If I’d kept to my original plan of five pages a day, or even my second plan of three a day, I would have finished À la recherche du temps perdu by now. But I’ve slowed down and had a couple of gaps, so I’m only just entering the strait.
Not that the pace is picking up, but this last month’s reading has had a definite end-is-nigh feel. As I mentioned last month, a sequence of tiny experiences – standing on some uneven paving, hearing a spoon click against a plate, feeling a starched cloth against his lips – send the narrator into complex rumination about the nature of memory and art.
I won’t even try to summarise his reflections on art, but he has a lot to say about the importance of drawing on one’s own experience, and on paying attention to one’s own idiosyncratic (not his word) responses to the material experiences. The specifics of this, remembered, half-remembered, retained only in the unconscious, are what make a work of fiction live. ‘A book’, he says, ‘is a great cemetery where we can no longer read the eroded names on most of the tombs.’
Un livre est un grand cimetière où sur la plupart des tombes on ne peut plus lire les noms effacés
Having earlier given up on his pretensions to be a writer, he now decides to write a book based on his fresh understanding of a certain kind of memory as a way to transcend time. It’s fabulously self-referential, and it does make me want to start all over again to see how the book lives up to his stated intention.
All that thinking happens in the library of a house where he has turned up for a social event. The musical piece in the next room finishes and he goes into the salon, which is full of people he hasn’t seen for years while out of town at health establishments. And they’re all in fancy dress: the men have stuck white moustaches and beards on their faces and most people are wearing white wigs; one young man has put on ingenious fake wrinkles; a glamorous woman has made herself look overweight … which leads into reflections on old age. Just as he as decided to write a work about transcending time, he is confronted with evidence of time’s inexorable effects on human beings.
Individual humans age, some more devastatingly than others. Some people disappear from society altogether – they may have been the subject of scandal, or they may have been Germans. Some who were barely on the fringes of le monde now have great prestige. Others have swapped dubious reputations for status as men of high moral standing. The same title is now inhabited by a different person altogether. The young have no idea of the origins and history of the people who now shine on the social scene. And who but the old now remember that the still-beautiful Duchesse de Guermantes – Oriane – could once make or break a social occasion by deigning to appear for half an hour, or staying home.
Proust’s contrast between the virtues of solitude and the emptiness of social life is here the clearest it has ever been.
Through all this, there’s what amounts to a roll call of the novel’s characters alive and dead: the devious Morel now gives character references in court; Mme Verdurin is now the Princesse de Guermantes; Bloch is a prestigious man of letters; no one quite remembers how Gilberte became a Guermantes; Oriane is as commanding a presence as ever, but in a flash-forward of three years we see her in sad decline.
The lose ends are being tied up. I have 70pages to go and am missing Proust already.
I was away for a couple of weeks over Easter and didn’t take my whopping great copy of À la recherche with me. On top of that, I’ve been reading fewer pages at a sitting because, well, eyes. So I’m slowing down as I approach the end. All the better to savour it (le goûter), I suppose.
According to the IMDB, a movie has been made of this book – either it’s a monumentally tedious movie in which people buttonhole each other on street corners or something is about to change in the next pages.
Well, something changes. Once M De Charlus goes on his way, the narrator is left to wander the dark wartime Parisian streets alone and with a fierce thirst. He enters a seedy hotel, the only building that shows signs of life, and there he overhears a group of young men speak of beating a chained captive. So of course, suspecting that a crime is in progress, he joins them for a chat. His suspicions confirmed, he goes snooping and fairly improbably gets to witness some consensual S&M that, if I grasped the tone accurately, has a broadly comic shock effect. Assuming that I don’t need to worry about spoilers nearly a hundred years after the book was published, I’ll just say that we get to see the dark side of M De Charlus at a ludicrous extreme, and at the same time feel compassion for his misery.
Then, after a time slip, the narrator has what I’m guessing is his final encounter with M De Charlus, who is at an even further and more pathetic extreme, having had a stroke.
At the point I’ve reached this month, three more things have happened: avoiding a carriage in the street, the narrator has stepped on two paving stones of unequal height; he has pressed a starched cloth to his lips; and he has heard a spoon tapped against a plate. Each of these events has triggered a spontaneous, vivid recall of a moment from the past, and has flooded him with intense, joyful emotion. He has been experiencing an overwhelming sense of failure and gloom at his impending death; these three tiny events completely change his mood and restore his confidence. On his way to a social engagement, he pauses to reflect on this transformation, and I guess these pages contain the heart of his thinking about memory and creativity. These triggered memories, quite different in kind from those that are like flicking through the pages of a picture book (feuilleter un livre d’images), allow one to transcend time and make contact with eternity, if only, paradoxically, for a brief moment. It speaks volumes that I’m no longer impatient with Proust’s longwinded and repetitive expositions: I’m now following their twists and turns with avid concentration.
Such unbidden flashes of complete recall, he muses, are like the things one finds in ‘the internal book of unknown signs’ (livre intériieur de signes inconnus), and it is the work of a writer to decipher these signs. This is where today’s reading ended:
Seule l’impression, si chétive qu’en semble la matière, si insaisissable la trace, est un critérium de vérité, et à cause de cela mérite seule d’être appréhendée par l’esprit, car elle est seule capable, s’il sait en dégager cette vérité, de l’amener à une plus grande perfection et de lui donner une pure joie. L’impression est pour l’écrivain ce qu’est l’expérimentation pour le savant, avec cette différence que chez le savant le travail de l’intelligence précède et chez l’écrivain vient après. Ce que nous n’avons pas eu à déchiffrer, à éclaircir par notre effort personnel, ce qui était clair avant nous, n’est pas à nous. Ne vient de nous-même que ce que nous tirons de l’obscurité qui est en nous et que ne connaissent pas les autres.
