Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Remembrance or Search?

The following passage from Part Two of WITHIN A BUDDING GROVE is a typical Proustian meditation on memory,both poetic and philosophical. It also provides a strong argument for translating A LA RECHERCHÉ DU TEMPS PERDU as REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST rather than IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME.

Proust writes: “That is why the better part of our memories exists outside us, in a blatter of rain, in the smell of an unaired room or of the first crackling brushwood fire in a cold grate: wherever, in short, we happen upon what our mind, having no use for it, had rejected, the last treasure that the past has in store, the richest, that which, when all our flow of tears seems to have dried at the source, can make us weep again. Outside us? Within us, rather, but hidden from our eyes in an oblivion more or less prolonged. It is thanks to this oblivion alone that we can from time to time recover the person that we were, place ourselves in relation to things as he was placed, suffer anew because we are no longer ourselves but he, and because he loved what now leaves us indifferent. In the broad daylight of our habitual memory the images of the past turn gradually pale and fade out of sight, nothing remains of them, we shall never recapture it. Or rather we should never recapture it had not a few words (such as this ‘head of the Ministry of Posts’) been carefully locked away in oblivion, just as an author deposits in the National Library a copy of a book which might otherwise become unobtainable.”

Reading Proust is by turns ecstatic, intellectual, humorous, philosophical, and boring. In the above exquisite passage he analyzes memory, its relationship to concrete imagery and abstract emotions. Then he returns to the story, to M.’s train journey from Paris, away from his habits and pain over Gilberte, to his stay in Balbec, where new scenery and characters distract him from his neuroses.

Sometimes I tire of M.’s stream-of-consciousness. I admit I’m occasionally as bored by M. as Gilberte must have been. At other times I’m immensely amused, as when he describes the snobbish clientele at the hotel and the deterioration of the service after maid Francoise makes friends with some of the hotel employees (she refuses to disturb them on behalf of her employers).

It’s a long, brilliant, beautiful novel by a neurotically attentive writer who can turn a piece of furniture or a train journey into poetic prose.

M is such a sexist, though. Only his grandmother and the women of her generation are portrayed as well-educated and sympathetic. M. sees most women only as sexual beings or, in the case of Odette, as a kind of ideal fashion plate.

Five and a half more volumes to go...

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