A brief look at… ‘Gate of Lilacs—A Verse Commentary on Proust’ by Clive James


When I got to the end of the seventh and final volume of In Search of Lost Time, Time Regained, I felt utterly lost. I had lived and breathed Proust’s masterpiece for almost a year and the realisation that it was over was a shock to my system—no more Baron de Charlus, Robert de Saint Loup, Madame Verdurin or Gilberte. Where could I possibly go next?

So I devoured everything Proust-related that I could find to try and keep his book alive inside me—biographies, films, documentaries, critiques. And here, a collection of poems, a commentary.

Clive James, the famous Australian poet, essayist, novelist and (in the UK) TV presenter, has brought his wit and smarts to tackling Proust. In the introduction James writes that he took the ‘long way round’ to Proust because he read it first in the original French and over the course of fifteen years learnt the language in this way. This in itself is remarkable—learning French simply (although not simple) by reading a book that is 1.3 million words long. One day I hope I can read it in the original French, but what a gigantic undertaking when you know little more than merci, pommes frites and Zinedine Zidane. 

Why poems? In his introduction, James says: ‘If I wanted to talk about his poetry beyond the basic level of talking about his language—if I wanted to talk about the poetry of his thought—then the best way to do it might be to write a poem.’

But these poems are a surprising departure from James’ usual strict adherence to form. There are no stanzas, each poem is one long chunk of text, reminiscent of Proust’s own thick-set paragraphs and famously long sentences. And these slabs of line atop line are in blank verse, more prose than poem.

In his notes at the end of the collection, James claims that ‘the poem is meant to explain itself.’ I can only think that is with the proviso that you have actually read Proust and will get the references; I’m sure a lot of these poems would be incomprehensible without having read Proust first, even with the explanations in the addenda, for example of relevant people like the composer Reynaldo Hahn, or the fictional artists Bergotte and Elstir. But James is well aware of this and even includes references to people (a French-speaking friend, his own daughters) who have never had the slightest impulse to read Proust: it’s not for everyone, and that’s all fine.

Sometimes it feels like we are reading James’ notes, scribbled down in the margins as he read the book over 15 years. He zips from subject to subject within single poems as though streaming his own consciousness through the lens of what he had just happened to read in the novel, taking in his own continuous present with references to Maria Callas, the Bay of Pigs, The West Wing. In You saw nothing in Hiroshima he focuses on the book’s tone and disagrees that it can be summarised or has ‘sound-bites to take away’. (Though many would certainly disagree with this conclusion—remember the Monty Python sketch?!).

The poems here, despite the exterior motive, are personal; they follow James’ life of reading Proust as much as the stories contained within In Search of Lost Time. The simple physics of reading Proust means it does take a long time, encompassing life changing events in our own lives that become anchored in the very act of reading it. In the final poem, I’ll drown my books, James writes ‘As the face of Oriane is not described / But only conjured from your memories’—In Search of Lost Time is as much a part of the reader’s life as of Proust’s himself.

Finally, to hammer home this point, the terminally ill James delivers the most poignant line of all right at the end: ‘And soon / All that I love will leave me, as I go / First into silence, then the fire, and then / The harbour water, in which there will be / At last no room to breathe, no time to think: No time to think even of you, Marcel.’

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