Monday, 8 February 2016

Plodding on with Proust

Inspired by this post at The Millions blog, I returned to my attempt to listen to the whole of Proust in French. I have now reached the end of Combray, which is not very good going, considering I've been at it, on and off, (mostly off, admittedly), since 2014.

What is wrong with me? I am not falling under the Proustian spell. I think he has some interesting things to reveal about memory, about individual perception, about the evanescent richness of each moment. I recognise that his attempt to articulate the whole of one individual's consciousness is, in a way, heroic, even though, or perhaps partly because, it is doomed. I presume, perhaps inspired by moving pictures, he is after what he refers to as:

la conquête de la vérité.

the conquest of truth

I recognise that he has rather bleak but not uninteresting views about the loneliness of individual existence:

On cherche à retrouver dans les choses, devenues par là précieuses, le reflet que notre âme a projeté sur elles ; on est déçu en constatant qu’elles semblent dépourvues dans la nature du charme qu’elles devaient, dans notre pensée, au voisinage de certaines idées ; parfois on convertit toutes les forces de cette âme en habileté, en splendeur pour agir sur des êtres dont nous sentons bien qu’ils sont situés en dehors de nous et que nous ne les atteindrons jamais.

We try to discover in things, endeared to us on that account, the spiritual glamour which we ourselves have cast upon them; we are disillusioned, and learn that they are in themselves barren and devoid of the charm which they owed, in our minds, to the association of certain ideas; sometimes we mobilise all our spiritual forces in a glittering array so as to influence and subjugate other human beings who, as we very well know, are situated outside ourselves, where we can never reach them.

I find an intriguing link with the modern fad of mindfulness in his conclusion that the senses are a pleasure in themselves:

... en continuant à suivre du dedans au dehors les états simultanément juxtaposés dans ma conscience, et avant d’arriver jusqu’à l’horizon réel qui les enveloppait, je trouve des plaisirs d’un autre genre, celui d’être bien assis, de sentir la bonne odeur de l’air

... I continue to trace the outward course of these impressions from their close-packed intimate source in my consciousness, and before I come to the horizon of reality which envelops them, I discover pleasures of another kind, those of being comfortably seated, of tasting the good scent on the air,

All the same, as I've complained before, he does goes on so. Also, I find him cloying. 

It is a matter of taste, of course, and perhaps I am misguided to find so much of the book overblown. Nevertheless, a writer who refers to beams of light having "golden wings" may not be my kind of writer:

un reflet de jour avait pourtant trouvé moyen de faire passer ses ailes jaunes, 

a reflection of the sunlight had contrived to slip in on its golden wings, 

If this were an isolated incident, I might be able to overlook it but the next two passages, also Proust, also from Swann's Way are for me among the most revoltingly cloying passages I have ever had to read, (or listen to) - and they are only two examples from among many:

mon ravissement était devant les asperges, trempées d’outre-mer et de rose et dont l’épi, finement pignoché de mauve et d’azur, se dégrade insensiblement jusqu’au pied — encore souillé pourtant du sol de leur plant — par des irisations qui ne sont pas de la terre. Il me semblait que ces nuances célestes trahissaient les délicieuses créatures qui s’étaient amusées à se métamorphoser en légumes et qui, à travers le déguisement de leur chair comestible et ferme, laissaient apercevoir en ces couleurs naissantes d’aurore, en ces ébauches d’arc-en-ciel, en cette extinction de soirs bleus, cette essence précieuse que je reconnaissais encore quand, toute la nuit qui suivait un dîner où j’en avais mangé, elles jouaient, dans leur farces poétiques et grossières comme une féerie de Shakespeare, à changer mon pot de chambre en un vase de parfum.

... what fascinated me would be the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and rosy pink which ran from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible changes to their white feet, still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed: a rainbow-loveliness that was not of this world. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form, who, through the disguise which covered their firm and edible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare's Dream) at transforming my humble chamber into a bower of aromatic perfume.

Hélas, c’était en vain que j’implorais le donjon de Roussainville, que je lui demandais de faire venir auprès de moi quelque enfant de son village, comme au seul confident que j’avais eu de mes premiers désirs, quand au haut de notre maison de Combray, dans le petit cabinet sentant l’iris, je ne voyais que sa tour au milieu du carreau de la fenêtre entr’ouverte, pendant qu’avec les hésitations héroïques du voyageur qui entreprend une exploration ou du désespéré qui se suicide, défaillant, je me frayais en moi-même une route inconnue et que je croyais mortelle, jusqu’au moment où une trace naturelle comme celle d’un colimaçon s’ajoutait aux feuilles du cassis sauvage qui se penchaient jusqu’à moi. En vain je suppliais maintenant. 

Alas, it was in vain that I implored the dungeon-keep of Roussainville, that I begged it to send out to meet me some daughter of its village, appealing to it as to the sole confidant to whom I had disclosed my earliest desire when, from the top floor of our house at Combray, from the little room that smelt of orris-root, I had peered out and seen nothing but its tower, framed in the square of the half-opened window, while, with the heroic scruples of a traveller setting forth for unknown climes, or of a desperate wretch hesitating on the verge of self-destruction, faint with emotion, I explored, across the bounds of my own experience, an untrodden path which, I believed, might lead me to my death, even—until passion spent itself and left me shuddering among the sprays of flowering currant which, creeping in through the window, tumbled all about my body. In vain I called upon it now.

