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.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Czapski on Proust

Józef Czapski wrote on Proust in 1941 when he was a polish war prisoner of the USSR, in a monastery in Gryazovets in the winter 1940-41. The prisoners had to do forced labour, yet due to illness Czapski was exempted and had to do only lighter work which allowed him to prepare lectures on Proust.
For his notes used the technic of mindmaps of which some are reprinted in his book. They are quite interesting, but in Polish. The prisoners were allowed to give lectures to themselves. Czapski did not have an edition of Proust's work with him, but prepared his lectures solely out of memory. His book shows very solid backgroundknowledge of french culture.
He starts with a scetch of the cultural background of Proust’s time in which he embeds Proust's biography. Interesting here is the focus on Degas and how Czapski connects him with Mallarmé, how Czapski points out the critical potential – critical of society - of the paintings of Degas of whom he says that he has a cruel, precise eye which is often also said about Proust too.
Czapski calls Proust’s oeuvre as a ‘Summa’, intersting association to Thomas of Aquinas, Summa... Summa seems to be the perfect name to signify Proust’s book. Then, very interesting, the reference to Curtius and that Proust’s style is Germanic because of those long sentences. – and Curtius emphasized those Germanic elements. And then, this is not only a reference to a Germanic style but also to a French style of the 16th century who himself was linked to a latin style. Czapski emphasizes that Proust’s book is not about the facts of life but about the thoughts that arise out of the shocks of facts. Here one can find also a very good defension against those who see him as snob. Proust’s longing to look beyond the facts and what rules life, to find out about these invisible laws of being.
In this book one can also find a good & of course very obvious refutation of the snob-prejudice: Proust describes everything with same scrutiny. He has also written some letter to a Lady sometime who called him a snob and in which he explained why he is none, but alas, the Lady has thrown the letter away. Other things in this book discussed are the connection Proust-Pascal, the questions of vanity and love and Czapski continually and comparatively explains Proust's book in contrast to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

This should merely serve as a simple introduction, passages of this book are being examined later more thoroughly.

His book is available in French and German:
Czapski; Proust contre la déchéance, Paris 1987
Czapski; Proust - Vorträge im Lager Grjasowez, Berlin 2006

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

More on Consolation in Proust

Rather than adding a comment to Antonia's post about consolation in Proust I thought I will write a separate one. May be it was because I read Hofmannsthal's Lord Chandos Letter recently (a few weeks back actually) and in general trying to read some introductory essays about language and consciousness, the passage that Antonia quoted seemed strikingly similar to what Hofmannsthal talks of in his letter -- Trees you have nothing to say to me, how can one communicate an experience if one hasn't felt it, what if the only thing one has is an awareness of emptiness inside the soul? It is true Hofmannsthal is more concerned about the language but essentially both reaching at the same conclusion. The dissolution and fragmentation of human experience.

But. If only you read a few paragraphs further Proust becomes much more hopeful about the role of literature. The experience of alienation and emptiness is the result of a particular way of looking at the world, that is with an indifference. The narrator says just in the sentence after the excerpted passage:

"I had made these various observations with the indifference I might have felt if, when walking in a garden with a lady, I had remarked a leaf of glass and further on an object like alabaster the unusual colour of which would not have distracted me from agonising boredom but which I had pointed at out of politeness to the lady and to show her that I had noticed them though they were coloured glass and stucco. "

And further when one madeleine moment even seems to restore his "faith in literature" he repudiates his earlier grim and depressing conclusions. And finally what further proof of consolation one needs when we have one such in our hands, in front of our eyes, the very book we are reading. The very existence of the book itself is a consolation. The way out is to open oneself to more and more such madeleine moments in our lives, and that can happen only by living and experience life primarily through our aesthetic faculties, and the way an aesthetic experience combines desire, memories and mourning.

"As at the moment when I tasted the madeleine, all my apprehensions about the future, all my intellectual doubts, were dissipated. Those doubts which had assailed me just before, regarding the reality of my literary gifts and even regarding the reality of literature itself were dispersed as though by magic. This time I vowed that I should not resign myself to ignoring why, without any fresh reasoning, without any definite hypothesis, the insoluble difficulties of the previous instant had lost all importance as was the case when I tasted the madeleine.

