David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: proust (page 4 of 11)

A la Fin Du Temps Perdu

I’ll try not to give away too much here, but the multiyear Proust reading has come to an end, even if the blog hasn’t. Since this isn’t an in-depth analysis but only my own reaction on finishing what is the longest book I’ve ever read (I can’t think of anything else that even comes close), I’m putting it on the main page. For you all who haven’t finished it, I don’t think there is much in the way of spoilers below, but it’s about finishing the book, so caveat emptor.

This is a very personal book. Towards the end, Proust describes a work of literary art as being an edifice built around the writer, to be seen and interpreted by visitors from the outside. There are works of fiction that don’t take this stance, works that attempt to generalize over all of life and speak in universals. In this view, the author is merely a conduit for a noumenal world. Shakespeare, of course, falls into this category, as do Dostoevsky, Homer, Melville, Faulkner. But Proust is very explicit that the vision he is projecting is a mirror of his own mind and little else, not that he needs to be explicit about it. In many ways Proust is as hermetic as Kafka or Kleist in his unshakeable devotion to his own perspective. It’s apparent that the problems he faces–and the ultimate answers he arrives at–are ones quite specific to himself and his own situation; i.e., that of a brilliant writer in active society.

That Proust’s excavation is so complete and so brilliant makes the work paradoxical. As I had been told by friends, Proust ends on a high, bringing together many threads from earlier in the work, and the feeling on finishing is one of satisfaction and completeness. It is the opposite of Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which embraces the world and everything in it only to shatter and fall apart, because Musil’s world expanded and mutated faster than his book. But the paradox makes leaving Proust an ambivalent experience. On finishing his work, I did not feel as though I was carrying the entirety of the book with me in my head (though I have assimilated parts of it quite thoroughly). Rather, it was like leaving a cathedral and having the doors shut behind you.

I held off reading the end for about a week, precisely because I knew that finishing it would mean leaving Proust’s world. Proust never had to deal with that problem; even having written the end, the refinement of the gigantic middle could have easily been stretched to accomodate far more days than he had. The polar emotions that greeted me at the end were comfortable satisfaction at being at the brilliant summit of the end of the book, followed by the blinding readjustment that you have on walking out of a dark theater into the sunlight. And then the question, “Well, what do I read next?” (A: I think it has to be Beckett.)

Is it, in the words of an old professor, the greatest thing ever written? I can’t say that it is, because part of me feels that admitting that would be to narrow the scope of my world to that of Proust’s. But is it the greatest success ever written, a book that sets out very specific terms and fulfills them beyond any expectation, comparable to Joyce or Kant? Possibly.

Marcel Proust: The Captive

No, the Proust project has not been abandoned, but as I’ve gone through the novel I’ve been less keen on writing commentary, as the text has become less inspired and more redundant. This is all relative, as even Proust’s worst writing is stunning. There are enough brilliant bits to almost constantly reaffirm Proust’s talents, but by the time of The Captive, the finely edited prose of the first three volumes has loosened and turned into a much more disparate, elusive text. Proust surprises the reader in this and The Fugitive by narrowing his focus almost entirely to two characters, Marcel and Albertine, and Marcel’s obsessive, paranoiac jealousy and doubts over Alberine, who, to be fair, is hiding quite a bit. They live together, Marcel controlling Albertine as best he can, and every time she leaves the apartment, it seems, Marcel becomes insane with worry, interrogating her when she returns. By the end of the novel, she inadvertently, finally drops a clue that Marcel picks up on (though he has clearly been at Charles Bovary levels of denial for quite some time) alluding to her lesbian tendencies and egregious levels of infidelity. Yet they still continue in their relationship, though not for long, as Albertine becomes “the fugitive” rather quickly in the next volume. The question, of course, is one of how Marcel and Albertine are both captives, and we see the former far more than the latter. Marcel’s obsessive reflections make Swann’s jealousies in Swann’s Way look comparatively restrained. It also makes Swann’s thoughts look quite concise and pithy.

