Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Remembrance of Things Past

Marcel Proust

Technically speaking this work should be "In Search of Lost Time", as that’s a closer translation of the original french. The above title is what’s in wider cirulation, though, plus I prefer it on it’s own sake, as connecting better to the sentiment of the novel, the way it focuses on bringing in the past is always tentative There may seem to be a contradiction in switching the author over wording for the title and then trusting the source enough to follow the narrative for three thousand pages. So it goes, and the above titular modification isn’t a criticism of the larger text, which I enjoyed a great deal. It’s awesome, complex and highly engaging literature that has a lot of substance to say about the modern world. It bears the impact of its time but it is by no means dated, and the chief insights it delivers are readily applicable to conemporary times. A lot of classics struggle to find a main relevance to later reading, seemingly either overly constrained to the factors that made them initially popular or such that it’s puzzling why they took on great success in the first place. Proust doesn’t have these issues, and it was apparent fairly early on in the reading what made it worth taking seriously as great literature and, even more pressingly, produced an engaging text.

As a novel it’s about a lot of things, bringing in attention and a lot of insight into class, sexuality, anti-Semitism, literature, death, politics, nationalism and modernity. Beyond all these, what drives the book is the exploration of memory, reflection on previous events and the way they are recalled. In a large sense the protagonist isn’t so much the main character as an individual but rather the memories of that person and the way they play themselves out. It’s here that the immense length of the account works as a virtue rather than a flaw, providing a real sense of scale in depicting the mental relation to externality. It’s a very wide ranging account and provides a real feeling into the experience of decades, offering a work highly condesnsed yet feeling solid enough in its arching over a whole lifetime. For lare segments this recollection seems to be hijacked by the biography of other people the protagonist encounters, giving substantive detail on their own ambitions, successes and failure. The extensive focus in on Swann in the first volume of the work is probably the most extensive embodiment of this theme, and by reports it’s this aspect and volume that often repulses interest in the book. Yet I don’t see this aspect as a main problem, and certainly don’t object to the use of the formula of absorbing others’ lives in the way I did recently with Auster’s Moon Palace. Partly it’s because the focus doesn’t get as thoroughly sidetracked away into other people and incidents. While a lot of attention gets devoted, especially early on, to following the lives of others it’s still the protagonist that’s following them, giving a central unity and level of nuance to the recollection that binds it together. Partly the format works better, seeming more natural in the way it intersects with what happens to others over an extended period. Finally it also works better for this specific protagonist as exprssed in the book. Ultimately he’s a pretty passive person, and it works that his attention moves from his own life for sizable periods. It doesn’t ultimately diminish the interest in seeing his memories play out over his own experiences,a dn the fact that the novel is not insular on just his private experiences works to build the main sense of scale. There’s a way that this book primarily focused on society meetings, refined parties and aristocratic conversations is epic, and in certain ways passes even a high fantasy, intricate piece of worldbuilding like Lord of the Rings. The novel gives, even relative to length, a very great feeling of range, pushing into the way that an array of different people form and contest community.

A main aspect of the depiction of memory is how awkward it is, the way it works amongst a certain necessary void in the core of most people. The mental representation of the past is never in full accurate relation to the events as they happened. This imbalance is a truism, but it’s expressed with great literary force and grace by Proust. It’s substantive in itself that the book centers on a subtle margins-bound essence of human consciousness. It’s doubly impressive that the narrative works this theme into the process of recollecting so effectively. There’s the basic element of showing rather than telling writ large here--while there are a number of direct passages reflecting on the nature of memory and the insubstantial descriptive quality of thinking about others, such musings are never autonomous assertions of definitive claims. They are always elements bound within the process of memory, reflections that by their very self-declared claims are rendered ambigious. Moreover the notion of the impossibility of fully relating to others because of the warping of the past through personal consciousness is fundamental to the course of events in the novel. If people can’t maintain firm lines of continuity along their own lives--and the novel shows graphically how they can’t--then understanding another person beyond the part of oneself that is projected into them becomes doubly problematic. Yet it’s a quest people are continually compelled towards, the ultimately hopeless effort to overocome the barriers placed by their own perception, recollection and intuitive reformation of events. It’s a tension that frames much of the internal disconnect within the people of Remembrance of Things Past. The most direct manifestation occurs in extended romantic relationships of which the other partner is revealed to have been a serial adulterer, which causes a tortured re-examination of the remembered incidents. The same general pattern occurs even more gradually in the movement from childhood to adulthood, and then eventually to old age, and the way this alters the whole pattern of relating to society and family. The genius of Proust isn’t just in using extraordinary literary skill in the depiction of remembered sentiment but in how he approaches that not as a static atmosphere to be depicted but as something fluid and continually reconstructed.