The servant in his ineffectual efforts not to make a noise had knocked a spoon against a plate. The same sort of felicity which the uneven paving-stones had given me invaded my being; this time my sensation was quite different, being that of great heat accompanied by the smell of smoke tempered by the fresh air of a surrounding forest and I realised that what appeared so pleasant was the identical group of trees I had found so tiresome to observe and describe when I was uncorking a bottle of beer in the railway carriage and, in a sort of bewilderment, I believed for the moment, until I had collected myself, so similar was the sound of the spoon against the plate to that of the hammer of a railway employee who was doing something to the wheel of the carriage while the train was at a standstill facing the group of trees, that I was now actually there. One might have said that the portents which that day were to rescue me from my discouragement and give me back faith in literature, were determined to multiply themselves, for a servant, a long time in the service of the Prince de Guermantes, recognised me and, to save me going to the buffet, brought me some cakes and a glass of orangeade into the library."

Passages copied from the Scott Moncrieff translation.

Swann in Love

I have been late in posting this. I was somewhat apprehensive about putting it here because I had seen the movie quite sometime back. I wanted to see it again and also read some parts of the book again before adding my own thoughts but didn't get much time. Anyway it is here for whatever it is worth (with a personal note in the end):

A film adaptation of In Search of Lost Time has long been the holy grail for filmmakers. There have been numerous attempts to bring Proust's novel to screen but very few have succeeded. Francois Truffaut scoffed at the idea when the project was offered to him. Later Harold Pinter wrote a screenplay cramming the entire book into what could have been a six hour film had it ever been made. Not surprisingly Pinter and his director Joseph Losey couldn't find anyone to finance the film. There is also a very innovative attempt by the Chilean-born director Raul Ruiz who chose the last volume to adapt. More on it sometime later. It is with this background and understanding of how daring an endeavour it must be to bring the book to the big screen that one should appreciate German director's Volker Schlondorff's adaptation of a section of the book - the chapter "Swann in Love" of the first volume. So even though it is not an entirely successful effort, it is still a laudable one.

Schlondorff is a director with very impressive credentials. He is considered to be one of the pioneers of "German new cinema" movement alongwith Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Alexander Kluge and others. What makes his credentials even stronger is that he has proved himself specially adept in past at translating complex and serious works of literature to screen. I haven't seen many of his films yet but I have liked whatever I have so far. I specially love his adaptation of Musil's Young Torless, again an extremely impressive feat given how complex and introspective the book really is. Like all good literary adaptations it enriches the experience of reading a book, rather than just providing a sort of illustrated reading guide. He is immeasurably helped by the music score he chose for the film which was composed by German avant-garde composer Hans Werner Henze (I am not really familiar with his work outside this film.) Schlondorff of course also adapted Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum which is probably his most famous film since it won both an Oscar for best foreign film and Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival.

Coming back to "Swann in Love," Schlondorff wisely chose just one episode from the novel to film. Swann in Love is specially appropriate since in addition to being a somewhat self-contained narrative, it also introduces to the reader not only most of the characters in the novel but also the subjects and themes that are explored in more depth and detail later in the book - the nature of sexual infatuation, the feelings of self-disgust, pain and jealousy that accompany any unrequited or unreciprocated erotic relationship, intermittences of the heart which are always creating newer and newer ways of tormenting one's self with doubts and self-reproaches, the intimations of one's own mortality, role of art and aesthetic experience in deepening our self-knowledge and authenticity of existence and of course the way involuntary memory works - how physical sensations sometimes overwhelm us by bringing us face to face with events and feelings from the past, proving in effect the essential non-linearity of our experience in time. The story is also told from a third-person point of view which leaves out the difficulties of finding appropriate visual analogues of those long sentences describing internal thoughts and sensations of the narrator.

The film telescopes the events of the narrative into twenty four hours. It is a clever decision and it works very well. Only it assumes that the viewer is already familiar with the story because the occasional flashbacks which intercut the linear narrative repeatedly last only for a brief while. (So one should already know about the siginificance of Orchids flower (cattleyas) to really appreciate what is going on when Swann tries to "fix" the flowers on Odette's bosom.) When the film starts Swann is already in thrall of his erotic fixation. The rest of the day is just a sequence of one humiliation after another for him, as he tries to find out whether she is a lesbian and had female lovers, gets some advice from Baron de Charlus, attends a dinner party at the Verdurins and mistakes someone else's apartment at night for Odette's. The film ends with a flashforward in which Swann and Charlus, both now old, discuss mortality and meanings of their lives.

