Impressions de la recherche

Although my knowledge of French literature is rather shamefully fragmentary, I’ve at least, this year, managed to close one gap: I read À la recherche du temps perdu between January and last week-end. This was where I found a very funny allusion to esoteric monographs (it’s in the second book, À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs).

Did I like the book? This is probably far from the right question to ask in any case, but it’s therefore worth investigating in a post-modern spirit. Since I finished the whole of the seven volumes in about seven months, during which time I had to take care of many other activities, and also started (and often stopped) reading a fair number of other books, I was certainly finding something in Proust that kept me engaged in his work.

One technical aspect of Proust’s style that struck me was how he manages to capture the way that crucial events or characters will first appear informally and casually in life. Here’s for example the first time the narrator meets Gilberte while playing at the Champs-Élysées:

Retournerait-elle seulement aux Champs-Élysées? Le lendemain elle n’y était pas; mais je l’y vis, les jours suivants; je tournais tout le temps autour de l’endroit où elle jouait avec ses amies, si bien qu’une fois où elles ne se trouvèrent pas en nombre pour leur partie de barres, elle me fit demander si je voulais compléter leur camp, et je jouai désormais avec elle chaque fois qu’elle était là.

And here is the first appearance of the jeunes filles, among whome is Albertine:

J’aurais osé entrer dans la salle de balle, si Saint-Loup avait été avec moi. Seul je restai simplement devant le Grand-Hôtel à attendre le moment d’aller retrouver ma grand-mère, quand, presque encore à l’extrémité de la digue où elles faisaient mouvoir une tâche singulière, je vis s’avancer cinq ou six fillettes, aussi différentes, par l’aspect et par les façons, de toutes les personnes auxquelles on était accoutumé à Balbec, qu’aurait pu l’être, débarquée on ne sait d’où, une bande de mouettes qui exécute à pas comptés sur la plage — les retardataires rattrapant les autres en voletant — une promenade dont le but semble aussi obscur aux baigneurs qu’elles ne paraissent pas voir, que clairement déterminé dans leur esprit d’oiseaux.

This comes with no warning or no articifial build-up of something is going to happen, drumroll, drumroll.

I was also very touched by the last pages, which certainly affected my overall impression and reaction in a way that I’ve only felt before when finishing Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom (after which I went into a rather intense faulknerian phase during my PhD years). It seems that to understand Proust (as much as I can…), I would have to re-read the whole text, in the light of these last pages. Is that the expected reaction? It could well be… Will I do it? Who knows…

On a different note, I was amused to see that while the first Pléiade edition is a rather straightforward edition of the novel with short notes and biographical information (rather like the Library of America editions of Faulkner, for instance), the second edition succombs

Proust, compared
Proust, compared

to editorial inflation on a magnificent scale: the variants, esquisses, notes and notes on the esquisses, take up more space than the actual text!

Here is the first volume of the old edition:


compared with the second of the new edition:


This can of course be helpful, as are certainly useful the 125 pages of Liste des personnages cités which allow you to quickly locate all the places where Rembrandt, or the Marquis de Norpois, or Saint Simon, or any other character, real or imagined, makes an appearance in the whole text.


(There is a similar list for names of places and names of works of arts, again real or imagined).

Another thing I noticed is that the first edition doesn’t use accented letters as capitals at the beginning of sentences, while the second does:

No accent
No accent

compared with

Second, accented
Second, accented

Is the Kierkegaardian idea true? and other queries

In February, I was invited to give talks in Bristol and Oxford, and I spent the night after the second talk in a guest room of Worcester College. While looking at the brochure explaining the history of this college, I noticed that a previous guest had left a cryptic inscription, which I took a photograph of:


Can anybody make a guess of what is the first line? It is

What is the **** historical perspective?

but I can’t read the missing fourth word!

And what is the Kierkergaardian idea, really?

The many ways of affineness

Last Saturday, the OED Word of the Day was affineur. Now, I know very well what an affineur is (my favorite is Jean d’Alos, and I especially like his renowned Tome de Bordeaux, the excellence of which can probably be confirmed by Mr. Quomodocumque), but for a few seconds I had in mind the picture of a fearsome algebraic geometer busily transforming all projective varieties into affine ones.

I looked at the adjacent words in the OED; there is quite a list of them involving affine-ness in some way (listed here with dates of first use, as recorded in the OED); actually, affineness is not in the list:

  • affinage 1656
  • affinal 1609
  • affine 1509
  • affine v 1473
  • affined 1586, 1907
  • affineur 1976
  • affining 1606
  • affinitative 1855
  • affinitatively 1825
  • affinition 1824
  • affinitive 1579
  • affinity 1325

It is interesting to think of an algebraico-geometric meaning for each of them (especially the tongue twister affinitatively, and affinition)…

This will be counting but

For the first time ever, I have temporarily reached the top of the culture pecking order in France, since I was able to go see “Einstein on the Beach” during its run at the Théâtre du Châtelet in January. This was clearly “the” évènement to attend (even two months or so before, buying two good contiguous seats was almost impossible), and the reactions of the audience suggested that many people were there because of the “the” instead of their desire to see the évènement, and were correspondingly a bit nonplussed by the work. Thus the two people sitting on my right left after a bit more than a third of the opera. (It was clearly indicated that, during the performance, which is a bit longer than four hours and has no intermission, it was allowed to leave and come back as desired, but they did not reappear).

Personally, I knew the music extremely well and it was a great pleasure to finally see the full spectacle. I had already attended two other Robert Wilson stagings, and I like his style (i.e., I have no objection to watching a light pillar move from horizontal to vertical in the space of twenty minutes or so), but it was the first time I saw a full-length Glass opera live, and I’d have paid gladly quite a bit more than I did.

The full staging certainly answers a few of the puzzled questions one might get from the music alone. In particular, the scenes entitled “Dance 1” and “Dance 2” felt more alive when seen as, well, dances. In fact, I arbitrarily decided that the first represents electromagnetism (it begins with a voice saying “Bern, Switzerland, 1905”), and the second nuclear forces (a sinister character crosses the stage and I see it as representing the potential for evil arising from nuclear physics). Einstein would have appreciated that, despite the random-looking evolutions of the dancers, these were certainly not the result of dice throws, since collisions would certainly have been unavoidable otherwise.

One of the Paris representations was filmed, and shown on French television, so that it can be found on the internet. However, I watched it a bit, and the fact that there are many cameras giving different angles of view seems to diminish the full immersive effect of the live show. But that’s certainly better than nothing…