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20.3.04

Music in Proust

The last post on my Proust reading was on January 27 (see list of Proust posts in the link bar to the right), and I am now almost finished with the fifth book, so it's clearly time to catch up on some thoughts. In spite of how common it is in the narrator's life, music has a vast power in À la recherche du temps perdu. For example, in the fourth book, Sodome et Gomorrhe (in English, Cities of the Plain), there is this very brief passage:

I went upstairs again to my room, but I was not alone there. I could hear some one softly playing Schumann. No doubt it happens at times that people, even those whom we love best, become saturated with the melancholy or irritation that emanates from us. There is nevertheless an inanimate object which is capable of a power of exasperation to which no human being will ever attain: to wit, a piano.
I have the fortune of being a pianist and living in a musical home. When was the last time you heard music played live in your home or a friend's home, or played it yourself? Sadly, television and other forms of entertainment have largely eroded that tradition of amateur playing that was so common in Proust's life. In the fifth book, La Prisonnière (in English, The Captive), it is the narrator himself who is shown at the piano:
Taking advantage of the fact that I still was not alone, and drawing the curtains together so that the sun should not prevent me from reading the notes, I sat down at the piano, turned over the pages of Vinteuil's sonata which happened to be lying there, and began to play. . . . I did not take pains to remark how the combinations of the voluptuous and anxious motives corresponded even more closely now to my love for Albertine, from which jealousy had been absent for so long that I had been able to confess to Swann my ignorance of that sentiment. No, taking the sonata from another point of view, regarding it in itself as the work of a great artist, I was carried back upon the tide of sound to the days at Combray—I do not mean at Montjouvain and along the Méséglise way, but to walks along the Guermantes way—when I had myself longed to become an artist. In definitely abandoning that ambition, had I forfeited something real? Could life console me for the loss of art, was there in art a more profound reality, in which our true personality finds an expression that is not afforded it by the activities of life?
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