Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Time Regained by Marcel Proust
Reading In Search of Lost Time (when I was a kid people called it Remembrance of Things Past - nobody I knew, I mean people on TV) is a challenge for some people, and I am one of them. Some parts of this monumental novel, at least at first, seem very long and quite boring, and some sentences are so long and convoluted that halfway through them you can lose track of what is going on. There are lots of characters and relationships to keep track of, and people often have multiple names, or change names, or appear incognito. Reading a volume of Proust for the first time can be like hacking through a jungle with a machete. But there are enough engaging ideas, striking episodes, memorable images, and amusing jokes to make the hacking worth it. When you finish a volume for the first time you feel like you've accomplished something, that you've climbed some kind of literary mountain, and when you read a volume for the third or fourth time it is like getting reacquainted with old friends or taking a walk down a pretty street where you recognize most of the lush trees and fine old and glittering modern buildings and recall fondly how you felt the first time you saw them, and the first time you recognized their beauty.
The first half of Time Regained covers the years of World War One, and it is interesting to see how the main locales of the novel, Paris and Combray, and how the many characters we have been following for thousands of pages, are affected by the war. The narrator, Marcel, contrasts a Paris under blackout orders with the traditionally well lit "City of Lights," remarks on how the presence of so many African and Muslim soldiers makes Paris seem exotic, like an Orientalist painting. The German bombers and Zeppelins, and the searchlights and French fighter planes which pursue them, create a beautiful spectacle, while the sounds of the air raid sirens remind him of Wagner. The Baron du Charlus, a promiscuous homosexual and probably the strangest and most sinister of the characters in the long novel, worries that the war will kill off all the handsome young men and then he won't be able to enjoy eating in restaurants. What fun will eating out be if all the waiters are old and ugly, or, perhaps worse, replaced with waitresses? The dearth of men in Paris, so many of them being at the front risking their lives in a war Charlus, a German sympathizer, suspects the Allies may lose, has already forced Charlus to resort to gratifying his insatiable appetites with little boys.
The characters in Proust are not exactly admirable - in fact, Proust's view of people, life and love can be quite cynical and depressing. Time Regained, like the earlier volumes, asserts that people are constantly lying, to others and to themselves, that people are selfish hypocrites, cheaters, and exploiters. People's opinions of art and stands on political issues are based not on consideration of the merits of a painting or a novel, or the wisdom of a government policy; instead, people sheepishly follow fads and fashions, mimic the assessments of critics, and espouse the beliefs that they think will help them gain acceptance in the social set which they aspire to belong to or help them seduce or keep a mistress. Marcel reports these sad truths without condemning humanity; he himself is guilty of treating girls and friends shabbily and molding his opinions to match those of tastemakers.
The first half of Time Regained, which focuses on the war, the strange and unsettling Baron, and Marcel's silly servant Francoise, is a pretty easy read, interesting and funny. In the second half of the book the war is over, the Baron is elderly, and Marcel, who all his life has aspired to be a writer but felt inadequate to the task, has a sudden epiphany while on his way to a party: he discovers how to view life and how to go about being a writer. True pleasure comes not from external stimuli: love is an agony followed by disappointment when the beloved is possessed, friendship is a delusion, and death is always there waiting for us. Genuine happiness comes from studying our inner thoughts, from reliving past sensations. When we relive past sensations, we stand outside of time, we live in both the present and the past, and, being outside of time, the future and death cannot touch us. Marcel suddenly has a plan of action, and makes a determination to avoid society and focus solely on his work of art, his book about life which will mine his own unhappy experiences for raw material. I felt that some of this literary and philosophical talk dragged a bit. But the book picks up again at the party thrown by the Princess Guermantes, where there are hundreds of elite guests, a reading of poetry by a famous actress, and fine music.
Marcel, who is chronically ill and has been in a sanitarium, has not attended a society party in years. As he joins the party he reallizes how old all his acquaintances have become, and is reminded of his own mortality. There follow meditations on old age and death --Marcel even worries that he might not live long enough to finish his great work. We learn about the fates of many of the characters we met thousands of pages ago, the rise of some (the actress giving a poetry reading, Rachel, was a whore at a brothel the first time we saw her), the collapse of others (the famous actress from the second volume, Berma, then idolized by all, is now a decrepit wreck at death's door, exploited by her cruel daughter and humiliated in society.) Finally, Marcel embarks on his great project, writing his tremendous book.
One reason I neglected for so long to read the final volume of Proust and instead was rereading the earlier volumes was that I was worried that the last volume would be inferior to those that preceded it. Proust died before finishing revisions on the novel, and Time Regained suffered the most from this, and includes some errors and inconsistencies. I am happy to report, however, that Time Regained is comparable in enjoyment to the earlier volumes, and serves very well as a climax and resolution to so much that went before.
I'm happy to have finally completed the long journey through In Search of Lost Time, and excited to hear that Yale University and William Carter are producing a new revision of the traditional Moncrieff translation. My relationship with Proust is not over, and it seems that my next reading of In Search of Lost Time may contain some novelties and surprises.