Thursday, October 3, 2013

Memory (Proust)

Preliminary thoughts on Proust

I think I have indicated that I have been struggling a lot with Proust (getting through only 200 pages in a month).  This stems from two things, both of which I find off-putting, so the combination of the two is really deadly.  First, an emphasis on style in the extreme.  I suppose pretty much everyone knows there isn't all that much "plot" in Remembrance of Things Past and that one is instead invited to chart the responses of a loose confederation of acquaintances as they navigate different social milieu.  I honestly can't remember if Bourdieu references Proust in his book Distinction (all about how upper classes maintain distinction from lower classes) but he certainly should have.  The lengths these folks go to shun -- and more frequently pre-shun others (so that they don't open themselves up to being shunned) -- those that have slightly fallen (or risen) out of their class is astounding.  Also, a vast amount of energy is expended in not being caught out by others in their social circle. And this is a bit interesting, but not at 3000+ pages. I vaguely recall there was some essay in Umberto Eco's How to Travel with a Salmon that summed up some philosopher well (probably Foucault or even Bourdieu himself -- though not remembering the details certainly undermines the usefulness of this example).  Maybe I really should just skim Distinction again (instead of Proust) and be done with it.  As we move further into the 21st Century, the acid bath of capitalism in the U.S. (and to a slightly lesser extent Canada) has stripped away social classes and their conventions (though not the distinction between the wealthy and everyone else!) so this emphasis on social distinctions just feels more and more alien to me.

Second, the memory thing.  I consider myself to have a decent memory, though I have overtaxed my memory with the plots of far too many novels and mediocre TV sitcoms.  But I would be hard-pressed to say that I could recall enough of what happened (in my childhood!) to cover 3000+ pages with really fine-grained detail of what my parents and their friends were up to (often when I had apparently left the room!).  And the most famous bit of all (Swann in Love) happened long before the Narrator was born!  So he is retelling Swann's story in a style that is essentially identical to his own story, with the same fine attention to social details.  This strikes me as unlikely that two people would have such similar styles and interests, esp. when the Narrator does separate himself a bit from Swann and his (formerly) caddish ways, to say nothing of both being such mental giants to remember these details.  Does the Narrator just make up material to fill in the gaps (I am particularly thinking of the many times that Swann and Odette go to the salon at the Verdurins' house)?  Did he press Swann for the details that would make this account so similar in style to the opening of Swann's Way?  I just can't really get over this.  I can't suspend belief sufficiently to get into the book, and then even when I do, there is so little real plot...  This ultimately ruined Nicholas Mosley's Hopeful Monsters for me, and I ultimately gave up on that.

I think I will stick with Proust, but this is definitely a one-time thing, which is fast turning into an endurance test.  I'll probably actually give the books away after reading them through.  Now here is a case where Barbery's Gourmet Rhapsody captures the flavour of this amazing feat of memory but sort of parodies it at the same time (ultimately the famed and feared food critic is retreating to simple tastes from his childhood) and does it in about 150 pages.  But shorter still is even better: Borges' "Funes the Memorious" is the most tolerable account of a man cursed with a prodigious memory, and I would urge everyone to go off and read it.

(I can't guarantee how long the link will last, but the story itself is only 7 pages.)

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