Friday, March 11, 2005

Proustian peregrination I

It wouldn't be a crime if you never read it from cover to cover. So many people have commented, analysed and quoted from The Book that one knows it intimately quite quickly.

Half way through Jonathan Wallace's essay, Proust's Ruined Mirror, it seemed many who have had a nagging itch to write a novel, play or film script, have - without the benefit of the knowledge of how and why this book was written in the way it was - attempted to do exactly what Proust has done: run back and forward in time; or, as it is described, against the flow of the stream. It is quite surprising to read the techniques used were considered ground-breaking, since the human mind works this way: the story-teller might interrupt herself by recall of a sub-story, feeling an obligation to slip this in before continuing with the main narrative.

What is this if not the expansion of time at anyone one moment Proust is concerned with? Start drawing a horizontal line then, rather than continue straight on, descend in a loop, returning to the point where the straight line left off, finally continue the line. An invagination. From above, the 'detour' wouldn't be visible: from the side it is apparent there is a small gap in the line, but that it is continuous. Along the route of the circular diversion, which just happens to swing backwards first, then curve round the right way, then go forward for a while before 're-joining' the main line, put a few extra loops. It now looks like a diagram in a biology text book of a cross-section of some gland or other: perhaps a section of alveoli in the lung.

Another way to represent this is by drawing a line with the same loop but, instead of the miniscule, almost imperceptible gap, a slight over-lap - or, say,even an overlap plus small upward loop - on the the return journey. A fold over in a piece of string -no knots allowed! Or maybe....

In either case, in Proustian terms, you have diverted into 'expanded time' by running along the loop. In the second case - with the slight overlap - there would be a return to a part of the story that had been dealt with just before the diversion into another memory. Proust repeatedly uses the hearing of bells ringing {surely a reflection of him writing in a room where he rang for 'Francoise'? [And don't forget the other two inevitable constants: the sounds in the street and the view from the window] } which summon memories of bells rung in the past and their attendant stories. Proust often does
this by going over this small section of the loop - covering the same ground - from a different angle. An example: the same incident is done using dialogue. Even during this another memory may interrupt the remembered dialogue. The inturuption could be from before of after the current memory.

Coming to mind is how an image can be totally re-created even in a small shard of the glass that was used to create a three-dimensional holograph.....Proust seems to be viewing the image in a mirror, then deliberately breaking it, attempting to view the same scene from the fragments, with the problems of the reflections between the individual pieces causing distortions, anomalies and other effects, which, of course, he proceeds to analyse at great length!

Considering the vast amount that has been learnt about the brain's workings in the last 100 years, it would be surprising if this knowledge was not used in fiction. How memory is dealt with in a high school text books demonstrates how sophisticated the understanding now is. Science has demonstrated not only ways in which it might work but, by doing so, pin-pointed the limitations of memory - what we can trust and what we can't, amply demonstrated in experiments on something such as eye-witness testimony.

Wallace points out that Proust was also tackling forgetting. Tulving and Psotka's 1971 comparison of cue-dependent and interference theories of forgetting are just one illustration. The results are recognisable in every day experience. When facts are emedded in a story - a linear 'narrative' - they are recalled far better than when jumbled up and without categories.

Those with a poor memory taught to mentally place objects in virtual art galley, a fridge by the entrance, a gun next to the sculpture in Room 1, a sandwich on top of the Picasso in Room 2, are amazed at the facility of their recall. This, of course, leads to the oral stage of human development, wHere stories were told around the fire, memorised to be passed down the generations. Tribes were able to pass on their whole history pretty accurately by this means. When writing arrived, the oral history was tranferred to texts. In the case of the Bible, research has shown how many of the myths have turned out to be historical facts. A story retains integrity over a long time. And these were stories which were learnt before writing.

Family oral histories, many taken to be just stories, are often shown to be accurate by genealogical research. My cousin told me he thought all his side of the family had been from one major city, but a story had been retained that one branch came from a rural area many miles away. He found this to be true from the documentation.

My style of writing is to create a series of almost random fragments. You might discover my Kumran cave with piles of dusty scrolls: unrolling the parchments - full sheets of paper or scraps hole-punched - some might only contain a sentance or two: a line might be neatly draw through a sentance, or a later dated comment added, or - palimpsest-like - the whole thing scratched out and rewritten. Each change showing how it has been re-visited, sometimes a number of times.

It is encouraging to read Wallace talking about Proust. It is possible to stitch together a set of texts that might seem impossible to join. I always believed this, but feared it might seem, done poorly, to be the mind-set of a mad man.


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