Before turning the last page, I’ve been trying to reread some of the masterpieces of literature that I was force fed as a youth when ill equipped to digest them. The past few months I’ve been chewing on French literature. I started small (in length not quality) with Stendhal and Flaubert. The Rossini crazed Stendhal was an appropriate beginning. Julian Sorel’s misadventures in The Red and the Black were dazzlingly depicted and I was swept away. The understated eroticism was palpable. How could I have missed all this as a student?
Madame Bovary had bored a tattoo on my brain as a high school student which still pulsates. Yet when, with much trepidation, I took it up again I couldn’t put it down. Unlike almost everybody else I found Emma Bovary a sympathetic character. She’s trying to make something of her life; no matter that she does it badly. She’s not the maddeningly masochistic and solipsistic woman that is Anna Karenina whom everyone seems to find sympathetic. I snuck the Tolstoy in between Flaubert and Proust. I couldn’t wait for the fatal train to arrive. Again unlike many critics I didn’t think Anna Karenina anywhere near War and Peace. The former a good novel by a great author, the latter the greatest of novels.
Back to Flaubert’s whose dazzling style and uncanny humor make the novel (Madame Bovary) as good as any before or since. The scene in the coach is a tour de force. In keeping with this site’s connection to opera the novel contains a scene at a performance of Lucie Di Lammermoor.
Thus warmed up I approached the biggest elephant in the canon. Proust’s monument to the prolix had defeated me on many previous excursions into Remembrance of Things Past (or In Search of Lost Time if you prefer). I had never before gotten more than 300 pages into it. But this time I made it all the way through.
I have a friend whose intelligence and discernment I greatly admire even if he is a devout Wagnerian. He has constantly urged me to attempt Proust one more time as he thinks the dinotherian novel one of the great masterpieces of art. I did and I did – get through it. I think my first reflection after this feat was stupefaction. It was much the same as my reaction to Gray’s Anatomy which long as it is is only half the size of Proust’s novel. As I was making my way to the end (of the novel, I never did get through Gray’s Anatomy) I was swept away by the seemingly infinite procession of similes. They’re as numerous as the suns in the Milky Way and almost as luminous.
My interest in the book never flagged though it was the same as I get from solving an interesting problem of pathophysiology. I love the problem, but only for its solution. With Proust there is no solution. Nevertheless, I can see why so many are so taken with him. The atomization of the mundane can be fascinating. I can also understand why just as many are bored or put off by the semi-antisemitic supercilious snobbish narrator. Proust, who is the narrator no matter how he tries to disguise it, thought he was not Jewish even though his mother was. Had he lived another 20 years he would have discovered that a malign authority thought him such.
He feelings towards homosexuality seems as conflicted as that to his Jewishness. His use of “invert” to depict a homosexual and his fear of Albertine’s homosexuality seem at odds with his own position as an “invert”. So what to make of this strange and unique novel? I suppose that one should react to it the same as if one discovered that the Great Pyramid of Cheops were made of spider webs.
Next I turned to another pachyderm of French literature – Hugo’s Les Miserables. A smaller great beast, to be sure, but still a monster. In Hugo you have humanity writ large. His great digressions which always have a reason – eventually. [Hugo’s digressions are much more pertinent than Tolstoy’s reflection on inexorable history. The Russian learned a lot from Les Miserables when he wrote War and Peace.] His great language. His great characters. His vitality. All put him at the highest level of art. His magnificent ability to craft a scintillating plot without descending to the artifice of Scribe or Sardou.
Plays (which are remembered mostly for the operas they spawned especially Ernani and Rigoletto), poetry which I lack the ability to read, and the great novels which allow translation make him a prodigy of energy and revelation. He is the equal of Tolstoy and Dickens. Proust is to Hugo as Massenet is to Verdi. Hugo had the vulgarity that only the greatest geniuses achieve. It’s hard to believe that Hugo and Berlioz on the one hand and Flaubert and Proust on the other were all French. The 2 million Frenchmen who turned out for his funeral show how he touched the heart. He still does, but only if the particular heart is not cold. And he could also draw and paint. See the art of Victor Hugo.
Balzac and Zola are next. Then I may recross the channel.