Reading Marcel Proust and Dawn Powell

 

“I am very fond of my novel, hope other people are.” — from The Diaries of Dawn Powell 1931–1965

 

A while back I was on the train when we came to a stop at a station. There was another train waiting on the adjacent track. The lights from the car glowed in the grey chill of the wintry morning. Inside, commuters slept, read the paper or their books, typed on their laptops, scrolled through their mobiles, and so on. In our car, every head swivelled to gaze at the people in the other train. Our eyes opened, we looked up from our newspapers and books, fingers temporarily suspended over our laptop keyboards and mobiles, and so on.

I’ve picked up Proust again recently. “Finally!” I hear some of you say, while others murmur “Who cares?” I’m on page five hundred of Within a Budding Grove. That’s about two hundred pages from the end of the second book in the seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time. In this book, the narrator spends more time looking outward than he did in Swann’s Way. His observations of the people around him are more objective and less focused on his internal impressions and moods.

As always with Proust, our enjoyment of the book is not with the plot but with his ability to observe and record in precise detail, well, everything. Want to know what people looked and sounded like in the aristocratic households of Paris at the turn of the last century? It’s here.

In Within a Budding Grove we meet a few new characters. One is the Baron de Charlus, the uncle of a friend of the narrator. Several pages are devoted to a description of M. de Charlus, including his somewhat intense and inscrutable gaze:

No doubt, had it not been for those eyes, M. de Charlus’s face would have been similar to the faces of many good-looking men. . . . however much M. de Charlus tried to seal hermetically the expression on that face, to which a light coating of powder lent a faintly theatrical aspect, the eyes were like two crevices, two loop-holes which alone he had failed to block, and through which, according to one’s position in relation to him, one suddenly felt oneself in the path of some hidden weapon which seemed to bode no good, even to him who, without being altogether master of it, carried it within himself in a state of precarious equilibrium and always on the verge of explosion

That’s a nice example of Proustian syntax, dissecting with a loving caress the inner and outer essence of his characters, like Michelangelo closing his eyes and stroking the marble before applying the chisel.

Sometimes he’s a little more succinct, to good comic effect. In an aside on a minor character, he observes, “This man’s wife, incidentally, had married him against everyone’s wishes and advice because he was a ‘charming creature.’ He had, what may be sufficient to constitute a rare and delicate whole, a fair, silky beard, good features, a nasal voice, bad breath, and a glass eye.”

Proust also enjoys describing the dynamics of Parisian society, and all the little things  people do to secure their reputation in the eyes of others. Those like Odette, without the advantages of an aristocratic family name, have to find ways to make sure everyone knows they’re important:

The Swanns shared this failing of people who are not much sought after; a visit, an invitation, a mere friendly word from anyone at all prominent was for them an event to which they felt the need to give full publicity. . . . The Swanns were incapable even of keeping to themselves the complimentary letters and telegrams received by Odette. They spoke of them to their friends, passed them from hand to hand. Thus the Swanns’ drawing-room was reminiscent of a seaside hotel where telegrams are posted up on a board.

Alongside In Search of Lost Time, I’m rereading The Diaries of Dawn Powell 1931–1965. Powell was the author of fifteen novels, in addition to several plays and short stories. She battled financial woes and indifference to her work her entire life, despite high regard from a handful of authors including Ernest Hemingway, who described her as “his favorite living writer.” It’s difficult to get any of her books now. I discovered the diaries through an article in The New Yorker. Edited by Tim Page, The Diaries of Dawn Powell is over four hundred pages of notes, descriptions and anecdotes about her life and work. Want to know what people looked and sounded like in the artistic circles of New York City in the thirties, forties and fifties? It’s here.

Dawn Powell’s diary is so writerly one wonders how spontaneous it was (although Tim Page admits to “tightening” her prose occasionally.) It’s more a writer’s notebook than a personal confessional. Take this description of a friend of novelist John Dos Passos, recorded in December 1935:

He is a faintly funereal wag, smelling of old ladies and moth balls, and Victorian parlors, expecting cancer with a smile, welcoming decent calamity with great good nature so long as it’s something slow and fatal and respectable rather than garish and dramatic. He, like so many other gifted young men about town, slipped somehow into one of Henry James’ lesser mantles, assuming with authority the role of Dean of Letters, without going to the bother of writing. This slight lapse in preparation passes unnoticed now, when others of his own generation have stopped writing anyway, so no one can be sure which witty critic once wrote a fine novel, a successful play or poem, and which never did anything but show promise.

The Diaries is filled with anecdotes that showcase Powell’s humour and ear for dialogue, such as her entry for February 23, 1933:

To Coby’s. Alec Brook, Peggy Bacon, Niles Spencer and Betty Spencer were there—all slightly lit and anxious to tell dirty stories but no one could remember any. “The best one,” stuttered Niles, “is the one—well, I’d better not tell it—it’s pretty bad—ladies would get insulted—anyway there’s a lot of French in it and so on—I really forget. It isn’t so funny, anyways, it’s the way it’s told and in the end the fellow says ‘Someday you’ll go to far.’ Ha ha.” Coby knew one in Cockney only he’d forgotten the end and besides he couldn’t speak Cockney.