The film obviously has the advantage when it comes to depicting costumes, set-design and the way props are used in the background and Swann in Love really excels in all these departments. It is specially fitting because the central character is such an aesthete. For him nothing is beautiful and worthy of his attention unless it is validated by art. Odette is herself a vulgar whore until his passion for her makes him find her reflected in a figure in the painting and she is transformed into a sublime object of desire!

Jeremy Irons and Alain Delon are both okay in the roles of Swann and Charlus but it is the French-Italian actress Ornella Muti who steals the show as Odette. Her beauty, at least the way Schlondorff presents it to us, is far from conventional. Seeing her one really understands what Swann meant in his final comment when he says, "To think that I wasted years of my life, that I wanted to die, that I had my greatest love for a woman who didn't really attract me, who wasn't my type." She looks like an ordinary coquetress but she also has a great erotic pull. She might not be your "type" but if you are around her for even a small time you are gone. The "orchids" episode in the book frankly came across as mildly funny to me if not embarrassing (I always thought it was meant to be a substitute of actually making love, which it actually is in a way because in the film also it serves as a sort of foreplay) but in the film the scene is genuinely erotic and Schlondorff acheives it without showing much skin. I have always complained of the general lack of tasteful eroticism in movies when as a medium it is so much more capable of it than other media and in this sense the film is quite successful. To my disappointment the peripheral characters are not given much screen time. If you are already familiar with the "Verdurin set", you might be able to appreciate the jokes and personal tics. Even then there is a delightfully grotesque little scene in which Dr. Cottard fixes the Mme. Verdurin's jaw which dislocated laughing at a vulgar joke. The snobbery, anti-semitism, hierachy of social circles are all alluded too but mostly end up as being tokenist. None of these is really dwelt upon at any length. But then you can cram only a limited amount of narrative in two-hours. Given all the limitations, as I earlier said, it is a laudable effort if not an entirely successful or overwhelming one.

A Personal Digression

Before I end a bit of personal digression (at the risk of embarrassing myself in public). When I first read this section, it had some sort of an amplifier-effect on me. I was going through some minor emotional problems of my own at that time, which in retrospect now look ridiculous and risible, and reading Proust transformed those minor problems into questions of life and death (well, almost). I tried to read it again last year and it had no such effect. I was trying to search for that old experience again but without success. Instead I was a little annoyed and made impatient by all the philosophizing spun around the notions of unrequited-love, jealousy and unknowability of other self. I was more drawn to impersonal ideas and aspects of structure and style, specially what Proust says about the nature and role of art and artistic experience in our lives. I am probably taking the argument too far, but might it be the same Proustian notion that with time we are able to see our own lives as a work of art, as a novel ready to be put into words by disentagling oneself from the messy complications of unfulfilled desires, regrets and feelings of loss? Reading, writing and thinking (aesthetic reflection) itself as acts of mourning which enables you to move on in life? Does it have anything to do with the "consolation" that Antonia talked about in the first post on the blog?

The Effect of Patches: Soulages & Bergotte

Just a quote from an interview with Soulages which reminds strikingly of the Bergotte-Vermeer passage.

