Monday, September 12, 2005

Of Sundials and Sunshades

I began reading Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time before reading Jane Smiley’s recent article in Salon, but Smiley encouraged me. I recommend the new translation linked to above, even though I am even less qualified to judge a French translation than Michael Brown is to run FEMA.

In fact I’m not qualified to comment on Proust at all, as I’m only 800 pages through the 4,000+ pages of these books, but I think you should read them before you die. Here are the concluding lines of “At Mme Swann’s”:

So it is that the average life expectancy, the relative longevity, of memories being much greater for those that commemorate poetic sensation than for those left by the pains of love, the heartbreak I suffered at that time because of Gilberte has faded forever, and has been outlived by the pleasure I derive, whenever I want to read off from a sundial of remembrance the minutes between a quarter past twelve and one o’clock on a fine day in May, from a glimpse of myself chatting with Mme Swann, sharing her sunshade as though standing with her in the pale glow of an arbor of wisteria.
As I see it at the moment, the book is a storehouse of memories (e.g., the famous madeleine) combined with a series of relentlessly disastrous love stories. The tension between these two aspects of the book is its central conflict. In the passage above, the narrator is struggling to get over the pain of his unrequited love for Gilberte, Mme Swann’s daughter, and he does this through his friendship with the still beautiful Mme Swann, who herself was the source of untold pain—actually, told at tremendous length—in the previous volume, Swann in Love.

The point is that the vivid memory of a simple walk in Paris with Gilberte’s mother (the “poetic sensation”) ultimately trumps all the jealousy and heartbreak of the love affair with Gilberte, if (and it’s a big if) the memory can be re-created vividly enough. It’s as if the entire 4,000-page novel comes down to a few haikuesque moments of imagistic intensity (the madeleine, the wisteria).

What seems so Proustian about the passage above is that it’s not an arbor of wisteria; it’s “as though in the pale glow of an arbor of wisteria.” It’s “just” a metaphor, like the earlier metaphor of the sundial. I mean, Proust could have made it real. There’s no reason they couldn’t have been strolling through a park in Paris with an arbor of wisteria, but he chose to make it unreal. And yet . . . what is more real, reality or the metaphor? These two unrelated metaphors (time = sundial, sunshade = wisteria) seem to have sketched, with two light touches, an imagined “memory”—a spring walk through a arbor with a sundial—so vivid that it eclipses forever the narrator’s very real memory of his first seeing Gilberte walk down the street with another man.

2 comments:

Beverly said...

Diane registered for me--now I can at least comment . One day I'll get through the cyber maze to become a grown-up blogger.

The group made a transit today from Raphael to a tacqueria to Ocean Beach to Kuala Lumpur to Vermeer. The groups poems always linger for me. We are all very different writers, but with porous boundaries. There's no distinct influence I see, but a subtle broadening of scope, of language & thought. That's probably the most valuable things about a workshop, more than giving & receiving critiques, although those are sometimes really really useful.

Beverly said...

Maybe I should avail myself of the proofreading option. A few wee errors there.