In another entry Powell describes a party where Dr. Cook, “a very viril head-hunting gent,” kisses a beautiful student out of the blue, and then goes home. The student proceeds to get drunk and pass out. Apparently this wasn’t the first time Dr. Cook insensitively toyed with the affections of a student:

Mrs. Sweeney said the distinguished Dr.’s other student had passed out before. He brought one to her house, then she began getting pea green and Mrs. S. saw her out where she said, swaying into the elevator, “I’ve forgotten my notebook.” Then, this being produced, she shyly said, sliding to the floor, “I had a pencil, too.” Then she passed warily away.

That “shyly” and “warily” are perfect. In Gore Vidal’s 1987 essay on Dawn Powell in the New York Review of Books he quotes a passage from her novel She Walks in Beauty, in which a character offers a back-handed compliment to another “pleasantly.”  “The adverb ‘pleasantly’ helps make the joke,” writes Vidal, “a point of contention between no-adverbs Graham Greene and myself. I look to the adverb for surprise. Greene thinks that the verb should do all the work.”

Reading Proust and Dawn Powell at the same time, I’m struck by the similarities despite the differences in time and place. Both writers were interested in social dynamics and the “tells” which thwart our attempts to mask our intentions. Both were masters of observation — you can imagine each racing home from a party to scribble the details of everything that happened. And both used language superbly to transform our endless fascination with ourselves into art.

We pick up a book and turn from the swirl of our own minds, filled with desires, dreams, insecurities, the pain of memory, and so on, to read about other times, other lives, where people struggle with their desires, dreams and insecurities, and the pain of memory. And so on.

Beach

 

A wistful list for a fall day

 

 

Ah, Fall.  As a friend observed recently, the season seems to generate a certain ennui.  The warm days and long evenings of summer have come to a close, the garden is winding down, the light is dimming at seven o’clock (morning and evening) and our thoughts turn to dark winter.  The beauty of the season is undeniable, but apart from those diamond bright days of blue skies and flaming leaves, it’s played in a minor key.

What better time of year to talk about those books that are most evocative of loss, reminiscence and regret?  It could be argued that every great novel has these themes at its heart, but in some, the elegiac tone permeates every page.

I’ve wrapped a peacock blue pashmina around my shoulders, I’m looking at the rain, golden chrysanthemums glow on my balcony, a cup of chai is on the table, summer is playing its dying fall.  And for you, a personal list of wistfulness:

 

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

Well, did you really expect me to start with anything else?  The ne plus ultra of elegiac longing, Proust tells us time and again (sorry) that memory is the theme of his novel.  No one else expresses so clearly and beautifully the ephemeral nature of time, and how our lives are steeped with loss.  He encapsulates time in his detailed depiction of people and places,  and uses imagery to bring meaning to ordinary objects.  The result is a book that evokes a sense of loss, yet also tells us that the past is never really gone:

“When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered…the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls…bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory.”

 

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

I would consider this blog a success if I could get one more person to read Birdsong.  It’s one of those books that critics love, but you never meet anyone else who’s read it.  Recommended to me by my first manager at Chapters, I went on to recommend it to many customers and friends.  Not one person was disappointed.  I suppose maybe they were just being nice, but I don’t think so.

Written in 1993, Birdsong is an English novel about the First World War.   It tells the story of Stephen Wraysford, a young officer who falls in love in France, and is then sent to the Somme.  Parallel to this is the story of the miners who tunneled underground to blow up German trenches.  It’s a book you can’t put down, and the senseless loss of young lives is harrowingly and movingly told:

“He saw a picture in his mind of a terrible piling up of the dead. It came from his contemplation of the church, but it had its own clarity: the row on row, the deep rotting earth hollowed out to hold them, while the efforts of the living, with all their works and wars and great buildings, were no more than the beat of a wing against the weight of time.”

 

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut’s imaginatively told anti-war novel has become a modern classic.  If you haven’t read it yet, what are you waiting for?  It’s not long, and it’s filled with Vonnegut’s trademark combination of humour, warmth and rage.  We’re in the Second World War now, witnesses to the bombing of Dresden.  The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is “unstuck in time”, as happens to many of us at points in our lives. So it goes.  There are things to be learned from our travels through time and space;  among them, the importance of preserving beauty and kindness in the world:

“If what Billy Pilgrim learned from the Trafalmadorians is true, that we will all live forever,  no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be, I am not overjoyed.  Still – if I am going to spend eternity visiting this moment and that, I’m grateful that so many of those moments are nice.”

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

The first books I read by Evelyn Waugh were filled with his satiric voice and sharp eye, books like Scoop and The Loved One. My cynical eighteen year old self was amused and admiring of his detached, ironic tone.

