painting of Marcel Proust
Marcel Proust, by Jacques-Emile Blanche, 1892
In Swann’s Way, the opening work of Marcel Proust’s opus In Search of Lost Time, you will find the following oft-remarked-upon passage [2003 Viking edition, translation by Lydia Davis]:

I would stop by the table, where the kitchen maid had just shelled them, to see the peas lined up and tallied like green marbles in a game; but what delighted me were the asparagus, steeped in ultramarine and pink, whose tips, delicately painted in little strokes, of mauve and azure, shade off imperceptibly down to their feet–still soiled though they are from the dirt of their garden bed–with an iridescence that is not of this earth. It seemed to me that these celestial hues revealed the delicious creatures who had merrily metamorphosed themselves into vegetables and who, through the disguise of their firm, edible flesh, disclosed in these early tints of dawn, in these beginnings of rainbows, in this extinction of blue evenings, the precious essence that I recognized again when, all night long following a dinner at which I had eaten them, they played, in farces as crude and poetic as a play by Shakespeare, at changing my chamber pot into a jar of perfume.

The tag line for this blog is “writing up the multiverse,” and in this passage (as in all of his work), Proust provides a shining example of what it is to write it up, to welcome the banquet of phenomena the multiverse lays before us and bring it to bear on the matter at hand in a way that adds something original and compelling to its sum total. In two sentences he gives us a charming peek into a mind completely engaged with the world, capable not only of lovingly attending to the myriad details of which the things around us are composed, but of transforming these things through a triumph of imagination at once intensely personal, subversively multiversal, and urologically jocose.

asparagus lying on a table

Proust bends what might have been a mundane description of the color of the asparagus into another realm by adding that the tips have been “delicately painted in little strokes.” This observation does double duty, not only rendering the way in which the color is manifest on the asparagus, but revealing something about the nature of the observer, an observer that can also conjure “little feet” at the base of the asparagus still dirty from its romp in the garden.

Proust then drives the observation into the deep interior, warning us he is about to do so by commenting on the otherworldly iridescence of the asparagus’ colors. He fancifully projects a species of little creatures capable of transforming themselves into this colorful vegetable form. It’s at this moment the impoverished reader will likely to fall back on knee-jerk accusations of purple prosemanship, but to do so ignores the way Proust’s narrator, Marcel, who after all is looking back on a youth he can only recapture through imagination, recasts the asparagus colors through a poignant catalogue of lost experience “disclosed in these early tints of dawn, in these beginnings of rainbows, in this extinction of blue evenings.” Indeed, one senses the imminence of his own extinction lying behind his words. Then, building on this masterstroke, he works another by pulling the rug out from under a mood that might quickly have turned maudlin. Still working the trope of the sprites who turn themselves into asparagus, he attributes to them the trick by which asparagus gives one’s urine that distinctive, acrid aroma.

These two representative sentences in a work of 4300 pages show us what fiction is capable of when freed from an impulse to the generic. I find it powerfully instructive. Attention to detail, a brave and relentless drive to ever greater specificity, a willingness to bring to bear the phenomena that surrounds us, and an ear tuned to the music of language can unlock the imagination, free our prose, and lead the work into deeper, more compelling territory. Those who call this purple, to my mind, must have a very fleeting and impoverished relationship with a teeming world that nevertheless invites their participation.


3 thoughts on “Craft Note: Marcel Proust’s Asparagus

  1. I used to love reading Proust, but not the passages the critics like. I enjoyed the long descriptions of his nightly toilet, his preparations before bed, better than this sort of thing, which seems overwritten, and uneven. Descriptions like “early tints of dawn” and “beginnings of rainbows” are throwaway lines, while a construction like “delicious creatures” experiencing a metamorphosis is almost morbid in its overdevelopment. Again, I think he was at his best when he wrote fast, when he rushed on to get to a place like this, where he pauses. When he savors, he ruins the stew.

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