In 2001, PEN sponsored a Twentieth-Century Masters Tribute to Marcel Proust, excerpts of which were printing in PEN America 2: Home & Away. "Proust Regained" features Roger Shattuck, William C. Carter, André Aciman, Edmund White, Nadine Gordimer, Williams H. Gass, Marilynne Robinson, and Lydia Davis.
Thus my body builds around it room after room: wintry rooms where one loves to hold the outer world at bay, where one keeps the fire going all night and wraps about one’s shoulders a cloak of warm air, smoke-colored, smoke-scented, and shot with ruddy gleams; summer rooms where one loves to be gathered to the breast of nature, rooms where one sleeps, a bedroom I had in Brussels whose proportions were so pleasing, so spacious and yet so cozy, that it seemed a nest to hide in and a world to explore.
Back to the Present
Without official approval, I should like to dedicate these proceedings to the reading groups and secret Proust readers who are here tonight, and who have produced something called a house. A full house, for Marcel Proust. And we will honor Proust most, I believe, if we stick for just a few minutes to what I call scripture. Therefore, here beginneth the first verse of the first chapter of the book called A la recherche du temps perdu, In Search of Lost Time:
Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire: "Je m’endors." Et, une demi-heure après, la pensée qu’il était temps de chercher le sommeil m’éveillait...
And now a translation of the opening passage composed for this occasion. Those of you who have tried to translate the first sentence will know that it is impossible. Therefore it has to be translated.
Early to bed with a book. I have tried that for years. Many times I would blow out my candle and drop off to sleep so fast that I didn’t register what was happening and, half an hour later, the thought that it was time for me to go to sleep would wake me up again. During that brief sleep, I had entered into the life of the book I was reading, had entered it so utterly, that I became its subject. A quartet, a church, the rivalry between Francois I and Charles V. This belief in a new identity didn’t trouble me, but like a film over my eyes, it prevented me from noticing that my candle had blown out. Tenderly, I pressed my cheek into the plump pillow, so cool and soft that it seemed to offer me the cheeks of childhood itself...
At this point Proust does go on to describe the magical childhood of the young Marcel. But something not often noticed happens first: there comes the great fall. By about page three, we are carried away into a swift and deep descent, a descent back to childhood, a descent back to Adam and Eve, a descent back to the cavemen, and finally, back to the condition that Proust calls “the abyss of non-being.” This distinct fall at the beginning links Proust’s book to Genesis, to Dante, with the descent into Hell at the beginning of The Divine Comedy, and to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, beginning with the rabbit-hole. But Proust’s descent, or his narrator’s fall, is much more dire and dreadful than that of these other books. If you grasp the true significance of that immense fall at the beginning, then you will also understand why it took Proust three thousand pages to climb back up out of that hole to find the present again, to find his own skin, and finally, to find that puzzling set of conventions that we call civilization. Along the way, Proust offers us a million little details, delicious items, small things like—I shall only mention it—the asparagus. Like the street cries, which the narrator listens to in his bed. And, if you’ve read far enough, like the two pimples which appear on Albertine’s forehead, signifying what, we never quite learn.
But all these millions of little things add up, I believe, to one big thing. In Search of Lost Time offers us a record of how it feels, of how it feels in our very system, to be alive—both to be alive as generic human beings, and to be alive as our own sorry, yearning selves. Proust, many of us feel, is the most sensuous novelist who ever lived and wrote for us, and we give thanks.
Theories of Relativity
William C. Carter
Marcel Proust lived from 1871 to 1922, an era that he characterized as the Age of Speed. These exciting, momentous years, encompassed the Fin de Siècle, Belle Epoch, and World War I. By the time Proust was forty, the gas-lit world of his youth had been transformed by electric lighting, the telephone, the phonograph, the automobile, the airplane, and motion pictures. When he began writing his novel, Paris streets bustled with an astonishing variety of pedestrians, ambulatory vendors, drivers and their horses, and a number of the new self-propelling vehicles called automobiles. He could see the past and future on parade, as horse-drawn carriages made way for cars. Part of the fascination of reading In Search of Lost Time derives from its vivid depiction of the major social, political, and technological forces that changed daily life, and the way people perceived time and space.
