Top 10 books I read in 2012: The Captive and the Fugitive (#2)

The Captive & The Fugitive (In Search of Lost Time, #5-6)

The Captive and The Fugitive

MARCEL PROUST
Modern Library, 1999; 957 pages. Translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin; revised by D.J. Enright.

This year marked my fifth consecutive summer of Proust. I read The Captive and The Fugitive (which Modern Library combines into what it calls vol. 5). The Captive was initially published in 1923 and The Fugitive came out two years later, but since they are the shortest installments of In Search of Lost Time, many publishers have included them in one volume. As always, these books were the perfect way to begin my summer.

The Captive and The Fugitive involve the narrator and Albertine, his live-in girlfriend, and their increasingly rocky relationship, which is conducted almost entirely within the confines of his mother’s flat. Begging the question: Is she the captive? Is he? Their relationship is simultaneously irritating and engrossing. True to form, Proust keeps your loyalties in flux between the narrator and Albertine. Who really deserves our sympathy and attention?

If I had to say, I believe the books primarily concern this question: How is it that people can persist in our minds and memories differently from how we actually knew them, how they actually present themselves in reality? The implications of this question are amplified when Albertine supposedly dies in a riding accident. Now the narrator must determine whether he loved her at all in the first place. What form will his grief and enduring jealousy take? (Well, they will take about 900 pages of self-reflection and doubt, but that’s to be expected.)

These books seemed to include more reflection and a more ready expression of aphorism and interpersonal philosophy than previous volumes. The books were also much darker and reflective than the earlier, lighter society tomes. A sampling:

Don’t bear grudges or judge people.

For one thing the knowledge would have brought me more rapidly to the idea that we ought never to bear a grudge against people, ought never to judge them by some memory of an unkind action, for we do not know all the good that, at other moments, their hearts may have sincerely desired and realized. And thus, even simply from the point of view of prediction, one is mistaken. For doubtless the evil aspect which we have noted once and for all will recur; but the heart is richer than that, has many other aspects which will recur also in the same person and which we refuse to acknowledge because of his earlier bad behavior.

We are all entirely self-absorbed.

The bonds between ourselves and another person exist only in our minds. Memory as it grows fainter loosens them, and notwithstanding the illusion by which we want to be duped and with which, out of love, friendship, politeness, deference, duty, we dupe other people, we exist alone. Man is the creature who cannot escape from himself, who knows other people only in himself, and when he asserts the contrary, he is lying.

Memory mixes everything up in the end.

After a certain age our memories are so intertwined with one another that what we are thinking of, the book we are reading, scarcely matters anymore. We have put something of ourselves everywhere, everything is fertile, everything is dangerous, and we can make discoveries no less precious than in Pascal’s Pensees in an advertisement for soap.

As always, you won’t find a better or more thorough exploration of love, memory, desire, and internal conflict than you will in Proust. He has never disappointed me yet. I almost dread next summer, because I will read the last volume. Say it isn’t so! I will say, however, that this enormous novel’s influence on me has been so profound that I doubt I will ever really be done with Proust.

And this is why we don’t bear grudges

Click for source.

For one thing the knowledge would have brought me more rapidly to the idea that we ought never to bear a grudge against people, ought never to judge them by some memory of an unkind action, for we do not know all the good that, at other moments, their hearts may have sincerely desired and realized. And thus, even simply from the point of view of prediction, one is mistaken. For doubtless the evil aspect which we have noted once and for all will recur; but the heart is richer than that, has many other aspects which will recur also in the same person and which we refuse to acknowledge because of his earlier bad behavior.

— Marcel Proust, The Captive and The Fugitive, vols. 5 and 6 of À la recherche du temps perdu

Happy weekend, everyone! I am looking forward to mine very much.

Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: Sodom and Gomorrah (#2)

Sodom and Gomorrah.

#2: SODOM AND GOMORRAH, Marcel Proust.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

It is easy to get lost in Proust. He writes sentences so long and lush that you have to come up for air halfway through. His narrator’s imagination is so tangled and intricate that just a page over, you can easily forget what he started talking about in the first place. Often, the conversations are rendered in such a way that you feel like you were dropped in the middle of a party, with no reference to what anyone is discussing; you’re the loner at the cool kids’ table. And the absence of any linear plot whatsoever is just another bump in the road for your tired brain.

So, why do I keep reading this monstrosity? (This is my fourth year of reading a volume of In Search of Lost Time during the summer; I read Sodom and Gomorrah while we celebrated our first anniversary at the beach, and while it didn’t exactly make for easy beach reading, its depth and thickness filled up my long, lazy days.) Quite simply, I keep returning because I haven’t found any other author who can expand my mind like Proust can. He forces you to think differently about people, to give them the benefit of the doubt even when they don’t deserve it, and to observe every wink, every movement, every quip, believing that they are small windows into the depths of the human heart.

Marcel Proust.

It is fruitless to try to describe the narrative flow of this story, but on the most basic level, it is a bildungsroman, perhaps more obviously than the other volumes are. In Sodom and Gomorrah, the shades are finally drawn from our young narrator’s eyes. The book begins with a scandalously voyeuristic vignette, in which we find the narrator spying on the Baron de Charlus and his tailor, Jupien, while they make love in a courtyard. More than ever before, Proust allows his narrator to explore the period’s complex social relationship with homosexuality, which permits the upper class to both ignore and flaunt gayness to varying degrees, and to examine his own sexual identity. While the narrator continues to pout, flop around, and toy with the emotions of his girlfriend, Albertine, there is an awakening in his consciousness that we have not seen before.

