Reading Proust By Kindle
Last week I bumped into myself near Oxford Circus. Well, not me exactly but a slightly older and much cooler version of my teenage self: strap-hanging in the rush hour with one finger tucked into the first few pages of Proust and with his thumb in the Appendix. By coincidence I have been re-reading Remembrance of Things Past in preparation for some talks that I am giving about landscape painting in the 1880s and 1890s. The experience has taken me back to the Summer of Love when I attempted to read it back to back with Joyce’s Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Having struggled my way through them, I read Island, Aldous Huxley’s utopian novel set in Polynesia that was influenced by his earlier mescaline experiments.
As a big fan of Kindle, I wanted to tell my doppelganger that he was getting it all wrong. To point out to him that Proust was all about the drift towards intangibility and the portrayal of inner worlds. That the author was the literary equivalent of Munch’s Nordic landscapes, the flower-strewn meadows of Gustav Klimt or the dematerialised veils of Monet’s lily-ponds. That to read him in book form and to use the notes was to expect the hand-holds and framing devices that you find in Cezanne’s portrayal of Mont St Victoire. That the novel was not a mountain but a swimming pool and that reading it on Kindle mimics the sense of disorientation that a swimmer experiences when he or she forgets how many laps they have done. Like the author’s madeleine cake, a misplaced finger can transport the reader from location 2017 to 1967 to 1913 or fast forward him into the alternative facts of Wikipedia. One can even review a list of the other items that customers had bought with it. But, rather depressingly, I found these turned out to be Adam Bede and The Vicar of Wakefield.
I suppose the word I’m looking for is ‘immersive’ and I was interested to see it repeated several times in the text of the V&A’s exhibition So You Say You Want a Revolution. Its celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love highlights the battles for feminism, Black power and LGBT rights. It focuses on the increasing affluence of young people and compares the rival importance of LSD, the contraceptive pill and the credit card. As for ‘immersion’ – the escape from what the Symbolists of the 1890s would have called ‘the near at hand and the everyday’ – it is exemplified by the transition from the record single to the LP and the invention of the headphones. Having spotted one comparison, other analogies seemed to pop up everywhere. Not only did designers reprise the work of Mucha, Beardsley and Felicien Rops but artists such as Peter Blake, Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton mirrored their commercial approaches by designing record sleeves. There was a widespread interest in synaesthesia and in the cross-overs between music, poetry and painting. One can compare sixties’ radicalism to the anarchism of Signac and Pissarro; the Beatles’ preoccupation with the Maharishi to theosophy; the fascination with India to the Japanese and Islamic influences of Art Nouveau; cross-gender fashions to fin-de-siècle gay identities.
In both cases innovations in technology stimulated a new sense of identity and changed attitudes to consciousness. This can be found in Marshall McLuhan’s observation of the effect of ‘electrified media’ on ‘private thoughts and feelings’ or the impact of the photograph, the wireless and the telephone on artists such as Munch. When Francoise tells Proust’s mother that she has ‘X-ray eyes’ she evokes the widening of horizons in the 1890s from the perspective of a servant that has never left her village. Again one of Proust’s themes is the ability of his country neighbour, Swann, to create a metropolitan identity as a commuter on the same suburban rail network that took Monet to Paris. As the V&A exhibition points out, the 1960s saw a similar increase in social mobility and in the adoption of different personae that was reified by car ownership and foreign travel.
Scott Moncrieff, who translated the Kindle version in 2003, calls the novel In Search of Lost Time. Ironically, perhaps, it is more often seen as a late nineteenth century retreat into aestheticism: the equivalent of Huysmans’ Au Rebours or of Odilon Redon’s androgynous painting, Figure with Closed Eyes. The fact that Proust retired to bed for three years in order to finish it and devoted so many of its pages to describe his childhood anticipation of his mother’s goodnight kiss are in marked contrast to James Joyce and Virginia Woolf who interrupt their characters’ thoughts with the urgent demands of the cities around them. The Futurists’ preoccupation with such juxtapositions has led many designers to use their images as book covers. Hence it is tempting to compare the opiate solipsism of Redon’s Figure with the amphetamine buzz of Stanley Cursiter’s Tram. A similar contrast can be drawn between the Beatles’ A Day in the Life of 1967 and the Stones’ Street Fighting Man of 1968.
In a few weeks I am going with a Royal Academy tour to look at Matisse’s work in Provence. One of our themes will be the way in which Matisse revived the achievements of the decorative art of the 1880s. For in masterpieces such as Luxe, Calme et Volupté he seems to take Gauguin’s subject matter, Van Gogh’s colours and Seurat’s brushwork and to lift them whole and entire from the soft belly of Post-Impressionism with all the skill of a waiter removing the bones from a fish. The title is taken from Baudelaire but the work reveals a debt to Déjeuner sur L’Herbe, Cézanne’s Bathers and to Gauguin’s lost paradise of the South Seas in which he seems to have identified himself and other Europeans as the serpent. Yet it also looks forward to the spoilt Eden of the sixties: the self-conscious pool scenes that Hockney painted in California rather than the utopian nonchalance of the swimming holes at Woodstock.
It now seems hard to explain why I wasted the Summer of Love avoiding my A level texts by reading four fictional accounts of human consciousness. Perhaps it was because 1967 coincided with the end of my acned adolescence. My parents had died three years before and I was about to enter my second year in Coventry at boarding school. Bad things were happening in Detroit, Biafra and along the Mekong Delta and my brother and I had taken refuge on the picnic rug in the back garden. Wasps and other small fears crawled towards us through the grass, only to be captured and interrogated beneath my microscope. Sergeant Pepper wiggled its way along the extension lead. From time to time I would get up and leave the Cézanne-like geometry of the lawn, cross the fauve ruin of my father’s vegetable garden and help myself to one of its surprisingly bitter fruits. At the time, of course, I thought they came from the Tree of Knowledge but my brother later told me they were cooking apples. Proust, no doubt, might well have been amused.
Princes Street: Sensation of Crossing the Street, 1913 by Stanley Cursiter
Garden Landscape, 1907 by Gustav Klimt
Mont Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine, 1887 by Paul Cézanne
Job Cigarettes, 1896 by Alphonse Mucha
Closed Eyes, 1890 by Odilon Redon
Luxe, Calme et Volupté, 1904-05 by Henri Matisse
Hippie Love, Woodstock
Contes Barbares, 1902 by Paul Gauguin