Monday, May 12, 2014

Finishing In Search of Lost Time - Proust and the Library of Babel (or, Proust and the Blog Post of Babble)

A week or so ago I finished Marcel Proust’s Time Regained (1927), which means I have read through the seven In Search of Lost Time novels twice.  This time it took me twelve years, just about the pace of the  original publication.  Twenty-five years ago, I read it all in about three weeks.  I doubt that was wise, but I had read Proust.  Even at this distance, Time Regained was recognizably a book I had read before.

I think the first volume of the series, Swann’s Way (1913), or really, to be honest, the first two hundred pages of it, the “Combray” section describing the narrator’s childhood, is one of the greatest masterpieces of fiction.  Many of the thousands of pages that follow are dull, ridiculous, and aggravating.  Much of the narrator’s aphoristic wisdom is nonsense, so bizarre that I could only laugh.  A lot of Proust is bizarre.  Six years ago languagehat read through Proust, and in his outstanding summary post he emphasizes how odd these books are.  The narrator is odd, the story is odd, the wild gaps in the story are odd.

All kinds of great stuff – characters, insights, metaphors, jokes – are mixed in with this.  What can you do; this is the price I pay: a hundred pages of obscure comments about society people; four pages of phony French etymologies; fifteen pages in which the Baron de Charlus, one of the great characters in fiction, “in the shrill little voice with which he sometimes spoke” (807) makes incomprehensible private jokes about the difference between the French and the Germans.  “I confessed to M. de Charlus that I did not quite understand what he meant” (808) – yes, exactly!

I said the first 200 pages are the best part of Search.  The second best part – setting aside some of the great recurring characters – is the last 200 pages.  Motivation for all flagging Proust reader stuck halfway through The Guermantes Way!

The narrator, Marcel, is in a heightened state of sensitivity.  At a party – everything happens at parties in Proust – he becomes receptive to a series of sensory impressions each of which triggers a memory of something from earlier in his life.  The famous madeleine scene from Swann’s Way, three thousand pages earlier, did the same thing, but the narrator did not understand the phenomenon at that point.  This time, he gets it, and realizes that he must write a novel about memory and time, a novel much like, but clearly different than, Proust’s novel, the one I just read.

Marcel’s novel will be a fictional refraction of his own life, just like Proust’s novel, the “real” one, scrambles Proust’s own life.  Thus the new novel, the fictional one, will end with that narrator, M.P., realizing that he must write his own semi-autobiographical novel about a doppelganger who writes his own etc. etc. about etc. etc. and onward forever.

Or else Marcel’s novel perfectly reverses all of Proust’s fictionalizing, so that his novel would be, in our world, the real Proust’s non-fiction autobiography.  The two books are distorted mirror images, fiction in their own “real” world, non-fiction in their fictional world, one of which is my “real” world.

Yep, this is what In Search of Lost Time is about in the end, the creation of a novel that is not the one I have been reading.  Kind of a twist ending.

I read the Andreas Mayor translation, the old grey paperback brick.  I barely quoted a word of it.  Tomorrow.

24 comments:

  1. I really love this post. Firstly, because (as I said in my post) it feels like criticising Proust just isn't done. But in Within a Budding Grove, I got the sense that I had read the best bit and I was just hanging around when I really oughtn't be.

    As for The Guermantes Way - I'm enjoying it more than Budding Grove, but (I know I've just said this to you on my blog!) that may be for the Zola connection. Like you I've read In Search of Lost Time before, and like you I read it far too quickly (just to say "I've read Proust!", which backfired because that was quite literally ALL I could say), but I do remember being rewarded with a few Zola references (eg "His is the epic dungheap! He is the Homer of the sewers!")

    Anyway, I shall press on with it! Going to go read the post by languagehat now :)

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    1. I know this won't be true for everybody, but that "hanging around" feeling faded for me the third time I read the books, and by the fourth time it was gone. I think I had enough of a feeling for them by then to experience it as one small section of an ongoing movement and not as a static point that I was going to be trapped in for an unknown period of time.

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    2. Since o is also immersed in the period due to her study of Zola, she might find some new ways into or around Proust.

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  2. The languagehat post is a classic of criticizing Proust. Another good one that is 60 pages long is Edmund Wilson's chapter in Axel's Castle, the first serious attempt in English to treat the book as one coherent novel, and as a great masterpiece, but one with chunks where you beg Proust not necessarily to get on with it but to switch to some less other topic.

    As deadly as I find the parties in The Guermantes Way, there is marvelous stuff there, too, and it has a great ending.

    Someday I hope to read the whole set again. And I will, I predict, moan about parts.

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  3. An idea. Instead of rereading all of this get, as far as they go, the Stephane Heuet BD's . They are marvels and you will be charmed.

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    1. They are definitely not Marvels, that is true. Nor are they DCs.

