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)
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)
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.