Thursday, July 12, 2007

Dear Proust: I beat your ass

Actually, I have now officially beaten slightly more than 1/7 of Marcel Proust’s ass, or 14.55%. Proust’s ass is a monumental 3500 pages wide, and it is an ass of such density that a thorough beating must progress inch by contemplative inch. Today at 1 pm, I reached the last word of Swann’s Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, or Remembrance of Things Past, if you prefer the earlier translation. The first word of Swann’s Way is “for” and the last is “years,” which is how long it feels to read the whole thing. In fact, “for years” would serve as a fine précis of this exhausting, endlessly digressive and conversational work about love, memory, jealousy, loss, time, music, art and language.

There is no subject in the world, apparently, that does not remind Proust of something else, no tangent that can’t be pursued, no grain of human emotion too fine to be cut. It doesn’t provide instructions on how to replace the alternator in your ’82 Malibu or give you a step-by-step guide on antiquing your end tables, but after you read the “Swann In Love” chapter, you will come away with the most exhaustive possible picture of the awful pleasures of love. That is, if you’re the jealous type. And your lover turns out to be a promiscuous bisexual courtesan. And you manage to delude yourself about it for years. I know: holy quotidian, Fledermausman.

Sooner or later, you and everyone you know pop up in ISOLT, even though you’ll be sporting 19th century French drag. The bedridden and paranoiac Aunt Léonie will remind you of someone in your own family, and the blunt but attractive de Fourcheville is immediately recognizable to anyone who’s ever had a sexual rival. There’s no cliché about literature more overused than the idea of locating the universal in the particular, but in Proust you may see how far that cliché goes, as he digs deeper and deeper into consciousness and experience. Tiny moments, gestures, carelessly thrown out lines or imprecations are mined for the greatest possible significance.

The book doesn’t really have plot twists – instead, everything turns on details: the line of a path along the river, a smile or an encouraging remark from a woman, a passage from an obscure sonata. At times the details seem to take on such importance that they assume a greater and more intense life than the characters. It is in his treatment of secondary characters, in fact, that we see Proust’s talent for economy, the ability to capture a personality in a paragraph, which suggests that the digressive nature of ISOLT is strategic instead of habitual. That is, I think Proust is trying to duplicate the process of consciousness in the language and structure of his work.

I know that the English majors who read me are now thinking, “Yeah? So? He’s a modernist author, right? Wasn’t that what modernist authors did? Wasn’t that, like, their specialty, reproducing consciousness, taking the subterranean path to the objective correlative?” And they would be right. But it’s one thing to have Professor Englischer explain it to you in a classroom as the fluorescent lights buzz overhead and the asbestos particles float through the air, and another to experience it day after day as you corkscrew like a solitary botfly into the text. And lay eggs, like a botfly. And then do a series of botfly-related activities. Botfly party!


Thomas said...

As it so happens I am the jealous type and my former lover was promiscuous bisexual courtesan and a raging addict of all forms of white powder who was known to parlay her promiscuity and bisexuality into the acquisition of the chemicals of which she was so fond.

All that having been said. I have twice changed out the alternator on an '86 Camaro and that's close enough.

So, obviously, I can relate. That, and I've probably told you too much about myself.

Abigail Road said...

I must say, I am impressed. I couldn't do it, I've tried, and I can't get into Swann's Way.

Kudos to you sir, kudos to you.

ozma said...

Ooh botfly party! I'll bring the rotting vegetable matter.

And Ernestine (Albertine? The real lover was named either Ernest or Albert and the fictional character is one -ine or the other) reminded me intensely of my first lover and every single thing Proust said was so uncannily inaccurate--including hating the loved one and hating yourself for loving what you hate--that it helped me survive the madness. Well, it made me feel better that even though I was a crazy freak a great author had categorized this particular brand of freakishness. So I tried to read "Proust Can Save Your Life" to say if Proust can help me with my current problems but as I recall that author never quite got exactly how Proust saves lives.

palinode said...

The fictional lover is Albertine, but she doesn't show up in Swann's Way. I don't think she plays a significant role until The Prisoner (book 5). "Swann in Love" was so torturous in its depiction of loving someone fundamentally unsuitable that I'm not sure I can deal with the Albertine section. Right now I'm starting on The Guermantes Way, which is a bit out of sequence, but I read a few pages and now I'm sucked in.

Proust saves lives by virtue of his super speed, disproportionate strength and adamantine skin.

Koan said...

I have never read Proust. I am 43. I have a limited span of years before senility, incapacity or dotage strip me of the vigour I now possess - should I invest a portion of that in reading hos words, or would that time be better spent in learning how to maintain an automobile engine? Please advise.

(Hey, it's almost "Ask the Palinode" time, again!)

Should the answer to the above question be "yes", should I read him in English, or as Vivienne Westwood once advised, should I learn French sufficiently well to read him in his native tongue?

("Native Tongue" - one of my favourite Carl Hiaasen books - hardly Proust, but I'm hardly a literati).

Mauigirl said...

I've always meant to read Proust. But haven't gotten around to it. Nowadays instead of writing these tomes he'd probably be a blogger!

ozma said...

OK, I'm on crack. Which book did I read?

Was it the Reader's Digest Condensed Version? Or have I lost my mind. The only part of the book I remember was the obsession he had in spite of knowing that she wasn't worthy of his obsession and that it was an unlovely name that ended with -ine. Anyway, 15 years ago and the brain does turn to mush over time. I've come to accept that I never remember the author or titles of books I read but still.

Anyway, I appreciate this post. If I can't overcome the current addiction to books with irresistible narrative pull (a bad thing when you are trying to write yourself) maybe I should move to Proust as a kind of methadone. Something that won't make me stay up all night to finish it.

palinode said...

Koan - Mechanics can fix your automobile. But no one can read Proust for you.

Proust is not for everyone. I was surprised at how much I liked it, considering my taste for shorter sentences and straight-ahead plots, like Carl Hiassen's writing. At the same time, reading ISOLT is not the commitment or labour that I thought it would be. Eventually your sensibilities bend to the prose, and then it's an amazing experience.

As for your second question: if you end up learning French, try reaading ISOLT in the original. Otherwise I'd stick to the English, but try out the new translations. I always found Montcrief and Gilmartin translation a bit purple.

palinode said...

Ozma: You probably weren't reading Swann's Way but a later volume. I think it's his fifth book, The Prisoner, that deals with the narrator's obsession with Albertine. In Swann's Way, the "Swann in Love" section is all about Swann's obsession with Odette, and later, the narrator's obsession with Gilberte.

Despite the lack of narrative, the book still kept me up nights.