Tuesday, February 21, 2006

PROUST’S WAY. I have a little list of great books that I want to read even though I’m not attracted to them. Call it a self-improvement project, or just a way to get to say I read all these books. I guess there are people who devour books out of pure, indiscriminate pleasure, but I’m not built that way. Rank pretentiousness and self-doubt, alas, will always be part of my motivation. But that’s fine. Some kids go to the Army to learn self-discipline, and some go for computer courses or an alternative to jail and get self-discipline anyway. Who cares what lifts us out of the primordial muck? If I were perpetually following my Bliss, I’d be far too drunk and homeless, not to mention too busy masturbating, to post things like this on the Internet.

The forced march through Great Books is a muddy slog and its progress depends upon exigencies. Bronchitis and bedrest got me through Middlemarch. I’ve tried Ulysses twice, and I expect the third time, tentatively scheduled for this summer, will be the charm. Excelsior!

This winter was Swann’s Way. It took many, many subway rides, with breaks for Invisible Cities, Paul Hemphill’s Hank Williams biography, Nabokov’s lecture on Proust, and several cheap magazines, just to keep me from giving up on the printed word altogether. As with all such problem cases, there was pleasure in the pages but not in the progress, at least at first.

You probably know that large chunks of the book are descriptive to the point of mania, and not just descriptive of people, places, and objects, but of states of mind and even of being. There are long passages that seem to be nothing but monstrous agglomerations of metaphors, technical terms, and prose-poetry. My heart sank when I read, "For there were, in the environs of Combray, two ‘ways’ which we used to take for our walks," and sank further still when Proust compared these "purely material roads" with "the two parts of my brain in which I used to think of them," because I knew I would be asked not only to regard every dog-rose and trick of light that Proust could call to mind, but also their relationship to time and consciousness. That is hard work even without page-long sentences. I prayed for a gun-fight or a shoving match or even an interesting conversation, of which none of the characters then seemed capable, for relief.

Why did I persist? For the reasons I mentioned, but others, too. For one thing, the writing is too good to give up on. Proust is an obvious example of what Raymond Chandler called "writers who write writing," and I prefer the kind who write stories, but Proust’s style is impressive even when it is barely readable. And over the years I’ve figured something out: when someone writes that well, you may be sure he has something bigger up his sleeve than style. I got a hint of this even before the famous madeleine scene, when Proust unloosens the carefully weaving of his first childhood scene:
Many years have passed since that night. The wall of the staircase, up which I had watched the light of [my father’s] candle gradually climb, was long ago demolished. And in myself, too, many things have perished which, I imagined, would last for ever, and new structures have arisen, giving birth to new sorrows and new joys which in those days I could not have foreseen, just as now the old are difficult of comprehension. It is a long time, too, since my father has been able to tell Mamma to "Go with the child." Never again will such hours be possible for me. But of late I have been increasingly able to catch, if I listen attentively, the sound of the sobs which I had the strength to control in my father's presence, and which broke out only when I found myself alone with Mamma. Actually, their echo has never ceased: it is only because life is now growing more and more quiet round about me that I hear them afresh, like those convent bells which are so effectively drowned during the day by the noises of the streets that one would suppose them to have been stopped for ever, until they sound out again through the silent evening air.
Maybe it has to do with my own stage of life, or of the place I was when I read this, but at the moment of my reading it the world in which I lived briefly stood still and then went in motion again.

So I kept going, and found after a while that Proust’s prismatic rendering of events had a purpose. Nabokov explains it all very well, but even without the technical advice a reader can, if he decides to, get comfortable with Proust’s method and lose at least some of his impatience, so that he can walk through each stretched-out moment, and examine each impacted metaphor, and begin to see things Proust’s way.

I guess it is possible that, by the time I got to the romantic agony of M. Swann, and then to the minature version suffered by Marcel, I would still have have felt those shivers of recognition, even without the long premonition that is the rest of the book. How can I know? "Who, indeed, can say whether, in the event of his having gone, that evening, somewhere else, other happinesses, other griefs would not have come to him, which, later, would have appeared to have been inevitable?" But I am grateful to have been taken there. And now I can say I read it!

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