Monday, July 12, 2010

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower: Part I

As the previous post indicated, I have been reading Proust, specifically the second part of In Search of Lost Time (the artwork formerly known as Remembrance of Things Past, which I have to say I think does a much better job of capturing the spirit of the book).  This is the new Penguin translation, with a different translator for each of the seven volumes; this one, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, is the product of James Grieve.  I am finding it delightful—as I did the first volume (trans. Lydia Davis), which I read a few years ago—although I have a hard time imagining reading all seven volumes back to back.  It is a novel that requires a lot of time and a willingness to immerse yourself in its series of memories and reflections, and it invites you to pause over the narrator’s conclusions about life and compare them to what you know of people.  In this the book is about as far removed from what most people want of media these days as you can get—even more so than most novels, inasmuch as there are no chapters and very few section breaks of any sort.  This is not a novel you will be able to enjoy if you are stopping every few minutes to answer a call on your cell phone or look at the latest tweets from your friends, for the simple reason that doing so will cut off the flow of thought—that of the narrator, but also your own, which needs the freedom to wander, spinning off of a particular passage, rather than succumbing to a series of exterior distractions.

Still, the fact that even the individual volumes run long and require such a sustained investment for a single reading seems to undercut the likelihood that they will be reread, even if greatly enjoyed, by many people who are not Proust scholars, and this seems contrary to a theory of perception and art which the narrator offers, as he considers music played by his hostess, a hundred pages into Shadow and which I take to be Proust’s own:

Not only does one not immediately discern a work of rare quality; but even within such a work, as happened to me with the Vinteuil sonata, it is always the least precious parts that one notices first.  So not only was I wrong in my belief that, since Mme Swann had played over for me the most celebrated phrase, the work had nothing more to reveal to me (the result of which was that, for a long time afterward, showing all the stupidity of those who expect that their first sight of Saint Mark’s in Venice will afford them no surprise, because they have seen the shape of its domes in photographs, I made no further attempt to listen to it); but more important, even after I had listened to the whole sonata from beginning to end, it was still almost entirely invisible to me, like those indistinct fragments of a building that are all one can make out in the misty distance.  Therein lies the source of the melancholy that accompanies our discovery of such works, as of all things which can come to fruition only through time.  When I came eventually to have access to the most secret parts of Vinteuil’s sonata, everything in it that I had noticed and preferred at first was already beginning to be lost to me, carried away by habit out of the reach of my sensibility.  Because it was only in successive stages that I could love what the sonata brought to me, I was never able to possess it in its entirety—it was an image of life.

The reflection actually goes on for another page, every bit as smitten in its language with the changeability of art, but this excerpt gives the emphasis on time that Proust brings throughout.  Art, he emphasizes, needs to be lived with, and can only be recognized and experienced in a series of encounters that reveal art’s pleasures as protean and increasingly complicated.  Yet, how do we square this with the immense length of Proust’s work, which places severe limits upon anyone’s ability to re-experience it? 

One possibility is that Proust is writing for a class so leisured that it might in fact have the time.  However, two others strike me as well, both revolving around the idea that Proust is using the length of his work to simulate repeated contact.  He might, for example, be substituting the narrator’s series of encounters, and his ever-evolving, ever-more-subtle reflections on their meaning, for our encounters with the text.  In other words, the narrator’s series of encounters become the reader’s aesthetic encounters (and indeed, they to some extent already are aesthetic for the narrator as well).  Or, in a different permutation, the simple demands of the length, in leading to a lengthy series of encounters of reader with text, result in a deeper familiarity with Proust’s style (which, presumably, does not change appreciably over the seven volumes, although only being in the second I could not say for certain) than one would normally obtain of a shorter novel, symphony, or other artistic work.  In other words, by the end of it, you have gone through the different pleasures of his style just as you would have if he had written a 200-page novel that you then reread a dozen times. 

This last is the most satisfying explanation, perhaps, since the second, regarding substitution of the narrator’s experiences for the reader’s, might seem to beg the question.  The narrator’s experiences, even if aesthetic, are after all not experiences of Proust’s own style, and thus could not really lead to the same kind of appreciation of the work as art—even if they are certainly one of the pleasures dished out for our delectation.

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