Way started a bit roughly, but evened out and now, 100 pages from the end, Proust is tossing off some seriously snippy writing -- fur is flying, let me tell you!

More next week...Let's talk madeleine's Monday, shall we?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Proust and Asthma

I read a bit of Edmund White's short biography of Proust last night and came upon this passage:
Asthma was one of the great decisive factors in Proust's development. Because of it he was constantly treated as an invalid (and regarded himself as permanently sickly). Because of it he missed many months of school, was afraid to travel, and constantly had to cancel plans to see friends. Because of it he spent many days in a row, even weeks, lying perfectly still, struggling to breather. And because of it, at least indirectly, he died an early death at fifty-one. [...]Because of it he was forced to spend much of his life in bed. [...] Because of it he was forced to embrace solitude, but it also provided him with a ready excuse for keeping people at bay when he wanted to work. Because of it his family and friends and servants were tyrannized by his needs, sometimes even his whims.
I don't want to imply that illness makes writers great, because I don't think that is necessarily true, but because of his asthma he was able to write in the beginning of Swann's Way (Davis, pg 4 hardcover) about the invalid waking in a strange hotel in the middle of the night, seeing the light under the door and thinking it is almost morning. Proust writes "he will be able to ring, someone will come help him. The hope of being relieved gives him the courage too suffer." But the hope doesn't last long when the invalid realizes the lights are being turned off and the servants are going to bed and "he will have to suffer the whole night through without remedy."

For some reason I find this passage of less than a paragraph beautiful and sad and touching. It stirs up compassion and understanding and pity in me. The images shimmer up to my consciousness from time to time during my day and make me stop and think about being unwell and alone in a strange room. I think it is the line "The hope of being relieved gives him the courage to suffer" is what gets me most. That is a line that could not be written by someone who never experienced a major of chronic illness.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Often, but only a little at a time

I came across this passage recently, about Swann's father losing his wife:

He could not be consoled for the death of his wife, but, during the two years he survived her, he would say to my grandfather: "It's odd, I think of my poor wife often, but I can't think of her for long at a time." "Often, but only a little at a time, like poor old Swann," had become one of my grandfather's favorite phrases, which he uttered apropos of the most different sorts of things.

Apropos of a different sort of thing, this phrase strikes me as a good description of how I will most likely read Proust. I'm not sure I can spend hours, or even much more than an hour on it, but I think I will return to it frequently. This is how I've begun, at any rate, by reading Proust a little at a time, 10 pages or so, savoring it, and then moving on to something else, ready before too long to return to it again. How about you?

De Botton on Proust

Hello, I found this interview from NPR on with Alain De Botton's comments on Proust, and thought you all might want to check it out at some point.

Happy Birthday!

It's Proust's birthday today. I found it out quite by accident but it made me very happy for some reason.

I began reading the Lydia Davis Swann's Way in bed on Saturday evening. Even though I read it before, it didn't quite strike me as being so beautiful the first time around. But Saturday night and again on Sunday, I found myself reading sentences over and over for no other reason than they were so exquisite.

And as far as notetaking, I am trying out a system of marking passages and of "indexing" at the top of each page what the major themes on the page are like "Mama refuses to kiss Marcel," and "Grandma's theory of weather and health." Hard to say at this point if the indexing will help since I am only on page 37 and everything is still fresh. I know the Modern Library editions have a "synopsis" at the back of the book, but looking at their headings they do not jog my memory like my top-of-page notes do--and this is all about memory in more way than one!

I plan on celebrating Proust's birthday by reading Proust. What better homage could there be?

Saturday, July 08, 2006


I'm very excited about this venture, and doubly so for doing it with a group of people who's blogs I enjoy reading. Proust has long been a passion of mine, ever since I took a course on him back in college and read all of La Recherche in a frenzied blur. It was as far from Davis' suggested 'surrendering' as once can get, and I'm eager to attempt a slow, luxurious reading in which I can take my time and savor the experience. I've also got a lot of material saved up from that course which I plan to re-read, and am more than willing to scan or type up anything of particular interest for everybody to enjoy!

I've never been in a group bicycle ride, but reading Dorothy's blog has made such a metaphor seem apt for our endeavour. A bunch of strangers, gathering to enjoy a challenging past time, excited to test ourselves and willing to help each other accomplish our goal.

So - race on!

Lydia Davis's introduction

First of all, if you haven't yet, check out Stefanie's post on two different introductions to Swann's Way. I thought I'd give a few quotations from the Lydia Davis introduction that I liked and didn't like. Writing this post is my way of getting in the mood to take on the novel itself, which I plan to do this evening. I'm psyching myself up.

