Friday, 23 August 2019

One Universe the More

I do like these little Penguin Great Ideas volumes – so pleasingly compact, so attractively designed. When I spotted this one the other day, I naturally snapped it up. It contains a long essay on John Ruskin (a writer who fascinated Proust and whom he translated), an equally long essay about the ecstasy of childhood reading titled On Reading (I), a much shorter On Reading (II), a few passages from Against Saint-Beueve, and Swann Explained by Proust – useful reading ahead of Radio 4's epic broadcast of In Search of Lost Time. That's terrific value, and all packed into 120 small pages –especially good value as Proust is perforce such a slow read; those long, long sentences can be pretty hard to disentangle. Try this one, about how Proust felt and behaved immediately after he had finished reading a book:
'And then, so as to give the turbulence loose inside me for too long to be able to still itself other movements to control, I would get up and start walking up and down by my bed, my eyes still fixed on some point that might have been looked for in vain either inside the room or without, for it was the distance of a soul away, one of those distances not to be measured in metres or in miles, unlike others, and which it is impossible moreover to mistake for them once one sees the "remote" stare of those whose thoughts are "elsewhere".'
Sometimes Proust makes Ruskin read like Ernest Hemingway.
However, for all the knotty phrasing, it is wonderful to witness such an extraordinary mind and sensibility at work. And he can, of course, write plainly and wisely, as at the end of his remarks on Swann's Way:
'Style is not at all an embellishment as certain people think, it is not even a matter of technique, it is – like colour with painting – a quality of vision, the revelation of the private universe that each of us can see and which others cannot see. The pleasure an artist affords us is to introduce us to one universe the more.'


  1. Lovely final sentence from Proust. I once wrote an Homage to Proust in a Proustian sentence:
    "The presence in a house, discarded casually - its navy blue marker ribbon straying, like a tiny river, away from it - on a table, or on the shelf of a conservatory, of a volume such as ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu’ attests, were it but the case that, in being there, it also attested to a reader in that house capable of appreciating it, to a presence, an intelligence in a neighbourhood, which is worthy of note; an intelligence so cultivated that one might be assured of its certain understanding of and resonance with the centuries of European history and refinement which conspired, so fruitfully, to underpin it."