Here’s my translation, leaning heavily on Stephen Hudson’s first translation:
Intuition alone, however insubstantial it seems, however hard to grasp, is a criterion of truth and so it alone deserves to be seized by the mind because it alone is capable, if the mind can extract its truth, of bringing it to greater perfection and of giving it unalloyed pleasure. Intuition is for the writer what experiment is for the learned, with the difference that in the case of the learned the work of the intelligence precedes and in the case of the writer it follows. That which we have not had to decipher, to clarify by our own personal effort, that which was made clear before our arrival, is not ours. We ourselves produce only what we extract from the darkness within us which is unknown to others.
Things like the Dreyfus affair or a world war are just excuses for writers to avoid this hard work of figuring out what is actually going on in their own minds.
I imagine whole PhDs have been written about that contention. I’m just going to note it as an interesting and provocative author statement about this massive novel. Or I should say, the beginning of a complex, labyrinthine author statement which I will be reading over the next couple of days.
This month’s whole reading has been preoccupied with the War: how it has affected Parisian fashion and the salons, especially Mme Verdurin’s little band of fidèles; how different kinds of masculinity respond to the ardures of combat (the French equivalent of stiff upper lips as opposed to the transmutation of homosexual desire into praise for gallantry; the ridiculousness of people having strong opinions of things they know nothing about; the persistence of Napoleonic strategies in a world that has changed; the hypocrisy of ‘experts’ …). Robert is becoming more like a version of M. De Charlus, and M. De Charlus himself buttonholes the narrator to express his disdain for unthinking patriotism and his sympathy for the Kaiser (whom he confesses he hasn’t written to since the War started, except perhaps once). In the last couple of pages, we are given a flashforward to a shocking revelation about M. De Charlus and Morel, and hopefully an indication that the story is to progress.
I photographed two passages on my way. In the first, the narrator notes that Gilberte’s butler believed what he reads in the newspapers when he must have known from experience that reality was otherwise:
Mais on lit les journaux comme on aime, un bandeau sur les yeux. On ne cherche pas à comprendre les faits. On écoute les douces paroles du rédacteur en chef comme on écoute les paroles de sa maîtresse. On est battu et content parce qu’on ne se croit pas battu mais vainqueur.
But we read the newspapers as we love, with a blindfold over our eyes. We don’t try to understand the facts. We listen to the sweet words of the editor as to the words of our mistress. We are beaten and happy because we believe ourselves not to be beaten but victorious.
So the information bubble was already there in Proust’s time.
In the other passage, M. De Charlus reflecting on the way Parisians ignore the war raging a short distance for them, but he could be prophesying about the pandemic and the climate emergency almost exactly a century later:
Les gens vont d’habitude à leurs plaisirs sans penser jamais que, si les influences étiolantes et modératrices venaient à cesser, la prolifération des infusoires atteignant son maximum, c’est-à-dire faisant en quelques jours un bond de plusieurs millions de lieues, passerait d’un millimètre cube à une masse un million de fois plus grande que le soleil, ayant en même temps détruit tout l’oxygène, toutes les substances dont nous vivons ; et qu’il n’y aurait plus ni humanité, ni animaux, ni terre, ou sans songer qu’une irrémédiable et fort vraisemblable catastrophe pourra être déterminée dans l’éther par l’activité incessante et frénétique que cache l’apparente immutabilité du soleil : ils s’occupent de leurs affaires sans penser à ces deux mondes, l’un trop petit, l’autre trop grand pour qu’ils aperçoivent les menaces cosmiques qu’ils font planer autour de nous.
My translation (taking quite a few liberties):
People go about their habitual pleasures without ever thinking that, if etiolating and moderating influences were to cease, microscopic organisms would proliferate to their maximum, that is to say, make a leap of many millions of leagues in a few days, and so expand from cubic millimetres to a mass a million times larger than the sun, in the process destroying all the oxygen, all the substances that we need in order to live; without ever thinking that if that were to happen there would no longer be any humanity, or animals, or earth. They don’t dream that an irremediable and quite realistic catastrophe could be set off in the ether by the incessant and frantic energy that lies behind the apparent immutability of the sun. They go about their business without a thought for these two worlds, one too small and the other too large for them to perceive the cosmic threats that hover around us.
Both Proust and his main translator Charles Scott Moncrieff died before this book could be published. (It was translated by Scott Moncrieff’s friend Sydney Schiff, under the pseudonym Stephen Hudson.) I’m still hopeful that Proust managed to get things resolved to his satisfaction, leaving just some polishing undone. According to the IMDB a movie has been made of this book – either it’s a monumentally tedious movie in which people stand on street corners haranguing each other or something is about to change in the next pages.
Someone recently commented on a sporting event, probably a cricket match, that watching it was like reading Proust. I would have been tempted to reply, ‘You mean it made you obsess about the sexuality of the players?’ In the sixth book, Albertine disparue, the narrator gradually gets over the loss of his beloved Albertine, but even when his grief is well and truly in the past, he still frets over her probable lesbianism, no longer writhing with jealousy perhaps, but now ruminating for pages on the unreliability of witness accounts, on the universality of lying, and – of course – on memory, imagination, and the gap between them and reality.
