Join 3,415 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The Discovery of Oneself: An Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn on Proust
July 2, 2014 1:17 PM   Subscribe

“What is the lesson you draw from your own existence?” This is the philosophy that Proust teaches us. Last year, the French magazine La Revue des Deux Mondes published an interview with Daniel Mendelsohn about his experiences reading Proust as part of a special issue on “Proust vu d’Amérique.” Translated from the French by Anna Heyward.

Have these successive readings brought you closer to Proust’s work?

No, I don’t think it’s a question of proximity to the text. Rather, I think that something different can be found in the text each time. To use the Proustian metaphor that you evoked, each reading of Proust is a bit like a visit to the optician—depending on which pair of lenses you’re given to try, you’re either capable or incapable of distinguishing a pattern or a letter projected onto a screen in the dark. Successive readings of Proust are like those different sets of lenses—with each one, you see something different. For instance, when I was twenty, so much of French culture escaped me. I was inexperienced, I had never left the U.S. The whole Proustian world of Faubourg Saint-Germain and of Combray went straight over my head. I was incapable, for example, of understanding the type of person that Françoise represented in French heritage—the earthy peasant type that comes with the social territory, so to speak. Today, I’m not the same person I was when I was twenty. I have all the experience of a life. I’m also well traveled and I know France well, I have many friends living there, and so I understand French culture much better than I did thirty years ago and can appreciate aspects of Proust’s novel I couldn’t before. On the other hand, it must be said that I will never again feel the amazement I felt on my first reading of In Search of Lost Time. It’s an aesthetic experience that you only have once in your life.
posted by whyareyouatriangle (9 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
On the other hand, it must be said that I will never again feel the amazement I felt on my first reading of In Search of Lost Time. It’s an aesthetic experience that you only have once in your life.

Yes. Proust is one of those writers who can put together a sentence (it might run over several pages) that will force you to put the book down and just try to wrap your head around the fact that you know longer quite see the world in the same way that you did when you started it.
posted by yoink at 1:28 PM on July 2 [2 favorites]


Why should our reflexivity serve pedagogical ends?
posted by clockzero at 1:28 PM on July 2


When I was reading the book, it seemed to me that I lived in Proust's world through him. Now, though, having finished my reading, it seems to that it is Proust who lives in my world through me.
posted by No Robots at 2:02 PM on July 2 [4 favorites]


Take Oriane de Guermantes, for example—I can’t imagine her outside the book. In my opinion, she doesn’t represent much more than an assemblage of traits that characterize the aristocracy. I feel the same about Albertine, whose relationship to the Narrator, with its obsessisive possessiveness and deep frustrations, is clearly meant to reflect the relationship between Swann and Odette. To me, Albertine is an abstraction, a “notion,” her sole purpose is to crystallize the obsessive thoughts of the narrator.

Albertine is a notion to Marcel - he agonises that he cannot know her or possess her and we only get his point of view. I don't think she couldn't exist outside the book, but Marcel only has a superficial relationship with her despite thinking of her for hundreds of pages.

Should we perceive, thereby, a distinction between Greek and French sensibilities? That’s uncertain. Cavafy seems very French to me in certain ways. He’s a master of the epigram, for instance, a particularly French art.


That reads a bit off to me since Cavafy consciously refers to classical and Hellenistic history. I wouldn't call theatre a particularly French art, for instance, even though 17th century French theatre was fantastic. I liked his point about the relative clauses in different languages though.
posted by ersatz at 4:17 PM on July 2 [1 favorite]


The epigram, a particularly French art? That's got to be one of the more bizarre literary (mis)statements I've seen lately. The Greeks invented the damn thing; in fact, it's a Greek word (ἐπίγραμμα).
posted by languagehat at 4:25 PM on July 2 [1 favorite]


The epigram, a particularly French art? That's got to be one of the more bizarre literary (mis)statements I've seen lately. The Greeks invented the damn thing; in fact, it's a Greek word (ἐπίγραμμα).

I think Mendelssohn (who has translated a lot of classical Greek material) would be aware of that. I think he's chasing an uncompleted thought in that part of the interview. He raises the question of whether Proust's style points to some inherent difference between Greek and French intellectual/cultural style, but then offers Cavafy up as a counterexample (Cavafy is particularly good at the epigram, just like the ancient Greeks, and in this skill he is representatively "French"--therefore we can't say Proust represents "Frenchness" any more than Cavafy does).

So I don't think he's offering Cavafy up in contrast to the epigrammatic Greeks--he's offering him up as similar to the Greeks AND recognizably "French" in his classicism. Does that make sense?
posted by yoink at 5:19 PM on July 2 [1 favorite]


> Does that make sense?

Probably? I just can't grok it, for whatever reason. I totally respect your take on it, but my mind just fizzes and sparks and sends out acrid tendrils of smoke when I contemplate the statement that the epigram is a particularly French art, especially when discussing a Greek. But I'm happy to accept that you understand what he's talking about better than I do.
posted by languagehat at 7:59 AM on July 3


Well, I'm labouring under a pretty mind-swamping head-cold, so I'm probably not explaining it very well. Let me shoot for an analogy. Say somebody held up the difference between Sumo wrestling and WWE as demonstrating the vast cultural difference between the US and Japanese culture? Well, someone might reply, sure--but what about Baseball? That's a particularly Japanese pastime, isn't it? So maybe we can't easily appeal to different sporting interests as evidence of what is or isn't "inherent" to each culture.

The "particularly Japanese" in that claim is not the same as "peculiarly Japanese." It's just saying that a love of baseball is a defining characteristic of Japanese sports culture. That it's originally a part of US sports culture is simply taken as understood.
posted by yoink at 8:55 AM on July 3


That makes sense; I guess the missing piece is the idea that the epigram is French the way baseball is Japanese. I had a pretty traditional French education with Mme Ruegg—we did dictées, read Racine-Corneille-Molière, studied Pascal, memorized Ronsard, put on plays, etc.—and I don't recall anything about epigrams. But my memory is not reliable these days, and she may just have neglected to pass on that particular bit of Frenchness. Anyway, thanks for the analogy, because I now understand your point!
posted by languagehat at 2:20 PM on July 3


« Older On July 5, 2014, Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Cryst...  |  What Happens When 350 Musician... Newer »


You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.