Friday, March 25, 2011

with all my heart, I shall begin to think I have talent

(This post looked so long to me after I'd written it that I decided to split it in half. First part follows. Second part will go up later.)

Writing about Ibaraki and Mito I remembered the Dai Nihon Shi, whose title has been translated into English as the Great History of Japan, and then, because I was reading the Selected Letters of Marcel Proust (volumes one and two, translated by Ralph Manheim and Terence Kilmartin, respectively), I toyed with ideas about the way that things begin, and how that might be traced; and the impossibility of doing that tracing, and where a book might stand in the long thread that represents the progress of an idea -- how it starts somewhere, how different notions draw together, then coalesce in the book, then exit, diverge, and go on, not ending or dying but passing along, transformed after their passage through the alimentary canal of words, words, words, which Eliza Doolittle was so sick of that she sang about them -- I think I was wondering what a true biography would seem like, if we could ever make one, which, it seems, we can't, whatever it is.

Reading the two volumes of the Letters one can see that Proust wanted, from a point quite early in his life, to write something, without knowing what. By the end of the second volume he's finally started on the rough drafts that will turn into Swann's Way. But throughout most of the two volumes he is despairing or self-deprecating about his writing; he mentions his ambition to his friends, he mourns, he shrugs, he calls himself hopeless, spent force, a soul who might have done something with his life if he had ever found the strength to stop procrastinating, and he praises the work of the writers he knows, calling them majestic, wonderful, far above him.

"Your verses," he writes to Robert de Montesquiou, who, in in the middle of 1893, has sent him a copy of his latest poetry collection, "are the mysterious honey that is sweet as the sunlight … If one of these days I send you a magazine with something of mine in it, do not dwell on the absurdity of it following so closely on your gift of Le Chef de odeurs suaves -- an absurdity for which I should have to take responsibility if I had harboured the ridiculous thought that this earthworm could be regarded as an exchange for your starry firmament."

On another occasion, when Montesquiou includes a piece of his writing in a book he is publishing, and writes a complimentary introduction to his "young friend," Proust gives thanks to "that voluntary benevolence and to that involuntary power which causes whatever you write to be, as you say, 'tainted with immortality,' I am now immortal like the work as a whole, a matter for investigation for future scholars, who will wonder who this unknown called your 'friend' can have been. I thank you with all my heart, I shall begin to think I have talent and become insufferable." (23rd June 1897)

The irony of this is so painful that, reading the two books with twenty-first century hindsight, we have to conclude that these letters were written with perfect foresight -- the work of a clever author establishing an underdog character who will take flight at the last moment, like Dumbo, finally opening his ears and winning the Prix Goncourt.

Over the course of the letters the author shows us this character assembling material for a book without knowing it; skilfully he drops hints to make us aware that the character is developing a fascination with Ruskin, and he makes him start a correspondence with the Englishwoman Nordlinger, who will help him write his Ruskin translations. We know that this character will come up with a Narrator who, like Ruskin, will go to Venice and admire church architecture. He will have a transcendent theory of art. And there are thoughts in the letters that will be repeated and expanded in the book. "I invoke your axiom: 'A remark repeated at second hand is rarely true,'" the letter-writer tells Montesquiou in 1895, and more than two decades later the Baron de Charlus will repeat it in the Guermantes Way.*

The letters give us some ghostly idea of Lost Time's forelife, and we have some idea of the afterlife, at least as it exists up to this point, that is, the book is read, it is translated, and retranslated, it has been made into films and a stage play, Monty Python wrote a sketch about it, and a blogger publishing a recipe for gluten-free honey-spice madeleines can start her post with, "All of Proust’s remembrances began with one bite of a madeleines," although she "could never make it past the first sixty pages," due, her friend tells her, to a translation problem.

In other words, people will take his work, and its ideas, even ones it didn't knowingly have, but which they find in it, or which it triggers (its readers going on to write books that reviewers will call "Proustian," Joseph O'Neill and Netherland, for instance), and go on and on, the ideas picked out, or deduced, and someone writes How Proust Can Change Your Life, or Proust Was A Neuroscientist, or they start a website listing all the church buildings in Lost Time, so that the material that was drawn into a tight contraction by the book itself is freed, now that it has been written, writing not being an entrapment of ideas but a concentration of them -- not trapped any more than the sun is trapped when you focus it through a magnifying glass, the contraction drawing peoples' attention to the ideas, and turning them into sort of a solid, maybe let's say a bag, with a handle that can be grabbed and grasped, and so people grab this handle, and rummage inside the bag, and distribute whatever they find inside, and if they're critics they poke their fingers in the linings too, and come up with misplaced coins, shining or rusty.

