April Reading 2020 Part 2: More Proust

Part One of my April 2020 Reading blog post covered the essays of Lydia Davis and Natalia Ginzburg. Read it here.

Apart from Ana María Matute’s The Island (reviewed here) the only other book I finished in its entirety in April was, I think, Sodom and Gomorrah, the fourth volume of Proust. I started reading Proust last year, as my 2019 New Year’s Resolution, but stalled after finishing the third volume on my summer holiday. By October I’d abandoned the fourth volume. (I’ve been dating the passage where I leave off each day, as well as posting notes on another Twitter account, @ProustDiary.) I picked the fourth volume back up in March of this year, and finished it in April. I am now most of the way through the fifth volume, The Prisoner.

So: I am making good progress, but in fact lockdown hasn’t given me that much more time to read than normal. It’s not just that I am working, from home, but that reading, in a busy house of five people (two adults and three teenage boys) can sometimes be a hard activity to justify. Sitting with a laptop is work. Sitting in front of the television is generally a communal activity, and one that can bring the family together outside of mealtimes in a way that board games and jigsaws, because of particular personality types, can’t always do. Reading, apart from at bedtime, is likely to get you looked at strangely – more strangely, I’m afraid to say, than looking at your phone.

I have been enjoying Proust very much in parts, and drifting through others. Indeed, I felt particularly skewered by this aside in Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature:

To a superficial reader of Proust’s work – rather a contradiction in terms, since a superficial reader will get so bored, so engulfed in his own yawns, that he will never finish the book – to an inexperienced reader, let us say…

So let’s call me an inexperienced reader. Certainly, there have been plenty of bits where I have been bored, and irritated. Irritated by the fascination with the workings of society, and bored by the endless unfoldings, like a piece of eternal fractal origami, of the intricate inner imbrications of sometimes mundane psychological impulses. More on this later.

(I have been telling myself that this is just my first reading of Proust, which is part of the reason for dating my progress, and that I will reread it in the future, and necessarily get more from it then, building on what I found this time around. This may not be case. It largely depends on the sort of person I turn out to be when I’m older.

Sometimes reading feels like a down payment on the person we want to be in the future. Obviously this isn’t the case, but thinking it so makes it half-so, maybe.)

Reading In Search of Lost Time has been learning experience, and part of that learning has been un-learning what kind of novel I thought it was. It is so often spoken of in the same breath as Ulysses, as one of the great modernist novels, that I think I must have thought it worked in a similar way. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Here is Nabokov, again, on the difference between the two writers in terms of writing character:

One essential difference exists between the Proustian and the Joycean methods of approaching their characters. Joyce takes a complete and absolute character, God-known, Joyce-known, then breaks it up into fragments and scatters these fragments over the space-time of his book. The good reader gathers these puzzle pieces and gradually puts them together. On the other hand, Proust contends that a character, a personality is never known as an absolute but always as a comparative one. He does not chop it up but shows it as it exists through the notions about it of other characters.

But that difference, that control/lack of interest in control, applies more widely than just in terms of characterisation. Ulysses, once you know its premise, and its internal rules, gives you a solid framework in which to carry out your reading. No matter how weird or obtuse a particular section might be, you know where you are in the grand scheme of things. In fact the weirder a particular section is, the more it is justified and underwritten by the novel’s framework.

However, as Clive James points out in his typically erudite short essay on Proust in Cultural Amnesia, In Search of Lost Time barely has a structure at all – or rather the structure only becomes clear in the final volume. Little in what precedes this suggests that the novel is being orchestrated according to a coherent plan. I’m not talking here about the ludicrous continuity errors (the tip to the dairy girl that changes from five francs to two in two pages, or the cough-laugh of M. Verdurin that is attributed, in Vol 5, to his wife – and I haven’t got to the last volume, where, famously, someone turns up to a party who died volumes ago), but about the general narrative position.

