Marcel Proust Meets Charlie Kane

I’ve committed to reading all the way through Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) this year. As of my writing this, I’m about two-thirds of the way through the first volume, Swann’s Way. So far, two particularly famous passages have stuck out, each of which reminded me of the same film, Citizen Kane. Therefore I’ve decided to devote a post to exploring the connection between these two works. Before even beginning, I’ve been plagued with fears that this comparison is both obvious and facile, not to mention vulgar. Here I am, comparing one of the titanic achievements of world literature to a Hollywood picture, albeit one generally considered above-average. But so be it; it’s fun making worlds collide sometimes.

Part 1: The Madeleine/Rosebud

I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and thus effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognised them the spell is broken. Delivered by us, they have overcome death and return to share our life.

And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) of which we have no inkling. And it depends on chance whether or not we come upon this object before we ourselves must die.

–Proust, Swann’s Way, translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, and D.J. Enright

Female Reporter: If you could have found out what that “Rosebud” meant, I bet that would have explained everything.

Thompson: No, I don’t think so. No. Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe “Rosebud” was something he couldn’t get or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn’t have explained anything. I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess “Rosebud” is just a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. A missing piece.

–Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, Citizen Kane

RosebudIn the next paragraph after the passage quoted above, Proust’s narrator tastes the madeleine soaked in a spoonful of tea, and the sensation arouses his memory more powerfully than he ever could have expected, kicking off the fascinating recollections that dominate the novel. The concept here is that taste and smell, particularly when they combine, are the most effective means of unlocking memories. It’s all involuntary. A sensation comes to a person that matches a sensation from years before, bringing the earlier event to mind. All of this will be further fleshed out over the next 4,000 pages, I’m sure, but it’s the Celtic idea quoted above that ties the madeleine to Rosebud.

The sled really is just a MacGuffin, and a “tawdry” one, as Welles himself admitted years later. It sends the reporter Thompson on his mission, allowing the movie to examine Kane from the varying perspectives of different people who knew him. Finally, it’s revealed that Rosebud was something about Kane that no one still living knew about, showing an aspect of his character that is now forever lost.

In a nutshell, the sled represents his innocent childhood, before Thatcher took him away from his family and placed on him the “burden” of unimaginable wealth. Simply seeing the sled again, we presume, would awaken the memory for him and bring him some comfort. When he utters the word in the moment of death, it’s a last-ditch effort to keep the memory alive in whoever might overhear it. But long before that, when he first meets the woman who will be his second wife, he tells her he had been on the way to look through his mother’s possessions in storage, “in search of my youth.” I don’t doubt that Mankiewicz, Welles, or both were inspired by the Proust passage when they sent Kane on a search for his own “lost time.” Perhaps he hoped his mother’s soul would be in that sled. But in Kane’s story, death ultimately wins.

Part 2: The “Little Phrase”/The Girl on the Ferry

The year before, at an evening party, he had heard a piece of music played on the piano and violin… And it had been a source of keen pleasure when, below the delicate line of the violin-part, slender but robust, compact and commanding, he had suddenly become aware of the mass of the piano-part beginning to emerge in a sort of liquid rippling of sound, multiform but indivisible, smooth yet restless, like the deep blue tumult of the sea, silvered and charmed into a minor key by the moonlight… [H]e had distinguished quite clearly a phrase which emerged for a few moments above the waves of sound. It had at once suggested to him a world of inexpressible delights, of whose existence, before hearing it, he had never dreamed, into which he felt that nothing else could initiate him; and he had been filled with love for it, as with a new and strange desire… [W]hen he returned home he felt the need of it: he was like a man into whose life a woman he has seen for a moment passing by has brought the image of a new beauty which deepens his own sensibility, although he does not even know her name or whether he will ever see her again.

Swann’s Way

Bernstein: That “Rosebud,” huh? Maybe, some girl? There were a lot of them back in the early days.

Thompson: It’s hardly likely, Mr. Bernstein, that Mr. Kane could have met some girl casually, and then fifty years later on his deathbed he’d remember–

Bernstein: Well, you’re pretty young, Mr. Thompson. A fella would remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day back in 1896 I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on, and she was carrying a white parasol, and I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all. But I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.

Citizen Kane

BernsteinThe connection is slighter in this case, but I love it. The Proust passage is from the middle section of Swann’s Way, called “Swann in Love,” which takes up nearly half the volume. It tells the story of Charles Swann and his tortuous romantic relationship with Odette de Crécy, a relationship that begins the night of a party where he finally hears the musical piece mentioned above for a second time. By that coincidence, he is granted the second chance that Bernstein in Kane never receives. He learns the name of the piece and its composer, and so it attains greater prominence in his life than a fleeting memory. But in the excerpt quoted above, we are reminded how romantic, how thrilling it is to hear a piece of music for the first time and not know its origin. It’s the romance Prince Charming feels when Cinderella flees the ball. Technology these days makes it increasingly easy to learn the essential information about a song one hears on the radio, but I’m sure we can all think of one or two from our past that captured our attention and then seemed to disappear. Only by chance, or patient listening, would we come across it again. And if we only ever heard it once, we would not forget it. Perhaps some involuntary trigger, like Proust’s madeleine, would call it to mind, and we could still hum it to ourselves. I think the mind makes an extra effort to remember things like that.

Naturally, it’s Proust’s comparison of the music to seeing a beautiful woman in passing that made me think of the Bernstein speech, one of Roger Ebert’s favorite moments in the film. But that speech also happens to pick up the themes we’ve been discussing: the power of memory; the wistful look back at things forever lost; the passage of time itself, what it changes and what remains the same. It’s a detour from the film’s plot, but it illustrates the themes in beautiful ways. Just look at the contrast between Bernstein’s simple romantic memory — a glance that never led to a relationship — and Kane’s two failed marriages. A single second of his life has filled Bernstein with more happiness than Kane could ever hope for. Likewise, the Swann/Odette relationship (although I haven’t seen how it all turns out in the end yet) has not been nearly as blissful or fulfilling for Swann as the “little phrase” from the sonata. These are bittersweet truths, but they sing.

3 responses to “Marcel Proust Meets Charlie Kane

  1. Pingback: Classical Music, Proust, Finish Lines, and Me | Infinite Crescendo·

  2. Pingback: “There’s no story. It’s just people, gestures, moments…” | Infinite Crescendo·

  3. Pingback: Influències de la Recherche al cinema (III): Films americans – EL BLOG DE JORDI B.·

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