Moncrieff: 281-292; Patterson: 197-199
by Dennis Abrams
In the Guermantes library: George Sand’s Francois le Champi. At first it seemed out of harmony with what he had been experiencing, “until a moment later, with an emotion so strong that tears came to my eyes, I recognised how very much in harmony with them it was….The memory of what had seemed to me too deep for understanding in the subject of Francois le Champi when my mother long ago had read the book aloud to me, had been reawakened by the title,and just as the name of Guermantes, after a long period during which I had not seen the Guermantes, contained for me the essence of the feudal age, so Francois de Champi contained the essence of the novel…” Awakening the child he had been when his mother had read the book to him: “This was a very deeply buried impression that I had just encountered, one in which memories of childhood and family were tenderly intermingled and which I had not immediately recognised. My first reaction had been to ask myself, angrily, who this stranger was who was coming to trouble me. The stranger was none other than myself, the child I had been at that time, brought to life within me by the book…And this book which my mother had read aloud to me at Combray until the early hours of the morning had kept for me all the charm of that night.” (Unlike the work of George Sand herself.) “…a thing which we have looked at in the past brings back to us, if we see it again, not only the eyes with which we look at it but all the images with which at the time those eyes were filled. For things — and among them a book in a red binding — as soon as we have perceived them are transformed within us into something immaterial, something of the same nature as all our preoccupations and sensations of that particular time, with which, indissolubly, they blend.” The unreality of realism: “it is,in fact, though it calls itself realist, the furthest removed from reality and has more than any other the effect of saddening and impoverishing us, since it abruptly severs all communication of our present self both with the past, the essence of which is preserved in things, and with the future, in which things incite us to enjoy the essence of the past a second time. Yet is precisely this essence that an art worthy oft he name must seek to express…” “A thing which we saw, a book which we read at a certain period does not merely remain for ever conjoined to what existed then around us; it remains also faithfully united to what we ourselves then were and therefore it can be handled only by the sensibility, the personality that were then ours.” “…sometimes when we look at a photograph of a person we recollect him less clearly than we do when we are merely thinking about him.” Bergotte and the phrases Marcel once found wonderful, “…the beauty that I once saw in them there is no trace. But the volume still glistens with the snow that covered the Champs-Elysees on the day when I first read it — I open its pages and the scene is before my eyes.” A book, a kiss, a life almost wasted. Marcel as bibliophile: Collecting the editions in which he first read the book. The multiple sensations of an image: The binding of a book, moonlight of a distant summer night. The taste of breakfast coffee, hope of fine weather. “An hour is not merely an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates, and what we call reality is a certain connexion between these immediate sensations and the memories which envelop us simultaneously with them — a connexion between these immediate sensations and the memories which envelop us simultaneously with them…a unique connexion which the writer has to rediscover in order to link for ever in his phrase the two sets of phenomena which reality joins together…truth will be attained by him only when he takes two different objects, states the connexion between them…and encloses them in the necessary links of a well-wrought style; truth — and life too — can be attained by us only when, by comparing a quality common to two sensations, we succeed in extracting their common essence and reuniting them to each other, liberated from the contigencies of time, within a metaphor.” Is reality nothing more than a kind of waste product of experience? “…the essential, the only true book, though in the ordinary sense of the word it does not have to be ‘invented’ by a great writer — for it exists already in each one of us — has to be translated. The function and the task of a writer are those of a translator.”
1. I gasped out loud at the line “The function and the task of a writer are those of a translator.” Brilliant. In his book Proust, Philosophy of the Novel, Vincent Descombes says,
“It is a matter of translating impressions that are personal into a language that everybody understands. These impressions are precisely the elements of someone’s experience of bad weather, war, a line of carriages, or what have you, that cannot be rendered by the words bad weather, war, and so forth. It is the writer’s role to invent, in the common language, a style appropriate for translating the impressions. This is the justification for Proust’s doctrine of metaphor.”
2. This seems to be vital:
“But it is rather in the history of my own life, and not simply as a connoisseur of the past in general, that I should seek this beauty; and I should attach it often not to a particular copy but to the work itself, to Francois le Champi, for instance, first contemplated by me in my little bedroom at Combray, during the night that was perhaps the sweetest and saddest of my life, when I had alas! (at a time when the Guermantes still seemed to me mysterious and inaccessible) won from my parents that first abdication of their authority from which, later, I was to date the decline of my health and my will, and my renunciation, each day disastrously confirmed, of a task that daily became more difficult — and rediscovered by me today, in the library of these same Guermantes, on this most wonderful of all days which had suddenly illuminated for me not only the odd groping movements of my thought, but even the whole purpose of my life and perhaps of art itself.”
3. And finally, on a personal note. I’d like to share an experience similar to the ones that Marcel is experiencing at the Guermantes. Back in my college days, I spent a lot of time in the room of one of my good friends smoking pot, listening to Steely Dan’s “Aja” and smoking pot. I went a long time without listening to that album (I’m dating myself immediately I realize by referring to it as an “album,”) largely because I had just played it out. Probably about five years ago, I picked up the CD, and played it for the first time in probably fifteen years. With just the first five notes, I felt it physically through me — I was no longer in my home in Houston, I was in the dorm room, sitting cross-legged on Doug’s bed, the backgammon board between us — I could see everything in the room, smell the pot…it was an extraordinary experience. And as Marcel says, one impossible to duplicate.
We are, as many have noted, deep in the heart of the matter in our reading. Any questions? Issues? Comments? Any similar stories you’d like to share?
The Weekend’s Reading:
Moncrieff: Page 292-322 “Even where the joys of art are concerned…” through “Look for yourself,and try whether you see best with this lens or that one or this other one.” Kindle locations: 3754-61/4132-39
Patterson: Pages 197-220 (and now we’re all together again) “An image presented to us by life…” through “Look for yourself, try whether you see better with this lens, or that one, or the other one.” 3622-29/4012-19
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.