Thursday, 20 August 2009

On Proust

In the film Little Miss Sunshine, Steve Carrell plays a suicidal academic who is depressed because, among other things, he is only 'America's second-best Proust scholar' (one of the other things about which he's depressed is that the man acknowledged as the best Proust scholar in America has stolen his boyfriend). This literary aspect of the character's persona is really tangential to the main action of the story, but the filmmakers clearly feel they should include a scene in which he demonstrates at least some knowledge of his subject. They therefore include a scene in which, looking out to sea like a character in a Caspar David Friedrich painting, Carrell explains to one of the other characters that the thing about Proust is that 'nothing really happens in his books, but he writes about it beautifully.'

This is the standard 'how to talk about books you haven't read' position on Proust, and I can't help but think that it's, well, wrong. I think it's an impression people have probably gathered from reading around the book - particularly from the tidbit that the first publisher it was submitted to rejected the book on the grounds that people wouldn't want to read a novel about someone 'who takes thirty pages to turn over in bed.' But this idea is wrong, also - yes, in the novel's present, those pages only cover the narrator's shifting about in bed, but they also deal with his memory, and establish the settings and characters which will be subsequently so important in the rest of the novel. And, nearly at the end of The Way by Swann's, it's fairly clear to say that actually, at least by the standards of the literary novel, quite a lot actually happens in the story. It takes a long time to happen, sure, but it still happens nevertheless.

The first part of the description, then, is inaccurate. The second part - at least as far as I can tell from the new Penguin translation - isn't. The writing - the long, winding, idiosyncratically-punctuated sentences, is at least part of the pleasure of reading Proust's novel.

What annoys - no, annoys is too strong a word, what irritates me about assertions like that made by Carrell's character is the sense they create that certain areas of the arts are essentially mannerist, that they have no real value in the world of life as it's actually lived. Then again, given that the only other popularisation of Proust recently was his transformation into a self-help guru avant la lettre by the platitudinising pop-philosopher Alain de Botton, that kind of notion may actually be preferable.

1 comment:

  1. Platudinising pop-philosopher -- I like that!