Monday, August 20, 2007

On finishing In Search of Lost Time

I want to write just a few words about finishing Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; I don’t feel up to writing a big long summing-up post that tries to say smart things about what it all means, but I do want to say something. I am happy to have finished, but I do miss reading Proust a bit; I’ve been used to a near-daily dose of the narrator’s slow-moving, contemplative voice, and now I don’t have that.

It’s hard to see how a 3,000-page book without all that much plot, relatively speaking, could cohere, but I think it does. I found the ending, say, that last couple hundred pages, really did wrap things up; it provides an answer to the question that has haunted the whole book — will Marcel ever write his masterpiece? This is a question that has lingered from the very first volume when it becomes clear that Marcel has an interest in, and perhaps a talent for, writing. The answer the book provides is satisfying, and realistic, given everything that has happened up until that point.

My favorite volumes were the first two and the last one; the third and fourth, The Guermantes Way and Sodom and Gomorrah, got a little long, but then the fifth volume, which contains The Prisoner and The Fugitive begins to pick up a bit in preparation for the grand ending. It’s the long party scenes in some of the middle volumes that got tiresome. What I loved about the book are the insights into the mind, art, time, and love, but the novel is also obsessed with society and rank and how people behave at parties, topics that didn’t thrill me quite as much. But even here there are things to interest; Proust captures snobbery and hypocrisy and the deadness that can lie behind the glittering masks of high society beautifully well.

But mostly this novel is worth reading because of what it can teach about observing the world around you and in you. Proust has a meticulous eye for how the mind perceives input from the world around it and for how we make sense of our experiences, and, of course, he has a beautiful way with a sentence to capture all that insight. I love how there can be so much wisdom and experience in one of those long sentences — how they can take in so much.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Proust on Art

I just came across some wonderful passages in Proust; I’m about 150 pages from end, determined to finish it and Don Quixote by the end of the summer. The narrator has just had a series of experiences of involuntary memory, where something in his present — a sound or taste or sight — will trigger a memory that recreates in his mind whole sections of his past that he had previously forgotten. The madeleine scene from Swann’s Way is the most famous of these, although there are many. Immediately before these memories come to the narrator, he despairs of ever becoming a writer; he has spent years and years of his life wasting time, avoiding doing the writing he has always wanted to do. The memories start the process of bringing him back to his vocation, and they set him off on a long meditation on literature, writing, and the relationship of art and life. I thought I’d share some short sections:

Real life, life finally uncovered and clarified, the only life in consequence lived to the full, is literature. Life in this sense dwells within all ordinary people as much as in the artist. But they do not see it because they are not trying to shed light on it. And so their past is cluttered with countless photographic negatives, which continue to be useless because their intellect has never “developed” them … it is only through art that we can escape from ourselves and know how another person sees a universe which is not the same as our own and whose landscapes would otherwise have remained as unknown as any there may be on the moon.

I love the idea that we all have the materials of art within us; the difference between artists and everyone else is that artists learn how to make use of those materials. Proust calls art “translation” — taking our experiences, whatever they are, and plumbing the depths of them to find meaning and to transform that meaning into something beautiful. And he says it requires courage. We like to live with certain illusions about ourselves; we whitewash our darker characteristics and cover over our failings, but the artist will look for the truth, no matter how difficult it is to face.

Here’s another passage on art and life, this time about imagination and sensitivity:

It may well be that, for the creation of a work of literature, imagination and sensitivity are interchangeable qualities, and that the second may without any great disadvantage be substituted for the first, in the same way as people whose stomach is incapable of digesting pass that function over to the intestine. A man born sensitive but with no imagination might none the less write admirable novels. The suffering that other people cause him, his efforts to prevent it, the conflicts that it and the cruel other person created, all of this, interpreted by the intelligence, might make the raw material of a book … as beautiful as it would have been if it had been imagined …

So making art isn’t the same thing as making things up. I’ve never liked the idea that imagination is as simple as making things up; to me, it has more to do with putting ideas together, making connections, seeing what’s in front of you in a new way. So in my way of thinking, the sensitivity Proust is talking about, combined with intelligence, is actually a certain kind of imagination.

And finally, here’s a passage on criticism:

[Criticism] hails a writer as a prophet, on account of his peremptory tone and his very public scorn for the school that preceded him, when in fact he has absolutely nothing new to say. These aberrations on the part of criticism are so constant that a writer might almost prefer to be judged by the general public …. For there is a closer analogy between the instinctive life of the public and the talent of a great writer, which is no more than an instinct religiously listened to while imposing silence on everything else, an instinct perfected and understood, than between it and the superficial verbiage and shifting criteria of the recognized arbiters of judgment.

Apparently Proust isn’t so fond of critics. (Although he’s not so fond of the general public either — to shorten the quotation I took out a parenthesis on how the general public generally doesn’t understand what an artist is doing.) He gives an interesting definition of art here, doesn’t he, that it’s “instinct religiously listened to”? And I do buy his argument that critics often get it wrong, that they take loud voices for true ones and newness for greatness.