Sunday, October 9, 2011


When I try to reckon up all that I owe to the Méséglise way, all the humble discoveries of which it was either the fortuitous setting or the direct inspiration and cause, I am reminded that it was in that same autumn, on one of those walks, near the bushy slope which overlooks Montjouvain, that I was struck for the first time by this discordance between our impressions and their habitual expression.

The Méséglise way is simply one of the regular walks the narrator would take while in Combray, first mentioned a couple of posts ago. Two things to note here. First, again we see his entirely elusive sense of time. He talks about "that same autumn," but we really don't know which autumn that was. The particular stands for the general, somehow. And then that resonant sentence about the "discordance between our impressions and their habitual expression." In Search Of Lost Time, among many many other things, is an effort by Proust to wrestle with the way habit dulls our senses, renders us careless and insensitive to Life itself. Here he points out that inside us it's a war we constantly lose, since we may well feel one thing but for any number of reasons learn to express the feeling in a way that does not do it justice or, even, communicate it at all.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

To translate our innermost feelings

The walls of houses, the Tansonville hedge, the trees of Roussainville wood, the bushes adjoining Montjouvain, all must bear the blows of my walking-stick or umbrella, must hear my shouts of happiness, these being no more than expressions of the confused ideas which exhilarated me, and which had not achieved the repose of enlightenment, preferring the pleasures of a lazy drift towards an immediate outlet rather than submit to a slow and difficult course of elucidation. Thus it is that most of our attempts to translate our innermost feelings do no more than relieve us of them by drawing them out in a blurred form which does not help us to identify them.

Well there is a central conceit stumbled upon right here. On the one hand Proust the writer here affirms we human beings largely express our deeper feelings in a blurred, blurted out form, a form which more or less hides their true nature from us. One might agree or disagree with this, but typically his assertions come at the end of such thick sentences that the reader feels inclined to agree just to get on with it. But Proust the narrator is also hereby staking out his territory: this crazy-long book that you have merely one portion of in your hands is his effort to do otherwise--that is, to translate his innermost feelings in a more complete and persuasive way than "we" otherwise manage to effect. Many many pages from now, we will see how he has done.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

For she had died at last

If the weather was bad all morning, my parents would abandon the idea of a walk, and I would remain at home. But, later on, I formed the habit of going out by myself on such days, and walking towards Méséglise-la-Vineuse, during that autumn when we had come to Combray to settle my aunt Léonie's estate; for she had died at last, vindicating at one and the same time those who had insisted that her debilitating regimen would ultimately kill her and those who had always maintained that she suffered from a disease that was not imaginary but organic...

At once one of the novel's characteristic achievements and its primary source of confusion is its slippery relationship with time. This may have been simultaneously intentional and unconscious. The novel is after all called In Search of Lost Time. But I'm not sure that Proust plotted out his narrative stream to describe events in time with quite the amount of befuddling fluidity as his natural writing style gravitates toward. This segment of a paragraph illustrates the enchanting craziness rather well. He begins in a way that speaks of how things generally were during childhood summers spent in Combray; the second sentence refers to somewhat more specific "later on"--namely, that one autumn when his family had to come to Combray after his aunt died. But this still exists in a vague, unspecified way--he is older than he was from his earlier Combray memories, but we don't know how old, and he is still not recalling specific events as much as general inclinations. The next number of pages he is now recalling that specific autumn in Combray but still, most often, in generalities. Even when he gets to one moment of specific memory, a few pages later, it is a memory of a particular awareness, completely having to do with internal feelings and recognitions, almost nothing to do with the actual concrete moment in time when he had the awareness.

Slippery stuff, but I think one's reading of the book is enhanced by trying to notice the way he slides in and around time and memories. That's really what he's up to here, not any kind of traditional narrative.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Derived not from books

The sculptor had also recorded certain anecdotes of Aristotle and Virgil, as precisely as Françoise in her kitchen was wont to hold forth about St. Louis as though she herself had known him, generally in order to depreciate, by contrast with him, my grandparents whom she considered less "righteous." One could see that the notions which the medieval artist and the medieval peasant (who had survived to cook for us in the nineteenth century) had of classical and of early Christian history, notions whose inaccuracy was atoned for by their honest simplicity, were derived not from books, but from a tradition at once ancient and direct, unbroken, oral, distorted, unrecognizable, and alive.

The narrator, in his elusive way, manages to put us inside a country church as he was just a moment earlier remembering a certain walk he and his family would take in the environs of Combray. We end up inside the church because he is remembering how they might take shelter there if it had begun raining while out on the walk. And there we are, both smoothly and abruptly, present with his memories about the church's interior. He recalls in particular the carved stone depictions of ancient saints and kings. The leaps he makes here are wonderful, and quite funny. Do not underestimate Proust's sense of humor.

We also see here one of the book's abiding, if subtle, themes: the disappearance of the remnants of feudal Europe, once and for all. Proust was on the scene as the ancient gave way to the modern, and noticed it, meditated on it, and commented on it. Maybe others were making similar comments at the time, but his are the ones with which we have largely been left.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Wholly Platonic satisfaction

It was an invitation which, two years earlier, would have incensed M. Vinteuil, but which now filled him with so much gratitude that he felt obliged to refrain from the indiscretion of accepting. Swann's friendly regard for his daughter seemed to him to be in itself so honourable, so precious a support that he felt it would perhaps be advisable not to make use of it, so as to have the wholly Platonic satisfaction of preserving it.

This is a very Proustian psychological wrinkle. I'm not sure how many people actually think like this--how much, that is to say, Proust continually and vigorously projected his own mini-neuroticisms onto his characters. But that may be besides the point. The mere process of his teasing out such observations--as here, with the composer Vinteuil, who was so moved by Swann's support that he preferred not to engage it--is itself the marvel. This long and winding book is full of such moments.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


The facts of life do not penetrate to the sphere in which our beliefs are cherished; they did not engender those beliefs, and they are powerless to destroy them...

This is why you can't argue with a zealot.

The complexity of circumstances

There is probably no one, however rigid his virtue, who is not liable to find himself, by the complexity of circumstances, living at close quarters with the very vice which he himself has been most outspoken in condemning...

The irony comes with those who are not, shall we say, rigid in their own virtue at all, yet remain sanctimonious in their condemnation of some alleged vice or another. Because Proust's comment here relates to a character--M. Vinteuil--whose daughter is widely suspected of being a lesbian (the word of course is not uttered), a certain recent vice president (ah! "vice" president!) of the U.S. comes to mind.