Saturday, 31 December 2011

What are you thinking of?

Progress has slowed on reading Proust. I got Anthony Horowitz's "House of Silk" for Christmas and have spent the last couple of days reading that. It is a new Sherlock Holmes story and pleasing in that it does not bring anything to the narrative not already present in Conan Doyle's original stories. It does suffer from the same problem as Doyle's own longer Holmes stories in that it is necessary to the plot for Holmes to be absent for a long stretch and the pace slacks in comaprison with when he is present. He is such a powerful engine in driving the plot forward and in maintaining the reader's interest.
Horowitz does toss in a seemingly random "the game's afoot" but steers clear of anything "elementary"; recognising, no doubt, that this remark does not feature in the original stories.
That aside, Horowitz hits his marks well with a good denouement and surprising resolution of the disparate elements. He also resists giving a revisionist version of the Holmes myth and just occasionally refers to things known only from a reading of the complete stories (such as the death of Watson's wife and Holmes' ultimate fate). I am not against a revisionist reworking of Holmes, the myth is strong enough to carry these added readings. I like both the Seven Percent Solution and They Might Be Giants, for instance. And even Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's Hound of the Baskervilles. The transposition to modern times in the current BBC version is interesting, though I am not convinced that any modern Holmes would have quite so much truck with electronic media. In its essence of motive, commission and trail of evidence, crime has not changed much in 100 years. The use of DNA evidence being the biggest single change There is enough material in the stories for a gay and also a marxist reading, less so for a feminist reading, I think. Doyle steers close to social satire on occasion also. But Horowitz sets up his book as a continuation in the spirit of Doyle and maintains his consistency throughout the narrative.
I have also been watching the Basil Rathbone Holmes films which show Holmes investigating crimes in Canada, Washington DC and are mostly set in the 1940s (so Holmes on at least one occasion battles the Nazis). That none of this jars is again testimony to the elasticity of the myth. I was particularly pleased to come across my favourite Holmes moment. At the very end of "Sherlock Holmes and the Woman in Green" Watson asks Holmes "What are you thinking of?" and Holmes says "I am thinking of all the young women that can come and go in safety in the streets of London tonight". You can watch this here.

To my knowledge this exchange does not occur in the original stories and is an invention of the Hollywood scriptwriter but I think it is a highly emblematic exchange. First, Watson asks Holmes what he is thinking. This is something you would normally only ask a very close person, your spouse or partner. I have never asked a friend what are they thinking and certainly not a male friend. But Watson thinks nothing of it. Holmes' response gives us his raison d'etre and his justification for hero status. Without his being aware of why he does what he does he is no more than a highly irritating smart aleck.
I saw this film years ago on the telly and this quote stuck with me. I was delighted in the 1980s when I heard it used in the introduction to a song by the Mighty Ballistics Hi-Power called "Springheel Jack" as this brought together two of my favourite pieces of Victoriana (Holmes and the legend of Springheel Jack - what a shame the great detective never took it upon himself to investigate the latter's activities). A terrific song whose message against exploitation echoes that of Doyle and is in turn repeated by Horowitz. What a shame that nothing much seems to have changed. The song is here.

Friday, 9 December 2011

The Colour of Hawthorns

One day, the narrator and his family decide to walk down Swann's Way. The narrator hopes to catch sight of Swann's daughter, Mlle Swann, who has made an impression on him. He spots a basket and a fishing line by the lake and thinks he is about to have an encounter when "I found the whole path throbbing with the fragrance of hawthorn blossom. The hedge resembled a series of chapels, whose walls were no longer visible under the mountains of flowers".

The narrator stands there, enjoying the scent of the flowers, trying to preserve the memory of it, denying himself the scent and then returning to it with renewed vigour. Then his grandfather calls him over to have a look at a particular pink hawthorn. "High up on the branches, like so many of those tiny rose trees, their pots concealed in jackets of paper lace, whose slender stems rise in a forest from the alter on the greater festivals, a thousand buds were swelling and opening, paler in colour; but each disclosing as it burst, as at the bottom of a cup of pink marble, its blood-red stain, and suggesting even more strongly than the full-blown flowers the quality of the hawthorn tree which, whenever it budded, whenever it was about to blossom could bud and blossom in pink flowers alone".

Suddenly, the narrator is unable to move as when a deeper kind of perception requires the participation of our whole being. He has seen a girl with red hair carrying a trowel. "I gazed at her, at first with that gaze which is not merely a messenger from the eyes, but in whose window all the senses assemble, and lean out, petrified and anxious, that gaze which would fain reach, touch, capture, bear off in triumph the body at which it is aimed, and the soul with the body". Clearly, this is well overwrought for modern tastes. Proust has just described his senses of smell, taste, touch and hearing as leaning out through his eyes. He hears that the girl's name is Gilberte.