In September 1905, when Proust was thirty-four, his mother died. His intense grief lasted until 1907, when a summer vacation brought about a dramatic change in him. Depressed and ill, he had in recent months gotten out of bed only once a week, without dressing. After he arrived at the seaside resort, the pure air, joined with a deadly dose of caffeine—seventeen cups—allowed him to hire the driver, Alfred Agostinelli, and go out every day in a closed car. As the taxi sped along the road towards Caen, famous for its medieval churches, Proust watched the distant spires appear and disappear against the horizon in constantly shifting perspectives, and he marveled at the phenomenon of parallax and relativity, so keenly felt in the automobile.
Albertine, chief among the girls whom Proust calls “creatures of flight,” always exhibits an enthusiasm for sports and bicycles, automobiles and airplanes. Fast by nature, Albertine becomes, through the narrator’s obsessive jealousy, a truly volatile figure: “Even when you hold them in your hands, such persons are fugitives. To understand the emotions they arouse, and which others, even better-looking, do not, we must realize that they are not immobile, but in motion, and add to their person a sign corresponding to that which in physics denotes speed.”
Proust’s elaboration on the theme of time shows that he is not only aware of the constantly shifting nature of things, but is haunted by it. Change, and reaction to change, set the tone of the period. The Great War, in which common soldiers became the heroes, and also the first one in which airplanes were used to launch bombs, accelerated the process of transformation. After the war, the Guermantes’ salon, once the epitome of aristocratic elegance and snobbery, is described as a broken-down machine no longer functioning properly and unable to maintain its fierce exclusivity. This is but another turn of the Proustian kaleidoscope. Even the ultra-chic Faubourg Saint-Germain must yield to the forces of time, as the narrator observes: “Thus it is that the pattern of the things of this world changes. That centers of empire, assessments of wealth...all that seemed to be forever fixed is constantly being refashioned, so that the eyes of a man who has lived can contemplate the most total transformation, exactly where change would have seemed to him to be most impossible.”
Late in life, the narrator returns to the Bois de Boulogne, hoping to find living memories of his youth. “Smitten by a desire to see again what I had once loved, as ardent as the desire that had driven me many years before along the same paths, I wished to see anew before my eyes at the moment when Mme Swann’s enormous coachman...endeavored to curb the ardor of those horses,” frenzied and light as wasps on the wing, as they thundered over the ground. “Alas! there was nothing now but motor-cars driven each by a moustached mechanic....How horrible! I exclaimed to myself. Can anyone find these motor-cars as elegant as the old carriage-and-pair?”
“The places we have known,” he concludes, “do not belong only to the world of space, on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.
The new heroes of the Age of Speed—the cyclist, the chauffeur, and the aviator—all appear in Proust’s novel. Albertine the cyclist is a mysterious, erotic creature, while the aviator symbolizes the artist. At the beginning of the novel’s climactic scene, the narrator, at last looking inward for the keys to his past, suddenly feels himself rising in flight, like an airman who, hitherto, has progressed laboriously along the ground, abruptly taking off. “I soared slowly toward the silent heights of memory.”
In 1931, Edmund Wilson declared this book the literary equivalent of Einstein’s theory: “Proust has re-created the world of the novel from the point of view of relativity. He has supplied for the first time in literature an equivalent on the full scale for the new theory of physics.” In doing so, Proust creates new ways of looking at the world, making In Search of Lost Time one of the most complex and stimulating optics that we have for viewing our own lives. Through the dynamic use of shifting perspectives, as the narrator journeys towards his goal, Proust offers the reader a kaleidoscopic view of a world in motion. Few writers have given us so many enthralling ways of looking at the world and our own experience. By making us aware of the unplumbed layers within ourselves, Proust expands and celebrates the range and depth of our perception.
The Architecture of Thought
The apartment at 102 Boulevard Haussmann in which Proust wrote most of In Search of Lost Time is now owned by a bank. The bedroom in which Proust slept, rested, ate, received visitors and wrote is used by the bank for meetings with clients. And it is relatively bare of reminders of Proust. There is a portrait of him on the wall and some of his books in a bookcase. The only other furniture is a table and four chairs and a sideboard. What is still there that Proust looked upon daily is the marble fireplace, the doors, the two tall windows, and the wood floor with its herringbone pattern. Sparsely furnished like this, it does not seem very large, though Proust described it as vast.
