Sunday, 17 June 2012

Swann in Love

There is now an interregnum in the narrator’s own account and this filled by the telling of the love affair between Swann and Odette de Crecy. We are told that Odette has a disreputable past and that she has little obvious appeal to Swann. She attends a salon comprised of people below Swann’s own social standing and lacking his refinement. Despite this and against his better judgment Swann finds himself falling in love and this leads to an obsession with her.  

Swann finds an emblem for his love in a phrase from a piece of music which he hears played at the salon attended by Odette: "...below the delicate line of the violin-part, slender but robust, compact and commanding, he had suddenly become aware of the mass of the piano-part beginning to emerge in a sort of liquid rippling of sound, multiform but indivisible, smooth yet restless, like the deep blue tumult of the sea, silvered and charmed into a minor key by the moonlight. But then at a certain moment, without being able to distinguish any clear outline, or to give a name to what was pleasing him, suddenly enraptured, he had tried to grasp the phrase or harmony-he did not know which-that had just been played and that had opened and expanded his soul, as the fragrance of certain roses, wafted upon the moist air of evening, has the power of dilating one's nostrils."

Swann learns that the composer of this phrase is called Vinteuil and he recalls a music teacher from Combray by that name:

“”Perhaps that’s the man” cried Mme Verdurin. 

“Oh no!” Swann burst out laughing. “If you had ever seen him for a moment you wouldn’t put the question.””

But it is the same man. Proust unpicks Swann’s pretension. Swann cannot conceive of such an unprepossessing man creating sublime art (this same Vinteuil has the daughter described in my post: The face of a young woman in tears. The daughter has a lesbian lover and after Vinteuil’s death the narrator spies on the two women as they abuse Vinteuil’s memory and spit on his photograph).

Swann becomes possessive, fixated on knowing what Odette is up to when she is not with him. This ultimately results in him stealing her mail and spying on her. He accuses her of prostitution and of having lesbian relationships, and she neither denies nor admits to this. Swann withdraws from his place in society and tries to identify his rivals for Odette’s affections. He finds himself supplanted in the respect of the salon by others and he becomes disparaging of them in turn.

Over time he attains a more realistic view of his relationship and of Odette, her “pallid complexion, her too thin cheeks, her drawn features, her tired eyes”. He achieves a higher degree of self-realisation.

“To think that I have wasted years of my life, that I have longed for death, that the greatest love that I have ever known has been for a woman who did not please me, who was not in my style”.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Basil Bunting Complete Poems

I wanted for years to read Briggflatts as it seemed to be an epic poem partially about Northumberland. But I was mistaken as it is more about its author, who described it as an autobiography. I did not get any particular sense of a Northumbrian sensibility from it apart from the use of “spuggies” in the epigraph, a spuggy being a Northumbrian word for a sparrow. Bunting compares a mason chipping away at marble to the poet scratching away at his verse, “litters his yard with flawed fragments” (Bunting seems often to reflect on his limitations as a poet).  

Bunting is a Modernist poet like Elliot and Pound. The Modernists use concrete images as the building blocks of their verse. So there is great trouble taken over the use of actual, quite specific locations and phrases from other languages as if the mere inclusion of a place name or phrase is sufficient to convey atmosphere. I may be mistaken but they seem to be reacting to the Romantic poets. Whereas the Romantics deal with sensibility and emotion and the higher things generally, the Modernists treat of cities and people and language and history. At its worst this results in Elliott’s footnotes on the Wasteland, feeling that he has to explain his own verse. Bunting resists this. It is possible to read his poems accompanied by Wikipedia to explain the references but he does not make it a condition. One does not need to know about the river Rawthey and Eric Bloodaxe in order to appreciate Briggflatts.

Of his other poems I enjoyed Chomei at Toyama which tells of disasters befalling a city in medieval Japan, The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer which reads like a traditional ballad, What the Chairman Told Tom which is nicely comical, and his Overdrafts which are supposedly translations of foreign poets but seem more like rewritings.

The artist whom Bunting most reminds me of is actually Captain Beefheart. Compositions such as Well or Orange Claw Hammer present a stream of images and statements, not all of them logical, which are designed to create an impression in the mind of the listener through sound and juxtaposition rather than through meaning. Another similarity is through their affinity with and deployment of music. Obviously in the case of Beefheart since he sings but Bunting in his introduction to his poems says “I have set down words as a musician pricks his score, not to be read in silence, but to trace in the air a pattern of sound”. He collects some of his poems under the title of Sonatas (interestingly he uses the term for a piece of music to be played rather than one to be sung (cantata) – he claims to be writing instrumentals). Beefheart’s imagery is drawn from the American South, working in the fields, nature, the American desert, childhood and the Blues. Bunting draws on his own experiences of living in Europe, old literature and Western classical music.

Bunting writes of Pound’s Cantos “These are the Alps. What else is to be said about them. They do not make sense.” Sense is not necessarily to be looked for in this verse but that is not to say that it lacks meaning. Briggflatts has a narrative going from early infatuation with a girl to wanderings through Europe and, fifty years later, to a return to home. “Then is diffused in Now”, despite his wanderings and experiences he still remembers the girl “she has been with me fifty years”. Isn’t that lovely.

Here is Bunting together with the girl in question more than fifty years on with Brigflatts in the background.