But behind that, behind the letters, what unexplained beginnings, inside Proust, down there, in his unreadable brain? Why the love of Ruskin, why the thoughts in the letters that reassert themselves in the book, and why not different thoughts, and what labyrinths did everything move through before it surfaced like a whale and spouted in a letter, and why can no one ever know, and what would the information look like if we did? Where is most of everything? And what would we need to do to find it, hold onto Time, and stop it and examine it, as Lost Time would like to do although it can't, it knows it can't, and so it doesn't so much stop it as run around it in rings, linking and linking it to art or to the present, touching it, and assuring itself of time's presence?

* Moncrieff translates it like this:

Then in a gentle, affectionate, melancholy voice, as in those symphonies which are played without any break between the different movements, in which a graceful scherzo, amiable and idyllic, follows the thunder-peals of the opening pages: "It is quite possible," he told me. "Generally speaking, a remark repeated at second hand is rarely true."


  1. "And what would we need to do to find it, hold onto Time, and stop it and examine it" - we would need to be more than human, surely? Great questions, made no less interesting by being completely unanswerable. Look forward to part 2 (where you find the answers that I think can't be found?) Is there, incidentally, a website whose owner visits all the churches ever mentioned by Proust? Please tell me you didn't much like Netherland.

  2. More than human, definitely, or else Human Augmented By Some Machinery That Hasn't Been Invented Yet. (I was going to say "impossible" but then I remembered that the once-impossible and superhuman task of flight was made possible with planes, so why not this?) One of the tantalising things about being human is that we can conceive of ourselves doing things that we can't, in fact, do, and when it comes to Time the problem is compounded by the noun -- we use Time as a noun, as Table is a noun, or Horse is a noun, and we can stop a Horse and pick up a Table, so why not stop Time, why not pick up Time and look at it? It seems unreasonable that we can't, when we can frame it so clearly. (And even see it in movies. There's Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, freezing the world around him and picking freshly-fired bullets out of the air as easily as strawberries.)

    But Time is a state or a perception (a perception of alteration, of things not staying the same) which means that it is not Horse or Table or Object at all, no matter how we make it sit in our sentences, and I wonder if we would have to alter our brains in order to stop it, seeing as our brains are the things that create it in the first place, and perhaps we would have to alter them so far that we would lose the way back and become creatures that could do nothing but stop time, if the ability to stop time is conceived only because time moves forward, (ie, because we can conceive of change and see ourselves moving toward it), and how would we stop it and hold onto the idea of it being unstopped, both at once?

    I haven't read Netherland. Did you, and didn't like it? How is it? I only read the reviews, and remembered the reviewers calling it "Proustian" and "like Proust". The passages they quoted made it sound chilly and pretty and I was put off.

    The Proust-church website I was thinking about was this one --

    "This website aims to provide an intensive textual and visual experience of the church motif in Marcel Prousts À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). The main component is a searchable database that pairs all church-related passages in the novel with images depicting the original churches or related scenes."

  3. We don't exist, in that every moment we do exist passes in a moment and is gone - and, with it, we are gone too. Or we exist multiply, as each of the moments. Or we only perceive our own existence, including everything else in it - and all of that disappears as soon as we stop perceiving it. Or, or, or - or we just accept that life is confusing and strange (and, as to flight, we haven't managed to sprout wings: amazing and intricate though the task of engineering machines we can fly in is, it isn't something that involves a mind-bending alteration of reality).
    I think that Proust website sounds rather charming. I shall go and look at it.
    Re Netherland, without in any way wishing to prejudice you or speak unkindly, I would have to say that it struck me as a load of old tosh.

  4. My idea, when I was little, was that if I ran fast enough and jumped in the right way I would take off like that, no wings, nothing else, just flight.

    I think it's possible to accept that life is confusing and strange and still try to work out what kind of strange it is. What's the flavour of our strange? When it comes to Time, I like the Kantian idea (which I may be about to misrepresent because it's been a while since I read him) which is that we do exist, each of us, and that Time is a mode of being that we're doomed or fated to experience; it's a condition of being alive. And so I wonder, what would we have to do to stop it? What would we have to switch off, or switch on, in ourselves? If a single person stopped time, would they enter an inhuman state (or: a state that no one would recognise as being human)? Would they be able to come back and describe it or would words be inadequate? I wonder.

    "Load of old tosh" actually makes the book sound more interesting.