Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Book Notes: Time Regained (Proust)

Well, there you go. Crossing the finish line of À la recherché du temps perdu is a bit like returning from a religious retreat: you want to encourage others to have the experience; and yet it is impossible to describe the experience to others without lapsing into insufficient clichés. Perhaps it’s best to repeat what a professor said to our class one year: “You have to read it; it’s only like the best novel ever written!”

It’s also a novel that ends by explaining its composition. Our narrator has struggled to make sense of time, memory, identity and the impossibility of knowing others for the last five volumes, and here he comes to enough conclusions to become a writer. It will be through his literary recollections of little moments in his life that he will create a timeless self outside of the flood of sensory experiences. And so, he will write the books that we have just read. It might be worth reading the last volume before the others in order to understand them.

Certainly, one of the daunting aspects of the books is that they have so little in the way of “plot points”. Yes, there are multiple characters with manifold experiences; but each volume seems to have only a handful of “events”, such as a party, a meeting on the beach, a discussion of literature, and a play. This is a novel, after all, whose most famous plot point is the character eating a cookie; and for readers who are used to reading novels that lurch from one event to another, the tone can be maddeningly languid. The basic outline of Volume VI is: walks with Gilberte, how Paris adjusted to the War, a walk with Charlus and encounter with him in a hotel of ill repute, thoughts on literature and Time, a reception at the Duchesse du Guermontes and at the home of the actress Berma, and starting the work. Aside from an incident of sadomasochism in the hotel, these pages are not “action packed”.

Somehow in these uneventful pages, Proust manages to detail a great amount of human life as experienced within consciousness. His narrator’s inner monologue rivals Hamlet’s for sheer twists and turns, and at many points, we the readers seem to recognize areas in which our narrator is lying to us and to himself. His final message seems to be that time makes liars out of us all.

It is hard, therefore to escape the trite thought that Proust would have been a hell of a blogger. The way he combines narrative and essay, fiction and autobiography; his constant digressions; his dry mockery and fascination with the subtle markers of society; and even his psychological acuity would all translate quite well to the digital page. The reservation that Proust tends to be a bit loquacious is easily answered by separating his paragraphs and imagining them as individual “posts”. They all hold up quite well and each one contains some striking and shrewd insight.

I'm going to pick a paragraph at random and transcribe it:
“But, by a strange coincidence, this rational fear of danger was taking shape in my mind at a moment in which In the past the fear of no longer being myself was something that had terrified me, and this had made me dread the end of each new love that I had experienced, because I could not bear the idea that the “I” who loved them would one day cease to exist, since this in itself would be a kind of death. But by dint of repetition this fear had gradually been transformed into a calm confidence. So that if in those early days, as we have seen, the idea of death had cast a shadow over my loves, for a long time now the remembrance of love had helped me not to fear death. For I realized that dying was not something new, but that on the contrary since my childhood I had already died many times. To take a comparably recent period, had I not clung to Albertine more tenaciously than to my own life? Could I at the time when I loved her conceive my personality without the continued existence within it of my love for her? Yet now, I no longer loved her, I was no longer the person who loved her but a different person who did not love her, and it was when I had become a new person that I had ceased to love her. And yet I did not suffer from having become this new person, from no longer loving Albertine, and surely the prospect of one day no longer having a body could not from any point of view seem to me as sad as had then seemed to me that of one day no longer loving Albertine, that prospect which now was a fact and one which left me quite unmoved. These successive deaths, so feared by the self which they were destined to annihilate, so painless, so unimportant once they were accomplished and the self that feared them was no longer there to feel them, had taught me by now that it would be the merest folly to fear death..."
It goes on a bit longer, but you get the point. Incidentally, I really love the idea of successive selves dying throughout life. Part of Proust's interest in these novels is in the ways we try to spatialize time: to understand experiences in time as limited and boudned in the same way objects in space are- a doomed enterprise because experiences in time are never isolated from the past, and really not from the future either. His interest in this subject, incidentally, comes from the philosopher Henri Bergson, who wrote a whole book on the topic. In a way, In Search of Lost Time is how Proust does philosophy in response to this and a number of other philosophical issues.

Of course, some paragraphs are more striking than others, but if you read them at random, it soon becomes evident that Proust made some striking insight on every single page of a work that runs to over 4,000 pages in the Modern Library edition. There’s really nothing comparable in literature and sadly one must note that there’s no blogger in the world who writes anything like Proust.

However, there’s no reason that shouldn’t change. Every aspiring writer should read these books because they teach us not only how to write, but how to do philosophy in our everyday life, and thus they provide one map to thinking.

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