Monday, July 04, 2022

“Can there be a pure narrative?”

The question opening Maurice Blanchot’s essay The Experience of Proust* has always drawn me back, not to secure a yes or a no, but to keep the question of pure narrative open in its initial uncertainty, perhaps, rather, in its impossibility, as it appears to make reading and writing more vital, more promising, to me at least, than the forms and issues that keep book reviewers and literary critics spinning like whirling Dervishes before a God long since disappeared. This is an attempt to understand why.

First of all, what could pure mean this context? In the very next sentence, Blanchot writes "Every narrative seeks to hide itself in novelistic density, even if only out of discretion", which implies that pure narrative is narrative in itself – perhaps its Platonic form – but that would mean every narrative is pure until the writer begins to write; a form without content, which doesn't make much sense. Gérard Genette's study quoted at length in my previous post, itself seeking answers via Proust, may help here, as it begins by offering three definitions of narrative: 

  • A statement telling of an event or series of events 
  • The totality of actions and situations subject to such a statement 
  • The act of narrating taken in itself

Two are familiar in regular novel reviews (We are taken from Europe to Persia during the political upheavals of the interwar years) while the third prompts the image of an orator reciting the Iliad before an audience, which is why Genette notes that this is the oldest definition and, we might assume, the purest. But there can be no degrees of purity here, and 'act' is a verb rather than an adjective, so the question remains open.

Blanchot essays seeks to understand why the possibility of a pure narrative led Proust, otherwise “so desirous of making books and of being thought of as a writer”, to put a 750-page novel in the drawer and yet hurry to publish Les plaisirs et les jours, a comparatively insubstantial volume of short pieces not likely to make much of an impression – an apparent perversity similar to Kafka publishing Betrachtung that alone would never have led to the word Kafkaesque; a decision all the more curious because Jean Santeuil has so much in common with the novel that gave us the word Proustian: a long and detailed account of the life of a fin-de-siècle upper-class Frenchman that not only begins with the seven-year-old Jean anxiously seeking his mother's goodnight kiss but also descriptions of the famous instants and what they suggest:

Could it be that beauty and joy for the poet resides in an invisible substance which may perhaps be called imagination, which cannot work direct on immediate reality, nor yet on past reality deliberately remembered, but hovers only over past reality caught up and enshrined in the reality now present? It is as though before the eye which sees it now and saw it long ago, there floats divine imagination, which is perhaps the source of all our joy, something that we find in books, but only with the utmost difficulty in things around us. [...]
And is it not more beautiful we wonder, that the imagination, which neither the present nor the past could put into communication with life and so save from oblivion and the misinterpretation of thought and unhappy memories, the varied, individual essences of life—trains and hotel rooms, the fragrance of roses, the taste of stewed fruit, washrooms and roads from which we can look at the sea while, as it were, travelling elegantly in a carriage—is it not more beautiful that in the sudden leap which follows on the impact between an identical past and present, the imagination should thus be freed from time? For the pleasure of that experience is a sure sign of its superiority, and in it I have always put such trust that I write nothing of what I see, nothing at which I arrive by a process of reasoning, or of what I have remembered in the ordinary sense of remembering, but only of what the past brings suddenly to life in a smell, in a sight, in what has, as it were, exploded within me and set the imagination quivering, so that the accompanying joy stirs me to inspiration.
                                                                                               [Translated by Gerard Hopkins]

Pure narrative then would be the divine imagination. But, as these passages show, the problem for Proust is that these transports are presented as moments of reflection and speculation alongside the narrative rather than its divinely guided principle. The instants are neutralised, set beyond the linear progress of Jean Santeuil's life, betraying its inspiration. This is one side of the "experience" referred to in Blanchot's title: the disappointment in writing by a process of reasoning outside of divine imagination – the other side, I presume, being the experience of the instants. If published, he says, "Proust would have been lost". A disconcerting thought given how easy it would have been for Proust to have settled on what he had produced. Jean Santeuil would have become only another grain of sand in the desert of regular novels, with the events of Jean's life comprising "ordinary novelistic material" with the occasional philosophical interlude we have just read; events that are certainly beautifully written and moving to read but soon indistinguishable from other novels with yet more beautiful writing, more interludes, and more moving events borne on the desert winds. A desert may have its own majesty, but it relies on death for its power, which in terms of biographies and regular novels is its submission to a conclusion towards which we as readers hurry, invariably construing the compulsion as pure pleasure rather than as despair.

Instead, Proust needed to write a novel in which death is suspended and neutralised. As Jean Santeuil suggests above, this demanded a novel "without any other matter than the essential"; a novel, in Blanchot's desert-contrasting simile, "made only of those points from which it is formed, like the sky where apart from the stars there is only emptiness". What form might such a novel take?

