Tuesday, 24 July 2007

More on Similes, Metaphors and the Like

For reasons I shall explain later, I have embarked on the somewhat daunting task of reading all six volumes of Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, or In Search of Lost Time, published by Vintage, 2002.

To the contemporary reader, Proust’s diction now appears elaborately ornate, overly sensitive, almost unwieldy in its diagnosis of detail and sentiment. But what is initially most striking for the reader is the sensation you have meandered into a mist of metaphors and maze of similes. This is typical:

‘The air of those rooms was saturated with the fine bouquet of a silence so nourishing, so succulent, that I never went into them without a sort of greedy anticipation, particularly on those first mornings, chilly still, of the Easter holidays, when I could taste it more fully because I had only just arrived in Combray: before I went in to say good morning to my aunt I would be kept waiting a moment in the outer room where the sun, wintry still, had crept in to warm itself before the fire, which was already alight between its two bricks and plastering the whole room with a smell of soot, turning it into one of those great rustic open hearths, or one of those canopied mantelpieces in country houses, beneath which one sits hoping that in the world outside it is raining or snowing, hoping almost for a catastrophic deluge to add the romance of being in winter quarters to the comfort of a snug retreat; I would pace to and fro between the prie-dieu and the stamped velvet armchairs, each one always draped in its crocheted antimacassar, while the fire, baking like dough the appetising smells with which the air of the room was thickly clotted and which the moist and sunny freshness of the morning had already “raised” and started to “set,” puffed them and glazed them and fluted them and swelled them into an invisible though not impalpable country pie, an immense “turnover” to which, barely waiting to savour the crisper, more delicate, more reputable but also drier aromas of the cupboard, the chest of drawers and patterned wall-paper, I always returned with an unconfessed gluttony to wallow in the central, glutinous, insipid, indigestible and fruity smell of the flowered bedspread.’

It takes time to focus your vision, to find your feet, so that you are not constantly stumbling in this fog of words. However, as the eye adjusts so you begin to appreciate his enterprise and the manner in which it has determined his approach. He is, after all, examining the function of memory and time from a very personal perspective. Indeed, how else could it be other than from a very personal perspective? This, in fact, is the question at the heart of his endeavour.

In philosophical terms, Proust is a phenomenologist, a follower of Hegel, Husserl and other so-called continental philosophers. Without getting too deeply involved in the arguments, I can suggest that phenomenology puts forward the concept that what we see is not what is actually there, i.e. the essence of what is there, but our idea of what is there. (So phenomenology, in the words of the French thinker and contemporary of Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, ‘is the study of essences’.)

Early on, Proust announces the tenet of his novel:

‘Even the simple act which we describe as “seeing someone we know” is to some extent and intellectual process. We pack the physical outline of the person we see with all the notions we have already formed about him, and in the total picture of him which we compose in our minds those notions have certainly the principal place. In the end they come to fill out so completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose, they blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice as if it were no more than a transparent envelope, that each time we see the face or hear the voice it is these notions which we recognise and to which we listen.’

In brief, we don’t see the man but our idea of the man. And this notion of the man is so personal, so deeply rooted in private recollections, individual experiences and associated sentiments, how can we possibly hope to share our understanding of that man with others?

Proust’s solution is two-handed. On the one, he charts every brook, every rill, every tributary that swell the river of his remembrance in such faithful detail that the final picture emerges virtually on a one to one scale - the description surrounding the incident of madeleine cake being a case in point. On the other, he resorts to the metaphor and simile in the belief, it strikes me, that not only are they poetic in their power to evoke a mood, event or place, but also, and as a consequence of the first, because they represent a common ground of understanding that can best convey the specifically personal.

The more I read of In Search of Lost Time, the more I have the sensation that I am exploring the work of some impressionist, Monet perhaps, Cézanne more like, but from within the canvas.

Apart from the pleasure it is affording me, why am I reading it? The answer is much of my MA was devoted to the study of phenomenology and to Maurice Merleau-Ponty in particular. My fellow post-grad on the course was the hugely talented and exceptionally beautiful Katerina Pottakis. (Truth is she was the only other person on the course; how lucky was I?) For her final dissertation, she chose, or more accurately was coerced into writing her 20,000 words on Proust’s novel.

Image that, poor thing, she had to read all six volumes plus other works and produce her paper all within three months. Anyway, in a form of delayed solidarity and consolation, I promised her that I would get around to reading it one day (though not in the original French as she did, Katerina being able to speak and write in Greek, French, English and Spanish, all fluently – not fair, is it?) So, voila!

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Chapeau à toi Caroline!

I have this minute finished reading Caroline’s Smaile’s In Search of Adam. I picked it up this morning at eleven o’clock and have not put it down since. I thought, while still reeling under its influence, I would set down my thoughts in a formal review.

In Search of Adam is an astoundingly courageous book. From its concept, to its style, to its presentation, it crosses a landscape littered with potential pitfalls. In the hands of a lesser author it would have fallen flat on its dust jacket within five pages. Caroline Smaile, however, has negotiated all with a sureness that is masterful.

For a start, its subject matter, child abuse, is not the most comfortable to confront, neither as a reader nor as an author. But to deal with it from the point of view of the child, and to trace the path of that child as she grows older, without once resorting to sentimentality on the one hand, or sensationalism on the other, requires not only great sensitivity and insight but, above all, control of the material, in fact all the qualities that Caroline displays.

Caroline adopts a very individual, stylised form of address. Again it is a high-risk option that could so easily subtract from the substance. Yet it doesn’t. On the contrary, it lifts and colours the psychical topography of the young Jude, the protagonist, so that what is, in essence, irrational in her behaviour and outlook becomes, if not rational, at least comprehensible to the reader. Her fractured way of thinking becomes yours.

Finally, Caroline plays with the typographical layout, another dangerous strategy that, when tried elsewhere, has proved, at best, irritating and, worse, pretentious. Not so here. It adds to the whole as a form of visual metaphor that underscores whatever is taking place on the page. The eye absorbs it barely aware of the mood it helps create.

With this book, Caroline has marked all our cards as a serious new contender on the literary scene.

Pleasure without Guilt is no Pleasure at All.

OOOH! I feel so guilty! I should be decorating a friend of a friend's house but... I know I need the money but... I bumped into someone I haven't seen in ages yesterday evening and she invited me back to share in an impromptu dinner party with her flatmate, a concert pianist, and a neighbour, the daughter of a very, very, very famous times infinity artist to whom we were not to refer, so... the gin and the tonic combined with the wine and the last gin and tonic and sauteed chicken and mushrooms and another glass of wine thank you... and I managed to avoid mentioning or indeed referring in anyway whatsoever to the very, very, very famous times infinity artist though he kept popping his name into my head (shall I give you a clue? but you won't believe me even if I should say but his name begins with P) and... you can imagine the conversation was of art and books and music and other topics that are my delight... and every so often the flatmate would leave the table to play a piece and instruct me in the subtleties of the music, I being very ignorant on such matters, though... I am going to Glyndebourne on the twelfth of this month for the first time ever, something that I mentioned every so often during the course of the evening so as to reassure the others present that I was not a complete cultural wasteground though another glass of wine would be nice... and oh my goodness it is one thirty in the morning and I am alone with my hostess and would I like one more gin and tonic... I can't, I have to work in the morning but... that would be very nice, so... John Humphrys is muttering in my ear something about bombs and arrests and... what was that? 8:45, it can't be but... it IS! Instant guilt... not that I have to be at the house at any particular time, however some time would be welcome... but wine combined with gin and tonic and sauteed chicken and another glass of wine... and paint? I don't think so.