Monday, December 18, 2006

Proust and the entire secret of art

Sometimes I feel like those old men Gulliver encounters in the Voyage to Laputa, who have renounced language and who try to converse by means of objects themselves.
Most days I'm with Stravinsky. An impulse to say something disappears into the steady progression of sentences. In the end, something is smothered by the necessary requirements of writing. Words are written, rhetoric deployed, but the impulse remains. There is no end. There's always a dual sense of writing being both a release and a dissipation. How can one remain true to that impulse, the inspiration, within the inevitable wandering?

This was a problem also faced by Proust. "My volume is a picture" he wrote. "It's true that a picture is necessarily seen however large it is, whereas a book isn't read in the same way." His solution was one of the two usual ones: to write a great deal. Except that Proust made the dispersal work to make present the miraculous transports in which that long time is erased, the transcendence of time in which the dispersal becomes possible. It returns the novel and its readers to the inspirational origin.

Actually, this might serve as the distinction between the exemplary literary status of In Search of Lost Time and the innumerable, interminable genre cycles some wish also to call "Proustian". For one the dissipation is the goal, for others, like Proust, its negation is a joyous, immanent inspiration. Yet as Christine Cano reveals in her new book, Proust's ambition caused problems not only with his early readers but his publishers before the work even got to the printers.

Proust's Deadline takes us back to the time when Proust was writing against time to complete the novel. One gets a strong sense of the urgency and confusion of his negotiations with publishers. They would announce volumes in accordance with the author's advice, only for Proust to change tack as the writing proceeded. And although Proust wanted the novel to be judged as a whole, the first book - Swann's Way - was not well received precisely because it wasn't a whole. To contemporary reviewers it was a self-indulgent meander without a clear development and satisfying conclusion. They complained that a few moments in the life of the narrator could take 80 pages to describe. Of course this is still a complaint from those who wish the writer to suppress any instinct to tell the truth as the book sees it and instead do a professional job for the indignant reader. But Swann's Way would have appeared less abnormal had the later volumes been there to put it in context.

Cano also reveals a potential influence on Proust which I can't find any mention of in Jean-Yves Tadie's apparently definitive biography. A young Proust attended the lectures of Gabriel Séailles, an academic influenced in turn by German Romanticism, in which he expressed the ideas contained in Essai sur le genie en l’art, published in 1897. Cano provides a tantalising quotation:
The work of art should spring forth in a single jet; it is the impossibility of saying everything at once, or the difficulty of expression, that force the artist to work successively. To disguise this, this succession of efforts, to reproduce in each detail the work as a whole, this is the entire secret of art.
The disguise is not the secret in terms of the sleight of hand but the paradoxical key to simultaneity. "The execution of the work of art makes itself simultaneous; it compensates for the impossibility of springing forth all at once by growing out in every direction." Cano provides the gloss:
Simultaneity is thus redefined as growth of the parts in relationship to one another, that is, as the internal logic behind the artist's necessarily successive efforts. It is successivity, then, not simulaneity, that is only as an appearance.
This has obvious resonances with In Search of Lost Time. Except it doesn't explain why Proust was so dissatisfied with Jean Santeuil, his first attempt at a great novel, so similar in many ways to the later work, that he abandoned it even after writing several hundred pages. To explain that, I can only point to Blanchot's essay The Experience of Proust (in this collection). It is there literary criticism and great art also become simultaneous.

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