Reading Marcel, at last

Giotto, Charity, Capella degli Scrovegni, Padua.

I have waited until now to begin reading Proust.

For many reasons: first, the book is famously slow and dense, so I waited for the right, slow moment in my life to start it. This winter, I thought, the time had come: I had three months on a farm in the country, all to myself; and it was a content, contemplative time, a good moment to take up a slow book.

Also, I had delayed starting on Proust because I was a little hesitant about Old Marcel... So many highly regarded classics have turned out disappointing... Most prominently, authors like Jane Austen and James Joyce, writing beautifully about the middle class of their time, tired and bored me precisely because they wrote about the middle class of their time. (Stupid and dull, yes, why belabor it over 1800 pages?) Proust's reviewers suggested Marcel's work was also about people who would bore me... Certainly their life problems seemed, well, Austenjoycean, uninteresting in the extreme. In short, I was afraid that Proust might turn out to be just like Joyce: all fireworks of style and structure and -- stupid boredom within.

But now I know that the reviewers had not done Marcel justice. Indeed, that Marcel is not even the book they describe.

For one, not one of them has mentioned that what Marcel writes about are chiefly aesthetic impressions, of which a substantial part is about the sort of impressions that interest me most in my own life: encounters with art (much of it decorative), literature, and nature.

Take, as an illustration, track 8 of the audio-book (I am listening to Marcel rather than reading him with my own eyes, which leaves me time to stare at the sky and clouds).

The track starts with the discussion -- not so much learned as sensitive and therefore insightful in the sort of way one never gets from art historians and scholars -- of Giotto's Virtues. (I quote it at length at the end of this post to give you a taste of Marcel).

The track then goes on to cover the joys of reading books in a summertime garden (hear, hear!) which turns into a sort of review of an imagined author to whom Marcel confesses a special connection. ("Bergotte" appears to write his own thoughts for him, a bit like Parnicki -- a real author, I swear -- seems to write mine for me). It is, in fact, a description of the sort of literature Marcel wished someone had written for him to read -- instead of the sort of literature he was obliged to read (my own experience much of my reading time). It then launches into a speculation on why it is that characters in books feel closer, more immediate to us than the real people we meet in waking life, and -- wow -- better stuff on aesthetics of literature has not been written by any scholar I have read.

Then Proust launches onto a few childhood memories, sweet and beautifully rendered, but not important: they serve as a kind of delightful itermezzo -- a side dish of pickles to rest one's lips between the bouillon with pork dumplings and the roasted phaesant -- before he turns to the discussion of the different ways in which his aunts (provincial Jane Austens all of them) discussed art (with worshipful but firm judgments, voices of rote-educated certainty) and the way Swann -- a true connoisseur, from the capital, too -- did: full of hesitations, value words used with reservation, in quotation marks, so to speak, as if forever wanting to say both yes and no all at the same time.

Each one of these reflections -- on Giotto, on literature, on connoisseur perceptions of art -- is a mini essay on subjects which interest me vitally. And they are interesting, observant, and well written. And that is just track 8, of 24 of the first volume, Swann's Way. You see, the novel is perhaps nothing so much as a collection of essays on aesthetics, a fabulous necklace of fantastic vignettes strung together haphazardly: an aesthetic miscellany a la Sei Shonagon except richer because, since Shonagon's time, there has been another thousand years of art and literature to store up and savor.

Why has no reviewer I ever read ever mentioned the existence of these vignettes on art and literature within the body of the novel? Why have all repeatedly spoken about memory, falling asleep, middle class life, plots, emotional tangles, Proust's poetic prose, his homosexuality, and his famous encounter with Joyce but not this -- this, the stuff which makes the heart of the novel, its true purpose and point? Could it be that the reviewers, like Proust's dumb middle class aunts, have no such experiences themselves, entertain no such thoughts, and when they do encounter them, they consider them insignificant, merely decorative intermezzi between the main dishes of... plot and character description?

But no more of that. Time to go back and re-listen to track 8... I have heard it perhaps ten times already and each time it ends, I decide to hear it again, feeling that I have merely skimmed its intense richness. A part of me wants to memorize it, word for word.

Listening to Proust is a bit like watching the daybreak. When it is on, we are wholly engrossed in it, but when it is over, we feel that we have missed most of it; and that it has dealt with us underhandedly because it ended and it had no business ending.


