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Proust reads and reading Proust

November 20, 2022 18 comments

Days of Reading by Marcel Proust (1905) Original French title: Sur la lecture. Suivi de Journées de lecture.

Proust by Samuel Beckett (1931) French title: Proust. Translated by Edith Fournier.

Proust died on November 18th, 1922. The centenary of his death has been celebrated here with books, TV specials, newspapers, podcasts, radio shows, exhibitions and so on. I meant to publish this billet on November 18th but life got in the way.

Days of Reading is a short essay by Proust, where he muses over the pleasure and the experience of reading.

As often, Proust shows his talent for a catching incipit.

Il n’y a peut-être pas de jours de notre enfance que nous ayons si pleinement vécus que ceux que nous avons cru laisser sans les vivre, ceux que nous avons passés avec un livre préféré.There are perhaps no days of our childhood that we lived as fully as the days we think we left behind without living at all:the days we spent with a favorite book. Translation by John Sturrock.

In the subsequent pages, he remembers the glorious hours he spent with books as a child. He wanted to be left alone with his books and not do anything else. I can relate to that.

His thoughts about finishing a book, the fact that we leave the characters on the last page to never “see” them again is relatable too. Who has never reached the end of a book thinking “That’s all? What will become of them now?”. He muses over our relationship with books, our connection to writers and how they lead us to beauty and intelligence. La lecture est une amitié, he says. And yes, reading is a friendship with books, authors and imaginary worlds.

While Proust talks about his love for reading in Days of Reading, Beckett writes about his response to Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time.

Beckett wrote Proust, his essay about In Search of Lost Time, in 1931, when he was only 25. Time Regained had only been published four years before in 1927. Beckett was an earlier adopter of Proust and it says something about his ability to understand modern literature and spot a breakthrough in literature, even if Proust wasn’t taken so seriously at the time.

Proust is not an academic essay, it’s the brilliant review of a book through the eyes a passionate reader. Beckett shares his experience with reading Proust and displays a deep knowledge of Proust’s work.

He gives very detailed and precise examples – he quotes from memory, a nightmare for the French translator of his essay because she needed to find the actual quotes in French…He shows a profound understanding of what Proust intended to do with his work and he was ahead of his time.

Beckett goes through all of Proust’s favourite themes: the force of habit, the importance of a setting, his fascination for the Guermantes, his passion for art (literature, painting, opera, music, theatre and architecture.) He has valid points about the relationship between Albertine and the Narrator.

And then come thoughts about memory, remembrance and our thought process. He gives his perception of how memories are triggered by sensations.

Proust is an impressive review of Proust’s masterpiece and it’s a tribute to Beckett’s intelligence as much as an ode to Proust. It’s an excellent companion book for any reader of La Recherche, as we have nicknamed In Search of Lost Time in French.

Proust reads and Beckett reads Proust. I missed the actual day of the centenary of Proust’s death but still decided to bake madeleines to celebrate this anniversary.

Happy Days by Samuel Beckett

June 11, 2012 17 comments

Happy Days by Samuel Beckett. French title: Oh! Les beaux jours!

Obviously, plays are made to be watched in a theatre. Some can be read but I’ve always thought that the Theatre of the Absurd should be watched. It makes more sense, in a way, with the images. This is why I don’t read Beckett’s plays, I’d rather watch them if I have the chance. So far I’ve seen Endgame and a theatre version of Le Dépeupleur (The Lost Ones). I’m waiting for Godot to come to my city.

So here I was a couple of nights ago, attending Happy Days, very excited to watch Catherine Frot playing Beckett.

In Happy Days, Winnie is trapped up to the waist in a hole in the earth. She can’t move, can’t get out. Her husband Willy lives in a burrow near her. The whole play consists in watching Winnie live her curious life. She wakes up, full of rituals. The spectator feels that she cuts her day into small moments to pass the time, clinging to rituals to keep her sanity. She rejoices in slight happy moments, tries to grasp happiness from any positive event. On a purely rational level, it’s absurd. I watched it on a double channel. On one channel, I was just enjoying the ride, having fun at the comic stemming of the Absurd. On the other channel, I was analyzing, comparing the situation to life in general. There are many serious themes in this play.

Winnie works to find the motivation to keep on living. She tries to remain upbeat, shouts at Willy, claiming his attention. He barely acknowledges her presence, sometimes granting her questions with a grunt but most of the time remaining silent. He never actually talks to her. And she talks, talks, talks. She does it to cheer herself up, to fight despair and loneliness. It raises the inevitable question: how do you go on living when you’re trapped into an uncomfortable situation? In a domineering family, in a loveless marriage, in a mind-numbing job, in poverty? In a life you haven’t chosen? And when you’re ill and there is no cure?

Again, as before in The Tartar Steppe, I thought about Gary’s quest on hope and human strength. What makes us keep on living and fighting for it when it is hopeless or useless? What keeps us standing no matter what? Where do we find the capacity to adapt to terrible situations? The fort in Dino Buzzati’s novel, this hole in that Beckett play, concentration camps in Gary’s quest. Gary sees Hope as the big dope that keeps us standing despite the storm.

Winnie also tries to retain her humanity. She needs to know that Willy is hearing her, not necessarily listening, but at least that he’s within earshot. She couldn’t bear to be alone and have no one to acknowledge her as a human. We need to interact with other people to feel human. Like trumps, she tries to remain clean and part of her ritual is to apply make-up and do her hair. Abandoning that is starting to lose the battle against despair and dehumanisation.

Catherine Frot was Winnie. She looked like a siren ensconced in a huge oyster shell planted in the middle of a desert. Her body is locked in her hole and it restrains her movements. Her mind is still the same but she doesn’t have the same velocity, her body’s possibilities reduced by her condition. Old age, that’s what I thought, the body as a fortress for the mind, as Proust describes it is Le Temps Retrouvé. Your mind remains young and your body fails you.

The décor was fantastic, with great lights. As expected, Catherine Frot was excellent. Her face is really mobile; she can show many emotions with a frown, a lifted eyebrow, a pout. Her diction is perfect, no need to shout to be heard in the distance. I’m happy I had the opportunity to see her in that role and to have her as a middleman to approach Beckett’s work.

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