Monday, April 28, 2014

Proustian disappointments

I don't think it's any surprise to semi-regular readers of this blog that I am not enjoying my slog through Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.  It really is just an endurance test at this point.  There are occasional flashes of insight that are interesting on their own, but not so much when you consider how long it took to arrive at them.

I think I'll focus on two issues and leave the most important objection for another post where I go more into the plot and spoiler warnings.  That post may be slightly more balanced in terms of the pros and cons of tackling Proust.

I believe I already mentioned how I am not crazy about the shifting viewpoint of the narrative.  Essentially all the book seems to be coming from the mind of the Narrator (who is indeed on a few occasions referred to as Marcel).  There are quite a few scenes that seem completely impossible for the Narrator to have enough information on to go (and at such length).  Swann in Love is mostly concerned with a time when the Narrator was an infant, if indeed not even born.  Even if Swann had the same kind of attention to detail (particularly in relation to parties) it seems so unlikely that he would have remembered these parties in such detail.  But the kicker is that the Narrator mentions that he really did not talk with Swann at length about important things (or rather things like party-going that now interest the Narrator).  So where does all this information come from?

If anything, the situation is even worse when it comes to the writer Bergotte who is dying.  He summons the strength to go see Vermeer's A View of Delft.  His dying thoughts are a mix of concentrating on a patch of yellow in the painting and essentially wondering whether the potatoes he ate are giving him indigestion or if it was more serious (the latter obviously).  Since few people even knew he was going to the gallery, where could the Narrator have pieced this together (particularly the last thoughts)?  Of course, this could all be a whimsical reconstruction, but that isn't how it reads.  At least some people consider this a key turning point in Remembrance, so I find it a real shame how "tainted" it is by this untethered perspective.

I'm sure some with disagree with me, but I don't find Proust's writing on music, particularly the supposedly incredible sonata and sextet by Vinteuil, to be profound or even terribly convincing.  (I will concede that his writing on paintings is usually pretty good, and I did enjoy Paintings in Proust: A Visual Guide.)  Proust has some frankly bizarre passages about how much better it would have been if humans had learned to communicate through music, rather than words.  However, this isn't my beef with this section of The Captive.  What I am having trouble believing is that Vinteuil wrote out the scores of these late compositions, not on music staves, but in some kind of code, which only his daughter's lesbian lover was ultimately able to unravel.  I guess there are always people who do inscrutable things, but the idea of a composer deliberately obscuring his work and not using standard notation seems very fanciful.  Furthermore, one might code up a piano sonata, but an entire sextet?  I find that completely implausible, both for the level of effort it would take Vinteuil, as well as the odd chain of events that would have allowed the daughter's lover to even realize she was looking at some type of score, let alone to find the key to unravel it. 

I'm not entirely sure why these details feeling wrong matters so much to me, but they bug me quite a bit.  At this point, I intend to finish the book, flaws and all.  Maybe I just feel like warning other people off.  Maybe I just want to codify why I dislike Proust.  Anyway, I'll probably read a fairly long section on the plane ride home and then I'll be on the final stretch.  I think there is a fairly good chance that I will be done by the end of May, and I can scratch this off for good.

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