On gossamer wings

A review of 'A Field Guide to Lost Things'

A Field Guide to Lost Things

A Field Guide to Lost Things

Peter Jaeger

If p then q 2015, 173 pages, $9.00, ISBN 978-0957182776

Are they of the past, by the past, and for the past? This might be a way of evaluating the later-than-life productions of Marcel Proust. Thus there may be something to say for Peter Jaeger’s A Field Guide to Lost Things even though it is not one of Proust’s best.

How is it that A Field Guide is not one of Proust’s best? Proust started a whole new way of writing into memory and into the soul of lost desires. The set of writings produced subsequently by Proust’s way of writing is a large set including writings created after the death of Marcel Proust, but so overwhelmingly changed and retold because of Proust’s writing that they can be said to compose, depending for their makeup on the writer’s tastes, i.e. on her literary and phenomenological Gestalt, a body of writing that is truly the later-than-life productions of Marcel Proust.

Naturally, it is always in present time that we keep accounts; but even then the present is only a memory of an instant, and, thus, of the past, by the past, and for the past. That is one way to look at it (as Emmanuel Levinas puts it, dans le temps, déphasage de l’instant et déjà rétention de la phase séparée). Alternatively, the past of the later-than-life productions of Proust may seem not to be recovered but rather unencumbered, by virtue of their being written. Indeed, the secondarity corresponding to the non-remembrances of the unconventional textualization of Proust by Peter Jaeger, and to all the found sentences, re-involved as they are from the beautifully written Swann’s Way by CKS Moncrieff of 1922 vintage, comes out clearly; it comes out naturally for a way of reading, and so so, so, beautifully. Surely beautifully, as they are of Moncrieff’s terms (his taking and reducing and reproducing Du côté de chez Swann), and as they are the script and the direction and the cherished motivation for Jaeger’s coming upon the lost-feeling fields.

Above all, this way of coming offers readers what is natural, what is natural in them, and what thus chimes with their nature. It offers this naturalness by way of its pacing. A Field Guide contains the sentences, and thus the points of view of types, of Moncrieff’s writing, arranged for the reader’s ease in neat alphabetical order. The sentences, or the sometimes chosen cuts of participial and noun phrases, imply and effectively represent (in their progression) what appear to be dictionary entries, proceeding continuously; that continuity of presentation (though merely of a sort of continuity) is of the essence. The informing mark of the continuous two-column format is presentability, and what shows is a form of reading that is meant, and confirmed, as being of the essence. Getting from A to Z counts for more, it would seem, than the past’s or time’s being of the essence.

That is to say, in the mix of descriptions and elegant reveling in assertions is where penetration lies. How those assertions are measured superbly to perform the role of guide, how Moncrieff’s sentences are rolled out, is how we know, somehow. Moncrieff’s formations guide us through a breezy experience suggestive of eyeing beauties expressly formed for Proust’s latest. They do so in assured (and serenely limited) secondarity. This much is true, and to this extent decontextualized and echoing and resonating with limited force and effect. Yet the experience of regret in their being lost, as a condition of writing them down in this fashion, only adds to the beautiful capture of these lost things, by design. Such are the facts as we may account for them, or assemble them, knowing full well what nature’s beauty is coming to. Of so much exquisite fragrance and potential (read carefully, delightedly, any of Proust’s entries, such as “All Manner of Birds” in the A columns, or “Hawthorn” in the H columns, or “Waves,” or better “Weather,” in the XYZ columns) much is lost.

It is, moreover, the style that is of the essence and thus essential to Jaeger’s alphabetical text, which reads as a “novel” in novel form, repeated continuously. And that is all to the point of what it is to be reading it in its approachable secondarity, in repetition, as the joy of style all to the good, as I have heard, to the relief of many, as Moncrieff’s translation is all to the good.

And so it is not one of Proust’s best as being all there for the reader’s ease and swift capacities.

