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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Our legs and our arms are full of torpid memories.

In Search of Lost Time, Volume VII -- Time Regained by Marcel Proust

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary

And now for the THRILLING CONCLUSION. Okay, so it's not that heavy on plot points actually, but here's the basic gist. World War I hits, Paris changes, society changes, people change. YBN spends some time in a sanatorium (2 separate stints), Robert de St-Loup goes off to war with the other men, and eventually dies a valiant death. (I know! I loved him.) In another voyeuristic scene, YBN witnesses Charlus with some pretty intense S & M action that his pal Jupien cooked up for him, involving chains, whips, and some young men who pretend to be "thugs". Social circles are re-arranged, both because of the war and because of passing generations. Odette becomes the Duke de Guermantes' latest mistress (even though he's in his 80's and she's no spring chicken!), St-Loup's old lady of ill repute mistress Rachel becomes a famous actress, Mme Verdurin marries the Prince of Guermantes after the Princess passes, Charlus has a stroke, and YBN's life and memories all come together at last and he prepares to begin his epic novel, realizing that his subject matter (his life) has been in front of his eyes all this time.

Spoiler Over: Continue Here

-- When WWI hits and everything gets rationed, Mme Verdurin gets a prescription for croissants, claiming they cure her headaches when she dips them in her morning coffee. I have headaches sometimes! Can I get a prescription for croissants, please?

-- Sorry to throw a spoiler in again, but St-Loup was one of those epic characters in literature, and even though his character faded a bit in importance throughout the volumes, I was sad to see him go. YBN, after hearing of St-Loup's death:
   "I recalled his arrival the first time at Balbec, when, in an almost white suit, with his eyes greenish    and mobile like the waves, he had crossed the hall adjoining the great dining-room whose windows    gave on the sea."

-- The passage is a bit long-winded to include here, but you can search for the words "Revolving the gloomy thoughts which I have just recorded..." and it will pop up. Proust discovers these flashes of memory (like the madeleine from volume 1) in this book that help him to reset, so to speak. They reveal powerful memories that reignite his literary fire and he realizes he needs to find these triggers (and record them) in order to write his epic work. This one is just him stepping between two uneven stones. Think of the million moments in life when you smell or feel or hear something that transports you to a specific instant from your past. The smell of a city (often sewage mixed with exhaust, in fact) puts my feet back on the cobblestones of Nantes; strains of Shostakovich throw my fingers up the neck of my cello; trains, hooting in the night, slide me under the covers in my childhood bunk bed, under my sister who slept above me. What memories transport you?

-- My favorite part of this volume was when Proust discussed writing itself. In speaking of this work, he writes, "it would be my book, but with its help I would furnish them with the means of reading what lay inside themselves."

-- Towards the very end, Proust starts to worry about dying before finishing. (In fact, he's worried about dying before starting, as he's only just really settled on beginning at the end.) A few of my favorite lines:
-- "I bore within me as by something fragile and precious which had been entrusted to me and which I should have liked to deliver intact into the hands of those for whom it was intended, hands which were not my own."
--"No doubt my books too, like my fleshly being, would in the end one day die. But death is a thing that we must resign ourselves to. We accept the thought that in ten years we ourselves, in a hundred years our books, will have ceased to exist. Eternal duration is promised no more to men's work than to men." Proust died after the publication of "Sodom & Gomorrhah". He'd written the final volumes, but they were fragmentary, somewhat rough drafts. His brother Robert edited them and published them.
-- I was so touched by Proust's self-awareness as a writer. Now that he's finally found the germ of his great work, he writes, "But for me was there still time? Was it not too late?"
He writes that he had become indifferent to death, but when he realizes that he's to write this epic novel, he starts to worry that death will snatch him before he has time to write it.

-- Best line: "For neither our greatest fears nor our greatest hopes are beyond the limits of our strength - we are able in the end both to dominate the first and to achieve the second."

Sentences I particularly liked:

  • "The death of unknown millions is felt by us as the most insignificant of sensations, hardly even as disagreeable as a draught."on wars where the "front" is distanced from the civilian population
  • "Excuses have no place in art and intentions count for nothing."
  • "A name read long ago in a book contains within its syllables the strong wind and brilliant sunshine that prevailed while we were reading it."
  • "Through art alone we are able to emerge from ourselves."
  • "Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists, worlds more different one from the other than those which revolve in infinite space, worlds which, centuries after the extinction of the fire from which their light first emanated, whether it is called Rembrandt or Vermeer, send us still each one its special radiance."
  • "The internal timepieces which are allotted to different human beings are by no means synchronized."

3,123 pages. I've completed a journey that not many will undertake, but at roughly the 100 year mark from Swann's Way's publication, I'll do my part to advocate that these books aren't dead yet.

I'm always sad when I finish a really great novel. A little because it's over, and if I've really enjoyed it, I  wanted more. But I think a little, too, because writing raw truths and careful prose takes not just intelligence and hard work, but true guts. Proust may have flitted from one party to the next for a few years, but he spent the better part of his life writing this novel, and that kind of dedication to art is so rare these days. There's a reason why this one's a classic.

Now appropriately I move to a different time and perhaps a different dimension, beginning far from the beginning.

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