The Novel as a Musical Composition

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.)


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