Thursday, June 29, 2017

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.

The last chapter of The Fall redeems the irritating monologue that precedes it, in fact is only possible because of that monologue, only has meaning because of that annoying narration. The weakly-argued theology, the self-centered philosophy, are all the point, a representation of an egotist's misreading of the Gospel. The narrator wants to believe he is a modern-day prophet, a John the Baptist crying in the desert, passing judgment on all mankind, standing above civilization. But when he says, "Open the window a little, please; it’s frightfully hot. Not too much, for I am cold also" we know that his deeds are known and he is lukewarm, so he is spat from Christ's mouth, alone in his cell with the ironic evidence of his crimes, not quite always convinced of his superiority. He is in hell, a hell of his own making.

"I am happy, I tell you, I won’t let you think I’m not happy, I am happy unto death!"

A pretty good book. I'd forgotten how it ends.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


Yes, so it is; and that went farther and farther with all sorts of variations. My God! when I remember all my cowardly acts and bad deeds, I am frightened. And I remember that 'me' who, during that period, was still the butt of his comrades’ ridicule on account of his innocence.

And when I hear people talk of the gilded youth, of the officers, of the Parisians, and all these gentlemen, and myself, living wild lives at the age of thirty, and who have on our consciences hundreds of crimes toward women, terrible and varied, when we enter a parlor or a ball-room, washed, shaven, and perfumed, with very white linen, in dress coats or in uniform, as emblems of purity, oh, the disgust! There will surely come a time, an epoch, when all these lives and all this cowardice will be unveiled!

So, nevertheless, I lived, until the age of thirty, without abandoning for a minute my intention of marrying, and building an elevated conjugal life; and with this in view I watched all young girls who might suit me. I was buried in rottenness, and at the same time I looked for virgins, whose purity was worthy of me!
Lev Tolstoy, "The Kreutzer Sonata," Chapter VI
But these are all golden dreams. Oh, tell me, who was it first announced, who was it first proclaimed, that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else, and we all know that not one man can, consciously, act against his own interests, consequently, so to say, through necessity, he would begin doing good? Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure, innocent child! Why, in the first place, when in all these thousands of years has there been a time when man has acted only from his own interest? What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men, CONSCIOUSLY, that is fully understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger, compelled to this course by nobody and by nothing, but, as it were, simply disliking the beaten track, and have obstinately, wilfully, struck out another difficult, absurd way, seeking it almost in the darkness. So, I suppose, this obstinacy and perversity were pleasanter to them than any advantage.... Advantage! What is advantage? And will you take it upon yourself to define with perfect accuracy in what the advantage of man consists? And what if it so happens that a man's advantage, SOMETIMES, not only may, but even must, consist in his desiring in certain cases what is harmful to himself and not advantageous. And if so, if there can be such a case, the whole principle falls into dust.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes From Underground, Chapter VII
We are all exceptional cases. We all want to appeal against something! Each of us insists on being innocent at all cost, even if he has to accuse the whole human race and heaven itself. You won’t delight a man by complimenting him on the efforts by which he has become intelligent or generous. On the other hand, he will beam if you admire his natural generosity. Inversely, if you tell a criminal that his crime is not due to his nature or his character but to unfortunate circumstances, he will be extravagantly grateful to you. During the counsel’s speech, this is the moment he will choose to weep. Yet there is no credit in being honest or intelligent by birth. Just as one is surely no more responsible for being a criminal by nature than for being a criminal by circumstance. But those rascals want grace, that is, irresponsibility, and they shamelessly allege the justifications of nature or the excuses of circumstances, even if they are contradictory. The essential thing is that they should be innocent, that their virtues, by grace of birth, should not be questioned and that their misdeeds, born of a momentary misfortune, should never be more than provisional. As I told you, it’s a matter of dodging judgment. Since it is hard to dodge it, tricky to get one’s nature simultaneously admired and excused, they all strive to be rich. Why? Did you ever ask yourself? For power, of course. But especially because wealth shields from immediate judgment, takes you out of the subway crowd to enclose you in a chromium-plated automobile, isolates you in huge protected lawns, Pullmans, first-class cabins. Wealth, cher ami, is not quite acquittal, but reprieve, and that’s always worth taking.
Albert Camus, The Fall