And yet, there is one blindsiding moment of revelation in The Captive, though it is only so when seen in the greater context of the entire work. Francoise is now Marcel’s maid, and has a great distaste for Albertine:

On one occasion I found Francoise, armed with a huge pair of spectacles, rummaging through my papers and replacing among them a sheet on which I had jotted down a story about Swann and his utter inability to do without Odette. Had she maliciously left it lying in Albertine’s room?(372)

Note that this cannot be a piece of Swann’s Way itself, since Marcel has not yet started to write his magnum opus. Still, it is the first definite indication that Marcel has heard enough of Swann’s story to begin writing about it, as Proust does himself. And for all the implicit connections between Swann’s jealousy of Odette and Marcel’s jealousy of Albertine, this is where it’s made explicit that Swann has been influencing Marcel. And not only that, but Marcel is writing these words about Swann during a time of extreme emotional stress, and revising his mental picture of Swann and Odette in the process. What we get in the first volume, then, is a many-revised version of Swann’s story, one that was first heard by Marcel from his acquaintances, then fictionalized during his time with Albertine, then refictionalized later.

Under this view, The Captive is less an analogue than a partial stripping away of fictional artifice. The third person narrative of Swann (with many first-person narrative asides) has been replaced with the intimate, claustophobic first person, and yet we have to take them as the very same voice at different times. Moreover, we need to see Swann’s story through the lens of The Captive, and perhaps through later writing, if we are to understand the narrator’s state in writing Swann’s Way and the pictures of Swann and Odette that are there presented. If this is the case, it would make sense that The Captive is far messier than Swann’s Way and less conclusive (for it is), because the author is that much closer to the material and less able to tell it as a distant story. Remember this passage from “Combray” in the first volume:

The novelist’s happy discovery was to think of substituting for these opaque sections [of people], impenetrable to the human soul, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is, which one’s soul can assimilate…

(See the link for the full passage.)

It is only now that “Swann in Love” seems to be exactly that to which Proust refers here. Likewise, there is the blurring of Marcel the narrator and Proust the author, as we come to see that it must be Marcel (even if that is not his name) that is writing the whole book, and that real, opaque person, Proust, recedes from clear sight.

Thoughts on Work

Marjorie Williams wrote that Christina Stead was one of the few authors to write accurately and thoroughly of money:

One other (random) thing I want to note is how wonderfully Stead writes about money. It is strange how little fiction there is that reflects the resonance money really has in life. (Middlemarch comes to mind, but how many titles spring after it?) The family’s economic decline, the scenes in which the Pollit children come to see that they are really poor, and the climactic one in which poor young Ernie–who defends himself through the careful accretion and management of money–discovers that his mother has stolen his last little savings, have a magnificent realism.

And I think this is partly true. Surely the most acutely realistic writers like George Gissing (in New Grub Street) have captured the relevance of money to the impoverished, but often, as with Dickens or Frank Norris’s McTeague, money simply becomes an item delineated by its desirability or its absence. The notion of finance, household particularly, is considerably rarer. Much of the “realistic” fiction of the last fifty years presents middle class people in financially comfortable situations, as long as they keep working.

But what of work? It has been on my mind lately because it’s been taking up larger-than-usual chunks of my time. But when I think about work as I know it, there are few literary correlates. Proust, I’m sure, would have had brilliant things to say, but he was lucky enough not to have to work. Social realist novels like Gladkov’s Cement or those of Dos Passos say less about the act of working than they do about the sociological politics underlying it. Leopold Bloom doesn’t spend much of his day, page-wise, in the office, and certainly seems preoccupied with other matters even while he’s there.

The two authors who I do think of are Kafka (particularly Amerika and The Castle, both about characters looking for work) and the Beckett of Watt. I don’t mean this in an existential, fatalistic, or hopeless way; it’s more that they capture the non-narrative nature of work, the idea that in spite of whatever is accomplished, you will be back the next day because it’s your job, and unlike school, there is no natural ending point (short of a mass layoff). The sheer unendingness of one’s occupation, and the ability for that infinite plane to envelop one’s life and weave its tendrils through your mannerisms and speech patterns, are better captured by the actions of Watt in serving Mr. Knott’s capricious needs than they are by tales of occupational woe and oppression. Watt’s preoccupation with the endless variations that he is put through, and the way that they define his words and actions, stand in contrast to the limitations of the setting of his work; this is what work is.

But even these stories are abstract and hardly particular enough to capture the particular flavor of corporate life in the first world today. And I fear that in the absence of a compelling literary story of work, sociologists and social theorists have taken over the job of defining work. They have done so primarily in Marxist terms, though not always. The effect has been to objectify these occupations and give short shrift to their mythologizers: at least to those who would see a mythos as crude as Confucianism. Even the Confucian hierarchy would be preferable to the individualist aesthetic that no longer seems germane to most modern occupations, whose managers stress interdependence as much as they do individual competition and achievement. Many theorists (I don’t have to name them) have overlaid a narrative of exploitation and alienation on corporate work, one that is in many ways quite accurate even as it misses the point. Consider C. Wright Mills, the most dramatic and emotional of the American narrators:

The old middle-class work ethic–the gospel of work–has been replaced in the society of employees by a leisure ethic, and this replacement has involved a sharp, almost absolute split between work and leisure. Now work itself is judged in terms of leisure values. The sphere of leisure provides the standards by which work is judged; it lends to work such meanings as work has.

Alienation in work means that the most alert hours of one’s life are sacrificed to the making of money with which to ‘live.’ Alienation means boredom and the frustration of potentially creative effort, of the productive sides of personality.

C. Wright Mills, White Collar (p. 236), 1951

A vivid portrayal of a nightmare. What I would argue, however, is that however great a straitjacket corporate work puts on its employees, it cannot be innately alienating. Alienation, pace Hagel, requires that one be alienated from an aspect of the world. Mills (among others) would say that the alienation is from the product of one’s work, but in corporate work the product of one’s work is not perceived as the end goal, not as much as (a) the process by which the product is achieved, and (b) one’s own self-advancement, and the relation between the two. The product looks very different from the inside than from the outside. In other words, there is a world of non-alienation at work, often a hostile and paranoid one, but one in which people live as an end in itself. And since this world is something that takes up over a third of the lives of the vast majority of people in this country, it deserves better than the slick generalizations of a Franzen.

But it seems that few writers has picked up the slack, leaving the academic left and the Straussian right to promulgate archetypal portrayals of the western employee to their various audiences. The topic of work is too significant to be left to theorists; Studs Terkel’s Working is a better map of these territories than Marx. The area should belong to literature, which can provide more personal and emotional narratives for it. But literature has yet to stake a serious claim.

Jean Eustache: The Mother and the Whore

The Mother and the Whore is 3.5 hours long, and feels it. Unlike Peter Greenaway’s six-hour The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Edward Yang’s Yi Yi, Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom, or any number of Kurosawa movies, it does not have an accordion-like structure that can easily accomodate extended length with entertaining digressions and amusements, nor was it intended to have one. This puts it in danger of falling in with such endurance defiers as Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka, Theo Angelopoulos’s Ulysses Gaze, and Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanite. (I’ve linked to positive reviews of all three on the grounds that the descriptions alone should be enough to turn people off of these horrors.)

When dealing with something whose duration has been stretched beyond common proportion, you have to come to terms with the decreased attention that’s paid to content and structure. It reminds me of a famous Morton Feldman quote:

My whole generation was hung up on the 20 to 25 minute piece. It was our clock. We all got to know it, and how to handle it. As soon as you leave the 20-25 minute piece behind, in a one-movement work, different problems arise. Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it’s scale. Form is easy – just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter. You have to have control of the piece – it requires a heightened kind of concentration. Before, my pieces were like objects; now, they’re like evolving things.

There are few directors who were masters at this kind of scale: Tarkovsky, Melville, and, I grudgingly admit, Eustache. He puts together a film that by the end of its time has achieved something that could not have been done in less time, even though individual scenes could have been swapped out or significantly changed to little overall effect. As Feldman suggests, this is an achievement in scale.

Just to give an idea of how stretched the scale is, here’s the plot summary from Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review:

The movie recounts the activities over a few days of a dandyish French intellectual in his late 20s named Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Leaud), who’s living with and supported by his lover, Marie (Bernadette Lafont); she’s in her mid-30s and runs a small boutique. In the first scene he borrows a neighbor’s car and tracks down a former girlfriend, Gilberte (Isabelle Weingarten), who’s just started a new semester at the Sorbonne, and tries to persuade her to marry him, only to discover that she’s just agreed to marry someone else. (We and Alexandre briefly glimpse Gilberte with her husband, played by Eustache, toward the end of the film, in the liquor section of a department store.) After hanging out with an equally idle friend (Jacques Renard) at the Deux Magots cafe, Alexandre follows a young woman after she leaves a nearby table, asks for her phone number, and scores; the remainder of the film is devoted to his courting of her.

Her name is Veronika (Francoise Lebrun). She works as a hospital nurse, lives in a small room in the nurses’ quarters, goes to a lot of nightclubs, and is as compulsive about her promiscuity as Alexandre is about his idleness.