"What I care about, what excites my imagination is the richness concealed in things themselves (and I mean painting too of course), their intrinsic truth and not any resemblanes or imagery they may conjure up. I remember a panel of the glass roof of the Gate de Lyon that had been mended with tar. It was just after the war, when I first arrived in Paris. I was overwhelmed by the awkward, primitive brushstrokes used by the workmen, and I think that unconsciously my first walnut stain paintings were influenced by the emotional impact of this accidental and anonymous painting.
Another time I was walking along the banks of the Seine and I noticed a ship's propeller lying on the deck of a barge. Quite suddenly, I fell in love with that propeller. I far preferred it to mathematical forms evoked for me by the sculptures I had been looking at in the Salon de Réalités Nouvelles. The propeller that was in a way similar to them, seemed to me much more rich and meaningful. I could see in it the curves of fluid dynamics, its purposes and history, its beauty as a thing, the rust, and the tar flaking off the deck.
Suddenly I remembered the patch of tar on the hospital wall that I could see from the window of the room where I did my homework as a child.
I must have been twelve or thirteen at the time, and I was fascinated by that patch of tar. It was not only an enormous splash but also the mark left by the roadmaker's brush as he tarred the street. One part of the patch was beautifully calm, smooth, and full of nobility - running quite naturally into other parts that were more uneven, so that the surface seemed to move like the waves of the sea. In outline, one side was rounded, and elsewhere there were protuberances and excrescences that were partly inexplicable and partly to be explained by the pattern of any patch of liquid splashed on a wall. Here it is the inexplicable part that interests me most.
In the propeller there were a number of things that I could feel intuitively and that yet remained incomprehensible, whereas in the mathematical forms, everything I had only guessed as to start with ended by becoming plain.
But let us go back to the patch of tar. I could see in it the viscosity, the transparency and opaqueness of the tar, the force with which it had been splashed onto the surface, and the way it had run as a result of the slope of the wall and the laws of gravity. The purely fortuitous set of circumstances had created the shape and plastic form that I found so moving. The patch had been splashed onto the wall and abandoned. I loved the uncompromising nature of the black, and the distinct outlines conditioned by the force of gravity and the texture of the stone - itself recalling the geological folds to which the tar had once belonged.
One day at noon while I was looking idly toward the other side of the street, the patch suddenly turned into a crowing rooster. The likeness was extraordinary. I could see the beak, the comb and even the feathers. Surprised and fascinated, I crossed the street. As soon as I got within a few metres of the wall, the apparition disappeared, and there was the patch again with all the wealth of a concrete object, a shape that had so satisfyingly taken on the irregularities of the wall. I was oberjoyed to rediscover everything I really loved.
A few days later the apparition returned. Once more I tried to shake it off, but all my efforts were in vain, the rooster was there with the same force and conviction as on the first day. I even had to cross the street again to get it to disappear. The rooster reappeared on a number of occasions and I even amused myself deliberately making it come and go. When I learned how Leonardo da Vinci used to stimulate his imagination by looking at old peeling walls, in search of compositions for his figures, the experience I have just described made me realize how pointless the exercise had been."

in: Bernard Ceysson: Soulages, Bergamo 1980

Friday, 1 February 2008

The fiction of memory in Proust

In the narrative of our own lives, there are no demarcations between past and present for they exist simultaneously and it would be a dedicated effort towards deception to differentiate the two. And thus too the future, for inevitably, our perceptions affect us, the residues from the past pressurizing our now and the moments to come. In the Proustian oeuvre, this is felt everywhere, and we are constantly in a world of sensations, for each sensation leads to a backward perception of memory. But the distinguishing characteristic of this narration is the fluid compartments from where we shift from one to the other, as if tranced. Thus memory here, like the flow of narrative is not going forward but mixing, dependent on the impetus, the tug of each sensation.

The narrator's perception of Combray, for instance is not an intended memory but reminded of by a perception, by the Madeleine cake dipped in tea. The idea of involuntary memory, as opposed to a voluntary one was coined by Proust. As I just mentioned, this memory or memories is a contingent one, swaying in our mind, but brought to us, sometimes gentle, sometimes harshly by an external force which might not always be unkind. My interest in involuntary memory in Proust is not to see or approach it or analyze it from any great psychological perspective ( one I am also incapable of ) but I was surprised to note that Blanchot considers this narrative process in Proust as epiphanic, as it was something I had considered myself but was afraid to admit. It is important to ascertain for the reader as to why all usual narrations should be linear because that is not how we actually live. In Proust, this problem does not exist for the narration is never linear but always admitting to a door through which a slip, an escape can be made.

This is not a philosophical question alone but a practical one, for even while beholding an object of beauty or terror, another object, similar or dissimilar tides into our mind. If we read this passage:

"as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine".

he above passage illustrates the point I want to make.The initial perception, of the cake, leads to the recovery of latent memories, which are hidden somewhere, waiting to be uncovered. And the sights and sounds of present surroundings are a stimulus, leading to a memory. However, speaking phenomenologically, a real stimulus is adequate for a sensory perception in the real world, but here, the inner world is laid siege to, thrown on the surface of the narrator's mind, which sways and recedes like the sea. We must not however ignore the unreality of some memories for the unearthed ones could be actually fictitious, as they are accessed through the present stimulus. We are therefore in the midst of a world of memories awash with a fictitious desire for what should have happened, culminating in the narrator's mind with this, which may not have been that.

