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

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 24

Where this began
Day 23


Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 328-340.

In addition to "the mystery of personality," which I singled out yesterday as one of Proust's great themes, there's also the nexus of pleasure and pain, which is what the past few days' segments have focused on. Swann has carried it to an extreme in what he now recognizes as a "neurotic" state: his obsession with Odette. But it is, of course, the theme that the narrator dealt with in the very opening pages of the novel, in which he dwells on the pleasure of his mother's visits at bedtime and the pain he felt in
both anticipation and aftermath. The absence of pain is not pleasure, of course, as Emily Dickinson noted: "After great pain a formal feeling comes." And Dante was not the first nor the last to observe that pleasure only heightens pain ("Nessun maggior dolore / Che ricordarsi del tempo felice / Nella miseria." -- There's no greater sorrow than remembering happiness in the midst of pain).

Proust puts it like this: Finding out where Odette has gone "would have been enough to soothe the anguish he felt at these times, and for which Odette's presence, the sweetness of being close to her was the only specific (a specific that in the long run aggravated the disease, like many remedies, but at least momentarily soothed his pain)." The thing is, he's beginning to show signs of boredom with the relationship: "if, during this period, he often desired death though without admitting it to himself, it was to escape not so much the acuteness of his sufferings as the monotony of his struggle."

Odette is certainly showing signs of fatigue with the relationship. Proust neatly encapsulates the progress of their affair with two paragraphs in which he contrasts past and present. In the early days, Odette would say "admiringly: 'You -- you will never be like anyone else.'" Now she says, "in a tone that was at times irritated, at times indulgent: 'Oh, you really never will be like anyone else!'" Once she would look at him and think, "He's not conventionally handsome, granted, but he is smart: that quiff of hair, that monocle, that smile!" Now she thinks, "He's not positively ugly, granted, but he is absurd: that monocle, that quiff of hair, that smile!" Earlier she would think, "If only I could know what is in that head!" Now, it's "Oh, if only I could change what's in that head, if only I could make it reasonable."

Well, if the characters are getting bored, what about the reader? I think Proust realizes this when he decides to get out of Swann's feverish head for a while and send him out into society, sans Odette. For Swann, "society as a whole, now that he was detached from it, ... presented itself as a series of pictures." And so we get passages of wit (a footman who "seemed to be showing contempt for his person and consideration for his hat") and description ("The Marquis de Forestelle's monocle was minuscule, had no border, and, requiring a constant painful clenching of the eye, where it was encrusted like a superfluous cartilage whose presence was inexplicable and whose material was exquisite, gave the Marquis's face a melancholy delicacy, and made women think he was capable of great sorrows in love.") This comes as comic relief at a point where the novel needs it, and evokes the earlier parts of the novel when the narrator indulged himself in portraits of his aunts and depictions of hawthorn blossoms as relief from psychological introspection.

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