Friday, January 18, 2008

Proust and the Problems of Writing

A little over a year ago, I wrote about the impulse to write, and those thought processes that have prevented me from writing. I wrote about the impossibility of saying anything new. If I wasn't going to say anything new, the thinking went, why would I bother to write at all? For—to repeat myself—a great many things have already been written about a great many topics. Later, I wrote about my sense of enveloping chaos when I look on the various forms available to the fiction writer. How does one choose the correct form? What makes a form "correct"? How does a writer make these kinds of decisions? These questions paralyze me, and yet I note that we have no shortage of writing, no shortage of people taking the time to put pen to paper, or keystroke to screen, no shortage of novels. My sense is that the questions bothering me are of little concern to most of these writers. I don't necessarily mean that as condemnation of those who don't share these concerns. But what motivates them? Is it sufficient to note that we live in a time that is awash in self-expression? Writing is viewed by many as a means of this self-expression. Fine. But what does it mean to express the self? What is this self in need of expressing? (I think of a line from Robert Wyatt's "Be Serious", a song from his latest album, Comicopera: ". . . self-expression's such a fraud./I mean how can I express myself/when there's no self to express?")

When I think of writing (always thinking of writing, not often enough actually writing), when I think of writing, when my mind alights on a certain topic, unfolding a sentence, a pleasing phrase, even whole paragraphs, instead of writing these words down, all too often I think then of conditions, I think of counter-arguments, problems that must be attended to, historical contingencies that must be accounted for before I may begin writing. Other things, that is, that, perhaps, must be written first. Other things that perhaps rely on extensive knowledge I don't have. Or perhaps I do have some of the needed knowledge, but I envision the effort necessary to compose this all important preamble, the background data needed to show that I've considered other viewpoints, that I've done my reading, that would demonstrate that I have the right to take up a reader's (any reader's) time with my impertinent babble, and I blanch, I back away, I fail to begin. Hedging my bets, always like this coming up with reasons not to write, I then don't write. Then, the mind not always (or, indeed, often) having my best interests at heart, I think to myself that surely a "real" writer would have written nonetheless, a "real" writer would have a notebook at bedside, ready to take down words that come, a "real" writer would, instead of being afraid of losing sleep (valuable, treasured, precious sleep) by turning on the light and jotting down some notes, running through these words in his mind, would in fact lose a little less sleep by getting up, turning on the light, writing.

Reading In Search of Lost Time, I sense in Proust a writer struggling with similar sorts of questions. I imagine a writer with a story, such as it is, and a set of related themes and topics, and an urge to write, but who does not see how he could possibly tell this story or explore these themes in the traditional fashion, who does not see how he can justify such an account without sufficient preamble, without sufficient considerations of all that might have been left out if he simply wrote a traditional novel.

Let me give an example. In part 2 of Within a Budding Grove, volume 2 of In Search of Lost Time, the Narrator is on holiday with his grandmother in Balbec. After a time, the M. and Mlle de Stermaria enter the picture, and our Narrator is immediately taken with the daughter, "her pretty face, her pallid, almost bluish complexion, the distinctiveness in the carriage of her tall figure. . ." Unfortunately, her father's haughtiness and constant presence by her side often prevents the Narrator from easily getting a good look at her. Then there is a chance, as her father leaves their table to go speak to another hotel resident. But, inevitably, he returns:
But I was obliged to take my eyes from Mlle de Stermaria, for already, considering no doubt that making the acquaintance of an important person was an odd, brief act which was sufficient in itself and, to bring out all the interest that was latent in it, required only a handshake and a penetrating stare, without either immediate conversation or any subsequent relations, her father had taken leave of the president and returned to sit down facing her, rubbing his hands like a man who has just made a valuable acquisition.
This is a trivial passage in the course of In Search of Lost Time, and I've chosen it for exactly that reason. It contains little of the beautiful ruminations, little of the "keen sight" (to invoke Nabokov) that marks so much of these books. It seems to me that there is little likelihood that it is a passage that would catch the eye of a reader underlining phrases worth remembering. And if you've heard that Proust can be excessively verbose, well, I doubt that this short passage will disabuse you of that notion. I've noted the passage, because I was more than usual (perhaps due to the relative brevity of the sentence) struck by the fact that we are not simply told, "I was forced to stop staring at the Mlle, because her father had already returned to her side.” In fact, very rarely are we told something in so straightforward a fashion. Intervening phrases are always offered, reasons, conditions, further observations in support of what seems to be the sentence's main point. My sense is that Proust did not think he could justify simply moving the father back to the table. I see this as a tiny example of his larger problem, which was that he felt that he could not simply write a "normal" novel, that he did not feel he was justified in autocratically imposing his story on the reader. If ValĂ©ry claimed that he could never write a novel, because writing a novel would mean, at some point, writing something so pedestrian, so arbitrary, as "the marquis went out at five", then perhaps Proust sensed this problem keenly, but as a novelist he had to find some way to deal with it. He sensed that he did not have the right to simply assert that M. de Stermaria had returned. So: he needs him to return, he observes, well, after all, it doesn't take so long, does it?, to make the acquaintance of a certain personage, doesn't take so long to shake this personage's hand, and, really, what else is needed in such an encounter?, surely the encounter and the handshake, the acknowledgement, is enough; surely, then, the M. having accomplished this much, surely then I can say that he has returned to his daughter's side? Will you, dear reader, not feel that I have over-stepped my bounds if I do this much?

