Thursday, 16 October 2014

Listening to Proust - Part Two

I reckon there may be people out there who are thinking to themselves, 'Ooh yes, she said she was going to listen to the whole of Proust but she's failed; she's fallen at the first hurdle; ha, could have told her'. And I say, 'Thank God for them', given that possibly the one thing that may keep me going is pure stubbornness and a desire to prove them wrong.

Because, yes, I have to admit it: I do find Marcel somewhat tiresome.

The thing is, he'll say something rather lovely, eg this:

"Combray de loin, à dix lieues à la ronde, vu du chemin de fer quand nous y arrivions la dernière semaine avant Pâques, ce n'était qu'une église résumant la ville, la représentant, parlant d'elle et pour elle aux lointains ..."

"Seen from afar Combray, the town, is represented by its church"

I like that and it articulates something I've often thought without being able to put it into words, (if that makes any sense - didn't Alan Bennett have an anecdote about his mother looking across a valley at a field on the other side and saying, "Alan, Alan, what are those white fluffy things over there? I know what they are but I can't think of their names", to which Bennett added a wry comment about how his mother in one sentence had demolished the entire theory of some philosopher, [although which one it was I now can't remember and thus I in my turn may be demolishing the entire theory of some other poor philosopher ]).

But forgive the digression - as I was saying, Proust's observation articulates something that has often struck me, in an inarticulate hazy kind of way. It is quite true that, when you are driving through Europe, the steeples you see from afar do seem to stand as representatives for each settlement you pass or approach - and, by the way, (oh lord, she's off again, wandering from the point, [if you think this is bad you should try talking to me in person - unbelievable, like listening to verbal spaghetti, basically]), is it true that the reason for there being so many steeples dotting the landscape in the lands of the former Austro-Hungarian empire is that the Emperor who was around in the time of Mozart, (Joseph of one or other number, he of the plain funerals and unmarked graves legislation?), decreed that no-one should ever be outside of walking distance to a church?

Okay, back to the topic ie Proust and no more of this nonsense, I promise you. He - Proust - is also brilliant on the secrets uncovered by smell:

"...mille odeurs qu'y dégagent les vertus, la sagesse, les habitudes, toute une vie secrète, invisible, surabondante et morale que l'atmosphère y tient en suspens"

"the countless odours springing from their own special virtues, wisdom, habits, a whole secret system of life, invisible, superabundant and profoundly moral, which their atmosphere holds in solution"

But my argument with him is not that he lacks insight generally speaking - no-one could possibly argue that. He is replete with insight - except in one area. When it comes to his readers' patience, I think he has a major perception gap. The obstacle - for this reader (listener) - rests in this simple problem: Proust does bang on.

For instance, had I been writing the book, I'd have left it there on the subject of smell and what it is redolent of - but, oh no, not Proust. He carries on and on for another very long paragraph:

"odeurs naturelles encore, certes, et couleur du temps comme celles de la campagne voisine, mais déjà casanières, humaines et renfermées, gelée exquise industrieuse et limpide de tous les fruits de l'année qui ont quitté le verger pour l'armoire; saisonnières, mais mobilières et domestiques, corrigeant le piquant de la gelée blanche par la douceur du pain chaud, oisives et ponctuelles comme une horloge de village, flâneuses et rangées, insoucieuses et prévoyantes, lingères, matinales, dévotes, heureuses d'une paix qui n'apporte qu'un surcroît d'anxiété et d'un prosaïsme qui sert de grand réservoir de poésie à celui qui la traverse sans y avoir vécu.L'air y était saturé de la fine fleur d'un silence si nourricier, si succulent que je ne m'y avançais qu'avec une sorte de gourmandise ..."

"...smells natural enough indeed, and coloured by circumstances as are those of the neighbouring countryside, but already humanised, domesticated, confined, an exquisite, skilful, limpid jelly, blending all the fruits of the season which have left the orchard for the store-room, smells changing with the year, but plenishing, domestic smells, which compensate for the sharpness of hoar frost with the sweet savour of warm bread, smells lazy and punctual as a village clock, roving smells, pious smells; rejoicing in a peace which brings only an increase of anxiety, and in a prosiness which serves as a deep source of poetry to the stranger who passes through their midst without having lived amongst them. The air of those rooms was saturated with the fine bouquet of a silence so nourishing, so succulent that I could not enter them without a sort of greedy enjoyment..."

