Poetry: Gate of Lilacs — Introduction | clivejames.com
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Gate of Lilacs :  Introduction

Because I was doing other things, such as earning a living, it took me fifteen years to learn French by almost no other method except reading A la recherche du temps perdu, so I was a long time getting to be as familiar with Proust’s great novel as most English readers become by reading a translation of it in a few months. Usually they get no further than the first couple of volumes but they are pleased to have made inroads into its frame of reference. They ought to be, in my view. Proust is not a whole world, as is sometimes claimed; but he was unbeatable at taking, for a basic subject, his own small world, the fashionable world in Paris in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries; and then, beyond that, analysing the irrepressible beginnings of the world of art that we all inhabit today, where creative people take first place in the rankings of prestige, and the old nobility come a distant third, somewhere behind ex-KGB billionaires with yachts the size of destroyers.

Leave Proust out and you miss some of the taste of that crucial time. Even while I was taking the long way round, however, I could tell that he was a mighty man, and I took notes in the endpapers of my Livre de Poche volumes as I slogged my way forward, French dictionary in hand. Later on, when I read the great Scott Moncrieff translation, Remembrance of Things Past, in order to see where I had been, I made more notes; and then more notes as I read the novel once again in the original, in the beautiful three-volume Pléiade edition; and then back to the English translation as it was augmented first by my dear friend Terence Kilmartin and then by the poet D. J. Enright; and so on. Last of all, after yet another pass through the Pléiade edition, which had itself been augmented to four volumes, I went page by page through In Search of Lost Time, the magnificent Modern Library six-volume edition as published in New York by another friend, Harry Evans — this, in my view, is the set for the young English-speaking student of Proust to have: a heavy number, perhaps, to lug to college, but what else do you want with you, The Lord of the Rings? — and I made notes all the way. The question loomed, however, of what I was to do with the notes.

I wasn’t a Proust expert — I’m still not — so there was no point in writing a learned essay, because it wouldn’t be nearly learned enough. I could perhaps write something about the poetry of his prose, but the idea seemed a bit abstruse, and not even he, exotic creature though he had been, was ever interested in alienating the public. On the contrary, he wanted to win prizes, and was quite capable of nobbling a previously hostile critic by taking him to lunch and pretending to consult him. (One of the critics that he nailed by this method, a notorious mediocrity, went on to claim that he had discovered Proust.)

Meanwhile, during this long pondering, the time came when I no longer had to knock myself out in television studios or by flying around the world making documentaries. I was free to do nothing except write critical essays and poems, the two things which I had always thought myself best at, while often wishing that I, like Proust, might have had private means in order to pursue them undisturbed. I had always thought the critical essay and the poem were closely related forms. It was only now, however, that I was struck with the idea of blending the two forms into one, primarily to do my share of recommending a great writer to the next generation, and incidentally to make something out of all those notes I had been taking through half a century of trying to get up to speed with Proust in two different languages.

During that same period, I had been occupied with Dante in the same way, but that made some kind of predictable sense, because I ended up translating him. Proust, however — always needy even when he was alive — demanded something less simple. If I wanted to talk about his poetry beyond the basic level of talking about this language — if I wanted to talk about the poetry of his thought — then the best way to do it might be to write a poem. There is nothing like a poem for transmitting a mental flavour. Instead of trying to describe it, you can evoke it. All it takes is everything you’ve ever learned about putting words one after the other.

Though I had been ill for several years by the time I got started with the composition of the poem, and had to reconcile myself to the idea that I might not get it done, I was still quite keen not to give my last gasp to a foolish notion. When it comes to the actual, lasting worth of what he is writing, the poet can never assume a sure outcome, but can judge the value of what he has in mind only by how it feels to write it down. That cruel professional fact, however, is just as true at the beginning of one’s career as at the end: and one advantage of old age is that one has become used to the uncertain nature of following a hunch, and perhaps less daunted by it.

On that level, I’m bound to say, I felt I was on to something new, strange, and worth the effort. But wouldn’t that be the precise feeling I would have if my brains were falling to pieces? It was something I had always wondered about Proust, and nowadays wondered more than ever as my weakened condition approximated his: how could he be sure that his last chapters were really all that great?

Well, they were; and finally, by following his creative instinct all the way until his breath gave out, he gave us something eternally unique. A la recherche du temps perdu is a book devoted almost entirely to his gratitude for life, for love, and for art. This much smaller book is devoted to my gratitude for him.

— Cambridge, 2016