Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Proust on Writers

Cross-posted at So Many Books


I am moving along through In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. I am not moving along as fast as I would like, but even slow is good considering after finishing Swann's Way I had a day or two of resistance to continuing the endeavor. But I am glad I am doing so because this volume is really good. There is a section I very much enjoyed recently that every reader can relate to.

The young narrator (early teens? We never really know his age) loves the author Bergotte and has read everything of the author's that he's written. In Swann's Way there are scenes with the narrator gushing about the author and talking with Swann about him. Turns out Bergotte dines with the Swanns quite frequently and the narrator imagines what it would be like to meet him.

In this volume, he gets his wish. The narrator is invited to lunch at Swann's as is Bergotte. And you know, you've experienced it yourself, you meet the author you've idolized for years, there is always disappointment:
There, in front of me, bowing back at me, like the magician in his tails emerging unscathed while a dove flies from the smoke and dust of a detonation, I saw a stocky, coarse, thickset, shortsighted man, quite young, with a red bottle-nose and a black goatee. I was heartbroken: it was not only that my gentle old man had just crumbled to dust and disappeared, it was also that for those things of beauty, his wonderful works, which I had once contrived to fit into that infirm and sacred frame, that dwelling I had lovingly constructed like a temple expressly designed to hold them, there was now no room in this thick-bodied little man standing in front of me, with all his blood vessels, his bones, his glands, his snub nose, and his little black beard.
Perhaps we are not so surprised about an author's appearance in these days of glossy dust jacket photos, but we still construct, based upon the books, our idea of what the author is like. Proust's narrator did the same thing and has a difficult time reconciling not only the appearance of Bergotte, but his odd voice and way of speaking: "To my ear, Bergotte's way of speaking was completely different from his writing; and even the things he said differed from the things that fill his books." Nonetheless, the narrator feels comfortable talking with Bergotte because he feels like the author is a friend whom he has known a long time.

Throughout this whole section Proust also manages to make some interesting observations about writers and writing. He talks of the accent of the the writer. I can only read this as that certain something about particular authors that allows you to always recognize them. It is more than style, it has to do with voice in a way, but it also more than that. It is that thing that would help you recognize Proust or Woolf or Joyce or Austen in an unattributed passage from their work.

Proust also makes a comment on genius:
Likewise, those who produce works of genius are not those who spend their days in the most refined company, whose conversation is the most brilliant, or whose culture is the broadest; they are those who have the ability to stop living for themselves and make a mirror of their personality, so that their lives, however nondescript they may be socially, or even in a way intellectually, are reflected in it. For genius lies in reflective power, and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected.
A few pages later Proust says that the individual life of the writer is taken over by all the other lives he imagines. This all sounds terrifyingly true. I say terrifying because in a way, the great writer sacrifices his or her life to the life of the work. Maybe this is the difference between great writers and good writers. The merely good live too much for themselves and have life and personality outside their books. But the great, their lives are in their books. Does that make sense the way I said that? There seems to be a rather religious feeling to that--losing the self to something greater and as a result becoming larger than one could ever be otherwise.

9 Comments:

Blogger Alan said...

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5:44 AM  
Blogger Alan said...

Stefanie,I agree totally with your comments about disappointment on realising that the image we have of our favourite author does not match up to the reality. I am interested to know which writers you have met? I have only met (and very briefly at that !)two authors Salman Rushdie and Howard Jacobson. But in conversation you realise that you have invested so much of yourself and their books in your image of the author. The humour of my two authors did not disappoint however.
I also agree with what you say about great and good...we know how much of his life Proust invested in his work!!

5:47 AM  
Blogger Stefanie said...

I've met the poet Adrienne Rich and while she is a very good and nice person like I expected, I was disappointed she did not talk like her poetry. She is just a person and I wanted her to be so much more. I've also met Margaret Atwood and while I was too in awe of her to have any kind of conversation, and while she seems like an interesting person, to me, on that occasion, I felt like she was just doing her job and wasn't fully present if that makes sense.

I've met other writers I had no or only vague expectations of and they generally turn out to impress me in one way or other. It's only the writers who I get giddy over that ever disappointed and that is my fault, not theirs.

