I knew an MFA candidate in grad school who had already written a novel and even had an agent, and who, whenever Ernest Hemingway was mentioned, would instantly come down with a migraine so severe that he had to retire to bed with a cold compress on his forehead for eight hours. It was as though Hemingway were a kind of god whose very name could smite his acolytes. My friend, needless to say, never published and did not become a writer. The weight of his hero was just too much for him.
Writers have their touchstone authors. Marcel Proust is mine, and has been for almost 30 years. I learned French primarily because I wanted to read Proust in the original. I’d made my way through the Scott Moncrieff translation over a period of eight or nine months while living in the usual reduced circumstances of an aspiring writer in Cambridge, England. He was deep-sea diving into themes that I’d begun to introduce into my own work: time, memory, the past. In French his prose is sinewy and supple, much stronger and bolder than he comes off in the Scott Moncrieff translation. But it was how Proust dealt with character that most fascinated me.
By my count, I own some six biographies of Marcel Proust, not including biographical material contained in other volumes, such as his devoted housekeeper and amanuensis Céleste Albaret’s valuable Monsieur Proust, as well as those books dedicated to one aspect or another of his life. For years the most authoritative biography in English was that of George D. Painter, who wrote under the assumption that In Search of Lost Time was a way into the life of its author; an approach Proust utterly disdained. As Proust wrote in what is considered an early version of the Search: “A book is the product of a different self from the one we manifest in our habits, in society, in our vices.” Thus, many assumed that this asthmatic hypochondriac with his fur-lined coat, pale complexion, and drooping mustache could never possibly create anything more substantial than a flowery thank-you note to his hostess. Instead he produced one of the great works of literature.
Also one of the least-completed. Most readers who take the plunge get through Swann’s Way and give up. Yet once you forge ahead in the seven-volume work you see the pace increase, the humor deepen, the obsessions grow even more obsessive. This isn’t a rambling, stream-of-consciousness book of memories lost and found; it’s a novel with a subtle and solid architecture, where in its last volume, Time Regained, the shape of the work comes finally into focus. The man who tells this story, the “I” of the book, known as the Narrator, isn’t the author, per se, though once or twice they share a first name. And the book you’ve just finished reading isn’t quite the book the Narrator now sets out to write: it’s as though the author and his novel were a kind of optical illusion: where is the reality, where is the fiction? And what is this we’ve just read? A book about a man who wants to write a book about what we’ve just read?
The arc of the novel is the Narrator’s search for understanding the nature of time and the meaning of the past, in the end learning that, though the body ages and the mind weakens, the past never dies, it’s as vivid as when it was first experienced: always retrievable, always alive within us. The Narrator is something of an undercover agent. He’s an outsider who yearns to be accepted by the higher circles of le tout Paris, in particular the salons of the Duchess de Guermantes and that of her cousin, the Princesse de Guermantes. Proust himself, never one to shun the salons of le beau monde, had the perfect disguise: mix with high society and French nobility, look and listen and be tolerated, while few would suspect this social butterfly would ever make anything of himself. And yet the entire time he was observing, taking in not just how people spoke but how they looked, how they gestured, how they presented themselves both when in public and in their unguarded moments (something that Pablo Picasso recognized when he and Proust were at the same gathering towards the end of the author’s life: “Look, he’s keeping his eyes out for models,” as Jean Hugo quoted him as saying, though Benjamin Taylor rightly points out that all the models had already been found; some of them in that very room).
There’s a key scene in the novel when the Narrator, still a young man, happens to witness an exchange between the Baron de Charlus and Jupien, a tailor, soon to be Charlus’s secretary and afterwards the owner of a brothel, which the Narrator sees as something like an insect being drawn to pollen. He observes the baron’s little dance of seduction, how he now approaches, now retreats, until the two men have vanished inside Jupien’s waistcoat shop. Now the Narrator knows something that no one would suspect him of knowing. I spy with my very own eye, Proust seems to be saying, and I know everything. In many ways the central character of this long novel, Charlus, so robust and masculine at the start, then becoming an old man, retains something of the decrepit dignity of King Lear. As a creator of character, Proust is something of a Cubist: his people are never seen in only one dimension; they’re constantly changeable, and changing, and all of those faces exist on the same plane.
