Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Améry on Proust I: Preparations for reading Proust

Even though Jean Améry has written only one essay* on Proust, he nevertheless mentions Proust here and there in his other writings, and he has been a lifelong reader of Proust. This essay he wrote is divided in several parts. One deals with the preparations for reading Proust. After this follows a part that deals with Proust, the person, sheds some light on biographical aspects. Thereafter follows the longest part and here Améry has a look at Proust's book as such, among other things he focusses on the dissolution of reality as one aspect of Proust's writing.

Améry's writing has a refreshing distance towards the subject which is unusual when one reads secondary literature on Proust. For instance, Améry starts: Everyone knows one should read him. But some postpone it...[Daß man ihn lesen sollte, weiß ein jeder. Viele aber schieben es hinaus....] so Améry's style can best be described as laconic, reticent and clear.

What now does he suggest to the reader who wants to read Proust, how to prepare?
First, Améry makes clear, his advice is only just one, everyone has to find one's own way through this book, yet those who feel sort of related to Améry's literary temperament may be able to make some use of his ideas.

So the first advice is to read Proust in French. And here Améry speaks about the German translation (Rechel-Mertens) which he estimates as the best one possible yet there is the eternal question whether the best can be good enough and Améry extrapolates this in hindsight of the title A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs. The suggestion by Benjamin and Hessel was: Im Schatten junger Mädchen which omits the flowers. Rechel-Mertens now says: Im Schatten junger Mädchenblüte. Améry sees here too some problems, but he concludes that these are details. It becomes clear that the questions of translation with all its inherent problems is a very acute one when one looks at Proust. Because, as a second example, Proust is a social novelist and on every page one can find words that have their own specific social meaning, for instance: Aller dans le monde is very difficult to translate too, because going out in Paris had a different cultural, literary and social meaning than in Vienna, London or Berlin. Améry says it has not much use to go on and on about all kinds of problems that can be a result of translations.
So Améry's advice is to read Proust in French, if possible. Because even though the sentences may be long the vocabulary comparatively simple. And who can't read French should read Proust in whatever translation for the inaccuracies of the translation are of small weight in comparison to not reading Proust at all, for a life without Proust is a life of lack, so Améry.

How else can one prepare?
One needs patience and time. One just can't leaf through it. Proust sort of demands that one surrenders oneself completely to the book. The ideal case, so Améry, is someone who withdraws into some room with not too bright light, who does not go out, who does not phone anyone. Which is of course not so easily to realize, Améry is aware of, which is why he spoke of an ideal case.
Then one shouldn't read any other books while one reads Proust for it is difficult to find back to Proust again.
Should one read about Proust before starting to read Proust? Not necessarily, Améry says, because few have as ruhtlessly as Proust revealed themselves. Secondary literature, like the Painter-biography might also presuppose to much knowledge in order to be really of use. However Améry thinks that the Painter biography is excellent, but another book that would be more helpful for the beginnner is A la recherche de Marcel Proust by André Maurois. But Améry thinks it is not important to read those books, not important to get some literary education, because first and foremost one needs inner calm, quiet, determination and courage when one encounters difficult passages. Then, that thing which Sartre with regards to Flaubert has called empathy, and of course, one needs time.

*Améry, Jean; Zugang zu Marcel Proust. Zum 100. Geburtstag des Dichters (10. Juli 1871). In: Merkur 25 (1971)
Améry, Jean; Aufsätze zu Literatur und Film, Werke Bd. 5, Stuttgart 2003, 86 - 115

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