Marcel Proust and The New Yorker

The September 24th, 2007 issue of The New Yorker magazine was the “style” issue but should have been called, judging by the number of Proust sightings within (five, by my count), the Proust issue.  Not that Proust wasn’t stylish, with those lavender gloves and dashing scarves, but oddly enough, for this being the style issue, none of the Proust sightings have to do with fashion.  Or maybe that’s not so odd, since when we think of Marcel, perhaps the first thing we think is not “he’s such a fashion plate….and he can write too!”  But maybe we should, after all, he lived at the height of the Belle Epoch and mingled with the beautiful people at the beautiful places, although from reading biographies of him I gather that he was considered somewhat odd in his choices of style and fashion.  But I digress.

Not so oddly, the first two sightings are within an article about memory, or rather loss of it, called “The Abyss” and written by Oliver Sacks.  It is about a man named Clive who, after a brain infection, is “left with a memory span of only seconds- the most devastating case of amnesia ever recorded”.  The title of the article refers to a quotation from Proust that the man’s wife, Deborah, uses to describe a form of rescue from obliviousness that her husband will never experience.  The quote is from the Overture to Swann’s Way, in which the Narrator (either Deborah or the author of this article ascribes this quote to Swann, but this is a mistake) describes waking up from a deep sleep:

“…and when I awoke in the middle of the night, not knowing where I was, I could not even be sure at first who I was; I had only the most rudimentary sense of existence, such as may lurk and flicker in the depths of an animal’s consciousness; I was more destitute than the cave-dweller; but then the memory- not yet of the place in which I was, but of various other places where I had lived and might now very possibly be- would come like a rope let down from heaven to draw me up out of the abyss of not-being, from which I could never have escaped by myself…”

This rope from heaven gives the Narrator back his “personal consciousness and identity.  No rope from heaven, no autobiographical memory will ever come down in this way to Clive” (quote from the article).   “The rope that is let down from Heaven for Clive comes not with recalling the past, as for Proust, but with performance…”  Somehow, Clive has retained his ability to play Bach, Handel, Mozart and other classical composers on the piano, and this remarkable ability in the face of such profound amnesia is the focus of Dr. Sacks article.

Marcel Proust, through the course of his novel, will find the key to recalling lost time in everyday objects, sounds, smells.  This man, Clive, not only cannot find his lost time in this way, he doesn’t even know that he has lost time-except for his ability to recognize his wife (although he can’t remember that he just saw her five minutes ago) and his astounding retention of music he learns to play on the piano- he is a man without a past, reborn every few seconds to a world that contains no memories for him.   

Perhaps some things are better left “un-remembered”.  The next sighting is from Francine du Plessix Gray, in her article entitled “The Surrealist’s Muse”, about art patron and artist’s muse Marie-Laure de Noailles.  In the 1950’s, du Plessix Gray was assigned by her editor at Elle magazine to interview de Noailles, a task which “daunted” the author and one that she apparently approached with trepidation.  She was right to be fearful, when she arrived at de Noailles residence, she was stared at by de Noailles and the beautiful young man with her, their looks “distinctly tainted with malice” and full of “haughty insolence”.  Her proffered handshake was ignored. 

“As I proceeded to interview her, any trace of tolerance she might have had for me was diminished by my lack of an adequate retort to the one query she put to me: ‘Men who love Proust have short penises, don’t you think?”

The less said about that remembrance, the better.

The last two sightings are brief.  In an article about Donatella Versace by Lauren Collins, we learn that Donatella’s brother Gianni (the one that was murdered) called their family retreat at Lake Como his “Proust” place.  Because it was a quiet, peaceful place to go to think and to rest?  Or because the bedrooms are lined with cork?  We are not told, we can only imagine.  And finally, from a brief book review of The Worst Intentions (by Alessandro Piperno): “…this wickedly scathing debut novel, a coruscating mixture of satire, family epic, Proustian meditation, and erotomaniacal farce…”  Sounds like something Marcel would have enjoyed, n’est-ce pas?

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4 comments on “Marcel Proust and The New Yorker

  1. Traveller says:

    if you are interested in learning more about Dr Oliver Sacks and his experiences with memory or rather loss/lack of it, you might enjoy reading his book of short plays entitled “The man who mistook his wife for a hat”. I have lots more info if you want

  2. […] For more on Proust, Memory, and a contrast with Oliver Sack’s book, The Abyss, see this post by Marie Mann, titled Marcel Proust and The New Yorker. […]

  3. […] which has been erased on the streets of our present remain visible in the maps of our past. Like Proust’s Madeline (see also my take on Proust and food), these old maps trigger memories and unlock stories of times […]

  4. […] which has been erased on the streets of our present remain visible in the maps of our past. Like Proust’s Madeline (see also my take on Proust and food), these old maps trigger memories and unlock stories of times […]

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