Sexuality develops as one of the leading ’secondary motifs’ of the novel, rendered variously with intensity, in general reflections, in personalized encounters, as humor and as tragedy. This element was one of the most famous and controversial things when the book first appeared, and even now there’s a frankness and honesty to the representation of bodies and their encounter that stands out. The appealing part of this representation lies largely in how varied it is, how its shown to have wide-ranging modes and facets among different individuals and within a single lifespan. Sex for pay, for romance, for sheer eroticization, sex proscribed by society and illicit, sex in a relationship, outside of it or in violation of it. There’s even an extended assessment of homosexuality both male and female, the later of which it is rather surprising to find acknowledged in a text of the early twentieth century. The way it’s rendered as something integral to consciousness and behavioral life but occuring in varied states builds up the complexity of the work. In single motifs, perhaps the most striking cases are those that show a pattern of awkwardness in relation of sexuality to larger life, from the faintly comical effort to transition into and out of an erotic interlude in the larger mundane day to the wider hypocrisy of society’s prurient gossip on mattters of sex. Most tragically it emerges as another angle of the central disconnect between people that develops in some degree or other for everyone in the novel. Here it functions as both metaphor and actuality, in the way bodies can be in the most direct contact possible yet the bounded selves are ineffable distances apart.

Class is a heavily mined and heavily featured element. A large part of the direct action involves the social life of the French aristocracy and upper bourgeoise, in the habitual actions by which it constitutes itself as a group. Lifecycle events of members, general parties, rampant gossip and petty intrigue and an effort to police its boundaries by admitting or excluding others. It’s not a pretty picture that emerges, and the slow playing out of snobbery, destructive obsession, judgement and tangled morals is more damning than any direct satire would have been. It’s consistently entertaining however, largely because the range of rhetoric on display is ultimately very amusing and often pretty to witness. As with The Picture of Dorian Gray, the way aristocratic judgements express themselves are generally appaling but still highly fun to watch, and not just in a context of rooting for the participants downfall.

Anti-semitism plays a major role in the book, far more than I had expecting. Given the context of its writing it wasn’t surprising to find the Dreyfus affair featured, but the larger social engagement with the situation are explored at great detail. Here the representations of the aristocracy dovetail closely with specific politics and general efforts to build nationalism. The spurious treason charges against one Jew becomes a general paranoia of the Jews as a definable element, and from there an effort to define French identity through racial categories and enforced sentiment of loyalty. The text is really scathing on the general anti-Dreffussard and anti-semitic views circulating in the aristocracy, about how petty murky judgements connect to grandiose assertion of patriotism on the backs of self-inflated ignorance.

Another major focus involves death, and the way it’s built up to and experienced after through morning. This motif isn’t as consistently focused on as some of the others, but it’s very prominent for some key sections. The main insight I take on this element is the juxtaposition between individual reactions and the standard soceital model that’s given as approrpriate, and how awkward it can be to contextualize the loss of a loved one in the long-term, after the point where the immediate scripts apply.

The novel doesn’t express its main elements through a plot, in the conventional sense of the word. The layout of the story all technically occurs as a flashback from a later time, and the links between main specific moments is provided by the momentum of time’s passage rather than a strict relation of drama and action. This overall format lends itself to a far more engrossing work than might be imagined, one that is almost never dull by sheer force of Proust’s skill at chracterization, subtlety of theme and raw writing ability. If there’s one issue I had it’s that the sheer size of the secondary cast becomes a bit unmanagable at points, some of the less consistently appearing characters being hard to distinguish when they pop up again. Nevertheless, on the whole it manages with manifest excellence in small issues and large. This is one three thousand page literary classic I’m glad I read, and I’d say it both merits the length and is not overrated. Highly recommended.

Better than: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Worse than: Nothing

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