Monday 1 October 2012

Time Regained

Time Regained

"In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self."
And every writer too, it would seem. While continuing to excavate the sexual mores of society, snobbery, human attraction, the meaning of art etc this volume is where our narrator describes how and why he starts to write. His thoughts and conclusions are, one presumes, close to being Proust's own. The events in the life, he says, are not nearly as important as the perception of the motivating forces that inspire them, for those are the truths of humanity, no different in the drawing room or the hovel, although expressed in a different manner. "Just as a geometer, stripping things of their sensible qualities, sees only the linear substratum beneath them, so the stories that people told escaped me, for what interested me was not what they were trying to say but the manner in which they said it and the way in which this manner revealed their character and their foibles; or rather I was interested in what had always, because he gave me specific pleasure, been more particularly the goal of my investigation: the point that was common to one being and another. And as soon as I perceived this my intelligence - until that moment slumbering, even if sometimes the apparent animation of my talk might disguise from others a profound intellectual torpor..."
Much of the action that takes place in this volume is concurrent with WW1, and there are parallels drawn between the fate of nations and of individuals. Proust suggests that "In these quarrels of individuals, the surest way of being convinced of the excellence of the cause of one party or the other is actually to be that party: a spectator will never to the same extent give his unqualified approval." This explains the chauvinism inherent in the view on the war held in France and Germany, with the vast majority accepting the story which puts their side in the right.

Proust is continually nudging us to look at the similarities between the forces that motivate people, comparing them at times to flowers. This allows him to press the point that there may be evolutionary reasons for everyone, even the people we feel the world might be better without. These differences may create a balance, or act as a brake to the velocity at which the pendulums swing. "Thus, in the flowering of the human species, the interplay of different psychological laws operates always in such a way as to compensate any process that might otherwise, in one direction or the other, through plethora or through rarefaction, bring about the annihilation of the race."

He also suggests that medicine could be the basis for much literature, sensing in the emerging 'science' of  psychiatry a fertile ground. "..Mme Verdurin acutely observes that medical science could provide theatre with truer themes than those now in favour, themes in which the comicality of the plot would be based on misunderstandings of a pathological kind.." Marcel sees his role as a writer as somewhat medical: - "I was like a surgeon who beneath the smooth surface of a woman's belly sees the internal disease which is devouring it. If I went to a dinner party I did not see the guests: when I thought I was looking at them, I was in fact examining them with x-rays." This can seem like arrogance but there are enough scalpel cuts that remove organs still pulsing with truth to justify it. And medical science has been wrong more than right itself.

Marcel places the skills of the writer in a more modest context when explaining how, rather than what, one does. The writer does not necessarily have to understand more than others, but must learn to reflect faithfully their own experience. And that experience itself does not have to be grand or exciting. "...I had already realised long ago that it is not the man with the liveliest mind, the most well informed, the best supplied with friends and acquaintances, but the one who knows how to become a mirror and in this way can reflect his life, commonplace though it may be, who becomes a Bergotte..."

The commonplace can become exceptional through perspective and also due to the passing of time, which erases practices and ideas that once seemed inevitably true and eternal aspects of life. Referring to Pompeii, Marcel notes that "the frivolity of an age, when ten centuries have passed over it, is matter for the gravest erudition, particularly if it has been embalmed by a volcanic eruption.."

Proust returns to the social world after years where illness has kept him from 'society'. In a long scene which provides the backdrop to much of Marcel's thinking we discover that years have passed and that they have been unkind to many of the characters. He notes that "many of these people could be identified immediately, but only as rather bad portraits of themselves hanging side by side at an exhibition in which an inaccurate and spiteful artist has hardened the features of one sitter, robbed another of her fresh complexion and her slender figure, spread a gloom over the countenance of a third." Others have changed so dramatically that their identities can only be discovered through means other than their looks and Marcel is shocked by the changes wrought by time..

