My Proust project has proven to be more time and energy consuming than I had expected. I think I'll just read the books and not try to chronicle my reactions to them here. What I'm trying to say is that Marcel et Moi is over. Sorry if I got your hopes up, only to dash them. If you can't live without some Milosevic prose, you can satisfy your craving on my new blog, aptly named Mario Milosevic. See you there.
05 December 2007
One of the first things to notice is that Marcel is very comfortable with servants and the whole notion of a servant class to do his work for him. There’s nothing objectively wrong with this but it does indicate a certain level of leisure. He has the time and energy to concoct gargantuan sentences.
I noticed this the first time through the first section. Now I’m slowing down on the rereading and seeing how it colors everything. (Yes, I’ve gone back to page one, to attempt to let Proust’s method sink deeper into my psyche before I go on. It’s amazing what I’m seeing the second time through. For one thing, I am much more comfortable with the long sentences, laden as they are with confusing asides and digressions. It takes some getting used to feel comfortable with them, but the key, I think, is not to attempt to understand everything. For me, at least, this would be flatly impossible.)
The book itself, I mean the physical object, feels very comfortable. It is a solid paperback, not too heavy, perfect for extended reading sessions. I haven’t mentioned that this edition comes freighted with a lot of baggage: a general editor’s introduction, a translator’s introduction, (these two run to almost 30 pages total), a list of footnotes near the end, and a curiously laconic synopsis at the very end, which, in a soaringly anti-Proustian manner, boils down whole pages of his prose into one or two words. Surely this burden of addenda and addstarta has to be one reason classics are so often looked at then set aside. All that material makes it seem like work, when, in reality, this book is not work at all. Especially if I just surrender to the strangeness of it. Which I have done.
The paper is very thin. This first volume is five hundred pages long, but when I’m holding it it feels much shorter, perhaps only 250 or 300 pages. The spine bears a small photograph of Marcel. Not the same as the one at the top of this blog, but he does have his hand under his chin, as though propping up his head. And the sleeve, with its three buttons, looks like the same sleeve. Maybe these are two photos from the same session with the photographer? Maybe Marcel propped up his head with his hands to steady himself during long exposures?
03 December 2007
I have a terrible memory for names, whether in “real” life or in books. This often means I don’t know what’s going on in “real” life or in the book I’m reading. What I sometimes do in novels, when I come to a name, is to let my eyes slide over the letters and assign it a random auditory snippet in my mind. It’s kind of like a sound doodle.
This is probably not the best way to read and understand a book, but there it is. I am often in the position of pondering who a character is because I cannot place the name.
But here’s the thing: even though I don’t always understand what’s going on, I don’t feel deprived. I feel like I’m a stranger in a foreign country eavesdropping on the doings of the locals. As a foreign visitor I can’t be expected to understand everything I see and hear, but that doesn’t mean I don’t find the goings on fascinating.
It’s actually a very pleasant way to experience a book. That’s exactly what I’m doing with Proust. I’m the strange uncle from across the ocean who sits in the corner, not saying much, but paying attention to everything, letting the sensations of the events around me fill up my head.
02 December 2007
A madeleine is a small cake in the shape of a sea shell. Marcel eats one of these, dipped in a cup of tea, and the taste of it brings back his life as a child with the memories of cakes when he was much younger triggering further memories and these in turn bringing other memories in a mad tumble. Proust describes the experience in minute detail. It is a stunning passage, justly famous.
But there is something in part one that is even more amazing. Marcel describes life in his family, specifically one aspect of his relationship with his mother. He lives for her goodnight kisses but his father thinks he is too old for such nonsense and tells him so. (Marcel is nine at this time.) Marcel describes his anguish when his mother, because she is busy entertaining guests, cannot kiss him goodnight. His loneliness and loss are cringe inducing. He describes his need for his mother's affection like a grown man lamenting an unrequited love. Such fearlessness in putting these things on the page. I have to respect Proust for the courage to tell the truth so candidly.
I am now 70 pages into the book, reading 10 pages a day. I am going slow because the prose asks me to. The paragraphs are long and dense. I find myself fuzzing out at times, reaching the bottom of a page and realizing that I did not take in any of it, so I go back to the top and try again. A very eerie thing, to realize one's eyes have tracked over a page of words, but one has not absorbed any of the meaning of the words. Proust describes this very thing at one point in the text: "...in those days, when I read, I often daydreamed, during entire pages, of something quite different.." (p. 44) It made me laugh. It was as though he was telling me "I know how it is reading about foreign people and customs. But stick with me. It'll be worth it." I suspect he's right.
29 November 2007
Yesterday’s New York Times Crossword had the following clue for 46 down: “Subject of the 1999 film ‘Le Temps Retrouvé,’” which is the title of the final volume of A la recherche du temps perdu. So the answer to the clue, of course, is Proust. Seeing that clue in the crossword was like a sign from Will Shortz that my Proust project has been blessed by the stars. Thanks Will.
