Wednesday, June 13, 2007

ISYGF, Chapter 10: Paris is burning. Yawn.

Pg. 107, M. Swann is talking about moonlight and how it's more dramatic at the seaside:

In Paris, it's just the opposite: merely a strange glow, barely noticeable, on the fronts of the great buildings, and that faint glare in the sky, like the reflection from a house on fire, colorless and dangerless, that hint of some immense but banal happening somewhere...

Um. No, I--no. Really? Banal like a house on fire? Man, what does it take to impress a Frenchman? "Oh, I t'ought zees was somezing eenteresteeng, but non, eet is just ze house on fire. Quelle domage."

I would say Proust must be some sort of superhero--burning building, all in a day's work, call me when Magneto shows up--but, you know, this is a guy who has his autobiographical doppelganger practically fall into a faint over the mere idea of going to a play. I'm imagining Proust facing a burning building right now and... well, actually, that is kinda funny. Hee! Oh man. But my point is, burning building is totally winning that fight.

Or was late-19th century Paris so lousy with burning buildings that they were some sort of nightly event? Even so--and this comes from a resident of a city where house fires seem to happen every week or two, because the wiring in half the housing stock here was put in by drunken squirrels during the Cleveland administration, including the wiring in my own house, which is why I'm always a little nervous when I turn on a lightswitch, plus people are poor and crowding in 13 to a house and it just breaks your heart when you hear about another one going up in flames--but that's my point: Even in my town, we still sit up and notice a house fire. And two words I would not use to describe it are "colorless" and "dangerless." I mean, you ever seen a house on fire? They're pretty damned colorful, and about as dangerous as anything you're likely to find.

Banal? Think about it, Proust: For all you know, that house could be full of asparagus.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

ISYGF, Chapter 9: So you're a genius now, are you?

Pages 105-106:

This length of time that it takes someone to penetrate a work of some depth ... is only a foreshortening, and as it were a symbol, of all the years, or even centuries perhaps, which must pass before the public can come to love a masterpiece that is really new. This is why the man of genius, wishing to avoid the discontents of being unrecognized in his own day, may persuade himself that, since his contemporaries lack he necessary hindsight, works written for posterity should be read only by posterity, much as there are certain paintings that should not be looked at from too close up. However, any craven urge to avoid being misjudged is pointless, as misjudgment is unavoidable. What makes it difficult for a work of genius to be admired at once is the fact that its creator is out of the ordinary, that hardly anyone is like him. It is his work itself which, by ferlizing the rare spirits capable of appreciating it, will make them grow and multiply.

Do you think Proust was talking about himself? There is a sense of frustration there that makes me think so--"buck up, you 'andsome devil you, ze people today, zey cannot appreciate your amazeeng talent, but een feefty years, hahaha!" (Okay, my written French accent sucks.) I know some of his early writing wasn't particularly well-received, though it wasn't like his stuff didn't get published. Okay, maybe not the books, but some of his shorter (the mind boggles, doesn't it?) essays got into various literary reviews, so it seems weird to find him pouting about how nobody loves him here.

Can genius only be appreciated in retrospect? I dunno. I mean, Casablanca was a huge hit when it came out, and is still considered one of the best movies ever made some six decades later. And, as I said, Proust himself was given all due props in his own time--Young Girls would wind up winning the prestigious Goncourt Prize. Though I guess, from what I've managed to pick up so far around the Internets, it looks like Swann's Way rocked the world of Marcel Proust and pretty much nobody else. But still, six years (the time between the publishing of SW and ISYGF) is not that long, in the grand scheme of things. No, I'd say that this is just another one of those grand pronouncements Proust makes that sound really deep until you realize that empirical evidence suggests that they're actually total bullshit.

And it's not like posterity always has the best taste. Personally, I find Kerouac incredibly annoying, and I've never understood the group swoon he produces in the writing world. Meanwhile, other writers who probably deserve more recognition wind up relegated to the sad has-been world of library stacks and estate sales.

My mother has this thing where she picks up old books by authors she's never heard of. Her theory is that is anyone held onto a book for 50 years, it could very well be really good. She says her success rate is at least 50/50. I have one of the books she found this way: Gus the Great, a book based on a PT Barnum-like character, written in the 1950s. It's really good--it's been a while since I read it, but I'd put it near Kavalier & Clay in both tone and quality. I guess it was a smash hit at the time, but it's been out of print for years. Was it a work of genius? Probably not. But I'll tell you what: It was a helluva lot more fun to read than Swann's Way.

Was Proust a genius? Most people seem to say yes. He was definitely innovative. But it's weird to see how whiny he is about it. I don't know, I don't think I'm as focused as I should be today--I really need to get back to Real Life stuff, like painting my kitchen, so I'm distracted--but I do have to wonder if obsessing about whether people recognize your genius kind of gets in the way of any genius you might possess. But, like I said, the kitchen is guilt-tripping me right now, so I could just be extra-irritable. And I'm sure that if Proust knew he was getting upstaged by paint drying, he'd do an extra summersault in that well-visited grave of his.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

ISYGF, Chapter 8: Bonjour, Mrs. Robinson

Okay, I realize this is a duh observation, but Marcel is waaaaaaaaay more into Mme. Swann than he is into Gilberte, the putative object of his adolescent affections. What's that all about? I mean, he's supposed to be so entranced with this girl, and then he's like, "So I went over to her house, where her mom lived, and I was so excited because her mom wears this amazing floral perfume and has all these kick-ass dresses, dude, just thinking about her mom makes me want to eat another madeline, if you know what I mean."