In Search of Lost Time is, I’ve always felt, aside from being a kind of detective story, something of a spy novel, which may stem from the fact that its author was both Jewish and gay, firmly placed as outside the perceived mainstream. The fact that gay men were ostracized (though in some quarters quietly tolerated) needs no elaboration here. And with the Dreyfus Affair being the story of the day when Proust was a young man — a story that didn’t quite go away for some 12 years — the population was divided, with anti-Dreyfusism becoming to a degree synonymous with anti-Semitism. Proust campaigned on behalf of Alfred Dreyfus. “Was this because he felt Jewish?” his latest biographer, Benjamin Taylor, asks. “Certainly not. Proust saw himself as what he was: the non-Jewish son of a Jewish mother. The Dreyfus Affair was for him, first and last, a clear-cut miscarriage of justice that demanded reversal. In this he was like most of the Jews, half-Jews, and baptized Jews who rallied to the cause in 1897 and 1898; they did so not because Dreyfus was Jewish but because he was innocent.”
The definitive biography in English is by William C. Carter, and in French we have the exhaustive, encyclopedic and equally valuable doorstopper by Jean-Yves Tadié, which has been translated into English. Just released from Yale University Press is Benjamin Taylor’s slim but rich volume, Proust: The Search. By now we know pretty much everything there is to learn about Proust, though the diaries of Reynaldo Hahn, considered by scholars to be, as Taylor calls it, “the holy grail of Proust biographers,” are under embargo until 2036, and will undoubtedly shed a great deal of light on this important relationship. So what does Taylor have to offer that’s new?
One might think that, as Taylor’s biography is part of Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, the author would be focusing on Proust’s life as a Jew. Though Proust’s Jewish mother, Jeanne Weil, never converted, his father, Adrien Proust, wished to have his children baptized into the Catholic church. Taylor, I think wisely, doesn’t make much of this, and turns his attention to the life of a writer, not just a Jewish writer, giving us a slender but rich work of biography that is stylishly written and covers all the bases of Proust’s life and career. Because so many of the highlights and details are well known to those who’ve read the earlier biographies, he succeeds not so much by narrowing the focus but by shedding light on the salient points of the author’s life and by reminding us why Proust is such a touchstone for so many.
However one reads the Search, when you come out at the other end of the experience you have become a different person; not just because something like eight months or a year has passed and you also have changed over that time, perhaps falling in love, or out of love, or becoming a parent, or finding yourself uprooted, but because you now see the world through the eyes of this author, just as, Proust writes in his novel, once Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s paintings were seen, people would say of a woman passing by, “That’s a Renoir woman.” “To succeed thus in gaining recognition,” Proust writes elsewhere in the novel, “the original painter, the original writer proceeds on the lines adopted by oculists. The course of treatment they give us by their painting or by their prose is not always agreeable to us. When it is at an end the operator says to us: ‘Now look!’ And, lo and behold, the world around us (which was not created once and for all, but is created afresh as often as an original artist is born) appears to us entirely different from the old world, but perfectly clear.” And that is what Proust does to you: you begin to define the world around you through the eyes of this artist.
