Thursday, 14 April 2011

On Once Again Looking Into the Penguin Proust

About a month ago I finally embarked on a re-reading of Proust's A la Recherche, something I've been promising myself to do for many years. In fact I'd left the three volumes of my old Montcrieff/Kilmartin translation at a previous address owned by a friend for about a decade, until recently he vacated the flat and passed back to me a large box of the books I'd stored there - among which nestled the handsome, fat Proust tryptych - if not forgotten, then also not consciously missed -  now seeming to cry out to me for re-perusal and reappraisal.
   Opening Volume One I found inside the cover, with a little shock of recognition, my hand-written signature and the date 1988. I'd originally read the novel as an undergraduate living at several different grotty student-digs across London and intermittently attending lectures at what was then the Polytechnic of North London (my campus on Prince of Wales Road in Kentish Town no longer exists). I remember it taking me well over a year to read all the way through and my becoming so rapturously involved in the text that finishing it seemed almost a bereavement, a sorrowful eviction out of a much-loved fictional universe that was certainly more vivid and poetic than my own bumbling, self-thwarted life at the time.
    As I began to re-read the famous opening to Swann's Way, I can only describe the experience as in itself profoundly Proustian, as my current, lucid engagement with the narrative intermingled with layers of memory of myself at 19 interpreting it in quite a different way - far more romantic and lyrical, searching out beautiful imagery,elevated descriptions of nature and impressionistic sketches of elegant, idealisable women who of course had the added attraction of being French - and with the whole context of my febrile adolescent life behind it, largely unable to tell imagination from reality.
    Whereas ,of course, the mature narrator's voice looking back over his life is not really like that: it's ruminative, subtly analytical, philosophical; innately ironical in consistently drawing parallels and counterpoints between incidents and characters he's observed; often showing up human failings or absurdities through wryly comic slantings or reflective asides full of worldly scepticism. In fact, the childhood evocations of the chapter Combray are themselves infused with this dual perspective of sensitive youthful aestheticism at once re-embraced and re-interpreted from the viewpoint of ironic hindsight.
    Could one say that Proust's over-arching achievement is not just to delineate the movements of time and memory in the structure of his great work, but also through this continual interplay of viewpoints (more and more complex as the novel proceeds) to enact the very process of time passing for the reader, who meets himself again and again at different points in the narrative and with differing degrees of awareness or knowledge each time - and furthermore, with successive re-readings, is confronted with a deeper understanding of how time has altered his own life-narrative: perhaps at last the only way that time can genuinely be regained.

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