Friday, March 28, 2008

Margaret Drabble and Marcel Proust

One of my grad-student instructors in college once tried to reassure a few of us English majors who were feeling discouraged because nonliterary types often outperformed us in English classes. The real benefit, said our instructor, would come around senior year, when we had absorbed enough English and American literature that we would start to make interesting connections between things.
I thought of this after starting to reread The Needle's Eye, a 1972 novel by one of my favorite authors, Margaret Drabble. I hadn't read it in many years, and when I got to page 17 I got an unmistakable echo of Marcel Proust: the close attention to clothing, especially female clothing; the patient examination of emotional subtleties; the comparison of living people with archetypes from the art of the old masters; and the sinuous sentences:
There was nothing dowdy or ugly about her dress: on the contrary, he had to recognise, once he noticed it at all, that she had a certain private elegance, an elegance so unworldly that it made the whole room, and all the other beaded dresses and peacock feathers and gold slippers in it, look suddenly too new, too bright, too good: too recent imitations of the gently decayed image that she so unostentatiously presented. She looked, because of age and softness, authentic, as ancient frescoes look in churches, frescoes which in their very dimness offer a promise of truth that a more brilliant (however beautiful) restoration denies. And yet it was almost impossible to resent her curious distinction: impossible even for him, so schooled in resentment: because she carried with her such an air of sadness, of lack of certainty, that to resent it would have been not an act of self-defence, but an act of aggression, of violent reproach.

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