February Reading: Proust, Beckett

fullsizeoutput_c14I finished In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower a couple of days into March, this being the second volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, in the translation by James Grieve, which means I’m not quite reading a book a month. I’m also reading not much else. As I said in last month’s post, reading Proust at any time, but especially at bedtime, is slow going. Picking up an Iris Murdoch novel – I’m trying to tick another one or two off before taking part in a panel discussion at the Cambridge Literary Festival next month – I find that I zip through double or even triple the number of pages.

The other books in the photograph are by Samuel Beckett, whose abstruse essay on Proust I’ve been glancing at at work, more in hope of the odd brief flint-like spark of understanding than of any general illumination. I turned to ‘The End’, collected with ‘The Expelled’ and other “novellas”, following the introduction to this story by Daragh McCausland in his Personal Anthology. (If you don’t know this online project, run by me, then check it out here.)

Daragh called it “a masterpiece”, and I’m afraid it didn’t seem so to me. Perhaps I read it too quickly, but I found it unrewarding, dark and constipated, and not shot through with any lyricism to speak of. Which is not to contradict Daragh, who wrote wonderfully about Beckett’s favourite short fiction, but to note my unsureness when it comes to this writer.

The late, spare stuff – the bleached bones of thought – is great, but can scarcely be read: like koans, they are there to be looked at and contemplated, not imbibed and processed as we do with most prose. And the “early, funny” stuff is great in its own way, if you ignore Beckett’s self-immolating hermeneutic diversions, the bonfires he makes of his own intellectual vanity. But ‘The End’ seems to me to fall between those two stools. He has sloughed off the early, conflicted attempts at connecting with the reader, and is telling stories of disconnection instead, but hasn’t yet built that rejection into the form of the writing.

So I turned to Murphy, right in the middle of my Proust, wondering if I would still get from this what I have done in the past. It was a quick check-in: is this still good? Do I still get it?

(This is a permanent aspect of reading that doesn’t show up in these blog posts. We’re always glancing into previously read work, as well as those unread, those come newly into the house. This month, for instance, I read a few pages of the Patrick Melrose novels, after watching the first episode of the Cumberbatch-starring adaptation, which was very good, if you ask me. The novels, of course, are splendid, already part of the literary landscape, with a status of their own quite disconnected from their author. I must re-read them, I think, leaving the book on a surface, where it sits for days or weeks before being reluctantly reshelved.)

(February also featured a certain amount of reading for the Galley Beggar Short Story Prize, about which I hope to write another blog post.)

So Murphy. I picked it up to check, then thought: I can read this, now, if I read it quickly. It’s a book to go through you like a dose of salts. It is perhaps the prose work by Beckett that most taunts the reader with the idea of what he could have produced, had he been of a more amenable disposition, had he accepted the role of writer as, among other things, entertainer.

This is not just in the funniness, which is always going to be an acquired taste, but also in the generosity of the aphoristic writing – generous in that it can be thought to be applicable to all and any of us, no matter our particular momentary existential status. (As opposed to the bleaker, later stuff, which, you could argue, is equally widely applicable, but hey nobody can exist for long at that level of reality.) Two examples that made it to my Twitter feed:

“Murphy was one of the elect, who require everything to remind them of something else.”

“Each leaf as it fell had an access of new life, a sudden frenzy of freedom at contact with the earth, before it lay down with the others.”

These, especially the first, are brilliant lines that would be brilliant coming from anyone’s pen. There is nothing characteristically Beckettian about them. They’re good on anyone’s terms.

Murphy has proper characters, too – and scenery, and scenes – but the sheer ludicrousness of the characters’ behaviour, if it can be called that, is salutary. The image of Murphy, strapped naked into his rocking chair, frantically rocking himself to some kind of mental equilibrium, is an image that stands with any in Beckett’s fiction or playwriting. It is a prose image (impossible on stage, of course, where it would sacrifice its dignity) that makes concrete, and builds into realistic narrative, the assumptions of the later prose, such as Malone Dies or The Unnameable.

rocking_chair_s2How funny, then, that an online search informs me, in passing, that there in fact such a thing as a “Murphy rocking chair”, as manufactured by the Murphy Chair Company, founded in Detroit, Michigan in 1872 by M.J. Murphy, who was president of the company until his death, January 1940. Would it be too much to wonder if Beckett was thusly inspired? Probably, yes.

And so to Proust. The second volume of In Search of Lost Time is largely based around the growth of young Marcel’s romantic life. In the first part (‘At Mme Swann’s’) he slowly, painfully falls out of love with Gilberte Swann, with whom he fell in love at the end of Vol 1, and is, basically, a total little bastard. In the second part (‘Place Names: The Place’) he goes to the coastal resort of Balbec, falls in love with another girl, Albertine, part of a cool girl-gang ruling the coastal resort and then, when she won’t let him kiss her (and the rest), he falls back out of love with her and decides he’ll take whichever one of the girls will kiss him. He is, basically, a little shit.

Throughout both these sections young Marcel ghosts, gaslights, benches and letches, plays hard to get and harder to like – the full gamut of tactics of the weak toxic male. Though it’s fair to point out that as icky, eye-rolly and wince-inducing as his behaviour is, and as confident as he is in the appropriateness of his own manoeuvres, he gets precisely nowhere. The scene in which he tries to kiss Albertine in her bedroom, where she has invited him to spend the evening, is a brilliant echo of the early crucial scene of his mother’s kiss. Love, for Proust, is a game of chess in which we try to manipulate our opponent to get them where we want them.

The overriding theme of this volume is what an absolutely unpleasant little piece of work the narrator was as a child. The kicker, of course, is that all of this is written in prose of such deft reflexivity that you are constantly aware of the fact that shitty little Marcel Jr grew up to be the most perceptive, incisive and intuitive of men.

A few choice picks from my @ProustDiary Twitter account:

The treatment of (male) desire here, and the seeming obliviousness of Marcel (or Proust) to how horrible it is, while somehow at the same time being fully aware, is what makes this so destabilising to read. You spend half your time thinking: that’s so gross, and the other half, that’s so true. I found my response to the book oscillating wildly, while Proust’s attention seems to remain utterly constant. That’s what’s so weird, that it’s impossible to come to terms with what is being said, and how.

Anyway, to end on a bright note, here’s a photograph of Proust as Barry Chuckle.


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