Andrea Kapsaski

january 2006

À la recherche du temps perdu

"All of us failed to match our dreams of perfection.
So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible."
— William Faulkner

Maybe a part of growing older consists of developing strange habits and preferences, stronger likes and dislikes (especially in arts and literature) and even worse, strange obsessions.

Every three or four years I read once again Marcel Proust's "À la recherche du temps perdu" (known in English as "In Search of Lost Time" and "Remembrance of Things Past") and travel throughout long winter afternoons (and nights) on memories that start to flow on a Madeleine cake dipped in linden tea.

Memory takes the central role in the novel and apparently insignificant details prove to be the most important, while his style of long sentences, some of which extend to several pages in length, paved the way for the narrative inventions of many writers influenced by him. Past and present merge, reality appears in half-forgotten experiences, and parts of the past are felt differently at different times, as "À la recherche du temps perdu" is felt and appreciated differently and deeper every time I read it.

But after all, this is not the only reason for my chronic obsession with Proust.  What makes Proust's novel so outstanding is that it is a finished and completed work of art (in spite the fact, that he was still correcting the typescript on his deathbed and could not finish the final volumes before his death on November 18, 1922). It is a completed artwork in a world of fragments, repetitions, and insignificant pieces that don't hold together and fade away with time.

Life, material, everything connected to that and deriving from it, are nothing but fragments, pieces, change, mutation, metamorphosis, and again the reason for renovations. Everything thrown away becomes a victim of time, the rest, garbage, and is eventually lost and forgotten.

The intentions of creating a perfect work of art can no longer be measured with the classical perception of perfection (another example of fragments) but through the hubris of the creative will power, this one and only acceptable form of complete perfection. This is not necessarily measured in quantity, although this epic mass production had eventually become a characteristic of writers such as Balzac, Simenon, Faulkner, and even Proust.

It is not easy to determine why the microcosm of each individual artist cannot be completed in this macrocosm (or doesn't want to be completed). The epic writings of world literature (Gilgamesch, Homer, Ovid or Dante) are complete and each one a Magnum opus, merely because they are not  just literary masterpieces but also an integral part of the world view of a people, and thus they are complete in an aesthetic and philosophical consensus.

This can no longer be valid for any chef d'oeuvre of the modern literature (I am thinking of Neruda, Joyce or Broch) and they are rather finished than completed. They are complex, literary units, authentic monuments of language because they are not completed.

Completion of a work of art in this century can merely be an anachronism. The lack of perfection is not considered to be a fault and the fragment after all is no quantité négligeable.  Almost everything created in art either remains far behind the fragment or very rarely surpasses the limits of mediocrity to become an oeuvre de siecle.

Many artists find themselves facing this dilemma by trying to express and create the impossible only to realize, that they possibly created another fragment.  And eventually have to realize their limitations and their defeat.

Countless as the fragments are their causes.

The most common cause is the death of an author.  The lack of time for example, not enough time, because an accident, suicide, sickness, prison, political changes or insanity bring an early end. The lack of money, conflicts with friends or relatives or an obligatory daytime job lead to exhaustion and frustration.  Musil's "Man without Qualities" remained a fragment, because he had to survive in Swiss exile, defensive, penniless, and sick.  The big cycles of O'Neill, Lowry or Balzac could never be finished because alcohol or sickness put an end to their creativity.

And then there are those endless projects in literature that remain fragments due to a sudden creative stagnation, the loss of interest and energy, frustration.

During his stay in Hollywood, Bert Brecht attempted to adapt the "Communist Manifesto" in hexameters and finally gave up, because there was nobody interested in this kind of work and Brecht, coping with his difficulties in exile, had tried, with a rather fierce anachronism, to remain faithful to his roots.

James Joyce, irritated by the critics of "Finnegan's Wake", through his friends was tempted to have George Moore finish his novel – an extraordinary example of crisis through criticism.

And last but not least: the fragment as a form of protest. The poet Lermontov was invited to read in one of the literary circles in St Petersburg and announced to read from his new novel. He appeared, read for about twenty minutes and suddenly stopped in the middle of a sentence with laughter (probably not very cheerful ) leaving behind him a group of angry aristocrats.

This sentence, interrupted in the middle, remained a fragment as the entire work of Lermontov remained another fragment in the history of literature

More than in literature, the fragment is present in music and in every form of art and in most cases appears to have become the necessary basis for creation. Michelangelo would stop working on a sculpture when the marble he used proved to be unsuitable for his work – a necessary and practical decision. A few centuries later Rodin liberated his lovers from the surrounding stone until half of the embrace became visible and the illusion of a fragment appeared.

And still, there are a few outstanding artists  especially writers, who succeeded in creating their unique and timeless oeuvre de siecle. Zola and Joyce (with his Ulysses) are among them, Guillen and Faulkner and — Marcel Proust.

It is without any importance whether it is a prose, merely 70 pages long,  or an epos of hundreds of poems. What remains is breathtaking literature that appears to remain the last of its kind.

So, Proust it is one more time! Instead of "sleeping early", long evenings with tea and Sherry and once again the enchanting journey through an even more enchanting memory.

"The work of art is our only means of recapturing the past....I understood that all these materials for literary work were nothing else than my past life and that they had come to me in the midst of frivolous pleasures, in idleness, through tender affection and through sorrow, and that I had stored them up without foreseeing their final purpose or even their survival, any more than does the seed when it lays by all the sustenance that is going to nourish the seedling." (Marcel Proust)


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©2006 Andrea Kapsaski
©2006 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Andrea Kapsaski is a writer and producer in London
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives




january 2006

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