Sunday, August 21, 2011

"For a long time . . . ": On asparagus

Adriaen Coorte (c. 1663-after 1707), Still Life (Asparagus) (1697), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Image found here.

For a long time (since my college days, in fact) I have owned the hardback 3-volume C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin translation of Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, and for a long time now I have been promising myself that I would read it in its entirety. Uh-huh. Long ago, I once taught (and have since forgotten a good deal of) Swann's Way. Long ago, I was younger, too.

A couple of weeks ago, therefore, I started rereading Swann's Way as my bedtime reading, and the plan is to make Proust my bedtime reading till I finish the thing. This may take a while; but then again, this thing is not meant to be rushed through. Example: Last week, the Mrs. regaled me with a lengthy recounting of events in The 19th Wife, which she was then reading (and which she would recommend, by the way). She didn't ask me, So what's going on in Swann's Way? I told her later that day that, had she asked, I would have told her, "Well, I've just read 4 pages of description of the stained glass windows in Combray's church of Saint-Hilaire . . . "

And so it goes with Proust. It's not what one would call plot-driven. Rather, it immerses the reader in the daily, the ordinary; at its best (assuming, of course, you are a reader who is predisposed toward such writing), you get so caught up in the richness of Marcel's (our narrator's) descriptions that you don't notice that anything is, you know, happening. And yet, things are happening. Life is happening. Pay attention to it, too, Proust seems to argue implicitly--this is the space, after all, in which we spend the vast majority of our lives. That's pretty simple, I know, but it's all I have for the moment.

Anyway. From time to time, you may see bits and pieces of Proust "here" over the coming months as I read this thing.

As this post's title and picture suggest, you'll now hear a bit about asparagus:

I would stop by the table [in the kitchen], where the kitchen-maid had shelled them, to inspect the platoons of peas, drawn up in ranks and numbered, like little green marbles, ready for a game; but what most enraptured me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations to their white feet--still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed--with an iridescence that was not of this world. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form and who, through the disguise of their firm, comestible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of earliest dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognise again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeare's Dream) at transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume.

Poor Giotto's Charity, as Swann had named her, charged by Françoise with the task of preparing them for the table, would have them lying beside her in a basket, while she sat there with a mournful air as though all the sorrows of the world were heaped upon her; and the light crowns of azure which capped the asparagus shoots above their pink jackets were delicately outlined, star by star, as, in Giotto's fresco, are the flowers encircling the brow or patterning the basket of his Virtue at Padua. (I:131)

[I don't know whether it is a good thing or a bad thing that there's little room in the world of ad copy for writing like this.]

Over the course of many, many pages, Marcel reveals Françoise, the chief housekeeper at the house in Combray, to be a complex character. He admires her but knows that she can be hard on those in her charge--hence the kitchen-maid's virtuous, even beautiful weariness in the passage above. But it's the extent of Françoise's harshness that Marcel does not (yet) recognize:
There is a species of hymenoptera observed by Fabre, the burrowing wasp, which in order to provide a supply of fresh meat to her offspring after her own decease, calls in the science of anatomy to amplify the resources of her instinctive cruelty, and, having made a collection of weevils and spiders, proceeds with marvellous knowledge and skill to pierce the nerve-centre on which their powers of locomotion (but none of their other vital functions) depends, so that the paralysed insect, beside which she lays her eggs, will furnish the larvae, when hatched, with a docile, inoffensive quarry, incapable of flight or of resistance, but perfectly fresh for the larder: in the same way Françoise had adopted, to minister her unfaltering resolution to render the house uninhabitable to any other servant, a series of stratagems so cunning and so pitiless that, many years later, we discovered that if we had been fed on asparagus day after day throughout that summer, it was because their smell gave the poor kitchen-maid who had to prepare them such violent attacks of asthma that she was finally obliged to leave my aunt's service. (I:134-135)

This sort of organizing of information--the initial memory or composite of memories, then its later, fuller explication--occurs again and again in Remembrance of Things Past. I'll have more to say about that, via an early symbol of it in Swann's Way, in my next post on this novel.


R. Sherman said...

Reading the Proust, I was reminded of something P.J. O'Rourke wrote about similar passages in Anna Karenina:

There's Tolstoy going on for pages about the Russian peasant's relationship to yickity-yack, and me going, "Leo, why'd she ***k the guy?"

Stated differently, it's still about the plot.


John B. said...

Well, yes, Randall. I like a good plot, too, and I'm not going to be the one to claim that Proust's approach makes that less true for me or anyone else. What I find intriguing to think about when reading him, though, is how by comparison even the richest conventional narratives are pretty thin in the ol' description department. That's not a criticism--just an observation: Proust makes the reader aware of just how much conventional narrative must sacrifice in the service of story.

Of course, just as you (and O'Rourke) imply, one could argue that Proust would/could have done done well to spare his reader a whole lot of Marcel's ruminations. Sure. I'll just suggest, though, that all plots get teased out of that matrix of experience as we seek to make sense of our existence of that of others--no matter how true a given plot feels, there's always an element of artificiality to it . . . or at least a sense that someone else could very possibly tell this story in a very different way, or even not at all in favor of another one. Proust, in his best Modernist pose of Artist-as-god, creates for his reader something of what all of that feels like to do that. He knows where all this writing is headed, of course, but his readers don't--and the conceit is that neither does Marcel, at least not yet.

It's a pretty neat trick. I think also, though, that I'm glad to be reading this very long and unconventional novel because it makes me more alert to how and why stories are told the way they are in the more conventional ones. But that's just me.