Saturday, August 9, 2014

Book 154, France: "In Search of Lost Time, Vol I: Swann's Way" by Marcel Proust

Boy oh boy. I still can't figure out if I made a mistake with this one. I mean, I could've read an action-packed classic novel for this segment - Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers, Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera - and no-one would've thought less of me for it.

But instead, I decided I had to go with the major work of world literature I was least likely to get around to reading otherwise. But the one I chose was only one volume of the seven-volume In Search of Lost Time, and not even the most acclaimed volume, either (which I believe is In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower). 

Still, it is the one with the famous madeleine scene in it!

TBH, the book's not bad, if you know you're diving in for some experimental writing - you can put up with the long sentences and the endless introspection and the utter lack of plot, and enjoy the sketches of the ridiculous grandmothers and maidservants and aunts, not to mention the absurdly lovestruck M. Swann and his coquettish peacock of a lover/wife Odette, who may or may not be cheating on him, we have no idea. The most beautiful prose pops up in the section Names of Places, when he's reflecting on the many towns and landscapes he might have chosen to visit as a child had his health been better:

"...between Bayeux, so lofty in its noble coronet of rusty lace,w hose highest point caught the light of the old gold of is second syllable; Vitré, whose acute accent barred its ancient glass with wooden lozenges; gentle Lamballe, whose whiteness ranged from egg-shell yellow to a pearly grey; Voutances, a Norman Cathedral, which its final consonants, rich and yellowing, crowned with a tower of butter; Lannion with the rumble and buzz, in the silence of its village street, of the fly on the wheel of the coach; Questambert, Portorson, ridiculously silly and simple, white feathers and yellow beaks strewn along the road to those well-watered and poetic spots; Benodet, a name scarcely moored that seemed to be striving to draw the river down into the tangle of its seaweeds; Pont-Aven, the snowy, rosy flight of the wing of a lightly poised coif, tremulously reflected in the greenish waters of a canal; Quimperlé, more firmly attached, this, and since he Middle Ages, among the rivulets with which it babbled, threading their pearls upon a grey background, like the pattern made, through the cobwebs upon a window, by rays of sunlight changed into blunt points of tarnished silver?"

But I'm also rather lucky that I was concurrently reading David M. Halperin's incredibly insightful book How To Be Gay, that examines how there is a gay culture of irony and beauty-worship despite activist claims that this is mere stereotype. Halperin points towards Proust's work as an exemplar of his ideas - how, even in the early reaches of the 20th century, even in a work that does not explicitly declare its author's sexuality, we still have this tale of a terrible longing to be loved by one's mother (Proust's mum believed that over-excessive displays of love were unhealthy, and tried to restrict her warmth, clumsily) and the sheer camp surrounding the depictions of the absurd men and (especially) women of upper middle-class French society. Hell, even his childhood crush on a girl called Gilberte doesn't redeem him orientation-wise.

Nonetheless, I do think reading Hugo or Dumas would have been better for my writing. Another day!

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: The reality that I had known no longer existed. It sufficed that Mme Swann did not appear, in the same attire and at the same moment, for the whole avenue to be altered. The places that we have known belong now only to the little world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.

Next book: John Glatt's The Ruling House of Monaco : the Story of a Tragic Dynasty, from Monaco.

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