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.


Blogger Stefanie said...

You need have no fear on writing about Proust Dorothy!

The passage you quote about the sobs of childhood never stopping was a beautifully poignant moment in the book. Adults treat the desires and needs and suffering of children so callously sometimes. Heck, I frequently found myself annoyed by Marcel's need to have a goodnight kiss and I thought, good thing I don't have children! We carry our childhood suffering with us as adults and try to make light of it, but I think it affects us deeply (just look at how many people are in therapy) even if we do not acknowledge it.

I like what you pulled out about identity too. There are so few people who actually see our whole selves. I found it interesting that the narrator remarked that he did not know what Swann's face looked like and could not recognize him on the street. We know people in various contexts and when we encounter them outside of that it is often weird and sometimes uncomfortable.

As far as memory, I'm working on something more detailed than a comment, but I am struck by the idea of how much chance is involved in it.

3:49 PM  
Blogger Dorothy W. said...

I had that same response of mild annoyance at the narrator as a child, and I wondered if the narrator as an adult felt any distance or judgment from himself as a child. I'm not sure. I mean, are we supposed to feel a little distance from the child narrator, or are we supposed to feel complete sympathy at his pain? I suppose the adult narrator understands why his parents got exasperated with him and why other people thought he was a difficult child.

And about identity -- I was just thinking how strange it would be to meet other bloggers in person -- it would probably cause the kind of disorientation you describe. I didn't remember the part about not remembering Swann's face; thanks for pointing that out.

I'm looking forward to your further thoughts :)

6:05 PM  
Blogger Stefanie said...

It is hard to know how we are supposed to feel for the child. The adult narrator is present in that it is his memory, but he is not telling us how to interpret it nor does he interpret it, he just remembers. And maybe that's the genius of it because it allows us to feel the very real suffering of the child but also allows us to see and feel the annoyance of the parent. It stikes me just now as being very rich because we can examine both sides of the coin.

Why does the child, even though he knows he is annoying his Mama, knows that he is going to ruin everything do what he did anyway? Since memory is so important, can we say the child lives in the now and has no memory? Or is it that he remembers the ritual and how soothing it is, remembers what happens when he doesn't get a kiss and is afraid of the results? Afraid of the insomnia which then connects us back to the adult who is also suffering from insomnia at the moment. The child gets his Mama to reluctantly stay with him and so gets to sleep. What comfort does the adult get? Gosh, the adult narrator suddenly seems so lonely.

It would be strange to meet other bloggers in person, wouldn't it?

8:01 AM  
Blogger Dorothy W. said...

I think you're absolutely right that the brilliance of the narrative is that it lets us feel both sides fully -- the child and the parents. It can be so hard to take when the situation is a mess, but no one is really at fault, or at least both sides are sympathetic.

Maybe the child risks angering his mother because of his relatively powerless position -- he has so little control over his life and so he feels this compulsion to keep the ritual going to keep things familiar and stable and the same. Isn't ritual really, really important for children? Maybe this is because of their relatively short experience of life, so that change is new and traumatic. So maybe memory -- the memory of the ritual -- is even more important for the child, who has so little else to provide stability. Or is it that memory consoles the adult, while the child insists on the physical presence of his mother rather than his thoughts about her?. Maybe for adults, memory becomes a replacement for the rituals of childhood.

3:26 PM  
Blogger Stefanie said...

I think you are right about the childhood memory. And I like your idea that memory might become a replacement for the rituals of childhood. Still, a memory is not the same thing as the actual experience, though it can give consolation as you suggest. Do you think that even though the adult narrator is alone (and I think, lonely) that his memory alleviates his suffering? Or does his memory help him simply because it allows him to pass the through the hours of insomnia until her can either fall asleep or start the day? And maybe the two are the same thing. Hmm.

4:26 PM  
Blogger Dorothy W. said...

I agree that memory is not the same thing as actual experience -- maybe "replacement" isn't the best word; I guess I was getting at something more like memory as an inadequate compensation for the loss of real experience (the ritual).

But memory is surely a mixed blessing -- alleviating pain and causing it at the same time? Perhaps memory makes him feel less alone -- or perhaps more alone, or maybe that is something that shifts depending on mood. I guess the first person narration (the narrator taking the time to write out his story) would lead us to believe that memory helps fill the time and provides some kind of solace both. Something is motivating him to write, after all.

7:32 PM  
Blogger Stefanie said...

Good points Dorothy.

We've got a long way to go before we find out what the narrator and Proust are really up to. Nonetheless, it is fun to pick it apart and specualte along the way :)

8:10 AM  
Blogger LK said...

Good thoughts all, and thanks for such a wonderful discussion.

My two cents: Is memory really involuntary? Perhaps a memory or a sensation is "ready" to come forth in our lives, and any of a hundred associations from that memory can be sparked from our environment. If Marcel hadn't enjoyed tea with his madeleine that day, perhaps a certain slant of sun on a rooftop or smell of rain from pavement would have evoked that childhood memory, because something in his unconscious wanted to call up that experience? Or maybe his subconscious craved the tea and cookie on purpose, so as to evoke the memory?

Maybe time plus association equals memory...?

4:03 PM  
Blogger Dorothy W. said...

Yes, that makes sense LK -- why not give the mind some credit here, instead of thinking it all happens solely because of the object? Maybe the mind does push memories forward -- for its own mysterious reasons.

6:03 PM  
Blogger Stefanie said...

Good point LK. The narrartor didn't instantly remember everything after he tasted the madeleine. He had to think about it and encourage his mind to connect the two moments.

6:12 PM  

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