Sunday, May 04, 2008

Jean-Yves Tadié – ‘Marcel Proust, a Life’

Walking to my grandmother’s house a week last Wednesday, from the bus stop at the shops opposite my old school, after a long journey spent reading this book. In the sun, listening to the two Ray Rumours / Frànçois split singles. Which are beautiful from beginning to end, and this short walk through a pretty village in the first warmth of spring felt Proustian. Towards the end of the journey I’d started to think about how Proust and pop might be explained in the same way – the feeling you get during his incredible description of the Meglisé Way (or is it the Guermantes Way? The passage with the river and the hawthorns) being similar to the rush of great pop. Slowed down, of course, slowed to a barely perceptible crawl, but a rush all the same. Translucent, enraptured, calm. A bit like Nagisa Ni te’s music. Also how this might link in to rockism / authenticity in pop, because Proust very obviously didn’t get his stunning effects from nowhere. Tadié describes his walks in Paris during the First World War:

The bombing raids over Paris continued. During the one that occurred on 29 May, the courtyard of Proust’s building was struck by ‘large amounts of shrapnel and splinters from bombs’; Céleste claimed to have found some in the brim of Marcel’s hat after he returned home on foot, brave as ever, ‘through a barrage of firing’. ‘Now, Monsieur, look at the bits of metal all over you! Didn’t you come back by car? Weren’t you frightened?’ – ‘No. Why, Céleste? The spectacle was much too fine for that.’ The truth was that Proust needed to see something in order to describe it. (p. 682)

Part of Proust’s theme is how life can be translated into art. Authenticity is absolutely crucial to his writing, and I think this is true of any good art. Pop is a good test case because it is supposed to be fleeting and frivolous, concerned with the thrill of the chase more than with the wells of serious emotion from which rock music self-consciously springs. Which I don’t mean to mock, being after all an American Music Club addict. But authenticity isn’t as easy as dressing sloppily and singing in a gruff voice (or, these days, pretending to be Joy Division). Proust puts this more elegantly:

I, who experience a sensation such as that but once a year, I envy people whose lives are so well organised that they can devote some time each day to the delights of art. At times, too, especially when I see how much less interesting they are in other respects than I am, I wonder whether the reason they say that they experience these sensations so frequently is because they never have them. (p. 313)

It’s odd that this statement isn’t more irritating, because it seems egotistical. But it isn’t: this is the thing Proust was most sure of, that he worked towards all his life, and achieved. Drafting and redrafting, copying, pasting, reorganising In Search of Lost Time in order to create a book composed wholly of the sensations he mentions above. Which are real, and translated into art.

This biography is a peculiar thing to read, because Proust’s life was peculiar. The action, such as it is, all occurs in the first half, as he takes holidays, avoids a career, and holds dinner parties. He meets many many people, and Tadié is assiduous in letting us know how they fitted into his fiction. He talks a lot, and his reputation for verbosity in his writing was established early (this is from 1904):

The duke, asking him to sign the visitors’ book, said to him: ‘Your name, Monsieur Proust, but no thoughts!’ (p. 414)

His literary career forms a continuous path from school onwards in the form of articles for literary papers (his anxiety about getting published in Le Figaro features in In Search of Lost Time), and there are the early books Pleasures and Days, Jean Santeuil and Contre Saint-Beuve, all of which can be seen as dry runs for In Search of Lost Time. After abandoning Jean Santeuil, he leaves fiction behind for a time and translates several of Ruskin’s books, with the help of his mother. Tadié demonstrates how Ruskin’s aesthetics (particularly concerning cathedrals) found their way into Proust’s fiction, and how they helped to make it fiction.

The most interesting section for me (told in a fragmented and dispassionate way, as though Tadié does not agree) deals with Alfred Agostinelli, Proust’s chauffeur and one of the models for Albertine. I remember reading a comment once (in The Guardian’s book supplement, possibly?) to the effect that Albertine was based on a woman, and wasn’t that a relief? It is abundantly clear from this biography that for the most part she wasn’t, and this is in itself a relief, to learn that the obsessive love which fills The Prisoner is drawn from experience rather than observation. Tadié describes how up until 1913,

Proust’s life and his book evolved along parallel lines. All of a sudden, from the day in May 1913 when Proust gave house-room to Alfred Agostinelli and employed him as his secretary, those lines were at right angles, and life began to cut across the book. All we know about that impassioned relationship, about the young man’s flight on 1 December 1913 and his death on 30 May 1914, and about the stages that led to him eventually being forgotten, is to be found in a curt news item and in what Proust himself tells us in his correspondence. (pp. 605-6)

A great deal of embellishment goes on, right the way through the writing of In Search of Lost Time, but this is the first time it goes completely off at a tangent, based on events in Proust’s life at the time of writing (the First World War was included too, in a similarly impromptu way). These were the major reasons why, ‘over the last eight years of Proust’s life, the work doubled in size’ (p. 605). Writing at such tremendous length was the only way Proust could include both the impassioned relationship and the subsequent forgetting in the same book. ‘Suffering alone seems to me to have made [...] of man something more than a brute’ (p. 626) he wrote in 1915, and an unfair quantity of suffering (in terms of his relationships and his health) made him less of a brute than most of us, because he had his book into which to pour it.


Agata said...

I like the way you associate your thoughts on literature with your musical impressions. Just like Proust himself always has.

Chris said...

Well it's all made of the same stuff, isn't it? The jump from here to there. Or the translation.

Vinteuil's little phrase is the first pop song, and it's by The Sundays.

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