Liveblogging temps perdu
September 6, 2012 § 3 Comments
Having watched La Regle de Jeu last night, it occurs to me that Proust composes both on the basis of the long-shot – so important for maintaining Renoir’s conception of the comedy of manners/social satire, holding groups of people together, at a distance, while they make fools of themselves – and the montage. Perhaps, properly speaking, he blurs the two, slipping from la comedie humaine into the disjunction of memory.
The old publishing saw about the need to hook the readers in during the first 50 pages, then you’ll have them for the rest of the book. One wonders whether this came after Proust – as the genre of the thriller, detective or adventure story reified – or whether he just obliterates it. The first 40 pages are taken up by the young narrator’s (we don’t know yet that he is Marcel) deliberations over whether to go to the theatre, & a lot of society conversation. This is, of course, a kind of repeat of the opening of Swann’s Way, in which the narrator spends vast numbers of pages establishing the (admittedly important) difference between mémoire volontaire & mémoire involontaire. One wonders how Benjamin, a writer whose work, at its most mature, is almost unbearably compressed, enjoyed it. But then is such compression – the telescoping perspective of memory, “the art of making things seem closer together” in WB’s words – merely the truth of the expansiveness of A la recherche?
Tariq Ali says that the virtue of Anthony Powell’s Dance To The Music Of Time, one of the few novels to approach the scope of A la recherche, as “a reflection of the social history of five crucial decades of the last century, beginning with the end of the first world war and ending with the turbulence of the 60s.” To which one wishes to reply, Yes, but why should we give a fuck? The classic account of the novel – as cannibalistic devourer & regurgitator of speech, habits, mores, feelings – assumes that these matters are automatically, in & of themselves, worth recording, & that mere recording is sufficient; in this its account sides, ultimately, “with the victors”. The juxtaposition in Proust – particularly emphasised in Swann’s Way, with its ‘Swann in Love’ interlude – of the society novel & the psychoanalytic enquiry redeems the former, by subjecting it to baroquely disjunctive temporalities, making its actuality recognisable in Benjamin’s sense.
The late Malcolm Bowie’s claim that memory is not the driving force behind the novel’s narrative looks rather flimsy in the light of the extraordinary involutions of time that structure the final 70 or so pages of ‘Madame Swann at Home’, the period in which the narrator makes his ‘break’ with Gilberte. Or perhaps rather it’s both – the social (the need, emphasised by Bowie, to know what Gilberte’s thoughts, intentions & actions are) & the ‘personal’. After all, it’s difficult to understand otherwise the interlude of conversation between Madame Swann’s lady-friends (see above (eventually)). There is in these pages simultaneously an incredible listlessness – a stretching-out of time with nothing to mark it – & an almost micrological attention to moments or details that exist within that stretch of time, but jut out of it like fractures, folds, undulations, jagged edges. This is particularly the case after New Year, at which point the narrator hopes for a letter from Gilberte that never arrives. ‘Hopes’ is, inevitably, not quite the right word. His hope is “unformulated”, and this hope is for it to be the case that “Gilberte, having wished to leave me to take the first steps towards a reconciliation, and discovering that I had not taken them, had been waiting only for the excuse of New Year’s Day to write to me”. His hope proceeds via the disavowal of hope, the annihilation of the mechanism of its realisation. This is, he admits (I can’t find the page now), precisely the means of ridding himself of the “exquisite poison” (is that quote right?) of Gilberte’s company & the need to see her. The spinning-out of this withdrawal over time, a withdrawal that “the pain… which is revived by certain memories, some cruel remark, some verb used in a letter that we have had from her” renews, prolongs and structures, corrolates with the displacement of agency onto another, an other who turns out also to be the self. At every step another intention is revealed behind what the mind thinks of as its motivation. Occasionally, in turn, the mind comments on this fact w/ an eye towards the future – as in the moment when a certain Albertine is mentioned in conversation.
Interpersonality in Proust proceeds through an archaeology of objects; it’s always-already historicised & mediated by class, impacted by the long decline of the bourgeoisie. The world of human beings, that wh/ ideology claims as always present, natural & immediate is, as Benjamin says of nature, a world of lustrous ruins. (Unsurprising in this regard that Sagan doffs his hat w/ an “as it were, allegorical flourish in which he displayed all the chivalrous courtesy of the great nobleman bowing in token of respect for Womanhood” (p. 251)) Thus the whole of Madame Swann’s adornment & decorum: “in the sleeves of the jacket that lay folded across my arm I would see, and would lengthily gaze at, for my own pleasure or from affection for its wearer, some exquisite detail, a deliciously tinted strap, a lining of mauve satinette which, ordinarily concealed from every eye, was yet just as delicately fashioned as the outer parts, like those Gothic carvings on a cathedral, hidden on the inside of a balustrade eighty feet from the ground, as perfect as the bas-reliefs over the main porch, and yet never seen be any living man until, happening to pass that way upon his travels, an artist obtains leave to climb up there among them, to stroll in the open air, overlooking the whole town, between the soaring towers.” This is even more pronounced the last time the narrator muses over Madame Swann’s sartorial adornments, back on p. 222-228. “When, on a still chilly afternoon in spring, she had taken me… to the Zoo, under her jacket, which she opened or buttoned-up according as the exercise made her feel warm, the dog-toothed edging of her blouse suggested a glimpse of the lapel of some non-existent waistcoat such as she had been accustomed to wear some years earlier, when she had liked their edges to have the same slight indentations… She need only ‘hold out’ like this for a little longer and young men attempting to understand her theory of dress would say: ‘Mme Swann is quite a period in herself, isn’t she?’ As in a fine literary style which superimposes different forms but is strengthened by a tradition that lies concealed behind them, so in Mme Swann’s attire those half-tinted [sic?] memories of waistcoats or ringlets, sometimes a tendency, at once repressed, towards the ‘all aboard’, or even a distant and vague allusion to the ‘follow-me-lad’, kept alive beneath the concrete form the unfinished likeness of other, older forms”.
“Day after day, for years past,I had modelled my state of mind as best I could upon that of the day before”: surely Deleuze must have written on Proust? (Amazon sez yes: http://www.amazon.com/Proust-Signs-Complete-Gilles-Deleuze/dp/0816632588)
“even if I were fated, now that I was ill and did not go out by myself, never to be able to make love to them, (I was happy all the same, like a child born in a prison or a hospital who, having long supposed that the human organism was capable of digesting only dry bread and medicines, has learned suddenly that peaches, apricots and grapes are not simply part of the decoration of the country scene but delicious and easily assimilated food. Even if his gaoler or his nurse does not allow him to pluck those tempting fruits, still the world seems to him a better place and existence in it more clement. … And we think more joyfully of a life in which (on condition that we eliminate for a moment from our mind the tiny obstacle, accidental and special, which prevents us from personally from doing so) we can imagine ourselves to be assuaging that desire.”
I love the qualifications of positive statements in Proust, not least because it’s the only way I can ever find myself saying optimistic things. Even the baroque meanderings & the delicate irony of a formulation like this contain the tragic weight of the whole of A la recherche, the promise that happiness is endlessly deferred (though not necessarily in a temporal sense – more of which later perhaps). There’s something here to do with the idea that truth – the truth of the kind of strange idea that would never occur to those who actually do just roll in the hay w/ the peasant girls the narrator so admires – while expressing the distance of happiness, nonetheless allows a slight movement in its proximity, in a way wh/ wouldn’t happen w/out the former expression.
Something about Proust & nature: the fruit metaphors here, & the flowers on Mme Swann’s hat earlier.