These notes cover pp. 134 - 298 of Volume Two, Within a Budding Grove, to the end of the "Madame Swann at Home chapter, in the Modern Library edition (Moncrieff / Kilmartin / Enright).
There was a comfortable, cozy feeling in the room as we settled down for our meeting last night. It was great to see everybody.
But we weren't there just to talk and catch up. We were there because of a certain sensitive, neurasthenic, supremely gifted M. Proust, and because of the words he wrote down in his cork-lined room nearly a century ago...
So at 8:30 pm we got down to the business at hand...
1. Don's Presentation on the Importance of Editing
Don began by reminding us of Proust's atypical status, as the rare writer who wrote without an editor.
He mentioned a number of celebrated writer-editor relationships from the 20th century (Eliot-Pound, Wolfe-Perkins, Carver-Lish, among them) and emphasized his conviction that "few would argue" that Proust couldn't have benefited from some close editing.
He urged us, further, not to be intimidated by those stray sentences, or even whole sections, of In Search of Lost Time which confound us or fail to capture our interest. On the contrary, Don argued, we should read with a pencil in hand, not only to underline passages which provoke or inspire us but also to circle those which we would cut if given a chance.
What Proust really needed, Don suggested, was for someone to grab him by the shoulders and say to him: "Hey buddy, wait a minute there...."
I couldn't help myself, and I interrupted at this point -- to ask one of our French readers to translate this "Hey buddy" line word for word, so we could get the full sense of the awkward scene that Don wished had taken place in some publishing house's back office in Paris, circa 1918...
Yann gladly enacted the French equivalent, which I have forgotten (will someone reproduce it in the comments below?). I do remember, though, that it sounded appropriately dismissive and brutal. We all laughed, including Don.
Having made this provocative assertion as to the importance of editing -- and the lack of it in Proust's case -- Don then turned to a related aspect of his experience while reading Proust: namely, that he finds the inconsistencies and oddities in the novel, as they accumulate, create for him a deepening mystery as to the various motivations and inclinations of the characters in it.
"Just like life, isn't it?" Don added. "You know, there's a phrase I have used often over the years..." He spoke slowly now, transfixing the room.
"We are born strangers, and then we become stranger and stranger."
On this somewhat bleak note, Don brought his presentation to an end. The group looked around in a kind of stunned silence, which, finally, Heather broke, but very gently, as if a bird taking flight had sent a ripple across the surface of a pond...
"I don't agree," she said.
"With what?" asked Don, smiling broadly, eager to have the discussion begin.
"Well," said Heather, "Proust might agree with you, but I don't. I think that we do get to know other people over time... And that we do grow more intimate, sometimes, despite our inconsistencies and even despite the sense of mystery surrounding each of us."
I concurred with Heather. I confessed that my experience of reading Proust is quite different from Don's. Whereas he sees strangers, I constantly sense the writer's generosity towards the characters in the novel -- as if he is taking them into an increasingly wide embrace as we encounter them in a variety of settings. In fact, their inconsistencies and oddities, rather than putting me off, make me feel that I know them better and better (I recognize their changeability as my own! I see my friends and family in them!).
When Proust's Narrator meets the writer Bergotte, for example, this encounter with the actual man, his "snail-shell" nose, his goatee, his fatuousness, far from leading to disillusionment (as Don saw it), seemed to me to lead the Narrator to a more detailed, and even more loving, portrait of the artist. Sure, Bergotte is physically off-putting, vain, and catty. But the two of them also engage in a respectful debate about Berma in Phèdre, and on numerous occasions Bergotte goes out of his way to encourage the Narrator's intellectual curiosity. It is a multifaceted relationship that we witness springing to life. And by the time I had finished that part of the chapter I had the impression of much learned and much still left unsaid (which is quite a amazing feat, actually, considering how much Proust does say).
In speaking of Bergotte, I felt compelled to share with the group one moment in particular that stayed with me. Just before he parts ways with the great writer, the Narrator observes how, unlike, say, his great aunt Léonie, Bergotte is careful not to offend in a social setting, but cutting and cruel in private. Whereas Aunt Léonie is the opposite: she will say anything to someone face-to-face but will not repeat it to anyone else. Two different models of virtue, each to be admired on its own terms. (ML, 199-200) I thought that was interesting.
Renée commented that she found the wide cast of characters in "Madame Swann at Home" to be fascinating, particularly in the way that Proust manages to transition rapidly and seamlessly between many different points of view -- often in the same section of dialogue or even in the same sentence. Would this be something a colleague from the Iowa Writers' Workshop would try to correct?
Don, at this point, agreed that many of the inconsistencies and redundancies in Proust are an inextricable part of his genius. He clarified that, personally, his editing of Proust would be more limited to inconsistencies of place and time -- for example if a character is supposed to have disappeared into a house but then reappears out on the street again. Even in such a case, however, in my mind I kept hearing the voice of Walt Whitman crying out in defiance:
"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes."
