Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 19, 2010

Proust: The Characters

It requires only a few elements to comprise a novel: a plot, some characters, a time and place, a point of view, and a couple of fuzzy things called “style” and “tone.” Just make decisions about each of those elements, start putting words on paper, and, voila, a novel. One can get fancier, of course. One can decide to make the work more or less metaphorical, as Dante and Joyce did. A novel can be based on historical fact or set in an alien world, but those are simple matters. Yes, it’s a relatively trivial task to assemble these few working parts once one knows what one is doing and to write it all down. It’s like building a wall. Dig a trench of a certain depth and pour it full of concrete. Assemble your bricks, mortar, water, a wheelbarrow, a few tools, and just stack ’em up ’til  you get to the desired height. Oh, sure, the author must know what he or she is doing: their craft, as it’s called in the trade (or is it their trade as it’s known in the craft? Whatever). Just like that mason stacking bricks to a desired level, the practiced author aligns all the elements and writes until, say, the protagonist encounters the white whale, or makes it through hell and purgatory to paradise or until the bullfight is over and everyone goes back to Paris. Easy? You bet. In fact, Somerset Maugham said it well: “There are three rules to writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” As we all suspected, it is not easy.

I started this blog partly with the intent to record my progress in reading Marcel Proust’s “A la Recherche de Temps Perdu,” which I’ve been reading for the past year. I claim credit for not hammering you with this subject day after day as the novel unwinds a few pages at a time each evening at bedtime, but I do want to stay the course. Proust, we think, had it easy: come home from various balls, the theater, dinners and soirees around Paris, sit in the ol’ cork-lined room and keep writing down everything that happened, more or less, until he’d painted a complete picture of the changing life of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie from about 1894 until, well, whenever he was finished or died, both of which turned out to be in 1922.

He finished the work, more or less: 7 books, more than 1.5 million words, and he did pretty much stack the final brick in place before the end; more or less in a sensible order, although given his poor editing, some of the rows don’t line up with one another.

As Professor Fahey used to say in British History class, “All metaphors fail, but this one doesn’t fail as badly as most.”

Because I am blessed with the free time and the opportunity to read the entire work, I’m eager to pass on to you the understanding that this book is not famous merely for its length, of for its notoriously long, complex sentences, but for the immense achievement it represents as storytelling. It is, truly, as good as it gets in the Lit. biz. Anyone who’s a reader and has sampled part of the work, or read about it, wonders, “Would it be worth the effort to go on?”

I am here to tell you that, yes it is worth it. At least, for me it is. Take one of those basic building materials: characters. Proust starts simply enough: “For a long time, I used to go to bed early.” Here, in his childhood, we have the Narrator recalling his childhood, surrounded by characters typical of any childhood memoir: mother, father, grandmother, aunts and uncles, family friends and citizens of their little town.

From these simple materials, Proust builds an astounding structure. We follow our Narrator through his life as this cast of characters grows, ages and transforms, always revealed more fully as they encounter new players in the ensemble. He takes us back in time to see the prior histories of some of them, like Swann and Odette de Crecy. (How our Narrator learns biographical details from before he was born remains something of a mystery to us at first, until we understand through many hours and days of reading that ferreting out these details by asking questions of the people he meets is, ultimately, his primary pursuit in life). We see him react to the aging or deaths of others and encounter as an adult many of the original characters, their children or members of their social circle who, in turn become for long stretches of the novel principal players themselves. Thus, a character like his childhood sweetheart, Gilberte, has ties both to Swann and Odette, her parents, but also to the friend of the Narrator’s young manhood, Robert Saint-Loup, whom she marries, as well as to a wide circle of other members of Saint-Loup’s aristocratic family, the Guermantes, who appeared in the opening volume only as remote figures from the feudal history of France. Thus, a single character, Swann, engenders a widening, intertwining system of circles of characters, story lines and themes.

Any capable novelist does the same thing. Pynchon might give us six or seven hundred characters in a single book although, granted, some are just there to show off of his own inventiveness, while Hemingway creates layer upon layer of tension, attraction and conflict among a close group of just six or seven people during the six weeks that comprise the action of “The Sun Also Rises.” Proust’s massive accomplishment is to establish and sustain our interest in the incessantly intertwining lives of scores of people who enter, exit, die, or change and re-enter: always the same yet always mutating over decades, relentlessly.