      I have looked at the Heuet books and greatly appreciate the research that went into the buildings and the clothes. All of the stuff Proust took for granted. It is interesting to "see" Proust in a different way., just as the preposterous film version of Time Regained is interesting.

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  4. Marcel’s novel will be a fictional refraction of his own life, just like Proust’s novel, the “real” one, scrambles Proust’s own life. Thus the new novel, the fictional one, will end with that narrator, M.P., realizing that he must write his own semi-autobiographical novel about a doppelganger who writes his own etc. etc. about etc. etc. and onward forever.

    Well, that's either Borgesian or Nabokovian...

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  5. I guess the endless succession of books is Borgesian while the doppelganger books are Nabokovian.

    I wonder how many readers have gotten to the end and become angry - "The whole book was about writing a book! Who cares!"

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  6. I'm taking the approach of your second cycle - I've read the first two volumes in about three years, and I've thought about continuing for a good while now...

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  7. Very wise, Tony. A reasonable pace.

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  8. I appreciate your review, Tom. I'm thinking of starting Swann's Way this summer and now I have a better idea of what to expect. It's also helpful to know that it's wiser to read Proust at an easy pace ….. I don't want my head to explode …..

    Thanks again, for the great review!

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  9. Swann's Way begins with 20 pages or so of the narrator writing about falling asleep, or not falling asleep. It is not surprising that some readers find that this opening induces sleep, or at least great weariness.

    It's a wonderful, complex piece of fiction, that opening, but far from what most readers call a page-turner.

    The issue is less time than concentration. How many pages of Proust do I have not the time but the energy to read right now?

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  10. What's the overlap between Proust and Woolf?

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    1. "She (Woolf) actually began reading him by early May of that year, when she wrote to Roger Fry,

      "But Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation and intensification that he procures—there’s something sexual in it—that I feel I can write like that and seize my pen and then I can’t write like that. Scarcely anyone so stimulates the nerves of language in me: it becomes an obsession.6

      "Woolf continued to read Proust as the various posthumous volumes were published. From 1922 on, she continually compared her own writing to that of Proust, whom she considered 'far the greatest modern novelist.' 7"
      http://modernism.research.yale.edu/documents/LewisWoolfandProust.pdf

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  11. "Motivation for all flagging Proust readers stuck halfway through The Guermantes Way!"
    *raises hand*

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  12. How did you know this flagging Proust reader was stuck almost exactly halfway through The Guermantes Way? Does that happen to everybody who takes more than three weeks to read it? Thanks for the motivation about the ending, though, which I believe you've mentioned before. I hope to return to Marcel and his funny ways soon.

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  13. This is a heartening post. I have been stuck in the middle of The Guermantes Way for so long that I will have to go back and start the book over but I've not even done that for worry that I will get stuck in the middle again!

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  14. His funny ways, yes, I just wrote that post! Come back, come back!

    Anyway, as one can see, the insight about where people get stuck is just from years of observation. An additional spur to movement: the beginning of Sodom and Gomorrah is really interesting. Everyone's interest will return quickly. Then Marcel goes to another party for a hundred pages grumble grumble.

    Marcelita, thanks for the link to that paper. I did not know how to answer Shelley's excellent question. I had so idea Woolf had such a deep (frustrating, complicated) engagement with Proust. She certainly found her own way into big ideas of time and memory, but it was obviously a struggle.

    What a great use of Pinterest, by the way.

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    1. Ah, Pinterest, my visual filing cabinet. Sometimes, the image is not related to the content I want to save. And there are a few without an image at all, so I tend to just read the accompanying text. Now, that wasn't exactly what the creators of the site had in mind. ;)

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  15. I sojourned through Proust from mid'09 to mid'13 myself, but left little trace of my passage (I agree with Nabokov that the first half is superior, though maybe for different reasons) ... but another from 10 years back merits mention:
    http://www.waggish.org/category/proustblog/page/4/ (to start at the beginning)

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  16. Oh thanks - I did not know Auerbach wrote all that. Or I do not remember it.

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  17. I like your post for its honesty (some volumes ARE difficult) and its
    casual tone about a masterpiece. Readers have the right to be irreverent even if a book is tagged as the ultimate masterpiece.

    Seems like everybody's struggling with The Guermantes Way, which is not the most difficult of the series, in my opinion. I think The Guermantes Way is fascinating for its description of the dying French society of before WWI, of Paris and for the insightful rendition of the Dreyfus Affair. But perhaps being French helps here.

    I'm at my second reading too and I still have to read Albertine Disparue (and suffer through the Narrator's whining) before reaching the nirvana of Le temps retrouvé.

    As you say it perfectly, the last volume is worth the effort.

    Emma

    PS: I'm adding your posts on my Reading Proust page, if that's OK with you.



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  18. I am the very soul of honesty.

    Yes, please, add my posts. Someday I will read Swann's Way again and write some more. I am kinda going about this backwards.

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