I have my problems with the film. The tale of a shallow bourgeois layabout, the older woman he leeches off of, and the promiscuous girl he falls for is sometimes insufferable and far from “deep.” The characters are exactly who they appear to be, and when an epiphany is forced into the girl’s mouth at the very end of the film, it’s acutely uncomfortable; the structure (or lack thereof) makes it seem unearned. This gives two alternatives: first (as Pauline Kael observed), that Veronica is speaking for the director and her epiphany is revealed truth; second, that like so much else in the film, it is shallow bullshit piped out by the characters.

It is only due to the scale that the second option even becomes possible. In any other reasonably-sized film, Veronika’s explosive speech would be a climax and a revelation, but coming as it does three-plus hours into this seemingly structureless film, it is more tired than it is climactic. The emotions are so violent that it could only feel as tired as it does had the audience lived with the characters long enough to grow comfortable with them, and beyond that, to grow tired of them. Perhaps Eustache is implying that it takes three hours just to exhaust–and to be exhausted by–such simple characters as these, and that any more complex characters could not be so fully exposed in such a short period of time. As with Proust’s The Guermantes Way, the film seeks to give the viewer an experience of the characters that is more than a voyeuristic gaze through a hazy window for a brief time. Proust used a massive canvas for some fairly shallow society types. Eustache only has three hours, so he narrows his scope considerably.

He is helped immeasurably by the actors. Leaud was born to play Alexandre, and Veronika in particular seems to display her shallow soul at all times, never hiding a thing. Neither ever goes against the grain of their character. Both give the impression that there is nothing to their physical and mental being beyond what is displayed about their characters in the film, and this is crucial to its effect.

I return to the word exhaustion. What Eustache shares with Proust (and even Beckett) is the ability to exhaust the possibilities of his material, such that at the end the exhaustion that the viewer feels is not that of boredom or frustration, but the sense that there is nothing left, such that even an emotional epiphany reveals nothing more than has already been presented. This is a major achievement, and it requires (“justifies” may be too strong a word) the duration that Eustache uses. Yes, Bresson achieves something of this, but he bypasses the realm of internal experience altogether to focus on surfaces. Maybe Melville is the closest approximation, with carefully circumscribed characters whose motivations are simple yet everpresent. Maybe this makes The Mother and the Whore the film that took the French new wave and treated it as an exhaustible genre.


Literaisons on Wonder and Adolescence. She quotes Proust:

There is hardly a single action we perform in that phase [adolescence] which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.

Compare the words of a much less elegaic and nostalgic man, which I have quoted elsewhere:

Just as in dreams we are able to inject an inexplicable feeling that cuts through the whole personality into some happening or other, we are able to do this while awake–but only at the age of fifteen or sixteen, while still in school. Even at that age, as we all know, we live through great storms of feeling, fierce urgencies, and all kinds of vague experiences; our feelings are powerfully alive but not yet well defined; love and anger, joy and scorn, all the general moral sentiments, in short, go jolting through us like electric impulses, now engulfing the whole world, then again shriveling into nothing; sadness, tenderness, nobility, and generosity of spirit form the vaulting empty skies above us. And then what happens? From outside us, out of the ordered world around us, there appears a ready-made form–a word, a verse, a demonic laugh, a Napoleon, Caesar, Christ, or perhaps only a tear shed at a father’s grave–and the “work” springs into being like a bolt of lightning. This sophomore’s “work” is, as we too easily overlook, line for line the complete expression of what he is feeling, the most precise match of intention and execution, and the perfect blending of a young man’s experience with the life of the great Napoleon. It seems, however, that the movement from the great to the small is somehow not reversible. We experience it in dreams as well as in our youth: we have just given a great speech, with the last words still ringing in our ears as we awaken, when, unfortunately, they do not sound quite as marvelous as we thought they were. At this point we do not see ourself as quite the weightlessly shimmering phenomenon of that dancing prairie cock, but realize instead that we have merely been howling with much emotion at the moon.

Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities

The wonder (or awe) of adolescence was for me, as for many others, distinguished by the sheer inability to communicate in words the overpowering emotions and the shocks of being put into juxtaposition with new and unheard of arrangements of things and ideas. It is only as we attempt to express these things, translating them from private experience into a lingua franca, that we find we must adapt our ideas to the standards of the commonwealth not just to make them understandable to others, but to give them sense to ourselves. Otherwise they are nothing more than the neurological side effects of brain growth, “powerfully alive” but undefined. In language we’re cut down to size but also brought into the world.

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