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.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Georg Steiner on Proust and Needham

Georg Steiner's first essay in his book My unwritten Books largely deals with the british biochemist Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham who is famous for his work on chinese science. The results of Needham's work (some of his work) can be admired by reading the Science and Civilisation in China Series, as yet unfinished and an undertaking that Steiner compares with Proust. About Science and Civilisation in China can be said that it "is planned as a history of science, technology and medicine in China, seen in its fullest social and intellectual context, and illuminated by a deep and sympathetic understanding of the cultures of both East and West."* The volumes contains all sorts of different languages with different signs such as Arabic or Chinese or Ancient Greek, different images, footnotes that are floating over several pages, in one dozen languages. Steiner emphasises that the Science and Civilisation in China (SCC) together with Russel's and Whitehead's Principia mathematica form a peak in the history of typography, layouting and of publishing as a whole, and that before the publishers could rely on computers.

Steiner says the SCC can only be appropriately compared with Proust's Recherche and sees the following similarities between Needham and Proust:
- both SCC and the Recherche are are to Steiner the most important attempts of remembrance, of remembering, of total reconstruction that one can find in thinking and the imagination in modern times. Steiner calls them architects of time and archeologists of consciousness.
- both revive a phantastic, rich and intrictated past to new live, Proust and Needham both create each temporal epos of a density and a richness of detail that contains so many relations and links and hints that they gain an inner context, an inner coherence, an inner bearing.
- both can be brought into an eternal triangle with Dante's comedia. (why? Steiner doesn't elaborate this, but refers to what Mandelstam has written on Dante)
- wherever one opens either SCC or the Recherche, one is immediately aware of the multitude of connection that a single detail has to all kinds of other details. Steiner employs here the notion of counterpoint and compares the Recherche with a mosaic and SCC with a Gobelin.
- the way one sees those little details and their inner coherence are a direct result of the conditions of the compositon of SCC and the Recherche. And in both cases it wasn't foreseeable that the books would grow out to such magnitude.
- According to Steiner all big art's aim is to create own specific forms, own specific ways to "give" form and then is about to spirally turn back to its origin. Steiner sees a slight difference here between SCC and the Recherche. He says that in the Recherche this is obvious, for it is just plainly the topic of the book whereas in SCC this is also the case, but it is not so obvious to see and develops in a movement that gets stronger with each volume.
One has to add here, Steiner compares two works of which one is not yet finished, Needham is dead and volumes of the SCC still are being published.
- There is an interesting statement by Steiner that he unfortunately (for just this would be very interesting) does not elaborate further. He says that Proust wanted to capture relativity metaphorically.

* cf. - more info on Needham and his work

Monday, 18 February 2008

Czapski on Vanity in Proust

Czapski says that Prousts view on vanity to an extent is influenced by Pascal and Anatole France. At any rate, Czapski himself, so he says, draws a pascalian conclusion from Proust's work. He contrasts this view with the opinion of the polish translator of Proust, Boy-Zelenski, who thinks that with a figure like the wonderful Baron Charlus there is an awful lot of humour and love of life in the Recherche. Czapski though refers to Pascal and his anti-sensual approach to life and admits this seemingly paradoxial view when one considers that Proust was influenced by Anatole France. For a more hedonistic view speaks also that Proust did enjoy life and all it has to offer to the senses, in a letter to Daniel Halévy Proust says he wishes only one thing, to enjoy the pleasures of (physical) love.
And here Czapski points out a very important point, that in all those thousands of pages of the Recherche God is not mentioned, nor any absolute idea or anything absolute or a hunt for some absolute ideal. Which is precisely what leads Czapski to think that there is a sort of ash-like Pascalian aftertaste after all in those perishable pleasures of life. An ash-like aftertaste that lead Proust to take to his lonely room and shut out the world and to serve in contrast - and here the absolute comes back - to serve his art which for him was the absolute which of course - as Proust himself knew very well - was and is unattainable.
Czapski then shortly distincts five kinds of vanity in Proust.
The first is the vanity of society, of superficial relations in society. His example here is Swann who tells the Guermantes that he is about to die soon, she was just about to go to a party and just leaves him standing so as not to come to late to the party - yet her husband notices that her shoes do not fit and so they postpone leaving. They rather come to late because of wrong shoes than instead of listening to their dying friend.
Then there is the vanity of the aristocracy, the aristocracy, in danger now, because all those snobbish americans take over and enter their circles.
The perfect example for the vanity of the young and beautiful is Odette, who had so many lovers and in the last volume of the Recherche, finally old and senile, people act superficial deferential towards her, but actually just laugh at her. And here writes Proust that at that point the narrator for the first time could feel some sort of sympathy for her.
The example for the vanity and nullity of fame is the Berma, especially the scene where the daughter of the Berma with her husband feel oblieged to go to the reception of the Berma, they sit there and bore themselves to death, and just rather want to be at the reception of the rival of the Berma. In the end they annoyed leave and the old Berma is alone, too.
The Baron Charlus is the example for the vanity of love, he who in younger years participated in all sorts of masochistical practices, chained to matter like Prometheus to his rock, Czapski writes, he ends up old and senile, can't walked anymore yet is gently being cared for by Jupien who is the only one who stays with Charlus. Albertine of course has to be mentioned, and the story related to her Czapski calls one scream of despair and a ruthless exploration of jealousy. However, Czapski notes how Proust as someone who has loved so much in the end speaks so desinterested, noninvolved about love. He says in the end love is useful, a useful thing against the glamorous and numbing distractions of society which can be so harmful for the writer. Better have a bit of sensual love as antidote, so Proust. And this is an important contrast to the complete damnation of everything sensual of someone like Pascal. A bit of sensual love also, for Proust did not want to be like this horse in the ancient times that was only fed on roses. According to him, the artist has to be lonely, does not have to have disciples or followers for they weaken the artist. Czapski says that Proust only allows (accepts a tiny little bit, writes Czapski) some sensual love for his views on love are so pessimistic that they only lead to some heightened awareness of loneliness and cut precious wounds.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Narrative in Proust

