Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Proust's Mom (and how Jewish was he?)

Just marking my attendance here...

Some links for now, to reviews of a recently published biography of Proust's mother Jeanne Proust née Weil.

A long essay in The New Republic argues against the idea that Proust was a "Jewish writer" but then agrees that this knowledge of his family background did help him in getting a perspective from the margins which was essential to his aims:
Proust, as we have seen, definitely did not think of himself as a Jew, and neither should we. In his novel, he chooses to represent the maternal side of the narrator's family as Catholic, which corresponds to his choice of making the narrator heterosexual -- two related maneuvers intended to situate the main story in the majority culture. And he abundantly draws on the imagery of the Catholic church, which clearly speaks to his sensibility. Yet all those hours of his formative years in the capacious bosom of the Weil family were not lost on him. For a writer so acute about discriminating social behavior and the multifarious ways in which social norms shaped individual character, the Weils and their many Jewish friends presented to him a fascinating social alternative within the dominant framework of French society.


What is discomfiting to the social consciousness of the individual can be a resource for the artist. Proust's epic project involved creating an elaborate set of finely nuanced yet indelible images of men and women as social animals, responding to the dictates of their milieu, powerfully motivated and often woefully misguided by the horizon of social expectations that defined their world. This synoptic view of the realm of society required fine discriminations between the behavior of different classes and groups. Proust from childhood had known an affluent Parisian milieu that replicated the manners and habits of the general French milieu of the same class and economic standing and yet retained certain differential traits. It seems plausible that his consciousness of this sub-group sharpened his awareness in his effort to define society's kaleidoscope of shifting codes and practices. This familiarity with the residually Jewish world of the Weils afforded him a perspective more socially specific than that of the vague notion of marginality that is often associated with him. Madame Proust's social legacy to her son was not to pass on to him her ancestral heritage, but, through the sheer vibrant presence of her family, to impart to him a doubleness of perception that helped to make him a shrewd and searching chronicler of French society.

More essays from Literary Review and London Review of Books. Elisabeth Ladenson who wrote the LRB review has written a book titled "Proust's Lesbianism" - Now that's one book I want to lay my hands on. Also intriguing because she didn't title it "Proust's Lesbians"...

Publisher's Page has a sample chapter from the biography.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

November 18, 1922

portrait of Proust on his deathbed in drypoint by Paul César Helleu from November 19,1922. Only two copies had been made. Helleu gave both to Proust's brother Robert who kept one copy and gave another one to Céleste Albaret. After Helleu made his portrait, Dunoyer de Segonzac came and made a coal drawing and after that Man Ray came and took a photograph. Elstir has some characteristics of Helleu who had been asked by Proust to do this portrait.

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

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

to choose between a month of playing football and a month of reading Proust...

A lovely Proust-reading experience:

"Perhaps literature, despite my having enjoyed reading as far back as I can remember, would not have secured such an important place in my mind without that adolescent connection between Proust and an unconventional star athlete."

from: Ronnie Knox, Marcel Proust, and I by the On-Screen Scientist.