Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Proust in the blackout

My knowledge of wartime blackouts mostly comes from World War II London, from Anthony Powell's furtive rooftop conversations and Julian MacLaren-Ross's drunken pub crawls. Neither offers a moment of beauty like that found in this description of the blackout in Paris during World War I, taken from Finding Time Again, in the recent translation by Ian Patterson:
The moonlight created effects that are normally unknown in the city, even in the middle of winter; its beams spreading across the snow on the boulevard Haussmann that there was nobody now to shovel away, just as they might have done on a glacier in the Alps. The outlines of the trees were revealed, sharp and pure against the golden-blue snow, with all the delicacy of a Japanese painting or a Raphael background; as shadows, they stretched out over the ground from the very foot of each tree, as one often sees them in the country when the rays of the setting sun flood the meadows, creating reflections of their evenly spaced trees. But by a wonderfully delicate subtlety, the meadows over which these tree shadows, weightless as souls, extended was a paradisal meadow, not green but of a white so dazzling, by virtue of the moonlight which shone on to the jade snow, that it might have bee woven entirely from the petals of flowering pear trees. And in the squares, the divinities of the public fountains holding jets of ice in their hands looked like statues made of some twofold material, for whose creation the artist had set out to make a pure marriage of bronze and crystal. On rare days such as these the houses were all completely dark.
Lyricism in Proust is usually associated with memory or emotion, or with scenes that evoke the two; this freestanding bit of appreciation of beauty is rare enough to make the reader stop and admire.

Then it gets even better, as the human element re-enters the scene:
But in the spring, on the other hand, every now and then, in defiance of police regulations, a private town house, or just one floor of a house, or even just one room of one floor, not having closed its shutters, appeared, as if independently supported by the impalpable darkness, like a projection of pure light, like an apparition without substance. And the woman whom, lifting up one's eyes, one could make out in that gilded shadow, took on, in this night in which one was lost and in which she too seemed cloistered, the veiled and mysterious charm of an oriental vision.
I don't usually think of Proust having much in common with Borges, but am I wrong in linking the wisftul, romantic tone of that passage with some of Borges's suggestions of fleeting moments of knowledge, even of prescience? Or, if you don't buy that comparison, how about the urbane, modernist evening pleasures of Jacques Tati's Playtime?

Finally, as in life, the vision must end:
Then one walked on, and nothing else interrupted the monotonous tramp of one's constitutional in the rustic darkness.
But the walk continues with the knowledge--always there, but most often dormant--that the stars and the shadows are all around us, silent sharers of the city night.

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