Sunday, June 19, 2005

Barney's version and names in fiction

I just finished reading Richler's Barney's version. I started thinking about memory, Proust and the role of names in fiction. I noticed that the main characters of many recent novels are quite similar: Mickey Sabbath, Barney, the narrator of Boyd's Any human heart, the hero of Lodge's Therapy (I do not recollect their actual names), Nathan Zuckerman, they all have in common a penchant for the nostalgic remembering centered on the little things of the 50s, with a style not dissimilar from Woody Allen's Radio Days. The memories are, in the usual ways, triggered from today's events but the flashback itself seems to be simply shown, lacking, probably intentionally, further depth and analysis.

What sets apart Barney's situation (of course there are countless other differences) is an attention to a type of detail that interested Proust himself. (A small point: when he sees his school teacher, the one he used to fantasize about protesting with the other octogenarians in the street, I cannot but think that this type of grotesque facing the changing of things, is only a cruder and more modern version of Proust attending the final ball chez les Guermantes, where everybody is on stilts and wearing masques. Whereas the ball is what pushes Proust to write, Barney is set to forget forever.) One is for example names and their immense power. He calls the Second Mrs. Panofsky by her first name only once and this reminds me of the similar fact that in the entire Recherche only once we are told how to pronounce Swan (it is so veiled that I forgot whether everyone thinks it is to be pronounced ``suan'' and it is ``svan'' instead or vice versa). This is in clear contrast to the fact that the name Miriam appears over and over again. For someone that it is about to forget everything because of Alzheimer it is quite telling.

The name, as obvious as it might sound, is what we associate to objects, places and people: if the name is lost, not mentioned, changed, the link is altered. At this point one cannot avoid mentioning Proust's long chapter on the name of places, when looking at a map he notices how the names of villages in Normandy have changed in time: this is the ultimate memory challenge, a present event can trigger you to remember a past place, but if the name is changed, you lost the link. Can one actually say that the place is the same? No. (Which is the same reason why post colonial governments changed as many names as they could. The retired colonel that in his terraced house remembers fondly the old days is robbed of his memory, because Madras is no longer called like that. That place no longer exists.)

The same could be said for the opposite, the overabundance. A great example is given by the use in One hundred years of solitude of the same names for many members of the family through the generations. Since their actions and their sins often overlap in the memory they might as well have the same name, it is almost as if it is the action assigning the name and not a simple birth accident. (Of course the opposite is also true, because of a name a person is forced to commit the actions associated to that name. The situation here is more subtle than a simple Fate related issue, because the place where all the actions take place is first and foremost in a person's memory: one could almost argue that in this case the filing method of the character's mind is very simple, to a name it can only associate one action.)

Something similar happens in two other great novels which, I must admit my search has been rather superficial, have not been associated to each other at all or at least as much as their striking similarities would call for. I am referring to Wuthering heights and The sound and the fury where the names Catherine and Quentin respectively are used throughout the generations. Quentin in particular is a name that creates an action: the younger Quentin is not the product of incest, but the name itself could hint otherwise.

I remember reading in a book by David Lodge called The art of fiction (or something of the sort), that when writing fiction one cannot invent fictitious characters or places and then, within the same opus, mention the real characters or places the fictitious ones were modeled after. He then brings forward the example of Thomas Hardy: in his novels, next to Christminster, we could never see mentioned Oxford (or, understandably, Cambridge). I believe the fact that in Proust we can have Bergotte and at the same time Bergson, Elstir and at the same time Monet, Vinteuil and at the same time Debussy (or Ravel), does not go against such principle. First and trivially, each fictitious character mentioned above is modeled after the real character, but only up to a certain point: other real characters are involved in the creation. Second, by violating the rule (if we can define it as such), Proust firmly takes the position of in between reality and fiction. Does it really matter who we are talking about?

This brings me to that scene that for me represents the essence of the Recherche: at the very beginning we see Odette and Charlus next to a fence in Combrai and we do not know anything about them. We can picture the situation as that of an old man and a beautiful woman in the dying sun of the french countryside; the same light at the horizon that is gently blinding us, however, seems to change in the proustian kaleidoscope and years later in the story (and, for some of us, in our reading) we almost do not recognize the same persons: however a part of Odette is certainly that woman in the sunset, the same way as inside the horrible Charlus, we can find the old gentleman, the affable Palamede, that we spotted next to the fence. Can't this be expressed perfectly by mentioning at the same time Bergson and Bergotte?

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