In a nutshell, this is a masterclass on how to write something original against very nearly insurmountable odds. It is based on a few short passages from Albertine disparue, the sixth part of Proust’s great seven-volume novel, À la recherche du temps perdu. Part of the story takes place in Venice, a hugely overwritten city. Proust needs to find a striking and original way of revealing its beauty and mystery. How does he do it? ‘My mother had brought me for a few weeks to Venice and — as there may be beauty in the most precious as well as in the humblest things — I was receiving there impressions analogous to those which I had felt so often in the past at Combray, but transposed into a wholly different and far richer key.’ So far, so good. This has already caught our attention, because we now know that the Narrator is going to make a somewhat unlikely comparison between Venice and Combray, the sleepy little country village of his childhood. Proust knows that a straightforward comparison of two such different places could well turn out absurd if not banal, so he embarks on a simple, but unexpected and highly effective, meditation on light and shadow. “Like at Combray with the worthy folk of the Rue de l’Oiseau, so in this strange town also, the inhabitants did indeed emerge from houses drawn up in line, side by side, along the principal street. But the part played there by houses that cast a patch of shade before them was in Venice entrusted to palaces of porphyry and jasper. Over one arched door was the head of a bearded God, projecting from its alignment, like the knocker on a door at Combray. Here it had the effect of darkening with its shadow not the brownness of the soil, as at Combray, but the splendid blue of the water. On the piazza, the shadow that would have been cast at Combray by the linen-draper’s awning and the barber’s pole, was cast here by the filigree silhouette of a Renaissance façade, that scattered a myriad tiny blue flowers upon the desert of sunscorched flagstones. When the sun was hot we were obliged, in Venice as at Combray, to pull down the blinds between ourselves and the Canal, but here they hung behind the quatrefoils and foliage of Gothic windows.” Having established this memorable vision of dry land, and put Combray to one side, Proust then sets himself the challenge of describing a gondola ride, an experience done to death by any number of authors. He begins unremarkably enough, plunging into the familiar Venetian labyrinth. “My gondola followed the course of the small canals. Like the mysterious hand of a Genie leading me through the maze of this oriental city, they seemed, as I advanced, to be carving a road for me through the heart of a crowded quarter which they clove asunder…” At this point something further is required, though the oriental Genie is certainly a brilliant touch. So again, as in the Combray passage, Proust brings light and shadow into play, but this time meditating on their more powerful transformational qualities. All of a sudden, the city is seen as a natural, organic object rather than an assembly of buildings. “As we returned up the Grand Canal in our gondola, we watched the double line of palaces between which we passed reflect the light and angle of the sun upon their rosy surfaces, and alter with them, seeming not so much private habitations and historic buildings as a chain of marble cliffs at the foot of which people go out in the evening in a boat to watch the sunset. In this way, the mansions arranged along either bank of the canal made one think of objects of nature, but of a nature which seemed to have created its works with a human imagination.” So that is how, with a certain amount of careful thought, one can present a challenging and overdone subject in a dazzling new light.
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