Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Proust and Self-Parody

I apologize for my current obsession to those who come here looking for a more scattered and slapdash approach. Next week when I gear up for the classroom, I suppose I'll have to turn my mind to more mundane matters.   For the moment, it's Proust again, and this time, the matter of self-parody.

But I start with my old college bud Larry Block.  Over something like 50 years now, Larry has established himself as a journeyman producer of mystery novels (here's his Facebook fan page) with a faithful and enthusiastic audience.  Among the many virtues of his work, we can count the fact that his books are darkly funny.  But before he became a player,  he apprenticed by churning out product for an outfit called Nightstand Books, whose genre was pretty much what you might guess it to be ("books to  be held with  one hand," oh snigger snort).  There's a genial account in his personal memoir, but you probably want to read some of his novels first.

I read a few Nighstands in those palmy times--purely as a matter of personal loyalty, oh yuk yuk.   And one of the main things I remember is that they were funny--intentionally funny, in a sense that was probably apparent to the reader and certainly to the author.   "It was Tippecanoe," wrote Larry, describing the main event, "and Tyler, as well."  Now, that is funny--funny enough for a college humor magazine at least, and funny enough to fend of boredom for the ink-stained wretch in the struggle to achieve his meagre coin.   Funny, I suppose as a kind of parody, perhaps self-parody, of what might be more exalted prose.  As the links above will suggest, there is even a modest retro-fan-base for this sort of trash stuff based in large part, I suspect, on their success as comedy.

Okay. now Proust.  Among Proust's many talents, it is said that he is a master of pastiche, the imitation of other's styles.  I speak with caution because he is writing, after all, in French, and my French is so primitive that I am sure I miss the best of it.  But I do know a couple of things about pastiche. One, it's almost always funny.  Even if you are trying to be deadpan, the very idea that it can be done, inevitably turns into a joke. And two, it is possible to pastiche oneself.  Think Ernest Hemingway. Any but the most faithful would admit that almost anything Papa wrote after, say, 1922, is an imitation of his (brilliant, but brief) creative flowering.  For almost all of it, if you didn't laugh you'd jump of a bridge.  Papa, unfortunately seems not to have realized that he was writing comedy, but then his bank balance didn't seem to care.  

Now at last turn to Proust, and consider in particular his description of his attempt (unsuccessful, as it turns out) to snatch a kiss from his beloved Albertine:
I found Albertine in bed. Her white nightgown bared her throat and altered the proportions of her face, which seemed of a deeper pink, because of the warmth of the bed, or her cold, or her recent dinner; I thought of the colors I had seen close at hand a few hours before on the esplanade, which were now going to reveal their taste; her cheek was bisected from top to bottom by a lock of her long black wavy hair, which to please me she had completely undone. She smiled at me. Beside her, through the window, the valley was bright with moonlight. The sight of her naked throat and her excessively pink cheeks had so intoxicated me (that is, had so transferred reality from the world of nature into the deluge of my own sensations, which I could barely contain) as to have upset the balance between the tumultuous and indestructible immensity of the life surging through me and the paltry life of the universe. The sea, which through the window could be seen beside the valley, the swelling breasts of the closest of the Maineville cliffs, the sky where the moon had not yet reached the zenith, all of this seemed to lie as light as feathers between my eyelids, at rest upon eyeballs in which I felt the pupils had expanded and become strong enough, and ready, to hold much heavier burdens, all the mountains in the world, on their delicate surface. Even the whole sphere of the horizon did not suffice to fill their orbits. Any impingement of the natural world upon my consciousness, however mighty, would have seemed insubstantial to me; a gust of air off the sea would have seemed short-winded for the vast breaths filling my breast. I leaned over to kiss Albertine. Had death chosen that instant to strike me down, it would have been a matter of indifference to me, or, rather, it would have seemed impossible, for life did not reside somewhere outside me: all of life was contained within me. A pitying smile would have been my only response had a philosopher expressed the view that, however remote it might be now, a day was bound to come when I would die, that the everlasting forces of nature would outlive me, those forces with their divine tread grinding me like a grain of dust, that after my own extinction there would continue to be swelling-breasted cliffs, a sea, a sky, and moonlight! How could such a thing be possible? How could the world outlive me, given that I was not a mere speck lost in it—it was wholly contained within me, and it came nowhere near filling me, since, somewhere among so much unoccupied space, where other vast treasures could have been stored, I could casually toss the sky, the sea, and the cliffs! “If you don’t stop that, I’ll ring!” Albertine cried. ...
Proust, Marcel (2005-01-25). In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 2 (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) (Kindle Locations 8641-8659). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition. 

Can we agree on a few points here?  One, properly understood this is beautiful   Two, every word of this rings true, in the respect that it is a fair representation of any besotted adolescent on his way to home third second first base.  Three, at least if you are alert, I'd say it is also very funny: funny in its portrait of adolescent passion, but funny also in its presentation of a writer when his words get away from him.  And finally, not least important, can we stipulate that Proust is in on the joke.  He knows he is laughing at his narrator.  He may also be laughing at countless unknowns who scrivened away at their own versions of Nightstand books. And he knows, finally, that the joke is on himself.  Proust the self-parodist.  Just like Larry Block.

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