A Taste of Marcel

Proust's essay on Giotto's Virtues, from the chapter entitled Combray. Enjoy.

"...These last recalled the cloaks in which Giotto shrouds some of the allegorical figures in his paintings, of which M. Swann had given me photographs. He it was who pointed out the resemblance, and when he inquired after the kitchen-maid he would say: "Well, how goes it with Giotto's Charity?" And indeed the poor girl, whose pregnancy had swelled and stoutened every part of her, even to her face, and the vertical, squared outlines of her cheeks, did distinctly suggest those virgins, so strong and mannish as to seem matrons rather, in whom the Virtues are personified in the Arena Chapel. And I can see now that those Virtues and Vices of Padua resembled her in another respect as well. For just as the figure of this girl had been enlarged by the additional symbol which she carried in her body, without appearing to understand what it meant, without any rendering in her facial expression of all its beauty and spiritual significance, but carried as if it were an ordinary and rather heavy burden, so it is without any apparent suspicion of what she is about that the powerfully built housewife who is portrayed in the Arena beneath the label 'Caritas,' and a reproduction of whose portrait hung upon the wall of my schoolroom at Combray, incarnates that virtue, for it seems impossible, that any thought of charity can ever have found expression in her vulgar and energetic face. By a fine stroke of the painter's invention she is tumbling all the treasures of the earth at her feet, but exactly as if she were treading grapes in a wine-press to extract their juice, or, still more, as if she had climbed on a heap of sacks to raise herself higher; and she is holding out her flaming heart to God, or shall we say 'handing' it to Him, exactly as a cook might hand up a corkscrew through the skylight of her underground kitchen to some one who had called down to ask her for it from the ground-level above. The 'Invidia,' again, should have had some look on her face of envy. But in this fresco, too, the symbol occupies so large a place and is represented with such realism; the serpent hissing between the lips of Envy is so huge, and so completely fills her wide-opened mouth that the muscles of her face are strained and contorted, like a child's who is filling a balloon with his breath, and that Envy, and we ourselves for that matter, when we look at her, since all her attention and ours are concentrated on the action of her lips, have no time, almost, to spare for envious thoughts.

Despite all the admiration that M. Swann might profess for these figures of Giotto, it was a long time before I could find any pleasure in seeing in our schoolroom (where the copies he had brought me were hung) that Charity devoid of charity, that Envy who looked like nothing so much as a plate in some medical book, illustrating the compression of the glottis or uvula by a tumour in the tongue, or by the introduction of the operator's instrument, a Justice whose greyish and meanly regular features were the very same as those which adorned the faces of certain good and pious and slightly withered ladies of Combray whom I used to see at mass, many of whom had long been enrolled in the reserve forces of Injustice. But in later years I understood that the arresting strangeness, the special beauty of these frescoes lay in the great part played in each of them by its symbols, while the fact that these were depicted, not as symbols (for the thought symbolised was nowhere expressed), but as real things, actually felt or materially handled, added something more precise and more literal to their meaning, something more concrete and more striking to the lesson they imparted. And even in the case of the poor kitchen-maid, was not our attention incessantly drawn to her belly by the load which filled it; and in the same way, again, are not the thoughts of men and women in the agony of death often turned towards the practical, painful, obscure, internal, intestinal aspect, towards that 'seamy side' of death which is, as it happens, the side that death actually presents to them and forces them to feel, a side which far more closely resembles a crushing burden, a difficulty in breathing, a destroying thirst, than the abstract idea to which we are accustomed to give the name of Death?

There must have been a strong element of reality in those Virtues and Vices of Padua, since they appeared to me to be as much alive as the pregnant servant-girl, while she herself appeared scarcely less allegorical than they. And, quite possibly, this lack (or seeming lack) of participation by a person's soul in the significant marks of its own special virtue has, apart from its aesthetic meaning, a reality which, if not strictly psychological, may at least be called physiognomical. Later on, when, in the course of my life, I have had occasion to meet with, in convents for instance, literally saintly examples of practical charity, they have generally had the brisk, decided, undisturbed, and slightly brutal air of a busy surgeon, the face in which one can discern no commiseration, no tenderness at the sight of suffering humanity, and no fear of hurting it, the face devoid of gentleness or sympathy, the sublime face of true goodness."


The whole text is to be found here. You can hear the delightful opening of the book, its first 2.5 minutes, with its two Homeric metaphors, here.


Post a Comment