01 February 2010

Living in the Past, or Proust's literary ambitions

So I set aside Swann's Way temporarily; I'm beginning the *Swann in Love* section, and what with the confluence of this, the impending Valentine's Day of Doom, the nonstop bombardment of Love Related shite and my own grim dislike of Valentine's Day, I think I need to take a break. Also, the relentless rememorying that Proust is invoking is starting to wear grooves in my brain.

Not having read the remaining five volumes of A la recherche... I cannot say what its contents are like. I CAN say, however, after reading about 300 pages of Swann's Way, that I am amazed - absolutely flabbergasted - that Proust was "allowed" to write such a book. Minute, detailed, dreamy recollections of childhood - a nonstop memory stream, thus far only marginally enclosed within a plot (the plot, thus far, of course is: memory invoked by tea and madeleines). Synopsis: "I remember." for the Francophones and Quebecois, Je me souviens.

How does one get to write a novel - "novel," pah! - that is essentially a series of one's memories, not focused around any particular event or identifiable linear plot? Just - I remember?

Most memoirs that I've read (not, admittedly, all that many) do have some kind of master narrative, some kind of plot or story they're trying to tell, with carefully selected anecdotes that shed light somehow on the master plot.  No wandering off into hawthorn hedges, unless your next husband, or the director who discovered you, is on the other side of those hawthorns.

But Proust wanders off the path, very diligently, in a dreamy way. I've no idea how he plotted this book; I've no idea how anyone can conceive of a multi-volume work in the first place, but one that meanders through so much memory? And descriptive memory, not so much episodic, plot-driven memory. It's place-driven, actually, oddly enough, which does make sense given the book's title (Du Côté de Chez Swann) - which translates into, more or less, Swann's Way but not exactly. it's more place-ish. chez Swann, Swann's home/place/maison.

It's strange, as well, to read such detailed recollections of childhood. Or perhaps it is all fiction (no. I cannot believe this)? but childhood memories, on and on and on, down this everlasting path of hawthorns and creeks and peculiar characters and churches and Churches.

It's quite how *I* would go about writing my own memoirs, if I had memoirs to write. The one truly interesting thing I've ever done was spend a semester backpacking around western europe by myself; it's the only thing that's really worth the telling. But it would be - forgive the heinous pretentiousness - Proustian in the retelling. That is - we'd spend a LOT of time lounging about trains and gazing at hawthorns and dreaming of church windows. There'd be no travelling from point a to point b, narrative-wise.

I've no talent for plot in writing, this I know. I'm struggling to plot my dissertation, even, though I've had outlines forced upon me. But fiction - I always wanted to write, of course I did; but what do I have to say or tell? All I've ever been good at is very descriptive writing (and then the academic, critical sort that no one wants to read). Very descriptive writing that moves nowhere in particular. In other words: I'm a baby Proust, (without the brilliance, obviously).

The funny thing, the - not really ironic, but odd, queer in the old-fashioned sense of the word, peculiar - thing is that there's nothing else to write about, ever, except the past. Some writers do an all right job of writing in the present tense, of course, but they are fairly rare. Most books are past-tense, whether their narrators acknowledge the post-ness of their tales or not. It makes me wish I'd paid a bit better attention in History of Criticism (which was not, in any way, actually the, or even an, history of anything) when the professor held forth about belatedness.

All storytelling is belated.

the only place we can live is in the present or the past. The future is speculation, fantasy - there may BE no future. any one of us could die in a plane crash tomorrow, and then - bang - story over. We can scrawl a lovely big FIN at the end of that particular story, and leave its ambiguous ending for the critics.

So the only stories we can tell are the ones that have already happened.

Peter Brooks, in an essay I haven't read in years, writes about Freud and the drive to death that drives all of us as readers. The end of the novel is death, and we as readers hasten toward it. With the end of a novel is the end of a world, of a story. It's why serials are so compelling to so many readers; I think it's also why things like fandoms occur (fan fic, the crafting of a world external to, but consisting of, the books, all that sort of thing). But if every book ends with a death (the death of the plot? not the death of the author; we all know the author is dead before we even begin), then - what is the telling but a recap?

if i keep up this strain of thought I'll end up erasing all meaning from both reading and writing, and that's NOT what I'm thinking or meaning.

Just that - to live in one's memory may be inevitable, in some ways.

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