Thursday, November 06, 2008

Wrestling with Proust

As I started “In Search of Lost Time” – at part I: Combray – I was immediately intimidated by its apparent lack of pace, the intricate coiling of reference and the sheer denseness of description. I completely didn’t ‘get it’.

Skipping whole passages, I moved on to part II: A love of Swann’s, which is a self-contained novella – Swann’s back-story. Now I began to understand Proust’s technique. I rapidly finished part III: Place-names, devoted to the proposition that memory creates a heightened reality never matched by quotidian sensation, and I then returned to re-read Combray.

So now I begin to get it. I have some context, and so the sheer depth of Proust’s insights begins to hit home. Proust is not for everyone: it’s art which demands a significant engagement from the reader – an engagement of a certain imaginative and persevering kind. Even for me to describe what I think Proust is doing is probably somewhat inaccessible – so here goes.

For Proust, states of mind, perceptions, motivations, events themselves are delicate and complex; suffused with emotion-laden associations. How, he thinks, can his trove of psychological treasures be captured and communicated?

As the Buddhists and Taoists have always understood, words are clunking, coarse bricks for the transmission of an ethereal, subjective reality. Proust uses words-as-collage, phrases-as-pointillist-dots, an emulation of impressionism. It’s the literary equivalent of tomography – the creating of a multi-dimensional reality from myriads of snapshots from different directions.

It works if you can buffer the endless stacks of allusion. Like an interference pattern constructed a photon at a time, only patience and memory can permit Proust to form in the reader that delicate appreciation of spirit he so intensely feels in every lettered encompassment of his memory of an imagined life.