Category Archives: proust

Proust conveys miraculously both the sense of pleasure Marcel takes in the world about him and his intense desire to transmute that pleasure into something permanent by writing about it; but he also conveys the failure of such attempts. I cannot tell you how exhilarating I found this. Instead of feeling that the failure I was encountering daily was a purely personal one, I now saw that it had to do with the nature of the project itself. And, if that was so, then it was something that could be lived with and, by being accepted, be overcome. Overcome not by being left behind but by being incorporated into whatever had to be said.



A hand which writes

Proust first of all speaks the language of La Bruyère, of Flaubert: this is the alienation of writing, from which he gradually frees himself by writing constantly, letters above all. It is, it seems, by writing ‘so many letters’ to ‘so many people’ that he edges towards the movement of writing which will become his own, revealing the form which nowadays we admire as marvellously Proustian and which naive scholars relate to its organic structure. But who is it that speaks here? Is it Proust, the worldly Proust, the one who has the vainest social ambitions and a hankering for the Académie Française, the one who admires Anatole France, the one who writes in the Figaro’s society column? Is it the Proust who has vices, who leads an abnormal life, who takes pleasure in torturing rats in a cage? Is it the Proust who is already dead, motionless, buried, the one whom his friends no longer recognize, a stranger to himself, nothing other than a hand which writes, which ‘writes every day, at every hour, all the time’ and as if outside time, a hand which no longer belongs to anyone? We say Proust, but we sense strongly that it is the wholly other which writes, not simply someone other, but the very demand to write, a demand which employs the name of Proust, but does not express Proust, which only expresses him by disappropriating him, by making him Other.

— Blanchot, ‘The Pursuit of the Zero Point’ (trans. I. Maclachlan)

Over again

But in art there are no initiators or precursors (at least in the scientific sense). Everything is in the individual, each individual starts the artistic or literary endeavour over again, on his own account; the works of his predecessors do not constitute, unlike in science, an acquired truth from which he who follows after may profit. […] He is not much further advanced than Homer.

— Proust, ‘The Method of Saint-Beuve’

Men in love

And yet he was inclined to suspect that the state for which he so longed was a calm, a peace, which would not have been a propitious atmosphere for his love. When Odette ceased to be for him a creature always absent, regretted, imagined, when the feeling that he had for her was no longer the same mysterious turmoil that was wrought in him by the phrase from the sonata, but affection and gratitude, when normal relations that would put an end to his melancholy madness were established between them — then, no doubt, the actions of Odette’s daily life would appear to him as being of little intrinsic interest — as he had several times already felt that they might be, on the day, for instance, when he had read through its envelope her letter to Forcheville. Examining his complaint with as much scientific detachment as if he had inoculated himself with it in order to study its effects, he told himself that, when he was cured of it, what Odette might or might not do would be a matter of indifference to him. But the truth was that in the depths of his morbid condition he feared death itself no more than such a recovery, which would in fact amount to the death of all that he now was.

— Proust, Swann’s Way (trans. Moncrieff)


He exorcized the glory demons. The pages were jammed into an antique drawer that Shell respected. It was a Pandora’s box of visas and airline-ticket folders that would spirit him away if she opened it. Then he would climb back into the warm bed, their bodies sweetened by the threat.
   God, she was beautiful. Why shouldn’t he stay with her? Why shouldn’t he be a citizen with a woman and a job? Why shouldn’t he join the world? The beauty he had planned as a repose between solitudes now led him to demand old questions of loneliness.
   What did he betray if he remained with her? He didn’t dare recite the half-baked claims. And now he could taste the guilt that would nourish him if he left her. But he didn’t want to leave for good. He needed to be by himself, so he could miss her, to get perspective.
   He shoved an air-mail letter into the stuffed drawer.
   He watched her sleeping, sheet clutched in her hand like an amulet, hair sprung over the pillow in Hokusai waves. Certainly he would be willing to murder for that suspended body. It was the only allegiance. Then why turn from it?
   His mind leaped beyond parting to regret. He was writing to her from a great distance, from some desperate flesh-covered desk in the future.
   My darling Shell, there is someone lost in me whom I drowned stupidly in risky games a while ago — I would like to bring him to you, he’d jump into your daydreams without asking and take care of your flesh like a drunk scholar, with laughing and precious secret footnotes. But as I say, he is drowned, or crumpled in cowardly sleep, heavily medicated, dreamless, his ears jammed with seaweed or cotton — I don’t even know the location of the body, except that sometimes he stirs like a starving foetus in my heart when I remember you dressing or at work in the kitchen. That’s all I can write. I would have liked to bring him to you — not this page, not this regret.
   He looked up from his lined book. He imagined Shell’s silhouette and his own. Valentine sweethearts of his parents’ time. A card on his collector’s shelf. Could he embalm her for easy reference?
   She changed her position, drawing the white sheet tight along the side of her body, so that her waist and thigh seemed to emerge out of rough marble. He had no comparisons. It wasn’t just that the forms were perfect, or that he knew them so well. It was not a sleeping beauty, everybody’s princess. It was Shell. It was a certain particular woman who had an address and the features of her family. She was not a kaleidoscope to be adjusted for different visions. All her expressions represented feelings. When she laughed it was because. When she took his hand in the middle of the night it was because. She was the reason. Shell, the Shell he knew, was the owner of the body. It answered her, was her. It didn’t serve him from a pedestal. He had collided with a particular person. Beautiful or not, or ruined with vitriol tomorrow, it didn’t matter. Shell was the one he loved.

— Leonard Cohen, The Favourite Game