This is based on surmise, on my own conjectures, for my surmise too is based on the supposed reality of reading a text, a narration, that since when I first read it, has undergone so many revisions. Thus, my memory, prone to error, recovers from Proust's narrator a fiction that is not factual but based on my faulty memory of it, with some flashbulb memories of my own, when I too, privy to the white nights under the moon when I first read that, remember my own perceptions based on a myth that is actually real. This could lead us to question the act of reading in itself, for reading thus is as inaccurate as writing itself. However, this is a problem that needs to be tackled elsewhere. Suffice it to say now that my readings of Proust are based on this duality of the narrator's text, which from his perception down to the act of final rendition is fraught with many possibilities. But this is the narration that we must seek, for it is a reflection of the duality of our experiences and Proust restores these to us in a language that is a moonlit mix of memory and desire.

The problem of memory in Proust must be differentiated from the question of desire.....desire thwarted in a past which gives the preesenting memory of now those nameless rights that are hard to accept. This is thus an issue for us when our present perception of the past is not entirely wilful but a fruition of those sensations whose import had escaped us.We do not however take the narrator's account as some kind of testimony but as a baring of an inner life, sketched for us through the intimacy of memory. Proust's narrator is not deceptive but a striver towards the mystical world of seeing and feeling, some of which perceptions he takes for the truth. We read his effusive remembrances and search for our own swing, smells, sunshine, days and nights, sounds, desires and regrets that have escaped us, and that having been lost permanently, we hope to recover from a mind in search of lost time.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

In search of Marcel Proust

I do not know what the primary purpose of literature is, but if it conveys the vaguest, most untouchable atoms of our thoughts, the shifting clouds of our sensations, of which we are continually forming and unforming with; if it is to give the world, the distant reader a flavour of an existence that is neither concrete or discernible but based on figments of imagination, imagination that relies on figures whose very essence is vapour, then we must stop and question our role as readers. For we as readers, as a disparate audience, we desirous of words and form from images, try to give these words a shape or shapes based on our reading of them, experiences and ideas perhaps as varied as the writer's.

But the great writer is able to distill, after a process of existing and understanding those key elements that are somehow common to all existence, in whatever shape or form life acquires. Nebulous, cloudy and vague yes, these are the very essence of our thoughts, the thin ephemeral edifice on which we base our critical and uncritical thoughts. There cannot be just one writer who singlehandedly brushes on a canvas or weaves a magical opium world for us, but somewhere between living and unliving, dream and waking, hope and sorrow, joy and pain, love and loneliness, there is an area where expression brims, where words swim, to which the lucky reader has access to. And if this gate, this door, this night, this day has a name, and if these are even vaguely touched, then we are in the vicinity of greatness and great writing.

Thus Marcel Proust. My access to Proust is not in his language but through an approximation, a rendering. However, that does not prevent one from knowing what can be potentially known, of a life lived and not lived, of thoughts thought, images seen, words read, nights named, heartbreaks numbered, pages flicked, pages flicking, past me, from our own lives, pages that others have read and will read on. And if these words let us somehow sublimate the flavour of our days, the essence of our unknown dreams, our dim memories, the pain of release and if all these and much more is discernible and describable, then we think of Proust, his language and the world he gives us, not interrupted but continuing.
Proust is a celebrated writer, known even to those who haven't read him. Proust's world is a mystery, for it is the essence of inner living, a world which possesses me most. In search of lost time is a celebration of writing for if writing is a dark art, a mysterious art, an unteachable one and one that saves, that affirms, then this work is a symbol of that writing, a kind of book that appears once in a generation of readers and writers.

The impulse to start this blog was one that emanated from nowhere and when I suggested it to Antonia ( Flowerville) and Alok ( Dispatches from Zembla), their enthusiasm was heartening. Their own beautiful and well written blogs also follow some laws, of somber melancholy and pale fire. Our aim is not a commentary on any specifics on Proust's great works but a rendering, a refrain on what it means to those who see the sun and shade between lines, which is the essence of literature. We will try to write on primary and mostly secondary writings on Proust in different forms and highlight important literature itself.