As well as the frivolous life this book is haunted by the Great War. Acquaintances die, others survive, but there is no guarantee of what else will or won't survive. The sky above is threatening, with the v of the defensive lights a challenge to the moon. "In this Paris, whose beauty in 1914 I had seen awaiting almost defenceless the threat of the approaching enemy, there was certainly, as there had been then, the ancient unalterable splendour of a moon truly and mysteriously serene, which poured down its useless beauty upon the still untouched buildings of the capital; but as in 1914, and more now than in 1914, there was also something else, there were lights from a different source, intermittent beams which, whether they came from the aeroplanes or from the searchlights of the Eiffel Tower, one knew to be directed by an intelligent will, by a friendly vigilance..."

This technology involved in this war marks it as something which won't necessarily follow the rules of war as studied by Saint Loup which Marcel found fascinating. However it is not the novelty but the longevity of the war which brings Marcel to speculate on what effect it will have had on the soldiers who survive it, with a prescient prediction on its potential to destabilise democracy. "Generally, it is true, novelties which people find alarming pass off very well. The most prudent republicans thought that it was mad to separate the church from the state. It was as easy as sending a letter through the post. Dreyfus was rehabilitated, Picqart was made Minister for War, and nobody uttered a murmur. Yet what may we not fear from the stress and strain of a war which has continued without pause for several years? What will men do when they return from it? Will fatigue have broken them or will it have driven them mad? All this could have grave results, if not for France, at least for the government, perhaps even for the present form of government." Change France for Germany and we have a very accurate prediction of the fallout from WW1.

Also distressing is the way war becomes normalised and discourse picks up on relatively minor outcroppings of war and pushes the true cost into the background. Baron de Charlus, with a sensibility which is laced with concupiscence bewails the true cost of war with a customary flourish. "We hear talk of vandalism, of the destruction of statues. But the destruction of so many marvellous young men, who while they lived were incomparable polychrome statues, is that not also vandalism?"

Marcel draws attention to the diffident way that many men deal with grief isolating its expression into a sharpness of tone which is the "grief showing itself in men who do not want to appear to feel grief, an attitude which might be ridiculous and nothing more but is in fact also sinister and ugly, because it is the manner of feeling grief of those who think that grief does not matter, that there are more serious things in life than being parted from ones friends " This introduces the theme which in my mind is the real foundation of Time Regained, that of the fragility of life, the way there can seem to be so much time that we are drowning in it or so little that we find it hard to breathe. And this fragility means that these lives, and the apparently trivial transactions that occur between them, are made doubly precious.

Marcel's has a stronger sense of the limited time because the planned length of the book he is working on makes it unlikely that there will be enough time to finish it. He describes it in terms of what it will do for his reputation after his death rather than how it will affect the living author. "In long books of this kind there are parts which there has been time only to sketch, parts which, because of the very amplitude of the architect's plan, will no doubt never be completed. How many great cathedrals remain unfinished! The writer feeds his book, he strengthens the parts of it that are weak, he protects it, but as a result it is the book that grows great, that designs its own author's tomb and defends it against rumour and for a while against oblivion."

However close death come, it is still a mystery, inexplicable for ourselves, but ordinary in those we do not know. It is another of those things subject to shifting perspectives, and the final perspective, that of those who have experienced death is not one we have access to. "Yet still I did not see how from my present ailments one could pass, without warning of what was to come, to total death. Then, however, I thought of other people, of the countless people who die every day without the gap between their illness and their death seeming to us extraordinary."

I mentioned in an earlier post the similarities I found between Marcel and Marcello in Fellini's La Dolce Vita. In Fellini's film (as I read it) Marcello is a man of great talent who has let life slip through his fingers, seduced by the empty fulfilment of the sweet life. Marcel seems to have flirted with the same fate but here he discovers his vocation, giving the book an optimistic finale. Marcel says of the seeming defeat of his dreams of writing that "idleness had preserved me from the dangers of facility."I am tempted now to read Marcello as the director of La Dolce Vita rather than the dead fish caught in the net near the film's end. Whatever appearances suggest "So rarely do we meet either with easy success or with irreversible defeat." A wonderful message for those who feel defeated, defeat itself is reversible.

