by Stephane Heuet
(NBM Publishing) $19.95
Yes, I've read Proust's entire 3,400-page epic novel, Remembrance of Things Past. No, I could not finish Stephane Heuet's 72-page comic-book version of the novel. More dismal yet, the comic book only illustrates a small part of Marcel Proust's first of seven books (Swann's Way, which Heuet calls Combray), and Heuet threatens to add 12 more volumes to what already stands as an enormous failure. Don't get me wrong; I'm not an anti-comics snob--or at least not a great snob like those critics in Paris who called the comic strip "blasphemous." My real problem with Combray, apart from it being dull, is the flawed reasoning that brought it into existence.
Stephane Heuet, who is an advertising executive, decided to turn Proust into a comic strip because he wanted to remove the great novel from the "ghetto of snobs," as he put it in The New York Times. And herein lies the failure of his comic strip: It's a contrived attempt to democratize Proust. Meaning, the comic book did not spring out of the ether with the ease of an afternoon dream, but was forced into the world, and so fell upon us, the readers, like a ton of bricks. As a result, Proust's 3,400-page novel is much lighter than Heuet's 72-page comic strip.
Agreed, our modern world deserves its Proustian expression, a work of art that addresses the effects of time, the problems of love, the nature of memory, the shape of our society, but such a work must enter our world softly. Instead of forcing matters, spending hours and days illustrating a long, aristocratic novel, we should locate something in our late age (a zine, a teleplay, a business memo) that naturally reproduces all of the important themes and delights that Remembrance of Things Past produced for its epoch. Modernity's great (and possibly only) example of such a work--a spontaneous Proustian work--is Martha Stewart's column Remembering.
Remembering (a column that appears in the closing pages of Martha Stewart's magazine, Living, with subheadings like "Laundry Day Was Monday," "Of Food and Friends," and so on) is our Remembrance of Things Past. If the masses want to appreciate Proust, then all they have to do is continue reading Stewart's column, which addresses Proust, reflects Proust, rearticulates Proust without effort or thought every month. Martha Stewart probably has no idea who the hell Proust is, and this has worked to her and our advantage, because through the night of her ignorance we finally arrive at the day of our Remembrance of Things Past.
No Heuetian exertion is needed to democratize Remembering, because it's already democratic--emerging as it were from the iridescent ether of advanced capitalism. Each installment of Remembering finds Martha Stewart returning to or reflecting upon her childhood in Nutley, New Jersey, bringing to life the happy neighbors of her family's home, number 86 on Elm Place. Though her social world is not as prestigious as Proust's, it's still comfortable enough to support the necessary settings for a true remembrance of things past: gardens, big dinner tables, seaside towns, and so forth. Admittedly, Stewart's prose is not as powerful as Proust's, but now and then she'll get carried away by the strong pull of a fond memory, and suddenly her words start rising up, piling up until she and the reader stand on the brink of something truly orgasmic.
"Before and after lunch," she writes in the June 1997 issue of Living ("A Picnic in Babylon"), "there were games of horseshoes and boccie, poker and canasta. Lots of cigars were smoked, and pipes hung languidly from the lips of my uncles as they sipped mugs of beer and talked about fishing. The ladies, in their striped cotton sundresses and babushkas stylishly tied around their heads, sipped little jelly glasses of beer or iced tea and gossiped. And we children, and there were lots of us, rocked in two canvas hammocks hung in the shade, and quietly talked about school and dreams and the future." How paper-thin close this is to Proust's mode of fond recall! Indeed, Stewart's column is much like that Japanese game Proust describes in Swann's Way, in which one fills a porcelain bowl with water and steeps in it "little pieces of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch and twist and take on color and distinctive shape." From the bowl of Martha Stewart's Remembering out pops the "three bedroom house on Elm Place [which] was a modest but well-built home" (May 1997, "Dreaming of Linen") or the "backyard at number eighty six" (July/ August 1997, "Father's Garden").
But the most significant similarity between Remembering and Remembrance of Things Past is this: Both are about the apprenticeship of their writers. Marcel Proust's novel is about how he became Marcel Proust, and Martha Stewart's column is about how she became Martha Stewart. In Gilles Deleuze's study of Remembrance of Things Past, titled Proust and Signs, he states that "the Search" (as he calls Proust's novel) is not about memory but about the apprenticeship of a writer. "What is involved," he points out, "is not an exposition of involuntary memory, but the narrative of an apprenticeship of a man of letters. ['The Search' is not] so much [about] the sources of memory as the raw materials, the lines of an apprenticeship." In a word, any Proustian remembrance must ultimately be about how the narrator became the narrator. Like Proust, Martha Stewart completed her education (the only difference being that Proust learned from wasting time whereas Martha learned from utilizing time), and so now she can sit down in an easy chair, as she does on the February 1998 cover of Living, and write about how she became who she is. "I learned from [my mother] that life is better if the home is prepared, that nature is more easily observed through sparkling-clean windows, and that less time is wasted if closets and storage are orderly and organized." (April 1998, "Spring Cleaning.")
Martha Stewart's column has been running since the first year of Living, 1991, and if she continues to produce a column per month (each 800 words in length) for the next 40 years--and there is no reason why she shouldn't-- Remembering will reach the tome proportions of Remembrance of Things Past. If Heuet wants to make a Proust-inspired comic strip that speaks directly and naturally to the masses, then he should stop adapting Proust's moribund Remembrance of Things Past, and instead start a new comic strip based on Martha Stewart's active and living Remembering.