Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Proust regained

I recommend very highly for anyone who has read or not read In Search of Lost Time Brian Nelson's The Swann Way, the first volume in a new translation of the entire novel by diverse hands, in this fine and very affordable paperback from Oxford World's Classics. His translation of the chapter Swann in Love, a novel in itself more or less, was published separately in 2017, so this edition includes Combray and Place Names: The Name

This is the fourth translation of Du côté de chez Swann following Scott Moncrieff/Kilmartin, James Grieve's, and Lydia Davis', and the third version of the title. It's a pity (no doubt for publishing reasons) they can't all be Swann's Way, as the flow of the two esses and double double-u into the final wye has the mellifluous quality of Proust's prose.

I don't have any French (not since the ransom was paid anyway), so I can't judge it as a translation, but reading this version was like rediscovering Proust, puffing away the dust of Great Literature. I found the narrative clearer, the scenes funnier, the characters more distinctive – Aunt Léonie, Dr Cottard, Swann and Odette in particular – and the existential pressure of perception closer to the surface. And Proust's study of Swann's jealousy – "the shadow of his love" for Odette – is simply breathtaking.

Over the years I've written about Proust, most of it (like this) bookchat ephemera, but here, bar the final one, is a short list of longer, more in-depth posts:

Extratemporal meditations, on Miguel de Beistegui's Proust as Philosopher.

Encountering the fabulous point, indirectly on Józef Czapski's Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp.

When now? on Gerard Genette's Narrative Discourse

Can there be a pure narrative? is also the question opening Blanchot's essay The Experience of Proust, not included in selected bibliography for The Swann Way despite it being undoubtedly the best essay on Proust's novel and Brian Nelson having edited Leslie Hill's After Blanchot.

Perhaps most enjoyably, Albertine Asleep, my recording of a reading of a passage from The Captive broadcast in the early hours of the morning on the BBC World Service in 1978 that marks my discovery of Proust. It also includes the word mellifluous

And talking of my discovery of Proust: a few years after the radio broadcast, I watched the Channel 4 series The Modern World: Ten Great Writers, which also had a huge impact on me, if only then of atmosphere. In the episode below Terence Kilmartin says that Proust is the most intelligent man who ever wrote a novel (obviously, this was long before Tony Parsons). The episode also features Michel Butor.

Finally, if we needed a guarantee of equal quality for the second volume, Charlotte Mandell's name would be enough, and the good news is that I understand her translation is due in 2024.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Kevin Hart and the outside

There are two reasons why listening to Kevin Hart's interview on the Hermitix podcast, and reading his new collection and The Dark Gaze for the second time, has helped me to recognise what I have forgotten, missed, misconstrued or misunderstood in Maurice Blanchot's writing or, rather, setting all that side as inevitable, what has been a distraction from what matters to me in his writing and in reading generally.

The first is the signal clarity of Hart's summaries whose presence in the source is shrouded in paragraphs as long, seductive and mind-expanding as Proust's. And while Proust's prose is bright and Blanchot's "darkly incantatory", the implications of what he writes, felt with a palatial intensity, often vanish as soon as one of Marcel's ecstatic instants. Such vanishing is also the product of what Blanchot calls "the light, innocent Yes of reading", which is not worth losing in favour of knowledge.

The other reason is that Hart is a theologian, unique in Blanchot studies. Most scholars constrain their discussion to Blanchot's relation to writers and philosophers of the last 200 years, but Hart includes medieval Christian mystics. For Blanchot, he says, belief in God is a belief in an original unity, a belief in oneness and, for him, to do away with God means doing away with unity of the Self, of the Book, and of the Subject (all of which he gives leading capitals). He is prepared to accept a world without such grounding in unity. Except Blanchot's atheism is something other than a straightforward deletion: "As Heidegger warned," Hart writes in The Dark Gaze, "the absence of God is 'not nothing' but on the contrary is the fullness of a vast and complex heritage, and...that 'The flight of the gods must be experienced and endured'":

If Blanchot interprets this experience by way of atheism, he acknowledges that the deity returns as a ghost in the assumptions of philosophy and in the reserve on which literature calls. [...] To deny God is not thereby to eliminate transcendence; it is to see how that question is transformed and where it takes up its new abodes.

Its apparent abode in modern literature has been a recurring theme on this blog in recent years, slowly turning it away from bookchat and straightforward reviews as I discovered what drove both and what both concealed. But I may have misconstrued the presence of the not-nothing permeating the books I have written about here in those years. Even as someone entirely untouched by religious observance, instruction and practice, and certainly not new age "spirituality", have I made of it something more than it is, "acceding to a secular occult" to use Hart's words, going in the opposite direction to Blanchot's "anonymous, distracted, deferred, and dispersed way of being", appropriating petty escape as quasi-mystical, projecting the possibility of gnosis onto the blank intuitions of reading?