Which is to say, I'm reading Camus now (re-reading, I guess, since I first read The Fall back in the 80s) and yesterday late afternoon I realized that I've encountered this sort of narrative before--this tone of voice and this direct engagement of the protagonist with the reader--in Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy (both of which writers Camus had read). My experience this time around with The Fall is less happy than I think it was when I first read it, and I admit that I think less of this book than I do of The Stranger or The Plague. That latter book may well be Camus' real masterpiece, a restrained and beautiful novel.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Friday, June 9, 2017

thoughts on having finished Proust's "In Search of Lost Time"

Some Observations:

It often seems that In Search of Lost Time is less a novel than it is a multi-volume personal essay about memory and the failure of our intellect to grasp reality in the present. Leaping from Volume VI back to Volume I, I see that Proust has been making the same points about memory and experiential knowledge the entire time, but I didn't grasp what he meant in his exposition; it was only much later that I was able to share his understanding of how life can truly only be known in retrospect, through the working of memory outside of the stream of experience. The novel demonstrates the author's proposition through it's very structure. In Search of Lost Time is then, among other things, a 4,300-page expansion of Kierkegaard's well-known comment that "Life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards." But everyone knows that already.

Possibly Proust's theme of memory hides an even greater theme in Lost Time, a quite moral theme having to do with human relationships. The Narrator claims more than once that friendship is for him essentially an empty thing: at best a utilitarian mechanism for getting something he wants (sex, generally) through social connections, and at worst a complete waste of time. The Narrator of course has many character flaws and isn't ashamed to claim them as virtues (this is the primary source of Proust's comic irony throughout the many books of the novel). We are shown repeatedly how one person will (often willfully) misunderstand the motives and actions of another and will treat that other person thoughtlessly or with deliberately harmful intent, often just for the pleasure of spite and the wicked amusement of others. We are shown repeatedly (and, in the case of the Albertine-as-prisoner story, at great length) how a person can be blind to everything except a mistaken idea he clings to in his ignorance, refusing to abandon that idea even as he destroys another person. This ethical theme of Proust's is the same as that of Chekhov: we are all living badly, and we should stop it. We are half-blind monsters, mauling each other in a fog while shouting about love, unable (or unwilling) to accept the reality of each other*. This monstrousness is presented by Proust as a tragedy, as he can see no remedy for it. The best we can do is recognize our mistreatment of our loved ones in retrospect. In Search of Lost Time is a melancholy novel.

The plot doesn't matter. None of the events matter. One person's life is much like another's, and even a great hero of the Great War has spent most of his life off the battlefield, wasting time and looking past his friends at nothing, at his own prejudices, at his unfulfilled desires. The truth of our lives can be found just as much by gazing through a shop window at a new pair of kid gloves as it can be found in the struggle for existence. After all, one mourns the loss of a favorite pair of gloves much more than one mourns the loss of a sister, cousin, husband or wife. One was, it must be admitted, better acquainted with the gloves.

Again, this is a sad book. Marcel dissects and dismisses everyone, from poor fishermen to princesses and all comers in between, including himself. We are distant and unkind because we never see each other, not really, and one cannot be expected to love a person one has never met. Each of us is transitory, unnecessary, interchangeable and there is an endless supply of new humanity swarming to take up our places, our causes, our thoughts and mannerisms. Witness the section in Volume VI about "the Princess de Guermantes", a royal title that endures in the world for century upon century as the title is held by a succession of women, the most recent being a selfish and small-minded narcissist who has managed to marry and inherit her way upward from the shops to the nobility, but even she will die and there will be a new Princess de Guermantes, an empty tiara atop an expendable head. Witness also the changing of social places between Madame Verdurin (who has become that most recent Princess de Guermantes) and Oriane, the Duchess de Guermantes (who is originally introduced to us as a magical creature, the apex of elegance and style); Oriane in Volume VI finally comes to possess the mocking laughter and appalling humor exhibited by Mme Verdurin in volumes I-V.

Some Complaints:

This is a long book. We all know that, right? Every reader seems to find something he must drag himself through, some resistant narration to overcome, some seemingly-endless swamp to cross. I don't understand the readers who find the party scenes dull; they all struck me as vibrant, living scenes full of action and humor and irony. In fact, any time three or more people gather together, there are bound to be hijinks. But what was it that made me pray for either death or sudden speed-reading abilities? Oh, yes: The Captive and Marcel's endless suspicions that Albertine might be having lesbian affairs, and his examination of every detail of Albertine's life in search of evidence by which to condemn her. I can't tell you how happy I was when Francoise announced to Marcel that Albertine had packed her bags and fled the house. The scenes which follow--the opening of The Fugitive, that is--are fairly packed with comedy as Marcel reaches increasingly great heights of nervous fluttering about as he plots to get Albertine back or, if he can't have her, he plans to kill himself on the front steps of Albertine's mother's house. That'll show her.