Blanchot notes that Impressionism, a movement Proust admired in the visual arts, gave him a model. If had he followed the example, however, he would likely have produced a short novel we might now call poetic; appealing for its potential for cystalline beauty and the shining of something intangible absent in more garrulous novels, but one that soon palls as one stalls over yet another fussily worded sentence (see much-lauded "very experimental" writers). Instead, of course, he produced one the longest novels ever published. Pure narrative as Proust conceived it had to be abandoned. But he found a way to justify the abandonment:

He discovered something about the space of the work that had to carry all the powers of duration at once, that had also to be nothing but the movement of the work toward itself and the authentic search for its origin, that had, finally, to be the place of the imagination.

Pure narrative would then be the origin of narrative – the experience of pure time in Proust's case, accessible in the space of the imagination. Blanchot says that Proust came to think of this space as having the essence of a sphere engorged with the impurities of "novelistic density", with the instants passing from buried centre to the bright surface, revealing the origin in "joyful flashes of lightning". By filling the emptiness of the sphere with the material we're familiar with from this and other novels, Proust created a turning world in which what on the surface appears settled only for the instants to disrupt and rewrite memory. We can see this from the very beginning as Marcel emerges from sleep and struggles to recall where he is. Everything around him that was immobile in wakeful hours revolves around him in the darkness – "things, places, years" – so that he has to form and re-evaluate his reality each morning, creating "a song of possibilities" suppressed by habit. It differs from "the unreality of a scintillating space" of purely imagined novels because it is a world very close to Proust's own life, except this is not a roman à clef requiring a biographer to tease out the connections to give us the truth behind the novel but one in which the narrative "happens as if it were fortunately superimposed onto the journey of his actual life". This is the best way to appreciate In Search of Lost Time as a novel: a form in which every apparent truth and every event is subject to re-evaluation as the sphere revolves. By superimposing its revolutions onto the movement of an actual life, it implicates the reader's own life and the potential for uncovering possibilities otherwise buried in their life.

In the one life there are many lives. Alternative lives. Some are lived and others imagined. That is the absurdity of biographies, he would say, of novels. They never take account of the alternative lives casting their shadows over us as we move slowly, as though in a dream, from birth to maturity to death. 

This passage from Gabriel Josipovici's 120-page novel The Cemetery in Barnes is, despite its length, very much in the Proustian tradition of countering the habits into which novels can fall. Our "actual life" can often become a worn-out genre.

Blanchot ends his essay on what Proust produced to erase the memory of Jean Santeuil with another passage that also draws me back to ponder its implications:

There is...something indescribably wonderful in this piece of writing, which has been brought back to daylight and which shows us how the greatest writers are threatened and how much energy, inertia, inactivity, attention, and distraction are needed to go to the end of what proposes itself to them.

Does Proust count as one of Blanchot's "greatest writers" not because (or not only because) of his uniquely beautiful style – "this style of slow curves, of fluid heaviness, of transparent density, always in movement, wonderfully made to express the infinitely varied rhythm of voluminous gyration" – but because he was able to resist generic form despite being a master of it and, instead, in a combination of contradictions, follow the truth and logic of his inspiration – that which interrupts regular narrative and appears, bizarrely, to redeem a life otherwise wasted or lost – in contrast to those who build a foundation on habit and expectation, thereby finding an all-purpose literary alibi?

This is why I am drawn back. The essay on Proust confirms Timothy Clark's statement that Blanchot "offers what is surely the fullest, least idealizing and most detail theory of inspiration in Western literature" in which the "Romantic tradition of attempting to appropriate inspiration as form of human power may be said to come to an end", as "inspiration finds its provenance outside or beyond the consciousness of the writer"; the outside or beyond coming from "both the emerging work itself and, literally, nowhere".

"Nowhere" may be pure narrative, the centre of the sphere; a less joyful version Proust's experience of pure time; "the giant murmuring upon which language opens" as Blanchot characterises it in The Space of Literature, "and thus becomes image, becomes imaginary, becomes a speaking depth, an indistinct plenitude which is empty". This alternative rendering of pure narrative helps me to understand my ambivalent relationship with narrative content, or at least with the sphere of contemporary literature as it bloats into an ever-expanding universe of love and loss so large no privileged instant can penetrate its happy and virtuous surface, and yearn instead for an acultural, ahistorical writing that puts everything into question, including itself. Except Blanchot's Proust confirms my undue haste, as this may require a paradoxical indulgence in both culture and history (which may also justify my advocacy for Knausgaard's struggle). Clark again:

The demand made by the work on the writer is...less to instrumentalize language in a certain way, than, suppressing the urge to personal expression, to impose a certain silence, form or limit upon that 'giant murmuring'.

If I have written my own Jean Santeuil, I have at least the ability to abandon it, although I did hurry to publish my own Les plaisirs et les jour. Yes, it has its moments, I think, and then realise that of course Proust’s novel has its moments too, and look what he made of them. 

 

*The Experience of Proust can be found in The Book to Come translated by Charlotte Mandell

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