Tag Archives: Proust

My First Encounter with Proust

Charles Swann, the eponymous character of Proust’s first Volume of In Search of Lost Time,  is an old acquaintance of the narrator’s family and, although he has connections to the upper classes and the royals in France and Britian, he never forgets to visit with his middle class friends.  Swann is also very quiet about these other, important social circles to which he has access, and a knowledge of this would have shocked the narrator’s great-aunt:

But if anyone had suggested to my great-aunt that this Swann, who, in his capacity as the son of old M. Swann, was “fully qualified” to be received by any of the “best people,” by the most respected barristers and solicitors of Paris (though he was perhaps a trifle inclined to let this hereditary privilege go by default), had another almost secret existence of a wholly different kind; that when he left our house in Paris, saying that he must go home to bed, he would have no sooner turned the corner than he would stop, retrace is steps, and be off to some salon on whose like no stockbroker or associate of stockbrokers had ever set eyes—that would have seemed to my aunt as extraordinary as, to a woman of wider reading,  the thought of being herself on terms of intimacy with Aristaeus and of learning that after having a chat with her he would plunge deep into the realms of Thetis, into an empire veiled from mortal eyes, in which Virgil depicts him as being received with open arms.

This short passage in Proust brought to mind my very early days as an undergraduate, when taking a Vergil course and being handed these lines from the Georgics and asked to produce a polished translation and commentary.  I carefully and lovingly labored over this Latin text for weeks.  Aristaeus chases Eurydice through a field where she is bitten and killed by a serpent.  Orpheus, in his intense grief, asks the ruler of the Underworld to allow him to bring his wife back, but, by not following the only rule—not to look back at his wife—he is unsuccessful.  As a punishment for his indiscretion Aristaeus’s bees are destroyed and he is allowed to visit his mother and the other nymphs in their underwater lair to get advice on how to resurrect his bees.  I remember the part in which Arisaeus enters this watery realm because there were certain Latin words I keep thinking about and adjusting in my translation.  My mother would call me every week and ask, “How are the bees coming along?”  Although I had studied Latin in high school, I viewed translation as just another acquired skill, but it was due to this Vergil class that I decided to be a classicist.

So many memories.

I have spent the last weekend sitting in my garden, soaking up summer and completely immersed in Proust.  I have no doubt that this experience of summer will be forever linked with my first encounter with Proust’s extraordinary masterpiece.  I had expected something special, but nothing quite like this.  Walter Benjamin, in his essay “The Image of Proust” states it perfectly, “The thirteen volumes of marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du temps perdu are the result of an unconstruable synthesis in which the absorption of a mystic, the art of a prose writer, the verve of a satirist, the erudition of a scholar, and the self-consciousness of a monomaniac have combined in an autobiographical work. It has rightly been said that all great works of literature found a genre or dissolve one—that they are, in other words, special cases.  Among these cases this is one of the most unfathomable.”

One of the most astute and erudite readers I know remarked to me that Proust was a turning point in his reading life—-there is a distinct difference in reading and literature before Proust and after Proust he said.   Even after finishing only the first volume of In Search of Lost Time I think he is absolutely right.



Filed under Classics, French Literature, Vergil

The Albertine Workout by Anne Carson

albertineAnne Carson writes in the appendix to this chapbook: “Habit, suffering, boredom, memory, tea drinking, tea biscuits and the inscrutable banality of existence are topics Beckett and Proust have in Common.  They anatomize them differently.  What is located in the head, the mouth or the mind for Proust moves lower down the body in Beckett.”  Carson uses this theory to help us better understand one of Proust’s most elusive characters.

Carson ironically and brilliant writes a small pamphlet on a woman named Albertine who is present or mentioned on 807 pages of Proust’s novel.  Albertine is oftentimes asleep and her main problems from the narrator’s perspective are lying, lesbianism and being imprisoned in the narrator’s house. Since Albertine is not a common name among females in France, many critics have speculated that she is a disguised version of Proust’s chauffeur, Alfred, with whom he had a secret affair.  Carson examines fascinating details about Proust’s book and his life in order to explore this transposition theory.

Carson also provides an illuminating commentary of sexuality in Proust via Albertine.  The narrator insists that Albertine is a lesbian, all of her friends are lesbians, but she vehemently denies this.  He doesn’t understand how two women can be in love with one another and he can’t figure out what they do together so he is repulsed by what he cannot grasp.  The narrator never actually uses the term “lesbian,” with Albertine, but instead he says “the kind of woman I object to.”

Finally, the appendix, which I quoted above, is just as intriguing as the main body of Carson’s text.  In addition to exploring the similarities and differences in Proust and Beckett she also writes about the use of adjectives in a language, capture myopathy, the second paradox of Zeno, and my favorite, the difference between metaphor and metonymy.

I found Carson’s thoughts and writing engrossing and I am looking forward to diving in to more of her works.

Which Carson books would you recommend?


Filed under Chapbook, Nonfiction, Poetry, Proust

Review: The Collected Poems of Proust

For my next installment of reviews for poetry month I decided to tackle this dual-language edition of the collection poems of Proust.  It was published in 2013 by Penguin and I bought a copy of it myself.

My Review:
Proust PoemsThese poems are a glimpse into Proust as a human being and not Proust the serious novelist.  The poems were collected from a wide variety of places, including letters to his friends, journals and notes, and some were even scrawled on scraps of paper or envelopes.  We often envision Proust as the asthmatic, shut away from society as he labored over his major work.  But these poems reveal to us a funny, playful, intelligent man who fully engaged in life and embraced all of its wonders.

