Vinteuil's Little Phrase

Cover image of Miranda Lehman's album: Shipwrecks and Russian Roulette
(image borrowed from the 16sparrows website)


I should probably change the title of this blog to "Dusty Letters from a Librarian"

I have had a post-it note stuck onto the back cover of A.S. Byatt's A Whistling Woman for about a week now; on it is written:

Vinteuil's little phrase
Shipwrecks and Russian Roulette
NY Mag and affair with Proustian

This cryptic scrawl has been intended to serve as a reminder to me to write a post about those three phrases, here it is.

I take a sordid pride in being able to talk about my journey through memory with Proust. I've truly loved the volumes I've read (I'm in the early stages of v. five), and spent too many hours copying out passages and lamenting my vanishing knowledge of french. The pride comes in knowing that out of the gobs of people who have a tendency to use "Proustian" as a catchall descriptor for memory, or a madeleine to lend credibility to their description of being launched through the vaults of memory upon the merest whiff, taste, glimpse, or some other sensory experience, out of all of those people, only a select few have actually read anything by Proust.

In the latest issue of NYMag (the cheap eats one), "Proustian" shows up twice, a frequency which prompted me to google the word and see how many hits I came up with. In doing this I realized that the word itself has been extracted from its literary meaning (the fact that it only has meaning because there are six volumes of prose attached to it), and given a dictionary meaning. Not quite fair to the six volumes of prose which have somehow become consolidated (impressively) into one compact word.

In the process of glossing Proust the NY Mag way, countless of other quotable/pseudo-archetypal descriptions are missed. The madeleine scene may be well-known, but what about "the unconscious author of my sufferings"? A phrase that haunts me a bit, turning up whenever my mind is relaxed, plagiarised countless times, in countless places.

But my favorite is "Vinteuil's little phrase" and the passage in Within a Budding Grove where the narrator describes the effect of a great work of art when it touches you inexplicably and personally:

In Vinteuil's sonata the beauties that one discovers soonest are those also of which one tires most quickly, and for the same reason, no doubt-- namely that they are less different from what one already knows. But when those first impressions have receded, there remains for our enjoyment some passage whose structure, too new and strange to offer anything but confusion to our mind, had made it indistinguishable and so preserved intact; and this, which we have passed every day without knowing it, which had held itself in reserve for us, which by the sheer power of its beauty had become invisible and remained unknown, this comes to us last of all. But we shall also relinquish it last. And we shall love it longer than the rest because we have taken longer to get to love it. The time, moreover, that a person requires --as I required in the case of this sonata -- to penetrate a work of any depth is merely an epitome, a symbol, one might say, of the years, the centuries even, that must elapse, before the public can begin to cherish a masterpiece that is really new.

Reading this again reminds me of what I wrote about Brueghel's Fall of Icarus and my love for this painting. My favorite bit is not the lovely little feet kicking in the corner--the well-looked for and well-loved irony of the composition-- my favorite thing to look at again and again are the stairs, the gently curving, shadowed stairs. And like the narrator in the above passage, there is nothing I can point to to explain my love of those stairs in that painting, the closer I come up to them, the more invisible they seem.

And the last thing on my post-it note: Shipwrecks and Russian Roulette is the name of an album by Miranda Lehman, a short, sprawling album with only ten tracks and one main musical phrase. I have fallen in love with this CD... hard, fast, furious love. It haunts me (I'm haunted by a lot lately) and I listen to it when I wake up, before I fall asleep, and sometimes during the day if I can persuade myself to turn off Regina Spektor's Samson for about 30 minutes.