8:00 AM  
Blogger Alan said...

I have recently read Atwood's The Blind Assassin which knocked me out!I am at present trying to draft a post on my reading so far with Vol 2. I am glad you are sticking with it...there are many more marvelous moments and lots of humour too.

10:58 AM  
Blogger Transient Me said...

"I put all my genius into my life", Oscar Wilde once quipped, "I only put my talent into my writings."

There's a sense of almost having a choice - of needing to decide whether you pour your vitality onto the page, or hold some back with which to infuse the quality of your life. Proust clearly decided to give his all to his book, removing himself from nearly all social contact till he died in order to write his book.

But then what of Harper Lee? One book, one work of 'genius', and then... nothing? Does that discredit her one book? Or what of the thousands of mad scriveners who write page after page of drivel, and die without having achieved any recognition of 'genius'?

I would say rather that that which differentiates the good from the genius is the degree to which the artist possesses a unique point of view, and not how prolific they are. What do you guys think?

3:24 PM  
Blogger Stefanie said...

I think there is a choice to be made if you are a writer and you have designs on genius. But I think the difference between those who scribble drivel and those who become the next Virginia Woolf or James Joyce is not just a unique point of view but also talent. There are plenty of people out there with a unique p.o.v., but whether they have the skill and talent to express it is what separates the geniuses like Proust from the rest of us.

7:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stephanie,
I found your post after doing research on Dokyo Etan,(my zen teacher's teaching ancestor) which lead to your 6/12/05 post on death poems. I was driven to read Proust because the timeless moments (madelaine, church bells, tiles in courtyard) really called to me in some way I couldn't understand.
I think Proust is talking about the inner quest we all have to experience in life the real Bergotte, not just the little disappointing man--to bring to life the experience we usually only glimpse in a work of art. Proust is riding in a train feeling bored with life when the experience of a shaft of light slanting past a tree trunk triggers the feeling of the madelaine, the church bells, his grandmother: in a moment he is completely alive again, at home.

So what is this feeling/experience that plays so prominent a role in this book, and how can one get more of it.

Aside from literature, where does one look to find answers? There's a moment in theater where one no longer exist, lost in the production--but then it ends and one is just in a room. In medicine, some medications change mood but nothing like this. In brainwave training theta production creates some very warm "one with the world" feelings, regardless of context. In meditation, particularly during extended retreats, the feeling can occur of life in general being suffused with the solid reality of the "completely alive, totally awake, at home"/madelaine-feeling.

It has occurred to me that perhaps these Proustian timeless moments are a by product of "Kensho--glimpses of enlightenment" while "Enlightenment" or "Finding ones true nature" would mean having all of experience have this timeless/losing oneself in time quality.

I have never done blogs. I am signing anonymous for now for that reason. But this topic is really interesting to me. Its nice to find others with similar interests.

5:30 PM  
Blogger Stefanie said...

Hi Anonymous, thanks for your great comment. You say two things that are really interesting. The first is calling Proust an internal quest. I have not thought of Proust as a quest, but it so totally is and you'd think I would have noticed with a title like In Search of Lost Time!

And the quest ties into what you say about enlightenment and the losing onself in time. I don't think Proust is searching for enlightenment per se, but I think you are right about the timelessness that tends to come with enlightenment, and it's that timelessness that Proust is trying to find.

I hope you come back and share more Proustian thoughts!

7:57 PM  
Anonymous neutron copernicus said...

briefly (a blasphemy for a proustian) in each example of the different types of people he mentioned he (proust) is also referring to himself.

anon. brought to me a partial answer that i have been seeking for years; i.e. the feeling'/texture/emotion/ engendered by an almost supernatural power that words can, if only rarely, convey. another blogger= newfred-6 solved this by, and i am paraphrasing his statement; "proust is not meant to be solved as in a murder mystery or any other form of plot. he is not to be analyzed as he is to be experienced." thank you for your and the repondents love of beauty expressed in this and other proust blogs. i am on a suicide watch for my 17 year old son so this will sustain me thru the night. thank you and please believe, "we are our brother's keeeper" neutron

11:28 PM  

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