It is rumored even when Proust was alive that he was homosexual.  The poems reveal a man who was definitely struggling with his sexuality in a time period in which homosexuality was completely unacceptable.  In the poem that opens the collection he writes to Daniel Halvey:

For what is manly mockery to me?
Let Sodom’s apples burn, acre by acre,
I’d savor still the sweat of those sweet limbs!
Behold a solar gold, a lunar nacre,
I’d…languish (an ars moriendi of my own),
deaf to the knell of dreary Decency!

There are also amorous poems in the collection written to women, such as “Lines to Laure Hayman” in which he recollects her beautiful form.  Another poem is written to an actress whom he saw play the role of Cleopatra.  These lines imply an admiration of the woman that goes beyond friendly recognition of her performance:

You have surely dethroned the Egyptian Queen
You are at once artist and work of art
Your spirit is deep as is your regard,
‘Though no beauty like hers was never seen.

The sentiments in the poems jump from love and friendship, “Love draws from the heart a scent of roses,” to loss and agony, “So tired of having suffered, more tired of having loved.” These lines represent the waves of emotions Proust rides and jots down as he is living his everyday life.

Proust is also petty, bawdy and even vulgar. In one poem he writes:

They say a Russian, may God preserve his soul,
Managed to rouse a flutter of sensation
In Ferdinand’s leathery, tanned, and well-worked hole
By slipping in up to the hilt his brave baton.

In a few of the poems written to his friends his instructs them to burn the poems after they have been read because the poems contains some unflattering verses about aristocrats within their social circle.

There are 104 poems in the collection in total.  None of them are very long which is appropriate as they are meant as little messages to friends in letters and oftentimes casually written on scraps of paper.  The notes in the back of the book are very helpful in understanding to whom the poems are written and what their relationships were to Proust.  For a amusing glimpse into the candid world of this famous poet I highly recommend perusing this dual-language edition.

About The Author:
ProustMarcel Proust is a French novelist best known for his 3000 page masterpiece À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time), a pseudo-autobiographical novel told mostly in a stream-of-consciousness style. Born in the first year of the Third Republic, the young Marcel, like his narrator, was a delicate child from a bourgeois family. He was active in Parisian high society during the 80s and 90s, welcomed in the most fashionable and exclusive salons of his day. However, his position there was also one of an outsider, due to his Jewishness and homosexuality. Towards the end of 1890s Proust began to withdraw more and more from society, and although he was never entirely reclusive, as is sometimes made out, he lapsed more completely into his lifelong tendency to sleep during the day and work at night. He was also plagued with severe asthma, which had troubled him intermittently since childhood, and a terror of his own death, especially in case it should come before his novel had been completed. The first volume, after some difficulty finding a publisher, came out in 1913, and Proust continued to work with an almost inhuman dedication on his masterpiece right up until his death in 1922, at the age of 51. Today he is widely recognised as one of the greatest authors of the 20th Century, and À la recherche du temps perdu as one of the most dazzling and significant works of literature to be written in modern times.


Filed under Literature in Translation, Poetry

April Is Poetry Month: What are you reading?


Essential PoemsI received a collection of poems from Open Road Integrated Media which was put together especially for NetGalley users.  I enjoyed the collection because it allowed me to sample so many works from different poets. My favorites from the collection are the poems written by Erica Jong and May Sarton.

Erica’s Jong’s poems are short, yet vivid reflections on love and loss of love.  There are only three of her poems included in this collection but the sample is enough to understand that Jong adeptly employs the rhetorical question to make the reader think about his or her own experiences with lost love: “Who loved you so relentlessly?” Her use of the chiasmus (ABBA patterns) is equally thought-provoking: “I want to hate you and I cannot. But I cannot love you either.”  One of my favorite poetic devices in Latin poetry, especially Catullus, is the polyptoton, the use of the same word in different forms.  I found in Erica Jong’s poetry some of most intriguing uses of polyptoton I have encountered in English poetry: “Betrayal does that–betrays the betrayer” and “It is our old love I love, as one loves certain images from childhood-.”  For more information on Erica Jong and her full collection of poems as well as her novels, visit Feed Your Need to Read.

Poetry Preview:

I have acquired quite a few collections of poetry which I will be reviewing throughout the month of April.  This is a little Proust Poemsteaser of what is to come.  One of the collections that I am most excited about is The Collected Poems of Proust, published as a dual language edition with the original French of each poem facing the English translation.  These poems show us a very different side of the novelist and were written throughout his life, from the age of seventeen to his death at the age of fifty.

The next collection I will be reviewing are a series of poems written by Edith Wharton that are include in the Dover Reader.  This collection of her writings includes her most famous novels, Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence, but it also contains four of her poems which I am excited to read.

Poems about CatsI also have also acquired a book called “Poems about Cats.”  Now don’t laugh, but my love of our furry friends was not the only thing that drove me to request this tome from the publisher.  This collection includes poems about felines from famous poets such as Shakespeare, Wadsworth, and Blake.  Who knew that so many famous poets were also admirers of our feline friends!  The book also includes whimsical drawings on each page by the famous illustrator Yasmine Surovec.

Finally, I will review the City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology: 60th Anniversary Edition.  Poetry from some of City Lights Poetsthe most famous American and international poets are gathered together in this one special volume; Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Julio Cortázar, and Frank O’Hara all have poems featured in the collection.

I will mention that I am also translating the poems of Catullus and selections from Vergil’s Aeneid this semester with my students.  I would be remiss if I didn’t give a nod to my favorite Latin poets.  I will, however, spare everyone from my reviews of these poets for fear that my commentary would be much too lengthy to keep anyone’s attention.

This is my poetry review list for April.  I would love to hear what everyone else is reading for poetry month!  Let me know in the comments.


Filed under Classics, Poetry