Tag Archives: Proust

‘Jean Santeuil’ by Marcel Proust (Part 1)

Image source: scan of personal copy

Marcel Proust started to write Jean Santeuil around 1896 and finally abandoned it by the end of 1899 before embarking on a completely different project of translating some of John Ruskin’s works into French. Jean Santeuil was not published until 1952, thirty years after Proust’s death, it was translated into English by Gerard Hopkins and published in 1956. Proust started writing it after the completion of his collection of short stories, Pleasures and Days (Les plaisirs et les jours), and it’s unclear exactly what sort of novel he had planned. The confusion over his aims is best described by Proust himself at the beginning of the introduction (though I would imagine that this excerpt was added near the end of the project):

Should I call this book a novel? It is something less, perhaps, and yet much more, the very essence of my life, with nothing exraneous added, as it developed through a long period of wretchedness. This book of mine has not been manufactured: it has been garnered.

It is fair to consider Jean Santeuil as a forerunner to his later book In Search of Lost Time (ISOLT) (a.k.a. Remembrances of Things Past). Many of the themes from ISOLT are contained within this book, as well as many of the episodes but there are of course many differences as well. Jean Santeuil is much more clearly biographical than ISOLT with many of the characters, especially Jean’s parents, obviously based on people that Proust knew. Once the introduction is out of the way Jean Santeuil starts off in a similar way to ISOLT with Jean unable to sleep unless he gets a goodnight kiss from his mother. Jean Santeuil is written in the third person and, unlike ISOLT, we get to know some of the other characters’ thoughts and views. I found this of interest right from the start of my reading of Jean Santeuil as it is quite a different approach to that taken in the later novel where we are basically stuck in the narrator’s head and point of view. When I was reading ISOLT I often wondered what the other characters were thinking. The writing style of Jean Santeuil is also more succinct than ISOLT, lacking Proust’s more labyrinthine sentences that can be both a joy and a nuisance, giving it a much more direct and punchy effect but maybe missing some of the mystery of ISOLT. Because it’s more straightforwardly autobiographical we get more facts: for example, it’s stated that Jean is seven years old during the ‘night-time kiss’ episode: it was never quite clear how old the narrator was during the episode when reading ISOLT and many of us (I read it along with a GoodReads group) believed he was older.

We are warned by André Maurois, in the preface, that:

Jean Santeuil is an entirely different book from Remembrances of Things Past, not only because it is unfinished, but because it lacks the master theme of the later work (the metamorphosis of a weak and nervous child into an artist); the continuity of the leading characters (Odette, Swann, Charlus, Legrandin, Norpois, Vinteuil, and many others are not yet born); the decision to write in the first person, and the courage to plunge into the sulphurous abyss of Sodom.

Which is all true and is what makes Jean Santeuil the weaker book, but for those of us who have read ISOLT it is very interesting to see the early manifestations of the characters and scenarios and to experience Proust trying to work out what to do with his characters. In Jean Santeuil Jean becomes obsessed with a girl, Marie Kossichef, as well as her parents; they play together on the Champs-Elysées and becomes distraught when she does not turn up. Whilst on holiday in Etreuilles (cf. Combray) Jean becomes overwhelmed by the beauty of the hawthorn blossom; his aunt is confined to her bed and views the village events from her window; later on Jean befriends a young aristocrat, Bertrand de Réveillon (cf. Saint-Loup), and recounts an episode where he clambers over the tables and chairs in order to speak to Jean; and there are involuntary memory episodes and artistic musings, which will all sound faimiliar to readers of ISOLT.

One of my favourite epsiodes in ISOLT is when the narrator sobs over having to leave the hawthorn blossom in Combray as he has to return to Paris. Well, in Jean Santeuil there is a similar episode, not quite as histrionic, but great nonetheless.

When Jean and his mother left Etreuilles, Monsieur Sureau had gathered for them great boxfuls of hawthorn and of snowballs which Madame Santeuil had not the courage to refuse. But, as soon as Jean’s uncle had gone home, she threw them away, saying that they already had more than enough in the way of luggage. And then Jean cried because he had been separated from the darling creatures which he would have liked to take with him to Paris, and because of his mother’s naughtiness.

