Thursday, November 16, 2006

Thoughts on Proust – part two

Following the comments yesterday on story and writing the spotlight falls on characterisation and the subject of time.

It’s important to declare that the main character of Marcel is not the sort of person I would have too much time for and as a result it made reading some of the book a struggle. The things you find yourself disliking about him are his strange approach towards anyone of the female sex, obsess ional tendencies about new places and people and his tendency to wallow in thought rather than take action.

Despite that the positive about Marcel and the rest of the cast of characters is that they do change and so someone you did not particularly warm to, take the duchess de Guermantes for instance you get the chance to know better and someone you like from the first, Robert Saint-Loup for example, you grow to dislike.

Some characters that initially seem important – the mother and particularly his father – turn out not to be and ironically it is the servant Francoise who ends up having the longest relationship with Marcel serving him right through the books after she joins his service after his Aunt dies.

Another thought to share is that despite the move to various locations, even at one point Venice, the same characters populate those areas so you get the chance to follow their stories and development and as a result of their repetitive presence you feel immersed in Marcel’s world.

Finally, you have to note that one of the oddest things about Remembrance of Things Past is that throughout the book those characters that are cast in a negative light or at least suffer the arrows of society are those who are homosexual and Jewish. Marcel is cast as a hot blooded male distraught after he discovers Albertine is a lesbian but of course in real life Proust was homosexual. Knowing that you can’t help wondering what point he is trying to make with his gay characters.

Proust’s work is about time in the clearest sense in terms of memory and breathing life into moments that have gone. But there are other clever uses of time throughout the books.

There are moments when coincidence is too much for some people to be in the same place and so there is a constant feeling that the reader is at the crossroads of various important points in time. People repeatedly turn up in different guises – no more than characters like Odette and Morel – and reinvent themselves having a different impact on the story. There are echoes of people, places and things like music with the passage of the sonata Swann loved cropping up again with Marcel also enjoying it. In terms of an appreciation for places Balbec attracts Marcel, Albertine, Charlus, the Verdurin’s and their clan as well as artists like Elstir.

The other thing is wishing time could be reversed so he not only drags up the past but also regrets the demise of his grandmother and Albertine. With Albertine it is very much a case of regret because he feels partly that the timing of her death is caused by the timing of the rupture between them. He tries to bring back people through focused grief but is unable to do it and has to accept that time will not only heal the pain of losing someone but in the end force you to forget so there is a reverse of the desperation he has in other instances to remember.

Finally, because of the nature of the books, which is a review back over a period where some of his family members die, friends are killed in war and the ageing process impacts everyone, there is a question about the difference between Marcel at the start of the book, where all he worried about was getting a kiss from his mother, and the end when innocence has been completely lost (think of the scene between Charlus and Jupien). So there is another dimension to time being part of growing up and as a loss of innocence.

It might be off at a tangent but Proust must have also realised as he wrote volume after volume that there is also going to be a time commitment from the reader who will have to spend some serious time reading the books.

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