Archive for November, 2009

Who is Proust in ISOLT?

November 25, 2009

The problem with a roman a clef reading of any novel is that when you identify the real life model of a character, what you know of the real life person can supplant what the text says about the character. For example:

Charlus? Robert de Montesquiou!

Odette? Laure Heyman!

Marcel? Marcel!

The last identification, though, I don’t find completely obvious or least complete. Marcel and Proust certainly share a life mission to find themselves as writers. But a comment by Malcolm Bowie in his Proust Among the Stars has led me to ask in which other characters Proust represents himself.

Bowie sees something of Proust in the character Bloch. The Block character is problematic for just about everyone. He is the apotheosis of the socially crude Jew, cluelessly clawing for recognition in high society. And his family is worse. This character has opened Proust up to charges of anti-Semitism, a charge that is completely out of keeping with what we know of his personal life, his devotion to his Jewish mother and her family, his activism in the fight to release Dreyfus. Bowie sees in Bloch as a parody of the young Proust trying to gain acceptance in the Parisian tout-monde. Block is forever knocking over vases, wearing muddy clothes and lacking graces. Might Proust himself have been expressing his exaggerated fears of being judged badly by society when portraying Bloch? This sounds much more reasonable than interpreting Bloch as an anti-Semitic outburst.

And isn’t Proust very much in Swann? Swann’s knowledge and love of art is bottomless, but without issue. He cannot finish his book on Vermeer. He wastes his time advising society, who respect his taste, about art that will just be adornments on a mansion wall. Proust had a similarly encyclopedic knowledge of painting, as evidenced in the always perfect  choice of a painting to help visualize a scene in the novel. And until his breakthrough at mid-life, he was a commentator, as in his Ruskin translations, rather than an artist. Proust succeeds where Swann failed, thankfully.

The arrogant Charlus could not be more unlike the charming, gentle Proust. Except in one respect. They share similar sexual inclinations. Both are drawn to rough trade and violence as a sexual stimulant. Charlus’ choice of arousal in a male brothel is chains and whipping. Proust’s is the sight of rats fighting to the death. Proust knew firsthand how to lead Charlus to understand the power of cruelty to release sexual frenzy.

Proust famously advised his readers to understand that his characters came from real life, but that each of them was formed from numerous examples. This perception can be turned around. At least some of the characters can be understood as one aspect of Proust’s complex character.

Jim Everett


Proust Meets Mann

November 16, 2009

Literary mash-ups are hot now, following the publication of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and I don’t want to miss out. My modest proposal is to have Proust meet Mann: Marcel retires to a sanatorium in Davos and becomes a companion of Hans Castorp.

I can foresee a few major objections to this project, so let’s address these first.

Marcel, we know, spends a long time in a sanatorium. Most commentators identify the place as a mental health sanatorium, but the text does not say this explicitly. This idea comes, presumably, from the fact that Proust spent time in a mental sanatorium after the death of his mother. For my purposes, I choose to focus on Proust’s asthma and the need to treat it in a better climate. What better place than a resort-like setting in the Swiss Alps?

Another objection will be about the dramatic action. How do you have any when both protagonists are social mirrors? Marcel and Hans are much better at bringing out responses in others than in driving conversations and social interactions. To keep the action going we will have to introduce a few more characters who Marcel and Hans can interrogate, obsess over and come to understand and dismiss.

I would have Marcel paid a visit by Charlus and Saint-Loup and Hans paid a visit by Mynheer Peeperkorn and Mme. Clavida Chauchat. These characters will provide all the themes needed to fill a fat book.

Marcel is intrigued by Chauchat and spends long hours in conversation with her, each wrapped in blankets and sitting in the cold air on her balcony. From a few casual remarks by Clavida, Marcel learns that she has not only visited Balbec but had met Albertine. She waves off further questions about Albertine, saying she met her only once or twice. Marcel is not so sure she is telling the whole truth. He devises strategies to make her reveal more.

Meanwhile, Charlus is spending a lot of time with Peeperkorn, too much time. What transpires between them is too scandalous to even summarize here. Suffice it to say that Charlus is confirmed in his love of all things German.

