Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Back to Proust

Cross posted at So Many Books

After a Proust hiatus I have finally jumped back in and it's like I never left. I'm on The Guermantes Way now, that's book three, and reading the new translation by Mark Treharne. Treharne's introduction was one of the worst I've ever read, but thankfully, his translating is very good. When I first decided to read the new translations I was a bit worried that there wouldn't be a consistency between books, that each book would "sound" different somehow. But much to my relief and pleasure, this has not been the case. Maybe it's the power of Proust.

One of the things I am enjoying most about In Search of Lost Time is how Proust takes his time. The narrative arc definitely moves forward but we are constantly going from the present to the past to the future and back to the present. Then there are the ideas and themes. They start as a passing mention you hardly notice. Then a little while later an idea returns and Proust dwells on it a little longer before moving on. But then sometime later it returns again and Proust adds more layers.

One of his ideas that I have had flitting around in my brain regards names. In Swann's Way we have an entire section devoted to names. In it, Marcel, the young narrator, becomes enamored of lots of names--Venice, the seaside town of Balbec, Swann, Odette, Bergot, Guermantes. But other than some brief experiences with Swann, he doesn't know anything about anything. He is free to let his imagination create people and places to go with the names.

In the second book, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, there is also a section about names. Marcel spends quite a lot of time with Swann and Odette and the writer Bergot. He spends so much time with them that his imagination has to, at times, be painfully adjusted to the reality. The narrator also gets to finally go to Balbec. Of course Balbec is not what he imagined, but it ends up being an enjoyable place nonetheless where he gets to meet some of the members of the Guermantes family. Still, Marcel is not intimate enough with the family for the name to lose its mythical status.

Now, at the very beginning of Guermantes Way we are brought back to names again. Whereas in the previous two books most of the name theme was implied or episodic, Proust comes right out and says what he is about at the very beginning:
At the age when Names, offering us the image of the unknowable that we have invested in them and simultaneously designating a real place for us, force us accordingly to identify the one with the other, to a point where we go off to a city to seek out a soul that it cannot contain but which we no longer have the power to expel from its nature, it is not only to cities and ruins that they give an individuality, as do allegorical paintings, nor is it only the physical world that they spangle with differences and people with marvels, it is the social world as well: so every historic house, every famous residence or palace, has its lady or its fairy, as forests have their spirits and rivers their deities.
Marcel's family have moved from their former house in Combray to an apartment in the Hôtel de Guermantes. In one of the apartments also lives Mme de Guermantes. Our narrator is about to slowly be disabused of his ideas about the family. Proust even warns us:
But after these earliest years, I can find a succession of seven or eight different figures spanning the time this name inhabited me; the first ones were the finest: gradually my dream, forced by reality to abandon a position that was no longer tenable, took up its position afresh, a little further back, until it was obliged to retreat further. And as Mme de Guermantes changed, so did her dwelling place, itself born from a that name fertilized from year to year by hearing some word or other that modified my dreams of it [...].
Isn't this whole name thing interesting, and true? And I love the way Proust says the name "inhabited" him. Who hasn't had a similar experience, imagining what a favorite author must be like or that a certain place--Paris maybe--must be filled with romance and intellectuals arguing in cafes and art everywhere not to mention the food and wine. Then we get to actually meet the author and we are startled by how different s/he is from what we imagined. Or we get to go to Paris and we find it to be a bit grungy, the coffee is terrible and no one but the tourists hang out in the cafes, not to mention the wine gives us headaches and the food is so rich we suffer from indigestion the whole time.

And the name thing is only a small piece of the whole, because it contributes to a bigger idea, the interplay between imagination and reality, examples of which are on nearly every page. It's nice to be back into Proust.


Blogger Quillhill said...

Well, I certainly have fallen way behind--only about halfway through the second book. Proust's novel is like a literary Ring Cycle, lietmotifs assigned and then brought back at intervals to be more fully developed. How to apply musical techniques and effects to prose is one of my fascinations.

7:46 PM  
Anonymous Stefanie said...

What an apt comparison Quillhill! Ii think Proust himself would agree with you. have you by any chance read David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas? He uses musical techniques to structure the novel.

7:59 AM  
Blogger Quillhill said...

I have not, but it sounds like something I might enjoy. I think I will put it right at the bottom of my long queue.

6:47 AM  
Blogger Quillhill said...

My comment is not to be taken wrongly. I would like to read the book. My queue of books I'd like to read is long. It's the same when a new movie comes out, or someone suggests a movie, and I add it to my queue at the internet flicks home delivery company, at position number 72 it is going to be quite a while before I actually see it.

6:51 AM  
Anonymous Stefanie said...

Quillhill, I totally understand and had planned to rib you about it until I got to your second comment and you spoiled all chance of teasing ;)

9:36 AM  
Blogger Alan said...

How glad I was to read the most recent entries particularly by quillhill....I too have strayed from the Proustian Pathways. But I am back with Vo;ume 2 and I am well on the way to completion. I can recommend C;oud Atlas too....well worth pushing it up that long reading list!!!

3:51 AM  
Anonymous Stefanie said...

It seems that most of us took a little Proust break, except Dorothy. She mentioned not long ago she is almost done with book 3.

8:01 AM  

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