Tuesday, July 10, 2007
For Proust's Birthday: July 10, 1871
Of the writers I consider the most influential on myself -- the ones I can't imagine NOT having read -- Proust came last. Which is to say I was already twenty-four when I finally got through the old Moncrieff translation called Remembrance of Things Past. I think why Proust so definitely marks "the end of an era" for me is that not only was it the end of youth -- twenty-five arbitrarily marking the move toward maturity -- but it's the end of that phase in which I read only by my own lights. Shortly after that my reading would be shaped by syllabi. I doubt anyone has been significantly altered by a syllabus, but I could be wrong.
I'm not altogether sure why I believe that, but Proust could be considered part of what I cling to in that particular myth of the mind-altering readings of youth. No one has dramatized so effectively, so subtly, the definitive effects on a growing consciousness of new experiences, especially but not solely aesthetic experiences. In fact, all experience is a kind of aesthetic experience for the narrator of the Recherche and that's as it should be. What a writer finds in Proust is nothing less than the assertion that life as it is lived is incomplete if not given aesthetic expression. But one receives this wisdom in vain if one assumes that a certain kind of aesthetic experience is proscribed. Proust is much more open-ended than that. Some like to say that the Recherche is the book that the narrator imagines writing at the close, but that's simply an inference, the kind that those who like closure like to rest on. What the narrator in the end provides is an insight about how life could become the basis of a great fiction. And of course we've just concluded reading a great fiction that the author, Marcel Proust, made from his own life. The difference is that the life the narrator is imagining "translating" into fiction is already a fiction. A fiction concocted by Monsieur Proust and not "life" at all. So what would the fiction based on that fiction be? Postmodernism, I guess.
Proust gives the reader the greatest artistically achieved presentation of the effects of time on human beings, but I think it's for the act of ending with the proleptic prospect of writing fiction against time, of converting existing fiction into further fiction, that I award the palm of greatest novelist of the twentieth century to cher Marcel. And it's partly for that reason that those "Johnny-come-latelies" I read après Proust -- for all that they impressed me in quite new and exciting ways (the likes of Garcia Marquez and Henry James and Austen and, yes, even Cervantes and Flaubert and Musil and Mann) -- only filled in "gaps," didn't really alter the playing field. But even that perspective is Proustian, because what the formula for fiction that the narrator gives us in the end amounts to is a conversion of the past into the eternal present of fiction, for the sake of futurity. And it may be that whenever one receives that message -- on one's pulses, as it were -- there's not much left over for new discoveries. Everything is already over. Toujours déjà vu. Let the fiction begin!