Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Proust

I finished reading In Search of Lost Time last night, five months and two days after I started. The final volume, titled Finding Time Again in the Penguin translation, took me only six days, during which I began to have the awful thought that if "anything" were to "happen to me" (that odd euphemism), it could happen before I had finished reading Proust. I had to keep reading! How strange then to find that as In Search of Lost Time nears its end, the work's still-unnamed narrator, after finally coming to understand his vocation as a writer, fears that something might happen to him before he is able to finish his work.

Proust really seems in such ways to be a kindred spirit. He seems to have understood in so many ways what it is that "we" (recurring word in the novel) experience in our relations to people, places, and things in time. He is, for me, the writer of consciousness and memory. His explorations of both, alas, make the stream of consciousness of Ulysses -- e.g., "Sardines. Little things. Good with toast." -- seem a bit like a dated gadget. (That's a made-up sample of Joyce. But if I'm reading correctly, some of the comments in Finding Time Again on the representation of consciousness in fiction appear to be aimed at Joyce's work-then-in-progress.)

I finished reading Proust for the first time: that's what I should've written above. I plan to go back, soon. Before I do, I want to read Pleasures and Days (sketches and short stories), a volume of letters, Céleste Albaret's memoir Monsieur Proust (CA was Proust's housekeeper), Edmund White's short bio, and Howard Moss' The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust (a used-book find). And I plan to dip, at least, into the large biographies, Gilles Deleuze's Proust and Signs, and, of course, the French text and the earlier translations. And I'm wondering whether I want to read Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life. He already has.

Here's one passage from Finding Time Again, in which the narrator is contemplating what a book might be. I've corrected one typo in the Penguin paperback:

How much better life seemed to me now that it seemed susceptible of being illuminated, taken out of the shadows, restored from our ceaseless falsification of it to the truth of what it was, in short, realized in a book! How happy the writer of a book like that would be, I thought, what a labour awaited him! To give some idea of it, one would have to go to the most elevated and divergent arts for comparisons; for this writer, who would also need to show the contrasting aspects of each character to create depth, would have to prepare his book scrupulously, perpetually regrouping his forces as in an offensive, and putting up with the work like tiredness, accepting it like a rule, constructing it like a church, following it like a regime, overcoming it like an obstacle, winning it like a friendship, feeding it up like a child, creating it like a world, without ever neglecting its mysteries, the explanations for which are probably to be found only in other worlds, while our occasional inklings of them are what, in life and in art, move us most deeply. In books of this scope, there are parts which have never had time to be more than sketched in and which will probably never be finished because of the very extent of the architect's plan. Think how many great cathedrals have been left unfinished! One feeds a book like that, one strengthens its weak parts, one looks after it, but eventually it grows up, it marks our tomb, and protects it from rumours and, for a time, from oblivion. But to return to myself, I was thinking about my book in more modest terms, and it would even be a mistake to say that I was thinking of those who would read it as my readers. For they were not, as I saw it, my readers, so much as readers of their own selves, my book being merely one of those magnifying glasses of the sort the optician at Combray used to offer his customers; my book, but a book thanks to which I would be providing them with the means of reading within themselves. With the result that I would not ask them to praise me or to denigrate me, only to tell me if it was right, if the words they were reading in themselves were really the ones I had written (possible divergences in this regard not necessarily always originating, it should be said, in my having been wrong, but sometimes in the fact that the reader's eyes might not be of a type for which my book was suitable as an aid for self-reading).
Marcel Proust, Finding Time Again, translated by Ian Patterson (London: Penguin, 2003), 342-343

[Pictured, the last manuscript page of À la recherche du temps perdu, via Gallica Proust.]

Previous Proust posts, via del.icio.us

comments: 9

Elaine Fine said...

Beautiful post, Michael. I thought I'd say that in "public." Did you notice that the book Proust was using to write in had pre-printed page numbers? What a novel idea for a manuscript book!

Anonymous said...

Congrats on the achievement, and for the lovely tribute to Proust.

The de Botton is a fun read; I say go for it!

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Elaine, and thanks, Diana.

You can still find books with printed page numbers, but they tend to be for bookkeeping or lab work. Those page numbers are from the dowdy world -- where someone would see a notebook as having long-term value as reference material.

I just requested de Botton's book from the library.

Anonymous said...

*hangs head in shame* When I first read about your reading Proust I told myself I would too - now you've finished, and I haven't even started yet. I'm starting tonight!

And yes, congratulations!

Michael Leddy said...

"I'm starting tonight!"

Go for it, CW. You'll probably find that reading Proust becomes something akin to a ritual. For me it almost always involved a preparatory cup of coffee and the same reading spot (sitting on the floor, leaning against the side of an upright piano with a pillow behind my back). There are some really slow spots (for me, long stretches of The Guermantes Way), but when you hit them, just keep going. It's worth it.

Lee said...

A magnificent quotation.

harmon said...

You might want to look for a copy of A Proust Souvenir, by William Howard Adams & Pau Nadar. Amazon claims to have new copies, but I am not confident it actually does. But you can find used ones, if not. There are some for under 5 dollars on abebooks.com.

The book is a collection of photographs of many of the people who were templates, in whole or in part, for various of Proust's characters. Proust's relationship to these people is briefly described in connection with each photo.

You might also want to take a look at The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust, by Howard Moss. It is barely over 100 pages long, but I found it very interesting in its discussions of the significance of such things as gardens and windows in the books.

(Forgive me if you already mention these things on your site - I've just discovered it & need to do some exploring!)

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the suggestions, Harmon. I did mention Howard Moss' book, which I found in a used-book store. I will look for A Proust Souvenir.

Blogaulaire said...

That's great! I've not finished a single Proust novel. I yearn for peace and repose to do the reading, I suppose. Recently I come across references to French philosopher Deleuze's reading of Proust. I guess such secondary sources and philosophizing compared to the sensitive essay you just wrote fresh from the novel, are not good enough.

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