Yes, yes, Albertine, the love of Marcel's life until he forgets all about her, is barely sketched in; we learn nothing about her mind or personality except those impressions had by Marcel, who knows less about the interior world of Albertine than I know about the interior world of my cat. Some readers see this as a weakness in Proust's writing. I recognize it as a central pillar of Proust's characterization of the Narrator. Marcel the narrator is not Marcel Proust the author of the book. Imagine if Anthony Burgess had only written A Clockwork Orange, and readers assumed Burgess was essentially the same person as young Alex. Proust sees the moral and intellectual weaknesses of Marcel.

Still, Proust himself seems to have been something of a weirdo. But really, get to know anyone well enough, and you see their eccentricities. Write enough prose and your own eccentricities will rise to the surface of the work. I claim to know something about this. But what was I saying? Oh, the dull parts. I'm in the camp of readers who grew exhausted reading many sections in which a single idea was examined and rephrased again and again and again as Proust (or Marcel; hard to say here) sought the perfect analogy and failed to find it. Sometimes there is less deep and probing meditation than there is waffling about in the hope that inspiration will eventually strike. In Search of Lost Time employs techniques of comparison, showing us for example different sets of people engaged in essentially the same activities but believing themselves inhabitants of foreign worlds, and these comparisons continue across the length of the novel and successfully expose the Verdurin set and the Guermantes set to be the same people in different hats. The technique of comparision lends itself less well to abstract ideas, and this is I think a weakness of In Search of Lost Time. Some of Proust's pet ideas are unhappily static and despite the author's best efforts, these ideas do not get up and dance no matter how insistent the tune Proust plays. Happily, for me at least, these static sections always end and there's another party, or Charlus comes prancing up the sidewalk. The inserted essays about art and writing, on the other hand, are worth their weight in gold. Really good stuff in every volume.

Some Other Things:

The ending, so I have read many times, is where we learn that In Search of Lost Time is a K├╝nstlerroman, the story of a writer named Marcel becoming a writer, as if his discovery that he has a work of art in him is the primary point toward which the novel has built, the thematic and dramatic climax of the work. I think people who say this are mistaking structure for content. Volume VI is the author instructing the reader on how to read In Search of Lost Time. Marcel becoming a writer, as a sick old man, is plot, not subject matter. The novel is not an adventure unfolding over time. The Odyssey is more than the story of an old king who tries to go home and then finally goes home. Just because Odysseus sits in his great hall with Penelope at the end of the story does not mean that the story is about him getting to that point. See above about the moral theme of the novel. My complaints, I begin to realize, are mostly concerned with things I've read about Proust, not so much with Mr Proust's work itself. Huh. I am a cranky old reader trying to go home, maybe. This post is the story of me getting to the end of this post, realizing that I could write a post about this post. This is not that post I realized I could write. In Search of Lost Time is not the novel Marcel realized he could write. That novel is on the shelf of Borges' imaginary library.

Speaking of Marcel as a sick old man, Proust died before he finished revising the final volume, and I think that's evident; in many places there is a rough work-in-progress quality, of unstitched hems and sleeves tacked into place awaiting a final fitting. You can tell that the last paragraph of the book, with it's lovely image (of a man walking on ever-lengthening legs which raise him daily farther above his birth so as to lengthen his physical body as his existence in time grows progressively longer until one day his legs are so long that they can no longer support him and he topples over, falling to his death), has been polished and worked at by Proust, so perfect is it in tone and rhythm. But the fifty pages before this gem are quite uneven and I am sure that Proust would've done a lot of work on them had he lived longer. Even the final long party scene (how pleased I was when Proust gave me another party in the Faubourg Saint Germain), where Proust drags nearly every character who's appeared in the book back onto the stage for a final bow, has events out of order and odd repetitions and contradictions. I can't say what Proust would've done with Volume VI had he lived except that surely he'd have resolved the narrative contradictions, smoothed out the sketchy ideas of the last fifty pages, and gosh we can all predict that it would've been a hundred or two hundred pages longer. Which would've been fine. I'd have read another two hundred pages, especially of party scenes.

