Sunday, August 8, 2010

Books: In Search of Lost Time Volume Two: Within a Budding Grove, by Marcel Proust

Marcel has matured much between Swann's Way and Within a Budding Grove. I found myself able to push through Swann's Way with some ease only because the child-neuroaesthete* steps aside (and back in time) for over 200 pages to narrate the story of Swann (an older, more well-manicured neuroaesthete) falling in love with Odette de Crécy, a social-climbing common courtesan. Swann's fits of jealous anxiety are clearly designed to mirror young Marcel's fits of longing, first for his mother, then for Gilberte, daughter of Swann and Odette. But by Within a Budding Grove, though Marcel still thinks all too often of Gilberte, his desire has become sexual. After an impromptu wrestling match in the early pages of the novel, during which he experiences orgasm without quite realizing it (a passage I must admit I find far more compelling than that of the madeleine; call me a boor), Marcel begins to visit Gilberte at home, and transfers his obsession from the capricious girl to her more worldly mother.

Not long after (two years pass with a page turn), he leaves Paris for Balbec, a seaside resort town, with his grandmother. Sent there for his health, Marcel indeed achieves new heights of physical robustness, lusting interchangeably after various members of a "little band of girls" vacationing at the same resort. He eventually singles out their ringleader, Albertine Simonet, for his intrepid sexual advances (which meet with her vehement rebuff). Once Albertine leaves (not long after the rebuff), the band dissipates, and Marcel lurks around the half-closed hotel at the season's end.

The other object of Marcel's obsessive affection is Saint-Loup, nephew to his grandmother's friend, the noble Mme de Villeparisis. Writing now from the perspective of having read ahead slightly, Marcel's affection for Saint-Loup will transfer to his aunt the Duchesse de Guermantes, in The Guermantes Way, but until then, Marcel's affection for Saint-Loup, without ever overtly expressing sexuality, seems to foreshadow the author's homosexuality. He writes about Saint-Loup's breezy manner, his fine—if scandalously informal—attire, the figure he cuts walking across the beach, and the messy affair the young man has with a mistress in Paris. At this stage in his personal development, Marcel desires Saint-Loup by desiring to be like Saint-Loup, making do with desiring to be near Saint-Loup. Letting on, perhaps, homosexual tendencies of his own, Saint-Loup takes Marcel as his dear friend.

At this point, I will address something to which I alluded in my post on Swann's Way, which is the pronunciation of the author's name. It was around the time of my reading of Within a Budding Grove that I began to notice that, when I said "I'm reading 'Proost,'" people looked at me with some confusion, until I clarified, "Prowst," and they said, oh, yes. In fact, I had mentioned to my Francophile friend, who had just spent the last six months in Paris, that I was reading 'Proost,' and he responded, in an academic tone I assumed was ironic, "Uh, I believe it is pronounced 'Prowst.'" I laughed, because I thought he was mocking the many who mispronounce the name, but he did not laugh with me, leaving me with an empty sense of dread. Had I been mispronouncing Proust myself? Wikipedia tells me just what I like to hear: I'm right. "French pronunciation: [maʁsɛl pʁust]" in which the upside-down R is like "red" and the "u" is like "zoo."

If this entry seems to stop abruptly where it only ought to pause, I've successfully passed to you the sensation one feels when coming to the end of Within a Budding Grove. Thus, one must have The Guermantes Way on hand to pick up immediately, as if only turning a page between chapters. The two are inextricably linked. Unfortunately, I will need to get through 600 more pages of reading before offering you the next installment; sincere apologies.

*Yes, a made-up word, eliding "neurasthenic" with "aesthete," both of which apply and seem to be regularly co-symptomatic.

Books: In Search of Lost Time Volume One: Swann's Way, by Marcel Proust

What I remember most strongly about my first weeks of college is the revelation of the lacunae in my learning. In comparison with my high-school peers, I was (without knowing it), quite a Proustian character: constantly reading, physically weak, and intellectually smug. I had read from Henry Miller and Kerouac to Kafka and Dostoevsky, all in my free time and in addition to school work (my school had a bias toward Shakespeare on one end and contemporary novelists of color on the other, leaving the great swath of what I considered literature unattended); I thought myself very well-read. But I sat down for the second lecture of my Existential Philosophy in Literature and Film course with my new friend Suzanne, and her friend (a bleached blond, name-dropping homosexual) told us that he was reading Marcel Proust's (pronounced "Proost's") À la recherche du temps perdu. He told us in French, even though he was reading it in English. He told us that his goal in life was to read all seven volumes.