But Brideshead is different, and, despite the author’s own opinion, and his misplaced affection for the English class system, his greatest novel.  Not just because it’s longer, or more sentimental, but because the characters are complex and flawed human beings, who love and make mistakes.  The protagonist, Charles Ryder, has lost faith, friends, love, youth, the innocence of an earlier self and an earlier age, and the language is replete with the emotions of loss and regret:

“I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world.”

 

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White

Spoiler Alert: Charlotte dies. And to the author’s credit, in this children’s book, she doesn’t “pass away”, or some other euphemism.  She dies.   I cried when I first read this beautiful book at ten years old.  And I cried reading the ending again to write this post!    When Wilbur asks Charlotte why she helped save him, her reply is wise and beautiful:

“After all, what’s a life, anyway?  We’re born, we live a little while, we die.  A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies.  By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle.  Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.”

 

Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson

Here’s another one of those books that critics love and no one has read.  I love, love, LOVE, Tove Jansson, and have read Finn Family Moomintroll many times.  The book is filled with affectionate nostalgia for Jansson’s childhood vacations in Finland.   In Finn Family Moomintroll, the moomins and their friends awake in the spring (they hibernate) and have many summer adventures.  At the end of the book, it’s fall, as it is now, dear readers.  The warmth of summer is just a memory, and Moomin:

“goes home through the garden with his mother, just as the moon is fading in the dawn, and the trees rustling in the morning breeze which comes up from the sea.  It is autumn in Moomin Valley, for how else can spring come back again?”

 

Those are my favourite elegiac books for a rainy fall day.  What are yours?

This Week in Proust: Vol II, page 389

 

“Only through art can we emerge from ourselves and know what another person sees.” – Marcel Proust

 

Oh, hi.  As you can see, I’m still reading Proust.  I’m on page 389 of Within a Budding Grove, the second volume of Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, and I have been struggling for days to decide what I would like to tell you about it.

Please understand that this is not the fault of the novel.  The book remains brilliant and Proust continues to mesmerize me with his ability to describe the experience of human consciousness.   It’s me. The question that I can’t get out of my mind is, who cares?

Who cares about a novel written in France at the turn of the century?  Who cares about a book narrated by a neurotic hypochondriac that’s over one and a half million words?  A book where hardly anything happens?  And the narrator can spend dozens of pages talking about his crush on a girl?  I mean, come on, most people are reading Fifty Shades of Grey.  And talking about it.  Everywhere.  And before that – Twilight.

Was it any different in Proust’s time?  Probably not.  Proust paid for the publication of Swann’s Way himself after it was turned down by several editors.  He continued to work on the novel for thirteen years of his life, starting in 1909 and ending with his death in 1922.  The last three volumes of the seven volume work were published posthumously.

Jesus, what made him do it?  I mean, why did he keep going?  What did he tell himself as he sat writing in his cork lined bedroom?   I read somewhere recently, (I think it was Paul Auster) and I’m paraphrasing wildly, that a book represents, if nothing else, hours of solitude.  Of a person in a room alone with his or her thoughts.  A lot. Someone else said to me recently that to start a novel, with no promise of anyone reading it ever, was “ballsy”.  It takes a particular kind of insanity to cut off human connection for hours every day in the hope that you can, through your art, achieve some kind of, well, human connection.

In our commodified world, we feel the need to justify our time and actions to others.  We teach our children that the reason they need  an education is to secure a good job, attaching a dollar value to our brains and what we do with them.  We worship artists who are financially successful and marginalize those who aren’t.  We shower children with promises of neverending self gratification, “All this can be yours”, and medicate the inevitable disappointment and self loathing with drugs and shopping.  We cut arts programming in schools, disconnecting people from their own creativity and reflect their  thwarted hopes and desires back to them with giant screen comic book entertainment and pornography.

And yet.  People still read books.  People still write books.  Books that are hard to read, or filled with strange sensations and new ideas.  Books by people on the edges of society, and people next door, women and men and crazy people and sane people and boys who are really girls, maybe, and dogs and cats that run away from home and children who fall in love with deer.  People from hot places with crazy insects the size of tanks, sweat dripping down your back and people shivering on the streets in February, the smell of the streetcar tracks on your tongue.  And there are old books, written by Japanese courtesans over a thousand years ago, and revolutionary Russia and Cold War England.  Particular books about particular people in particular times.

And the weird thing that happens is, that when you write down exactly what it was like, the pink of the sky just before the sun came up, the rain dripping down your collar as you walk the streets of postwar London, what it was like to be hungry, or cold, or brokenhearted, lying on a beach, lying on soft sheets, or in a trench, or flying in a dream, or screaming in your sleep, your experience is no longer just your own, and people hear you, and nod their heads, “yes”.