I claim the unfinished state of the novel for my uncertainty as to what Proust was getting at in some places in Volume VI. The idea of characters taking on the habits and ideas of other characters, of each of us being not one person but many people who are born and die in succession without realizing it (the new identities visible only to outside observers who have been out of contact with us long enough for our internal changes to have come to the surface), is a good one and Proust makes good use of it. I assume that's what he's doing when he has Marcel state that he plans to withdraw from society in order to concentrate on his writing, the only contact he'll desire being that of young girls whom he might shower with gifts and someday maybe be kissed on the cheek, and Gilberte introducing Marcel to her own sixteen year-old daughter for this very purpose. That is an odd episode, and the best I can make of it is that Marcel is taking the place of the late M. Bergotte, whose behavior in this vein is described early in The Captive:
For years past Bergotte had ceased to go out of doors. [...] He was generous above all towards women — girls, one ought rather to say — who were ashamed to receive so much in return for so little. He excused himself in his own eyes because he knew that he could never produce such good work as in an atmosphere of amorous feelings. Love is too strong a word, pleasure that is at all deeply rooted in the flesh is helpful to literary work because it cancels all other pleasures, for instance the pleasures of society, those which are the same for everyone. And even if this love leads to disillusionment, it does at least stir, even by so doing, the surface of the soul which otherwise would be in danger of becoming stagnant. Desire is therefore not without its value to the writer in detaching him first of all from his fellow men and from conforming to their standards, and afterwards in restoring some degree of movement to a spiritual machine which, after a certain age, tends to become paralysed. We do not succeed in being happy but we make observation of the reasons which prevent us from being happy and which would have remained invisible to us but for these loopholes opened by disappointment. Dreams are not to be converted into reality, that we know; we would not form any, perhaps, were it not for desire, and it is useful to us to form them in order to see them fail and to be instructed by their failure. And so Bergotte said to himself: "I am spending more than a multimillionaire would spend upon girls, but the pleasures or disappointments that they give me make me write a book which brings me money." Economically, this argument was absurd, but no doubt he found some charm in thus transmuting gold into caresses and caresses into gold.
I was pleased with the way, about four pages from the end, Marcel loops back around to the night when Swann visited his parents at Combray and Marcel's mother did not come upstairs to kiss Marcel goodnight, choosing instead to remain in the parlor until Swann had left. Swann's coming between Marcel and his mother that evening was the beginning of the end of Marcel's childhood and innocence, Swann's life casting a shadow all through Marcel's days, from one end of time to the other.

* Witness the "air raid" scene early in Volume VI, in which Parisians rush to the Metro--its tunnels in complete darkness--where they hope to find a willing partner for anonymous sex, to engage with others at a purely physical level, simultaneously intimate and absent, simultaneously vulnerable and invulnerable, simultaneously naked and fully-armored, as all the while the City of Lights above their heads is being bombed into rubble. 


  1. I don't think the last 50 pages are all that unfinished. Much of Time Regained was written right after Proust wrote Swann's Way. It had been ready to go back when he was writing a three-volume novel. But of course it had to be revised to incorporate the novel's endless expansions, including the entirety of the Albertine novels - the second volume of which is thought to be the most unfinished piece - and the passage of actual time.

    Such is my understanding.

    It drives me crazy when people say Marcel, in the end, writes this novel. No, no, he writes a different novel, quite possibly one in which the narrator, Proust, is gay and half-Jewish and has a brother named Robert and so on, and who at the end of that novel learns to write this novel.
  2. I'm not sure that knowing when something was first drafted tells us much about the amount of work an author was able to put into it before publication, if you see what I mean. Aside from the last page, the work doesn't exactly go out with a bang on that final section. Possibly some of that is because Montcrieff didn't translate the last volume.
  3. Right, but I think it's an error to assume too much the other way.

    The "bang" is the series of sensory impressions evoking specific unrelated memories. I don't remember exactly where that is.


    1. Marcel's epiphanies come as he's on the steps of the Duke de Guermantes' house, right before the final big party scene. That's about halfway through Volume VI. That's a swell scene, with Marcel deliberately stumbling on the uneven pavements to hang onto the memory, while the footmen laugh at him. Such an electric scene that I missed my stop on the train.
  4. I like this post very much and perhaps some day I will appreciate it even more because I will have read, not bits and scraps but the whole long multi-volume extravaganza with its parties and boredom and transformations.