The narrator, Old Marcel, is clearly a narrator – he is telling a story – but in the first volumes he tells it straight, or naively, deftly weaving together his evocation of the past and his later reflections on it, but without lifting his eyes from the work, and giving us only the fabric produced. He is talking to himself; he is both Scheherazade and king. In the middle volumes, however, he seems to look up and notice the reader, who is at first implicitly and then explicitly addressed and referenced. Implicitly, in “As we shall see…” and “More on this later” and so on; explicitly, as in this section from The Prisoner:

… my words [to Albertine] did not therefore did not reflect my feelings in the least. If the reader has only a faint impression of this, that is, because as narrator, I describe my feelings to him at the same time as repeating my words. But if I were to hide the former from him so that he heard only the latter, my actions, which corresponded so little to my words, would so often give him the impression of strange changes in direction that he would think me almost mad. (V, 320)

I have been rather confused by this change, as I assumed that Proust, like Joyce, was in total control of the narrative approach (the narrative mode, you might say) of his work. This, to me, both as a writer and as a creative writing teacher, is one of the fundamental aspects of the novel, coming shortly after voice. The way you tell the story is part of the story, and for that to work, the way you tell it is has got to be largely consistent. You set up the rules, and then you follow them.

Item: The elder Marcel is absolutely not an unreliable narrator, but Proust is an unreliable author, because he allows Marcel to narrate in different ways at different times.

Obviously, one answer to this criticism is that Proust died before he could fully revise and rewrite the later volumes of the novel, but it seems equally clear that he didn’t really care about consistency of narrative modes, or about structure, in any sense beyond that of the final volume pulling together threads from the earlier volumes. To this extent the book is symphonic, but it is like a symphony composed by Terry Riley. Proust the author writes the various main themes, but then hands them over to Marcel the narrator to improvise on, for as long as he likes, unfolding them like baffling origami flowers that just keep on unfolding and unfolding, exposing ever more involutions while at the same time seemingly operating on the same flat plane.

And yet in some of those psychological excursions lie some of the novel’s greatest moments, as when, in The Prisoner, Marcel imagines the elderly academic Brichot, seeing the transplanted furniture in the Verdurins’ country house, “calling up, making spiritual, bringing to life a form which, as it were was the ideal figure, immanent in all their successive dwellings, of the Verdurins’ drawing-room.”

I don’t suppose any of us have consciously had precisely that experience, but, reading it, you recognise it as something that you have probably experienced subconsciously, in some manner, at some stage of your life. That’s what Proust, at his best does: he lifts isolates parts of our lived experience we could not have named, but that we recognise when they are laid out on the slab.

But this act of recognition is made more difficult and complex by the fact that Proust is not only an expert surgeon, or dissectionist, but he is also a virtuoso and expressive one. It is not enough for him to delicately take out and display for us our liver, our lights or our spleen, but he must show us that he can use his scalpel as delicately and creatively as a Japanese sushi chef uses his or her kiritsuke. He chops, shaves, shapes and sculpts the poor organ until it has been thoroughly sashimi-ed, like a radish made into a rose. If he is a surgeon, then he is worryingly close to the deranged gynaecologist played by Jeremy Irons in Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, who sees human organs (for which read human psychological behaviours) as an artist’s canvas.

Even when he doesn’t go so far, there is another aspect to Proust’s psychology lesson. He goes into explicit detail about aspects of our thought and feeling that we now (as modern people, creatures of Freud and Marx) take for granted. We are now used to seeing these complexities of behaviour – or let us say reduced, attenuated versions of them – evoked in prose fiction, in, for example, the writing of Sally Rooney, and moreover they are most often evoked by being skated over, or skirted. Today, the endlessly detailed and often hypothetical ramifications of love, jealousy and desire don’t need to be explicated like Proust did, because Proust has already done it. Novels today work by allusion, precisely because Proust has done the hard work of analysis, identification  and classification.

This is, of course, only a footnote to a point that Proust has already made:

That is why, when we read the new master-work of a genius, we are sometimes delighted to find in it thoughts of our own which we had dismissed as valueless, moments of gaiety or sadness which we suppressed, a whole world of feeling we treated as beneath notice; the book in which we recognise them suddenly teaches us their value. (V, 268)

Sometimes we dismiss those thoughts as valueless not because we have had them ourselves, but because we recognise them from books by other writers who merely sketched them out, quick witty expert offhand impressionistic versions of the same subject, but that nevertheless depend on the fact that Proust had already meticulously anatomised them, and given them the attention of Michelangelo in his sketchbooks. Proust sometimes seems to labouring the obvious point, when he was essentially making the point in full, for the first time.

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