I sit in a little room.  I’m alone.  I have a journal and a pen, a laptop, a cat.  And my books.  It is summer here, and in France. Marcel Proust is telling me what it feels like, exactly, his particular sadness, and then he’s on a train to Balbec, forgetting, forgetting just a little bit at a time. Yes.

 

 

This Week in Proust: Vol. 2, page 241

 

 

This week in In Search of Lost Time our narrator is in love with Gilberte Swann.  But Gilberte doesn’t love him. One day, she is on her way out to a party, when her mother tells her to stay home because the narrator has come over specifically to see her.  Gilberte sulkily agrees, and she and the narrator exchange banalities, barely disguising their irritation with one another.  Finally he has the courage to tell her he will not see her again.  But it is hard! He still wants to see her!

“The storm that was blowing in my heart was so violent that I made my way home battered and bruised, feeling that I could recover my breath only by retracing my steps, by returning, upon whatever pretext, into Gilberte’s presence.”

But of course, that would give her the upper hand – she would realize that he needs her more than she needs him.  He writes a letter “in which I allowed my fury to thunder, not however without throwing her the lifebuoy of a few words disposed as though by accident on the page, by clinging to which my beloved might be brought to a reconciliation.”  Better leave the door open – just in case.

Because all of his thinking is linked to his own feelings (another E4!), it’s impossible for him to imagine what Gilberte might be thinking.  For one thing, he tries to put a positive spin on everything she says:

 “even when we are conscious that we are of no account to her, we have perpetually represented in our musings as uttering, in order to lull us into a happy dream, or to console us for a great sorrow, the same words that she would use if she loved us.”

And if he can’t manage even that, he has no idea what’s going on in her head:

 “Faced with the thoughts, the actions of a woman whom we love, we are as completely at a loss as the world’s first natural philosophers must have been, face to face with the phenomena of nature, before their science had been elaborated and had cast a ray of light over the unknown.”

He rehashes everything in his mind, trying to find an intellectual middle ground.  And what conclusion does he come to?  That he should go see her again!  Why, he wonders, did he put himself through all that mental torture, pretending he was breaking it off, when he knew he would go back anyway?  So he goes to Gilberte’s house – but she isn’t home.

So that’s it – he won’t see her again!  But he hasn’t actually heard from Gilberte – maybe she’ll apologize.  He needs closure, goddammit!  He waits in vain for a note from her, but receives “only letters from people who were not  Gilberte”.  He waits for the morning post.  Rien. Then he waits for the afternoon post.  Then he hangs around the house – maybe she’ll send a message.

Fine.  It’s over.  The separation will be good for him, and at least he can keep some of his dignity intact. She’s not the boss of him.   In fact, he’ll accept invitations from Gilberte, then cancel at the last minute. This is perfect!  When she realizes how little he needs her, she’ll want him back!

 “When, better than by mere words, by a course of action indefinitely repeated, I should have proved to her that I had no inclination to see her, perhaps she would discover once again an inclination to see me.”

He goes to the Swann house to visit Odette at times when Gilberte won’t be home.  He is comforted by the idea he can go to her house whenever he wants.

 “I constantly reminded myself, for all that I was firmly resolved to make no use of that privilege, that if ever my pain grew too sharp there was a way of making it cease.  I was not unhappy, except one day at a time.”

And who knows?  Maybe one day Gilberte will change her mind:

 “With women who do not love us, as with the “dear departed”, the knowledge that there is no hope left does not prevent us from continuing to wait.”

And in fact it is not seeing Gilberte that keeps his love alive.

 “If I had found myself face to face with her in her mother’s drawing room, we might perhaps have exchanged irrevocable words which would have rendered our breach final, killed my hope  and, at the same time, by creating a fresh anxiety, reawakened my love and made resignation harder.”

 

I have heard people who read Proust described as “pretentious”.  It’s a word I find difficult to associate with an author who can write so candidly about his feelings.  You read passages like the ones above and cringe with recognition.  Done something stupid in the name of love?  Checked her facebook status, to see if she’s thinking of you?  Hit “send” when you should have pressed “delete”? Bored all your friends analyzing your breakup? Listened to his message over and over again just to hear his voice?  Welcome to the stupid, ridiculous, vulnerable behaviour of unrequited love. Welcome to the human race.  And have some compassion for yourself, because you’re not the only one.  And in a little while, you won’t be too unhappy, except one day at a time.

 

 

 

 

 

This Week in Proust: Happy Birthday, Marcel!

 

“For neither our greatest fears nor our greatest hopes are beyond the limits of our strength–we are able in the end both to dominate the first and to achieve the second.”

 

Today is July 10, the birthday of Marcel Proust, author of In Search of Lost Time.  I thought I should do something  to commemorate the occasion.  My first idea was to have a Proustian day of lying in bed, drinking coffee, eating croissants, perhaps writing a letter or two, and reading.  But then I thought that was best saved for a rainy day, maybe in February, when the days are shortest but the hardest to get through.  So, since it’s a birthday, my next thoughts were of cake, and I decided to make madeleines.