Here is a description of Proust in conversation, and if the story isn't true, it should be:

One friend, though surely exaggerating, reported that Proust would arrive late in the evening, wake him up, begin talking, and deliver one long sentence that did not come to an end until the middle of the night. The sentence would be full of asides, parentheses, illuminations, reconsiderations, revisions, addenda, corrections, augmentations, digressions, qualifications, erasures, deletions, and marginal notes. It would, in other words, attempt to be exhaustive, to capture every nuance of a piece of reality, to reflect Proust's entire thought.

Isn't that perfect? Also:

Proust felt ... that a long sentence contained a whole, complex thought, a thought that should not be fragmented or broken. The shape of the sentence was the shape of the thought, and every word was necessary to the thought: "I really have to weave these long silks as I spin them," he said. "If I shortened my sentences, it would make little pieces of sentences, not sentences."

Here is Davis on how art shapes reality:

For only in recollection does an experience become fully significant, as we arrange it in a meaningful pattern, and thus the crucial role of our intellect, our imagination, in our perception of the world and our re-creation of it to suit our desire; thus the importance of the role of the artist in transforming reality according to a particularly inner vision: the artist escapes the tyranny of time through art.

I like this up until the last line. Nothing, I think, escapes the tyranny of time and the conclusion seems rather banal. But I like the description of how memory and imagination shape experience, and I like how Davis's "we" includes both Proust and, graciously, us. I'm not so sure about this claim, however:

The power of the intellect, and the imagination, have come to transform the inadequacy or tediousness of the real.

Here Davis describes how Swann's vision of Odette changes when he compares her to a painting. I'm not sure I care for this dismissal of the "real" in favor of the transformations of art. Art can give meaningful shape and form to our lives, but does admiring that process have to involve seeing the "real" as inadequate? However, I will have to withhold judgment until I read the novel.

Books About Proust

I went a little Proust crazy at the library the other day but I managed to stop myself before I had requested more than three Proust books. There are others I want to look at too, but I only have two eyes and so many hours in the day and this is a long project and I must pace myself in order to make it to the end. That said, I am glad you are all with me, otherwise I would very likely burn out somewhere in the middle. The books I got from the library may be of some interest. They are:
  • Marcel Proust by Edmund White. It is in the Penguin Lives biography series. If you've not chanced upon the series before, it is very good. Writers writing about writers. And the books are all slim. Not definitive, but a taste to whet the appetite.

  • The Year of Reading Proust by Phyllis Rose. It appears to be a sort of interleaved memoir and reading of Proust. I am worried it is more memoir than Proust but hoping it might be good anyway.

  • The Proust Project edited by Andre Aciman. This is a book of short essays solicited from 28 writers. The writers writing on their favorite passage from Proust. One of the best things about it is, it appears to be organized by book, so the essays on Swann's Way are first and on down the line.
And there is another book I found on my own TBR shelf that I had completely forgotten about because it was hidden behind some other books. It is called The Sense of an Interior: Four Writers and the Rooms that Shaped Them by Diana Fuss. The four writers are Helen Keller, Sigmund Freud, Emily Dickinson and Marcel Proust. It looks like it will be interesting and I find myself wondering how it got shoved to the back of my shelf. I'm sure it was waiting for just the right time to reveal itself. That's my reasoning anyway and I'm sticking to it!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Note Taking

I am beginning my reading of Swann's Way this evening. I'll be using he Lydia Davis translation and I, like Stefanie, found her introduction to be excellent. Indeed, I think that the introduction gave me the confidence I need to get through the text this time around. Interestingly enough, I think that having just finished a Henry James novel also helped me prepare for Proust. Both men like long, meandering sentences. I am excited to begin this endeavor!

I do have a question for my fellow Proust readers, though: how do you plan (if, indeed, you do) to take notes? I am not a big fan of writing in the margins of the text, although sometimes it is the most convenient way to jot down thoughts, etc. I do have a little Moleskine notebook that I could use as well, but fishing for the notebook could be inconvenient if I am, say, reading the book on the subway, etc.

Which brings me to another question: WHERE do you plan on reading your Proust? Do you think that the book would be best enjoyed and understood if you set aside a certain place and time each day to read it? I am thinking this might be my best approach. I discovered in my last several attempts at reading Proust that the text requires my full concentration and devotion. Who knows, maybe this time the sentences will seem to flow better and I'll not be able to put Proust down!

I am very interested in the logistics/mechanics of your reading of Proust. How do you plan to "make yourself comfortable" for the experience, so to speak?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Madeleine Recipes

Becky mentions resisting buying madeleines to eat while reading Swann's Way but I say indulge! You can even make your own. Sadly for me, unless I can get my wizard-in-the-kitchen husband to figure out a vegan version--substitutes for milk, butter and eggs are required--I am going to have to depend on the rest of you to tell me what the cookies taste like. If he does come up with a goo recipe, I'll be sure to pass it along.