It’s worth comparing it to the episode in ISOLT:

“Oh, my poor little hawthorns,” I was assuring them through my sobs, “it isn’t you who want me to be unhappy, to force me to leave you. You, you’ve never done me any harm. So I shall always love you.” And, drying my eyes, I promised them that, when I grew up, I would never copy the foolish example of other men, but that even in Paris, on fine spring days, instead of paying calls and listening to silly talk, I would set off for the country to see the first hawthorn-trees in bloom.

In the Jean Santeuil version I imagine little Jean stamping his feet a bit and shedding a tear, whereas in the ISOLT verison I sense something close to psychological trauma. I have to admit that I like both versions.

There is also an example of one of Proust’s ‘involuntary memory’ episodes. I found it very striking and more powerful than the episodes in the later work. I think this is partly because it involves smells rather than taste or other sensory stimuli as the trigger, as I find smells are the most likely, for me, to have such an effect and this event also comes at a point when Jean is already emotionally unstable. It occurs after the teenage Jean has just had an argument with his parents who have told him that he can’t see his friend, Henri, as they believe him to be a bad influence. He calls his parents ‘mad’ and stomps out of the room to his bedroom, slamming doors along the way and smashing a vase in his fury. After he’s calmed down a little and feeling a little cold he goes to his wardrobe and pulls out a coat roughly and tears it. It’s one of his mother’s old coats that has been stored in his wardrobe.

This happened to be a black velvet coat, trimmed with braid, and lined with cherry-coloured satin and ermine, which, mauled by the violence of his attack, he pulled into the room like a young maiden whom a conqueror has seized and dragged behind him by the hair. In just such a way did Jean now brandish it, but even before his eyes had sent their message to his brain, he was aware of an indefinable fragrance in the velvet, a fragrance that had greeted him when, at ten years old, he had run to kiss his mother—in those days still young, still brilliant and still happy—when she was all dressed up and ready to go out, and flung his arms about her waist, the velvet crushed within his hand, the braid tickling his cheeks, while his lips, pressed to her forehead, breathed in the glittering sense of all the happiness she seemed to hold in keeping for him.

The whole scene is brilliant and I wonder why it didn’t make it into ISOLT in this form. Jean Santeuil also contains scenes and events that don’t appear in ISOLT. For example Jean’s father seems to be more prominent than in ISOLT. There are some schoolday scenes as well as character studies of fellow schoolchildren, teachers and work colleagues of his father. There is also a chapter on various scandals that were topical at the time, especially the Dreyfus Affair.

I am only half-way through this long book but it is certainly worthwhile reading. It is always going to be mainly of interest to people that have read ISOLT but the good thing is that it’s not just an early version of that novel but different enough to have some novelty. I suspect that the second half may not be as good as the first half, which may indicate why Proust gave up on it but it is surprising that he just abandoned it so abruptly. I have re-read the relevant chapters in the William Carter biography to try to see why Proust gave up on the book but there is little to help us; although Proust experienced some personal problems during this period I think it was mostly weariness that caused him to stop as he’d been working on it for several years. It is surprising though that he didn’t try to work some short stories from his efforts or show it to a potential publisher as I’m sure some would have seen the potential in it. Or maybe he didn’t because he knew that he would return to it later, refreshed.

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‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ by Anthony Powell

Powell_Dance-01bIt was only in 2014, a.k.a. ‘My Year of Proust’, that I first heard about Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume story, A Dance to the Music of Time. After a quick glance at the book I didn’t seriously consider reading it at the time, thinking it was just a Proust imitation. But, I started to pay more attention to it and then one of the members of the GoodReads Proust group (Travelling Sunny) decided to set-up a group for a year-long read of Powell’s Dance and I got sucked in….and I’m glad that I did. I’m now half-way through volume 5, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant and I’m enjoying the literary ride through the lives of the characters. I haven’t posted anything about these novels so far, so here goes.