Not many weeks later, in my Environmental Design Writing About Space workshop, our professor invoked Proust's (again, pronounced "Proost's") madeleine, as if it were some iconic trope we should all recognize (it is). He gave us, as a reading that night, the introductory pages of Swann's Way, in which Marcel, given a cup of lime-blossom tea in which to soak his madeleine cookie, begins to recall his youth in Combray. I didn't find it particularly moving. My last year at Berkeley, I wanted to take the Proust senior seminar, in which all seven volumes were read, but I was already pushing it by taking four English courses in one semester (ill-advised), and in order to graduate that year, my senior seminar needed to simultaneously satisfy the dreaded pre-1800s requirement. And so, I had to put off Proust.

Nearly ten years later, this lacuna remained in my literature knowledge. I found a tattered copy of Volume I of the silver-bound Vintage edition* in my building's laundry room and began reading. My intention was, at that point, to read all seven volumes on end, but from the start, it was a slog. I hated Marcel. He was neurotic, obsessive, and above all, long-winded. For fifty pages on end, he tossed and turned in bed, longing for his mother's kiss on his cheek, plotting ways to send for her, but too anxious to take action lest he offend his father. I finished Swann's Way and started Within a Budding Grove. I didn't blog about Swann's Way because I had so little of consequence to say that I planned to simply write one blog entry upon completing the work in its entirety. But, wearied that Marcel had transferred his obsession with his mother to an obsession with Gilberte Swann, I set the book aside for a time and never picked it up again. Hence, Swann's Way went unblogged.

A year later, I encountered another copy of Swann's Way in my laundry room. For some reason, I mistakenly thought this was the second volume, which I had never finished, so decided to start the project again. Luckily, it was in fact the first volume of the Modern Library edition, and I was able to reread with occasional rapture something I had once dismissed. Enough had shifted in my life that I can't be certain that the revised translation is what changed things, though having had such an experience with Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, I remain open to that possibility. I emerged from Swann's Way fresh enough that I was able to proceed directly through the Modern Library's Within a Budding Grove, and though I haven't had time until just now to write about either of these, I am now a quarter into The Guermantes Way. My only challenge now will be to address the contents of Swann's Way here without eliding them with Within a Budding Grove. Or have I here already written enough?

*A note on the volumes: Proust's novel is written in seven volumes. The 1982 Vintage edition, which was used by Berkeley's Proust senior seminar, is entitled A Remembrance of Things Past, and collapses these into three silver-bound bricks. Volume I contains Swann's Way and Within a Budding Grove; Volume II The Guermantes Way and Cities of the Plain; and Volume III The Captive, The Fugitive, and Time Regained. The Modern Library's 1993 edition, entitled In Search of Lost Time, is in six volumes: Swann's Way, Within a Budding Grove, The Guermantes Way, Sodom and Gomorrah, The Captive and The Fugitive together in one cover, and Time Regained. For this edition, D. J. Enright has revised the original C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin translation found in the Vintage edition, and is responsible for the subtle and not-so-subtle changes in titles. In 2005, Penguin UK released a new edition featuring all new translations, edited by Christopher Prendergast and featuring further title shifts: Swann's Way, translated by Lydia Davis, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, translated by James Grieve, The Guermantes Way, translated by Mark Treharne, Sodom and Gomorrah, translated by John Sturrock, The Prisoner, translated by Carol Clark, The Fugitive, translated by Peter Collier, and Finding Time Again, translated by Ian Patterson. I would be thrilled by the prospect of all-new translations by various authors if I had already read the "standard" translation years ago, but I don't think this is the place to start, and will see The Modern Library through before proceeding to anything too fresh.

Movies: Double Take

Unlike Nightfall, which I saw the same night as Double Take, at the beginning of June, Johan Grimonprez's pastiche may require two month's of consideration to understand. Unfortunately, it didn't compel me to give it this kind of thought.

