Saturday, May 19, 2007

Proust and Cather

Willa Cather called Marcel Proust "the greatest French writer of his time," but these writers' names don't often turn up together. Yet consider the following passages.

The first, from Proust, concerns the steeple of Combray's Saint-Hilaire, which gives "all the occupations, all the hours, all the viewpoints of the town their shape, their crown, their consecration":

When after Mass we went in to ask Théodore to bring us a brioche larger than usual because our cousins had taken advantage of the fine weather to come from Thiberzy to have lunch with us, we would have the steeple there in front of us, itself golden and baked like a greater blessed brioche, with flakes and gummy drippings of sun, pricking its sharp point into the blue sky. And in the evening, when I was coming home from a walk and thinking about the moment when I would soon have to say goodnight to my mother and not see her anymore, it was on the contrary so soft, at the close of day, that it looked as if it had been set down and crushed like a cushion of brown velvet against the pale sky which had yielded under its pressure, hollowing slightly to give it room and flowing back over its edges; and the cries of the birds that wheeled around it seemed to increase its silence, lift its spire to a greater height, and endow it with something ineffable.

Swann's Way, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2002), 66
This second passage, from Willa Cather's most enigmatic novel, concerns Godfrey St. Peter's early life near Lake Michigan:
When he remembered his childhood, he remembered blue water. There were certain human figures against it, of course; his practical, strong-willed Methodist mother, his gentle, weaned-away Catholic father, the old Kanuck grandfather, various brothers and sisters. But the great fact in life, the always possible escape from dullness, was the lake. The sun rose out of it, the day began there; it was like an open door that nobody could shut. The land and all its dreariness could never close in on you. You had only to look at the lake, and you knew you would soon be free. It was the first thing one saw in the morning, across the rugged cow pasture studded with shaggy pines, and it ran through the days like the weather, not a thing thought about, but a part of consciousness itself. When the ice chunks came in of a winter morning, crumbly and white, throwing off gold and rose-coloured reflections from a copper-coloured sun behind the grey clouds, he didn't observe the detail or know what it was that made him happy; but now, forty years later, he could recall all its aspects perfectly. They had made pictures in him when he was unwilling and unconscious, when his eyes were merely open wide.

Willa Cather, The Professor's House (1925)
Before going back to Proust, I will pause to say that The Professor's House is extraordinary -- satiric, poignant, and highly unconventional in form. It's one of my favorite novels.

All Proust posts (via Pinboard)

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