(And as a tangent, I know there's a whole lot of debate about the exact status of Proust's sexuality, and I know I'm no authority on the subject, but seriously, no completely straight man has ever paid that much attention to women's clothing. He's, like, naming the fabrics of her tea gowns! Mme. Swann's tea gowns, that is--Gilberte's, he doesn't even bother to mention. She might be sitting at the table naked, for all we know. Though probably not. Anyway, my basic point being: Go ahead, find me a straight man who knows what crepe de chine is, much less can identify it in an outfit. I'm just saying.)

This doesn't really surprise me, though. I mean, Gilberte's always been more of an idea than a reality to him. First he was entranced with her, before he even met her, because he knew she got to hang with Bergotte, his favorite author. Then he met her on the garden path for, like, 30 seconds. They don't even exchange words, and he's in love. Which you could say was sweet, except... you know, she's not even a person to him. She's a pair of blue eyes, some golden hair, and a symbol of a world he finds tantalizingly mysterious, exotically sophisticated, and close but not quite attainable.

Poor Gilberte. I'm glad she's going to dump Marcel's sorry ass (and it's pretty obvious that she's going to, eventually). Because I've been someone's symbol before, and it sucks. Nothing you say, nothing you do, registers with the other person, because you don't really exist for them. You're noticing the way their mouth quirks when they smile, and the weird way they tear their bread into little pieces before eating it, and the shape of their hands, and they notice... not much, really. Which may be why Gilberte gets almost no physical description in Young Girls. He doesn't really remember. All he remembers is what she meant in his own formation as a young man.

To be fair, though, young Marcel is a symbol to Gilberte, as well. It's pretty obvious that she first gets into him because her parents don't approve--admittedly, not the freshest plot device ever, but then again, Proust was writing before the age of sitcoms, so maybe it was, back in his day. It's also obvious that the more her parents come to dote on Marcel--and the more he starts to identify with them--the less interest she has in him. To which I say: You go, girl! Find yourself a bad boy with a motorcycle and a starter tattoo and really piss the 'rents off. After all, what else is adolescence good for?

Well, if you're Marcel, evidently it's good for hanging out with your girlfriend's mom, listening to her play piano and making note of the exact amount of fringe on her walking jacket. Seriously, there's page after page about Mme. Swann--how she dresses, how she decorates the apartment, how she busts out the English mid-sentence. Gilberte? Some bizarro bit where she claims no child would ever want to outlive her parents. Ummmmmmmmwhaa? Marcel, you never mentioned she was crazy until now--might want to have told us that previously.

Gilberte's all over the map--first domineering, then sweet, then full of filial devotion, then self-centered and heartless. She never comes together as a unified person. But that makes sense, because she never was a real person to Marcel. I'd love to hear this whole story from her perspective. Proust tries to give it to us through implication, but he never really succeeds because he never understood her in the first place. I have a feeling she'll leave this story just as much a symbol as when she entered it, her internal life the same vague blur it was when she was standing on that garden path.

Proust even makes reference to this a few pages earlier with M. Swann, who is convinced his new mistress is cheating on him, even though she's actually very faithful, because he can only see her as the next in line of "The Women Who Made Him Jealous." Again: poor mistress. I hope she got some nice jewelry out of it, because it had to have been a drag and a half to be trapped in a relationship with a guy who can't see you as anything but an amalgamation of everyone else he's ever slept with prior to you. But what's a girl in that era going to do, get a job? (Not that anyone seems to have a job in this book. All this money for cakes and crepe de chine, and as far as I can tell everyone spends their days eating and visiting each other and taking walks in the park. Nice work if you can get it.) Anyway, Proust is obviously thinking about lovers-as-symbols. But I don't think he's completely honest with his own tendency to do the same thing. He never understood whoever it was upon whom he based the Gilberte character, and so he can never make her side of the story particularly clear.

The girl-as-symbol thing, though depressing, makes a fair amount of narrative sense to me, and I'd be willing to go along with it, except that once again, Proust can't manage to stay true to his own internal logic. Because while he's currently going on and on about how he's fascinated with Gilberte because she's a part of the Swanns' world, just 100 pages ago he was telling us that he was fascinated with the Swanns because they were a part of Gilberte's world. So now I'm left wondering, What's real? Has he been fascinated with the Swanns all this time because he thinks Mme. Swann is hot? Because they know Bergotte? Because they're Gilberte's parents? Or has he been fascinated with Gilberte because she's the Swanns' daughter? Proust, you flighty devil, help a girl out and just tell me: Who's zooming who?