Friday, January 09, 2015

Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927)

So first things first: let’s resolve something that’s been preying on my mind: what should my reward be for finishing In Search of Lost Time?


Nobel Prize
MacArthur Genius Grant
Heisman Trophy
Level-Select Code
Copy of Our Exciting Home Game
Big Bag of Money with Dollar Sign on Side
Honorary Presidency of Earth
Regular Presidency of Earth

I tried to stay relatively restrained in my entry on Time Regained, so let me take this opportunity to say OH HOLY SHIT FUCK YES I AM FINISHED NOW AND FOREVER WITH READING MARCEL GODDAMN PROUST!  I am TOTALLY free to read other stuff now!  Like, anything I bloody well want!  Three thousand five hundred eighty-seven pages in the Modern Library edition.  Almost three months.  And at long last, BAM, done.  Seriously, this feels as goddamn momentous as the day I defended my dissertation. 

And…ultimately it’s going to have about the same level of actually-meaning-anything.  But never mind that; please allow me this moment of glory.

I can be highbrow.  I can say—and it’s true to a substantial extent—that there are two novels that, for better or worse, defined high literary modernism—à la recherche and Ulysses—and that, as a student of literature, it was incumbent on me not to ignore one of these two just because it seemed scary and intimidating.  That’s the case.  It’s also the case, however, that I suffer from chronic intellectual insecurity (rationally or not), and that I wanted to prove that I could do it.  And, it’s also the case that I just wanted to be able to say I had done it, which makes perhaps the least sense, because seriously, it’s not like I plan on bringing it up at parties apropos of nothing.  Me even bringing it up would require fairly specialized circumstances.

Regardless of my motives, though, the goal was totally met.  I’ve read this extremely historically important novel, and I feel like a total badass about it (comments about how pathetic that may or may not be are best kept to yourself). 

As for the book itself, I feel like I mainly emphasized the things that annoyed me about it, but it definitely had ups as well as downs.  Also, it bears noting that the main issue—ie, that the narrator is a huge dick—doesn’t really surface until…well, a little in The Guermantes Way, but mainly in Sodom and Gomorrah.  Hard as it is to believe in retrospect, he’s actually endearing when we first meet him, frantically thinking about how he can get his mother to give him the kiss that he feels he needs before going to sleep and which he sometimes doesn’t get when there’s company over. 

Let’s not get carried away, though.  Going back to the comparison with Ulysses: maybe it’s not fair to equate two such different books, but tough shit, I’m doing it anyway, and Proust doesn’t come out looking too good.  Joyce’s novel may be difficult, but it’s also sympathetic and relatable.  I’ll gladly read it for a third time one of these years.  Whereas Proust…well, he may actually have been more of a genius than Joyce (or maybe not; I’m not ready to die on that particular hill), but his genius was very cold.  Icy, one might say.  There are two substantially sympathetic characters in his novel, and they are his mother and grandmother (I mean, there are others that you don’t exactly HATE, but none that there’s any compelling reason to LIKE).  For such a complex work, it’s not as multifaceted as you would think.  There’s a lot of [character behaving horribly] “but in fact, Mme X had a genuine fondness for Mme Y,” but you rarely actually SEE this.  It’s mostly just bad people behaving badly, and you have to wonder, does the fact that they’re bad in complex ways REALLY make them worth babbling on about ’til the end of creation?  I have my doubts.

So would I recommend it to anyone?  Hell no.  Which, I hasten to add, doesn’t mean I don’t think there’s some small segment of the reading public who should read it—it’s just that they know who they are.  If you don’t, for whatever reason, feel called to read it, you totally shouldn’t.  Hell, maybe even for me, it was an ill-advised vanity project.  But now it’s done and it can’t be undone and I feel good about it.

Oh, one other thing.  As far as Proust’s tangled sentences are concerned: they aren’t, mostly, all that bad.  But I jotted one down—this was in The Captive—because it was just so utterly grammatically unparsable.  The context is that Vinteuil was a composer, and his daughter’s lesbian lover, in spite of having behaved cruelly to him, had nonetheless been the only one who knew him well enough to make sense of his posthumous scribblings and thus bring his final masterpiece to light:

And I for whom, albeit not so much, perhaps, as for Vinteuil, she had also been, had just been once more this evening by reawakening my jealousy of Albertine, was to be above all in the future, the cause of so many sufferings, it was thanks to her, in compensation, that I had been able to apprehend the strange summons which I should henceforth never cease to hear, as the promise and proof that there existed something other, realisable no doubt through art, than the nullity that I had found in all my pleasures and in love itself, and that if my life seemed to me so futile, at least it had not yet accomplished everything.