Sometimes, after he’d been awake a few hours, though still in bed, Proust would decide on impulse to go out and see a friend. At ten or eleven at night in a dark bedroom, the only light comes from the lamp by his bed, and the fire in the fireplace if it’s winter. The dark room is crowded with furniture, including two large bookcases, a wardrobe, a grand piano, an armchair for visitors, and various little tables. Proust leaves his bed, crosses the short hallway and gets dressed. His suit is made to measure and his patent leather boots were bought at the Old England Shop. He does not tend to wear out his shoes. He is transported by taxi and walks on carpet and parquet floors.
He arrives at his friend’s house, waking him up, and begins talking. The sentence, in other words, attempts to be exhaustive, to capture every nuance of a piece of reality, and yet to be correct—to reflect Proust’s entire thought. To be exhaustive and correct is of course an infinite task. More can always be inserted, more event and more nuance, more commentary on the event, and more nuance within the commentary. Many contemporaries of Proust’s insisted that he wrote the way he spoke, although when Swann’s Way appeared in print, they were startled by what they saw as the severity of the page. Where were the pauses, the inflections; there were not enough empty spaces, not enough punctuation marks. “I can’t read it,” said one old father to his son. “You read it aloud to me."
Certain sentences are remarkable for their absence of commas, and others for having suddenly so many more commas than you would expect. The punctuation obeys some other law. Is this style conversational or not? Well, it seems to want to give the illusion of the conversational. Sentences begin with “and so,” “but,” “in fact,” “actually,” “and yet,” “of course,” “yes,” “no,” “wasn’t it true,” “really.” But what a strange conversation, long and one-sided, composed in darkness and silence. And sentences so elaborately constructed with towering architectures of subordinate phrases that you have to stop and think, and then go back over them, just to figure them out.
Proust felt that a long sentence contained a whole, complex thought. The shape of the sentence was the shape of the thought, and every word was necessary to the thought. When he used a deliberate effect like alliteration, it was there not as an empty flourish, but to tie two similar elements or contrasting elements together in one’s mind. He despised empty flourishes. Great length was not desirable in itself. As he proceeded from draft to draft, he not only added material but also condensed. “I prefer concentration,” he said, “even in length. I really have to weave these long silks as I spin them,” he said. “If I shortened my sentences, it would make little pieces of sentences, not sentences.”
“Please break up these long sentences” is the plaintive request that a translator of Proust hears at least once. No, the book is really more about thought than plot. And in any case, in Swann’s Way at least, there is a nice balance. Eighty percent of the sentences are not excessively long. The sentences must be kept intact, long and short, and they must retain as many elements of their complexity as possible, the parallel structures, the pairs of phrases, the triplets, the alliteration and assonance, the meter. But above all the intricate architecture of syntax by which Proust inserts his parenthetical remarks and digressions, delaying as long as possible the outcome of the sentence. So this means in the end trying to preserve not only the ease of a sentence when it is easy, but also the difficulty of a sentence when it is difficult, and it means asking oneself the same question with each sentence, though with a different problem in each: If I can’t produce, for example, the hexameter which Proust has so beautifully embedded in this phrase, by just how much will I have changed his thought?
When I was in college, it was my good fortune to be a student of John Hawkes. Momentously for me, he once put a blessing on a paragraph of mine. He called it Proustian. He did this to shelter it from the criticisms of my fellow students, who were aflame then with a stern undergraduate passion for truth-telling, for tearing away veils and dispelling illusions. I was as impressed by this project as anyone, and I made certain poor attempts at it, which the formidable Mr. Hawkes discouraged by invoking this great name to approve one straying memory of my primordial Idaho.
I had read no Proust at the time. I was much struck by the freedom from constraint and expectation I suddenly enjoyed. Thereafter, I could complicate my sentences and elaborate my metaphors and explore my memory without prosecutorial intent, and still be respected by my peers. So I associated Proust with the blessing and freeing of language and memory and of the testimony of the individual spirit, even before I discovered by reading him that he should indeed be associated with just these things.
Given the vagaries of historical reputation, it is startling to find anyone whose influence is what it ought to be. Why is this so singularly true of Proust? It is as if the great purity of Proust’s motive in writing—I take this to be a profoundly courteous desire to give us back to ourselves—has made the whole phenomenon of his work proof against an alteration. He restores us to our purest innocence as readers. His young narrator, Marcel, tells us how it was, and is, to pass a summer morning engrossed in a book:
This dim coolness of my room was to the broad daylight of the street what the shadow is to the sunbeam, that is to say equally luminous, and presented to my imagination the entire panorama of summer, which my senses, if I had been out walking, could have tasted and enjoyed only piecemeal; and so it was quite in harmony with my state of repose which (thanks to the enlivening adventures related in my books) sustained, like a hand reposing motionless in a stream of running water, the shock and animation of a torrent of activity.
He tells us that the very limitations of the art—its very departures from strict truth—have an intrinsic moral, that is, compassionate, value. He says, “A real person, profoundly as we may sympathize with him, is in great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, remains opaque, presents a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift. If some misfortune comes to him it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion. Indeed it is only in one small section of the complete idea that he has of himself, that he is capable of feeling any emotion either.” The novelist’s happy discovery was to think of substituting for those opaque sections impenetrable to the human soul their equivalent in immaterial sections. Things, that is, which one’s soul can assimilate.
By this he means to restore us to a kind of experiential innocence, as if we could be recalled to a time when language and memory, when our mind and our senses, astonished us, as indeed they should never cease to do. His metaphor for this is the memory of the impassioned perceptions of childhood, but the state he describes in an atemporal one, in which the senses are awakened as they are only sometimes by art or when we are dreaming. And as they do in dreams, frustration, anxiety, the fear of loss or shame give the beauty of things and people and the weather of our minds an ineluctable too-present strangeness, a beauty too pure to be merely beautiful. Marcel, old and nostalgic, visits the autumnal Bois de Boulogne and sees there, farther off, at a place where the trees were still all green, one alone, small, stunted, lopped, but stubborn in its resistance, tossing in the breeze an ugly mane of red.
Reading Proust, we are always recalled to a sense of the elegance of our most ordinary perceptions, and how richly they are changed by habit, by accidental associations, by regret and yearning, by misapprehension and disenchantment, and by time. I will not say, by love, since love, if it exists, is merely the great sum of all these things. Just so does truth, if it exists, impartially include in its great sum, and among its marvels, the shabbiest and the most opulent of veils and illusions.
Toward Total Recall
William H. Gass
Was it in the summer? It probably was…when you thought you had a enough time on your hands to fill them with a book, when an unappointed space had appeared in your life…the summer when you decided to read Proust. Perhaps the impossible purpose appeared to you in late afternoon, at an hour customarily assigned to tea and to fingering volumes by Henry James. You would have had to have been—hear the toll of those terrible tenses?—you would have had to have been young. Or recently retired. Ambitious. Or convalescent. Feeling the need, sensing the opportunity, to improve yourself.
When André Gide first looked into Swann’s Way, it must have seemed a stack of sheets like any other, so his mind would not have been filled with the kind of foreboding that faces the climber of a mountain while still in the foothills looking up at his goal, a blanched peak whose slopes are already dotted with many a failed ambition. Gide’s encounter with the name “Proust” would not be like any of ours. He would remember the frivolous social snob while we would be ready to regard that same person as bearing a title, perhaps like others so often in the literary news—Joyce and Kafka and Mann—so that if we didn’t positively love what of Proust we finally read, we would never let on, for some small sins are more shameful to the soul than many a public crime.
Yet that’s the way we should have got into Swann’s Way—unaware, when it first came out—because during every decade after, in addition to the rambling work itself, books of commentary and criticism would begin to surround it like a barricade, adding to one’s trepidations. Not to mention idle conversations about the great work’s length, its difficulties, and laughable place in summertime’s hammock—attitudes that built its popular reputation. Am I ready? Am I worthy? Couldn’t I settle for Colette or even Sagan, each equally French?
When we begin Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, how much of the story does the author expect us to keep in mind as we read along? He expects us, I think, to remember about as much of Tom Jones’s history as Tom Jones does—for instance, to remember that Tom broke his leg, but not to remember all that was said by the visitors who appeared at his bedside. The text is meant to dwindle away, as past times do, and if some element is supposed to be retained for future use, we can be confident that Fielding will prompt us. How otherwise it is with Joyce, to name the most guilty. He would have us recollect Bloom’s orangeflower water hundreds of pages after its first appearance, while recognizing that the soap with which it is associated is even more important. The text is not a boat’s wake, meant to subside behind us; instead it rises up like a tidal wave, and pursues us as we read, ready to flood each succeeding page with previous meanings, and altering all that has gone before the way Henry James’s predicates surprise and abash their subjects with an ultimate turn of phrase.