So much has happened in what I’ve read this month. When I began, the narrator was in Venice with his mother lusting after young Venetian women, his lust being largely based in what he thought would have stirred Albertine’s desire. There are a couple of encounters with characters from earlier books. M de Norpois, now retired, is still wielding influence in diplomatic circles. Mme de Villeparisis has a lovely cameo appearance which, to use the cricket analogy, is like someone hitting a six. On hearing Mme de Villeparisis’s name, Mme Sazerat, who is a guest of the narrator and his mother, gets all excited. Her father, she explains, had an affair with Mme de Villeparisis many years previously, and was ruined. Mme Sazerat’s only consolation was that the terrible suffering her whole family endured was a result of his having been involved with the greatest beauty of the day. Now she would love to clap eyes on that great beauty for the first time. Marcel escorts her to the restaurant and points out the object of her fascination:
Mais comme les aveugles qui dirigent leurs yeux ailleurs qu’où il faut, Mme Sazerat n’arrêta pas ses regards à la table où dînait Mme de Villeparisis, et, cherchant un autre point de la salle: – Mais elle doit être partie, je ne la vois pas où vous me dites. Et elle cherchait toujours, poursuivant la vision détestée, adorée, qui habitait son imagination depuis si longtemps. – Mais si, à la seconde table. – C’est que nous ne comptons pas à partir du même point. Moi, comme je compte, la seconde table, c’est une table où il y a seulement, à côté d’un vieux monsieur, une petite bossue, rougeaude, affreuse. – C’est elle!
But, like blind people who look in the wrong direction, Mme Sazerat did not bring her gaze to rest at the table at which Mme de Villeparisis was dining, and, looking towards another part of the room: ‘But she must have gone, I can’t see her where you say.’ And she searched on in pursuit of the loathed, adored vision that had haunted her imagination for so long. ‘But yes, at the second table.’ ‘We mustn’t be counting from the same point. The second table by my count is one where there is only, beside an old gentleman, a little hunchback, red-faced and hideous.’ ‘That is she!’
Perhaps because Proust died before making a final revision of this book, he lets that tragicomic moment stand without even a sentence reflecting on the gap between imagination and reality. We can be glad of that. And yet it looks as if Mme Sazerat’s great disillusionment is a kind of hinge: from here on, disparate threads of the narrative are tied up, imagined meanings of long-ago events are punctured, and there’s a general sense of things closing down.
When his mother is about to leave Venice, Marcel decides to stay behind in the hope of meeting up with a Mme Putbus for carnal purposes, but at the last minute joins her on the train. They both open letters and the thread-tying begins in earnest: they learn of two marriages. To avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that Robert gets married, and Gilberte gets married, and Jupien’s daughter gets married, and it turns out that Robert (no spoiler here, I hope) has realised he’s gay and is pretty open about it, which causes his new wife considerable distress. M de Charlus has made a kind of amends to Jupien by providing for his daughter. Morel, who seduced Jupien’s daughter and dumped M de Charlus a couple of books back, is now doing very well with another rich patron of Guermantes lineage, thank you very much. The narrator is still curious about Albertine’s sexuality, and has a lot to say about male homosexuality, including speculating that all the Guermantes men are homosexual with only an occasional aberration, and surmising that homosexual men make the best husbands (he does enjoy salaciousness, paradox and gossip, and all the better if he can combine all three).
At the start of the final book, the narrator is staying at Gilberte’s place in the country. After, among other things, completely reinterpreting his earliest memories of her, she lends him some bedtime reading – an unpublished diary of the Goncourts – and in what I think of as a typical Proustian moment, he gives us six pages word for word of what he read before he went to sleep. In those pages, we are given a version of a salon that our narrator has mocked relentlessly: in this version, the guests are witty, intelligent, creative, and are given credit for inspiring, educating and even instructing at least one artist that Marcel reveres. I think I read correctly that the shock of seeing this difference is so great that Marcel decides he isn’t talented enough to be a writer, or alternatively that literature is too far removed from reality to be taken seriously in any way. And he turns his back on the whole writing enterprise.
Years later – and this is where I’m up to – after spending years far from Paris in a maison de santé (a sanatarium?), he comes back to the capital in 1916 (the first time he has mentioned a date). I’m sure something is about to happen, but currently he is having a fine time mocking the way clothes design has replaced art at the cultural centre, and the newspapers are celebrating the way the war allows glorious innovations in women’s fashion.
I’m now well into the sixth and second-last book of À la recherche du temps perdu. This was published posthumously, and I gather that it’s the book that has generated most controversy about the correct text. Even its French title chopped and changed – evidently it was originally La fugitive, but had a name change to avoid confusion with someone else’s book of the same name. I mention this because this month I stumbled over a paragraph that’s in my book but not in C K Moncrieff’s translation or the French edition he worked from. So here’s a little tangential story.
As he struggles to come to terms with the loss of Albertine, Marcel’s grief gradually fades but his jealousy and his obsession with her amorous relations with other women persists. His investigations make it increasingly clear that these relations were not figments of his jealous imagination, and he craves to understand Albertine’s inner life in her Lesbian experiences. This narrative line is developed in painful detail, and goes to unexpectedly creepy places, including long interrogations of Andrée, who has been fancied by both Albertine and Marcel. On the way, Marcel hears of evidence from a blanchisseuse. Basic French vocab tells me that this is a washerwoman, or laundress. However, as blanchisseuses keep being mentioned as women who are available for casual sex I began to wonder if the word had a slang meaning. One online dictionary confirms my suspicion, suggesting that it has been slang for ‘prostitute’. After reading one particularly confronting passage, I went to the English translation to see if C. K. Scott Moncrieff found an equivalent euphemism.