    1. A gigantic, messy masterpiece. It wasn't really what I thought it would be, but the best books never are!
  5. I am in awe. This comic account by Russell Baker of his attempt to read Proust very much reflects my own failure with the books:


    1. I suffered through something like Baker's experience when I tried to read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. I had to call in an emergency rescue team to carry me down from about page 350, when I could go on no longer.
    2. Have you written about why on the blog? Just curious. Have not made the attempt.
    3. Never mind! I found it...
  6. Thank you for this. This is fascinating. I did read through the whole thing many, many years ago, hoping with each new volume that all the various pieces will fall into place. But they never quite did. And I was sure there was something very important that I was missing. Reading your post, I think what was missing was sufficient experience of life. I was very young when I read it (mid 20s) and I simply had not lived enough. But, having read your post, I feel like diving into it again. I'll still fail, I'm sure, but maybe this time I'll fail better.

    The older I get the more I wonder just how much of what I've read I've actually managed to take in. With Proust, especially, I don't think I even scrape pass marks.


    1. I think Proust would've left me mostly baffled and bored when I was in my 20s; I'd surely have thought that I was better than it, that it failed to meet my standards, whatever snotty self-centered standards those would've been. Yes, experience is the key to successfully reading Lost Time, I agree. Until a reader can look back himself on his own life, he's not really going to understand Proust's project, is he? I wonder how the book will look to me in ten or fifteen years when (I hope) I read it again.

      I've been returning to some of the books I read in my 20s, and seeing how completely I misunderstood the works then. My head was full of rubbish and self-regard and cheap ideas of cleverness. Also, I think, I was probably blind to all but the most overt irony. Most forms of narrative subtlety were lost on me.

Friday, June 2, 2017

my apprehensions on the subject of my death

...and I understood but too well that the sensation the uneven paving-stones, the taste of the madeleine, had aroused in me, bore no relation to that which I had so often attempted to reconstruct of Venice, of Balbec and of Combray with the aid of a uniform memory. Moreover, I realised that life can be considered commonplace in spite of its appearing so beautiful at particular moments because in the former case one judges and underrates it on quite other grounds than itself, upon images which have no life in them. At most I noted additionally that the difference there is between each real impression—differences which explain why a uniform pattern of life cannot resemble it—can probably be ascribed to this: that the slightest word we have spoken at a particular period of our life, the most insignificant gesture to which we have given vent, were surrounded, bore upon them the reflection of things which logically were unconnected with them, were indeed isolated from them by the intelligence which did not need them for reasoning purposes but in the midst of which—here, the pink evening-glow upon the floral wall-decoration of a rustic restaurant, a feeling of hunger, sexual desire, enjoyment of luxury—there, curling waves beneath the blue of a morning sky enveloping musical phrases which partly emerge like mermaids' shoulders—the most simple act or gesture remains enclosed as though in a thousand jars of which each would be filled with things of different colours, odours and temperature...

Yes, if a memory, thanks to forgetfulness, has been unable to contract any tie, to forge any link between itself and the present, if it has remained in its own place, of its own date, if it has kept its distance, its isolation in the hollow of a valley or on the peak of a mountain, it makes us suddenly breathe an air new to us just because it is an air we have formerly breathed, an air purer than that the poets have vainly called Paradisiacal, which offers that deep sense of renewal only because it has been breathed before, inasmuch as the true paradises are paradises we have lost. And on the way to it, I noted that there would be great difficulties in creating the work of art I now felt ready to undertake...

...the being within me which sensed this impression, sensed what it had in common in former days and now, sensed its extra-temporal character, a being which only appeared when through the medium of the identity of present and past, it found itself in the only setting in which it could exist and enjoy the essence of things, that is, outside Time. That explained why my apprehensions on the subject of my death had ceased from the moment when I had unconsciously recognised the taste of the little madeleine because at that moment the being that I then had been was an extra-temporal being and in consequence indifferent to the vicissitudes of the future. That being had never come to me, had never manifested itself except when I was inactive and in a sphere beyond the enjoyment of the moment, that was my prevailing condition every time that analogical miracle had enabled me to escape from the present. Only that being had the power of enabling me to recapture former days, Time Lost, in the face of which all the efforts of my memory and of my intelligence came to nought.
The Great War is over, and Marcel returns to Paris where he has an epiphany concerning the difference between the real workings of memory and the social construction of reality. He thinks that maybe, after all, he could have an art project.

Meanwhile, Baron Charlus has become quite a sad figure indeed.