Perhaps my expectations were unfair. I had read about the film before, and understood it to be a collage of found footage synthesized into a plot-driven movie in which Alfred Hitchcock encounters his double, addressing his famous instruction: "If you meet your double, you should kill him." In fact, Double Take is a film-studentish riff that for some reason parallels Hitchcock's self-acknowledged demise in televisionland (Alfred Hitchcock Presents) with the televised conversations between Nikita Kruschev and Richard Nixon, and later John F. Kennedy (at which debates, unaccidentally, the availability of television in every American home is no accident). Hitchcock impersonator Ron Burrage plays himself playing Hitchcock in 1980, encountering (vintage footage) Hitchcock in 1962. They converse over a cup of tea; one finds himself poisoned and dies. Mushroom clouds punctuate the picture.

Perhaps there is interesting potential for an in-depth analysis of Kruschev/Nixon/JFK as doubles (except that they are three rather than two, Nixon is far from JFK's double, and so if Nixon were Kruschev's double, JFK could not be, and vice-versa, so. . . ), but this film does not offer any thorough analysis on the topic. Instead, in amateur fashion, it presents a number of amusing if not potentially interesting selections of footage (clips from Hitchcock's various introductions to his television program, scenes from The Birds, vintage advertisements for Folger's instant coffee, documentary footage of the Soviet and American leaders at the World's Fair) and leaves it to the audience to suss out what the connection is. Die-hard Hitchcock fans will cling to the Easter eggs Grimonprez plants along the way (look, it's a bird! Oh, isn't that Bernard Hermann? I would recognize that soundtrack anywhere!), but ultimately, the film is an artistic exercise flaccidly executed with little relevance.

Movies: Nightfall

I saw this movie two months ago at Film Forum. It wasn't so challenging that it's taken me two months to digest it, nor was it so tedious that it's taken me two months to rally my sense of responsibility to write. I've just had a busy two months.

Sitting down to write today, I had, I admit, forgotten the title, and, in fact, most of the plot. The only thing I remembered vividly was the action-packed climax: a fist-fight that tumbles out of the driver's seat of a snowplow—the snowplow still proceeding voraciously toward a lonely lean-to, in which the heroine and another character are bound at wrist and ankle. The shot that sticks is the dead-on, full-screen, look into the maw of the plow, which fills the contemporary audience with drunken giggles, though I imagine the 1957 audience sat on the edges of their seats with their eyes wide open, or else closed them, shrinking away in terror.

But how did we get here? The lurchingly sweet Aldo Ray (I always think he would make a good Frankenstein's monster; his body is too big for his personality) has suited up the innocent Anne Bancroft in winter hiking gear, traipsing into the snowy wilderness of Wyoming in search of a doctor's bag stuffed with cash. The money isn't his, but accidentally fell into his hands the winter before, when he was camping with his friend (incidentally, a doctor). When the two of them stopped to look into a roadside accident, they unwittingly found themselves fraternizing with a couple of criminals—bank robbers on the lam, whose bag full of cash happens to look just like the doctor's bag. Not only do the robbers take the campers' car, but they shoot the doc dead with his rifle, and try to kill Aldo Ray, too. He escapes, taking what he thinks is the doctor's bag, but what is actually the bag of money. Somewhere along the way, he stops to sleep in a lean-to, and forgets the bag out in the snow, never realizing its contents.

Months later, Ray is a hunted man. The bank robbers think he has their money, and the bank's insurance investigator thinks so too, though he has a hunch that Ray is innocent. Bancroft unwittingly steps into the middle of this web when she lets Ray pay for her martini and subsequent dinner at a lonely restaurant in the middle of the night—the same night the robbers find him and drive him out to the waterfront to deliver an information-seeking beating. He escapes, but knows that the only way out of this mess is to find the money himself, which is how he finds himself rolling around in the snow, wrestling in front of an unmanned moving snowplow. The bank robber, I'm afraid to say, becomes food for the beast.

Ultimately, the film is basically as generic a noir as its title implies (I at last remembered the title, but had doubts that it was right, it being so generic). For those with a particular interest in really bad bad guys, bank robber number two is a little gone in the head, with a penchant for torture. For those with an interest in 1950s haute couture, Bancroft plays a model, and one of the better chase scenes involves the robbers crashing her rendezvous with Ray at a classy department store's garden fashion show. And of course, for those with an interest in snowplows, it is a must-see.