Saturday, January 20, 2007

A darn good read

Reading The Past Conditional: What mother would have wanted by Julian Barnes, made me think of the elements of narrative drive. How this Barnes (whether one is really interested in the subject matter) was impossible to stop reading in a way that many novels were not. They can often be a way of driving you away from themselves into your own thoughts.

Maybe all good novels are designed to do that: you find yourself reading the words but not understanding them - like the automatic driving we are prone to from time to time - as you imagine, or see, the character you are engaged with, beyond the text, in little recursive loops. Then suddenly you realise you are doing this and try to find where you left off the text. Maybe a good novel is always longer than the text.

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Diligently tackling Madam Swann at Home because it seemed it might be necessary to lead into Place Names: The Place in Within a Budding Grove, (How is it possible to get that title from the original À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs ? ) where I thought I was going to meet Albertine for the first time, I was swiftly completely bored and found myself scanning down the page at speed with the aid of the mouse wheel, which when depressed creates a little circular iconic device on screen, with a black dot in the middle and up and down arrows, making it possible to set the page scrolling down, slowly, all by itself. Doing this a few times with FIND set to 'Highlight all', which highlights in yellow, on such words as Swann or Odette, brings up a phrase or sentance such as " I don’t suppose for a moment that she has mastered the Critique of Pure Reason", which then necessitates, if it takes ones fancy, reading back and forwards a bit to see what it is about.

Albertine actually appears with her friends wheeling her bicycle at the beginning of the last part, Seascape, with Frieze of Girls. Though there are musing on girls and beauty and love in Place Names: The Place and Place names: The Place (Continued).

I know what I want to read in Proust right now: how he viewed love and its illusions. I have little or no interest at all in the mores or sociology of the French aristocracy at the moment. It seems the first Balbec sections might be a good starting point. From there it might be o.k. to return to the three chapter lead up to Albertine and eventually work back to Marcel and Gilberte elsewhere.

I am not treating it as a novel at the moment: more a treatise - picking out his gems of wisdom on whatever currently preoccupies us, by-the-by enjoying pieces of description or dialogue as there are encountered more by chance than design.

Someone said it was part novel, part autobiography and part (well what?). Reading through the Marcel Proust from Answers.com clarifies that a bit. Most people pick it up as if it were a novel. But once you read:

The vast seven-part novel is at once a kind of autobiography, a vast social panorama of France in the years just before and during World War I, and an immense meditation on love and jealousy and on art and its relation to reality.
and (though referring to ALRDTP):
Proust began work on several different fragments of writing that would later coalesce under the working title of Contre Saint-Beuve. Proust described what he was working on in a letter to a friend: "I have in progress: a study on the nobility, a Parisian novel, an essay on Sainte-Beuve and Flaubert, an essay on women, an essay on pederasty (not easy to publish), a study on stained-glass windows, a study on tombstones, a study on the novel" (Tadié 513).

you can be excused for using it as a reference book more than a novel. Though, by the time you have read bits of it all over the place - and remembered them - you have read the novel because you know the story, its places, its characters. Since in any case it chops and changes chronologically, this way of reading it might be excused.

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For someone to be proud to have read Proust from cover to cover (in a year, say) is akin to a teenager tackling the Bible - at the end all you can really say is, "I have read it". It is simply not short enough or compact enough to encompass in the mind at the end. The general outline will be clearer. Certain things will stand out as being interesting or significant, but this will rather dependent on what the individual reading it is interested in at the time or thinks significant.

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This guy quotes :

[T]he greater part of our memory lies outside us, in a dampish breeze, in the musty air of a bedroom or the smell of autumn's first fires, things through which we can retrieve any part of us that the reasoning mind ... disdained, the last vestige of the past, the best of it, the part which, after all our tears have dried, can make us weep again. Outside us? Inside us, more like, but stored away.... It is only because we have forgotten that we can now and then return to the person we once were, envisage things as that person did, be hurt again, because we are not ourselves anymore, but someone else, who once loved something that we no longer care about.

which has me in mind of Dawkin's The Extended Phenotype.


Other on Proust:

(1) Titled The Necessary Process but do not ask me to attribute it because there no name on the page, but this page leads to this archive of Steve Mitchelmore's stuff.

(2) Blog The English Teacher, post: Reading Proust (part 4), where whether A la researche is autobiographical or not is discussed, and all the other Reading Proust parts ( n = 7).


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