He didn’t. His translation is ‘laundress’.
But here’s the thing. The passage that had sent me to Scott Moncrieff isn’t in his translation at all. I thought this might be a case of quiet censorship. After all, it’s not unheard of for translators to spare their readers bits they think will bore or otherwise alienate them. But then I discovered that this passage isn’t there in the only French version I could find online. So the absence wasn’t about sparing delicate English sensibilities. Maybe Proust thought better of it and took it out, only to have it reinstated by an editor/scholar 70 or so years after first publication. Or he intended to put it in, to push the envelope even further, but died before he could make his intentions clear – to have those intentions understood and implemented 70 or so years later.
In the passage in question, Marcel decides he wants to hear what Albertine would have sounded like when taking her pleasure with another woman, so he has two ‘little laundresses’ demonstrate for him. It’s a good example of Proust’s commitment to complexity, even when he’s being quite, well, pervy: while inviting us to imagine a Lesbian sex scene, he discusses the difficulty of interpreting sounds stripped of context and the impossibility of ever fully understanding another human being. Part of the passage and my attempt at a translation are at the end of his blog post.
Finally, in the last two days’ pages, Marcel has got out of his bedroom and is now in Venice with his mother, appreciating both of them, and once more going on the prowl for beautiful young women.
It’s been strange this month to settle down to a couple of pages of Proust each day, when so much other time has been spent doomscrolling, reading about world events where deep, slow, complex analysis of thoughts and feelings is almost impossible to imagine. Exasperating as Marcel’s relentless self-dissection may sometimes be, it’s immensely reassuring that this too is possible.
Here’s the passage with the ‘two little laundresses’
Dans un maison de passe j’avais fait venir deux petites blanchisseuses d’un quartier où allait souvent Albertine. Sous les caresses de l’une, l’autre commença tout d’un coup à faire entendre ce dont je ne pus distinguer d’abord ce que c’était, car on ne comprend jamais exactement la signification d’un bruit originale, expressif d’une sensation que nous n’éprouvons pas. Si on l’entend d’une pièce voisine et sans rien voir, on peut prendre pour du fou rire ce que la souffrance arrache à un malade qu’on opère sans l’avoir endormi; et quant au bruit qui sort d’une mère à qui on apprend que son enfant vient de mourir, il peut nous sembler, si nous ne savons de quoi il s’agit, aussi difficile de lui appliquer une traduction humaine, qu’au bruit qui s’échappe d’une bête, ou d’une harpe. Il faut un peu de temps pour comprendre que ces deux bruits-là expriment ce que, par analogie avec ce que nous avons nous-mêmes pu ressentir de pourtant bien différent, nous appelons souffrance, et il me fallut du temps aussi pour comprendre que ce bruit-ci exprimait ce que, par analogie également avec ce que j’avais moi-même ressenti de fort différent, j’appelai plaisir; et celui-ci devait être bien fort pour bouleverser à ce point l’être qui le ressentait et tirer de lui ce langage inconnu qui semble désigner et commenter toutes les phases du drame délicieux que vivait la petite femme et que cachait à mes yeux le rideau baissé à tout jamais pour les autres qu’elle-même sur ce qui se passe dans le mystère intime de chaque créature. Ces deux petites ne purent d’ailleurs rien me dire, elles ne savaient pas qui était Albertine.
My attempt at a translation, resisting the temptation to break his long sentences up:
I had brought to a disorderly house [Scott Moncrieff’s polite term] two little laundresses from a suburb that Albertine used to frequent. Under the caresses of one, the other began to make a sound of which at first I could not make out the nature, as one never understands precisely the meaning of a new sound that expresses a sensation we don’t experience. If you hear it from a neighbouring room without seeing anything, you can hear as mad laughter that which is drawn from a patient being operated on without being put to sleep; and as for the sound that issues from a mother who is told that her child has just died, that might seem, if we don’t know what is happening, as difficult to translate into anything human as the sound that escapes an animal, or a harp. A little time is needed to grasp that those two sounds express what, by analogy with what we ourselves have felt, though quite different, we call suffering, and I also needed time to understand that this noise expressed what, similarly by analogy with what I had myself felt, though very different, I called pleasure; and the pleasure must have been very powerful to throw the person feeling it into such disarray and draw from the person this unknown language which seems to name and annotate all the stages of the delightful drama being lived by the little woman and being hidden from my eyes by the curtain lowered forever for anyone other than herself over what passes in the intimate mystery of each creature. These two little ones could tell me nothing. They didn’t know who Albertine was.
Albertine disparue (English titles The Fugitive and The Sweet Cheat Gone) takes up immediately after the moment at the end of Book 5 when the servant Françoise tells Marcel that Mlle Albertine has packed her bags and left. The 80 pages I’ve read this month are single-mindedly devoted to his reactions. First he tries to get her back by his usual convoluted method of dissembling his true feelings, and he almost succeeds. Then (I’ll try to avoid spoilers) it becomes clear that Albertine will definitely never return, and the narration gives us the twists and turns of his mental processes: what happens to his obsessive jealousy now that she’s gone? does he find relief from the claustrophobia he suffered when she was living with him? does he love her and need her more than he realised?