Nor must a text that is the result of dauntless revisions be read as the skater skates, at the sharp edge of blade and the blunt of ice. What has taken place in this novel, what has been rendered into such a verbal vision, it now remains for us to seek and realize and serve. That M, whose world I read of there, also stands for me. So much less was once required.
When the world is remembered in writing, it alters almost utterly in its density, in its absence of detail. “It, my body,” M says about waking, subsiding, waking up again, “my body would recall from each room in succession what the bed was like, where the doors were, how daylight came in at the windows, whether there was a passage outside, what I had had in my mind when I went to sleep, and had found there when I woke.” And the master makes certain that the reader has M’s sense of fullness, as if nothing has been or will be overlooked: “and my body…brought back before my eyes the glimmering flame of the night-light in its ball of Bohemian glass, shaped like an urn and hung by chains from the ceiling...” Yet it is only the suggestion of completeness that is given, not its reality, for those chains are darkening their brass with dust, the blue in the flame is rhythmically retreating before the orange, and in the chimney-piece of Siena marble that M mentions, there is a noticeable nick that I just put there—in short, no description possesses as much “this or that” as a camera might catch in the flicker of a finger, not to omit the states of mind that furnish a room from time to time with longing, appreciation, and panic.
Things and creatures in the real world buzz and blossom by the billions and we know to beware of their brevity, because decay and death are as continuous as being born or burgeoning. we might have pondered our place but we did not; we might have discerned connections, for they were there in Jamesian numbers, yet we failed to follow; we might have indulged an obsession, but we were too distracted by the trivial; we might have retained a fond touch, a glimmer of insight, a bit of wit; we might have; we might...have…
If the distance between what happens and what we have understood about it is dismaying, what of the difference our memory makes on the third day thence, the fifth week after, the seventh year just passed? An habitual victim of his body, Proust knew how great the chasm was between the mind and body. Outside M. Teste’s and Paul Valéry’s theater of the head, there was a reality indifferent to the plays put on by consciousness. We knew that world in part; it supplied our senses; it gave us occasion for concern, for delight, for desire; it gave us our place—Balbec, Paris, Combray—yet of us that world of matter and motion remained utterly unaware. Our lungs knew their air, but not our aspirations. Speaking of his grandmother’s failing health, M says, “It is in moments of illness that we are compelled to recognize that we live not alone but chained to a creature of a different kingdom, whole worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body.”
Yet it is the body, as it stirs restlessly through the opening pages, that remembers M’s rooms; it is the body that prompts him; it nudges him without knowing he is there; its posture reminds him; his stiffened side reminds him, but his muscles do not feel the cramp they bear. So when we assume the position we habitually assume when we read, we ready our departure; our body must know, like a pet from the smell of our luggage, that we are off, and our eyes will see no more floor or wall or ceiling because we, as the true Proustian performer always does, will adopt another body, that of the type-furrowed field—the conceptual page—and become its syllabic music.
The real world is full of pointless purpose, inattentiveness, confusion, pain, and perplexity, as well as the hazards of its satisfactions. Yet in Proust’s pages, it is perceived, it is felt, it is contemplated, in a manner so utterly satisfying that those pains, in their depiction, become pleasures; confusions are given an order only we are permitted to understand; defeats are now worth every word of their account; failures victories if only in their voicing. And that is why—to live for a while, as we ought, in a fully realized world, though its understanding will be forever incomplete and quite beyond us—that is why we read Proust.
There are two ways in which great literature impacts upon society. The one is cultural, a narrow definition of culture as practice of the arts. The writer breaks the traditional seals of the word, takes off into exploration of new modes of expression, challenges and changes what fiction is. After Proust, after Joyce, yes, the novel could never be the same. How Marcel Proust changed the concept of the novel as a form, I know, has been and will be expounded in this company of eminent Proustian scholars, and so I shan’t have the presumption to enter the debate, which I find, so far, has been a very fascinating one.