Alongside these personal revelations, the narrator is also realizing that the upper class, the people he has so desperately tried to join, are not as glorious as he once thought them. He recognizes the polite film wrapped around their coded, hierarchical speech:

I was beginning to learn the exact value of the language, spoken or mute, of aristocratic affability, an affability that is happy to shed balm upon the sense of inferiority in those persons towards whom it is directed, though not to the point of dispelling that sense, for in that case it would no longer have any reason to exist. “But you are our equal, if not our superior,” the Guermantes seemed, in all their actions, to be saying; and they said it in the most courteous fashion imaginable, to be loved, admired, but not to be believed; that one should discern the fictitious character of this affability was what they called being well-bred; to suppose it to be genuine, a sign of ill-breeding.

The affected personas and artificial bearings of the rich come clear to him; their displays of noblesse oblige no longer charm him. Around these epiphanies, the narrator’s beloved grandmother dies, he attempts to get engaged to his girlfriend, friends betray him, and the entire upper-class is seemingly engaged in the Dreyfus Affair. It may sound like a lot of action, but Proust is capable enough to draw out all these events into a dull roar, blurring time so that our narrator’s psyche may step out in front.

In Sodom and Gomorrah, we find a narrator thoroughly possessed by his Author, who pulls the strings to move him toward adult development and social aptitude. Proust uses all of his tricks here. No character can escape his all-seeing, all-knowing eye. On a practical level, I took more pleasure from this than I did from The Guermantes Way, the previous volume. Now we find the narrator more completely realized, more in possession of his own thoughts and motives. He is still petulant and spoiled, still too conscious of rank at times, but he is a few steps closer to the goal of wholeness and contentment.

As with the others, it is a beautiful, tangled, and complicated novel, but it is worth every meticulous word.

Top 10 Books of 2010: #3

The Guermantes Way

#3: THE GUERMANTES WAY, by Marcel Proust

For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, I’ll be dreamily recalling #3, the third volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, English title: The Guermantes Way.

For the past three summers, I’ve committed to reading a volume of Marcel Proust’s magnum opus, À la recherche du temps perdu (English translations call it either In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past). This past summer, I read number 3: The Guermantes Way. I find that a year is the ideal amount of time to take a breather from Proust. By the time the summer rolled around, I was very eager to embark on this 900-page volume of lavish detail, seemingly inane social niceties, and a lush bouquet of memories.

By volume three, our nameless narrator–whom most critics call “Marcel,” because of the intended similarities to an autobiographical monster–has become a young man. He has continued his delicate, self-conscious obsession with Albertine, a girl he met at the beach in the second volume. But Marcel is growing up. And he is beginning to realize that finding his place in upper-class French society may be more important than anything right now.

This volume is perhaps a more complete “coming of age” book than the previous two. Here we find the narrator finally breaking into the tightly guarded upper ring of society and we share his victory. But we also come to share his disillusionment as he realizes that the Duchesse de Guermantes, Madame de Villeparisis, Monsieur Charlus, and the other exalted characters of this long-desired, elite universe are simply, well, human.

For me, a great deal of the brilliance of The Guermantes Way was wrapped up in a narrative phenomenon that I am going to call simultaneous acquisition. Instead of gaining insight before the narrator, we gain vision along with him. We make realizations at the same moment and, therefore, the power of those realizations is far more powerful to us than if we had been omniscient readers. But the narrator’s vision is not perfect, and this is something Proust will not let us forget. Even a recently lucid young man still moves in society with a film over his eyes:

At any rate I realized the impossibility of obtaining any direct and certain knowledge of whether Francoise loved or hated me. And thus it was she who first gave me the idea that a person does not, as I had imagined, stand motionless and clear before our eyes with his merits, his defects, his plans, his intentions with regard to ourselves (like a garden at which we gaze through a railing with all its borders spread out before us), but is a shadow which we can never penetrate, of which there can be no such thing as direct knowledge, with respect to which we form countless beliefs, based upon words and sometimes actions, neither of which can give us anything but inadequate and as it proves contradictory information—a shadow behind which we can alternately imagine, with equal justification, that there burns the flame of hatred and love.

Despite 900 pages of fabulous detail and elegantly constructed conversations, Proust wants us to remember that we can never truly have “direct knowledge” about other people. It is a necessary realization for our dreamy narrator and yet we worry about him. When you reach the final page and exhale deeply, you cannot help but maintain a sense of fear for what circumstances will befall the young protagonist. For once your dreams have crumbled, to whom do you turn? I guess I’ll just have to wait and find out this summer, when I take on the ominously titled volume four, Sodom and Gomorrah.

I have to be honest. I recall this vague plot outline with great difficulty (and a little Googling for the character names). After 900 pages of Proust’s gloriously elaborate and exhausting prose, one’s brain is awash in sensation but incapable of maintaining any concrete detail or action. At least, that seems to be consistently true for me when I read Proust. So, why do I keep coming back, year after year?

I don’t have a simple answer for you. All I can say is that, every summer, Proust gives me a new pair of eyes.