Work while ye have the light

A Proust can only be someone isolated — is that the price genius must pay? We feel we must keep such an observer, such an implacable judge, at a distance, as though he were a large, hot brazier.

— Jacques-Emile Blanche

. . . [T]he style of Remembrance of Things Past is olympian, philosophical, seamless, and all-encompassing, an ether in which all the characters revolve like well-regulated heavenly bodies.

. . . “Should I call this book a novel?” Proust asks. “It is something less, perhaps, and yet much more, the very essence of my life, with nothing extraneous added, as it developed through a long period of wretchedness. This book of mine has not been manufactured: it has been garnered.”  This idea, that life presents us with but one book to write, the story of our own existence which we must merely “translate,” was one to which Proust would remain faithful.

. . . The mammoth book began, appropriately enough, as a sort of Platonic dialogue with his mother on the subject of Sainte-Beuve, the nineteen-century literary critic, whose ideas and writing galled Proust. . . .

. . . What Proust had discovered since writing Jean Santeuil was how to take up themes, let them drop, then come back to them, though each time the theme was exposed to a different light. No longer did Proust feel that he had to say everything at once or to set in stone his opinions on every character and topic. Now the dramatic twists of the plot dictated the insights revealed to the Narrator.

. . . Proust had learned a method of presentation that falls midway between that of Dickens and that of Henry James. Dickens assigns his characters one or two memorable traits, sometimes highly comic, which they display each time they make an appearance; James, by contrast, is so quick to add nuances to every portrait that he ends up effacing them with excessive shading. Proust invented a way of showing a character such as Charlus in Dickensian bold relief at any given moment — Charlus as the enraged queen or, later, Charlus as the shattered King Lear. Yet, by building up a slow composite of images through time, Proust achieves the same complexity that James had aimed at, though far more memorably. It’s like the old dispute among painters as to the primacy of line or of shading. Dickens could draw with a firm bounding line but used so little shading  he gave no sense of perspective. James was all shading and depth, but (especially in his late novels) nothing vigorous distinguished the profile of one character from another. Proust succeeded in rendering characters with the same startling simplicity as Dickens but generated a lifelike subtlety and motion by giving us successive “takes” over hundreds of pages. In that way his style is like the magic lantern the Narrator watches at bedtime when he’s a boy. The heat of the lamp causes a band of images to turn and to project the illusion of motion on the wall. In the same way Proust’s slide show of portraits of the same character induces the illusion of duration, of development — and of psychological truth.

. . . In 1911 Proust became a subscriber to Théâtrophone, a service that held a telephone receiver up at a concert, which allowed people to stay at home and hear live music on their receivers.

. . . Proust esteemed Wagner’s way of “spitting out everything he knew about a subject, everything close or distant, easy or difficult.” This sort of fullness and explicitness he obviously preferred in literature as well, an amplitude he contrasted favorably to the pared-back reticence of the ne0-classical style, as it was practiced by Anatole France or even André Gide.

. . . The apparently meandering prologue to the whole epic, “Combray,” . . . is actually something like a strict overture to an opera, in the sense that it announces and compresses all the successive themes. . . . The heraldic weight of the Guermantes name is first touched on in “Combray,” as is the theme of illness (real and imaginary), snobbism, the difference between family love and romantic passion, the power of reading to bewitch, and so on. Developing themes and recurring characters spanning the whole long arc of the seven books give it an architectural solidity which casual readers of the first two volumes could not have suspected.

— Edmund White

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