A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 14

Where this began
Day 13


Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 169-191.

I went a little farther than my allotted ten pages today because there was really no place to stop before the ending of the "Combray" section.

The descriptions of the walks along the Vivonne on "the Guermantes way" are some of the most gorgeous writing so far in the novel, and could be celebrated for that alone. But one senses that Proust writes nothing without intent. One intent is to establish the centrality of the Guermantes, who have only been alluded to so far, to the history of Combray. And another is to comment on the importance of the place the narrator loves so well in his development as an artist. The two fuse together in this passage:
I dreamed that Mme. de Guermantes had summoned me there, smitten with a sudden fancy for me; all day long she would fish for trout with me. And in the evening, holding me by the hand as we walked past the little gardens of her vassals, she would show me the flowers that leaned their violet and red stems along the low walls, and would teach me their names. She would make me tell her the subjects of the poems that I intended to compose. And these dreams warned me that since I wanted to be a writer someday, it was time to find out what I meant to write.

But immediately the narrator is stricken with a kind of artistic impotence, an inability to "find a subject in which I could anchor some infinite philosophical meaning."

And then Mme. de Guermantes herself attends church in Combray, and the narrator gets his first, somewhat disillusioning glimpse of her: "a blond lady with a large nose, piercing blue eyes, a full tie of smooth, shiny new mauve silk, and a little pimple at the corner of her nose." But he overcomes the ordinariness of her appearance and imbues her with the cultural and historical significance that had informed his earlier imaginings.
And immediately I loved her, because if it may sometimes be enough for us to fall in love with a woman if she looks at us with contempt, as I had thought Mlle. Swann had done, and if we think she will never belong to us, sometimes, too, it may be enough if she looks at us with kindness, as Mme. de Guermantes was doing, and if we think she may someday belong to us.

In the meantime, his frustration at his inability to convert his sensations into something of literary import continues, to the point that he is ready to give up his vocation as a writer.
But the moral duty imposed on me by the impressions I received from form, fragrance, or color was so arduous -- to try to perceive what was concealed behind them -- that I would soon look for excuses that would allow me to save myself from this effort and spare myself this fatigue.

Fortunately, he has an epiphany on a ride back from their walk along the Guermantes way. He sees three church steeples that change position as the carriage moves along and which change colors as the sun sets. And his pleasure in the sight of them manifests itself "in the form of words that gave me pleasure." So he asks the doctor in whose carriage he is riding for a piece of paper and a pencil and writes the words down. "I felt that it had ... perfectly relieved me of those steeples and what they had been hiding behind them."
And so it was from the Guermantes way that I learned to distinguish those states of mind that follow one another in me, during certain periods, and that even go so far as to share out each day among them, on returning to drive out the other, with the punctuality of a fever; contiguous, but so exterior to one another, so lacking means of communication among them, that I can no longer comprehend, no longer even picture to myself in one, what I desired, or feared, or accomplished in the other.

And so the Méségliese way and the Guermantes way remain for me linked to many of the little events of that life which, of all the various lives we lead concurrently, is the most abundant in sudden reversals of fortune, the richest in episodes, I mean our intellectual life.

That, in a nutshell, is why the narrator goes in search of lost time. (And, incidentally, why Scott Moncrieff's Shakespeare allusion, "Remembrance of Things Past," is so misleading a title, turning the narrator's quest into a passive and nostalgic exercise.)
When on summer evenings the melodious sky growls like a wild animal and everyone grumbles at the storm, it is because of the Méségliese way that I am the only one in ecsasy inhaling, through the noise of the falling rain, the smell of invisible, enduring lilacs.

This is the quest for the incidents in the "intellectual life" that are bound up in the particularities of sensory experience.

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