Saturday, February 16, 2013
Proust, for Those With a Memory
Bibliotheque nationale de France (BnF), Paris, France, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY
A cosmos is compressed into cryptic hieroglyphs in the Clare Eddy Thaw Gallery of the Morgan Library & Museum. Here is an exhibition so condensed, so distilled and in some ways so abstract and well suited to the gallery’s geometric space (which is a perfect cube), that unless you arrive properly prepared, you might leave as bewildered as prospective French publishers were when they rejected Marcel Proust’s “Du Côté de Chez Swann” (“Swann’s Way”), more than a century ago.
“Perhaps I am as thick as two short planks,” reads one of those evaluations, “but I cannot understand how a man can take 30 pages to describe how he turns round in his bed before he finally falls asleep.”
But anyone who reads that first volume of “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” (translated into English as “Remembrance of Things Past”) has no problem understanding how 30 pages might be required to capture the turnings of self-consciousness and their cascades of recollection. Or even, perhaps, how 3,000 more pages might be needed to scrutinize how sexual compulsion, aesthetic refinement and social perversity find expression in a cast of characters who can be as brilliant, creepy, climbing and compelling as their creator.
By now, Proust’s epic seven-volume novel (the last three were published posthumously in the 1920s) has become a touchstone of Western literature. And the new exhibition at the Morgan in honor of the first book’s centennial — “Marcel Proust and ‘Swann’s Way’: 100th Anniversary” — takes its status for granted, presuming familiarity.
This presumption is a mistake, I think, because the materials on loan here from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France are being shown for the first time outside of Paris. The Proust scholar Antoine Compagnon, the curator for the show, along with Robert Parks of the Morgan, has gathered notebooks and typescripts, doodles and galleys, postcards and photographs, all related to the creation of “Swann’s Way.” And while the label text is informative, first the deciphering of Proust’s handwriting is required, and then, for many, so is a linguistic decoding.