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Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (À la recherche du temps perdu), a marathon of a French read, might just be the seven-volume work I would choose to have with me on a desert island. I have spilled a lot of critical ink analyzing this 20th-century masterpiece. Betcha can't guess what I analyzed... that's right: time and narrative—and this book is chock full of both.
What I really get at is how Proust did things differently. Proust's narrator is no ordinary narrator; in fact, his point of view really mixes things up. Here's a fave: "I watched George reach into his briefcase for something while he thought about whether he might have lamb for dinner that evening." This sentence should make you stop and think, "Wow, the narrator is thinking of a person he saw and telling us what the person was thinking and that those thoughts were about potential action."
There's a lot of narrative complexity in there… savor it.
This French author had a real knack for getting inside his characters' heads—and what heads they are. In my book Essays in Aesthetics, I get at Stendhal's use of taste and judgment in his novels. (After all, this is the guy after whom the "Stendhal Syndrome" is named—that's an overwhelming response one has in the presence of great art.)
Through Stendhal's work, I explored the idea of developing your own tastes in art versus just adopting the tastes of others in order to be part of the in-crowd. (Like, do you actually enjoy the Kronos Quartet or the movies of Lars von Trier, or are you just trying to be an art-house hipster type?)
It may seem odd to dedicate critical work to critical work, but believe me when I say that everybody's doing it. If Derrida dedicated pages to Plato, why can't I give it a whirl with Barthes—everyone's favorite Structuralist, especially mine. In Essays in Aesthetics, I even called Barthes "my mentor-despite-himself" (source).
I always saw Barthes as a moral model who revealed the truths behind myths and the lies that history tells. I also had maximum respect for Barthes because he wasn't one of those anthropological Structuralists; he was a literary Structuralist—and he loved French authors, just like I did. (His favorite was Balzac.)
If this film were a dream, it would be the kind of thing you'd experience while suffering from a severe case of flu mixed with indigestion from bad chili. Talk about a narrative cluster. But like any self-respecting intellectual, I claim this film as one of my favorites.
Now, Alain Robbe-Grillet wrote the screenplay, and Alain Resnais directed (get your Alains straight), but for Robbe-Grillet, this text was definitely a diversion from his usual, realist, objective storylines. What draws me to this film? Its experimentation with narrative, its loopy sense of time, and the subjectivity of its narrative voice. Plus, Robbe-Grillet throws in all sorts of crazy repetition—or what I call "iteration"—which makes this film perfect fodder for my critical attentions.
I got really into the whole paratextual thing with Flaubert. Let's take, for example, A Sentimental Education. Flaubert was the only one who liked that title—in fact he practically shoved it down his publisher's throat. What gives? They wanted to name it Dry Fruit or some such nonsense.
Then, with Madame Bovary, there was all sorts of kerfuffle about the book's subtitle Moeurs de province, which means Customs of the province, though usually the subtitle is made less awkward by being translated as Scenes From Provincial Life or Life in the Provinces. See how paratext can be so exciting? People may see these subtitles as just variations on a theme, but I see important thematic differences in each translation, and in the choice not to include the subtitle at all.