Saint-Loup spars with the radical terrorist Jesuit Leo Naphta. Robert gradually loses his composure as Naphta unveils Robert’s virile homosexuality as a symbol of the decline and fall of the West. Saint-Loup shoots Naphta in a fit of rage, but the crime is covered up by Settembrini by staging a fake duel. Saint-Loup departs for Paris to prepare for the looming war.

I think I have taken this far enough for a good writer to take over and flesh out. All I ask is for an acknowledgement (and 1% of the gross from the film adaptation.)

Proust Among the Stars

November 7, 2009

Proust Among the Stars

I took a break from reading Time Regained to read Bowie’s critical study of Proust. I picked it up with some hesitation, given that Bowie has also written a book on Lacan, whose writings I find obscure. And you will find some of this style in places, especially in free associations on words. To give an example, Proust writes on Albertine:

…and her belly..was closed, at the base of her thighs, by two valves with a curve as languid, as reposeful, as cloistral as that of the horizon after the sun has set. (V,82)

Bowie comments:

The fact that valve, which comes within punning distance of vulve, contains a reminiscence of the madeleine, the novel’s supreme edible object, opens up another biological vista: the desire to eat and desire to mate as interconnected versions of one inextinguishable élan vital. (249)

But fortunately this style does not dominate the book. Bowie, though, is not so interested in talking about broad thematic structures as he is in making discoveries by burrowing into passages of the novel. His chapters have very broad titles: Self, Time, Art, Politics, Morality, Sex and Death. To give you a taste of his bottom-up style, I will focus on one recurring theme, the reasons for the length and complexity of Proust’s sentences.

Proust has much to say on the metaphysics of time, of time as a subject in itself. But he also utilizes syntax to give the reader an appreciation of the flow of time. He cites this sentence of Proust:

How often have I watched, and longed to imitate when I should be free to live as I chose, a rower who had shipped his oars and lay flat on his back in the bottom of his boat, letting it drift with the current, seeing nothing but the sky gliding slowly by above him, his face aglow with a foretaste of happiness and peace! (I,204)

And comments:

At least three time scales are present. The oarsman sinks back languorously after hard work with arms and legs; the narrator enjoys himself when he is finally able to break free from a constraining family; and Proust’s sentence arrives at its final visionary affirmation after much syntactic travail….The problem – and the pleasurableness – of sentences on this model lies in their insistent intermixing of past, present and future. Their syntax and tense-pattern deal in prematurity and belatedness to the near-exclusion of linear succession….The temporality of Proust’s sentence is insistently heterogenous: moment by moment, the flow of time is stalled, and unpacked into its backward- and forward-looking ingredients. (37)

In another passage Bowie talks about how the long, syntactically involved sentences provide a type of thinking, one that compresses and enlarges, compares and distinguishes.

Yet what is remarkable in all this seeming flouting of the rules – whether of story-telling, or art history, or inferential argument – is that something strict and rule-governed is still going on sentence by sentence. Distinctions have to be clear if a coherent play of ambiguity, as distinct from mere semantic havering or fuss, is to be sustained. The machinery for making such distinctions is to be found in the bifurcating syntax of the Proustian sentence, and it is the peculiar property of these sentences, placed end to end and seemingly so autonomous, to organise long stretches of text around relatively few underlying structural schemes. The sentences do many unruly things, of course: their syntax ramifies and proliferates; their meanings are sometimes amplified and embellished to the point of distraction. Yet they studiously repeat, almost in the manner of intellectual home truths, certain characteristic patterns of thought. Antithetical qualities are held against each other in equipoise. The alternative potentialities of a single situation are expounded. Surprising details yield large insights, and large insights, once they have been naturalized, seize upon the further surprising details they require to remain credible. (49)

Finally, Bowie observes the erotic character of Proust’s sentences, the desire that is delayed then gratified.

Whereas in sentences of this kind desire is directed towards a goal, and victorious in the face of delay and complication, others are of course more radically dispersed and fail to achieve, and seem often to desire to fail to achieve, a perfect final cadence…..The syntactic patterning of his book connects short-lived local wishes to the imposing invariant structures of human feeling, and brings a quality that one might call desirousness – desire stripped of its objects – into prominence in all manner of seemingly non-sexual scenarios. The sentences last as long as they do, sub-divide and reassemble themselves as intricately as they do, because they have this generalizing task to perform.  (229)

Often as densely worded as Proust himself, Bowie’s close reading of Search has given me a better ability to be a close reader myself.