Proust's long sentences, which appear before the reader in a serpentine fashion, might, to the undiscerning, seem too long. It cannot be argued on the basis of style alone. Literary styles vary, with some writer's having their own distinct touch and sometimes a too rigid adherence to that. But the complexity of thoughts cannot always be linked to the stylistics of prose, for we see sometimes within a short parable, effective wisdom. But Proustian fiction is not about wisdom or style alone, for while Proust's narrator is a philosophical type, he is not a philosopher. Brevity is not wit here, brevity is not always witty, sometimes words must flow, like a list of long nights.

Right from the beginning of in search of lost time, we are in the midst of not so much a density of thoughts but a multitude of thoughts, for even while reading any text, the vigilant reader has his own consciousness to attend to, the factual nature of his or her own existence, which does not dissipate in any manner, not even in the presence of Proust. The river of these sentences, for rivers they are, flow into us and I am not speaking metaphorically. I have always felt myself floating, drifting, semi-aware of myself while reading Proust, for not only are the sentences mellifluous but consciousness attenuating, allowing the narrator to envelop the reader in this cacophony of the past, for it is past, it is always past. This literary device allows the narrator to speak in a real way, for when we talk, in reality, we also bring in elements into our conversations that are not of immediate concern.

Most classic literature is descriptive of situations, wherein , once a scene is described and lead upto, the characters step in. Afterwards, even in really good novels, an alternating conversation takes over, which to be fair in particular times, was not considered unrealistic. The evolution of the stream of consciousness as a literary device, with its brilliant example in Ulysses however does not always solve the problem. The problem is not just of the present state of mind but alternating states of mind, which are so contingent, as I have mentioned here previously, on a past state, on posterior memories. Thus while the stream of consciousness solves certain narrative difficulties, it does not absolve the narrator of another problem, which is the pressure of consciousnesses. In my opinion, Proust's narration is not a stream of consciousness but it seems like that, for in reality, it is far more complex, more scenic, more internal, and the internal and the external scenes have merged and what lies in front of us is a semi-reality, which is more enduring than the real.

Proust is a writer of rhythm, in rhythm, of music. The long sentences, once let loose, must not end, for a break, a temporary break seems like a cessation of breathing, of the import of those several thoughts, of the fragrant intensity of those memories. The comma's and turns of phrases thus obey a law of undeclared music, of an inner night within an outer day, for this would break apart, this would fade, we would lose these memories, we would regret. The persistence of these thoughts, for persistence it is, is not that of a irritating hounding manner but of a melancholic haunting, a sad train of memories, limpid and not so lucid, known and partly unknown, the figments of our imagination, the immediate correctiveness of an outer consciousness. Lydia Davis writes, quoting Proust that 'the shape of a sentence is the shape of a thought and a long complex sentence contains a long, complex thought'. The most important aspect of his style, I feel is this : that while reading, we are also thinking and while the narrator narrates, he too keeps thinking, but this is done in consonance with the pressure of the present thought, which presents on paper after a comma, in his mind after a whiff of air, suddenly which has just then, reminded him of something else, but which is part of the present and must contain itself in the present sentence.

Time does not flow when we read Proust. Time is not regained, a semblance, a prior activity, a metaphor of life presents to ourselves, as we, in the outwardly appearing peacefulness of the narrator's thoughts, are carried forward, borne on experiences that are synaesthetic, for each word that suggests colour suggests time, each name that reminds of a face reminds of that phantasmal illusion that we think we possess, namely life but which we, actually, have left behind, and some like the narrator at combray. Proust dictates the flow of language, language and words do an earthly dance in front of him, and the narrator, so cruelly and sometimes so wisely, lets us in, into this fictive world, which is the world of fugitives, of illegal thoughts and crimes of memory.