Monday, December 02, 2013

Proust: Some Beginning Thoughts and Some Afterthoughts

I suppose it is some kind of irony that I am beginning my reading of Proust just as the rest of the world is finishing its. Fine, big deal: maybe I am in some other time zone. I'm not even sure what started me on this latest exercise although I do know I was flailing around for something to sink my teeth into; and it may have had something to do with this guy.

This would be my third reading of Proust, more or less, if I tough it out, which I very likely will not. I'm a little coy with the "more or less;" reason is that I never read it through as a sustained exercise but over the years, I'd say I've been through it twice--more if you count those wonderful Neville Jason CD (I did the "abridged" not the whole nine yards).  I even had the Jasons with me for a couple of days while I languished sick in my hotel room in Uzbekistan and that was a little weird, let me tell you: they were on shuffle and I was super medicated and I would drift in and out of these glorious, disconnected little jewels.

I can note a few things about this new venture that will distinguish it from previous outings.  One, an insight I think I owe to the best of all short intros to Proust (at least that I've seen).  That would be Sur Proust by the French belle-lettrist Jean-François Revel.  It was Revel, if memory serves, who argued that Proust is perhaps best understood not as a conventional novelist but as an essayist in the tradition of Montaigne.  That strikes me as entirely right. Think of it: the plot of Proust is improvisational, almost perfunctory.  But every page or two or three, Proust is saying something on the order of "it reminded me of.." and flying off into one of those jewels I was describing before.    Montaigne also, of course, takes second place to no on as a student of his own inner life. Well: to no one except Proust.

Another: I think I understand Proust's style better than I did.  Everyone talks about the famously long sentences. There are plenty of those.  My college dorm-mate Mark Strand called them "great cathedrals of commas and semicolons."  And dense, no doubt about that.

But be careful here: dense but not abstruse.  I indulged myself by rebuking an old friend just this afternoon for treating Joyce and Proust as the same.  I think that is wildly of base.  Joyce is a trickster, a leprechaun.  He takes pride in his puzzle-making.   He used to boast that people would still be trying to figure him out after 100 years.  Proust's sentences may be sinuous, serpentine. But disentangle them and their meaning is always exactly clear.  I'm pretty sure there is a rhetorical purpose to the complexity (though I probably haven't doped it out),  But I know there is one, and that it adds to the book's bite, power and drive).

[And BTWFWIW, the book is not all serpentine sentences.  "Combray" in Swann's Way can be almost daunting in its complexity. But turn the page and begin "Swan in Love" and you find yourself in an entirely different world.  Somebody (Joseph Epstein) said that Proust set out to write a trashy novel and by mistake wrote a masterpiece.  "Swann in Love makes that case."]

And finally, the French.  The first time through, I stuck to the old standard Scott-Moncrieff translation.    The second, I went for Kilmartin.  This time, I thought well, I really  ought to try the original. That was when I downloaded a French version (along with a Lydia Davis English) plus a French dictionary.  And it worked like ma--well, no, not quite magic.   Passages that I remember well in English--those I find I can plow through in the French.  Others--well, I can make some headway with extensive access to the dictionary.  Too bad.  I can see that for a book like this, there really is no second best.  But the fact is, I'd rather read than struggle.  Maybe in my fourth read...

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