Starting Marcel Proust's Prisoner.
You can imagine my disappointment with Proust after going from ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ to ‘The Prisoner’. ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ is divided into small sections, 2 to 10 pages, most about 5, which function like individual dreams and mostly conform to the same structure.
(The section structure goes like this: the narrator reflects on something (or else jumps straight in with someone saying something bold, to which we could imagine immediately what Marcel’s silent response – thus inviting us to partake in the narrator’s voice as if it were our own consciousness). Then there is a short brilliant exchange of social fripperies, following by observations and jokes, more concluding social palaver, then the section concludes with a 55 word plus metaphor for which Proust is justly famous: at once the concluding sentence hypnotizes us with an image, fulfils our desire for aesthetic pleasure, summarises the foregoing with a bon mot, cracks a joke, and returns to the sublime tone which is first introduced at the start of the novel series, that of the dreaming half-awake author imagining his past back into existence. It is an incredibly subtle literary device, comparable in English to the lines in Spencer’s Epithalamion where Spencer converts the pentameter into a hexameter for the final line of each stanza, but in Proust, elevated to the status of prose poetry, the final sentences of sections concludes with a Whitmanesque precision of tone and color. They are really remarkable and deserve a piece about them alone.)
Anyway, these small sections induce a deepening sense of entrancement in the reader, and though each piece invites deep reflection and comparison to other parts of the novel, the reader soon discovers that he will become completely bogged down if he stops to comprehend the waking dream that is Proustian prose, and – if he is to ever finish the novel at all – submits to the most light reading of the sections. The resulting experience is buoyant, humorous and delicate: reading Proust quickly can be compared to floating down the Mississippi with Tom Sawyer and Mark Twain, a kind of series of little heavens following one after another.
Then, all of a sudden, the dream ends. Marcel asks Albertine to come back to Paris and live with him. The next novel, ‘The Prisoner’, begins, and immediately it strains all loyalty to Proust to the limits.
First up, Albertine would never be allowed to come stay with Marcel. Second, Marcel would never, never, have the funds to support her in the fashion he does. Third, and worst of all, the tone of the novel reverts to the realism of the Odette sequence in ‘Swann’s Way’, a dry, almost didactical feeding-out of facts and observations about other people’s business - mostly Albertine's - with almost none of the rich wild intimacy of Marcel’s voice in the previous novel.
Maybe Marcel means to imply he has projected his inner life onto Albertine, and has become empty. Maybe – doubtless – Proust invites comparison between Swann and Odette’s jealousy and Marcel and Albertine’s codependent relationship. Maybe Prisoner needed revision it never got, Proust dying before he could edit. Whatever, the return to reality is dull, and I quit reading Proust for the last four months after finishing the superb 'Sodom and Gomorrah'.
Writing this piece has been a way of getting my mind ready to begin reading Proust again. I hope you have enjoyed it. If you decide to go sailing in an ocean of words as large as Monsieur Proust I suggest you write your impressions of it with a similar piece of writing as the foregoing, as a kind of life-jacket to keep you afloat through the rough waters. They do get choppy.