There are other very vivid scenes in this book, most memorably a nighttime excursion into a blacked out Paris which leads Marcel accidentally into a house of ill repute owned by the Baron de Charlus. The young men who work there have to pretend to be more dangerous and delinquent than they naturally are. When one lets slip a reference to his domestic life which undermines this image the Baron is disappointed. The man's attempts to retrieve the situation only make the situation worse - "His remarks were obviously inauthentic, like the books of authors who force themselves to write slang." Marcel gets into a situation where he is able to view the Baron at his most debauched.

He also gets to place this debauchery in the most commonplace of settings, with the young men clearly there in the main for money and inured to the acts they perform. This leads to some thoughts on how we define what is normal and how many deviations can be accommodated by normality. "They had long ceased to speculate upon the morality or immorality of the life they led, because it was the life that was led by everybody round them. So it is that, when we study certain periods of ancient history, we are astonished to see men and women individually good participate without scruple in mass assassinations or human sacrifices which probably seemed to them natural things."

In the end my memory of this volume is dominated (with whip and chains) by the expressions of the principles which underline Marcel's writing of this book and the revelation that led him to write it. "Just as, at the moment when I tasted the madeleine, all anxiety about the future, all intellectual doubts had disappeared, so now those that a few seconds ago had assailed me on the subject of the reality of my literary gifts, the reality even of literature, were removed as if by enchantment."

If we could only understand more about our own life we all have within us 'the essential, the only true book, though in the ordinary sense of the word it does not have to be "invented" by a great writer - for it exists already in each one of us - has to be translated by him. The function and the task of a writer are those of a translator." This book will not be true but will be true to life. It will include impressions that the writer has only barely taken in and people who have given the sweep of a hand or a particular way of emphasising the word "yes". The originals for these will be unknown to the reader and perhaps even to the author. Thus can a book be described as "a huge cemetery in which on the majority of tombs the names are effaced and can no longer be read."

At times there are apparent contradictions between how episodes are presented in Remembrance.. but early on I realised that Proust was using perception  rather than truth. And as he regularly reminds the reader through the whole book, perception is based upon assumptions and is liable to change over time. Here he presents an argument for presenting impressions in a way similar to painting. He argues that "to make the quiet boiling of our tisane sound like a deluge in the courtyard outside should not really be more misleading than what is so often done by painters when they paint a sail or the peak of a mountain in such a way that, according to the laws of perspective, the intensity of the colours and the illusion of our first glance, they appear to us either very near or very far away, through an error which logical thinking subsequently corrects by, sometimes, a very large displacement."

I will finish with an image of man which seems perfect for this book, where man is "endowed with the length not of his body but of his years and as obliged - task more and more heavy and in the end too great for his strength - to drag them with him wherever he goes."

This has been a hard post to write. The book is so very hard to reduce to a few simple ideas. There are always more quotes and ideas available. However I am hugely glad to have read this book and look forward to returning at least to parts of it in the future. Time Regained would include many of those parts. I hope anyone who has read my thoughts on the book as I read it have got something out of some of the posts. Anyone who wishes to flick though all the posts can do so by clicking here.


  1. You're welcome. Thanks for reading.

  2. It all ends on a thrilling note, doesn't it? "Thrilling" defined a little narrowly, but still.

    Congratulations on finishing. It's hugely rewarding, but does take some stamina.

    1. Thanks, Tom. The rewards are certainly great but yes, stamina is required.

  3. I am not sure that you enjoyed it.
    It is one of the funniest books I have ever read,and it has its moments of sadness too.
    But,the translation cannot work,in the same way that Shakespeare will not work in any other language and so Moncrief may be excused, if not forgiven.
    Fair play to you Sir for ploughing through it.

    1. Thanks. I did enjoy it by the way. Although i do think I've read funnier books, it raised a few chuckles.