Gate of Lilacs is, in Clive James’s words, a ‘quinzaine of rhapsodies’: a poem of fifteen parts in blank verse that is also a critical essay on Proust. ‘His book,’ says James, ‘big for a book, is still small for a world.’ This awareness of scale is, perhaps, what makes James able to present the apparently vast world of Proust in such condensed form. It is an unabashedly personal response to a novel of asthmatically breathtaking self-obsession.
This is not a poem that plods through the plot of A la recherche du temps perdu to offer a boiled-down version of the story. In a novel so alive to time (and a poem so interested in its running out) what would be the point? James picks out the characters, the motifs and the moments that set his memory ablaze, just as Marcel was able to conjure such visions from a tisane-infused madeleine.
As we meet the characters that most interest James, we are given telling examples of their behaviour, potted biographies of their real-life inspirations and brief expositions of fin-de-siècle culture. The Duchesse de Guermantes ‘skips across the steps to give her blessing/To Mme de Gallardon, whom she shut out/From her acquaintance