The name of this blog, The laws of night and honey was agreed on instantly for it is an emblem, a motif of all that is Proust. By being here, I hope that it helps us understand the great writer in more different ways and enhances our own understanding of our innermost lives.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Whether there is consolation in Proust.

These notes pursue the impossible question whether there is consolation in Proust, and this very question arose while reading Benjamin's essay The Image of Proust from 1929 and an essay* by Jean Améry from 1971 on Proust. Both do not deal with consolation as maintopic, but they adress questions related to consolation or whether Proust is able to touch others rather as a sidenote.
Whereas Améry and Benjamin both were lifelong Proustreaders (albeit Améry did not translate him), both essays have a sort of introductory character and are of somewhat similar length, there is also a distinct difference between Benjamin and Améry which is visible in their style and in their position to the question of consolation. In Benjamin one can find lots of ambiguities towards Proust, no doubt they have their origin in the problems he mentions in his letters. In Améry on the contrary there are no such ambiguities, his essays display a laconic & balanced unimpressedness. Benjamin's attitude towards Proust is shaped to a great extent by the fact that he translated some volumes together with Franz Hessel. In his letters to Hofmannsthal und Max Rychner Benjamin is ambivalent about plans of writing on Proust. On February 23 1926 he writes to Hofmannsthal that partly because of translating Proust he feels he is not able to to get some clarity about the “deep and conflicting impressions” he constantly feels exposed to while reading In Search of Lost Time. Benjamin's other reason for hesitating to write on Proust is also related to the translation, he feels he is too close to Proust, feels that he lacks clarity, and therefore won't be able to do justice to Proust. This he writes on January 15, 1929 to Rychner while later in the same year his Proustessay appears. Apart from his translation this essay is the only piece by Benjamin that ever published on Proust. Benjamin's notes to this essay which are published in the collected works do not show any signifcant differences or omissions.

Now, what does this question of consolation involve?
In the first place one could wonder why should one need consolation. For isntance when one longs for consolation in times of suffering, during the experience of loneliness, or in absence of luck or happiness. There is an interesting remark by Benjamin who here takes up a thought by Cocteau, namely, that it has to be of utmost concern of everyone who reads Proust: a blind, insane and obessive demand or longing for happiness (das blinde, unsinnige und besessene Glücksverlangen) of Proust. Benjamin makes an important distinction regarding the question of happiness, he decides between hymnic and elegic happiness and it is not just happiness he speaks, but about a Glückswillen, a strong longing or demand, for happiness, a wanting of and a will for happiness. The hymnic one is about happiness as the singular incomparable unsurpassed mountain of beatitude whereas the second one, the elegic which according to Benjamin also could be called eleatic longing for happiness is about the permanent restauration of an original or a first experience of luck. Can this repetitive endeavour be an expression of not being able to face it, that the happiness, once experienced, now has passed? One could assume so. This would mean that the inability to let go forces one beyond one's strength in order to keep the happiness and forget everything else. Is Proust unable to let go of happiness?

Why is it that Proust cannot comfort. Benjamin in fact does not really look for an explanation, but strongly confirms Rivière who says that Proust approached life without the slightest metaphysical interest, the slightest intention to comfort people. Is this being criticized by Benjamin, this lack of consolation, of being able to touch, to move someone – for Benjamin, and he is not alone in this, says Proust is unable - it is absolutely impossible and alien to Proust, to move his readers. Now, is this so? In his essay Benjamin remains strangely clueless, strangely indecisive, careful, does not judge it, only confirms Rivière. And is this doing justice to Proust? Only looking at the last chapter of the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, Time Regained, - and this is a very superficial approach for it does not look for all the other words or at the words of the original language that have consolational connotations nor considers the possibility that something which in this case that what is being seen as having soothing character does not necessarily need to be spoken of or written about in order to unfold its soothing power - it is clear that Proust does not speak often of consolation, but there is one passage that could shed some light on the 'value' of consolation and whether Benjamin was right with his observation. Proust in Time Regained says:

“Trees,” I thought, “you have nothing more to tell me, my cold heart hears you no more. I am in the midst of Nature, yet it is with boredom that my eyes observe the line which separates your luminous countenance from your shaded trunks. If ever I believed myself a poet I now know that I am not one. Perhaps in this new and barren stage of my life, men may inspire me as Nature no longer can and the years when I might perhaps have been able to sing her beauty will never return.” But in offering myself the consolation that possible observation of humanity might take the place of impossible inspiration, I was conscious that I was but seeking a consolation which I knew was valueless. If really I had the soul of an artist, what pleasure should I not be now experiencing at the sight of that curtain of trees lighted by the setting sun, of those little field-flowers lifting themselves almost to the foot-board of the railway carriage, whose petals I could count and whose colours I should not dare describe as do so many excellent writers, for can one hope to communicate to the reader a pleasure one has not felt?

What is being adressed here, valuelessness of a consolation, but a consolation related to what and why is it valueless? Inconsolation in the face af artistic failure. Should it then be an aim to strive for comfort, for consolation? Proust speaks of an impossible inspration that possibly could be replaced with possible observation of humanity and that he was already looking for something that could not be comforting, would be without value, he has a clear idea of this futility, or valueness or the feeling of being barren, emptiness and inability to be able to create something. At the end of his essay Améry adresses the question of emptiness and the value of emptiness. The value of this emptiness, is this a value of consolation? Améry does not say, but it fits to his conviction that Proust is about dissolution of reality rather, not of densification.
Now the in the beginning mentioned problem of the impossibility of consolation
Who still wants and asks for comfort – or consolation - has not yet reached the last stage of inner suffering (Wer noch getröstet werden kann, wer getröstet werden will, ist noch lange nicht auf der letzten Stufe des inneren Leides.) says Ludwig Hohl, a great Proust reader himself and Celan writes to Franz Wurm: “Vielleicht hilft, das nichts hilft." (maybe it helps that nothing helps.) It seems there is after all a soothing element in the knowledge of this emptiness, this inconsolation? Can the knowledge or the acknowledgement of such an inconsolation or emptiness already be a consolation itself. Améry calls this emptiness the most important thing that we can – and here I hesitate to use the word learn or experience or get – from Proust and this stands in clear connection with his view that Proust's book is about dissolution of reality rather than densification. We stand here with empty hands says Améry, memory withdraws from us as does the past and the present, the world as such. What remains is an emptiness that is our most precious possession, so Amery. So, and emptiness that is a possession, a possession that consists of nothing – and is that right here, the use of the word nothing- empty Améry said. Hence it is an impossible possession (and how can you possess emptiness, is it not as well always escaping? - how paradoxixal and yet not so.), an impossible comfort or consolation to draw from this, because: Without this possession we would know nothing about the world (and here Améry alludes to Schopenhauer) as will and represention which binds our “I”, but which escapes us just as much as Vinteuil's melody.

But, does Benjamin miss this point entirely? It seems not so. The problem of communication Proust speaks of, how can one communicate something that one has not felt. Yet what Proust here does talk about is this feeling of emptiness and so one could say – when he assumes that one can only communicate what one feels, then it is at least possible to think that this emptiness can be communicated, thus shared. Sharing can mean closeness. When one looks at the other side of Benjamins ambiguities towards Proust, in the notes to his Proust essay he says: "not only time has been regained, but closeness too." (Nicht nur die Zeit ist wiedergefunden, sondern die Nähe), one can find the old truth confirmed that one broadly can establish a closeness via the arts, via moments of shared feelings of in this case emptiness. In the first place this means readers can be touched by Proust, contrary to what Benjamin said at first. However, this all does not have to mean already the establishment of a consolation, but at least a precious impossible possession?

This has to be explored further ...

* cf.
Améry, Jean; Zugang zu Marcel Proust. Zum 100. Geburtstag des Dichters (10. Juli 1871). In: Merkur 25 (1971)
Benjamin, Walter; Zum Bilde Prousts. in: Gesammelte Schriften Bd. II.1 & II.3, Ffm. 1991
Celan/Wurm; Briefwechsel, Ffm. 2003 [see letter January 9, 1968]
Hohl, Ludwig; Nachnotizen, Ffm. 1986, [aphorism 575]
Moncrieff-translation of Mr. Proust: