Saturday, September 5, 2009

Summarizing Proust in Fifteen Seconds

I should apologize again for not updating until so long after I went Jacques Derrida on Meghan McCain’s twitter account. What “going Jacques Derrida” means is that I took a few phrases and elaborated huge conceptual systems beginning from those phrases as basic principles. In this case, I took her having to overcompensate the enthusiastic statements she made about her friendships with gay men and her enjoyment of a Levi’s Jeans ad campaign featuring Walt Whitman’s poetry, and spun together an entire ideology of patriotism centred on civil rights. You can do this with any twitter account if you think hard enough.
And last weekend, I finished Proust, and have been thinking over the past few days of how I can summarize my views of the work in fifteen seconds. I think what most stands out for me is how In Search of Lost Time sidestepped all my expectations. I had read praise of the madeleine sequence a long time ago, and was frankly underwhelmed. However, this did lead me to understand that most people never make it through the first book, because all the stereotypical Proust scenes take place in the first hundred pages of Swann’s Way.

The sections that I found frustrating were not so because of the more typical reasons of the prose being reduced to an onerous slog. The narrator was simply such a repulsive character during these sections that I spent the entire time yelling at him to get over himself. The section of The Guermantes Way when the narrator enters high society for the first time was difficult because he was such a reverential worshiper of this pathetically snobby scene. Of course, in the context of the entire work, that was the point. He frets so much about getting his aristocratic manners right (he spends so much time worrying about bowing properly that it becomes hilarious) because he’s immature enough to think that these people are better than him due to their titles.

The volume that I think was the best was also the most surprising, Sodom and Gomorrah, which explored in great detail the lives of the necessarily closeted gay men and women of fin de siècle Paris. These people and their relationships are crafted with an incredible detail and an eye for paradoxical characterization. Proust creates a strange social atmosphere too, as the aristocrats are almost all gay and bisexual, but are always described as such with suggestions. There is only one, brief scene even suggestive of gay sex between men. The rest is all implications and off-page (like off-screen, but for books) action.

I plan on reading some literary critics of Proust at some point, to get a better sense of how the book was received, and its place of influence in literature. If you haven’t tried, you should take six months and read In Search of Lost Time. It’s an incredible experience. I’d recommend giving yourself some breaks, though.

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