Archive for March, 2011


March 27, 2011

Nemerov opens his discussion of the Proustian character, who is often an outlandish exaggeration, with these words of Paul Valéry on Proust:

1. “The group which calls itself society is composed only of symbolic figures. Each of its members represents some abstraction.”
2. “Just as a banknote is only a slip of paper, so the member of Society is a sort of fiduciary money made of living flesh.”
3. Great art “is the art of simplified figures and the most pure types; of essences which permit the symmetrical and almost musical development of the consequences arising from a carefully isolated situation.”

And from J.V. Cunningham’s “Ideal Fiction”:

In ideal fiction the characters are flat. But it is a fiction of our fiction that people are really round. The truth is we are not usually real life characters in real life. We are flat, and so are those we know. We are only round occasionally to others in a sympathetic moment, to ourselves in introspection, and now and again as a demand on others in the grim game of interpersonal relations: “I want to be treated as a person.” We usually see others as truck drivers or neighbors, bore or blonde. And we are flat to ourselves when working efficiently, when we are most ourselves. When I write a poem I am a poet; I am narrowed to relevance. (78-79)

But how does Proust turn essence into character? One answer is that he has found a powerful, dual point of view, one that can powerfully engages the reader.

But ever so many people in Proust don’t, in the conventional novelist’s sense, do anything. They appear for a moment only, under the form of an anecdote, and vanish: like Swann’s father, or like the wonderful lady who whenever she goes out in society and is bidden by her hostess to a chair sees a man already sitting it it, and has all her life to decide which is the hallucination, the hostess’ gesture or the man in the chair. Such people are anecdotes. And it is very often by the means of anecdote that Proust makes his foreground characters emerge as well; by anecdote, and by a degree of comic exaggeration along a scale running from plain extravagance–as with the hotel manager at Balbec, characterized by malapropisms that he commits at the rate of at least one per sentence over a couple of pages–to a subtlety that will fill us with doubts as to our own view of what is real, for in the novelistic equation you have not simply the character observed and depicted as he is; no, you have always, and of greatest import, the eye that observes and the mind that depicts, its metaphors and divagations. About this I observe once again that the mind in Proust is double, it contains at the same time and not always distinguishably the experience of the young Marcel and the knowledge of the old narrator; under cover of the latter, too, it slips in as knowledge a good many things belonging necessarily to imaginative inference, such as for example the analyses of the state of mind of persons who never say anything about their state of mind. (80-81)

To illustrate, take the young Marcel’s first encounter with Charlus, where the reader is put on edge by the dissonance between the narrator’s and Marcel’s understanding of what is unfolding.

I suppose his reputation has spread sufficiently beyond the confines of the novel that it comes as no surprise to you, even if you are on your first reading, that he is a homosexual. But it does come as a surprise to Marcel the young man, who is in some respects perhaps exceedingly naive, and does not even think of this explanation  of the presented facts until about halfway through the novel, when he sees it with the seeing of the eye; whereupon much that had puzzled him about the Baron becomes clear. So that the introduction of the Baron to Marcel and to the world of the novel is as it were an exercise in Proustian vision, comparable in some ways with the  problem of vision in Elstir’s paintings, where what the eye sees does not a first harmonize with what the mind thinks it know, so that the mind helplessly and more or less vainly formulates hypotheses to explain the facts as they appear. (81)

His eyes were “dilated with observation”; “every now and then those eyes were shot through by a look of intense activity such as the sight of a person whom they do not know excites only in men to whom…it suggests thought that would not occur to anyone else–madmen, for instance, or spies.” The look he flashes at Marcel suggests a last shot fired at an enemy before one turns to flee. He seems to be on stage, making a couple of gestures that people make when they mean to show their annoyance at being kept waiting, “although they never make it when they are really waiting,” and breathing hard as people do “who are not feeling too hot but would like to be thought they were.” Marcel suspects him of being a hotel crook planning to rob his grandmother and himself, and hesitates between thinking of him as a thief and as a lunatic. He glances at Marcel again, and the glance suggests “the steeped look that we see on the faces of certain hypocrites, the smug look on those of certain fools.” A few moments later after he is compared to a detective on special duty, and some pages later we have this: “his eyes, which were never fixed on the person to whom he was speaking, strayed perpetually in all directions, like those of certain animals when they are frightened, or those of street hawkers who, while they are bawling out their patter and displaying their illicit merchandise, keep a sharp look-out” for the police. (83)

