Friday, May 29, 2015

Proust on difficult art

I enjoy complex and demanding art. I like puzzling through Joyce, Ligeti, and Wallace regardless of whether I understand everything or not, because there's something rewarding about the pursuit of that which isn't completely understood. I'm currently reading through Proust's massive opus, In Search of Lost Time--which, in spite of its length, isn't really hard to comprehend--and he expresses the feelings I get about more demanding works beautifully, if a bit verbosely. So I'm sharing it here, in hopes that someone else might connect with it as well.

Sometimes, before going to dress, Mme. Swann would sit down at the piano. Her lovely hands, escaping from the pink, or white, or, often, vividly coloured sleeves of her crêpe-de-Chine wrapper, drooped over the keys with that same melancholy which was in her eyes but was not in her heart. It was on one of those days that she happened to play me the part of Vinteuil's sonata that contained the little phrase of which Swann had been so fond. But often one listens and hears nothing, if it is a piece of music at all complicated to which one is listening for the first time. And yet when, later on, this sonata had been played over to me two or three times I found that I knew it quite well. And so it is not wrong to speak of hearing a thing for the first time. If one had indeed, as one supposes, received no impression from the first hearing, the second, the third would be equally 'first hearings' and there would be no reason why one should understand it any better after the tenth. Probably what is wanting, the first time, is not comprehension but memory. For our memory, compared to the complexity of the impressions which it has to face while we are listening, is infinitesimal, as brief as the memory of a man who in his sleep thinks of a thousand things and at once forgets them, or as that of a man in his second childhood who cannot recall, a minute afterwards, what one has just been saying to him. Of these multiple impressions our memory is not capable of furnishing us with an immediate picture. But that picture gradually takes shape, and, with regard to works which we have heard more than once, we are like the schoolboy who has read several times over before going to sleep a lesson which he supposed himself not to know, and finds that he can repeat it by heart next morning. It was only that I had not, until then, heard a note of the sonata, whereas Swann and his wife could make out a distinct phrase that was as far beyond the range of my perception as a name which one endeavours to recall and in place of which one discovers only a void, a void from which, an hour later, when one is not thinking about them, will spring of their own accord, in one continuous flight, the syllables that one has solicited in vain. And not only does one not seize at once and retain an impression of works that are really great, but even in the content of any such work (as befell me in the case of Vinteuil's sonata) it is the least valuable parts that one at first perceives.

Thus it was that I was mistaken not only in thinking that this work held nothing further in store for me (so that for a long time I made no effort to hear it again) from the moment in which Mme. Swann had played over to me its most famous passage; I was in this respect as stupid as people are who expect to feel no astonishment when they stand in Venice before the front of Saint Mark's, because photography has already acquainted them with the outline of its domes. Far more than that, even when I had heard the sonata played from beginning to end, it remained almost wholly invisible to me, like a monument of which its distance or a haze in the atmosphere allows us to catch but a faint and fragmentary glimpse. Hence the depression inseparable from one's knowledge of such works, as of everything that acquires reality in time. When the least obvious beauties of Vinteuil's sonata were revealed to me, already, borne by the force of habit beyond the reach of my sensibility, those that I had from the first distinguished and preferred in it were beginning to escape, to avoid me. Since I was able only in successive moments to enjoy all the pleasures that this sonata gave me, I never possessed it in its entirety: it was like life itself. But, less disappointing than life is, great works of art do not begin by giving us all their best.

In Vinteuil's sonata the beauties that one discovers at once are those also of which one most soon grows tired, and for the same reason, no doubt, namely that they are less different from what one already knows. But when those first apparitions have withdrawn, there is left for our enjoyment some passage which its composition, too new and strange to offer anything but confusion to our mind, had made indistinguishable and so preserved intact; and this, which we have been meeting every day and have not guessed it, which has thus been held in reserve for us, which by the sheer force of its beauty has become invisible and has remained unknown, this comes to us last of all. But this also must be the last that we shall relinquish. And we shall love it longer than the rest because we have taken longer to get to love it.


Randy said...

I still hate Joyce.

Randy said...