(Some of my favorite moments in novels are those in which things never add up, where the impossible happens, or the plot gets tangled. That's probably why I enjoy Kafka so much -- particularly his great unfinished novels, The Castle and Amerika. Or Bulgakov. Or Bela Tarr or Apichatpong Weerasethakul films. What? You don't know Apichatpong Weerasethakul? You have to watch him.)
Dirk spoke up at this point. He related with warmth and passion how the passages with Bergotte and the Narrator, and this chapter as a whole, struck him as full of piercing observations and great wisdom. Far from having the urge to edit Proust, he finds himself reading and rereading passages and marveling at the insights that he encounters there. Paging through his book (which, having numerous yellow Post-It notes fanning out from three of its sides, had the appearance of a weathered, blocky, yellow-feathered bird -- a cockatoo?), he shared with us this insight from Proust on the emergence of a creative artist:
"The men who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or their culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror, in such a way that their life, however mediocre it may be socially and even, in a sense, intellectually, is reflected by it, genius consisting in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected" (WBG, 175-176).
Don, madly scrolling down the screen of his laptop with the same energy that Dirk had paged through his book, mentioned that he had this same passage in his notes...
Weathered Proust-cockatoo meet glowing Proust-robot!
To think that Proust's writing can have so many media, so many delivery systems, take so many physical forms, and still his words manage to make the leap from his mind to our own!
But I wanted to steer us back to the fundamental premise of Don's presentation, however: that we should approach our reading of Proust as editors, finding fault or, at the very least, finding problems, with the writing as we go. I mentioned that, lurking in this premise were, I thought, very relevant questions for our group to address, questions that in fact had lurked underneath our discussions ever since we began this reading group, like so many dark, glistening snakes at the bottom of a swimming hole.
(Well, perhaps not that worrying! Everybody out of the water, NOW!)
I commented that there seem to be two modes available to us when we encounter the world: sometimes we want to critique our luck, our circumstances, the tools or technology available to us, the work of art we have watched, or the people in our lives. And sometimes we simply want to note the qualities and capabilities of what we experience, taking it all in as is.
I explained that for me there is always a threshold question of which mode I am in. Moreover, this question is, in my experience, a surprisingly binary one: it's rather like flipping a switch on or off. Either I embrace something as it is, without aiming to change it, or I go in aggressively and find criticisms everywhere.
Maybe I am extreme in this way, but when it comes to a close friend or indeed, a classic work of art (which, as I said, I think of as a "gift," handed down by others before us through the centuries), I generally stay in the first, uncritical mode, or at least that's the default until proved otherwise. When I encounter something untested, though, like a new acquaintance, or a more contemporary work of art or trend, or, I don't know, something like Twitter, I flip the switch and enter the second mode: I become a critic, an editor. Why should I use this, or like this? Where does it meet my approval -- or disapproval? I fold my arms across my chest, narrow my eyes and turn my head sideways.
For me, reading Proust is more like interacting with a close friend. There are passages which are slow. There are sections where my interest flags. But I am not reading to question the pace or the subject-matter. I am reading to encounter and observe this experience as closely as I can; to be true to it, if you will, as one would to a friend who has asked you to give him or her an opinion.
Renée took this opportunity to defend Don's approach. As a writer, she remarked, it is perfectly sensible that Don would be looking critically at Proust's craft -- and indeed, quite naturally, finding fault with it at times. We should not let our appreciation for his gifts overwhelm our capacity for independent judgment.
Jeff spoke up to say that he really enjoys, as he reads, having a very personal, idiosyncratic response to this novel, and knowing at the same time that others are underlining and gasping at very different passages than he is. He analogized the experience of reading In Search of Lost Time to embarking on a journey with an expert guide. You sign on for the adventure, and you let him or her take you wherever, with whatever diversions and back-roads you may find along the way.
I borrowed Jeff's analogy to say that I think of Proust as a wonderful guide for artists... Give it exactly the form that you want to see! he seems to urge us all. And if you want to add yet another qualifying phrase or parenthetical to your sentence, don't worry that it already spans half a page, stick it in! The result may be sharp and succinct like a line from Samuel Beckett ("I can't go on, I'll go on.") or you may be all-inclusive like Proust, but either way you will be expressing your response to the world more accurately then if you censor yourself.
Of course in social situations we have to constrain ourselves; otherwise we would be insane and disruptive. But in art, why should we constrain ourselves at all? Surely the only reason would be to meet the demands of... editors. And beyond them, publishers, and beyond them, readers, and beyond them -- dare I say it -- the yawning, fetid, rotten-toothed maw of the Market (or beyond that, I suppose, in an authoritarian state, the iron fist of the State). Short of these concerns, which after all are not usually the sources of art (are they ever?), why shouldn't we write and paint and sing and play just the way we want?
