A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Saturday, 7 June 2008

How Proust Can Change Your Life

How Proust Can Change Your Life is the title of a book by Alain de Botton. I would very much like to read it. It's an accessible study of Proust's great, influential and unique novel Remembrance Of Things Past (or, depending on which translation you prefer, In Search Of Lost Time). De Botton uses Proust's book to demonstrate the power and relevance of literature - a great book is capable, quite literally, of completely transforming your life. (John Hee has described this kind of event, on a more modest scale, in his recent post.) I believe in this magical power too. It has happened to me, though usually less dramatically, on many occasions. (I've just finished reading another book by De Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy, which I enjoyed enormously. But more of that book later.)

I began reading C. K. Scott-Moncrieff's translation of Proust's 7 volume novel in my early 20s, but never got beyond the 1st volume, Swann's Way. Now I feel the urge to start it afresh - this time probably in the much newer translation by Christopher Prendergast and others which Allen Lane published in 2002.

My thoughts turned to Proust today because this afternoon we went for a stroll in Whisby Nature Park where, though not much was going on in the bird domain (the chiffchaffs were chiff-chaffing and the willow warblers willow-warbling but the nightingales and sand martins we hoped to see were out of sight on their nests), the hawthorn blossom in the hedgerows was at its creamy, radiant best.

Just as Swann is famously transported back in time by the taste of a madeleine cake, the sight and smell of hawthorn blossom also acts for him both as memory trigger and peak experience. Somewhere in the middle of Swann's Way Proust writes how Swann became enraptured by hawthorn flowers (which he later describes as having the bitter-sweet fragrance of almonds):

As we were liable, there, to meet M. Vinteuil, who held very strict views on 'the deplorable untidiness of young people, which seems to be encouraged in these days,' my mother would first see that there was nothing out of order in my appearance, and then we would set out for the church. It was in these 'Month of Mary' services that I can remember having first fallen in love with hawthorn blossom. The hawthorn was not merely in the church, for there, holy ground as it was, we had all of us a right of entry; but, arranged upon the altar itself, inseparable from the mysteries in whose celebration it was playing a part, it thrust in among the tapers and the sacred vessels its rows of branches, tied to one another horizontally in a stiff, festal scheme of decoration; and they were made more lovely still by the scalloped outline of the dark leaves, over which were scattered in profusion, as over a bridal train, little clusters of buds of a dazzling whiteness. Though I dared not look at them save through my fingers, I could feel that the formal scheme was composed of living things, and that it was Nature herself who, by trimming the shape of the foliage, and by adding the crowning ornament of those snowy buds, had made the decorations worthy of what was at once a public rejoicing and a solemn mystery. Higher up on the altar, a flower had opened here and there with a careless grace, holding so unconcernedly, like a final, almost vaporous bedizening, its bunch of stamens, slender as gossamer, which clouded the flower itself in a white mist, that in following these with my eyes, in trying to imitate, somewhere inside myself, the action of their blossoming, I imagined it as a swift and thoughtless movement of the head with an enticing glance from her contracted pupils, by a young girl in white, careless and alive.

After this passage follow several pages which focus on a hawthorn hedge outside the church even more intently. In detailed, observant, intensely poetic meditations such as these, Proust is showing us the intimate, subjective relationship between the outer world of nature, family and society and the inner world of mind, memory and imagination.

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