Archive for the ‘proust’ Category
I’ve outed myself as a Proust nut (1, 2, 3, 4) and people occasionally ask me how they might best enter that big and forbidding-to-some book. Someone just did that today, so I’ll share two plans that may work for you while you are reading In Search of Lost Time.
Follow the tweets. Patrick Alexander, who wrote the useful companion Marcel Proust’s Search for Lost Time, recently completed tweeting the whole damn Search. Took him two years and 3,000 tweets. They’re very good and very funny. He’ll be starting another cycle on November 1.
Follow the master. William C. Carter’s Marcel Proust: A Life is the pick of the doorstop Proust bios; he offers a self-paced online course covering the novel and its creation. Carter knows pretty much everything there is to know about Proust and the Search, but he doesn’t let that knowledge prevent him from having fun with the work.
I’m more familiar with Lydia Davis’s work as a translator than I am with her fiction, a deficiency I intend to remedy shortly. In an interview with The Economist’s Intelligent Life promoting her new collection of short stories, Davis talks about what she learned as a writer from translating Proust (her Swann’s Way is the strongest of the Penguin series a few years back):
She considered each sentence a “little puzzle”, and strove to stay true to Proust’s sounds, rhythms and word choices … “Translating makes me much more acutely aware of shades of meaning,” she explains. “You have a set problem and you can’t get around it by avoiding it. You have to pick just the right word.”
When I’m not working or writing or sleeping or trying to be useful around my family, there’s a good chance I’m reading Proust. I’ve written here plenty of times of my love for his big novel, so I won’t repeat myself. But I’m almost halfway through my every-other year exploration of it, things come to mind, that’s what a blog is for, so here we are. I know I should be writing when I’m reading, but sometimes reading leads to better writing. I hope it does, anyway. Anyway…
Something I read in The Guermantes Way reminded me of a passage from William C. Carter’s welcoming biography of Proust:
“This relationship set a pattern that Marcel would follow with future couples: he would ‘fall in love’ with the fiancee or mistress of a man who appealed to him. Such an arrangement had a number of examples: he could love the woman from a safe distance, exchange confidences with the man and woman about each other, observe the dynamics of sexual love, and have the illusion that he was an active participant experiencing all the joys, enthusiasms, and jealous sufferings of both partners. It was also an ideal vantage point for a novelist.”
Proust had it both ways. Another of his biographers, Edmund White, calls him a “playboy-monk.” He lived life, but he also observed it from a distance, eventually retreating, alone, to his bedroom. But throughout In Search of Lost Time, he describes it intensely and intimately. For the reader, it doesn’t matter how he got his information. And, as with so much else in his life and work, Proust found an unexpected, roundabout way of gathering that information and using it to build something weird and new. A step away, the distance somehow brought him closer to his subject. His book never stops revealing mysteries, perhaps because so much of what he wrote about was mysterious to him, too.
Those of you who know me know I’m a Marcel Proust nut. I’ve read the monster novel several times in several translations, I once started a dummy email address with his name in it that stuck because I never figured out how to merge Google accounts, and I even made a failed attempt to learn how to read French so I could go at the Search in the original. It’s almost obsessive, I know. Sometimes Proust’s audacity and control inspire me in my own work; sometimes they remind me how much my own work stinks. Either way, there are far worse things a guy could obsess about.
I read a lot about Proust, too, and some of those books get pretty obscure. Take The Memoirs of Ernest A. Forssgren, Proust’s Swedish Valet, which will never be made into a movie by Jerry Bruckheimer. It is a minor book, interesting only to true nuts, but what makes it worth mentioning are the hilarious annotations by William C. Carter (who wrote a strong Proust bio a decade or so ago). Carter understands the historical importance of Forssgren’s thin memoir, but it’s clear he thinks very, very little of Forssgren. He can’t mention that Forssgren “was an amateur linguist” without following that with “with the emphasis on amateur,” and the book is full of footnotes such as “This statement is very suspect” and “This is simply laughable” and regular digs at Forssgren’s memory and writing ability. My personal favorite: “Forssgren apparently intended to attribute this line to Proust but forgot to enclose it in quotes.” Or maybe it’s “We can see from this document that Forssgren was capable of misspelling the simplest, most common French words — even ‘France’ itself.”
At first Carter’s asides seemed gratuitous, like the comments a frustrated academic would make in a Nabokov novel. But Carter is no frustrated academic. He’s quite a successful one, a master of his material. As the book dragged on, it was Carter’s notes that kept me reading, not Forssgren’s writing. The commentary was as funny and pointed as the core text was meandering and confusing. It was like an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000: the wiseasses in the theater are more entertaining than what they are watching.
Before we leave Forssgren, probably forever, let me mention that early in the book there is a list of his items donated to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Most of it is what you’d expect — the typescript of his memoir, some signed Proust books — but one made me laugh out loud: “a copy of Forssgren’s proposed phonetic alphabet to reform the spelling of the English language.” Good luck with that, Ernest.
For a few weeks, colleagues and friends have been pointing me to Wordle, a web app that takes text and presents it as a “word cloud.” I tried it with a few pieces of my own writing with the expected pedestrian results, but then I copied one of my favorite-ever pieces of someone else’s writing, the “Combray” intro to Proust’s Swann’s Way, and saw this work of art:
(You can click on the image for a larger version.)
Why is this so great? Because, despite being a mere text cloud, it tells the story of the first section with elegant precision. The young narrator is in tremendous psychic pain awaiting the arrival of his mother to kiss him goodnight. So “mother” and “mama” are in large type in the center of the image; even larger is the “room” to which he is confined, as is, just below it, “time,” the narrator’s great obsession. And then, in small type, hiding, is that elusive “kiss.” It’s an intriguing alternate way to consider or enter a story. I’ll play with it some more.