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.


  1. An excellent post, as usual...except for the lazy smearing of Roth. Calling the Zuckerman novels interminable, and suggesting they are merely generic, is surely some kind of joke. Beyond the dabbling with the roman a clef form, what genre exactly do the wide-ranging Zuckerman books fall into? And how can Roth's enraged, surging prose (too assertive?), a prose of great humour and wit and historical resonance, be lumped in with plodders like Neal Stephenson - surely his type are the genre cyclists (so to speak) you're thinking of?

    As a regular visitor to this blog, I'm often left scratching my head at these occasional sneers towards writers who have the temerity to write anything approaching conventional fiction - not pure genre tedium, mind you, but any kind of employment of traditional novelistic technique. I understand the desire to take an axe to the safe, dulling tropes of much contemporary fiction, but there's life yet in the baggy monster, surely? What is the alternative to Roth? Josipovici? Having read In A Hotel Garden, I can only assume your desire to escape the comforts of anything resembling fiction have reduced you to reading books that are the equivalent of drinking a glass of sand on a hot day.

    Apologies if this is all a little hysterical, or muddled.

  2. That link about genre cyclists refers to the comment NOT to Roth! I enjoyed the Zuckerman books. I just don't rate him as highly as others.

    As for the sneers, somebody's got to do it.

  3. Anonymous10:32 pm

    On the topic of Proust, are those recent Penguin translations a good way to go for someone unacquainted with Marcel? It's time I gave In Search of Lost Time a go.

  4. Go for the Scott Moncrief/Kilmartin translation in the Vintage edition (in the UK at least) ahead of the new Penguin.

  5. Anonymous4:43 am

    I've been doing some reading, and it appears that neither translation is perfect. It seems the Scott-Moncrieff (revised) is unnecessarily purple and the Penguin - as it was done by seven different hands - varies in quality.

    I'll do some dipping at the bookstore and see what suits.

  6. Whoever said the translations were perfect? But everyone I know who has read both editions prefer the Moncrief/Kilmartin.

    The old 1000-page per volume Penguin Classics edition also has a large typeface. I'd say it was perfect.



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