Here’s something I noticed about the first section of volume 1: Proust takes no pains, initially, to put me in a real place or connect me with a real person. The narrator is more or less anonymous and the location of his musings is unclear. It feels like Proust is purposely withholding the anchors most of us need to be able to understand where we are. He’s recreating in prose the sensations of being lost in a hypnagogic state. This violates the rules of popular fiction and goes against what most writing teachers tell you to do: Identify your protagonist as soon as possible and place him or her in a real place as soon as possible. It’s actually quite refreshing to be at the mercy of Proust, to let him give what he wants, when he wants to give it. It feels liberating to fall under his spell.
Eventually, we begin to discern what is going on. The narrator is older, perhaps very elderly, and he is thinking back on his childhood. He remembers some things vividly. His mother kissing him goodnight, and his father’s impatience with that particular ritual. His father made it clear that he wished the maternal kisses would end because it was so absurd. And then the narrator tells how his mother grew impatient with the good night kisses herself, in response to her husband’s opinion. You get the feeling of the narrator trying to cling to something long past; not just youth, but the comfort of those around him that appreciated his youth and innocence. But then, even that comfort evaporated. He had to grow up, and his parents were ready for him to grow up.
28 November 2007
Most nights I read in bed, usually for an hour or so before going to sleep. Last night I picked up The Way by Swann’s, the first volume in Penguin’s recent edition of In Search of Lost Time. Well, there’s the protagonist of the book (Is it Proust himself or someone else? I don’t know yet.) reading in bed. It was an amusing juxtaposition of art and real life. I immediately warmed to the book and settled into it with pleasure.
The beginning of this book is as compelling a description of the hypnagogic state as I have ever seen. Proust evokes that sensation of waking up not knowing where you are, imagining that you are in your childhood bed, say, or that you know you are facing the north wall when in fact you are facing the south wall. All very evocative and spot on with its disconcerting sensations.
But there is one image from these opening pages that really stands out for me. Proust talks about being comfortable in the sleeping state, and says that does not happen until your consciousness expands to fill the room you are in. Here is the passage, in Lydia Davis’s marvelous translation from Proust’s French: “...my mind, struggling for hours to dislodge itself, to stretch upwards so as to take the exact shape of the room and succeed in filling its gigantic funnel to the very top.” Wow. I am already in love with Proust’s mind and his way of thinking and his deep understanding of experience.
27 November 2007
Every novel is an equal collaboration between the writer and the reader and it is the only place in the world where two strangers can meet on terms of absolute intimacy.
I know little French. I could not read the text on a French cigarette pack, let alone a 3200 page novel in French.
So what am I doing, attempting to read Marcel Proust’s classic In Search of Lost Time?
Today is my fiftieth birthday. As good a time as any, and maybe better than most, for reflection and reconsideration. An appropriate time, perhaps, to do some projects that I have been putting off. One of those is reading this book.
I have heard about Proust and In Search of Lost Time most of my life. It is one of those books, a classic, which has seeped into our culture. Proust's name itself has become an English adjective. To behave or write in a Proustian manner is to revel in detail and allow for infinite digressions. I remember an episode of Julia Child’s cooking show, decades ago, in which she mentioned the famous madeleine scene from Lost Time, how the mere taste of a cookie can reconstruct an entire life and send one tumbling back through the years. I thought then that it would be fascinating to read such a book as this, one that would recapture the essence of living.
But, as I say, I knew little French. Not that people didn’t try to get me to learn it. I grew up in Canada, officially a bilingual country. I took French courses all through high school because it was required. I attended classes, completed the homework, and did the exercises my teachers prescribed for me. After five years (Ontario high school students were required to complete a grade 13 in those days) I could still not carry on a natural conversation in French. I still did not truly know the language, and what’s more, I discovered I had no taste for the drudgery of learning a language. After high school I never seriously tried to become proficient in French, or, for that matter, any language other than English.
So no Proust for me, unless it was in translation. I knew In Search of Lost Time had been rendered into English by various translators. Occasionally I would pick up one of these volumes and read a random page. The prose invariably left me cold, as though I was reading something meant for someone else. I took that as a sign that the book was not for me. Eventually I gave up the idea of reading Proust.
Then I heard that Penguin Books had recently commissioned new translations of the various sections that make up In Search of Lost Time. I did some investigating and found that Proust scholars and readers, for the most part, approved of these new versions of the classic. So a couple of months ago I bought the entire book which Penguin has published in 6 volumes. They sit on my shelf right now. I told myself I would start reading them on my fiftieth birthday and chronicle my adventure in a blog. This blog right here.
To get myself in the right frame of mind, I found a photo of Proust and asked Kim, my sweetheart, to photograph me posing in as similar a manner to Proust as I could manage. The result is at the top of this blog. That’s Marcel on the left, me on the right.
I plan to post regularly. Maybe not every day, but as often as I can. Hope you come back and take part in the collaboration.