Friday, 5 May 2017

A Note on Proust


I am currently reading Marcel Proust's magnum opus À La Recherche du temps perdu, now enjoying volume 3 of the epic novel, Le Côté de Guermantes.

Two passing and, as it turns out, related thoughts have presented themselves to me in such a way that I wish to share them here, but in the manner of an enthusiast rather than a rigorous scholar:
  1. Book 1, Du Côté de chez Swann, indicates precocious desires on the part of the young narrator to become a writer, admiring as he does the contemporary littérateur Bergotte. However in his budding attempts at writing he suffers from self-doubt and feelings of literary inadequacy, unable as he is to offer biting and original philosophical angles like the authors he cherishes the most. Yet, as it turns out, the explorative and nuanced mode of consciousness of À La Recherche is one of its chief strengths and defining characteristics, free of too strong a philosophical angle on things, letting phenomena, whether social or otherwise, teach their own lessons rather than relying on à priori notions of the good life, truth and virtue.
  2. Again in Book 1, much is made of the ritual of the narrator's mother coming up to his bedroom to kiss him good night, something that the narrator longs for and cherishes come evening-time and suffers from if denied its occurrence. The narrator at this stage is still a boy. Yet, in its way, this can be seen as a Freudian foreshadowing of the narrator's many romantic infatuations as he gains in years, starting with the young and frivolous Gilberte in the Champs Elysées, moving on to the jeunes filles en fleur in the seaside town of Balbec in volume 2, one of which turns out to be the central female character Albertine Simonet, followed, in book 3 of the novel, by a quasi-stalking-level obsession with the noble Duchesse de Guermantes and a desire for physical possession, later on in that volume, of Mme de Stermaria.
"Ce qu'il me fallait c'était de posséder Mme de Stermaria."  
Thus a provisional observation - provisional in the sense that I need to complete the novel to reach a fuller perspective on the main character's development and life choices - is that both the narrator's infatuation with women and his creative aspirations are present in him as a young boy in the very first chapter of À La Recherche with my personal intuition telling me that in the end women will give way in importance to art. 

It is interesting in that respect to consider the scene in Jeunes Filles en fleur where, almost despite himself given his preference for finding these jeunes filles on the beach somewhere, the narrator pays a visit to the painter Elstir who reveals himself to be not only gifted but highly sophisticated, more so than the many mondain characters we have met so far in the novel. 

It is while the narrator gets a sense of the magic of art through Elstir's extraordinarily sensitive descriptions of some medieval reliefs that one of the young women in flower, Albertine, completely to the narrator's surprise, greets the painter so that both worlds, the romantic one and the artistic, meet in what is a crucial crossroads moment of the novel, i.e. a meeting of two expressions of life that are not easily reconciled. 

This apparent antagonism as well as coincidence between romantic love and creative yearning - or at least artistic appreciation - is perhaps, based on what I have read so far, one of the chief dialectical drives of the narrative.

I look forward to finding out how this dichotomy and union between beautiful women and beautiful works of art resolves itself as the novel progresses.

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