Enough already. I get the picture mate, put a sock in it - oh no, I said sock, he'll be off again on the subject of sock smells and then probably sock textures. With Proust, sharp, brief insights all too often become empurpled in a nauseating way, especially when he starts using words like 'succulent' and 'appetising' and suggesting the fire bakes the smells into a crusty pastry, ugh, ugh, ugh.

No English person could write that and get away with it - well maybe Will Self, but even he would inject some humour into the thing - and receive a sidelong swipe from Private Eye for his sins.

Once again, I like the idea of an incredibly slow destructive invisible force, acting like time on the church step:

"...comme si le doux effleurement des mantes des paysannes entrant à l'église et de leurs doigts timides prenant de l'eau bénite, pouvait, répété pendant des siècles, acquérir une force destructive, infléchir la pierre et l'entailler de sillons comme en trace la roue des carrioles dans la borne contre laquelle elle bute tous les jours."

"just as if the gentle grazing touch of the cloaks of peasant-women going into the church, and of their fingers dipping into the water, had managed by agelong repetition to acquire a destructive force, to impress itself on the stone, to carve ruts in it like those made by cart-wheels upon stone gate-posts against which they are driven every day."

- but once again Proust over-describes and becomes sentimental - or, to be more charitable, he reveals himself as very much more sensitive and attuned to aesthetic transports than I.

This means that I find his evocation of his childish experience of the interior of the local Combray church nauseatingly rich. I wonder if this is just me being intolerant or whether it is me being Anglo Saxon.

But I plough on. And, interestingly, in the midst of my fidgeting and mild irritation, I come across a reference elsewhere to James Joyce, in which he is reported to have suggested that Henry James influenced Proust. This reignites my interest, as I love Henry James, despite all the criticisms of him and jibes about how he wrote as if he were wrestling with a dead language, (which always, for some reason, brings to mind the scene in the film of Women in Love in which the two main male characters fight on the hearth rug in Gerald's house one night).

Furthermore, just as I feel almost overwhelmingly impatient with Along Swann's Way, I meet up with a friend just back from East Timor. We talk about coming up against poverty and how we forget about it in our affluent bubble world and all of a sudden the bit from near the beginning of the book comes back to me, and I recognise how much wisdom there is in the text, for all its longeurs (and what's make us decide some words can only be expressed in French, par le chemin?):

"Je faisais ce que nous fasions tous, une fois que nous sommes grands, quand il y a devant nous des souffrances et des injustices: je ne voulais pas les voir..."

"I did what  we all do once we are adult and come face to face with suffering and injustice; I preferred not to see them"

And is it possible that Proust, like Will Self, does occasionally try to inject humour into his writing, if you only look hard enough. In the scene when his aunt is overheard talking to herself - "qui causait toute seule a mi-voix" - could it be that he is amusing himself by using her as a representative of what he might be doing with his own writing. I'd very much like to think that Proust could make the odd joke at his own expense.

Also, possibly this is something well-known - or possibly it is a preposterous suggestion that only an English speaker could come up with - but listening to the text I am struck by the homophony between the name Swann and the word 'soin' in French. Is there some reference here to the 'soin' the writer is taking in observing life's tiniest moments. Could Along Swann's Way be retitled Along the Banks of Time With Care?

Questions, questions. A piece of writing that raises so many questions cannot be all bad.


  1. The American journalist Russell Baker long ago had a piece about attempting Proust with the assistance of Sherpa reader, Tensing. As I remember it, there was some tension along the way, with Tensing accusing Baker of trying to kill him with boredom.

    There is also Flann O'Brien's observation: If only all his geese were Swanns.

    1. I don't think it helps that I spent so long working as an editor and in my heart of hearts I don't believe in prolixity - few pieces of writing could not be improved by pruning, I suspect. But that seems such monumental arrogance.