There’s an eerie moment in the fourth volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Sodom and Gomorrah that stopped me dead the first time I came across it. In a meditation on sleeping and waking and memory, the author writes: “…I, the strange human being who, while he waits for death to release him, lives behind closed shutters, knows nothing of the world, sits motionless as an owl, and like that bird can only see things at all clearly in the darkness.” I had the strange sensation that the author, by then dead more than 50 years, was somehow still very much with us as he describes his exact circumstance, both as the voice of the book’s Narrator and as the person writing this book, as though he knew that one day someone would come across this line and sense the living author behind it. For that moment he knows you’re there; in those few words he is still alive. As he wrote upon hearing of the writer John Ruskin’s death to his friend Marie Nordlinger, “I am shown how paltry a thing death is when I see how vigorously this dead man lives.” Thus it is with Proust, and all our touchstones.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
A few weeks ago, to prepare myself for my solo book club, I read a biography of Marcel Proust — though not the Jean-Yves Tadié doorstopper that I mentioned in my first entry. Instead I read Benjamin Taylor’s Proust: The Search, a tightly focused biography concerned mainly with one question: how did Marcel Proust, of all writers, manage to author what many consider to be the greatest novel of all time? According to Taylor, it was not by any means preordained. No one in his circle, especially those who knew him in his youth, would have predicted it. His first published efforts were mediocre and forgettable. He lacked discipline, socialized too much, and couldn’t be bothered to show up for his part-time librarian job. He was also very sickly, an asthmatic who was easily exhausted by travel and parties — both of which he could not resist. Yet somehow, Taylor argues, “all this light-minded flitting around would turn out to be essential preparation.”
It took Proust about 13 years to write In Search of Lost Time, an extraordinary pace when you consider that he wrote seven volumes, none of them less than 400 pages and some close to 900. And it’s extraordinary considering the quality of his prose, and how interconnected the books are, with certain themes repeating and developing over the course of the novel, and a cast of characters changing over time, aging and evolving (or not evolving), just as real people do. Proust had the end of the novel in mind when he began, and a vague sense that he had found the structure — or, maybe, the moral sensibility — that could finally contain all the different modes of writing he wished to employ: description, analysis, dialogue, gossip, satire, and of course, his essays and insights about memory and consciousness. He was 38 years old and in poor health when he started writing. He knew he did not have any time left to waste. He believed — as it turned out, accurately — that he was writing on deadline. He died in 1922, shortly after completing his novel.
Reading Taylor’s biography, I kept thinking about the fact that I’m turning 38 this spring. This felt, at first, like a very egotistical thing to dwell upon, a secret hope that I might be on the cusp of writing a novel as grand as Proust’s. But, delusions aside, I think what really interests me about this parallel is that as a reader, I am the same distance from my childhood as Proust was from his when he began his book. Given Proust’s theme of memory lost and found, that similarity in perception has made the early pages of the novel feel very close to my current experience of memory and time.
Even those who have only a passing knowledge of Swann’s Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, will probably know that it begins with a long recollection of the narrator’s childhood trips to the country. This recollection is famously spurred by a happenstance bite of a madeleine cookie dipped in tea. The narrator, Marcel, describes the memories as “involuntary”, and all the more beautiful because he did not even realize he had them; they were bidden by sensory experience, not intellectual recall.
When I first read Proust in college, I certainly knew what it was like to suddenly and surprisingly remember something after encountering a particular smell or taste. But at 21, my memories of childhood were so close that nothing really seemed forgotten. If the smell of someone’s shampoo unexpectedly brought back the pretty smile of a long-lost babysitter, I didn’t believe, as Proust did, that it was a stroke of luck to have remembered that girl, and that I might have forgotten her, entirely, if not for that whiff of Herbal Essences. Now, at 37, I understand how distant memories can become. Lately, I feel like I’m looking at my childhood from a slightly higher vantage point, so that I can finally see the topography. Certain events and people seem to have risen in importance while others have blended together. I was talking to a friend my age about this and she knew what I was talking about, reporting that just recently she seems to have forgotten parts of her teens and 20s. Does this happen to everyone, we wondered — was it some kind of subtle marker of impending middle age? Did it happen to Proust? Was forgetting what allowed him to write his marvelous book of remembrance?