Again, I chose this example for its relative insignificance, as well as its brevity. There are other, longer, more detailed, more integral examples of this. Indeed, it seems to me that the whole of In Search of Lost Time represents, in part, a coming to terms with this sort of narrative problem (to the extent that I may be permitted to speculate on the nature of the whole, having only read volume 1 and nearly finished reading volume 2). I imagine Proust thinking: How can I fully explore memories of childhood if I don't animate the distinctions between voluntary and involuntary memory? How can I describe the many shades and gradations of society life and snobbery and elitism, if I don't give detailed sketches of each of the various grades? How can I mention Swann's "appalling marriage" if I don't discuss his affair with Odette? How can I talk about Odette if I don't explain the Verdurins? How can I explain the Verdurins if I don't elaborate further on society? If I haven't discussed the Verdurins in sufficient depth, or elaborated enough on snobbery, how can I possibly justify embarking on an account of Madame Swann's salon?

Maybe all of this just means that Proust was simply incapable of editing, incapable of selection, incapable of brevity, incapable of coming to the point. Maybe all this talk about the viability of forms, of justification, of arbitrariness, of trust, the problems of narrative, of writing, maybe it's just a bunch of critical hogwash. Plenty of people don't seem troubled by them. Maybe, but I don't think so. I admit that, as a reader, it's only recently that I have given much thought to these sorts of questions, in part due to the influence of Josipovici. However, as a potential writer? As a writer these problems have always vexed me, whether I articulated them as such or not. In fact, they bothered me so much, at some primal level, that I simply refused to write. I refused to believe that there was some justification in simply writing, that one could write without being concerned about what had gone before, without being concerned that one was not being thorough, that one was taking everything into account that needed to be taken into account (where, as a reader, I had granted the other writer total authority to do whatever he or she chose). As a potential writer of fiction (for the problem is not only for the writer of fiction, I think), the problem was more pronounced: I would consider a novel that I enjoyed, and I would be simply unable to imagine how the writer had come to write it as he or she had. How had the necessary decisions been made? How had the writer known to make the decisions appropriate to this novel? "Talent!" you may cry. The writer has talent, a gift, an inspiration (and of course the writer works). Yes, perhaps. Though something tells me there's more to it than that, that assuming talent (admittedly, a big assumption), the writer must still decide. And the writer consumed by these kinds of questions must find a way to write that he or she can live with. Proust, if the problems he encountered while writing fiction in any way resemble the problems I am talking about here, far from being incapable of selection, or of making a decision, was instead incapable of writing in a way that he felt was false. Without comparing myself to Proust, I think that my task is similar, in the following sense: I must discover a way to write, to write anything, that is true to myself.


Rebecca H. said...

Very interesting post. I've felt a kind of paralysis in the face of all there is that is possible to write -- I think this is what you are describing. I succumb to the paralysis, which is why I'm not a writer in the creative writer sense, and I can see that a "real" writer would be someone with the drive and energy to work their way past the paralysis, or someone who simply doesn't feel it in the first place. (Although if your analysis of Proust is correct, and it makes sense to me, that would explain some of my fascination with his work, because I do like experiencing someone working their way toward new solutions.)

litlove said...

I hope it's ok for me to cross post this at The Best of New Writing on the Web ( in the next edition that comes out tomorrow. Let me know if you have any copyright issues with that. I think it's a marvellous post!

Richard said...

Wow, thanks litlove. Yes, feel free to cross post. So long as you link back here (and I see that you do), then I have no problem at all with it...

Anonymous said...

To grossly paraphrase Proust: With so many thoughts and occurences, how is it possible that anyone can do anything? This is, perhaps, the reason for discipline.