Sunday, June 28, 2009

Swann's Way - Marcel Proust (incomplete)

About a year ago, while reviewing Desolation Angels, I mentioned that I wanted to read Proust. Like Kerouac, Proust is one of the few major literary figures who made a career off of writing thinly-veiled autobiography and describing the experiences of his real life, rather than searching for the fantastic fictional scenario to elucidate and transmit an idea of complexity. Proust is also one of the most eccentric figures in modern literature--being pretty much a bonafide hermit who never really had a job and lived off his parents fortunes until he took his famous "cork-lined" room after the devastating death of his mother. In this room, he wrote all seven volumes of the almost 3,000 page "longest book of all time"--of which Swann's Way is volume 1. Proust is a major intellectual giant--it is clear--but his eccentricity also clearly shines through in his work, and that can make it a bit inaccessible for readers, which is the only explanation I have for the now-third (incomplete) in the title of this post.

Part of the reason I picked up this book was the new Yo La Tengo song where Ira Kaplan says he never read Proust because it seemed too long. Yeah, I pretty much felt it was time to give it a shot, and I tried, and I got through about sixty pages, and I want to move onto something by Garcia Marquez, a novel I tried to read about five years ago and stopped for reasons I can't recall. So there's a little sneak preview for you. But this next book is long too and will probably take me a couple weeks.

Here is my feeling on Swann's Way: in the introduction to my volume, Lydia Davis says something about why the text is difficult. Not only are there the famously long sentences, but there is also the indescribable detail inherent in them. At a lot of these details, the reader may be moved to say, "Who cares--get on with the story you colossal bore!" Davis points out that the reader must adjust to Proust's speed--slow down, as it were, be content to savor the static. And yes, I greatly admire Proust's ideology and concept behind his work. When I first heard about him, I thought it lied very close to the same aims I hoped to produce in my own work--the inexplicable singularity of a life, with all of its attendant idiosyncrasies, which thereby educates an audience more as to the total "meaning of existence." Lofty ambitions indeed, and I will say, after 60 pages, that I am sure Proust succeeds on his own philosophical level, but that 21st century American readers will find it extremely difficult to "dig."

That said, whenever my life becomes "more intellectual" and I'm "less stressed out"--I will return to Proust--and it won't take someone else convincing me that it's worthwhile like that previous (incomplete) post. Despite the long stretches of boredom, there appear sentences of unusual beauty, and these random moments, for me, make all of the tedium worthwhile:

"My great-aunt was so used to seeing Swann always as the same adolescent that she was surprised to find him suddenly not as young as the age she continued to attribute to him. And my family was also beginning to feel that in him this aging was abnormal, excessive, shameful, and more deserved by the unmarried, by all those for whom it seems that the great day that has no tomorrow is longer than for others, because for them it is empty and the moments in it add up from morning on without then being divided among children." (34)

And of course there is the famous petites madeleines passage that occurs at the end of the first section of this volume. It is highly quotable and spells out the raison d'etre of the work as a whole:

"....But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately rendered the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not merely inside me, it was me. I had ceased to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Where could it have come to me from--this powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected to the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it went infinitely far beyond it, could not be of the same nature. Where did it come from? What did it mean? How could I grasp it? I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third that gives me a little less than the second. It is time for me to stop, the virtue of the drink seems to be diminishing. Clearly, the truth I am seeking is not in the drink, but in me. The drink has awoken it in me, but does not know this truth, and can do more than repeat indefinitely, with less and less force, this same testimony which I do not know how to interpret and which I want at least to be able to ask of it again and find again, intact, available to me, soon, for a decisive clarification...." (45)

No comments: