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, November 20, 2009

The Proust Project, Day 3

Where this began
Day 2


Swann's Way (translated by Lydia Davis), pp. 23-37.

Swann comes to dinner, with the result that the narrator is sent to bed early without a goodnight kiss from his mother. He persuades Françoise, the cook who is tasked with looking after him, to take a letter to his mother asking her to come see him, but his mother declines the request. Unable to sleep, he waits until she comes upstairs, even though he fears that he'll be punished by being sent away to school. To his surprise, his father tolerates his misbehavior, and even suggests that his mother spend the night in the narrator's room.

But first, we see the grandmother's spinster sisters again, and learn their names -- though Proust makes a mistake when he reveals them. One sister addresses the other as Céline, but when she replies, Proust writes, "answered her sister Flora." He has no particular interest in distinguishing Flora from Céline; they are there only for sake of the joke, which in this case involves their making "such a fine art of concealing a personal allusion beneath ingenious circumlocutions that it often went unnoticed even by the person to whom it was addressed." And so their thanks to Swann for the case of wine he has sent them goes so veiled in indirect references that grandfather is indignant at the end of the evening when he learns that their coy allusions to "good neighbors" were their expressions of gratitude.

We learn one more bit of information about Swann's unhappy marriage, which has been alluded to earlier, when the narrator hears his great-aunt say, "I think he has no end of worries with that wretched wife of his who is living with a certain Monsieur de Charlus, as all of Combray knows. It's the talk of the town."

But the bulk of these pages deals with the narrator's long evening of waiting for his mother's arrival. They include some of Proust's famous long, curlicue sentences, exploring every nuance of the boy's anxiety but also anticipating some of the obsessiveness that will fill his later life. Proust's psychological insight radiates through these pages, as when he remarks of the "precious and fragile kiss" that on dinner-party evenings he had to "snatch ... brusquely, publicly, without even having the time and the freedom of mind necessary to bring to what I was doing the attention of those individuals controlled by some mania, who do their utmost not to think of anything else while they are shutting a door, so as to be able, when the morbid uncertainty returns to them, to confront it victoriously with the memory of the moment when they did shut the door." That's about as good a description of obsessive-compulsive disorder as you can find.

In the end, the father is kind, Abraham spares Isaac, and we have a happy ending. Or as happy an ending as you're likely to find in a writer like Proust, who can turn any triumph into melancholy:
This was many years ago. The staircase wall on which I saw the rising glimmer of his candle has long since ceased to exist. In me, too, many things have been destroyed that I thought were bound to last forever and new ones have formed that have given birth to new sorrows and joys which I could not have foreseen then, just as the old ones have become difficult for me to understand. It was a long time ago, too, that my father ceased to be able to say to Mama: "Go with the boy." The possibility of such hours will never be reborn for me. But for a little while now, I have begun to hear again very clearly, if I take time to listen, the sobs that I was strong enough to contain in front of my father and that broke out only when I found myself alone again with Mama. They have never really stopped; and it is only because life is now becoming quieter around me that I can hear them again, like those convent bells covered so well by the clamor of the town during the day that one would think they had ceased altogether but which begin sounding again in the silence of the evening.