Madeleines are, of course, the cookie made famous by Proust in the first volume of his masterpiece, and have become synonymous with the concept of involuntary memory.  Did I say cookie?  Is it a cookie or a cake? Um, yes? It seems that once you decide to dive into a topic, there’s no end to the opinions on the internet.  What was the exact texture of the cookie Marcel’s narrator dipped in his tea?  It must have been kind of hard, maybe dry, because when it touched the tea, it kind of became crumbly, suggesting…etc etc.  Zut alors, people, it’s only a book.  We’re not trying to bring our ancestors back from the grave here.  So let’s bake!

But first, mon cheri, you will need a madeleine pan.     Usually I don’t like to have too many cake pans, as I’m not much of a pastry chef – I have kind of a cake anxiety thing.  I’m more of a bread baker.  Bread seems more forgiving and there’s such a vast difference between home made bread and store bought that your guests don’t usually care about the shape, or if it’s a bit dark on the bottom or whatever.  Anyway, I bought a nonstick pan that made 12 cookies, and I just got one because it was eighteen dollars, but if you wanted to make them all the time, or for a big crowd, you could splurge and get two.  I bought mine at Golda’s.

You have to be in a certain state of mind for cake making; that kind of zen thing where you’re alert, but not nervous, in the moment, and not worrying about the cat yowling or the phone call from that certain person that you’ve been waiting on for a few days.  What sports coaches used to call “the zone”. Music is good.  I was going to play something, ooh la la, like Putumayo French Cafe or Dexter Gordon, but in the end I opted for Stevie Wonder.  Chacun a son gout.  You can play what you want.

I settled on the recipe at epicurious.  Because of my cake anxiety, I prefer to think of a madeleine as a cookie, but I like eating cake, so I adapted the recipe a bit, following some of the comments from readers.  I added 1/8 of a teaspoon of baking powder to give them a bit of a lift, and I doubled the lemon because I like lemon.  You don’t have to.  Some people put almond extract in instead, which sounds divine, and some used orange flower water, which they said was more authentic.  I might try that some day.

The batter really does seem to be somewhere between a cake and a cookie – a runny cookie dough or a thick cake batter.   To keep it cakey (some people complained that they were too dense) I also beat the batter longer than the recipe suggested.  Even though my pan was nonstick, I buttered and floured it.  The flouring makes the outsides a little bit dimply, but I was taking no chances that my madeleines wouldn’t come out of the pans intact.  Most of the comments on epicurious said to bake them for less time than the original recipe, which was sixteen minutes, so I set my timer for ten.  Three seventy-five degrees is a pretty hot oven for a little cake.  After five minutes the edges start to brown and the smell of butter and lemon wafts into the kitchen.

The first batch was a little brown, but , Mon Dieu, the texture and taste! A buttery crunch on the outside from the butter and flour, then a, pale yellow lemon cake, dense, but light  – heaven!

Try eating just one, cheri, just try.  If you have any left, dip them in your tea tomorrow when they’ve dried out a bit.  Or put them in your freezer and impress all your friends when they drop by unexpectedly.  Happy Birthday, Marcel!

This Week in Proust: Page 157

In Search of Lost Time is a book about layers – layers of meaning, of feeling, and the dense texture that a life takes on as we move through time.  How can a book like that be anything but long?  Just like in our lives, the action doesn’t explain everything.  The hidden life of things,  and the way our relationships to things, places and people change as memory imparts new meaning to our experiences are among the ideas that fascinate Proust.  That’s why pages can be devoted to the smallest details.   There are secrets to be revealed in everything if you look closely.

One of the recurring motifs in In Search of Lost Time is the “little phrase” by Vinteuil – a made up piece of music by a fictional composer.   We first “hear” the music in Swann’s Way, where Swann’s  emotional reaction to the music counterpoints his growing love for Odette.  In Within a Budding Grove, the couple are married, and the Vinteuil sonata has become “their song”.

Why do we react to music the way we do?  What makes a piece of music compelling for us, and why do we hear it differently on subsequent listens? Proust investigates these questions  with the burning curiosity of a modern neuroscientist – the Daniel Levitin of his time.

Some music, like some books, can be enjoyed without much work on our part.  But others take longer to appreciate: “…one often hears nothing when one listens for the first time to a piece of music that is at all complicated.”  Why does this happen? Proust suggests that parts of the music are familiar to us because they’re similar to things we’ve heard before, and we assimilate these things first.  We have to listen more deeply to appreciate the more complicated parts.  Even this may take time, because, having listened to the music already, we feel  there’s no need to hear it again.  The narrator experiences this when listening to Vinteuil’s sonata:

“And not only does one not grasp at once and remember works that are truly rare, but even within those works…it is the least precious parts that one at first perceives.  So much so that I was mistaken not only in thinking that this work held nothing further in store for me (so that for a long time I made no effort to hear it again) from the moment Mme Swann had played me its most famous passage (I was in this respect as stupid as people are who expect to feel no astonishment when they stand in Venice before the facade of Saint Mark’s, because photography has already acquainted them with the outline of its domes)…”