If Proust is remembered most for his treatment of memory, these pages, in which his grief-stricken mind remembers Albertine in a hundred ways, must be key. He is made up of multiple mois, each learning of her departure at his own time. Albertine has split up into multiple tiny household deities, each animating an otherwise mundane object with an emotional charge. He catches himself in myriad ways thinking of her as somehow alive and – for example – being glad to see how much he does love her. Many, if not all, of the threads of the narrative so far, help shape these moments (and such is the treatment of time, you can’t tell whether the moments are spread over weeks, months or even perhaps years). All the earlier deaths and liaisons and desires we have been told about are summoned to shed light on his present state.
Though Marcel does take action, at first to persuade Albertine to return and then to seek evidence to support or refute his obsessive suspicion that she was secretly an active lesbian, my impression is that he barely leaves his apartment in these pages or talks to anyone apart from the people he sends to negotiate and investigate.
This is all fascinating, no irony intended. The intricate dissection of the character’s mental processes is stunning. I’m probably influenced by the knowledge that these last two books were published after Proust’s death, and weren’t subjected to the same thorough revision process as the previous ones, but it does feel somewhat repetitious (as opposed to obsessive, and I know there’s a big overlap), and I hope he soon manages to move on.
I may have mentioned that, unlike Miles Franklin whose copy of À la recherche du temps perdu has notes in the margins indicating that she frequently looked up words she didn’t know, and unlike Clive James who took 15 years to read it dictionary in hand, I’m willing to read on with just a rough sense of the meaning. Typically, I’ll look up two or three in every three-page reading session. And it’s one of the pleasures of reading this book that often when I look up a word, it’s as if the meaning of a sentence or an image solidifies before my eyes. An example from this morning:
On dit quelquefois qu’il peut subsister quelque chose d’un être après la mort si cet être était un artiste et mettait un peu de soi dans son oeuvre. C’est peut-être de la même manière qu’une sorte de bouture prélevé sur un être et greffée au coeur d’un autre, continue à y poursuivre sa vie, même quand l’être d’où elle avait été détachée a péri.
This is how I read that at first:
They say that something of a person may live on after death if that person was an artist and put a little of themselves into their work. Perhaps in the same way a sort of blah-blah removed from a person and blah-blahed to the heart of another continues to carry on its life, even when the person from whom it had been detached has perished.
I got the gist. But decided out of interest to look up bouture and greffée. Bouture is a gardening term meaning ‘cutting’, from bouturer, ‘to propagate by cuttings’. I hardly needed to look up greffer, whose meaning of ‘graft’ or ‘implant’ is now clear. And the image comes viscerally alive. Or cardiacally, if that’s a word.
I doubt if I’ll manage three pages every day over Christmas and New Year, as we’ll be taking advantage of the open state borders and doing a bit of driving. But I’ll try to keep to schedule and do another progress report on 14 January. Maybe poor Marcel will have cheered up and got a hobby.
Proust is everywhere. I stumbled across him twice this month – as well as in the three pages I read each morning.
Early in the month, the Emerging Artist and I went to an actual movie theatre to see the delightfully silly multilingual whodunnit The Translators / Les traducteurs. A slim hardback with À la recherche du temps perdu blazoned on its cover plays a key role and (spoiler alert) doesn’t emerge unscathed.
More recently, I attended a zoom event commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of poet Martin Johnston’s untimely death, the launch of a new edition of his poetry, Beautiful Objects. Lex Marinos spoke movingly about his friendship with Martin, and many poets read from Martin’s poetry. A recording has been uploaded (here’s a link). Proust popped up when Kate Lilley read ‘Room 23’, which includes these lines:
Proust, I suppose, once and for all defined
the intermittencies of heart and mind
whereby the gone becomes the never wanted.
It’s a view that the poem goes on to reject, but clearly Martin, whom I revere, felt he had to argue with Proust to write decent poetry about missing his beloved. (Maybe his summary of what Proust defined is correct. I know ‘gone’ is different from ‘absent’, but so far Marcel the narrator broods obsessively about his beloved when she is absent: sometimes it seems, he only wants her when she is gone. But intermittencies is a great word for the way Marcel the narrator’s intense, sustained focus switches constantly and without warning.)
Here’s a tiny bit I loved in this month’s reading:
Celui qui veut entretenir en soi le désir de continuer à vivre et la croyance en quelque chose de plus délicieux que les choses habituelles doit se promener.
Anyone who wants to sustain in themselves the desire to go on living and a belief in something more delightful than habitual things, must go for a walk.
Given that Marcel the narrator devotes much time and attention to convoluted overthinking, this dollop of wisdom shines from the page. But, as so often in Proust, that sentence takes an unexpected turn. It goes on: car les rues, les avenues, sont pleines de Déesses / ‘for the streets, the avenues are full of goddesses.’ So perhaps, one thinks, his recommendation wasn’t exercise, fresh air and attention to the environment as a counter to morbid introspection, so much as surveying the field as a counter to morbid jealousy.
So, this month’s action: Marcel is still keeping Albertine his beloved under surveillance. He gets her to agree not to go to a performance at Mme Verdurin’s because he suspects that her Lesbian friends will be there and who knows what she’ll get up to with them? He goes to the performance himself and we are immersed in the complexities of the evening: sexual politics, class politics (the aristocracy are extraordinarily rude to their bourgeois hostess), the music itself (described brilliantly, at great length), the paradox that such sublime music is brought into being by people generally judged to be morally repugnant, and so on.
