Sunday, May 17, 2015

Marcel Proust on Love

Sometimes, in reading Marcel Proust’s great novel, it seems as if he is clueless on the subject of love. There are passages in In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past (the title changes depending on the translation), where the narrator seems oblivious to the realities of his own heart.

Portrait of Marcel Proust by Jacques-Émile Blanche in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris
For instance, in the second volume of the novel, Within a Budding Grove, the narrator gets the brush-off from his big crush, Gilberte: “On several occasions I sensed that Gilberte was anxious to put off my visits.” Duh! It took him this long to get the hint?

What about the fact that the narrator’s excitement in seeing Gilberte is ten times hers whenever they meet? And what about the reality that no one could possibly feel comfortable with the narrator’s overbearing love? He wanted to “smother” Gilberte with flowers every single day, until he found out by chance she had a boyfriend, when he glimpsed them walking together on the Champs-Elysées. How could he not have guessed?

In any case, it takes the narrator another 65 pages, closely spaced, finally to conclude, “I had arrived at a state of almost complete indifference to Gilberte.” Even then, incredibly, he’s still shlepping the torch for her—he is so pained by his beloved’s rejection that he can’t bear to set eyes on her.

Here is perhaps Proust’s most famous pronouncements on love, from this same section of the novel: “No doubt very few people understand the purely subjective nature of the phenomenon that we call love, or how it creates, so to speak, a supplementary person, distinct from the person whom the world knows by the same name, a person most of whose constituent elements are derived from ourselves."


But is love purely a subjective phenomenon? Is the beloved really only a phantom third person to the lover? Maybe some of the time, but then what is all this talk about, “I just wanna get next to you,” to quote the old soul tune, so often repeated in current rap songs. Not to mention the five billion condoms sold each year worldwide. I’m not convinced that the subjective nature of love is Proust’s most “penetrating” insight.

What I do love about Proust’s understanding of love are those passages where he has X-ray vision into the truth of human emotions. In the midst of the narrator’s angst about Gilberte, for instance, there are sentences that are so honest and full of close observation of the heart and its trickery, that no one else could untangle those feelings:

“We are, when in love, in an abnormal state, capable of giving at once to the most apparently simple accident, an accident which may at any moment occur, a seriousness which in itself it would not entail. What makes us so happy is the presence in our hearts of an unstable element which we contrive perpetually to maintain and of which we cease almost to be aware so long as it is not displaced.”

What an incredible description of someone in love—that altered state, where the presence of the beloved in the lover’s mind and body electrifies even trivial moments! And isn’t it so true that the excitement of love is partly the way it kicks over our everyday experience and makes us tremble with life for that very reason? This passage is an example of where Proust’s insights into love really hit home for me. You have to dig for those nuggets in his prose, rather than taking his theory as his only dictum on the subject of love.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
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How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

Monday, May 4, 2015

Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast

Until recently I’d never read Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, his memoir of expatriate artists in Paris in the 1920s. It’s a time period that fascinates me, partly because there was such a hive of English-language literary talent in that beautiful city during that decade. Hemingway’s recollections include personal anecdotes about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Ford Madox Ford, and others.

Ernest Hemingway
Some of the writing in A Moveable Feast is stunning. Hemingway has the ability to describe an incident that yanks you right into the experience. His long, breathless sentences give you the sense that he can’t wait to tell you about what he has seen. There are wonderful passages where he describes skiing in Austria:

“I remember the smell of the pines and the sleeping on the mattresses of beech leaves in the woodcutters’ huts and the skiing through the forest following the tracks of hares and of foxes. In the high mountains above the tree line I remember following the track of a fox until I came in sight of him and watching him stand with his right forefoot raised and then go carefully to stop and then pounce, and the whiteness and the clutter of a ptarmigan bursting out of the snow and flying away and over the ridge.”

Pure poetry. I also love the passage in the book about a boy who led a small herd of goats through the Latin Quarter each morning, making the rounds of the alleyways, playing his pipes to advertise his wares. The boy would milk a goat on demand for a customer, who brought a pail or pot to collect the milk.

There are many sections of this book, though, that make me wonder why a person would write such negative observations about his friends in a public work of literature. Hemingway praises the writing of his buddy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, but he savages Fitzgerald personally. Why write down an incident where Fitzgerald told Hemingway in a bar that his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, thought his penis was too small? Hemingway recounts how he had Fitzgerald pull down his pants in the bathroom to verify that his anatomy was adequate, and then took him to the Louvre to compare his parts to the classical sculptures. Funny, maybe, but so belittling to his friend (in more ways than one!). Not to mention the tell-all accounts of the drinking binges of F. Scott and Zelda.

The only people Hemingway has much good to say about are his wife, Hadley, whom he admits to cheating on at the end of the book; his son, whom he calls by the cute nickname of Mr. Bumby; and Ezra Pound. Hemingway repeatedly describes Pound as a “saint” in A Moveable Feast. It may be true that Pound raised funds to support the writers he admired, such as T.S. Eliot, but it seems extremely odd to beatify Pound, who made virulently anti-Semitic radio broadcasts and told U.S. troops they were fighting on the wrong side in the battle against fascism in World War II. Since Hemingway compiled the manuscript of A Moveable Feast after the war ended, he couldn’t plead ignorance of Pound’s actions.


All of these oddities in A Moveable Feast are a strong reminder of the changes that have taken place since Hemingway’s time. The out-of-control machismo that Hemingway championed in almost all his writing rings very false now. It makes Hemingway look like a kind of schoolyard bully wannabe. Not only that, the machismo dates much of Hemingway’s work. All that makes me wonder what Ernest Hemingway could have been if he had used his enormous talent with more generosity and compassion.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer