Sunday, July 10, 2005

birthday of Marcel Proust, greatest blogger of all time

Today is the birthday of Marcel Proust, my favorite author and the creator of the enormous blog-like masterpiece known to English readers as In search of lost time. No other author I know of expresses so perfectly so much of the human condition. For example, I was just flipping at random through one of the volumes of ISOLT this morning when I came across this sentence:
The progress of civilization enables each one of us to manifest unsuspected virtues or new vices, which make us either dearer or more unbearable to our friends.
- from Sodom and Gomorrah, p. 130 in Sturrock translation
Nothing could better explain the regret I felt yesterday, after posting my ridiculous blog experiment and asking three friends whom I respect to take part! Of course, Proust died in 1922, never having heard of a blog. He wrote that sentence thinking of an equally dangerous modern invention, the telephone.

For Proust, a line like the one above is just a virtuosic display offered in passing, like a violinist who tosses off a Wieniawski Polonaise before diving into the Bach Chaconne. Excerpting passages from Proust is a little like extracting a phrase from a work of music, pleasurable enough in itself but a poor replacement for experiencing it in context. Still, perhaps a couple other excerpts will help to explain why I adore Proust so much.

Among Proust's great preoccupations are romantic adoration, infatuation, and love, and he writes brilliantly on these topics, as in this passage about love's earliest stages:
....we do not look at the eyes of a girl we do not know as we would look at little chunks of opal or agate. We know that the little ray that colours them or the diamond dust that makes them sparkle is all that we can see of a mind, a will, a memory in which is contained the family home that we do not know, the intimate friends whom we envy. The enterprise of gaining possession of all this, of something so difficult, so recalcitrant, is what gives its attraction to that gaze far more than its mere physical beauty....
- The Captive, p. 222-3 in Moncrieff/Kilmartin/Enright translation

Perhaps the greatest subject of Proust's novel is the work of art itself, and the transubstantiation of life into art. The following passage ponders the passing of the narrator's favorite author, the fictional Bergotte. Bergotte has gone to an art gallery, despite his failing health, because a critic has written of an exquisite patch of yellow in Vermeer's painting View of Delft. He dies while admiring that painting, prompting this meditation:
He was dead. Dead for ever? Who can say? Certainly, experiments in spiritualism offer us no more proof than the dogmas of religion that the soul survives death. All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be for ever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there - those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only - if then! - to fools. So that the idea that Bergotte was not dead for ever is by no means improbable.

They buried him, but all through that night of mourning, in the lighted shop-windows, his books, arranged three by three, kept vigil like angels with outspread wings and seemed, for him who was no more, the symbol of his resurrection.
- The Captive, p. 245-246
Thanks for reading, and please take a moment today to reflect on Proust and all the other great authors, composers, and artists whose creations make life seem worth living, even after they have long since died.

You can find out much more about Proust at, an excellent site by Mark Calkins.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Since you are interested in Marcel Proust, I submit my site to you where I
have just placed a series of “recomposed photographs” relating to him.
It is of course about a disguised tribute, even if certain “images” can
to appear irreverent.
I tried, in this series to restore the spirit at the time and to find the actors associated of them with characters with
"In Search of Lost Time", of which that of Narrator and… the author.