After the performance, a terrible thing happens. It hasn’t quite played out at the moment where I stopped reading this morning, so I’m living in suspense. M de Charlus, who invited his prestigious but rude friends to Mme Verdurin’s for the recital, spends some time chatting with her about how successful the evening had been, completely unaware that she has taken serious offence. From her point of view he has claimed for himself the prestige that by rights belongs to her as the hostess, and treated her as a lowly functionary. As soon as he moves away, she instructs Brichot, one of her ‘little clan’, to take de Charlus outside so her husband can have a word to the baron’s beautiful young violinist protégé Charlie Morel, to warn him of ‘the abyss that he is heading for’: that is, to unleash the full force of bourgeois anti-homosexual righteousness on the relationship.
Characteristically, the narrator accompanies de Charlus and Brichot and the next few pages are taken up with their conversation, about the rooms they enter, about Marcel’s preoccupation with the notorious Lesbians, about de Charlus’ huge enthusiasm for Charlie’s performance on the violin – and the reader is filled with dread about the vicious devastation being wrought on him back in the main room. I may be slow on the uptake, but it’s only now that I realise just how much Charlie is the emotional centre of the baron’s world, and what a devastating blow in store. Having up to this point seen de Charlus as creepy, conceited, arrogant, manipulative, and even grotesque, I now do a complete about turn. I’m putty in Proust’s hands.
Johka Alharthi, Celestial Bodies, translated by Marilyn Booth (published in Arabic as Sayyidat al qamar 2010, translation Allen and Unwin 2019)
This book is quite a ride. The first novel by an Omani woman to be translated into English, it’s Jokha Alharti’s second novel. According to the Translator’s Introduction, it’s one of ‘ a wave of historical novels that constitutes a major subgenre of fiction in the Arab world’, and ‘has been praised by critics across the Arab world for its fineness of portraiture, its historical depth and subtlety, and its innovative literary structure’.
It tells the story of a couple of intertwined Omani families in the village of al-Awafi over four generations, but its ‘innovative literary structure’, which is at first bamboozling and never becomes straightforward, means that the story isn’t told in anything remotely like a straight chronology. With some exceptions, alternate chapters are narrated by Abdallah, son of the merchant Sulayman: he drifts in and out of sleep and entertains trance-like memories while travelling on a plane, he ruminates on his complex, pain-filled relationship with his late father, on the state of his marriage and on his children’s life paths. Each of the other chapters focus on a different character: Abdallah’s wife, his daughter, his sisters-in-law, his father-in-law, the slave woman who raised him. With each of these characters, the novel moves off into different directions and to different times. Time collapses and the overwhelming sense is that everything is happening in an imagined present.
Yet the period covered by the narration sees huge social and political change. A recurring image of flimsy buildings being replaced by cement ones becomes emblematic of the changes. Slavery was legal in Oman until 1970, but one of the main characters is irritated or worse when her husband and then her son insist that she and they are no longer slaves – that’s how she thinks of herself and she has made it work for her, including establishing a sexual partnership with her ‘owner’. The situation of women in general is in a state of flux: three sisters negotiate different outcomes in relation to the outgoing custom of arranged marriages; each of them faces down the patriarchy in her own way, though patriarchy stays intact.
The modernity of lab coats, plane trips and celebrity culture jostles with elaborate cursing rituals, offerings to placate djinns, and (no spoiler really) what turns out to be a covert honour killing. Classic Arabic literature has a strong presence – my impression is it wouldn’t be realistic if the characters didn’t recite poetry every now and then, and indeed they do. There’s more than one unsolved murder, although – after some teasing – the reader is left in little doubt about the perpetrators. There are some deeply satisfying twists for better and worse in the many complex marriages and relationships. Especially towards the end, tragedies that have been passed over or heard about at third hand are seen in close-up.
Marilyn Booth’s English is elegant and accessible, and leaves enough Arabic words in place that the reader is always aware that this is a place and a culture he (in my case) knows next to nothing about. There’s a map of the characters at the front, which I needed to consult often.
Celestial Bodies won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize (you can read how the judges described it at that link), which is how it came to be on offer at our Book-swapping Club. I’m glad to have read it.
I hadn’t read the Psalms, or any book from the Bible, since my seven years in a Catholic religious order in the 60s and early 70s. I used to love belting them out in the chapel several times a day, especially the complaining bits, the bloodthirsty bits and the bits that celebrate the natural world. They were choral spoken-word poetry of my late teenage years, a place where I could put words to feelings I hardly knew I had.
When this book turned up on offer at our Book-swapping Club, I liked the idea of revisiting that experience.
Alas, Robert Alter didn’t do his translating with me in mind. His version is concerned with precision of meaning, and not at all interested in rendering the poetry, the music of the language. These Psalms were barely recognisable.
A recent YouTube experience illustrates what I mean about Alter’s translation. Sister Nicole Trahan, talking on camera about racism in the US Catholic Church (link here), starts brilliantly with Psalm 55 verses 13–15:
If an enemy had reviled me,
that I could bear.
If my foe had viewed me with contempt,
from that I could hide.
But it was you, my other self,
my comrade and friend,
you whose company I enjoyed
at whose side I walked in the house of God.
Here’s how Robert Alter translates those verses:
No enemy insults me, that I might bear it,
no foe boasts against me, that I might hide from him.