Monday, July 03, 2006

I have to admit that I've never read a word of Proust. Not a quote, a line, or a phrase. The only reason I even know of him is through some sort of literary diffusion by which his name has been dispersed through the pages of other books. I know there is something to do with a madeline (and I suspect I shall have to resist buying some at the grocery store to accompany my reading) and, well, that's about it. I'm excited to tackle these books with a group though and hope I'll be able to keep up!

Proust in England

I first attempted to read "Swann's Way" during a trip to England several years ago. My husband and I decided to visit Oxford and while there, the Oxford University Press store. Warning to readers: if you have are unable to control yourself in a bookstore DO NOT GO THERE. We purchased many books that we then shipped back to the U.S.

One of my many purchases there was "Swann's Way." I was in grad school at the time and my roommate was reading part of it for a class. She described the whole iconic Madeline scene and I felt like it was just the sort of thing I would like to read. So once I bought the book I was ready to dive right in.

Reading Proust on buses and trains and in bed and breakfasts in England when you can snatch a few minutes here and there is not ideal. I had no idea when I started the book how incredibly detailed everything would be. No idea that sentences would go on forever. No idea that at times there was very little action. It was hard to hold my attention, but I knew somehow that I liked it and would need to finish it. Someday.

I've since tried a couple times to read the book. Its never quite been the right moment and I've always felt that I needed some support to get through it. I think I've finally found that moment and the support!

So, I will be reading the Lydia Davis translation. Thanks to Stefanie's post I will get to that introduction today. I am currently reading "Absurdistan" by Gary Shteyngart and once done with it will be ready for Proust. Just finished "A Potrait of a Lady" (loved it) and needed something much different from James and Proust!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

An Introductory Comparison

Initially I had decided to read the Moncrieff/Killmartin/Enright Modern Library edition of Proust but since I was able to get the new translation as a bargain book I am now waffling. If I were to choose solely on the introductions, I would choose Lydia Davis's translation hands down. Her introduction is informative, insightful, and goes against the nature of all introductions to classics I have ever read by also being useful. Plus, it doesn't give anything away. But I am getting the impression there really isn't anything to give away in Proust. Davis suggests the way to read Proust is
in the full, slow reading and rereading of every word, in complete submission to Proust's subtle psychological analyses, his precise portraits, his compassionate humor, his richly colored and lyrical landscapes, his extended digressions, his architectonic sentences, his symphonic structures, his perfect formal design.
That makes me want to dive right it. If you don't have the Davis translation, I recommend you borrow it from the library or take a few minutes to read it when next you are at the book store.

The Modern Library introduction was written by Richard Howard who has a Pulitzer to his name. It is an unfortunate introduction in that Howard attempts to set a light and breezy tone to make first time readers comfortable and confident. His is a letter of introduction to both the first time reader and to Proust introducing the modern American reader to him (as if Proust cares). Far from making this reader feel excited and confident in the book I am about to read, Howard succeeds in making me feel like a six year old whose hand needs to be held while crossing a busy intersection. He tells Proust that modern American readers are intimidated by his reputation for being difficult and his long sentences. He asserts that we are not likely to understand Proust's interest in time and the past because Americans "have a kind of allergy to the past." By the end Howard is fervently wishing that through his charitable introductions of new readers to Proust and Proust to his new readers, that we will get along and "proceed some way together."

Whereas Davis's introduction is everything I could want in an introduction, Howard's is nearly useless. If you manage to dig past the tripe there are a few bits of information that can be cleaned up for use. What I like best about Davis's introduction is that she writes with the assumption that I am an intelligent reader. She acknowledges Proust's difficult reputation and explains the reasons for it, explains what Proust was up to with the long sentences and the minimal use of punctuation as well as a few other points.

I have not yet placed my bookmark into either translation. I have not yet chosen my bookmark (an important thing to consider--something fru-fru? Serious? Artsy? It contributes to the whole enterprise at hand). My plan is to read a few pages of each edition and then decide which I like best. I know I shouldn't allow the introductions to influence me, but I must admit I am slightly inclined to Davis.

On reading Proust

These two volumes of Proust arrived in the mail yesterday. They got here incredibly fast; I'd only ordered them two days earlier. The volumes are attractive. I love the cut edges; the print is fairly large, and at only 400 or so pages each, they don't look overwhelmingly long. Of course, if I bought all the volumes at once and set them side by side, they might look overwhelmingly long.

This will be my first encounter with Proust; beyond the short quotation here and there, I haven't read him before. I have the impression that it will be difficult; I've heard of long sentences, long paragraphs, not much action, pages and pages detailing the tiniest of impressions. I am curious about whether I will love this, which I very well might, or whether I will be bored by it. Or a little bit of both.

I am certainly ready to give it a try though. I don't plan to start reading Swann's Way for another week or so, but I'm looking forward to it, and hoping that the discussion here will help me understand the book and keep me enthusiastic.