—the literary techniques and devices the writer has taken up, activated, re-invented, or invented. As a fiction writer, I have of course been alertly privy to and, no doubt, I’ve learned from the literary innovations of Marcel Proust. But a writer finds her or his own voice, or isn’t a writer. What has remained with me for a lifetime is the influence of Proust’s emotional and aesthetic perceptions. So what I want to talk about is this other impact, the Proust who influences the persona—the Proust after reading whom, the reader can never be the same. This is a grave matter, wonderful, perhaps dangerous. For there are those among us whose epiphany comes not from the face of religion, philosophy, or politics, but from the illumination of the subterranean passages of life by the imaginative writer. I was at quite an advanced age, I think in my late teens, for one who’d lived in books since early childhood when, long after Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Flaubert, I came upon that mistitled Remembrance of Things Past, in the Scott Moncrieff translation. I’d survived a lonely, mother-love–dominated childhood, and so my first response was one of recognition. Here was a writer who understood that childhood better than I did myself. It was an identification.
But later, as I read and returned to that book, its effect was something different, prophetic to the series of presents, existential stages, I was coming to, passing through. Holed up in an armchair in the tin-roofed house of a mining town in the South African veldt far, far away from Combray, Balbec, and the Boulevard Haussmann, I discovered that the intense response that I had to natural beauty, to flowers, trees, and the sea, visited once a year, wasn’t something high-mindedly removed from the drives of existence I was struggling with, but was part of a sensuality which informs and belongs with awakening sexuality; the conflation of emotional and the aesthetic formation.
Every time—anytime—one turns back to the novel, one finds the delight of something relevant to past perception that one had missed before. For example, in my recent rereading of A la recherche du temps perdu, my third in French, I’ve seen how pollen recurs: the natural product become a metaphor, the wind-distributed fecundity part of the very air which we breathe. First coming from the regard of the girl—you will remember that the narrator follows with his eyes on the drive with Mme de Villeparisis in A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs. And then there’s that bumblebee that enters the courtyard with pollen that signifies the attraction cast in the air between the Baron de Charlus and the lowly waistcoat maker Jupien. Proust himself pollinates ineffable connections between needs and emotions aroused by various means in us. In the context of projected existence, I came to Proust from D. H. Lawrence and Blake. Sexuality was fulfillment guaranteed to the bold, to anyone who would flout interdictions and free desire:
Abstinence sows sand all over
The ruddy limbs & flaming hair,
But Desire gratified
Plants fruits of life & beauty there.
And this Blakian gratification between men and women was the image, to me, of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, dancing on simulated clouds. Like Italo Calvino, I formed my notion of future emotional life as innocently and lyingly portrayed by the movies of the time.
The processes of loving, as exemplified in the desperate pilgrimage of Swann—and what a way that is: ecstatic, frustrating, impossible to turn away from, viewing the pursued beloved from the terrible angles of suspicion, losing the will to continue, grabbed by the will to go on. Always, moving along with him, one has moments when one wants to shake him and say, “Stop!” And one sees he cannot, he will not. Maybe that’s the principle of love. And in the end, of course, that devastating conclusion, this woman, for whom he spoiled years of his life, was really not his type at all.
Proust reformed, informed, my youthful understanding of the expectations of sexual love, showed me its immense complexity, its ultimate dependency on the impossibility of knowing the loved one—the very defeat of possession—and this concomitant process of self-knowledge, often dismaying. The cloud-mating of Fred and Ginger dispersed forever. In the life of the emotions I was embarked upon, my expectations were tutored by the greatest exploration ever made of the divine mystery of the sexual life in its ambient world of sensuality.
There’s no time to discuss the continuation of the theme with Albertine, only I’d like to observe that not only does it not matter a damn if Albertine was really an Albert transformed by the alchemy of imagination rather than a sex-change operation. No one has written better than Marcel Proust, himself a homosexual, of heterosexual relations. Perhaps literary genius can be defined yet once again as creativity that is all things, knows everything, in every human.