These are interesting, well-developed characters, too, with a few exceptions. At his best, Proust gives us room after room full of people one can only describe as Dickensian, in the best sense. They have individual personalities, they have hilarious or infuriating idiosyncracies, and we believe that they are real and, almost certainly, that they were based on real people, because they seem so lively and immediate. Not without exception, as I said. The women with whom Proust’s Narrator falls in love consistently suffer from a lack of what Mrs. Drake in senior English would have termed “well-roundedness.” So, of course, did Hemingway’s women. Proust, we know now, was homosexual, though he would not publicly admit it, and his Narrator’s female paramours consistently have male-derived names (Gilberte, Albertine), suggesting that there’s a whole lot of transference goin’ on here. But these limitations aside, Proust’s novel gives us not a few scenes, not a few chapters, but hundreds and hundreds of pages in which to explore his characters: his mother; his grandmother; the housekeeper, Francoise; Swann and Odette; Saint-Loup; the Baron de Charlus; the Duchesse de Guermantes; M. and Mme. Verdurin; the writer, Bergotte; and dozens more. It is a vibrant cast that would challenge Dickens or even Pynchon himself to equal.

This, in the end, is, yes, a novel, though far longer than anything that we typically call by that name. While I’ve probably read “The Sun Also Rises” ten times, and will likely only read “A la Recherche” a single time in this life, Proust’s characters meet every test to measure up in every way with those of the greatest literature I’ve encountered.

Yet to come: plot (yes, there is a plot), and sentences. I mean, SENTENCES! And, perhaps Proust’s strongest play, time and setting. We have hundreds of pages, and have only begun.

Read the initial post regarding my reading of Proust HERE.

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Responses

  1. Oh man,

    Now you’ve done it. Thanks Brad for arousing my interest in the work of Proust. Now I have to go buy the translated version of “A la Recherche de Temps Perdu” and put it somewhere in my yet to read section of my book shelves. And I haven’t even started on “La Divina Commedia”(The divine Comedy) by Dante. Which I have been planning to read for some time now.

    I know, I could go to the Library and rent it for while. But, Allais that works for most people except for me. I have this deficiency that I want to own the books I read.

    One wall of my attic is stacked up with all the books I read there is a special shelve for the books I already purchased but still have to read. Before I started working for CSC I used to go to work by bus. I’m not particularly fond of busses, but It gave me loads of time to read from work till home. These days I occasionally buy al listening book and listen to it whilst driving from home to work and back again. But it doesn’t do it for me. I like to hold the paper and read and read until my neck aches so much I have to stop for a few minutes. I like the touch of the paper its color. The structure of the cover its smell. A book to me is a treasure. I love them.

    My family pays for my love for books unfortunately. Once the story grabs hold of me I find it extremely difficult to stop, resulting me reading halfway through the night. Unable to stop until my eyes cannot take anymore. Neglecting life around me as the words visualize in my mind, the story unwinding and taking me to someplace so far away from reality, that it takes several nudges to get me back to reality, allowing me to answer the simplest of questions.

    Usually there are a few books on, under and next to my nightstand. And whenever I feel the urge I pick one up and start. This is not a problem for anyone, until the novels characters arouse my interest and then I’m gone. Depending on size and readability this usually doesn’t take more than a week after which I apologize to my family for my lack of interest.

    Know that I read your post on Prousts work It could well be that my wife is in for it again. A well she probably knows it by now. Once every so often I pick up a book and go there as a silent spectator watching the lives and places unfold drifting of to distant lands or nonexistent worlds. To snap out of it again at the final dot.

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    • A note to you and to everyone is that one CAN read just the first volume, Swann’s Way, to get a sense of Proust, without committing to the entire 7 volumes! Still probably too long to borrow from the library and get it done. I have become a fan of audio books, and listen to them now on the morning drive. The library has a lot of those, too.

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  2. Is there any certain translation or edition to look for or avoid? The library here has a two book translation of the seven volumes by C. K. Scott Moncrief published by Random House. 325 pages for Swann’s Way. I think I can give it a shot. Flipping through it there do not seem to be many paragraph indentations; wasn’t it Faulkner who wrote long sentences? Did I miss something?

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    • Excellent question, bro. The Moncrief translation is the standard, but it has its limits, partly because it’s so traditionally British. There is a new edition which has various translators. But unless you’re really picky, it doesn’t matter all that much, really. I suggest NOT getting an abridged version, and reading the full version of Swann’s Way. And yes, you’re right, those are long, long sentences, and when one says that there are 3,000 pages in the novel, they are 3,000 pages PACKED with print. Proust’s approach to paragraphing was, well, idiosyncratic. I’ll have more to say about those Proustian sentences soon.

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  3. Thanks for that.

    I was hoping that to read 3,200 pages of Proust would be like reading something such as “2666” or “Europe Central” 3.5 times, but I am begining to see it must be more like reading either of those 7 times, what with the density of print, plus difficulties in “getting” it. Worries, worries.

    Suddenly, reading “The Sun Also Rises” ten times is sounding appealing. Can we get back to that?

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