Poetry: Gate of Lilacs 8: Excursus on Prose Style | clivejames.com
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Gate of Lilacs 8 :  Excursus on Prose Style

At the Grand Hotel in Balbec, on the terrace —
The gulls float like white petals on the sea —
The dowager Mme de Cambremer,
Tempting Marcel to luncheon at Féterne,
Where she plays the great lady, waves at him
The promise he will ‘find’ among her guests
The Comte de Crisenoy. Marcel remarks,
But silently, that he had never lost him
For the simple reason he had never met him.
He is cruel to her, but only in his thoughts,
And thus not cruel at all compared with what
The great do to the less great with their snubs
And polished sneers. For Proust has merely noted
A point of language. But the point lays bare
Her passion, almost desperate, to maintain
Her rank, though exiled far from the Faubourg,
Put out to grass here at the edge of things,
Where, just beyond the edge, the glittering sea
Echoes the drawing rooms now lost to her.
Oceans of trinkets and a velvet cape,
A hat perched perilously on her wig,
Her strained get-up is not the give-away:
Like her toothbrush moustache, it’s just a quirk.
Proust’s registration of the way she looks
Would, on its own, be no more than a spoof.
It’s what she says, in just a single phrase —
Or, if you like, it’s what he makes her say —
That proves him the anatomist. His prose
Is a descriptive catalogue of all
The things of this world in one gallery.
The painters that he loved, we should remember,
Had clean outlines. In that brave photograph
Of 1921, only a year
Before his death — the photograph in which
He stands so straight and seems to have a chest,
Though it was padding, packed beneath his shirt
To save him from the air — look to his right
And you will see the Jeu de Paume. He’d come,
For the last time he would ever leave his room,
To see the exhibition of Vermeer
(Before whose View of Delft he makes Bergotte
Fall ill and die), the master of lit space,
Whose clarities and textures are like his,
Clean-cut and accurate. Never believe
That Proust is merely an Impressionist
(The Impressionists aren’t ‘merely’ anyway)
Breathing a soft and pastel atmosphere
That blurs the furniture and takes the edge
Off any fleshly curve the way Vuillard,
In all his concentrated prettiness,
Makes any female’s face soft as the clothes
She wears and as the sofa she sits down in:
The chintz which in real life is glazed and hard,
But his paint turns it into brushed cashmere.
Proust strays, but not to hide. He sees the sense
Of form that underlies the fields of colour
Of the Impressionists. His sentences
Grow lengthy when he speculates and ponders,
But start and end in just the brevity
French aphorists have been so famous for
Since Pascal concentrated and distilled
The essence of Montaigne. La Rochefoucald
And Vauvenargues were models for Chamfort,
Who, when the Revolution threatened him
With a second stretch in the Madelonnettes
(The rats were heralds of the guillotine),
Attempted to forestall his execution
With a pistol and a knife, and got it wrong,
And, even as he lay there bathed in blood,
Fashioned with care a fitting epigram:
If not for me, that might have gone quite well.
(I’ve just remembered La Bruyère, who said
That self-indulgence and severity
Towards others were the same vice. He was right:
A quite rare quality among the wits.)
That whole tradition of terse cracking wise
Is there in Proust’s prose, leavened by respect
For actuality, the neutral gaze
Of the Encyclopedia: a mix of thought
With brutal fact, like bird-shot with bird-seed,
Art with the artless: the art of Diderot,
So broke at one stage that he sold his books
To Catherine the Great. (She left them there
In Paris, with a payment so he might
Look after them, although she must have known
His prose was gunpowder in quiet form.)
Back in the business of philosophy,
He found time to compose such master works
As his chapter on the woman blind from birth
Whose sense of hearing attained such a pitch
That she could see with it. Such treasure troves
Of observation wed to poetry
Were there for Proust to bend to a new use:
The work of fiction that flows like the facts
Of life, an ocean going through your hands
Into the future, and whose movement is
The actual subject, which is hard to grasp
Only because the instant is. But what
Combines these symbiotic elements —
The burning moment and the grand expanse —
Into a compound can be overlooked
Merely because it marked the fluent style
Of Proust’s dead enemy, Sainte-Beuve, whose sin,
In Proust’s eyes, was his urge to tangle up
The artist with the art, thus to locate
The way that writers wrote in how they lived.