But you, a man to my measure,
my companion and my familiar,
with whom together we shared good counsel
in the house of our God in elation we walked.
They both are clearly translating the same text, yet the meaning of Sister Nicole’s version is clear, it has a musical flow and it packs an emotional punch, while Alter’s version is dry and needs a footnote to clarify its meaning:*
Were it a known enemy showing hostility, the speaker would have found a way to bear the insult, but it is his intimate friend who has turned against him.
I eventually realised that Alter is not even trying to render the Psalms into memorable (or prayable) English. This is a book for the scholars and exegetes, not for poetry readers or, I imagine, the devout. Neither a scholar nor an exegete, I gave up on it.
But my appetite for revisiting the Psalms had been whetted. I dug out my tattered, dusty copy of the Jerusalem Bible (1966), which employed a ‘team of collaborators in translation and literary revision’ that included J R R Tolkien, James McAuley and Robert Speight. From here on my quotes are from that version unless I say otherwise.
The first thing I want to say is that pundits who cherry-pick the Holy Qur’an for quotes advocating violence should read the Psalms and chill.
Again and again, especially in the early Psalms, the speaker calls on God to destroy his enemies, as if his God is not much more than a secret super-weapon. I guess that’s where a bit of historical imagination comes in handy: you can read this book as a record of the developing notion of what ‘God’ is. Early on, it’s as if every tribe has its own god or gods, and Yahweh is the one belonging to the Hebrews. Gradually, the emphasis changes from, ‘God, smite my enemies,’ to ‘God defend me,’ and ‘God, let my enemies come to see your greatness.’ Morality comes into it: “God, I will obey your law,’ ‘I beg your forgiveness for my wrongdoing.’ They never give up bathing a just person’s feet in the blood of the unjust (58:11), or celebrating the way God heaps up corpses (110:5) but there’s an increasingly clear assertion of an incllusive monotheism: other gods are just lumps of wood or metal, but Yahweh is the creator of the universe. There’s history, wisdom, complaint, repentance, celebration: it’s a rich collection.
The Psalms are full of quotations: ‘The Lord is my shepherd,’ ‘Out of the depths I cry to you O Lord,’ ‘A mighty fortress is my God.’ So there’s a lot that’s reassuringly familiar in them. But reading all 150 from start to finish, whether in Alter’s dryness version, the Jerusalem Bible’s lyricism, or the King James sonority, confronted me not only with their violent us-and-them-ism, but also with the absence of any sense of God in my own mind.
I’ve got a lot of sympathy for people of faith, and when I participate in religious observances I usually find a pragmatic way of paying more than lip service. I can be grateful for my blessings, repent my failings, commit to the things that matter, wonder at the splendours of the universe, acknowledge precarity and interdependence, make acts of faith, hope and love. I can rejoice in the story of the escape from Egypt, love the story of heroic, imperfect, pious King David and lament the destruction of the temple. I can do all that without a need for a supreme being. I can take part in a Mass or a Seder or a sundown prayer without feeling any need to assert my non-belief. But reading the Psalms, I find it hard to get past my outsider status.
My custom with books of poetry is to talk about one poem in some detail. I’m picking number 137, because Boney M:
The song, which I can listen to on hard rotation, was written by T. Mcnaughton, George Reyam, Frank Farian and Brent Dowe, and draws on Psalm 137 verses 1–4 and Psalm 19 verse 14. It absolutely captures the power of the first four verses of this Psalm. Spoiler alert: the Psalm has 9 verses and takes some dark turns after verse 4.
PSALM 137 **
Ballad of the exiles
Beside the streams of Babylon
we sat and wept
at the memory of Zion,
leaving our harps
hanging on the poplars there.
For we had been asked
to sing to our captors,
to entertain those who had carried us off:
‘Sing,’ they said,
‘some hymns of Zion.’
How could we sing
one of Yahweh’s hymns
in a pagan country?
The heading, ‘Ballad of the exiles’ is a little gloss by the translators. In the first half of the 6th century BCE a large number of people were taken captive from Judaea and taken to Babylon, for an exile that lasted half a century. This was a key event in the history of the Jewish people, and played an important part in the development of Judaism. This Psalm is framed as a song from that time. Its pining for home has struck a chord in the hearts of exiled people for millennia. It makes one think of African-heritage people enslaved in the USA being expected to entertain their oppressors. Or, since I’ve recently read Grace Karsken’s The Colony, ceremony and payback conducted by Eora people in what is now Sydney’s Hyde Park being treated as entertainment by the early colonisers. And it’s open to rich metaphorical reading about commodification of culture: how can I make authentic art for a marketplace?
Jerusalem, if I forget you,
may my right hand wither!
May I never speak again,
if I forget you!
If I do not count Jerusalem
the greatest of my joys!
Moving beyond the verses used in the Rastafarian song, these lines are framed as a kind of self-curse, but behind the curse there’s a feeling that if the speaker were to lose all connection to their home, their spiritual and cultural base, they would lose their ability to function in some crucial way. This is something like what many First Nations people say about the importance of country: on country you can feel a wholeness, a peace, a strength that you can’t feel anywhere else. So far, this is a powerfully resonant song/poem about the pain of exile
what the Sons of Edom did
on the day of Jerusalem,
how they said,
‘Down with her!
Raze her to the ground!’
