Clive James’s Gate of Lilacs

Clive James, Gate of Lilacs: A Verse Commentary on Proust (Picador 2016)

The late Clive James took fifteen years to read À la recherche du temps perdu, teaching himself French as he went. Later, he read Scott Moncrieff’s translation, Remembrance of Things Past, ‘in order to see where I had been’. Though I’m just six months into Proust’s massive work, and just approaching the halfway mark. Unlike James, I’m not reading it ‘French dictionary in hand’, so I have even more reason to read something in order to see where I’ve been.

About half of this slim volume (48 pages) is devoted to the poem Gate of Lilacs. and almost as much again is given over to James’s explanation of the poem’s genesis, its form and notes on Proust and some of the poem’s more obscure references. The supplementary material doesn’t feel like scholarly apparatus or, even worse, study notes. It’s as if the publisher asked Clive for extra material to fill the book out to a decent size and Clive obliged with his usual combination of wit and extraordinary erudition. So we are treated to a brief treatise on the development of free verse in English, some splendid titbits of gossip about Proust the man, notes on Albert Speer, on the shameful relationship between the non-Jewish intelligentsia of Paris and the Nazi Occupation, on a range of artists, writers and performers, and enough suggested reading on a range of topics to keep a mere mortal busy for a year.

The poem itself is in lucid, elegant blank verse. I don’t know what a reader who hadn’t read any Proust would make of it, but it worked for me as a companion to my reading. As I’ve been reading Proust, it turns out that I’ve seized on comments made by friends who have read at least some of À la recherche. One said it was a LGBTQ+ epic; another reminded me of the description of Proust in The Hare with Amber Eyes as always the last to leave a social gathering. James’s poem corrected my misreading of moments because my French wasn’t up to it. It filled me in on the gossip about the connection between the fiction and Proust’s own life. It gave me flash-forwards to sensationalist moments that I haven’t reached yet. It reassured me that if I can’t see a structure I’m in good company. It sent me to the internet to look at images of the woman that Oriane de Guermantes was based on (and she’s every bit as impressive in her photos as Proust says she is).

Most interestingly, it explained why anyone would take seriously the extraordinary section I’m reading at present – the second part of the third novel, Le Coté de Guermantes – in describes in detail and analyses at great length the manners and mores of the very upper reaches of the French aristocracy, in particular the salons hosted by the women of that class. I’m engrossed by this description, but hadn’t realised until I read James that something serious is happening: Proust is recording a historical moment, the dying moment of those salons, which were to be completely replaced in the culture of France by friendships and connections among the creatives themselves, and any patronage was to come from the bourgeoisie, from business, from capitalism.

In James’s poem, Proust’s loving description of the death of the salon is linked to his chronic illness and sense of his own impending death. And James, in both poem and appendages, is explicit that he is writing under the shadow of his own death sentence. Always, he gestures away from himself, with shows of wit and erudition, with charm and careful exposition, but there’s a persistent undercurrent of grief at leaving all this that he loves.

I can see why this was on the remainder tables. It’s definitely for a niche within a niche market. But I loved it and will definitely read it again in six months or so when I’ve finished reading Proust for the first and probably only time.

2 responses to “Clive James’s Gate of Lilacs

  1. You have such a way of building desire with literary review descriptions, Jonathan. Purchased this book just now. Who knows it may lead me in the reverse of your journey – towards attempting to read Proust myself – in French? Hmmm! A page or deux – peut-être?

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