Listening to music is inextricably intertwined with time and its passing because we are changed each time we hear a piece again. The fugitive nature of the experience gives beautiful music a built-in poignancy:

“ … even when I had heard the sonata from beginning to end, it remained almost wholly invisible to me, like a monument of which distance or a haze allows us to catch but a faint and fragmentary glimpse.  Hence the melancholy inseparable from one’s knowledge of such works, as of everything that takes place in time…”

With repetition, the more accessible parts of the music become kind of boring to us.  We stop noticing them.  That’s when our mind is open to “hearing” a more unusual passage.   And because we never noticed it before, we discover it whole and intact, as if hearing it for the first time.

“Since I was able to enjoy everything that this sonata had to give me only in a succession of hearings, I never possessed it in its entirety: it was like life itself.  But, less disappointing than life, great works of art do not begin by giving us the best of themselves…But when the first impressions have receded, there remains for our enjoyment some passage whose structure, too new and strange to offer anything but confusion to our mind, had made it indistinguishable and so preserved intact; and this, which we had passed every day without knowing it, which had held itself in reserve for us, which by the sheer power of its beauty had become invisible and remained unknown, this comes to us last of all. But we shall also relinquish it last.  And we shall love it longer than the rest because we have taken longer to get to love it.”

Sometimes you have to go beyond the surface of things to find meaning.  Sometimes beauty is found in unexpected places, and truth revealed after a long and difficult journey.

 

 

 

This Week in Proust: Page 111

 

“Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists, worlds more different one from the other than those which revolve in infinite space, worlds which, centuries after the extinction of the fire from which their light first emanated, whether it is called Rembrandt or Vermeer, send us still each one its special radiance.” – Marcel Proust

 

 

It can’t be argued that In Search of Lost Time is very long. Proust is one of those people who doesn’t filter anything out.   His curiosity and observational powers are applied to the minutest details of life and nature.  He will happily spend as many pages describing a flower as the emotional state of one of his characters.  And why not?  Why have we decided that one is more important than the other?

I remember my son, now a talented dj, noticing the sounds in a room when he was three.  We might focus on one thing (someone speaking, for example) but his ears and mind were like a satellite dish, receptive to every transmission – the radio, a spoon rhythmically scraping the bottom of a bowl, a jet going by, his mother’s voice – he heard, noted, and often imitated, every sound.  Perhaps all children do this and we lose the capacity as we get older.  We establish our boundaries, decide what’s important and ignore the rest.  Good artists either never let go of that childlike receptivity or find a way to recapture it.

At one point in my life I decided I wanted to learn how to draw.  I picked up Betty Edward’s, Drawing On the Right Side of the Brain.  She teaches you how to relearn the art of seeing, to bypass language and the naming of things (this is a tree, this is a house, that is a face) and really look at what is there.  Imperceptibly, your mind shifts to a still point of complete focus, your ego is no longer separated from the object you’re drawing,  and you actually see it.

Proust’s ability to do that is what makes his book great. Through his eyes we are able to experience the moment, our world, and timelessness, in a handful of lime-blossom tea:

“The drying of the stems had twisted them into a fantastic trellis, in the interlacings of which the pale flowers opened, as though a painter had arranged them there, grouping them in the most decorative poses.  The leaves, having lost or altered their original appearance, resembled the most disparate things, the transparent wing of a fly, the blank side of a label, the petal of a rose, which had all been piled together, pounded or interwoven like the materials for a nest.  A thousand trifling little details – a charming prodigality on the part of the chemist – details which would have been eliminated from an artificial preparation, gave me, like a book in which one reads with astonished delight the name of a person one knows, the pleasure of finding that these were sprigs of real lime-trees, like those I had seen, when coming from the train, in the Avenue de la Gare, altered indeed, precisely because they were not imitations but themselves, and because they had aged.  And as each new character is merely a metamorphosis from something earlier, in these little grey balls I recognised green buds plucked before their time; but beyond all else the rosy, lunar, tender gleam that lit up the blossoms among the frail forest of stems from which they hung like little golden roses – marking, as the glow upon an old wall still marks the place of a vanished fresco, the difference between those parts of the tree which had and those which had not been “in colour” – showed me that these were indeed petals which, before filling the chemist’s bag with their spring fragrance, had perfumed the evening air.  That rosy candleglow was still their colour, but half-extinguished and deadened in the diminished life which was now theirs, and which may be called the twilight of a flower.”

 

 

 

This Week in Proust: Page 25

 

 

“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.”

 

Not much Proust reading this week.  Mostly because I’ve had difficulty putting down Birds of America by Lorrie Moore.   Oh, and I’ve been gardening on my tiny, tiny balcony.  It’s Spring, and you have to carpe la diem, dahlings.