Whee!  It’s not that you can’t parse the meaning, but that it is one contorted-ass sentence.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

I vote for the big bag ofo money.

1:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

I have to go with the level select code, just because it seems like it would be quite useful for a book of this length.

About equating Proust and Joyce -- granted, I only ever read Swann's Way, and that was a long time ago, but my feeling about it was that it seemed much closer to 19th-century French literature than to modernism. Sure, there was more attention to minute physical and mental sensations, but it felt very much like a "novel of manners." Perhaps the other books move away from this style, though. By contrast, the focus in Ulysses is more on the medium than on the content, in my opinion.

I'm not sure I'd call Ulysses "relatable." I think that anyone who, at any point in time, has foolhardy notions of becoming a writer (justified or not), will find Ulysses liberating. "Holy shit," one will likely say, "you can actually DO things like that?" It is very insightful about the nature of description and style. I certainly enjoyed it quite a lot when I read it. In terms of sympathy, though, I have to say I don't find anyone in it sympathetic. Stephen is basically a dick (perhaps that is one point of commonality with Proust!). Bloom, I guess, is supposed to be the everyman, but his "voice" is always so fragmented and incoherent that I personally get very little relatability out of the chapters where it is prevalent. My favourite parts were the ostentatious stylistic experiments like "Oxen of the Sun" and the "catechism" chapter, but those are sort of necessarily distanced from the characters, rather than relatable.

SK

8:55 PM  
Blogger Thomas pontificated to the effect that...

Not to diminish your accomplishment, but "almost three months" is laughably quick. I'd be glad if I'd only get through "Swann's Way" in those three months. But then I'm not a quick reader and also too occupied with other stuff to make it a daily habit. I wonder how many hours of your day are usually spent reading?

10:50 AM  
Blogger Regular GeoX pontificated to the effect that...

Yay! People comment on my posts! And then I don't notice them, because I don't receive the email notifications that I'm meant to. BAH!

My feeling about it was that it seemed much closer to 19th-century French literature than to modernism. Sure, there was more attention to minute physical and mental sensations, but it felt very much like a "novel of manners." Perhaps the other books move away from this style, though.

Point taken, but my understanding of modernism is that it's more about intense subjectivity than it is specifically about technique. As in, nothing is stable, you can't rely on established institutions, all that is solid melts into air, all that, so all you have is people's subjective impressions of the world, and BOY HOWDY does Proust ever have that covered.

Bloom, I guess, is supposed to be the everyman, but his "voice" is always so fragmented and incoherent that I personally get very little relatability out of the chapters where it is prevalent. My favourite parts were the ostentatious stylistic experiments like "Oxen of the Sun" and the "catechism" chapter, but those are sort of necessarily distanced from the characters, rather than relatable.

I'd have to reread, but I really DID always like Bloom a lot. I found his cool intellectualism combined with anxiety that he can recognize but not control to be VERY relatable, though that perhaps says more about me than the novel. "Oxen of the Sun" always struck me as a chapter where the concept sort of overwhelmed the content.

I wonder how many hours of your day are usually spent reading?

Depends. In my current job, I'm frequently being taken on long car trips and otherwise waiting around, which gives me a lot of time for reading. Otherwise...it really varies. Sometimes as little as an hour, sometimes a lot more, if I have a day off. With Proust, there were a few weeks when I was tired or unmotivated or busy or all of the above and read very little. I made up for that, however, because I sort of went into overdrive once I'd finished Sodom and Gomorrah and saw the end in sight.

Still, that's nothing: my dad tells the story (okay, calling it a "story" might generous--anecdote, let's say) of a friend of his from graduate school who, after some sort of bad emotional romantic thing, decided that the best way to recover would be to read Proust (???), and accordingly plowed through the whole in nine days. Seems insane, but not totally implausible if you're able to stay focused and have absolutely no other responsibilities while you're doing it.

6:19 AM  

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