If you will consider again the introduction of M. de Charlus in the light of this claim, I think you will see that it is not fidelity to appearance that counts, that is the value of artistic composition, but, far rather, the intensity and serenity of vision that can compass so much and work in several ways at once. This is another of Proust’s ways of showing the oak in the acorn. For although young Marcel has not hit on the one explanation that would fit together and resolve in a single motion the traits displayed by the Baron, neither is he wrong in the comparisons he resorts to, which musically prophesy a large part of the action of the novel: as inversion is the secret center that relates the aristocracy to the proletariat and the underworld, so M. de Charlus and the world he increasingly comes to inhabit are characterized by what Marcel sees in his eyes at their first meeting: madness, criminality, violence, spying, detectives, thieves. All these ideas, which enter thus as hypotheses, do presently become realities in the action. (86)

The Novel as a Musical Composition

March 26, 2011

In the spring of 1968, while many of us had other priorities than attending class, a lucky group of students at Brandeis listened to lectures on Proust given by the poet Howard Nemerov. He understood that the hardest part of reading Proust is getting started. The prose is engaging but one is baffled by how slowly it unrolls, seemingly without direction. Nemerov advises the reader to be as patient as when we first hear a musical composition. As Proust says…

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. (II,141)

And Nemerov…

For it may be an initial disadvantage of a work like this, composed so as to approach as near as words will the condition of music, that many things don’t make any particular sense upon their first appearance; many things are being prepared and lead as it were still a subterraneous life. The corresponding advantages are I think two in chief. One is fidelity to experience, to the way of experiencing as much as to as to particular experiences. For Proust is investigating the way in which as children we really do inherit the world and come to know about it, not the way, common to most novelists as to most people, in which we usually say we know things. As far as I know, no other novelist has devoted such care and thought to the humble foundations of the adult world that we are so often and thoughtlessly allowed to mistake for the real one. The other main advantage will be seen in the powerful effects permitted by this method of slow beginnings, in the marvelous turns of relationship and dramatic reversals and recognitions it makes possible later on.

Why read Proust? Why read all of Proust?

The first question must be left to ripen toward its own answer as you read. As to the second, however, something may be said even now. A great novel is the story of a long time, or, even more simply, the story of time itself in its compound of circle and line (as in the mysterious simplicity of the phonograph needle moving toward the center even while simultaneously it follows the winding path and releases articulated sounds from its minutely varied terrain). The major effects of Proust’s novel rely, much as time itself seems to rely, on causes that grow subterraneously, invisibly, until at last they erupt through the surface and begin to bloom as determinate effects. These effects are as near heart-breaking in their purity and decisiveness as anything in literature, but to experience them at all you must experience the long period of their germination.

Nemerov compares Proust’s compositional technique with that of music. (43-44)

There is an ideal of art that mostly remains just that, an ideal,and honored chiefly in the breach. It is that somehow the art work should be omnipresent to itself, that the whole should, in some way impossible to describe, inhabit each of the parts. Perhaps it is in music that this ideal comes nearest to being realized…The illustration on the blackboard presents the first few measure of one of J.S. Bach’s Sinfoinias, or “Three Part Inventions,” no. 9 in F Minor. These are contrapuntal works generally speaking in canon, where each voice of the three voices gets the theme in turn. What I want you to see about it is how in a quite literal sense it is always present to itself, though under various disguises and variation. It is clear that the three-note figure in the treble that begins the piece is the theme. Very well. But observe that the little arabesque figure in the bass in measure 3 is also the theme, compressed and decorated, and is followed by a form of the theme inverted and also a bit dressed-up yet recognizable. When you have seen this you may marvel, not only at the composer’s skill, but also at the skill with which we, even if untrained in  music, are able to pick up instantly and as though automatically the likeness that  is invariant under all transformations. (24-25)

He supports this assertion by quoting the opening paragraph of the novel and the magic lantern scene to show the density of the motifs that will recur so often. As though by magic, each recurrence of a motif will refresh our sense of the novel in its entirety. It is…

what Kant called the transcendental a priori unity of apperception, that mysterious force that intervenes between sense and thought so that the latter may receive into itself not mere separate sensations and not mere electric and chemical modifications of the neurones, but a world. (28-29)

(Thanks to “cope” for suggesting this book.)