Friday, 18 November 2011

The face of a young woman in tears

One of the things that lengthy sentences enable Proust to do is to surprise his reader with the end of the sentence. There is probably a literary term for this (other than 'surprise conclusion to a sentence') but I do not know what it is.
(I had a look on the internet and there is a term which is 'paraprosdokian' but I have never heard of it, and apparently it is just made up anyway, so I shall stick with surprise conclusion.)

Here is Proust talking about M. Vinteuil's daughter, who he describes as having a boyish appearance and being robust and stolid, "When she had spoken, she would at once take her own words in the sense in which her audience must have heard them, she would be alarmed at the possibility of a misunderstanding, and one would see, in clear outline, as though in a transparency, beneath the mannish face of the 'good sort' that she was, the finer features of a young woman in tears."

It is the last two words of the sentence that hit suddenly and unexpectedly, contrasting with the earlier, slightly comic description of the girl. Proust telling us that we should not think of this unattractive girl as comic nor as unaware of her own lack of looks.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Swann's way and the Guermantes way 2

The narrator's father describes the Meseglise way as "comprising the finest view of a plain that he knew anywhere" (despite there being no visible horizon, but let that pass), and the Guermantes way as being typical of river scenery. These become, for the narrator, their defining qualities ("I had invested each of them..with that cohesion, that unity that belongs only to figments of the mind"). They become invested with a platonic ideal of a view of a plain or of river scenery where the abstract idea of them is more real than the actual ways themselves.

The two ways are separate and distinct in the narrator's mind, each unique and inviolate in their plaonic ideal isolation. Also, more prosaically. because the family only ever went one way or the other and only ever on separate days, never going both ways on the same day. This all serves to "shut them up. so to speak, far apart and unaware of each other's existence, in the sealed vessels - between which there could be no communication - of separate afternoons".

I have read this paragraph on the two ways about 50 times in the hope of gaining some insight. I am not sure it was worth the effort, in that all that Proust has told us is that there are two ways and he feels differently about them and thinks of them as separate, and one goes over a plain and the other down by the river. I think it is this sort of thing that puts people off reading him.

I shall press on anyway.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Swann's way and the Guermantes way

Proust describes in one paragraph the difference between Swann's way and the Guermantes way and how he feels about each. It is the most difficult paragraph to follow in the book so far and I intend to dwell on it for a bit to see if I can get a grip on it. Although it is expressed simply enough, the meanings behind Proust's words are difficult to unpick.

He starts off by saying that in the village of Combray, where he and his family have come to spend their summer holidays, there are these two routes which are diametrically opposed, indeed which route is taken is determined by whichever door of the house one chooses to leave by. He does not just mean that they head in opposite directions. I think that he also wants to establish that they represent something diametrically opoosed to the narrator but it is not clear what that is.

Proust also refers to Swann's way as the Meseglise way as it leads to Meseglise-la-Vineuse.and says that "Meseglise was to me something as inaccessible as the horizon, which remained hidden from sight, however far one went, by the folds of a country which no longer bore the least resemblance to the country around Combray".

Photo: footpath to Moor Lane, East Surrey. Copyright David Anstiss and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons licence.

Just prior to this he has said that he cared more about the journey to Meseglise and never knew anything about the place itself. I think the later description is a continuation of that thought, in that he has an idea in isolation of an end point to the jouney to Meseglise but no idea of the nature of that end point. Meseglise is in fact like the horizon - it is there as a concept but not as an actual place one can stand in. You cannot visit the horizon as it will always move away from you and this is how Proust, now, feels about Meseglise (presumably at the time it was possible for him to visit there - eveytime he went Swann's way, in fact, notwithstanding the fact that he says he never knew anything about the place).

He also says that the horizon remained hidden from sight. This seems illogical since the horizon is simply where the sky meets the land, marking how far one can see. But if there is a line of trees, say, in the way then where the sky meets the trees is known as the visible horizon, implying that the actual sky meeting land horizon is in fact invisible. So if one goes the Meseglise way one never gets to see as far as one might because of the undulations of the land.

Proust compares this with the Guermantes way of which he says "Guermantes, on the other hand, meant no more than the ultimate goal, ideal rather than real, of the 'Guermantes way', a sort of abstract geographical term like the North Pole or the Equator". Guermantes is not a concept like the horizon, or Meseglise, but an abstract non-place. I am going to admit defeat at this point. Proust's meaning is not clear to me and I think he is allowing his desire to write poetically to obscure any real meaning. He has failed to make clear a real distinction between these two routes and as managed to describe both of them as abstract non-places or concepts.

Photo: Vanguard Way to Moor Lane, East Surrey. Copyright David Anstiss and licensed for reuse under this Creative commons licence .

I'll have to think some more about this.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Rush hour

Rush hour in Dormansland.

Proust describes two walks taken by his family - Swann's way and the Guermantes way. Each have their own meaning to him and their own resonance. In the North East, people sometimes say, when giving directions, "don't come the front way, go round the back lonnen" (a lonnen being a road or lane). There is always an alternative to the direct route.