I did pick up Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life.  I read this a while ago, but found myself leafing through it again with last week’s post.

This book is billed  on the cover by The New York Times Book Review as, “A self-help manual for the intelligent person.”  Even putting aside the notion that other self-help books are for stupid people, I had trouble with this claim.

It’s true that the chapter titles are written as a “how to” for happiness:  “How to Love Life Today”, “How to Be a Good Friend”, “How to Be Happy in Love”, etc.   But, like Sarah Bakewell’s book on Montaigne, How to Live, How Proust Can Change Your Life is a book about a writer’s work, life and ideas, arranged thematically instead of chronologically.  And de Botton wrote his first – the book was published in 1997, Bakewell’s in 2010.

The format is really engaging.  One of the reasons I was reluctant to pick up In Search of Lost Time initially, apart from the length, was the sense that I would have a hard time relating to a French writer from the turn of the century.  I’m not sure why – I’ve read books from a variety of other cultures, translated from different languages, and enjoyed  them.  Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are among my favourite writers, and the culture and language of 19th century Russia doesn’t seem any closer to our own than early 20th century France.  (Historians, correct me if I’m wrong about this.)   But when the artist’s life is told thematically, you feel like he is being brought to your time, instead of the other way around.  And it enables a concise blending of the life and the work.  In chapters on friendship, art, love, and reading, de Botton uses anecdotes from Proust’s life, written sources other than the novel, and passages from In Search of Lost Time to illustrate Proust’s philosophies, tastes, desires and preoccupations.

A good self-help manual (especially if it’s for stupid people) is appealing because it’s reductive.  The truths are epigrammatic and unequivocal.  That’s not very Proustian.  He can be epigrammatic – google “Proust quotes” and you’ll find lots of beautifully expressed wisdom.  But he’s usually spent pages in the novel getting to that thought.

And he might just change his mind.  Or, rather, hold two contradictory views at once.  For example, in the chapter, “How to Be a Good Friend”, we see Proust from the point of view of his friends: witty, sociable, generous, kind and charming – a man who understood and appreciated the value of friendship.  “He was the best of listeners,” “passionately interested in his friends,”  and “he certainly never put all his poetry into his books, he put as much into his life.”  At the same time, he said that friendship was, “…a lie which seeks to make us believe that we are not irremediably alone,” and,

“The artist who gives up an hour of work for an hour of conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for something that does not exist (our friends being friends only in the light of an agreeable folly which travels with us through life and to which we readily accommodate ourselves, but which at the bottom of our hearts we know to be no more reasonable than the delusion of the man who talks to the furniture because he believes that it is alive.”

What we can learn from How Proust Can Change Your Life is a little bit more about the life and ideas of Marcel Proust.   It’s a fun introduction and companion piece to the novel.  To get the full story, though, you just have to dive into In Search of Lost Time.  Go ahead.  It just might change your life.

This Week in Proust: Volume II, page 1

 

 

“A book is the product of another self to the one we display in our habits,in society, in our vices.” – Marcel Proust

 

Even though I haven’t started Volume II of In Search of Lost Time, Within a Budding Grove, I feel like I haven’t been far from Proust all week.  I seem to come across references to the book and its author all over the place, even when I’m not looking for them.  The most surprising was the wonderful photo above, discovered on flavorwire’s list of Extremely Silly Photos of Extremely Serious Writers.  It’s a refreshing reminder that novelists have lives outside of their books, with their own challenges, joys, insights and blind spots.  Below, a few things about Marcel, shamelessly cribbed from the internet and Alain de Botton’s entertaining, How Proust Can Change Your Life:

  1. He could be silly.  See above.  Proust was known for his sense of humour, and was apparently a lot of fun at parties, according to Edmund White, in an excerpt from his book in the New York Times on the Web.
  2. He had his bedroom lined with cork. Proust suffered from asthma most of his life, and thought that the cork would minimize dust.  He also wanted to block out noise because,
  3. he liked to write in bed.  Proust would sleep during the day and write at night, and his cork lined bedroom became his place of work in later years, as he rarely left his bed. Marcel may have been a bit of a hypochondriac.  Asthma was only one of a list of ailments. He also suffered continually from stomach complaints, possibly because of his diet,
  4. which was limited to not much more than croissants and coffee.  How French.  Throw in cigarettes and a couple of glasses of Chablis and you have the perfect French diet plan.
  5. He was always cold. It was not uncommon for Proust to wear several sweaters and an overcoat when venturing out on a summer day, and he was often seen at parties in a fur coat, regardless of the time of year.
  6. He liked to read the train timetable for entertainment. Proust found the place names inspiring.  He could read the timetable and imagine all kinds of dramas taking place in the little country towns.  For a writer that was useful, especially since,
  7. he didn’t like to travel.  Proust didn’t seem to mind experiencing things second hand, whether it was reproductions of paintings or reading about places rather than going there.  And it’s hard to travel if you don’t want to get out of bed.  Or have strange fears.
  8. Like, mice.  According to de Botton, Proust confessed during the bombing of Paris in 1918 that he was more afraid of mice than cannons.
  9. He was a generous friend.  Proust liked to take friends out to dinner, tip generously, and lavish attention on his companions.  He was not only an entertaining conversationalist, but a good listener, “He took an interest in you, instead of trying to make you interested in himself.”
  10. He loved his mother.  Many pages in the beginning of In Search of Lost Time are spent describing the narrator’s anguish when he fears his mother will not come upstairs to kiss him goodnight. The author’s relationship with Madame Proust was no less intense.  Proust lived with his mother until her death when he was thirty-four, and her overbearing  involvement in his life was reciprocated in his dependency.  Who knows what effect the relationship had on his life, or his work? Maybe it wasn’t all bad.  Or maybe it had no effect at all.  Maybe it was just a reflection of the heightened sensitivity of a unique artist with an uncanny ability to observe life and infuse his depiction of people, places and events with transcendent luminosity.