A Dance to the Music of Time (hereon known as Dance) is named after a painting by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). The novels were published between 1951 and 1975 and concern the lives of a multitude of characters, mostly English upper-class and artists, from the main characters’ schooldays in 1921 to about 1971. Comparisons with Proust abound and are not to be entirely ignored, so let’s look at them; both are large multi-volume books covering the lives of a large number of characters; the books are essentially plotless and instead follow the lives of these characters as they interact with each other; much of what we find out about the characters is from the conversations of other characters at parties, over lunch etc.; the main Powell_Dance-02bcharacters’ backgrounds and lives are similar to the authors’ and it is possible to identify real people who can be identified with the fictionalised versions in the books – even if the authors deny this; most of the characters are upper-class or artists. And the differences? Well, the main difference is their style — Powell does not write in the style of Proust and is definitely not trying to imitate Proust in that respect. Powell’s novels are very tightly written and are a lot more humourous than Proust; we don’t get Proust’s long, tortuous, sentences, nor do we get the claustrophobic feeling associated with Proust. At times, when reading Proust, I felt as if I was trapped inside the narrator’s skull, doomed never to escape; with Powell we tend to drift around amongst the characters more and in fact we tend to learn very little of the narrator’s (Nick Jenkin’s) life.

The edition that I’m reading consists of four volumes, thus grouping three of the original books in each volume. The book begins by introducing some of the main characters whilst they are at a boarding school (presumably Eton as Powell went there as a boy); Nick Jenkins the narrator, Charles Stringham, Peter Templer and the rather curious Widmerpool. Although Nick is not friends with Widmerpool at school their paths keep crossing throughout the novel. Widmerpool is introduced as a rather odd, but enigmatic figure and we first encounter him going for a run in the rain:

Anecdotes relating to his acknowledged oddness were also familiar; but before that moment such stories had not made him live. It was on the bleak December tarmac of that Saturday afternoon in, I suppose, the year 1921 that Widmerpool, fairly heavily built, thick lips and metal-rimmed spectacles giving his face as usual an aggrieved expression, first took coherent form in my mind.

We are also introduced to Nick’s uncle, Giles, and the house-master, Le Bas, who periodically appear at later dates. In fact the third novel, The Acceptance World ends with an annual dinner hosted by Le Bas for the ‘Old Boys’ (c. 1933) in which Widmerpool bores everyone with a dry speech, Le Bas has a stroke and collapses and Stringham gets so drunk that Nick and Widmerpool have to help him home. In between these two points we get to see Nick’s visit to France as a student, his time at University, his life after University working for a publisher’s, many parties, some of the characters getting married…and then divorced, we encounter writers and artists and as we venture into the 1930s there’s the changing political landscape to contend with. Every now and then political events intrude on the characters’ lives.

One of the best things about these novels is the characters and the way that we get to know them. As with Proust, we often hear about a character before we meet them or we meet a character periodically and have to catch up with what’s happened to them in the intervening period. Powell expertly gives us a sketch of a character with a few words. I especially liked the episode at the beginning of The Acceptance World in which Nick has tea with his Uncle Giles who has a room at the hotel, called the Ufford:

On most of the occasions when I visited the Ufford, halls and reception rooms were so utterly deserted that the interior might almost have been Uncle Giles’s private residence. Had he been a rich bachelor, instead of a poor one, he would probably have lived in a house of just that sort: bare: anonymous: old-fashioned: draughty: with heavy mahogany cabinets and sideboards spaced out at intervals in passages and on landings; nothing that could possibly commit him to any specific opinion, beyond general disapproval of the way the world was run.

