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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

Me, Marcel, and I*: Proust’s Narrator

Even if you haven’t read a lick of Proust, and have only read about his novel, the next thing you hear, after the madeleine scene, is the line which comes early in the The Captive: “…which, if we give the narrator the same name as the author of this book…” H. Porter Abbott calls this Proust’s ‘autobiographical dare,’ and while it’s interesting to think of it as such, in context, it strikes me more as a fictive dare. I find it difficult to grandly theorize on Proust, simply because it has taken me so long to read— about a year and a half, now, only about two-thirds of which were spent actively reading— that I would not even be afloat now were it not for the handy reference guide at the back of the final volume— “Who was the Comtesse Molé again?” But this is projecting forward to what I think Proust is going to do. The Captive seems as if it is beginning to loosen its strict control over the ‘reality’ of the novel, not by pointing back to the real life on which it may be loosely based, however much it appears to be doing so in proposing the reader call the narrator ‘Marcel,’ but by pointing to the fictionality of itself.

I felt early on, during the first book’s tale of Swann and Odette, that it was odd for Marcel to be recounting without any apparent doubt or any hint of hypothesization the personal, emotional, and private details of an affair that involved so much secrecy. There is no mystery of why they acted the way they did— it is all explained clearly immediately following or preceding the action, and the actions are depicted in such a way that it is not the what, which you could get from anybody, but the why, which only Marcel can share, that becomes interesting. Further on, there are feints that he learned the full story by cobbling together snippets of information from various sources, including Swann and Odette themselves. But by this volume, the narrator is beginning to hint at the revelation that (I have heard…) is to come, of the sudden illumination and comprehension of his project.

Marcel laments Swann’s death— after announcing it uneventfully in a parenthetical aside two volumes prior— and says that Swann the ‘real’ man is now recalled by society people because those people see his likeness in Swann, the character in this novel. A little later, Marcel recounts Charlus’ protests that he and his companion are not the same kind of man— implying that the latter isn’t homosexual— and Marcel parenthesizes ‘though it may quite possibly have been true’ in the midst of an exhaustive psychological profile of Charlus and his habitual dissimulation. All of this, including the ‘may,’ is presented with the asseveration of an omnipotent narrator. These instances, despite seeming to hint at the real life which inspires the story— at making the ‘autobiographical dare’— in fact heighten its unreality.

The reference to the author is spoken by the narrator; it is not an authorial aside or intrusion any more than the endless psychological profiling is. Instead of pointing outside, to reality, it points back to the narrative and the conscious creation of the narrative by the narrator— even if there is a real model on whom Swann is based or if the narrator is one and the same with Marcel Proust the author. We are learning that this is not the story we thought this was, but the story it will become, in a way that parallels the implicit shift the novel as a whole makes from plot, from a series of events standing stolidly in time and important because of their relation to other events, to the passage, the movement of time, to time itself. This shift is enacted in miniature in each of the lengthening sagas, of Combray, then Swann and Odette, then Gilberte, then Balbec, etc. Were this not the case, no narrator could possibly stand to kill off, in an aside of a mere four or five words, a character who was the subject of nearly the first 1500 pages, and then wait nearly 1000 after killing him off to memorialize him.

It is the same peculiar double inversion that allows Marcel to depict homosexuality as prima facie a ‘malady’ all the while implicating the very state of desire and of passion in general, be it hetero- or homosexual, or even political, as maladif,** something which one must handle with impossible delicacy simply in order to survive, or else…

It is unbelievably fascinating, and having felt bogged down in this volume, I’m now beginning to regain my interest in continuing (interest, that is, in more than finishing something I’ve started). In the middle of classes, I had turned to reading Proust as an escape from my mandatory reading, something to distract and with the sole desire to chip away at what I have left, but I couldn’t continue in that way, because it was reading Proust for the spectacle of language or plot (and The Captive is thinner on plot— which here is all at a distance and even thwarted if possible— than the previous volumes, the language drier for the most part, it feels), which is like trying to count sheep to fall asleep— I get distracted before a minute’s up. Instead, thankfully, now it is the event of reading, the turning of pages and the breathers at paragraph breaks. It is, again, the evolution which I have mentioned is what fascinates about this work.

*I am a bit shocked to find that such a horrible pun has not been made before, according to the internets. And I’ll also sort of apologize. But if you can’t tell from just about every other post title, I’m a fan of terrible, cringe-worthy puns.

**Who knew that was the adjectival form of malady? I’d’ve gone for maladious, which is admittedly awkward, and…the OED says is obsolete?

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