Saturday, July 9, 2011

Celebrating Marcel Proust's 140th Birthday

No one outside the hardcore Proustian community seems to have noticed yet that this Sunday, July 10, 2011, is the 140th birthday of Marcel Proust. I suggest celebrating the occasion by taking a long swig from the Modern Library 'Proust Six-Pack':

This is a box set of the complete In Search of Lost Time (A la recherche du temps perdu) in six sturdy paperback volumes, as translated into English by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and subsequently revised (twice) to bring it into line with the most recent French edition. (Ideally, of course, one should read Proust in French; I'll be working on that for the rest of my life...) I have my quibbles with some of Moncrieff's choices, but his translation remains the best Proust in English. I've sampled the other recent translations and found them flat, bland and unsatisfying, a weak stew. Moncrieff's work, on the other hand, is sinuously, Art Nouveau-ishly impressive enough to be a monument of English prose.

A single sentence in Robert Hughes's The Shock of the New convinced me that it's impossible to really know Proust until you've experienced Art Nouveau  architecture at its excessive best. So one might also celebrate Marcel's cent-quarantieme by watching Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara's great and beautiful 1984 documentary Antonio Gaudi. (It's available from the Criterion Collection and can be rented from Netflix.) This is an almost entirely wordless 72-minute visual essay that plays like a poem or a modernist symphony (or a Proustian novel), piling image upon image upon image, allowing breathtakingly photographed examples of Gaudi's works to speak for themselves. When a narrator's voice enters near the end, it seems to come only to demonstrate the superfluity of words. The images are the thing.

This would also be a good time to study some of the Old Masters that Proust especially loved: Chardin, Rembrandt, Vermeer. Look at Vermeer's View of Delft and try to find Bergotte's little patch of yellow wall (but don't kill yourself doing it):
That's how I'll be marking a date that should be as important as Bloomsday on the literary calendar.


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