I would like to think the asparagus passage is actually a kind of joke. Proust is capable of being vaguely amusing, as when describing his grandmother's attitude towards sea air:

Ma grand’mère ... trouvait qu’aux bains de mer il faut être du matin au soir sur la plage à humer le sel et qu’on n’y doit connaître personne, parce que les visites, les promenades sont autant de pris sur l’air marin

My grandmother ... held that, when one went to the seaside, one ought to be on the beach from morning to night, to taste the salt breezes, and that one should not know anyone in the place, because calls and parties and excursions were so much time stolen from what belonged, by rights, to the sea-air.

Another problem for me is that I do not find Proust's apercus particularly revealing. In fact, they often puzzle me. For instance, is he right in what he says about very good people:

Quand, plus tard, j’ai eu l’occasion de rencontrer, au cours de ma vie, dans des couvents par exemple, des incarnations vraiment saintes de la charité active, elles avaient généralement un air allègre, positif, indifférent et brusque de chirurgien pressé, ce visage où ne se lit aucune commisération, aucun attendrissement devant la souffrance humaine, aucune crainte de la heurter, et qui est le visage sans douceur, le visage antipathique et sublime de la vraie bonté.

Later on, when, in the course of my life, I have had occasion to meet with, in convents for instance, literally saintly examples of practical charity, they have generally had the brisk, decided, undisturbed, and slightly brutal air of a busy surgeon, the face in which one can discern no commiseration, no tenderness at the sight of suffering humanity, and no fear of hurting it, the face devoid of gentleness or sympathy, the sublime face of true goodness.

Similarly, is it true that:

nous ne connaissons jamais que les passions des autres

it is only with the passions of others that we are ever really familiar

And, even when I do recognise that Proust has a point - the idea of flies as a kind of chamber music of summer appeals to me here for instance - I end up exasperated, because he labours his point until it is flogged to death:

... les mouches qui exécutaient devant moi, dans leur petit concert, comme la musique de chambre de l’été : elle ne l’évoque pas à la façon d’un air de musique humaine, qui, entendu par hasard à la belle saison, vous la rappelle ensuite ; elle est unie à l’été par un lien plus nécessaire : née des beaux jours, ne renaissant qu’avec eux, contenant un peu de leur essence, elle n’en réveille pas seulement l’image dans notre mémoire, elle en certifie le retour, la présence effective, ambiante, immédiatement accessible.

... the flies who performed for my benefit, in their small concert, as it might be the chamber music of summer; evoking heat and light quite differently from an air of human music which, if you happen to have heard it during a fine summer, will always bring that summer back to your mind, the flies' music is bound to the season by a closer, a more vital tie—born of sunny days, and not to be reborn but with them, containing something of their essential nature, it not merely calls up their image in our memory, but gives us a guarantee that they do really exist, that they are close around us, immediately accessible.

In addition, Proust is capable of statements that sound quite good but, when you grapple with them, reveal very little meaning. For instance, at one point he says:

...ainsi notre cœur change, dans la vie, et c’est la pire douleur 

 ...the heart changes, and that is our worst misfortune

What does he mean by heart and why is it the worst pain, (or misfortune as the translator, interestingly, has chosen to give it in English).

Despite all this, I am strangely protective of Proust's legacy. Thus, when I read in the New York Times recently the claim that David Foster Wallace had been the first writer to observe reality and note it down in intense detail, I couldn't help feeling that Proust was being pushed out of his rightful place:

Here is one of the great Wallace innovations: the revelatory power of freakishly thorough noticing, of corralling and controlling detail. Most great prose writers make the real world seem realer — it’s why we read great prose writers. But Wallace does something weirder, something more astounding: Even when you’re not reading him, he trains you to study the real world through the lens of his prose. 

I think to an extent it may have been Proust's intention and purpose to help the reader towards a more intense observation of their own existence and thus the title of literary innovator in this respect belongs to him. Sadly, he was also inclined to an overblown windy romanticism, a sentimentality that I cannot warm to - yet, at least. The concept of In Search of Lost Time was, of course, hugely original - although being original is not necessarily always a positive; if a trail has not been blazed, it might be because others have rejected it as dull or a dead end. I am not yet convinced that the execution of the concept was successful, but I will keep trying. Perhaps I should call my next post on the subject, "In search of enjoyment in the Search for Lost Time".


  1. To my delight, I found this, which I read long ago in print, online at the first try: .

    Practically speaking, I don't think that I could get through Proust in French, at the rate I read French. I did read the novels, as Evelyn Waugh said, in Scottish. Proust is said to have greatly admired Chateaubriand, and in what I have read of the latter I see many of Proust's maddening qualities, for example the going on and on for no obvious reason. On the other hand, both authors do seem to me to pay off now and then.

    1. That is going straight to the pool room -

  2. When Penguin issued their three-volume edition, you could go in any bookshop and notice how the pages of the second and third volumes were much yellower than those of the first. I'm not sure if I can ever remember selling a second or third volume and yet many people claim to have read it.

    1. I was hoping that once I got through the hawthorns things might improve. Sometimes I suppose wisdom consists in knowing when to stop