Schopenhauer and Proust

March 20, 2011

Many commentators have noted the influence of Schopenhauer’s aesthetics on Proust. In his philosophy, the will to live is directionless and can only result in pain and loss. Our only salvation is in art, which can afford us glimpses of the Platonic ideal or essences, which inhabit a world outside the aimless will. This view is, of course, also that of the Search: the protagonist’s pursues illusory goals, suffers from disappointment and is redeemed by art. It is easy to see Schopenhauer’s influence on Proust’s aesthetics. Take the decision every young writer must face: what to write about? And what not to write about.

Marcel very early on knows he wants to be a writer. Living in an enchanted setting on the Vivonne, he can find nothing elevated enough to serve as his subject.

And then it happened that, along the Guermantes way, I sometimes passed beside well-watered little enclosures, over whose hedges rose cluster of dark blossom. I would stop, hoping to gain some precious addition to my experience, for I seemed to have before my eyes a fragment of that fluvial country which I had longed so much to see and know since coming upon a description of it by one of my favourite authors. And it was with that storybook land, with its imagined soil intersected by a hundred bubbling watercourses, that Guermantes, changing its aspect in my mind, became identified, after I heard Dr. Percepied speak of the flowers and the charming rivulets and fountains that were to be seen there in the ducal park. I used to dream that Mme de Guermantes, taking a sudden capricious fancy to me, invited me there, that all day long she stood fishing for trout by my side. And when evening came, holding my hand in hers, as we passed by the little gardens of her vassals she would point out to me the flowers that leaned their red and purple spikes along the tops of the low walls, and would teach me all their names. She would make me tell her, too all about the poems that I intended to compose. And these dreams reminded me that, since I wished some day to become a writer, it was high time to decide what sort of books I was going to write. But as soon as I asked myself the question, and tried to discover some subject to which I could impart a philosophical significance of infinite value, my mind would stop like a clock, my consciousness would be faced with a blank, I would feel either that I was wholly devoid of talent or that perhaps some malady of the brain was hindering its development. (I,243-244)

Here is Schopenhauer, in The World as Will and Representation, on the content of art.

It follows from the previous chapter and from my whole view of art that its object is to facilitate knowledge of the Ideas of the world (in the Platonic sense, the only one which I recognize for the word Idea). But the Ideas are essentially something of perception, and therefore, in its fuller determinations, something inexhaustible. The communication of such a thing can therefore take place only on the path of perception, which is that of art. Therefore, whoever is imbued with the apprehension of an Idea is justified when he chooses art as the medium of his communication. The mere concept, on the other hand, is something completely determinable, hence something to be exhausted, something distinctly thought, which can be, according to its whole content, communicated coldly and dispassionately by words. Now to wish to communicate such a thing through a work of art is a very useless indirect course; in fact, it belongs to that playing with the means of art without knowledge of the end which I have just censured. Therefore, a work of art, the conception of which has resulted from mere, distinct concepts, in always ungenuine. If, when considering a work of plastic art, or reading a poem, or listening to a piece of music (which aims at describing something definite), we see the distinct, limited, cold, dispassionate concept glimmer and finally appear through all the rich resources of art, the concept which was the kernel of this work, the whole conception of the work having therefore consisted only in clearly thinking this concept, and accordingly being completely exhausted by it communication, then we feel disgust and indignation, for we see ourselves deceived and cheated of our interest and attention. We are entirely satisfied by the impression of a work of art only when it leaves behind something that, in spite of all our reflection on it, we cannot bring down to the distinctness of a concept. The mark of that hybrid origin from mere concepts is that the author of a work of art should have been able, before setting about it, to state in distinct words what he intended to present; for then it would have been possible to attain his whole end through these words themselves. It is therefore an undertaking as unworthy as it is absurd when, as has often been attempted at the present day, one tries to reduce a poem of Shakespeare or Goethe to an abstract truth, the communication whereof would have been the aim of the poem. Naturally the artist should think when arranging his work, but only that idea which was perceived before it was thought has suggestive and stimulating force when it is communicated. (II, 408-409)

This is a statement of the core Proustian aesthetic: The impressions of the artist must be rescued from the oblivion of time and restored to life through art.