As I write this, I am about three weeks into reading Swann’s Way. I’ve finished the first two sections of the volume, “Combray I” and “Combray II,” which detail the summer hours Marcel spent in the village of Combray as a child, staying at his aunt’s house. I’ve read these pages twice before, so they were familiar, and as always, I reveled in Proust’s overwhelmingly sensual descriptions of the French countryside. It made me wonder if I’ve gravitated toward these books in January because of how evocative they are of warm weather, long walks outdoors, flowers, and sunshine. The funny thing is that Marcel often avoids the outdoors and would prefer to stay inside with a book. As a result, he is just as lavish, if not more so, in his descriptions of domestic space:
The air of those rooms was saturated with the fine bouquet of a silence so nourishing, so succulent that I could not enter them without a sort of greedy enjoyment, particularly on those first mornings, chilly still, of the Easter holidays, when I could taste it more fully, because I had just arrived then at Combray: before I went in to wish my aunt good day I would be kept waiting a little time in the outer room, where the sun, a wintry sun still, had crept in to warm itself before the fire, lighted already between its two brick sides and plastering the room and everything in it with the smell of soot, making the room like one of those great open hearths that one finds in the country, or one of the canopied mantelpieces in old castles under which one sits hoping that outside it is raining or snowing, hoping even for a catastrophic deluge to add the romance of shelter and security to the comfort of a snug retreat…
This sentence goes on to describe the variety of smells in the room, and how they are intensified by the warmth and heat of the fire, baking together “like a pie.” It’s wonderfully childlike, and it brought me back to my grandparents’ houses in West Chester, Penn. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents lived in West Chester (my parents met in high school) but they retired and moved away when I was still in elementary school. Their houses, along with the houses of certain school friends, seemed preserved in a particular part of my memory, at once more specific and dreamlike than the houses and apartments I’ve come to know as an adult. It’s these dream houses — or at least, aspects of them — that I helplessly imagine when a novel prompts me to imagine a house, or when I’m creating a house for a character in a story.
My life is a lot more domestic than it was 10 years ago, when I last read these pages, and that’s probably the main reason I’ve been paying closer attention to descriptions of interior space. I’ve also been watching my son grow up, and it’s dawning on me that his earliest memories will be of the apartment and the neighborhood where we now live. I love our apartment and our neighborhood; they have been the location of many important life events, including my wedding reception. And yet, my experience of my apartment will never be foundational, and as I look around its rooms and out its windows, I’m not at all sure what my son will remember of it.
When I was his age, I lived in a small town in Maine in a gray house that was next door to a fire hall and across the street from the town common. If you were to ask my father about this house, he would probably tell you about the downtrodden state it was in when he and my mother bought it, and the work they did to renovate. He would recall certain quirky details: the phone booth, the clawfoot bathtub, the little library. He would also remember the inconveniences: the fire hall’s alarm that went off every day at noon; the driveway that needed to be shoveled out every time it snowed; the loads of wood that had to be chopped for the furnace.
But I don’t remember any of that. I might even be wrong about some of those details, because I’m simply transcribing what I’ve heard in conversation, as an adult. What I remember from childhood are the narrow back stairs that led from my playroom to the kitchen like a secret passageway; the view of the town common from my bedroom window, how it looked empty and dark at night, like a lake; the cracked, uneven sidewalk that led from our house to the end the block where a maple flamed fuchsia and red every fall; the painted wooden steps where I liked to arrange my tea set, and where bits of gray paint flecked off in my hands; my mother standing on the front porch to call me indoors at 11:57, so I wouldn’t be startled by the alarm; my father shoveling out a hole in snow drift, “a snow house” to contain me while he shoveled the drive…
My childhood memories are dear to me, and indelible. I can only guess what my son’s will be. I can hope for certain things that I consider beautiful to have made an impression: the yellow walls in his room; the wall quilts that my mother made; our framed, antique map of Maine; our tall bookshelves, and our neighborhood walks to Valentino Pier, the bakery, and the cruise ship terminal, where the Queen Mary 2 docks and disembarks every few weeks. I hope — and yet, for all I know, my son’s memories are devoted to the recycling bins, the television remotes, the broken slatted shades, the gum-spotted sidewalks, the dinners in the IKEA cafeteria. I have very little control over what he remembers, and if Proust is to be believed, neither does he — neither do any of us.