After early readings of the book, I read Les Plaisirs et les jours, Jean Santeuil, and Contre Sainte-Beuve, but to these I haven’t returned. I have more or less the gamut of Proust scholarship in English and French, but all has been surpassed, for me, by the publication this year of Roger Shattuck’s Proust’s Way, an amazing feat of originality where one would have thought that all the gold-bearing ore had long been brought to the surface. My present reading of The Book has become a new one because of Roger Shattuck’s book, filled with new understanding, possibilities, and new joys, through the variety of lenses provided by Shattuck’s radiant vision:
At the grand and poignant final social gathering of all social gatherings, narrator Marcel finds past friends and acquaintances unrecognizably changed by age while still having the sense of himself as he’d been in his mother’s eyes. And you’ll remember that he replies to a young woman’s invitation to dine: “With pleasure, if you don’t mind dining alone with a young man.” And only when he hears people giggle, he adds hastily: “or rather, an old man.” Later he realizes that the span of time represented by the aspect of that gathering not only had been lived through, but was his life presented to him. As I grow old, I find myself ready for the revelation in Time Regained, of this Proustian source, when among old friends with whom I was always the youngest of the circle, I realize we are now, all alike, disguised in the garb of aging. And I, like everyone else, have to be introduced to myself. Proust makes it another epiphany.
The Consolations of Art
No matter how strange Proust’s life might have been, it has been subsumed, as he hoped, into the radiant vision of it that he presented in his writing. Nevertheless, Whereas other modernists—Stein, Joyce, Pound—rejected confession in favor of formal experiment, Proust was a literary Cyclops, if that means he was a creature with a single, great I at the center of his consciousness, no matter that the first-person narrator is only occasionally the literal Marcel Proust. Every page of Proust is the transcript of a mind thinking. Not the pell-mell stream of consciousness of a Molly Bloom, or a Stephen Dedalus, each a dramatic character with a unique vocabulary and an individuating range of preoccupations, but rather the fully orchestrated, ceaseless, and disciplined ruminations of one mind, one voice, the sovereign intellect.
Proust may be more available to readers today than in the past because, as his life recedes in time, and the history of his period goes out of focus, he is read more as a fabulist than a chronicler, as a maker of myths rather than the valedictorian of the Belle Epoch. Under this new dispensation, Proust emerges as the supreme symphonist of the spirit. We no longer measure his accounts against a reality we know. Instead Of course Proust is also popular because he wrote about glamour, rich people, nobles, artists. And he wrote about love. It doesn’t seem to matter that he came to despise love, that he exploded it, reduced it to its shabbiest, most mechanical, even hydraulic terms. By which I mean he not only demystified love, he also dehumanized it, turning it into something merely Pavlovian. The love Swann feels for Odette is in no way a tribute to her charms or her soul. In fact, Swann knows perfectly well that her charms are fading and that her soul is banal.
Modern readers are responsive to Proust’s tireless and brilliant analyses of love because we too no longer take love for granted. Readers today are always making the personal public, the intimate political, the instinctual philosophical. Proust may have attacked love, but he did know a lot about it. Like us, he took nothing for granted. He was not on smug, cozy terms with his own experience. We read Proust because he knows so much about the links between childhood anguish and adult passion. We read Proust because he knows that in the terminal stage of passion we no longer love the beloved. The object of our love has been overshadowed by love itself. Proust writes: “…and this malady, which Swann’s love had become, had so proliferated, was so closely interwoven with all his habits, with all his actions, with his thoughts, his health, his sleep, his life, even with what he hoped for after his death, was so utterly inseparable from him, that it would have been impossible to eradicate it without almost entirely destroying him.” As surgeons say: his love was no longer operable.
But nevertheless, those fantasies are undeniably beautiful, intimations of paradise, the artificial paradise of art. I doubt whether many readers could ever be content with Proust’s rejection of rustling, wounded life, in favor of frozen, immobile art. But his powerful vision of impermanence certainly does speak to us. The rise and fall of individual loves on the small scale, and of entire social classes on the grand, the constant revolution of sentiments and status, is a subject Proust rehearsed and we’ve realized. Proust is the first contemporary writer of the twentieth century, for he was the first to describe the permanent instability of our times.
Parce que c’était lui...
The little phrase I’m about to read comes from a famous passage in Sodom and Gomorrah when Marcel the narrator is suddenly reminded of his grandmother. He had stayed at the same beach resort in Balbec with her once, but now, more than a year after her death, he’s back at the very same hotel. What he finds, as Proustian characters always find when they expect maximum emotion is, however, minimum sensation. He encounters, more or less, what he experienced at the time of her death, a sense of surprise at feeling so singularly numb, almost indifferent, blasé. All of it is colored by Marcel’s overloaded feeling of not feeling enough, and by the hope that this shamed admission of emotional inadequacy might itself pass for a form of genuine emotion. Now, surrounded by the indolent charm of the grand hotel, what the young adult Marcel thinks of when he arrives at Balbec is not his grandmother, but the social life awaiting him, of the band of young girls he had met there once before, and of the vague, tantalizing thing which Marcel always looks forward to: something exotic, someone new, unexpected, different, who might ultimately lure him out of his humdrum, bookish cocoon, into what Proust calls a new life.