Jean Santeuil

March 13, 2011

Proust began writing his first novel, Jean Santeuil, in 1896. He abandoned it a few years later and never attempted to publish it. It was reconstructed from a box full of pages discovered after his death and published in 1952. One does not have to read very far into the book to discover why Proust left it unfinished. It is, however, a vital source in discovering the genealogy of themes and characters in Search. These are the opening lines of chapter 1, “Evenings at Saint-Germaine”: 

The little garden door closed slowly behind Jean after the third time he had been to say good night to his mother and had been ill received. “I’m afraid he’s rather miserable, Doctor,” said Madame Santeuil gently, turning to Professor Surlande, meaning to excuse her son. “I have never, till this evening, missed going to see him in bed and saying good night and he is feeling upset. Such an impressionable little boy.” — “He is what we should call a nervous subject,” replied the Doctor with a smile, as though he had made a witticism. “I could tell as much from the look of him. I expect Doctor Marfeu is trying cold-water treatment?” — “Cold water?” said Madame Santeuil showing surprise: “dear me, no. Monsieur Marfeu has prescribed warm water: he insisted most strongly that it must be warm” –“Warm water?” said Monsieur Surlande with a laugh, “gracious goodness me, that is really very strange! Still, Marfeu is an excellent physician and you could not have chosen anyone better for your son. But I should not like to think,” he added politely, “that I am the cause of your not saying good night to him.” — “You mustn’t think that!” exclaimed Madame Santeuil, “we don’t want to mollycoddle him. We have had to give in to him far too long as it is–because of his delicate health you know–and being spoiled will  make life very hard for him when he is older. My husband and I are so anxious that he should grow up to be a manly little fellow.”…(25-26)

“What a charming garden you have, with a stream too, the water of which looks to me very clear and pure.” — “It is a great comfort in hot weather,” replied Madame Santeuil with becoming modesty; “and in a few years time when we are no longer here, it will be nice for Jean, if his health remains poor, to come from time to time for a breath of this good air.” Monsieur Santeuil, having sat down, said nothing but looked tenderly at his wife, his mind carried back by those words “when we are no longer here” to the days when she had been fresh and lovely and to the long succession of years which had followed. (26)

Glancing up, she had seen the light come on again in her son’s bedroom and felt a spurt of annoyance. A boy of seven must learn to go to sleep alone. Hoping that Jean would doze off again she decided not to go up to him until she had seen the light once more disappear. In a very short while the window was pushed open. A small pale face showed a white nightgown and a voice sounded in the darkness. “Mamma, I want you for a moment.” — “Shut the window at once, Jean! you’ll catch cold! What a little silly you are!” exclaimed Madame Santeuil rising from her chair in a panic. (27)

He could hear outside in the corridor, the footsteps of Augustin, the old servant, taking the washed-up dinner service back to the dining-room. He called to him. But Augustin, accustomed to Master Jean’s nerves and having nowhere to put down his load, pretended that he had not heard. Then Jean, with a sudden spurt of annoyance, and fearing that the old man, once in the dining-room would be out of earshot, called again more loudly, “Augustin, I may tell you in a moment to fetch Mamma.” He did not dare to say, “If I ask you to fetch Mamma, will you?” because he might be met by a refusal to which he though the other form of words would not expose him.  (29)

Habit, the only one of all the ancient powers of this world which is stronger than suffering, might overcome, little by little, the cruel torments of which we have just been witnesses which, through all his early years he still endured whenever evening came. But each time, in youth, and even in maturity, that some circumstance occurred to suspend temporarily the anathematizing  effects of habit, each time that he went to bed earlier or later than usual, each time that a light or an unaccustomed sound prevented him from unconsciously  achieving the act of summoning sleep, the trouble remained slight and did not last. (32)

Beyond the drame du coucher, we see the motifs of amused skepticism of the medical arts, the corrosive effects of time, the solace and danger of habit, the solicitous grandmother (and her garden) and the family servant. What is missing is the power of the first person narrator; the style is bare of metaphor. But we are not surprised to find this ten page chapter written in only ten paragraphs.