Then, a sudden change of tone. The captors have asked for an entertaining bit of exotica. Here is the song of Zion that the singer can actually sing. As I write this it occurs to me that to imagine it being sung in response to the captors’ command, but in a language the captors don’t understand, so there’s an element of subversive joy in this as well as heartfelt cry to Yahweh. The singer recalls the harm that has been done to their people, and then ups the ante:
Destructive Daughter of Babel,
a blessing on the man who treats you
as you have treated us,
a blessing on him who takes and dashes
your babies against the rock!
This is directly addressed to the captors. This may once have been meant literally, and if so it’s just monstrous: other people’s violence is wicked, but baby-murder is fine if I or my allies do it. And when I started writing about this Psalm that’s how I read it. But you know, now I think it’s funny: ‘You want me to sing you one of my cute songs. OK, here’s one about the temple and a little baby.’ Then a cheerful tune is struck up. Maybe the Babylonians recognise the word for blessing that occurs twice towards the end. At the last line the performers and Hebrew listeners smile broadly, and their Babylonian listeners follow their cue and also smile broadly.
There’s no way the end of this poem can be read as a pious, morally improving text. Alter’s note says it’s morally unjustifiable, but we should take the terrible circumstances into account. Maybe, though, if you assume that the Psalmist had a sense of humour, the moral unjustifiability is the whole point: this is deliberately outrageous, wicked humour. In the unlikely, er, inconceivable, event that I had to give a sermon based on it, I’d talk about how when we say we want to hear the voices of oppressed people, we need to be prepared to hear things we really don’t like.
I’m not saying that all the psalms can be read as edgy comedy. Sadly, far from it. But I happen to have lit on one that makes me, and possibly you, remember that these songs/poems/hymn were written by people with complex minds – some for liturgical purposes, some to teach history and morality, some to allow the expression of emotion, some as theatre.
* Not to flog a dead horse, but here are a couple of other translations of those same verses from the Bibles on my bookshelves, each with its own clarity, grace and power. First the King James Version: For it was not an enemy that reproached me; then I could have borne it: neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me; then I would have hid myself from him: But it was thou, a man mine equal, and mine acquaintance. We took sweet counsel together, and walked unto the house of God in company.
The Jerusalem Bible: Were it an enemy who insulted me, I could put up with that; had a rival got the better of me, I could hide from him. But you, a man of my own rank, a colleague and a friend, to whom sweet conversation bound me in the house of God!
** If you’re really interested in comparative translations, here are two other translations. First the King James Version: By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy. Remember, O LORD, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.
Robert Alter: By Babylon’s streams there we sat, oh we wept, when we recalled Zion. On the poplars there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors had asked of us words of song, and our plunderers – rejoicing: ‘Sing us from Zion’s songs.’ How can we sing a song of the LORD on foreign soil? Should I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand wither. May my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not recall you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my chief joy. Recall, O LORD, the Edomites, on the day of Jerusalem, saying: ‘Raze it, raze it, to its foundation!’ Daughter of Babylon the Despoiler happy who pays you back in kind, for what you did to us. Happy who seizes and smashes your infants against the rock.
This is my thirteenth blog post about À la recherche du temps perdu: 1723 pages read and 677 to go! I’m bearing up much better than my copy of the book, as seen on the left. I mostly read my three pages in bed in the morning, so the damage has been caused by ordinary wear and tear, not by any gross mistreatment.
A lot happens in this month’s reading. Here are some highlights, not necessarily in order. The violinist Morel continues to be an opportunistic scoundrel. Marcel (as the narrator has now been named, twice) listens to the sounds of the street in the early morning (those are lovely pages). He contemplates sending a dairymaid on an errand but changes his mind. He watches Albertine as she sleeps, and creepily drapes her unconscious arm around his neck. He watches her wake up. He takes us through his own process of waking up from a dream. He ruminates on the relationship between love, obsession (not his word) and jealousy. He talks Albertine out of going somewhere where he fears she might meet other Lesbians, and then realises that he has let her go to a performance by a notorious Lesbian. He plays the piano. He opens Albertine’s chemise and looks at her naked body:
Les deux petits seins haut remontés étaient si ronds qu’ils avaient moins l’air de faire partie intégrante de son corps que d’y avoir mûri comme deux fruits ; et son ventre (dissimulant la place qui chez l’homme s’enlaidit comme du crampon resté fiché dans une statue descellée) se refermait, à la jonction des cuisses, par deux valves d’une courbe aussi assoupie, aussi reposante, aussi claustrale que celle de l’horizon quand le soleil a disparu.
This is about as erotic as La recherche gets. But wait, I asked, wasn’t Proust Gay, or at least bisexual? What weirdness is this about men’s bodies? I looked up Scott Moncrieff’s translation. And there it is:
Her two little upstanding breasts were so round that they seemed not so much to be an integral part of her body as to have ripened there like two pieces of fruit; and her belly (concealing the place where a man’s is marred as though by an iron clamp left sticking in a statue that has been taken down from its niche) was closed, at the junction of her thighs, by two valves of a curve as hushed, as reposeful, as cloistral as that of the horizon after the sun has set.
This translation even softens the meaning a bit – I would have thought s’enlaidit was ‘becomes ugly’ rather than ‘is marred’.
Increasingly I understand why, at the end of fifteen years, when Clive James had finished reading this work in French, he needed to read an English translation so he’d know what he’d read.
An Irish family saga with an unnervingly familiar plot line of a man who dies suddenly leaving his wife and children to deal with financial disasters he has hidden from them, this stars the eminently watchable Dervla Kirwan, and has some beautiful coastal scenery
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