Unrelated: I was thinking about Proust because I just started Danielewski's new project, a 27 volume serial novel with new volumes released every three months (looks like it may actually be every 6 months or so, based on when #1 came out and when #2 is coming out). Where, historically, I have been completely uninterested in In Search of Lost Time (due to its length), I've been wondering if I should pick it up. Part of Danielewski's project is this idea that, as audience members, we're ready for longer-form novels (he feels this way because of the success of shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad, Battlestar Galactica). I'm undecided about whether this is true, but it occurred to me that Proust has already done this.

As someone reading it, what are your thoughts on long, long, long-form novels?

Brent Waggoner said...

I love, love, love long-long-long novels. They aren't as expansive as Proust, of course, but Don Quixote and War and Peace are two of my favorite novels.

So far, I'm loving Proust. I don't find him difficult at all, except in the sense the he's very verbose so if you're not in the right headspace, he can be a slog. He's nothing like Joyce, really--he's much more emotionally immediate and there's no real complex structure of literary puzzlebox quality to his stuff, at least so far. It's just very slow-paced and beautiful. A lot of it plays like a comedy, actually, which I like.

I tend to feel like length is a function of how much the author has to say. I'm only in volume 2 of Proust, so obviously it could go downhill., but so far, it's long but doesn't feel bloated to me. On the other hand, reading one of Chuck Palahniuk's 150 page novellas makes me feel like it should have been flash-fiction.

I would say Swann's Way is well worth reading. It has a satisfying ending if you decide not to continue on.

I've never heard of that Danielewski project--sounds like something I might enjoy.

Brent Waggoner said...

War and Peace, btw, was originally published as 3 volumes; It's almost half the length of Proust, although a lot faster read because of all the, you know, War.

Randy said...

Don Quixote is definitely on my to-do list.

W&P, I enjoyed but didn't love. I didn't feel that the added length necessarily made it better. Which is to say, insofar as a long novel needs to justify its length by having its length add something, I didn't think the length of W&P served any purpose.

With that said, I don't actually believe a long novel needs to justify its length. Knowing that W&P was released in three volumes makes a lot of sense to me because I can see reading it in three parts, as though I were reading one novel, and then later reading a sequel, and then later reading another sequel. So long as the sequels are interesting standing alone, the author has done his job. (I can't help imagining an inevitable single edition of all 7 Harry Potter novels).

But this makes me wonder what we expect from serial novels or really long novels. Does it need to read like one masterpiece, or can it read like 7 masterpieces that just happen to follow each other in succession?

Brent Waggoner said...

W&P kind of split the difference between "one long novel" and "7 short ones". I loved all of it although the last 150pp of Tolstoy's military ideas could probably have been cut without losing anything.

It's interesting that you don't think a long novel needs to justify its length. Obviously from an artistic perspective, art never has to justify itself, but what do you mean when you say that?

Randy said...

So, imagining all 7 Harry Potter books published instead as a single book: that single book would not have to justify its length artistically because it works as seven individual books.

Or, put differently, a long book does not need an extra justification for its length; that the book is engaging to readers is enough of a justification for anything else.

For me, I have a tendency to want the artist to justify everything artistically. But I don't think that's fair to the artist. The fact that the art works is enough; it doesn't need to independently justify its characteristics.

At least...that's what I think I mean...

Christopher said...

Serial novels are old hat--isn't that how most of Dickens' novels were published? There are recent examples, too, I think. In Cold Blood was published serially in The New Yorker if I remember correctly. In fact, I wonder if the advent of the radio and television serial helped kill the serial novel.

I'd love to have a good serial novel to anticipate the next part of. My question is: Do I really want to invest a novel by Mark Danielewski?

Randy said...

I will almost definitely do a review of The Familiar.

I say this as a Danielewski fan (with the important caveat that I'm only about 1/4 of the way through): The Familiar might be the novel that is too Danielewski even for me. But...I'll report back fully when I'm done with it.

Related: I just learned The Paris Review is publishing a novel by Chris Bachelder in parts, starting with the summer issue. I'm a huge fan of Bachelder and, even without reading any portion of his new novel, recommend it as a possible serialized novel candidate.