March 6, 2011

The episode of the madeleine, the most widely known passage in the novel, started out as a notebook entry in 1909. But instead of a cake, the food that prompted the unforced memory was a piece of rusk, something like Melba toast or zweiback. The French psychoanalyst (and much more) Julia Kristeva speculates on how the humble rusk became the madeleine in her book Proust and the Sense of Time.

The original reference  in the name dates back, of course, to the well-known female sinner of the Gospels, a woman from Magdala, hence Magdalena. However, the common name of ‘madeleine’ was applied in the seventeenth century to the fruits sold around the season of St Mary Magdelene–peaches, plums, apples and pears–and it continued its alimentary career in the nineteenth century by being used for cakes (according to the Bescherelle dictionary, this was a tribute to the cook called Madeleine Paulmier). Even now, this ancestry is evocative enough to explain its interest for the writer. But, given Proust’s  sustained attention to names (‘Place-names: the name’ is the title of the third section of Swann’s Way), and the meticulous care that went into choosing the proper names of the characters in the novel, we might be justified in taking the inquiry further and asking what lurks behind the transformation of the prosaic biscuit into a name possessed by a female sinner, then by a saint, and finally by a common sweetmeat. (33)

George Sand’s novel François le champi appears in the opening volume’s good night kiss episode and in the closing volume in the Guermantes library. As Proust did not much care for Sand the author, why the prominent mention of her novel?

Less ‘pastoral’ than the other three novels, François le champi (1850) tells the story of a foundling child (champi is the term for ‘foundling’ in the Berry dialect) who is taken in by the miller’s wife, Madeleine Blanchet, becomes the object of her unwitting love, and later, on his return to the village as an adult, her lover and husband, his adoptive mother having become a widow.

Proust was to be a severe critic of George Sand in his later writings, but he nevertheless retained this central reference to François le champi, continuing to allow the reading of it a structural role in the scaffolding of A la recherche. Even in Time Regained, when the narrator is in the library of the Prince de Guermantes, it is this ‘pastoral’ volume that provoke the fourth of his reminiscences and lead to this aesthetic revelation. There is therefore good reason to think that, however much he may have disapproved of George Sand’s style, it is precisely the theme of incest, the sinning mother, that secured and maintained Proust’s interest in François le champi. The role of the miller’s wife, Madeleine Blanchet, would be one of communicating, through her floury whiteness, the taste of the forbidden love that will find its way into the narrator’s main aesthetic credo–a taste which has been metamorphosed into an apparently anodyne object: the little madeleine. (35-36)

Kristeva found a second literary madeleine, this one in the novella L’Indifférent, written by Proust himself and published in 1895.

A noble lady falls in love with a young man who shows nothing bu indifference towards her. Increasingly attracted by this individual, whose surname features in a famous painting by Watteau, she ends by find out that young Lepré’s coldness is a cover for his passionate attachment to prostitutes: ‘He loves the ignoble women who are found in the gutter and he loves them to distraction.’ The connection between this plot and the love life of Swann is a plausible one, and Kolb [JE: who brought the novella to light] demonstrates it convincingly. Swann is indeed the lover of a tart, Odette de Crécy, whom he rescues from the street and prepares for a brilliant career; one that will be difficult at first, but in the end crowned with worldly success–all the more so after the death of her husband and the altered society that succeeds the war. Odette could be seen as an amalgam of the women loved by Lepré and the noble lady to whom he is entirely indifferent–a high and mighty aristocrat whose prototype may well have been the Comtesse Greffulhe: covered in flowers, ‘without a single jewel, her corsage of yellow tulle covered with cattleyas, and she had also attached a few cattleyas to her dark coiffure’….Yet it happens that the commentators who see her living again in Odette have forgotten to mention the name of this high and mighty aristocrat. She is called Madeleine de Gouvres. (38-39)