An answer of sorts comes when the presenter of the podcast assumes Blanchot would not be sympathetic to a religious thinker like Meister Eckhart and Hart replies that it's not that simple: Blanchot thought that Eckhart and other theologians concerned with apophatic thought and negative theology were onto something, only he thinks it wasn't God they were approaching but "the outside, the neutral, or the impossible".

It's unclear whether each word is meant as an equivalence of the other two, but I will assume they are. In the new collection he says the outside "can be discerned in "intransitive writing", which he says for Blanchot means "literary writing". Writing poetry and narrative can be defined as "something that happens when we respond to the outside", when the singular 'I' is displaced, as writing replaces the object with an image, as a portrait replaces the sitter. In the new collection he describes the process as "the perpetual passing of being into nothingness" and in The Dark Gaze: "To write is to transform the instant into an imaginary space, to pass from a time in which death could occur to an endless interval of dying." If we still regard a work of literature is a product of mastery, this should challenge us, as should the recent proliferation of novels created by AI that have swamped the Amazon bookstore as it dispenses with the encounter with the presence and biography of an author.

On the side of the reader, we might see the effects of displacement in the focus in reviews on story, a stylistic tour de force and subject matter or, in literary criticism, on technical analysis and the tracing of an author's oeuvre. Nevertheless, the experience of something other than being in familiar time and space forms the cultural awe and reverence for books, but which in these displacements is immediately instrumentalised out of recognition; defining it as an experience is evidence enough of domestication. It is instead closer to a non-experience, and so the demand for it to mean something in the world, to be made real in some way; hence the vacillation between passion and ambivalence for books, more often than not patronising the act of reading as an indulgence, an escape, at best a tool with which to tackle current affairs. For some, however, a grave resonance remains: the eponymous character in Saul Bellow's novel Mr Sammler's Planet, who, like Blanchot in real life, survived a firing squad in the second world war, is captivated by Meister Eckhart: "Mr Sammler could not say that he literally believed what he was reading. He could, however, say that he cared to read nothing but this." Blanchot may provide understanding of such care as an experience of, as Hart writes, "the ceaseless oscillation of being and nonbeing", an awareness of "a neutral state that can only fascinate us and, in doing so, bind us to itself".

Despite all this, Hart complains that Blanchot is "less than clear" on the definition of the outside, though "perhaps we should not expect someone who mainly writes literary columns in journals to supply rigorous answers". He must surely know already that Blanchot mainly wrote literary columns because the outside can only be approached indirectly, intransitively, often in a performative mode (the light, innocent Yes of writing), so the answers may be considered rigorous in respect of the outside.

Hart also notes that "it is odd that many of his readers who work in colleges and universities have not sought clarification". Well, there is at least one book published in the same imprint whose title suggests otherwise. However, William Allen writes that "Blanchot never precisely defines what he means by the outside, because its status as the outside makes definition impossible", so perhaps this can be included under Hart's note. Nevertheless, the book does contain a description of how the experience of literature at least raises the question of the outside.

While the book comprises close readings of Blanchot's novel The Most-High and the récit The one who was standing apart from me, I have to constrain my attention to the introduction in which Allen addresses Blanchot's image of the "two slopes" of literature found in the essay Literature and the Right to Death (an image and title that Allen says is also unclear). There is the slope familiar to us all with its uncomplicated, common sense representation of things in the world – the kind that "protests against revelation" as Blanchot puts it –  and there is the other slope "by which things are separated from themselves and destroyed in order to be known, subjugated, communicated". In the hyperbolic terminology of the essay, there is the revelation of death in the enabling of things in the world to be communicated. Only it's a death that never quite occurs, as language never quite appears in itself nor disappears into its object, and in this impasse each slope is exposed to the other "without however converging on it, leading to an endless ambiguity about the presence of meaning"; we cannot locate meaning solely in language or in the world so there is an anxiety we overcome only in the violence of denial or by seeking sanctuary in the hypotheses of scholarship. 

Allen provides an example of ambiguity in a bravura passage on the consequences of the slogan "Liberty or Death!". In pronouncing it, the revolutionary impresses us with their heroic stance, but also frightens us by placing themselves at a distance from everyday values. In doing so, death becomes a part of everyday life, "coextensive" with liberty:

If the claim initially appears as all or nothing, then it quickly transforms into all and nothing, insofar as both outcomes are the same at this extreme, and this leads to its further transformation as all is nothing. But...this is not nihilism, as the status of the two terms has changed utterly in being so removed from ordinary values. What is exposed is a netherworld beyond their simple alternation or negation, a world that presents itself absolutely and also removes itself leaving neither a presence nor an absence.

I imagine we could apply the political "Liberty or Death!" to the literary "War on Cliché!", in which what we experience as a defamiliarising phrase liberating us from habit soon becomes a cliché itself deadening its impact, which thereby demands endless war and endless dying. Martin Amis' later writing became obsessed by death cults only because they revealed his own.

If I have been distracted from what matters to me in reading, it may be in seeking an accommodation of exposure to this netherworld within a culture that recognises only power and control. This blog is a prime example.


Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

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