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.