Posts Tagged ‘Prose Style’

Eliot vs Flaubert

July 30, 2011

After having read Search, I believe I am not alone in saying that it is difficult to read Jean Santeuil, despite its moments of brilliance. The themes and characters of the two novels have much in common, but the voice of the earlier novel lacks the singularly distinctive tone of the latter. Reading Robert Frazier’s essay (in Bloom’s Marcel Proust) has allowed me to understand better the nature of that difference. The mature Proustian style could be called his unique synthesis of the realist styles of George Eliot and Gustave Flaubert.

Proust was attracted to Eliot’s style of realism and it is plainly evident in his first novel:

The taste for Dutch seventeenth-century painting is something she shared with Proust, whose essay on Rembrandt emphasizes his solidity, his respect for the physical world, his discovery of beauty in ordinary circumstances. This sublime ordinariness, this tactility in transcendence, he found too in Chardin, the objects in whose rooms seemed to him to conspire in mutual acts of affinity, rendering the mundane timeless.

They are also qualities he thought essential to Eliot. In 1954 a set of transcript notes on her work was published, left behind by Proust at his death. They open: ‘What strikes me in Adam Bede is the painting–attentive, minute, respectful and sympathetic–of the humblest, most industrious life. To keep one’s kitchen clean is an essential duty, an almost religious duty and one full of charm.’ One remembers the kitchen grange at Combray, full of gleaming objects, calmness and industrious peace, a poetry of the domestic. One remembers too, in Jean Santeuil, the night-time range over which the maid Ernestine presides, offered as something to be appreciated ‘because it exists’:

Often at such a moment, opening on tip-toes the kitchen door at the end of a dingy corridor, Jean was rewarded by a vision of the night unexpectedly raised at the far end, as if mysteriously supported by the darkness and the gleaming tiles of the range, like a balcony at the corner of an already dark street lit up by the fading sun. Just above it drifted a pink vaporous cloud, sustained to all appearances over a pan by an invisible bed of steam; and, like sea ripples made diaphanous in the sunset, the quivering exhalation of a simmering casserole was as though shot through with flame. On its broad and shining chest the pot bore a bright impression of the fiery realms beneath, seen by it though invisible to Jean. Her eye steady in the night which with its red constellations had already engulfed her kitchen, Ernestine stood at her post, sagely ruling the fire with her rod of iron, moving the casserole, hither and thither, momentarily prodding with her wooden spoon, replacing the lid of the stove, seeing that all was well. (JS) (45-46)

By the time he writes Search, Proust has come to appreciate Flaubert’s stripping subjectivity and overt moral judgment from the narrative voice, something very different from Eliot’s narrative voice.

The Flaubertian realism he interprets as consisting in stylistic elimination from the sentence of any taint of subjectivity, its reduction to the status of observed fact, leaving the onus of interpretation upon reader. What specifically are eliminated are the personality and views of the author—we never discover directly, for example, what Flaubert thinks of the adultery of Emma Bovary—and the volition of the characters, whose actions are observed without their wished being stated. The characters, whose actions are observed without their wished being stated. The characteristic Flaubertian sentence is thus one in which the physical object, the res, and the externally observed pattern of behavior assume the status of subjects:

Where an action occurs whose various phases of which another writer would extrude from the motive behind them, we get a picture the various parts of which no more betray an intention than if he was describing a sunset. Madame Bovary wishes to warm herself at the fire. Here is how it is described: ‘Madam Bovary (nowhere has it been mentioned that she was cold) approached the fireplace…’ (Contre Saint-Beuve)

For the apprentice Proust there were thus two alternative varieties of literary realism, almost contemporary though products of different linguistic cultures. Both were attractive, and both dependent as much on what they rejected as what they proposed: in Eliot, an ethereality that lost contact with the gritty essence of things; in Flaubert, a subjectivity that proposed the artist as unique observer, the coil of motive and maze of the soul. The single largest difference between them lay in their articulation of ethical judgment, which in Flaubert was held in reserve. There was even for Proust a certain delicious barbarity in this reticence, as with meticulous excision the author’s sensibility edited itself out. Falling short of the impersonal—as the bee-mouth sipped, a certain pollen of subjectivity was left on the facts—the result was none the less a discipline of truthfulness without comment, the neutral imposition of the actual. (47)


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.)

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.

