31 January 2017

[literature] I've Read Proust, And Here's The first Things I Thought About That

Just over two years ago I took up what, for many readers, is Everest: Reading Marcel Proust.

The work, many of you have heard of, if only as the punchline of a Monty Python joke (one of its most memorable, which is something, as this was part of the tag end of the series, after Cleese had left). "The All-England Summarize Proust Competition", which is absurd as a title in and of itself, was skit in which three entrants (two individual men and a chorus collectively as the third) attempted to cogently summarize the sweep of the seven-volume masterwork of the modern novel, In Search of Lost Time, a single novel in seven parts actually, in only 15 seconds.

How long is ISOLT (or, in French, A la recherche du temps perdu)? Wikipedia gave the following stats: 4,215 pages; 1,267,069 words. Perhaps needless to say, the prize went not to any of the contestants, but to the 'girl with the biggest tits'.

Sex sells.

Anyway, reading it was not always easy. There were stretches of days which I didn't crack open the volume I was in. It's called an 'oceanic' work; sometimes it was like swimming one. I'd never seen sentences that long, a writer so involved in describing every nuance of a thought, and, in places, as dry as the Sahara. ISOLT hits some beautiful highs and some very, very self-indulgent lows and middles. In more than one way, it's not one book, but several.

But was it worth reading? Definitely. My opinion of this book will probably evolve over the years to come, so this is far from the last word on it. But here's what I think, thus far:

The book is a great journey. It's much like life itself, within the mind; who amongst us doesn't have incredibly highs, low lows, all connected by banal betweens? In the more abstruse sense, though, the book tells of the paths that a person can take through life, and how they seem different, until that one moment when the epiphany happens and you see all the ways of your life as different versions of the same way, or two ways that intersect in more than one place. These observations we frequently miss, because we are looking for other things at the time.

In the course of the novel, Marcel is striving. He wants to create, to love and be loved, to be successful and celebrated as an artist. For many years, it eludes him. He wants to be a writer, but just never has all the pieces to start the story he feels he has in him.

At the end, though, understanding that time holds all the lost and wasted years in the folds of the ages to be revisited if one wants to take the time to look over them all, and seeing the evolution that time imposes on the very world he sees, and seeing that Swann's Way and the Guermantes Way are unified in the person of Mlle. Saint-Loup, he realizes, as the joke goes, that the material for his art was in him all along. The experiences of a lifetime that have not only aged his generation towards death but which have also made of him an old man. There he is, near the end of his own days, and all of a sudden, at last, with the enlightenment that the change of time provides, there are all the tools in front of him to create the art he had within him all that time, and knew it, and couldn't yet coax out.

At this point, it's the last 100 pages of La recherche that speak to me the loudest. I've tried to compel myself down avenues of artistic absorption and expression only to have every one of them sputter out before I've gotten very far. In that part of the book, the fictional Marcel is aging, and after years in sanitaria is aware of the heavy hand of mortality upon his shoulder. He's not at the end of his world, but he feels he can see it from there, and instead of frightening him and making him despondent that human life is a limited thing, it only fires his enthusiasm, with a brief plea to fate that he should live long enough to encompass his art, he energizes and digs in joyously.

The record of the research of his artistic material up to the point it attains critical mass is the six and a half books up unto that point, it all matters and enters into it: Bloch, Elstir, the Guermantes clan, the little clan of the Verdurins, Balbec, child hood, the madeleine, the relationships between all the people he knew, Charlus, Robert de Saint-Loup, the little band of girls, Albertine, Swann, Odette, everything united by his epiphanies about time's passing and catalyzed by the realization that Mlle. Saint-Loup united Swann's Way and the Guermantes Way into a grand unified whole.

At this point, as a starting point for my integration of the experience of reading Proust into my intellect and life, I'd say that the cogent thing for those of us who have tarried at realizing our own art to the point of thinking that we may as well give up, we'll never be the artist we fancy ourselves to be, is that we may not have hit that catalyzing moment just yet. We must be ready for it when it arrives, be watchful and aware, but try not to be too despondent or too aggravated that our motivation and firing up hasn't happened yet.

That … that's a troublesome thing on its own. You have to be ready, but you can't be too desperate or it may continue to elude you. Like the thing that runs from you until you stop looking for it, and then it comes to find you, you lose time while you define the terms and limits of your struggle.

It's like this, in a way: I, as many SF fans, adore Dune, that inconic Frank Herbert novel. But, for many years, it was beyond me. I found the beginning dull and densely worded, and couldn't get past the first 50 pages or so. Then, one day, it took off with me, swept me through it, and left me wanting to read it again. And I did. I've reread it many times since: there was a year, not too long ago, where most of my reading for the year was rereading Dune. 

I wasn't ready for a long time, but then, suddenly, I was.

And the last part of La recherche reminded me hard about that. I must be ready, I must keep prodding and searching until the suggestions my wife have given me, the way she and other people look at me, the way I look at myself, the talents I know I have within me just out of fingers' reach … there will be a catalystic place where all of a sudden they fall into the place.

But I have to keep pressing. Gently, firmly, maybe not too frantically, but continually.

There's a feeling of Zen in that. At least, Zen as I understand it.

But that's why sticking to the whole of In Search Of Lost Time, despite some of its dryer parts, is important. It all matters, in the end. It all becomes a perfect whole. 

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