Friday, August 28, 2009

Proust and Powell

In the rush of artistic exhilaration and literary speculation that makes the last half of the last book of In Search of Lost Time such a moving, memorable experience, the following passage, where Marcel first lays out his nascent narrative approach in detail, stood out:
It would not be possible to recount our relationship, even with a person we hardly knew, without recreating a succession of the most diverse settings of our life. So each individual--and I was one of these individuals myself--became a measure of duration for me each time he completed a revolution not just around himself, but around other people, and in particular by the successive positions he occupied in relation to me. And no doubt all these different planes, in relation to which Time, as I had just grasped in the course of this party, arranged my life, by giving me the idea that in a book whose intention was to tell the story of a life it would be necessary to use, in contrast to the flat psychology people normally use, a sort of psychology in space, added a new beauty to the resurrections that had taken place in my memory, by bringing the past into the present without making any changes to it, just as it was at the moment when it was the present, suppresses precisely this great dimension of Time through which a life is given reality.
Proust's description of a character making "a revolution around himself" and "the successive positions he occupied in relation to me" called to mind Anthony Powell, a writer who openly acknowledged his debt to Proust.

The well-known opening scene of A Question of Upbringing, the first novel in Powell's sequence A Dance to the Music of Time shows that influence as clearly as any other passage in Powell's work; after a description of some workmen warming their hands over a trash-barrel fire, Powell's narrator slips into a meditation:
[S]omething in the physical attitudes of the men themselves as they turned from the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin's scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked graybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality; of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.
As with Proust, I'm in some sense always reading Dance: I'd been thinking already of someday soon picking up where I'd last left off--with the third volume--and seeing Powell again through the lens offered by Proust has convinced me that now's the time.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:22 AM

    I am reading Dance with a view to moving on to Proust. Thanks for your comments on both!