2. Dealing with the External World
Heather brought us away from these questions of judgment and criticism and acceptance by asking a more direct question about "Madame Swann at Home": why does Proust include all that stuff about fashion, and all of those off-beat conversations at Mme Swann's parties? What is going on with all this extra stuff?
Excitedly, I carted out my conceptual framework -- which had helped me as I read this chapter and stumbled through all this stuff. (Creak, creak went the wheels as I rolled it out.) My idea, I explained, is that this chapter "Madame Swann at Home" is a story of Proust's Narrator's confrontation with the external world. If "Combray" focused on his internal world, the ecstasies that he creates, through a process akin to alchemy, in his mind, and if "Swann in Love" presented a cautionary tale about the way that such ecstasies can rot and infect us, and if "Place-Names, the Name" described a state of post-ecstatic disenchantment (after the wrestling match, as it were), then this next chapter is the natural next step. The world is full of surfaces, of fabrics, of shimmer, of temperatures and textures, of smells and sensations. And sometimes these surfaces are all you get: as in a house of mirrors, in which you see multiple images of a friend but can never find him in the flesh; whichever way you turn there's only another surface.
Often Odette is described by way of smell, the most primitive of our senses. Proust writes:
"Thus at length I came to know that house from which was wafted even on to the staircase the scent that Mme Swann used..." (WBG, 103)
"...when Madame Swann received me for a moment in her bedroom... I would make my way along the tortuous path of a corridor perfumed for the whole length with the precious essences which ceaselessly wafted from her dressing room their fragrant exhalations" (WBG, 113).
But then comes this description, putting, it seems to me, a barrier up to our attempts to achieve an understanding beyond the surface, that is, beyond Odette's smells and appearances and voice and mannerisms:
"Her lovely hands emerging from the pink, or white, or, often, vividly coloured sleeves of her crêpe-de-Chine housecoat, drooped over the keys [of the piano] with that same melancholy which was in her eyes but was not in her heart" (WBG, 139).
So what is in her heart, then? If we cannot read it in her eyes, is it to be found somewhere else?
A woman in a crêpe-de-Chine housecoat, though, it should be noted, not Mme Swann and not at home.
Renée provided an additional image of Mme Swann that reinforced this impression of her smooth exteriority (that sounds naughtier than I mean it). She noted that, as we have discussed before, Swann keeps a Botticelli portrait on his desk because it reminds him of Odette's particular beauty.
This is the image from Botticelli's The Trials of Moses that reminded Swann of Odette.
But as Renée pointed out, Botticelli's beauties have a kind of eerie vacancy in their eyes; they are entrancing and yet frustratingly impenetrable (perhaps that too is the wrong word? Where is my mind today?).
The point is: Who is Odette? Do we have any better understanding of her at the end of this chapter than we did at the beginning? As she strolls down the sidewalk with her parasol, "as though in the coloured shade of a wisteria bower" (WBG, 298), surrounded by Swann and her other gesticulating, bowing, scurrying escorts, do we know anything at all about her inner life?
I don't think we do. And Proust's Narrator doesn't either, despite their friendship. Which is why, I would suggest, he lurks under the Arc-de-Triomphe, waiting to catch a glimpse of her, Sunday after Sunday, hoping for a hint of what he can never know.
3. Last Comments
A few last comments that come to me as I wind up. Pascale made the interesting observation that Swann's new tendency to boast of his connections to bourgeois functionaries (as opposed to his former modesty about connections to the Prince of Wales) may be a result of his efforts to ingratiate himself to his new friends. He has fallen in social status and is gamely trying to play by new rules, but he is bad at it. Pascale then compared Swann to Mitt Romney, in his attempts at pretending to be an average guy ("My wife's got... two Cadillacs!"). This was a difficult leap for many of us to take, though the point was well taken.
Rachel observed that one way to think of the slack parts of In Search of Lost Time is to recognize that this novel was written over many years; it represents Proust's entire oeuvre, in a sense. "Woody Allen had some weak films!" she exclaimed. I mentioned Bob Dylan's low point for me: Under the Red Sky, with songs like "Wiggle Wiggle" and Slash of Guns n' Roses adding overproduced guitar licks.
Florence looked at Don and asked energetically: "Is there one page that you would remove? Is there one sentence that you would rather not have?" To which Don answered: no. (If you find that example you mentioned though, Don, where someone disappears into a house and then reappears in conversation on the street moments later, I would be amused to read it. Please include it in the comments!)
Another wonderful evening. Thank you Don for provoking us, thank you everybody for caring so deeply and for sharing so much of your hearts and minds. Until next time.
Please, as always, post corrections and amendments in the comments section below.