These two words, an adjective and adverb, are important to me for different reasons. Whether I am reading or writing I value the unpredictable. I am relieved that some reviews of my book ‘If I Chance to Talk a Little Wild’ have referred to its unpredictable nature. Just now I wrote the word ‘nature’ without thinking there are immediate associations to the fact that some of the most unthinkable happenings or dramas, or tragedies in the universe are due to the unpredictable nature of the human personality and the universe. Today – I will come back to my thoughts about the importance of the usage of ‘anyway’ another day – I want to draw attention to the unpredictable nature of Proust’s writing and how I have been consciously and unconsciously influenced by him.
I have been invited by my professional member organisation The Site for Contemporary Psychoanalysis to do a gig with my friend and colleague Christopher Pendergast, formerly the editor of the Penguin translation of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu published in 2002, and the author of Proust the Skeptic: Mirages and Mad Beliefs published in 2013. As preparation I have decided to re-read ‘Cities of the Plains’ (Moncrieff translation) otherwise referred to as ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ (Penguin).
‘Part One’ is a cruel and vindictive description of ‘the descendants of the inhabitants of Sodom who were spared by the fire of heaven’. Proust leaves no stones unturned in his callous and idiosyncratic autopsy viz … (only today I discovered that viz is the abbreviation of videlicet, such a mysterious word) his documentation of the unpredictable vagaries of human sexuality, whose ranting of an unmetabolised, prejudiced, and often ludicrous catalogue in Part One, I suspect mirror his own unresolved or transgressive appetites. Part One is not an easy read. It is a catalogue both of prejudice and denial, but also of Proust’s observation of the unpredictable and unreliable nature of ‘gender’ and the social persona/mask. In this section I found myself wishing that Proust, and not only his translations, had acquired the benefit of a sympathetic editor. As the novel was published posthumously there was not to be any editor of the manuscript but only many, as far as the author was concerned, rejections and subsequently unimagined translators. His novel was rejected by publishers throughout his lifetime and only one section was self published in a vanity edition.
Having managed to endure and reflect upon the crazed vision of human sexuality, and as it seems to me, Proust’s unconscious self-mirroring in Part One, I had not been enthusiastic about continuing this particular volume until this morning when the unpredictable happened. ‘Part Two’ opens with a sublime and tender description of landscape, which I had forgotten, or confined to the borders of lost memory, of the Luxor Obelisk in Place de la Concorde, Paris, whose incongruous presence fills me with wonder.
Albeit it was past nine o’clock it was still the light of day that on the Place de la Concorde was giving the Luxor obelisk the appearance of being made of pink nougat. Then it diluted the tint and changed the surface to a metallic substance so that the obelisk not only became more precious but seemed to have grown more slender and almost flexible. You imagined that you might have twisted it in your fingers, had perhaps already distorted its outline. The moon was now in the sky like a section of orange delicately peeled although slightly bruised. But presently she was to be fashioned of the most enduring gold. Sheltering alone behind her a poor little star was to serve as sole companion to the lonely moon, while she, keeping her friend protected, but bolder and striking ahead would brandish like an irresistible weapon, like an Oriental symbol, her broad and marvellous crescent of gold. (Moncrieff)
In terms of Proust’s unpredictability and the impossibility of ever being able to catch up with his observations on life, love, sexuality, and death – as impossible as the proverb of putting salt onto a sparrow’s tail, I offer the following small tribute to him and his love of ‘pink’ in my book, ‘If I Chance to Talk a Little Wild’:
Involuntary memories of lost landscapes break through my thoughts in stone flashings of alchemical gold. The unrelenting flint of the church is crumbling into a livelihood of pink dusk that glows into other sun-dying tones. Pink is my favourite colour. It always has been. Pink does not only belong to fairy tale princesses and little girls like Bell, who do not at all like slugs and snails, let alone puppy dog tails, but who adore pink. Vascular shades of pink speak to me about life and love; they pour in and out of Lucien Freud’s tumescence and soothe Auerbach’s remorseless eye. Pink for Matisse and rose for Picasso. Proust’s eye seized upon Titian’s palette of violent pink until it was Bacon’s turn. Rudolph Steiner believed that colour reflects the spirit realm, which is infused with (and, in a sense, consists of) colour. Pink is associated with birth, healing, love and life. Hokusai dreamt in pink. While Philip Guston was perhaps the pinkest.
Christopher Prendergast compares Proust to Goethe who was also a natural-born chromophiliac: instinctively drawn to colour for its own sake, and seeing it not only as a feature OF the world but as a force in it. ‘Mirages and Mad Beliefs: Proust the Skeptic’ (Princeton).
It should not surprise anyone that Proust loved the pink, as did his first mentor Ruskin. Its quartz and lambent hue, which stretched beyond the cherry trees at Combrai to the basilica on St. Mark’s Square, was engraved on Proust’s soul and climaxed when Proust transformed the colours of the Venetian basilica into his vision of a Fortuny haute couturegown which the Narrator bought for Albertine: And the sleeves were lined with a cherry pink which is so peculiarly Venetian that it is called Tiepolo pink.
Marcel Proust’s novel, his mimesis of life, is always unpredictable, cruel, sometimes murderous but equally tinted with joy, tenderness, astonishment and wonder.