Saturday, June 6, 2009

Proust post #1

So I started reading Proust a few weeks ago. Why? The mountain-climber's reason: because it was there. I once had this crazy notion of reading all the great world's classics before I died; when I got out into the world I realized that wasn't possible, unless you defined "world" and "classic" extremely narrowly, which I don't. But still, it seemed like time to give Proust a go.

I'm not finished. In fact I'm stalled on page 114 of the first volume (I'm reading the Modern Library paperback, i.e. the Moncrieff-rev.-by-Kilmartin-rev.-by-Enright translation). If there's one thing I can brag about in my reading habits it's that I always finish a book once I start reading it, but it may take me a while to get through all of Proust. So instead of waiting three or four years to write up my impressions, I thought, hey, why not write about it as I go?

The first eight pages are marvelous. I was breathless when I finished reading them. These are that famous (probably: I'm not familiar with much of the writing on Proust) fugue/overture where the narrator lingers in the space between sleep and wakefulness, where a hazy evocation of dream is intertwined with a precise anatomy of the experience. The moment when you're waking up when you don't know where you are, and therefore could be (or are) anywhere and everywhere. Beds I Have Known, and you become aware of human beings not as bags of bones, but as sacks of sensations and memories and thoughts, sacks that have to be deposited somewhere every night and shouldered every morning. All this combined with that first taste of Proust's prose (as rendered by Moncrieff), which is like nothing else I've read, a precision so precise as to create an effect of hazy imprecision, like the dots in Seurat.

"But for me it was enough if, in my own bed, my sleep was so heavy as completely to relax my consciousness; for then I lost all sense of the place in which I had gone to sleep, and when I awoke in the middle of the night, not knowing where I was, I could not even be sure at first who I was; I had only the most rudimentary sense of existence, such as may lurk and flicker in the depths of an animal's consciousness; I was more destitute than the cave-dweller; but then the memory - not yet of the place in which I was, but of various other places where I had lived and might now very possibly be - would come like a rope let down from heaven to draw me up out of the abyss of not-being, from which I could never have escaped by myself: in a flash I would traverse centuries of civilisation, and out of a blurred glimpse of oil-lamps, then of shirts with turned-down collars, would gradually piece together the original components of my ego."

And that, I presume, is what we're going to get: the original components of his ego.

If the foregoing has made it sound like I might yet have it in me to appreciate high culture, this'll shoot it all to hell: doesn't that awakening look a little like the montage of images that awaken us into and out of Dollhouse each week? "Did I go to sleep?" "For a little while."

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