Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Quote of the Day (Marcel Proust, on How the Days in Our Lives Are Not Equal)

“[I]n our life the days are not all equal. To reach the end of a day, natures that are slightly nervous, as mine was, make use, like motor-cars, of different ‘speeds.’ There are mountainous, uncomfortable days, up which one takes an infinite time to pass, and days downward sloping, through which one can go at full tilt, singing as one goes.”—French novelist Marcel Proust (1871-1922), Swann’s Way, Vol. 1 of In Search of Lost Time, translated from the French by C. K. Scott Moncrieff (1913-1927)

This past weekend marked the 150th birthday of Marcel Proust, and before the time passed by irrevocably, I really had to take note of it here.

I would not change my basic opinion of the French novelist expressed in this blog post from eight years ago. But the age of COVID-19 has certainly deepened my appreciation for the achievement on which his reputation rests: the seven-volume In Search of Lost Time, the result of his massive outburst of “involuntary memory.”

What other major novelist could have not merely survived our pandemic, but thrived? At the height of his powers, Hemingway would have gone crazy without the chance to fish, hunt big game, ski, watch bullfights, or simply drink at cafes. Dickens, unable to tramp the streets of London, would have felt cooped up inside with his wife and kids. Balzac would have bemoaned all those hours not spent in Parisian salons, soaking up social manners. Even Henry James would have withered if he couldn’t have taken afternoon teas with friends.

But Proust? He would have been made for this situation. Asthmatic, he would have been even more determined to shut out the world than he had been when he got down to work in his cork-lined apartment. Though it’s almost impossible to imagine, he might conceivably have produced even more than the 4,000-plus pages and nearly 1.3 million words of his magnum opus. There would have been nothing to distract him from his geyser of memory.

If there is any limit to the devotion of Proust fans, I have yet to discover it. Consider these examples: 

*The presence of multiple blogs paying tribute to him: “182 Days of Marcel Proust,” a journal about reading In Search of Lost Time at the rate of at least ten pages a day; “Proust for All,” with French and English posts; and “Reading Proust for Fun.”

*A book-length analysis of his life and art that functions as a kind of literary self-help manual: Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life; and,

*In a fictional example of this last title, the decision by the title character in Larry McMurtry’s Duane's Depressed (the concluding volume of his “Last Picture Show” Trilogy) to follow his lesbian psychologist’s prescription for his late middle-age melancholy: read Proust. (A remarkable plot development, considering that Duane’s reading to this point in his life has been limited.)

What also fascinates me about Proust is how he represents not just a kind of Mount Everest for readers, but also for filmmakers. For a medium that consists fundamentally of moving pictures, In Search of Lost Time can be a stark challenge: long on leisurely description and rumination, short on dialogue and plot.

But that hasn’t stopped screenwriters and directors from dreaming about bringing the novelist to screens big and small. In 1984, Volker Schlöndorff directed Swann in Love, with Peter Brook, Jean-Claude Carrière, Marie-Hélène Estienne, and the director himself taking a crack at Swann’s Way. Raúl Ruiz adapted Time Regained (1999), based on the last novel in the series; and Chantal Akerman's The Captive (2000) focused on the fifth volume, The Prisoner.

Both Luchino Visconsi and Joseph Losey were forced to abandon their plans to adapt In Search of Lost Time when they could not secure enough financing. But in Losey’s case, all was not lost.

In 1978, his collaborator, Harold Pinter, published the unproduced screenplay. Had it been filmed, it would have clocked in at about four hours—pushing the boundaries of visual narrative, just as Proust had stretched what future writers could do with the novel.

(See Peter Bradshaw’s 2013 essay in the British newspaper The Guardian on “the troubled history of Proust on film.”)

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