Sunday, January 9, 2011

Proust on The Novel

I have begun reading Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past", or as the title has been more recently translated, "In Search of Lost Time".  This is one of those books that lots of people have heard about, and lots of people talk about, but nobody has read.  And half of those nobody's who've read it think it is unreadable and so didn't finish it, while the other half (a tiny half, to be sure) think it is a masterpiece.

It spans six volumes, with over 1.5 million words in all.  I'm only 120 pages into the first volume, but I'm being swept away.  This volume, "Swann's Way", was published in 1913, and despite that being a different world from this, with different expectations of pacing in novels, I was caught-up from the very first page.  The prose, translated beautifully from the original French by Moncrieff and Kilmartin, is smooth and charming and breath-taking.  Yes, the sentences are long and wandering, but it's appropriate:  the book is about time and memory and change.

Some people insist that it's not a novel at all, but something else instead.  Either way, it's a rewarding read.

One paragraph especially jumped out at me when I read it last night with the need for a blog topic lurking in the back of my mind.  The main character -- I need to explain that this is told in what I'd have to call "first person reminiscence", and while it's not autobiography, the MC is undoubtedly some version of the author himself -- is talking about the experience of reading a book on a hot summer day in a room closed up so much to keep the heat out that he has barely enough light to read by.  He is hearing the church bell toll the hours, and he is so absorbed in the book that the time he spends inside it doesn't seem to register in the real world.  It seems only a few seconds from when the clock strikes one hour until the clock strikes the next.  And then he talks about what a novel is.

Paraphrasing:  A novel is crammed with more dramatic events than usually occur in an entire lifetime.  These events are not happening to "real people", but the thing is we can never hope to know any real people other than on their surface.  If we understand any of the joys or misfortunes of another person, it is only because we have constructed within our own minds a sympathetic image of that person and their situation, and it is that image that we're reacting to.  The novelist's ingenuity lies in their ability to distill real people down to these images, cutting away everything that hides the truth, removing every barrier to the reader's emotional connection with the character.  The result is that the reader experiences things in the space of an hour or two that would take years of actual life to get to know.  These experiences, in turn, enable the reader to recognize changes in real-life that happen over too long a span of time to be otherwise noticed.

Of course he uses a page-and-a-half-long paragraph to explain what I've paraphrased, and says it more clearly and with rich detail.  That's what you get from a master like Proust.

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