An account in sentences and participial and noun phrases would seem to bypass the past. Yet a moment obtains, and the practice of using the word in a sentence is an old familiar, as illustrated in the entry for “Hawthorn.” We similarly find in the Oxford English Dictionary terms being illustrated by historical uses, and similarly in continuous columns, though of three rather than two. This practice is mimicked in the Oxford Latin Dictionary, where it has the merit of providing still greater reach towards the past, etc., in three columns again, and with the further exception that the respective lexical item is ellipsed and not spelled out each time. That, then, in sum, is what you get, a course of repetitions of lovely phrases. You get these irrelevancies, lacking semantics, with no interrogations/irritations, just entwined words (beginning near the bottom of the second column of the verso):

Hawthorn If I had had the
courage I would have cut
you a branch of that pink
hawthorn you used to like so
much [une branche de ces épines roses
que tu aimais tant
]. In vain did I shape
my fingers into a frame, so

Then cut to first column of next page, the recto:

as to have nothing but the
hawthorns [sic; put under “Hawthorns”?] before my eyes;
the sentiment which they
aroused in me remained
obscure and vague,
struggling and failing to free
itself, to float across and
become one with the
flowers. It was indeed a
hawthorn, but one whose
flowers were pink, and
lovelier even than the white.
My aunt did not go to see
the pink hawthorn in the
hedge. The hawthorn [les aubépines] was
not merely in the church, for
there, holy ground as it was,
we had all of us a right of
entry; but, arranged upon
the altar itself, inseparable
from the mysteries in whose
celebration it was playing a
part, it thrust in among the
tapers and the sacred
vessels its rows of branches,
tied to one another
horizontally in a stiff, festal
scheme of decoration.
Unfolding through the arch
of the pink hawthorn [déployant sous l’épinier rose], which
opened with her, and with
all that unknown world of
her existence, into which I
should never penetrate.

Being continuous, the columns are not in the habit of being broken, as is sometimes the case in two-column structures. It is thus not anything like the brokenness (a sort of breaching or extendable and expressive guttering) employed, e.g., to intriguing, collusive effect in Anselm Berrigan’s Zero Star Hotel. Or maybe, true enough, there is not this feeling of a negotiable break, and yet, if not this, nevertheless a clipped (or choppy) quality of shortened lines (and phrases?) both supporting and denying swiftness of reading. So perhaps easy reading is not the point.

Easy reading or not, in terms of context the presentation of this entry rather gladly proceeds, is a happy point. The limited range of “Hawthorn” occurrences throughout A Field Guide means that the reader tracks the (mis)guidance to her spot better than for some entries. To be sure, for every dictionary occurrence, context is lost; to be sure, one may be hard pressed, in this day and age, to find a hawthorn in the landscape of an American city, one either bulging or wasted. There is a difference here, however. Context may in this instance be revisited quickly if we are aware, or if in our reviewing we become aware, that meeting Gilberte Swann, haughty daughter to prove so awesome a sighting to one, is a fine moment indeed, intermixed in the narrator’s fine appreciation of the delicately white or pink hawthorn blossoms, or maybe it was the flowers of the strawberry plant that were white, and in any event the fact that we see them, and now her, only because weather permitted the telling of le côté de Méséglise-la-Vineuse (and hence on the way to chez Swann).

Yet the sentences are there, to be read one after another (somehow); are there smushed together (somehow, and with some quite indistinct purpose), as a test of how to read. That is the question: how to read it.

All these problems, specialties of A Field Guide to Lost Things, are there to be placed and to be asked, for the curious. Or Jaeger’s rendition may strike and may otherwise spur the reader on, in similar ways and with even swifter restrictions. It may seem a curiosity, perhaps. The tent folds and unfolds; the fields disappear, fast.

Now take the entry for “Wing”:

Wing All his memories of
the days when Odette had
been in love with him,
which he had succeeded, up
till that evening, in keeping
invisible in the depths of his
being, deceived by this
sudden reflection of a
season of love, whose sun,
they supposed, had dawned
again, had awakened from
their slumber, had taken
wing, and risen to sing
maddeningly in his ears,
without pity for his present
desolation, the forgotten
strains of happiness.
Anyhow, I’ll take you all
under my wing; she can put
the blame on me.

On their face, these bits from Swann’s Way no doubt delight. Differing, and differently opting for their urging, they are rich. But the reader who knows, who can remember the passage from whence for Jaeger (and for Moncrieff) that first long and revealing sentence came, will know the most of it, how bringing back such a magical surge of elucidation can represent one of the narrative’s high moments (notes hautes and [as well] mimiques). But here, as they are, dolorously, they’ve gone.