Uncle Giles is only a minor character but he sticks in one’s mind, as do many of the other characters. In the fourth book, At Lady Molly’s Widmerpool reveals his own impending, strangely matched, marriage to a Mildred Haycock. We’re introduced to the huge Tolland family which includes Isobel, whom Nick decides he will marry at first sight. The family includes another brilliant character, the eldest son, Erridge or the Earl of Warminster; although he lives in the ancestral country home, Thrubworth Park, he lives more like a hermit and likes to dabble in left-wing politics. When Nick is visiting him and some of Erridge’s sisters turn up, including Isobel, he has to ask his servant, Smith, to get a bottle of champagne from the cellar to celebrate Susan Tolland’s impending marriage. There’s a delightful exchange between Erridge and the moody alcoholic butler who has no doubt ear-marked the contents of the cellar for his own use:

   ‘Champagne, m’lord?’
   ‘Have we got any? One bottle would do. Even a half-bottle.’
   Smith’s face puckered, as if manfully attempting to force his mind to grapple with a mathematical or philosophical problem of extraordinary complexity. His bearing suggested that he had certainly before heard the word ‘champagne’ used, if only in some distant, outlandish context; that devotion to his master alone gave him some apprehension of what this question—these ravings, almost—might mean. Nothing good could come of it. This was a disastrous way to talk. That was his unspoken message so far as champagne was concerned. After a long pause, he at last shook his head.
   ‘I doubt if there is any champagne left, m’lord.’

In the current volume I’m reading, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, we’re introduced to a delightfully argumentative couple called the Maclinticks. Mr. Maclintick (I’m not sure if we get to know his first name) is a composer, has a love of Irish whiskey, and is described thus:

Maclintick’s calculatedly humdrum appearance, although shabby, seemed aimed at concealing bohemian affiliations. The minute circular lenses of his gold-rimmed spectacles, set across the nose of a pug dog, made one think of caricatures of Thackeray or President Thiers, imposing upon him the air of a bad-tempered doctor.

Maclintick hates just about everyone, but especially his wife, with whom he rows incessantly. She nags him, he goads her. Together, they seem to Nick, to be at the end of their tether. Mrs. Maclintick is described thus:

Mrs Maclintick’s dissatisfaction with life had probably reached so advanced a stage that she was unable to approach any new event amiably, even when proffered temporary alleviation of her own chronic spleen.

Even later, when they attend a party their bickering doesn’t cease. They’re great characters for a book but they’d be hell to live with in real life.

So, after about a thousand pages I’m still fascinated with this book and I eagerly look forward to the next volume — I hope my enthusiasm will continue.

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On Proust and Procrastination

Ok, let’s get started. With a title like ‘On Proust and Procrastination’ you might be expecting some Earth-shattering insights on Proust and life in general, but unfortunately, you’ll probably be disappointed – for which I’m sorry.

I started reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time this year and had initially intended to set up a blog to keep a record of it and to get some feedback from others who would, no doubt, know what they were talking about more than me; but I joined a GoodReads reading group which fulfilled most of my Proustian requirements and so blogging about it became less urgent. But now I’m just starting the sixth volume, The Fugitive, and I’m starting to regret not setting this up when I started the book, as I’d intended. Inertia is the main reason for not doing this along with all the other little worries connected with such a project, such as: What to call it? Have I got anything to say? Have I got enough to say? Can I spell? Can I use the correct grammar when listing a series of questions? I’m still unsure of the answers to most of these questions but on reading volume four (Sodom and Gomorrah) of In Search of Lost Time I came across the section titled The Intermittencies of the Heart which I thought, with a slight adjustment, would make a great name for a blog, especially as I can’t imagine my posts being anything other than intermittent. I also found out that The Intermittencies of the Heart was an early contender for the title of the whole novel; it’s one I think he should have kept.

Whilst I was busy procrastinating I kept thinking of a quote by Henry Miller on writing and writer’s block. I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to find it in an old notebook of quotes that I’ve kept and by looking online but I’ve had no luck. The most obvious place that it could be is in the book Henry Miller on Writing; but I’m confident that I’ve never read that book, so until I can find the actual quote, which will probably bear no relation to what I remember, I’ll have to paraphrase it from memory: Henry Miller said that he had never had writer’s block and that other writers suffered from it when they were trying to start a book with a perfect sentence, which stops them from writing anything. What Miller did was to just start typing anything, this would get the words flowing and then you could just edit out all the waffle at the beginning and end up with something publishable. So I’ve followed Henry’s advice, but I’ve left all the waffling in. In future I promise to edit my posts a bit more thoroughly….

 

 

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