Thursday, October 1, 2009

Review: The widening gyre


I’ll preface this review with saying that hitherto I unfortunately haven’t read anything by Marcel Proust. He may be one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, the forerunner of stream-of-consciousness and James Joyce and Virginia Woolf; but the fact of the matter is In Search of Lost Time seems like too much of a behemoth to attempt.

So instead, at last week’s Brooklyn Book Festival, I decided to pick up Proust’s The Lemoine Affair, part of Melville House Publishing’s The Art of the Novella series. This little book informs me that Proust has a sense of humour, can adapt his voice to sound like others (as he does quite nice parodies of Balzac and Flaubert, French authors with whom I’m much more familiar), and from what I understand even foreshadows his triumph of Modernism by showcasing how one little moment can spark a million different thoughts and sidetracks and responses.

The premise behind this book is that at the turn of the twentieth century, a Monsieur Henri Lemoine claims to have the secret of turning coal into diamonds. Like the philosopher’s stone or the fountain of youth or any other alchemistic wonder, people get on board. However, those that do are not common folk but Sir Julius Warner, then president of DeBeers diamond company, and Marcel Proust, the author himself. In 1909, M. Lemoine is sentenced to 6 years in prison, and in his introduction, Proust tells us that the trial didn’t make much fuss in the French world. But it was enough to get the author to respond with these little, irreverent tales mimicking and perhaps mocking the masters of 19th century French literature.

We move from the keen eye of Balzac’s world to the picky one of Flaubert’s to, one of my favourites, a fictional Sainte-Beuve review of the fictional ‘The Lemoine Affair’ by Gustave Flaubert, where we don’t just get a retelling of this Lemoine issue but we get a critique on the style and art of Flaubert’s writing and themes. ‘Sainte-Beuve’ extols Flaubert for his confrontation of ‘the enemy on all sides . . . he accepts all challenges, regardless of the conditions that they are offered, and never demands a choice of weapons, never seeks strategic advantage from the lay of the land.’ But then this reviewer quickly riposts with a diatribe on realism:

Well, we say to Mr. Flaubert, that is not true; esteem–and we know that the
example will touch you, since it is only in literature that you belong to the
school of insensitivity, of impassivity–is acquired by a whole
life devoted to science, to humanity. Literature, once upon a time, could procure
it also, when it was only the gauge and so to speak the flower of the man’s
urbanity, of that entirely human dispoisition that can indeed have its
predilections and its goals, but that allows, alongside images of vice and
ridicule, those of innocence and virtue. . . . The author is again visibly
starting to amuse himself–nay, we’ll use the word–to mystify us.

This is a fascinating and perhaps appropriate claim for/against Flaubert, who certainly reigns at the top of French writing. And it’s some of the more insightful statements in this work. Which is unlike the final ‘story’ in this novella, ‘In the Memoirs of Saint-Simon’, a tale that is inherently annoying and tortuous. The narrator rambles on about nothing for pages on end, about little inane relations between people (reminiscent of The Picture of Dorian Gray‘s chapter on tapestries etc) only to conclude that ‘this digression on the peculiarity of titles has taken us too far astray from the Le Moine affair.’

What makes this an amusing and wonderful piece of writing is that though the book is called The Lemoine Affair, it seems to have very little to do with Lemoine himself. Narrators just mention Lemoine peripherally, and although everyone and every story may be revolving around Lemoine and his deceptive deed, we never get to truly understand what it is he did or why people are perturbed with him in the pages of the novella. The false alchemy is rarely mentioned. The novella just acts as a way of bringing random characters together, all somehow tangentally affected by Lemoine’s trickery.

Apparently this is the first English translation of The Lemoine Affair, which makes you wonder why Proust scholars and Anglo-Francophiles haven’t attempted it sooner, as it’s a cunning, biting, and humorous read. Definitely worth seeing how an author can amusingly attack and appreciate other authors.


Kari said…

In high school, I checked out Swann's Way from the library so many times with the intent to read it after I saw Rory reading it on Gilmore Girls [that was my reading challenge for a year or so…read all the books featured on GG because she read a HUGE variety of books].

Alas, I never actually read it…something else always seemed more important. I WILL do it someday. I'm like you – it just needs to be done!

Rebecca Reid said…

I have always been intimidated because of the length of In Search of Lost Time but this sounds like Proust that I may be able to take without being too intimidated!! Thanks for this great review. You've given me confidence in myself.

Elena said…

I'm almost finished book 2 of 'In Search of Lost Time' but I really want to read this one now!