Musings on Proust, Part 1

Pretentious CalTrans atrium representing the space-time continuum

I have at last begun reading Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. While the coronavirus pandemic and its accompanying restrictions have given me more time to read, I actually began it before the situation had become so dire as it is now. And I am reading it in French, as Proust wrote it. I am not daunted by its length: as I told a library clerk at my local branch, when he asked (in reference to Ducks, Newburyport, which I was checking out that day) how I could manage such long books: I read them one phrase at a time, same as I read short books.

That said, Proust is a special case. While his vocabulary is not particularly broad or demanding, his style has it peculiarities: sentences the length of paragraphs, paragraphs as long as chapters, chapters that exceed other author’s entire manuscripts. In particular, the long chains of subordinate clauses and parenthetical insertions crowding in between subject and object can leave you a bit hazy as to what on earth he was originally addressing…but one muddles through. And I have given myself permission to stop between volumes and read another book to refresh my palate.

That’s the narration. But he can also write absolutely perfect, vivid, concise, and plausible dialogue, or let a character indulge in an extravagant and often comical hissy fit, or just wax sarcastic, and he is perfect!

Anyway, I am a little over halfway through Un amour de Swann now (it seems to me that the story really begins here, after a full volume of scene-setting), and here are some musings it has inspired. I hope you’ll forgive me for having a bit of fun at Proust’s expense….

  • A parenthetical insertion (within actual parentheses for a change, though itself, in yet another Proustian recursion of the sort that he loves more than his damned madeleines, which have vanished from the story like the perfume of a wilted hawthorn blossom, or the memory of a kiss, or the crumbs of said madeleine, which were carried off by a cockroach to nourish Kafka in another room, interrupted by  musings and metaphors) running around one hundred words and, being itself spiky with subordinate clauses, bursting into the sentence, which was already long, long as a summer Sunday spent reading in the garden at Combray, like a morningstar wielded by Eros himself to rend your heart open and liberate it of your damned obsession with that golddigger Odette, Swann, just shut up and deal!
  • A surreal description of the footmen and other servants that greeted Swann upon his entry into the Saint-Euverte manse for the aristocratic concert; Poe in his most stoned delirium can’t even come close.
  • In one of several fits of indignation Proust indulges in: a bitter diatribe against monocles and those who affect them, at one point describing a retired general’s eyewear as resembling a piece of shrapnel stuck in his eye socket, a “wound noble to receive but tasteless to exhibit,” and continuing bitterly for several pages, exceeding even Victor Hugo’s anathematization of the octopus in Les travailleurs de la mer, and making you realize that perhaps Proust was not so much an introvert as someone just really hard to get along with, and subject to repeated fits of uncontrollable vituperation of just about anything….
  • A string of not one, not two, not even three, but four similes attached to one hapless noun….

Still, much of it is brilliant, especially when he is letting the characters talk. And he certainly has an eye for detail…which is not always a blessing.

I’m actually enjoying it, but his style sometimes makes me laugh. Hemingwayan he is not.

I may post more of these now and then.

Rick Risemberg