 

This Week in Proust: page 436

“…it is only with the passions of others that we are ever really familiar, and what we come to discover about our own can only be learned from them.  Upon ourselves they react only indirectly, through our imagination, which substitutes for our primary motives other, auxiliary motives, less stark and therefore more seemly.” – Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

 

Marcel wanted to move this week, so I let him.  Retooling of the site to come.  Offers of technical expertise welcome!

I’m on page 436 of Swann in Love, and, I have to admit, for the last forty pages or so, I have been waiting for Swann to get over it.  Inside sources tell me this is not going to happen.  Too bad.  I suspect all will not end well for Swann.  Anyway, as I follow the complicated syntax of his obsessed logic,  I sometimes find my mind wandering, in some irritation at his willingness to spend so much mental energy creating the circumstances that lead to his own unhappiness.  “She’s not worth it!”, I want to shout at Swann. “Stop torturing yourself imagining all the men she might be with and go meet some people!”

But we all know that advice to the lovelorn goes unheard.  So to give myself a break from Swann’s anxious mind, I decide to follow some idle Proustian whims, 2012 style, on the internet.  A sampling:

  1. La Belle Epoque in France is considered the period between the late nineteenth century and the beginning of World War I.  That is, the time between when Marcel Proust was born (1871) and when Swann’s Way was published (1913).  It was a transitional period (what period isn’t?) between a social structure based on the establishment of the aristocracy, and a rising middle class.  The Verdurins, and their “little clan” are a good illustration of this middle class and their social aspirations.
  2. There are lots of details in In Search of Lost Time that bring the period to life. But it helps if you know what Proust’s talking about.  For instance, what is a “Japanese Salad”?  I couldn’t find a satisfactory answer, even with Google.
  3. Google was more helpful with “cattleyas”, which I learned are a kind of orchid.  Orchids were very popular during this period; Odette liked to wear them on her dress, and Swann liked to…well, you’ll just have to read it.
  4. Proust’s tastes were pretty modern.  He was a fan of Impressionism when many of his contemporaries thought Monet, Manet, Renoir and the lot were a bunch of no-talent degenerates.  They even had to have their own alternate art show, the Salon des Refuses.  If they were making art today, they would probably show it here.
  5. Another artist who exhibited at the Salons des Refuses was J.M. Whistler, whose tonal paintings of figures, skies and water often had titles inspired by music.  He was a favourite of Proust, and was thought to be the model for the character of Elstir.
  6. Marcel had modern taste in music too.  One of the most memorable passages from Swann’s Way is about a sonata by the composer Vinteuil.  You can practically hear it, as the narrator describes the piece phrase by phrase, and the effect the music has on Swann.  It’s hard to believe Proust made the whole thing up!  There’s lots of speculation about what music and composer he had in mind when he invented Vinteuil and his sonata.  An article here suggests the character may have been a composite of Gabriel Faure, Cesar Franck and Claude Debussy.
  7. The publication of Swann’s Way coincided with the premiere of another piece of modern music, Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes for the first time on May 29 1913.
  8. In Search of Lost Time is considered by scholars to be the first “modern” novel.  Proust’s “stream of consciousness” style influenced many writers, most notably James Joyce, whose Ulysses was  published in 1922, and Virginia Woolf, who published Mrs. Dalloway in 1922 and To the Lighthouse in 1925, and famously said of In Search of Lost Time, “what remains to be written after that?”
  9. Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust are linked in another way that modern writers may relate to, namely, self publishing.  After Swann’s Way was rejected by several publishers, Proust himself paid to have it published.  And most of Woolf’s novels were published through Hogarth Press, the business founded by Virginia and her husband, Leonard Woolf.  Hogarth Press published other notable modern works too, including The Waste Land and The Complete Works of Sigmund Freud.
  10. It occurs to me that the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of Swann’s Way is coming up next year.  Marcel Proust’s birthday is July 10, which is a nice time of year for a party.  Better start planning…