Back in 2000 I found myself with a lot of time on my hands and no particular urge to write. I’d just finished an MFA and a pile of stories and so was tapped out, creatively speaking.
I was living in a farmhouse outside Iowa City, getting ready to move to Madison in the Fall, for a fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. I had no money, but the Wisconsin Fellowship was going to pay well enough that I took out a summer’s worth of dough on a no-interest-limited-time-cash-advance credit card deal.
I had no job, no classes, no surf, and I didn’t feel like writing.
It’s hard to imagine, now, with family and teaching, etc., the amount of free time I had.
I figured I might as well read In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, or, as it was called in the translation that had been sitting on my shelf for years, Remembrance of Things Past.
I’d heard it was good, and I figured it would last me all summer.
It was, and it did.
I read 50 pages a day in the old two-volume edition, and it was fun. A lot more fun than writing, that’s for sure. Then I’d go meet friends for food, drink, whatever. I treated reading the Proust as I’d treated my writing…a routine. Three hours or so, every day.
Those summer nights, in the Foxhead, I often resisted the urge to say “Hey! That reminds me of something I read in Proust…” Because I didn’t want to turn into Proust guy. You know him. He always brings the conversation around to the fact that he’s read Proust.
Am I being Proust guy now? I hope not.
Some time later I was looking for a book on tape to occupy my time on a drive back to California. And I found a recording of Edmund White’s biography of Proust at the local library. I popped it into the tapedeck and went.
Now, despite having read the entirety of Proust’s magnum opus, I knew very little about the guy. In part because I’m an idiot, and in part because I prefer to experience work, artistic work, without the whole apparatus of biographical and critical mumbo-jumbo that surrounds it.
Which is not to say that I don’t dive right into that stuff if I’m confused. Hello, Ulysses. Hello, The Sound and the Fury. But In Search of Lost Time is not difficult reading, really, just long.
Anyhow, I listened to this Edmund White bio while rolling down the freeway in the old Lincoln, and it was wonderful. A fair chunk of it was about how Proust was gay, which I had for some reason not realized. (Told you I was an idiot.) And then there was this intriguing detail: Early in his writing life Proust had written masterful pastiches of other writers’ styles. I was curious about those pastiches, but my French was far too rusty for me to go rooting around for them.
Then, early this year, I came across a little Proust book put out by Melville House: The Lemoine Affair. It’s ostensibly about a guy who scandalized France with his claim that he could make diamonds from coal, but it’s really just an excuse for Proust to string together a bunch of pastiches in one volume.
It’s classic. The Balzac section is like a jumble of names, a delirious social diary. It’s funny, but it’s not easy going. The book really takes off in the Flaubertian section. It’s as if Proust has filled the air with Balzacian smoke so that his Flaubert can open the windows and blow it all out. We are reminded once again how much of what we consider “realism” comes from Flaubert. And then there’s a section in the style of Saint-Beuve, who I had to look up on Wikipedia*, taking the piss out of Flaubert.
It’s hilarious, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Which brings me to this question: Do people still delve into pastiche as a way of stretching their stylistic muscles? I recall poets writing imitations of each others’ styles back in Iowa, but I don’t think we fiction writers ever engaged in the practice.
It’s more than a matter of superficial style. In his Author’s Note, Proust says that the key to successful pastiche is trying to get into an author’s “particular mind.” Tall order.
Still, I wonder…who would make a good target?
* Apparently, Proust had a beef with Saint-Beuve, going as far as writing a set of essays called “Against Saint-Beuve.” Saint-Beuve contended that one had to know an author’s biography to understand the work. Well, sorry Saint-B, I’m rolling with Marcel on this one, having read his magnum opus without knowing the most basic facts about the guy and still having had an extremely fulfilling reading experience.