Photo: Moor Lane copyright Oast House Archive and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons licence (

Two posts

I have not put anything up for a couple of days so here are two posts to make up.

Monday, 7 November 2011

More Humour in Proust - Gone With the Wind

I was surprised to come across some flatulent humour in Proust, although it fits in with his overall theme of sensory experience.

He describes the differing colours of a stick of asparagus showing "a rainbow-loveliness that was not of this world". He says he felt that these varying colours represented some exquisite creatures that had assumed vegetable form, and that "through the disguise which covered their firm and edible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn , these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them. they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the faeries in Shakespeare's Dream) at transforming my humble chamber into a bower of aromatic perfume".


Sunday, 6 November 2011

Is Proust funny?

There is some humour in Proust. He does not write comedy but there are some comic descriptions. They are not laugh-out-loud moments but they do make you smile. There are no particular set-ups to let you know a gag is coming and the comic moments are more surprising and pleasing for this. It does mean that you have to pay attention in case you miss anything.

I wonder whether this is a comic novel in the way that people describe Joyce or Beckett as comic; where comic does not mean funny but rather describes an authorial view of existence as a farcical struggle against combined elements of destruction that oppose characters' every scheme and intention. This gets reflected in modern comedy writing where it seems that comedy can only be found in exposing a character's vanities or delusions and having their every effort exposed as failure. Perhaps it is not possible to create comedy out of success, or just competence, or perhaps it is just easier to make failure funny.

Proust also makes his comedy out of exposing his characters' failings, like Jane Austen does. For example, the Cure is telling the narrator's aunt about a couple of tapestries in the church and he says that "I can quite see too, that apart from certain details which are - well, a trifle realistic, they show features which testify to a genuine power of observation". This conveys not only the overly prudish sensitivities of the cleric but also his lack of awareness of the meaning of what he says in complaining about the tapestries' excessive realism while praising the artist's observational skills.

There is another incident earlier in the novel where the narrator describes how his aunts (I think) are so keen to be subtle in thanking Swann for a minor kindness he has afforded them that, rather than simply saying "thank you", they are overly literal in the nods and winks they offer him so that it is obvious to everyone in the room what they are doing apart from Swann.

Not thigh-slappingly hilarious then, but there is humour there.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

A la Recherche du Temps Pudding

I want to post about literature, specifically whatever I happen to be reading. My therapist says it will be beneficial to gather my thoughts in an organised, disciplined way and will help in improving both the quality of those thoughts and their expression.

She also says it will do me good to keep my hands busy at night.

Presently, I am reading Proust. I have read Swann's Way before but cannot remember how it went. I used to read in a sort of sleepy daze where I was looking at the words but not thinking about their meaning. This made it difficult to retain stuff like plot and character, and meant that I had no appreciation of an authorial voice, unless it was something really obvious.

This makes it particularly hard to read Proust. The first thing you notice is the sheer length of the sentences; some seem to go on for pages at a time, full of peregrinations and diversions, twisting and turning like the path down to Swann's; as if Proust has had the one thought and will not let it go until he has finished with it, no matter how long it miught take him, even if it goes beyond what is seemingly reasonable into a realm of singularity where the one thought is that which matters while other, possibly equally diverting, thoughts are kept at bay by the judicious application of punctuation, and where characters have to find their own level, bobbing up and down in a sea of description; occasionally they may find themselves the subject of a sentence but more likely they will tread water as best they can till the author turns his attention to them and invites them to swim again with his tidal flow.

This is not easy to do. I find it easier to write in short sentences. The shorter the better. I do not know whether Proust was verbose when talking to people. But I suspect not. I have often been told that I am orally verbose. But I like to try and write in a shorter style. Perhaps someone has studied this phenomenom. Perhaps there is no such link between oral verbosity and written brevity. Who knows. Or cares.

I was going to start this here paragraph with an apology for going off the point but that made me think of something which Proust does not do which is to apologise to his audience. He makes no concession to the reader and expects him or her to keep up with the flow of the discourse and to retain the starting point all the way to the end of the journey. I like this and find it flattering.

I am not yet sure how blogging works but it seems better to keep things brief. So, I shall stop here, except to comment on the title of this post. It is well-known how Proust's reminiscences are triggered by an encounter with madeleine biscuits dipped in tea. (Actually, the point he makes is that it is not a mere reminiscence that is triggered but a full wham, bam, thank you ma'am sensory immersion in the past and all its associated thoughts and feelings and sights and smells. He does not remember dipping madeleines in tea when young, he is suddenly dropped right back as his younger self. That is the power of the moment that Proust describes, and also why the English title of "Remembrance of Things Past" is misleading (although I do not much care for "In Search of Lost Time" either). It is not a remembrance. It is something for which there is no English word that I can think of. It is a re-experiencing in totality). Anyway, the point is, I get the same thing when I eat rice pudding.