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Guy Cassiers: Proust 4. Marcel's Way

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Guy Cassiers, Proust 4
Guy Cassiers, Proust 4. Marcel's Way

Time flies, or so it is said. But does it? And if it does, does it fly like a plane or like a bird or a bee perhaps? This week I went to see the fourth and final episode of the Proust cycle by Guy Cassiers and the RO Theater. When the piece began it was as if I was transposed back into the world I had left June last year, like when you pick up a book that you had put aside for a while and which totally absorbs you the moment you start reading again. What brought back my memories was not so much the setting or seeing the same actors again, but hearing their voices.

Recollecting a voice is hard, because you first have to recall something the person said and as you think you have found some typical expression, it is instantly occluded by other fragments of sentences the brain has come up with. To recollect a voice, really hear it, you have to wait until it strikes you by accident, but when it does and you try to catch it, with every step you take, it disappears further and further into the background, until it vanishes completely and only the memory of a memory remains.

The memory of a voice can fill you with joy or a quiver, when all of a sudden and out of nowhere you hear the angry voice of your father or a teacher. As such it resembles the feeling Marcel Proust describes when he trips against an uneven paving stone and is suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of happiness. As he tries to capture it, almost at once he recognizes where it is coming from:

"It was Venice, of which my efforts to describe it and the supposed snapshots taken by my memory had never told me anything, but which the sensation which I had once experienced as I had stood upon two uneven stones in the baptistry of St. Mark's had, recurring a moment ago, restored to me complete with all the other sensations linked on that day to that particular sensation." (Remembrance of Things Past, Vol. 3, New York 1981, p. 899).

The experience is similar to the one Proust describes at the beginning of In Search of Lost Time (my preferred translation of the title), when the taste of a Madeleine cake brings back vivid memories of his childhood in Combray. But why is it that these involuntary memories are so much more vivid than ordinary, voluntary memories recalled at will? This difference between voluntary and involuntary memory holds the key to In Search of Lost Time.

Each experience consists of a network of associations. What happens during involuntary memory is that the network as it was present the moment when it was experienced, is re-instantiated, or at least in part. By contrast, when we consciously try to remember a scene, what we do is to try and reconstruct the network at will. In doing so we are led and indeed hampered by our current goals and actions. Instead of connecting with a relevant node in our memory a different connection may be established and we are suddenly left with a different memory and chain of associations so much so that we may wonder how we came upon that thought and then recall that we were actually trying to remember this or that.

According to Marcel Proust forgetting is therefore  a condition for remembering, for gaining access to the "true" experience. When on a trip abroad you have to rush to get to the airport, all the obstacles on your way register, after all, you have to avoid them, but you do not "experience" them for what they are. Your focus is on getting your plane, your mind clouded by what might happen if you miss it. Years later, when the goal of having to catch your flight no longer presses upon you, you may suddenly remember all kinds of details of the airport, the underground or the taxi. You may relive the stress you were in, but you can now look back upon it as if it had happened to a stranger. The distance in time has brought you closer to what you lived through, but didn't experience.

To  render this fullness of experience in literature is the goal of In Search of Lost Time. (Note that I'm taking some shortcuts here). But how does one render the fullness of experience? Proust believed to have found an answer in the workings of metaphor and in a minute attention to those tiny details that are often overlooked in voluntary memory and conscious, everyday experience, but which form the elements without which our experience would be little more than a patchwork of broad, inarticulate fragments, hence his admiration for the little patch of yellow wall in Vermeer's View of Delft.

As Proust writes in In Search of Lost Time: "(The writer) can describe a scene by describing one after another the innumerable objects which at a given moment were present at a particular place, but truth will be attained by him only when he takes two different objects, states the connection between them (..) and encloses them in the necessary links of a well-wrought style; truth - and life too - can be attained by us only when, by comparing a quality common to two sensations, we succeed in extracting their common essence and in reuniting them to each other, liberated from the contingencies of time, within metaphor" (p. 924).

And thus Proust often digresses into describing scenes which set the mood for the episode he is recounting, indeed like I just tried to do as well when I invoked the memory of a voice. In their adaptation of In Search of Lost Time Guy Cassiers and Eric de Kuyper use video, music and sound to similar effect. Sometimes the images are purely abstract, but they set a mood. The scene with the Madeleine cake is invoked through the projection of a teacup. This would be tacky if it was just the projection of a teacup, but it is also the cup from which Céleste Albaret can be seen to be drinking.

In Proust 4 there are two characters, Marcel Proust and Céleste Albaret, who, from 1914 until his death in 1922, served as Proust's housekeeper, personal secretary and in the last years of his life, as his nurse. Both characters have been split into a younger and an older half. The older Céleste sits behind a kitchen table in a small room to the left of the stage in some sort of a Big Brother setting, looking into a camera, her face projected in close-up on a screen above her. Towards the end the image fades like an old photo. The younger Marcel is mostly hidden from view behind a scrim on which the videos are projected. He represents the racing thoughts of the older Marcel. Both he and the younger Céleste are the central figures on stage.

Proust 4 is in part based on the mémoirs of Céleste Albaret, which she published in 1972, fifty years after Proust's death. It is through her that we learn of Proust's self-destructive whims and worries, which he believed necessary to his creative enterprise. To say that Proust in the final years of his life was eccentric is an understatement. He had his room covered with cork so as to exclude any noise from outside. He insisted on having his coffee prepared in a particular way and wanted his sheets replaced every day. He spent most of his time in bed, where he also did his writing. The sheets return in the tight white, intricately layered dress worn by the young Céleste, which also symbolizes the rigidity of Proust's daily regimen.

Proust 4, like the rest of the cycle, is visual-textual theatre with little or no dramatic action. In this setting a hand that almost touches a cheek or a head that is slightly tilted, has great dramatic power. Sometimes distance is the greatest intimacy. If you have seen The Elephant Vanishes by the Theatre de Complicité you may be less impressed by Guy Cassiers' use of video than Dutch audiences and critics. It appears that Cassiers did not read my review of the previous episodes, for he has retained the text projections in the same format, which to me still don't work. But this is more than compensated by many beautiful scenes in which live action and video projections form a coherent whole. In one scene a pillow is projected on a small screen behind the older Marcel as he stands on stage, making it seems as if his head is resting in bed.

I had some reservations about the first part, but the third and now the fourth part stole my heart. Again on several occasions I was brought to tears. In Search of Lost Time brings to the fore the co-presence of the past in the present. Proust does not tell a story, he  reveals the multiplicity that lies at the heart of experience. It is this multiplicity that Guy Cassiers and his co-workers have captured in their adaptation. Everything in Proust 4 is multilayered, the characters are doubled and then doubled again by their video projections, images are projected on top of each other and both the old Marcel and the young Céleste wear multiple layers of clothes. In some scenes sentences begun by one character are continued by another and finished by a third. We don't speak a language, language speaks through us. It is in the same way that Proust speaks through us.

The entire cycle  will be performed at the KunstenFestivalDesArts in Brussel in May, at the Holland Festival in Amsterdam and the Theater der Welt Festival in Stuttgart in June and then again in Rotterdam in September.

My review of Guy Cassiers: Proust 1 and 3.