Friday, March 18, 2005

C'est ceci, c'est cela



[added to/ altered 20 March & 22 March]

'First one thing, then another', or just 'one thing after another'? French has a concision I was not fully aware of. Latin is pretty good too. I'm no French expert - just have a old-fashioned Cassell's English-French dictionary which puts the words in their context in a variety of ways. The problem: modern day common usage.

In the space of little more than a week the journey has been from Proust to Sebald and back - reading neither, but in there with them so-to-speak. A pleasing feeling valuable lessons have been learnt.

About Proust, something else too. Rooting in one of my infrequently visited bookcases I found a very slim OUP paperback , Proust by Derwent May, amongst a selection from a Fontana series. I see Camus, Chomsky, Laing, Levi-Strauss, Marcuse, McLuhan, Orwell, Popper, Russell, Reich, Weber, Wittgenstein: my post-graduation attempt, too many moons ago - with a science degree in my hand and an empty head about the future - to catch up on what I should have been studying rather than dry biology texts with their interminable graphs and data tables. The fly leaves claim others were to be published. The one that takes my fancy is Merleau-Ponty. {1} {2} Le monsieur lui meme est intraitable. From these two pages, it seems I was interested in the phenomenology of perception: looks as if I am going to have start all over again!

Way back I must have run through the Proustian basics, maybe promising to read The Book. I do remember, at the time I bought the Fontana series, reading Mann'sThe Magic Mountain, which mightily impressed me. A two or three day "sun rise, sunset" reading, in my recollection. And then you feel disorientated, like when you come out of the movie-theatre into the daylight, not wanting to let go of what ou have experienced.

It would be a very good writing exercise for anyone attempting something substantial but who hasn't found a style, to try' doing a Proust'. Take the period of you own life to date. Use the author's voice and the narrator's voice. Try to cleverly dovetail the author's God-like commentary into the narrator's desciptions. The most difficult thing: to introduce loads of character which become more than two-dimensional in the short space you have, say 300 pages. It doesn't have to be complete. Try a fragment. If you don't have loads of characters, at least use the method. I was reading a theory of how the brain worked the other day: intelligence was about the recovery of memories, not re-formulation from simpler building blocks.

I am too ignorant of the canon to know who has 'done a Proust' since Proust. If you can offer up an example or two obviously Proustian in style, I would be grateful to learn about them.

Since my memory is poor, most of my 'In Search of Lost Time' would be fiction. Try to remember a time: a place, a small set of events. Now try to remember what you were thinking and remembering at that moment! Get your Marcels (God-like author plus narrator) to think along those lines. If you can't do that you won't be writing A la Researche.. Well, you might. I don't find it difficult to imagine a character taking points in time and being able to run everything through, back and forward, as if filmed. It is said that proud planned his work with the aid of photographs which is telling. Came across a 2002 cutting of a newspaper review of the Prendergast translation which mentioned a book, 'The World of Proust as seen by Paul Nader, which has photos of the real people on whom the characters were based. MIT Press.

Although A la recherche has not been successfully filmed, it is obvious it was constructed with a filmic eye. Its prolixity makes it very difficult to script. The 1973, Joseph Losey inspired Harold Pinter 'Proust Screenplay', which was never made into a film, played on BBC Radio 4 in a shortened adapatation by Michael Bakewell, boiled everything down to less than two hours. Anyone wanting to learn how to script-write should get hold of a tape of this.

If I was an English teacher I would encourage this Proust-type of writing in my 12-14 year old charges. Perhaps they do it naturally. Or is this too young? Maybe it only kicks in when you get to 16-17? Someone ought to do a survey of writing styles. Just get your tape-recorder, get in you car and go round to lots of schools and interview kids...


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The interview with Markson below suggests another wonderful writing exercise: an interview with a fictious author, in which he reels off absolutely fabulous fictious people, places, food, books, films.....try it! I might even dare to put up an attempt of my own. No cheating : leave that copy of Mann's Dr. Faustus where it is gathering dust. Do not resort to transcribing sections of that less than successful - was it an Ishiguro? - novel based on the musican holded up in Paris. If you know the title and author let me know. When I think of it, that was Proustian. Though is Proustian more than going back and forward in time? The bell in A la recherche is instructive : thinking in real-time; bell sound evokes memory; memory contains bell sound; second memory (backwards or forwards) evoked; bell sound in second sequence returns narrator to starting point. Include a separate dialogue amongst the sequences which is hard to connect to the other sequences.

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We can only know what other people tell us they remember about their lives. Apart from what we know from standing there with them, that is.

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There are no conversations in my memories. I do recall the three words my father said before he died. The wider memories amount to two or three dozen short, silent movies. What I want to know is why, later in life, do I keep on watching just these films and not others that I must have made?

Apparently the Gestalt theory of forgetting argues memories undergo qualitative changes over time rather than being lost. Memories are distorted over time in order to become more regular, symmetrical. I would say - thinking of Dennett's Consciousness Explained - that the mind tries desperately to tally what it already has with what is is continually accummulating. The brain is said to be a differentiator and an integrator. Image: a relative. Who hasn't got one with the tendency to cut out people from her family photographs? You ask who the cut was. The photo is pulled firmly from you hand without a comment. Or the explanation: "I can't remember". These people, rather like the one's who were censored from the famous photograph of Lenin, are no longer needed to tell the story. I don't like that: everyone in one's life story has to be left in there, in my view. You're free to say what you like about the one's who 'fell out of your story' through some misdemeanour or other, or to keep mum, but don't pretend they didn't exist by cutting them out of the edge of the photo..

This takes me neatly to Stephen Poliakoff's Shooting the Past (1999) about the photo archive threatened with destruction by developers.

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If you have read throughout your life, various references to authors keep on popping up on a regular basis anyway. And - if only I could remember - I expect I have read a lot more about Proust than the recent excursions, which have been more to do with learning to write than reading for pleasure.

With all this in mind, a few ideas of my own brewing, and a return after a week or so to pas au dela, I notice Matt's 16 March 05 post which runs by Wittgenstein's Mistress, a title which is bound to halt in their occular saccades those who know anything about our inscrutable Austrian friend.

The author in question is David Markson interviewed by Joseph Tabbi at Center for Book Culture.

Stephen Mitchelmore writes about Markson's later, This is not a Novel,

{...aah, yes, I remember it well...Margitte's, Ceci n'est une pipe*}

under the question, What is the point?, briefly mentioning Wittgenstein's Mistress. While Joseph Tabbi runs through Mistress comprehensively, with sufficient quoting to let you to get away with claiming you've read the book, providing plenty of information and opinion to decide whether you would want to read it.

I probably won't read it: though not ungrateful for the primer. If you have I would be grateful for some more extended quotes to try to understand the methodology, as it were.


* The Essential Surrealists, Tim Martin:

Magritte has commented that this image is not a pipe. 'Just try to stuff it with tobacco!', he said, 'So if I had written on my picture, "This is a pipe," I would have been lying!' After the philosoper Michel Foucault published his book about Magritte, This in not a Pipe, he received several letters from the artist. They dealt with the difference between the words 'resemblance' and 'similarity'. For Magritte, two peas in a pod are similar. Only objects could be compared for their similarity, whereas thoughts could be compared for their resemblance. This difference was important because he felt it allowed him to paint his thought, not what his eyes saw. Although thought was not an object, he felt it could be represented through pictures. He wanted to draw attention to the link between language and the world. Signs, such as the word 'pipe' were in fact rather randomly assigned to an object. A Russian, for example, might have a very different word for this object. What then is the link between sound, word and object? For Magritte, this link was the mysterious operation of thought itself.






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