Proust: Swann’s Way: ‘Combray’ (1913)

I don’t want to pit Proust against Lawrence, but they simply beg to be tried, and how particularly funny, that it is a Frenchman being pitted against a Brit, and losing, for the time being, in terms of passion. I would not have considered comparing the two except that in Lady Chatterley, Clifford Chatterley is reading “a French book” and the following argument begins thus:

‘Have you ever read Proust?’ he asked her.
‘I’ve tried, but he bores me.’
‘He’s really very extraordinary.’
‘Possibly! But he bores me: all that sophistication! He doesn’t have feelings, he only has streams of words about feelings. I’m tired of self-important mentalities.’
‘Would you prefer self-important animalities?’
‘Perhaps! But one might possibly get something that wasn’t self-important.’
‘Well, I like Proust’s subtlety and his well-bred anarchy.’
‘It makes you very dead, really.’
‘There speaks my evangelical little wife.’

Anarchy and Bolshevism are the two political systems thrown around by characters in Lady Chatterley. I’ve always thought of anarchy as something idealized by rebellious teenagers, rich teenagers, and if all I knew of it was the definition given by the OED, I’d suppose it was simply the central tenet of the Republican party, “absolute freedom of the individual.” The catch, of course, being fairly Christian in nature, that everyone has an immutable position in society, that there will be the happy, and there will be the unhappy. And, of course, without a ruler, the happy may flourish by suppressing the unhappy by whatever means are necessary. Bolshevism, in this case, means that the miners, people who Lawrence suggests were born with the mines (though, reports on BBC lately insist that the death of the mines in the 1980s did not bring about the death of all the miners) deserve much more than Clifford Chatterley, with his nothing legs and nothing penis. Even Mellors rose through his own hard work, language abilities, and eventually through his service in the military. Making it through Proust’s “Combray” only shows the world through the eyes of a child, at least Proust as a child, which doesn’t particularly say much, as I’ve seen the questionnaire he filled out as a little boy, and he was an adult even then. But perhaps the most we can say is that he is raised in a house filled with people who don’t seem to work, whose lives consist of “enjoying themselves” as Connie might call it. Are they dead?

I’m not quite sure how old I was when I began reading Anais Nin’s first diary, but at the time I was firmly opposed to consumption of alcohol and drugs, and it was Nin who gave me the best argument I’d ever heard. I’m a writer, she said, and she has to have her wits about her at all times because she must later write all that she experiences, and alcohol or drugs would hinder that. Well, I considered myself a writer, so it seemed a good enough argument, though I don’t think I ever had to use it. I think I felt betrayed later, when she and June were a bit drunk together. It was Nin who led me to both Lawrence and Proust.  Connie says, ‘he doesn’t have feelings, he only has streams of words about feelings,’ and ever since she commented thus, I’ve been reading him through her eyes. Because, when it comes down to it, what would I rather be: the creator of something beautiful? or something beautiful myself? No contest: I’d rather be beautiful. I’d rather live a work of art.

But I think Proust dodges the question quite gracefully in showing something else, that there’s a third possible answer to that question: can one’s memory be a work of art, even if the reality was not. Indeed. And perhaps that’s what his work is, not meant to be engaged in so much as to be imbibed, we’re back to Shelley’s ravine. I find myself not caring about whether or not the narrator is reliable, because somehow this is a work about memory, and memory is allowed to be grandiose. Is it passionate? I find myself unable to recall the moments of the most heightened passion in my life, perhaps it is then that I become entirely an animal, and when I am in the moment, I am truly in the moment, unable to do what I usually do, to figure out what words I will later use to describe this, to be writing and editing while living, periodically disappearing to write down conversations and descriptions and then popping back into life, perhaps when there is no past, and there is no future, one simply loses the ability to recall that moment. I’ve always hoped there would be somebody else with me who would write down our experiences together, so that I didn’t have to be the only one, so that the memory could be more colorful, but nobody ever has, it’s a sad thing.

Perhaps, then, it’s worth noting that the sex scenes in Lady Chatterley begin very explicit, when she’s not particularly involved in the moment. And as she becomes increasingly involved as the novel continues, they become more metaphoric, more symbolistic, and if arousing, then arousing on such a deep physical level as to be almost spiritual, and then finally, the sex is not described at all, and everything surrounding it is, the ripped nighties, the flowers woven into her maidenhair, and her observations of others and their sexuality.

One night when I was sleeping on H’s sofa, he was sitting very close to me in a wooden chair, smoking pot and talking me, not caring if I was listening or sleeping, and he said “I don’t know what you think of my girlfriend, but I’ve slept with a lot of girls, I’ve seen a lot of girls naked, and it’s come to the point where I don’t even need to see them naked anymore to know precisely what they look like without their clothes on. And perhaps you can’t tell just by looking at her, but my girlfriend is perfect, there is nobody in the world more beautiful than she is.” As one gets older the more one understands any given person’s carriage, all that it indicates. At one time I thought it was all guesswork, but now, like H., and like Connie, I begin to understand. A little.

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