Saturday, July 12, 2008


Thursday, July 10th, was the birthday of Proust, and I spent the day leading a class discussion of the first five chapters of Ulysses, then talked over just under a hundred pages of Musil's Mann with a friend who has undertaken reading Musil's tour de force with me this summer; only later, while watching Raul Ruiz' film of Proust's Time Regained (1999) did I realize it was le jour de naissance of that other great figure (elder to both Joyce and Musil by a decade, more or less) who encapsulated his entire world in a text. So, here's to, belatedly, le maître.

The film is almost entirely pointless, as films go. I mean: if you haven't read Proust in recent memory, most of the film will be wholly inexplicable, and even to the degree that you "follow" the sequence of scenes, they can't possibly give you much of a charge. The film presupposes that you already know who these characters are, and the only way you could is by having read the novels and remembering, as you watch the scenes enacted before you, the wealth of associations with which the narrator has imbued each character. IF that's true of you, you'll find that, here and there, a scene is reasonably well dramatized, partly because the actors in some cases are extremely well cast for their parts (Marcello Mazzarella, who plays Marcel, looks so much like Proust at times that it's uncanny). I was a bit distracted by the fact that the fully mature Odette was played by Catherine Deneuve, still looking great and very regal in the matronly comportment of her sixties, but, to my mind, she was more or less the very image I had of Oriane, the Duchesse de Guermantes -- who in the film was a much slighter figure. This might be correct for the final volume in which Odette has full respectability and the Guermantes have had to make way for the hoi polloi, but it made me want to see enacted those scenes of Marcel's infatuation with the Duchesse with Deneuve in the role. Anyway, the point I really wanted to make is that what was more effective than anything in the film was the enactment of the ailing Proust in his bed, near his death at the beginning of the film, dictating to Celeste: more than anything in the scene, it's hearing the actor recite Proust's prose that fascinates. A Proustian, watching the film, can't help feeling a bit like it's "old home week" on some TV serial in which characters from earlier versions of the series have shown up in this week's episode -- look: there's Bloch, the Verdurins, Cottard... In other words, the film was little more than a device to make the viewer want to read Proust again, if only to fall into the momentum of that prose, and to see those characters given their full due.

But that in itself was a nice birthday tribute for Proust. Much as I find much amusement and interest walking through the familiar paths of Dublin long engraved in my brain by the particular associations they create for Joyce's characters, with here and there a memory of having walked briefly those streets myself a few years ago, and much as Musil continues to amuse and fascinate me with digressions more substantial than his tale, and which seem, with uncanny lucidity, to skewer not simply the pre-WWI era he's aiming at, but also the pre-WWII era he's writing in, as well as the post-WWII era we're living through, there is a quality of immersion that takes place when reading Proust that the other two don't achieve to the same degree.

And yet I have to give Musil great credit for his temporal "triple threat," as it were. While I feel the "modernity" of Joyce's prose in Ulysses will never be surpassed, and that the significance of time in the novel will never find an equal to what Proust has given us, I see both of those worthies as much more of their time than ours. Musil, perhaps because of his mathematical knowledge (so important to so many fields of the contemporary world) and his greater familiarity than most authors with the distinctions bureaucracy makes in social reality, gives us an understanding of his characters' conditions that is more applicable to our own times. Granted, the Austro-Hungarian empire is an odd and specific historical situation -- and Musil does share both Proust's and Joyce's interest in capturing, après la guerre, a world now gone. But what Musil does better than the other two -- because it interests him more than it interests the other two -- is giving us a sense of the world to come. Proust concludes his great novel with the idea of how to recapture everything that was "fugitive, hélas, comme les années," while Joyce gives us perhaps the most indelible "slice of lived time" in the history of the written word. Musil, with his idea of "essayism" and his figure of the rich impresario Arnheim, the "New Man" -- the urbane, cosmopolitan, cultured, efficient capitalist as "man of action" or rather "homme d'affaires" -- is more inclined to look at what is actually happening to the world around him. And, unlike Proust, he has no romance of the ancien régime to set against it, nor any romance of childhood in which his elders are untainted sages and saints. There's no doubt, then, that Musil was the loneliest of the modernist generation-- which is to say, perhaps, that he was the most self-invented among a cohort of singular self-inventions and "ahead of his time" to a degree that few other of the modernists really were (Kafka comes to mind in that regard).

I began this entry thinking I was going to bemoan not reading Proust while having my time taken up with Joyce and Musil. Instead, I seem to have made the case for why -- pardonnez moi mille fois! -- it's the latter and not le maître who I should be reading au présent.

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