As for his grandmother: well, if bereavement is the toll the living must pay for the loss of a loved one, then clearly Marcel, to use Jane Austen’s words, has been let off easily. But we are, of course, being set up. For as soon as Marcel is in his hotel room, and bends down to undo one of his boot buttons, something his grandmother had helped him do in that very same room, he suddenly bursts out sobbing, vehemently. What hits him is not just that he misses her terribly, but that he will never, ever, see her again. Because for the first time in his life, and in a manner that devastates him, the arch-premeditator Marcel finally understands, long after it happened, that his grandmother is in fact dead. Yet, come to think of it, this shouldn’t be surprising. The more unexpected, the more poignant it is.
This is how life works in Proust. Conversely, one may bump into the right people, but never when one wants to. One may get what one wants, but only after giving it up, or wanting something else instead. We reach out to seize precious moments not as they are happening to us, but once it’s clear that we’ve lost them. So far, so good. The set up is familiar enough. How well we know him, and how well he knows us. How well he understands repression. And how simple and direct that outburst of earnest grief, and how admirable his knowledge that it is always better to feel something, anything, than to feel nothing at all; that human beings should, and want to, feel things; that we are each of us heat-seeking subjects starved for feeling. Which is why, even at the risk of getting hurt, or making tremendous fools of ourselves, we will not shirk from being drawn to certain places, to certain objects, certain odors, to art, to tears, to plants, to writing, to memory, to music, to vice, and of course, to other human beings. Because by so doing, each of us finds a secret, private conduit to an inner life that is not just our new life, or our true life, but our whole life.
So, for the sake of argument, because I am perverse, let me overturn everything I’ve been saying and ask: What if this other life were an ancillary life called: paper. An unlived life made on paper, lived for paper, by a man raised and fed on paper, who has learned that life itself can be so drearily unimaginative sometimes that by a sort of miracle that justifies his life-long commitment and confinement to paper, life will mimic what could only have happened on paper. Where else but on paper does a man desperately seeking a woman among millions in Paris actually bump into her on the streets at night? Proust’s bookish eye is transfixed by those moments in life that are stunning, not because of their inherent beauty, but because they cry out to be committed, that is returned, to paper, to literature, to fiction, the ultimate seat of the inner life.
Small wonder that Proust put so much stock in style. to pile up metaphors and clauses, and take all sorts of sinuous turns, the better to take sorrow and pain and spread them out like gold into cadence, just cadence, because And yet, having built such a paper world, Proust can suddenly overturn everything I’ve been suggesting, and jolt out, like someone waking from a dream, sputtering things as randomly, and inchoately, as a man who has barely learned how to speak.
No reader of Montaigne can forget that stunning moment when, after probing why he loved his deceased friend Etienne de La Boétie so much, the author of the essays, this master-stylist of baroque prose, breaks down and scrawls out one of the most beautiful sentences penned in French: “You ask me why I loved him,” Montaigne says. “I don’t know. All I can say is parce que c’était lui, parce que c’était moi.” Because it was he, because it was I. Proust too knows how to cut through layer after layer of searching and probing prose and write as brief a sentence, if only because it too, like his sudden outburst, wells up in him and erupts on something that is more than just paper now. “You ask me why I love my grandmother,” he says. “I don’t know. All I know is this”—and here is the little sentence I promised you earlier— “Elle était ma grand-mère et j’était son petit-fils.” She was my grandmother, and I was her grandson. And if that’s not enough, a few lines down, Proust will say it again, more forcefully. While staring at her photograph in his hotel room, he will say it in even more guileless terms: “C’est ma grand-mère, je suis son petit-fils.” It’s my grandma. I’m her grandson. Anyone can write this. But of course, what surrounds it makes it eloquent. More to the point: life can’t compete with this. Life doesn’t even come close. And, come to think of it, perhaps no one alive can today.