Friday, December 04, 2009

A Refrain We Had Forgotten

When I started writing this blog in 2006, I was reading Proust. My very first entry was about baking madeleines, a subject I had also written a newspaper column on in the mid-1980s; but, being notoriously careless about hanging onto grist for future hamster litter, I lost my own essay. So 20 years later, there I went again. On March 6, 2006, I scribbled, “Reading Proust is by turns (an) ecstatic, intellectual, humorous, philosophical, and boring (experience)...”

I had intended to read all seven volumes, but a few weeks after that entry I gave up. A twilight quality of boredom drove me to shut The Guermantes Way. It’s something about this particular volume, the long dinner conversations about military strategies and the dismal descriptions of November. The conversation about the art of war is indeed enlightening if you're a hoplite or a football coach, in that Robert Saint-Loup explains that war maneuvers are drawn from historic battle maneuvers, only with different ends anticipated: sometimes what appears to be the real battle is a mere distraction from the important action happening elsewhere. This is also true of the action in Proust's world, I suppose. But I learn this reluctantly. I am extremely bored. And though we also deduce much about Saint-Loup and Marcel from these dialogues, it seems a waste of ink. We know the close link between the men and their mutual admiration is partly based on Marcel's attachment to Mme de Guermantes, though Saint-Loup is unaware of the importance of Marcel's crush. Marcel's interest in Saint-Loup's battles draws him away from his interest in the Duchesse, Saint-Loup's aunt.

I was enraptured by the style of Swann’s Way and liked Within a Budding Grove, but The Guermantes Way left me cold. Is it simply focusing on a dull period in Marcel's life? Is the writing more pedestrian? In a review in The Guardian of the 21st-century translations commissioned by Penguin, Paul Davis indicates that the prose of these translations, though based on the latest corrected manuscripts of Proust, is sometimes very "un-English." So perhaps it's not just me. (I'm reading Mark Treharne's Penguin translation, but read the other two in the Moncrief/Kilmarten translations. Should I switch back? But Davis likes the Penguin translation of The Guermantes Way.)

Now, more than three years later, I’ve decided to continue from where I left off in The Guermantes Way, and though I don’t remember all of what’s going on, I've decided it matters very little, because the whole novel seems to be one collection of loosely-connected essays.

Actually, it does matter. Last night I needed a quick reference to Balbec, a place mentioned by Saint-Loup, where the two of them originally met (a small detail, but one needs it). I own a self-styled guide, A Reader’s Guide to Remembrance of Things Past by Terence Kilmartin, but it’s not good for prompting a quick remembrance: look up Balbec and you get, “Remembered by the narrator: 19. Legrandin’s sister lives in the neighborhood: 73.” A whole page of puzzling references to page numbers in a translation you don’t have!


Thank God I know a bunch of francophiles. “Balbec is a resort,” my friend says.

Actually, my francophile friend thinks this whole thing is very funny. And I suppose it is. "It's not a real novel."

Cookies...Chambray...Grandmother...Francoise...Gilbrette...Albertine... It is all still there...somewhere. A brief synopsis of the first two books would be helpful. If I go back to the beginning of The Guermantes Way, I’m in danger of going all the way back to Swann’s Way, which I’ve already read three times on the principle that if I don’t read all seven books back-to-back I’ll never remember what is happening. Then i always get stuck and give up the project. If I want to read In Search of Lost Time in this lifetime, I have to go forward.

There are, fortunately, many rewarding passages unrelated to plot in The Guermantes Way. There is a beautiful essay on sleep. Remember Statius' ode to sleep? This is equally beautiful. Proust writes about different qualities of sleep, insomnia, and dreams. The meditation goes on for pages, but I’ll leave you with this line:

“The resurrection that takes place when we wake up--after that beneficent attack of mental derangement we call sleep--must in the end be similar to what happens when we recall a name, a line of poetry, or a refrain we had forgotten.”

If you know of a good guide to Proust, let me know!

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