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.