The Art Simile

February 5, 2011

Milton Hindus, in his The Proustian Vision, calls the art simile the most characteristic feature of Proust’s literary style. The relationship of art to nature as the source of truth is far different from the Romantics.

When Proust has occasion to liken his impressions of nature with his memories of art experiences, it is in a tone almost of apology for nature. To Proust, as to Yeats in “Sailing to Byzantium,”art is something precious and permanent rescued from the destructive changes of the natural world. Proust prefers the golden bird to the feathered one. He asks forgiveness from the reader at one point of his story for daring to compare the “humble landscape” of Combray with certain “glorious works” of art–“those old engravings of the ‘Cenacolo,’ or that painting by Gentile Bellini, in which one sees, in a state in which they no longer exist, the masterpiece of Leonardo and the portico of Saint Mark’s.”

There seems to me no aspect of Proust which makes him more “modern” than this elevation of art to a position superior to nature. One must have traveled very far indeed away from the romantic poets in terms of aesthetic theory if one is to think of a pastoral landscape as humble when compared with certain paintings. Is it possible to conceive of Wordsworth or Shelley valuing a work of art above nature? For these poets, the highest aspiration of the artist was to produce something which merited comparison with nature, while for Proust it seems to be the highest praise of natural beauty that is suggests a work of art. See what becomes, for example, of Keats’ “murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves” when Proust is the listener: ” the flies…performed for my benefit, in their small concert, the chamber music of summer.”

Proust is able to put the art simile to a variety of uses. Sometimes, as in most of the examples I have given, he uses it, as the simile is used generally, simply to make the feeling which surrounds a given term clearer by a felicitous comparison. But sometimes he uses it as a conscious comic device, making the analogy tremble on the edge of the ridiculous without quite allowing it to topple over. This use of the figure of speech then becomes so intimate and personal a thing that I can describe its effect best as Proustian irony–that is, an irony which is kindly rather than cruel, an irony which, like that of the grandmother’s smile as Proust describes it, is directed at himself rather than at a victim. A good example of this is his description of the trouble his poor cook takes in honor of an important diplomat who is to be their dinner guest: “She had gone herself to the Halles to procure the best cuts of rump-steak, shin of beef, calves’ feet, as Michelangelo passed eight months in the mountains of Carrara choosing the most perfect blocks of marble for the tomb of Julius II.” Or again when he compares the cries of street peddlers outside his window to passages from Mussorgsky and Debussy. These conceits make us smile, but it is an affectionate humor, for it would be too gross and out of character for Proust to have intended such extravagant comparisons to dwarf still further the modest stature of a servant or of a peddler. Rather (if I  may be excused for analyzing with so heavy a hand what is so feathery a touch of fantasy) he seems to me to imply here that all those who serve their purposes well, whatever these purposes might be, resemble each other. Françoise, the cook, as he points out on other occasions, is, in her own way, an artist; the narrator admires not only her cooking but her poetic speech–he admires what the Existentialists would call her authenticity. And the great artists who are thus compared to the most humble tradesmen and workers would probably have been the least distressed or amused by the contrast. (50-52)

Proust is so aware that this is his signature stylistic technique that he is comfortable imitating himself in a pastiche.

He introduces a parody of himself from the lips of Albertine, who has lived with him long enough presumably to mimic him successfully. Her pastiche necessarily is overdone, but the features which she caricatures are present in the original:

What I like about these foodstuffs that are cried is that a thing which we hear like a rhapsody change its nature when it comes to our table and addresses itself to my palate. As for ices (for I hope that you won’t order me one that isn’t cast in one of  those old-fashioned moulds, which have every architectural shape imaginable), whenever I take one, temples, churches, obelisks, rocks, it is like an illustrated geography book which I look at first of all and then convert its raspberry or vanilla monuments into coolness in my throat….I set my lips to work to destroy, pillar after pillar, those Venetian churches of a porphyry that is made with strawberries, and send what I spare of them crashing down upon the worshippers. Yes, all those monuments will pass from their stony state into my inside which throbs already with their melting coolness. (V,166)

Even to the most uncritical reader, this passage seems to give the show away. To the one whose consciousness is already attuned to Proust’s artistic device, it increases his awareness.It is a kind of play within the play, which underlines the essential pattern of the original. Proust has slipped the key to his own method under the door mat. (54-55)