A thing of beauty

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(review of The Swann’s, a novel by Marcel Proust)swann song

As a habitual reader, you probably have had at least one friend who will tell you that he/she sees no point in reading all those books. You might have struggled trying to explain to this friend the delights of reading – may be you had lectured him/her on how a particular book is incredible, enlightened him/ her about all the things that make it marvelous – only to discover that you can’t get the person excited. At the time we may judge such person for lack of imagination, but with time we realize that our explanations were not perfect. That is problem with beauty – no matter how analytical and detailed we get, something remains behind – we can’t describe what makes it beautiful to us; can’t capture it into words.

And so, how will one describe the beauty of Proust’s prose, especially when there is not much of the story? One might say that his descriptions – of flowers, places roads, clothes, music, paintings, emotions, trees, servants etc. are beautiful; he captures emotions or experiences – even momentary, fleeing ones – like none other; that his long sentences punctuated with perfection gives the experience of rising and falling notes of a symphony. And yet, those who have already read Proust know that this is no doing him justice. Anyway whatever I might say, Virginia Woolf will say it better:


“Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation and intensification that he procures – there is something sexual in it – that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can’t write like that. Scarcely anyone so stimulates the nerves of language in me: it becomes an obsession. But I must return to Swann.

My great adventure is really Proust. Well – what remains to be written after that? I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped – and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical – like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined.

Jacques Raverat…sent me a letter about Mrs Dalloway which gave me one of the happiest moments days of my life. I wonder if this time I have achieved something? Well, nothing anyhow compared with Proust, in whom I am embedded now. The thing about Proust is his combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity. He searches out these butterfly shades to the last grain. He is as tough as catgut & as evanescent as a butterfly’s bloom. And he will I suppose both influence me & make out of temper with every sentence of my own.”

There you have it from the expert. What Proust says in praise of a particular phrase of music can also be said about his prose:

“In that way Vinteuil’s phrase, like some theme, say, in Tristan, which represents to us also a certain acquisition of sentiment, has espoused our mortal state, had endued a vesture of humanity that was affecting enough. Its destiny was linked, for the future, with that of the human soul, of which it was one of the special, the most distinctive ornaments. Perhaps it is not-being that is the true state, and all our dream of life is without existence; but, if so, we feel that it must be that these phrases of music, these conceptions which exist in relation to our dream, are nothing either. We shall perish, but we have for our hostages these divine captives who shall follow and share our fate. And death in their company is something less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps even less certain.”

I know whatever I’ve left to say will be like a not-so-sweet after-meal dish.

Marcel Proust
Marcel Proust

One thing that turns one’s head is lack of plot and action in over 400 pages of the novel – Proust is rather interested in aesthetics and emotions. This is probably why Nobel laureate ‘Andre Gide’ who was asked for his advice by publishers turned the work down – those were the days of Tolstoy and Hugo. Proust had to self-publish it – and continued to do so with later works (not unlike Woolf). Gide later wrote to Proust apologizing for his dismissing latter’s work and congratulating him on success of his work calling his responsibility in whole affair as ‘one of most stringing and remorseful regrets of my life’.

And to be honest, I do not much care about plot. After reading Ulysses, I have an alien test – ‘How much will this novel help an alien, who never saw humanity, understand what human life is like?’ And this one gets full marks on the subject. Proust observes how novelist will use certain tricks (love-at-life-sight, big sacrifices, duels etc) to quickly create in his characters, emotions that develop at a far slower pace in real life. If you ask me, those tricks may make novels unrealistic – you probably will never get a chance to die for your love, it is with a pitying smile we read Bloom’s analysis of his option of calling his wife’s lover to duel, something we far easily accepted with a far less realistic Ulysses.

Proust defends novelists by arguing that, by using those tricks, writer can make you feel things you may never feel all your life. Still the development of those very emotions is far slower in Swann’ way than it is in other novels – and hence, the slow pace.

Proust brings out our relationship with memory in an incredible way – he can go on for pages describing the effects a single moment, a careless word or a minor gesture can have on a character – how some little incidence of everyday life can attack our mind with some intrusive evocative memory; how we edit, recreate, perfect or filter our memories in such a way that, when faced with the object whose memory it was – we either see nothing but our own version of it or are left dumb with the difference; and since it is that self-created version we have invested all our emotions in, the actual object might remain a total stranger to us – to which it is easier to be emotionally indifferent.

“Remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment”

In first chapter ‘Combray I’ – so beautifully translated as ‘Overture’, there is that beautiful episode of Madeleine – first of many examples of involuntary memory, a now psychological term which was coined by Proust. An involuntary memory is that portion of memory, a flashback, that is raised to consciousness involuntarily by cues (like sights, tastes, sounds, smells etc) encountered from everyday life without conscious effort.

Combray
Combray

The small chapter deserves five stars all by itself. Proust begins by telling us about separation anxiety suffered by him – another of those zillion things he describes so beautifully. He hated being separated from his mother in nights being asked to go to bed especially when guests were not round, since he knew he could no longer count on that last kiss that his mother gave him on other days, believing him to be asleep. Very similar separation anxiety is suffered by Swann for his lover Odette – often taking form of jealousy, make-beliefs, anticipation that forms the part of waiting and so on.

Separation anxiety, homosexuality, involuntary memory – one wonders how come Proust and Feud despite being contemporary never red each-other. There would have been much they could have like about each other.

Those beautiful descriptions of emotions are so perfect, so sensuous that one can’t, but wonder how sensitive Proust must have been of them. A higher consciousness is caused by higher sensitivity – in one scene, the narrator still a boy starts weeping when he has to be separated from flowers of Combray. Whenever I have come across this kind of emotional or sensual sensitivity, it has always been a result of (psychological) suffering of the artist – Dostoevsky, Woolf and Van Gogh etc. I searched (thus getting all this information), and Proust was no exception. Separation anxiety, something like ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’ and the secret of his homosexuality – sometimes, everything beautiful seem to have been created by touch of a suffering heart.


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